Words of Wisdom from a Wise Old Exegete
Some of you know that I am an enthusiastic amateur exegete. Well, not that amateur - considering that my theology degree gave a very heavy emphasis to training in the original languages and exegesis of scripture as the underlying discipline in the general pursuit of theology and pastoral ministry - but still, no doctorates or anything.
Anyway, I am revisiting Professor Ratzinger's "Eschatology" in preparation for my lecture series next term on "The Last Things", and came across this particularly profound statement:
To follow the history of exegesis over the last hundred years [Ratzinger is writing in 1977 - and so for us that would be the last 130 years] is to become aware that it reflects the whole spiritual history of that period... [Here follows a page of very wise stuff, but he ends with:] Only by listening to the whole history of interpretation can the present be purified by criticism and so brought into a position of genuine encounter with the text concerned. (Eschatology, p23,24)
I know what he says to be true - "the observer speaks of the observed only through speaking of himself" - even over the last twenty five years or so that I have been engaged in reading scriptural scholarship. And I need to be cautious of making the same mistake; how enticing, for instance, is N.T. Wright's suggestion that there could be a newly discovered true meaning to the word "justification" that we haven't previously been aware of. Wright's overall exegetical narrative does look suspiciously like a theology formed to give the answers that Wright initially presupposed. I don't think this is a fair reading of Wright's theology, but I can see that someone could make that accusation on the basis of exactly the warning Papa B gives above.
And yet, it is true that there can indeed be aspects of scriptural exegesis that the Church has historically overlooked. Ratzinger goes on to give exactly one such example: whereas the "Kingdom of God" leitmotiv is central to Jesus' teaching, it is almost completely absent in the kerygma in the Ancient Church. Thus, it has only been since Schweitzer et al. that we have regained a consciousness of the centrality of this term for Jesus - and, more specifically, the rediscovered realisation that in using this term, "Jesus is speaking not of a heavenly reality but of something God is doing and will do in the future here on earth."
That last quotation could have come directly out of N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope", but in fact it is Ratzinger again (on p. 26). So it is possible that, despite "the whole history of interpretation", the Church may have, in the past, overlooked a central exegetical point, a point that might be quite valid and important, and which does not necessarily imply that the exegete claiming to have discovered this "new meaning" is simply reading himself into the text.
Possible. But not, in general, likely. Another example is Luther's "discovery" of "the gospel" in Romans 3. His insight certainly helped the world to look at St Paul's Letter to the Romans (and in fact, the whole of St Paul's theology) afresh - but the error came in insisting upon this "new meaning" precisely in opposition to "the whole history of interpretation".
On the other hand, I am teaching on the book of Revelation at the moment, and was flicking through a book mentioned by Joshua in the comments a while back, "Mary in the New Testament", a combined effort from the Lutheran/Catholic dialogue in the USA some decades back. I was looking at what it said about Revelation 12:1 - and the general judgement was that this was "not about Mary", at least, not principally. The strongest argument to support their case was that this passage was not taken definitively in a Marian sense until later (around the beginning of the Fourth Century). Now, in fact, this is not very "late" for commentary on the Revelation - a book that was slow to be accepted into the Canon. AND add to this the fact that, of all the books of Scripture, it is precisely this one that has perhaps had the most chequered exegetical history in the Church. I don't think it is too much to claim that this book is probably receiving the most authentic reading today that it has received since it was first read by its initial recipients.
So. I am with the Holy Father on this one. Yes, new insights can definitely come from contemporary Scriptural exegesis. Afterall, did not Jesus tell us "to search the Scriptures"? Would he have commended this practice if we were not to expect ever new insights into God's Truth from doing so? And yet, always the caution: check and recheck what you discover against "the whole history of interpretation". That is the proper role of Tradition in Scriptural interpretation.