Henri de Lubac and the Critique of Scientific Exegesis

For an integral interpretation to occur, both Christian tradition and Christian practice must be brought into the interpetation process.

I. Allegorical versus critical exegesis?

In Pius XlI’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), a rigorously scientific and critical approach to the study of the Bible finally received the Catholic Church’s official endorsement. This landmark statement was initially provoked by an inflammatory pamphlet sent to the Italian bishops by a certain Dolindo Ruotolo which alleged that so-called scientific exegesis was in reality driven by an “accursed spirit of pride, presumption, and superficiality, disguised under minute investigations and hypocritical literal exactness.”{1} As an alternative to this new rationalistic method so reminiscent of modernism, Ruotolo proposed a revival of the “spiritual” exegesis of the Fathers such as he himself had attempted in a thirteen volume commentary published some years earlier.{2}

Though Henri de Lubac is best known for his writings on grace and ecclesiology, the issue to which he devoted the most pages over the course of his careeer was this very issue of spiritual exegesis. Beginning the year following Pius’s encyclical with an essay which essentially rehabilitated the exegesis of Origen,{3} de Lubac dedicated numerous articles and five major volumes{4} to the topic over the course of more than twenty years. His basic conclusion was that the fundamental principles of this oft-misunderstood “spiritual” or “allegorical” method are in fact essential elements of the Christian patrimony which therefore must be retained and employed even today.

Several supporters of the new scientific method could not help but wonder whether de Lubac’s interest in patristic exegesis was fueled by the same hostility to historical criticism demonstrated by Ruotolo. John L. McKenzie, S.J., for example, thought that de Lubac essentially wanted to abandon exegetical science in favor of the analogy of faith.{5} While it will be impossible in the course of this essay to evaluate de Lubac’s proposals for the contemporary viability of the spiritual interpretation of Scripture,{6} I do wish here to examine de Lubac’s attitude towards the constellation of modern exegetical methods which we most commonly refer to today as ‘the historical-critical method’ and which de Lubac customarily calls ‘historical criticism’ or ‘scientific exegesis.’{7} Though he never offers a precise definition of what he means by these terms, he seems to have in mind essentially that method, endorsed by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “which carefully investigates sources and defines their nature and value, and makes use of such helps as textual criticism, literary criticism, and the study of languages.”{8} By whatever name it is called, such an approach to interpretation is historical in that it seeks to understand past persons, events, ideas, and texts in their proper historical contexts. It is also critical in that it proceeds by means of a disciplined, discriminating interrogation of the sources and seeks thereby to secure a maximum amount of verified information.{9}

I hope to demonstrate that, unlike other advocates of spiritual exegesis, de Lubac not only recognized the legitimacy and fruitfulness of historical-critical exegesis, but actively encouraged its acceptance by the Church. Yet, in contrast to other proponents of this new exegesis in the forties and fifties, he also recognized the inherent limitations of exegetical science as well as the questionable presuppositions with which it had been bound up since its inception. In this positive yet critical stance, de Lubac, leaning heavily on the work of Maurice Blondel, anticipates several of the post-critical hermeneutical insights that have gained widespread acceptance over the past twenty years.


II. De Lubac’s defense of scientific exegesis

In a 1945 letter to his colleagues at the Catholic Faculty of Lyons, Henri de Lubac attempted to clarify his opinion regarding the use of a historical-critical method in biblical exegesis. His words demonstrate that he is neither resistant nor grimly resigned to the new method’s inevitable ascendancy, but rather positive and enthusiastic about the invaluable contribution which it makes to the interpretation of Scripture:

Recently there has been attributed to me some kind of opposition to scientific exegesis being accorded citizenship [droit de cité] in the Church, and similarly, to the work of my colleagues and to the spirit of our Faculty. This rumor, though absurd, has become so insistent, and has spread so far and wide that I find myself obliged to combat it. I am aware of finding myself thus in the most ridiculous position, namely that of the man who must defend himself from the charge of denigrating that very thing of which he has always been known to have been the warmest partisan.

He goes on to express warm praise for all the members of the Lyons faculty who are engaged in scientific exegesis and to make the point that his zeal for scientific biblical studies is

the fruit of a definite conviction which has never wavered. Whenever I had to treat questions in my apologetics courses which touched in the least bit upon the Bible, I was always anxious to seek out the opinion of one of our colleagues who was a specialist in the field, and sometimes to submit to him the detail of my text. From the beginning of my studies in theology, I have never ceased to form myself on the basis of collections such as Revue Biblique or Études Bibliques. Quite often I have been heard to say that the Pope ought to make Fr. Lagrange a cardinal, that this gesture would have a highly symbolic force and would produce a marvelously stimulating effect.{10}

Anticipating that his subsequent writings on spiritual exegesis might be construed as an attack on that historical-critical exegesis which was encouraged by Divino Afflante Spiritu, de Lubac, in the prefaces to those works and elswewhere, explicitly denied that this was any part of his intent and strongly affirmed his “deep sympathy with the immense work of research going on today.”{11} In his preface to Exégèse Mediévale, for example, de Lubac applauds the participants of the International Congress of Biblical Science which took place at Louvain, September 1958. He agrees with them that there is a “pressing need for a method of research which is increasingly impelled by the most modern techniques” and adds “we admire the immense effort of exegesis expended in the Church today, and we are full of hope that it will further expand.”{12} Believing that scientific exegesis had already made “enormous progress” in the development of new and profitable exegetical techniques, de Lubac encouraged exegetes to press on intrepidly, developing and applying them even more thoroughly: “There must be no timid . . . half-criticism!”{13}

De Lubac’s appreciation of the importance of rigorous historiography springs from his ardent conviction that God has chosen history as the vehicle of his self-communication: “At the very center of our history the gospel of Christ was inserted; that gospel which is Jesus Himself. And it remains inserted in our history as an ever-living source.”{14} Thus, as he sees it, the ressourcement of which the Church is always in need must necessarily take the form of a “plunge into history.”{15} If the Church is to renew herself by drinking once again at the wellsprings of Christian truth, a tremendous amount of meticulous historical criticism must first be done in both biblical studies and historical theology. Far from denigrating such detailed labor as “grubbing in the dry dust of erudition” as McKenzie seems to think he does, de Lubac regards it as valuable, indeed, essential:

How many explorations into distant history such a reserch supposes! How many painful reconstructions, themselves preceded by long preliminary work! In a word, how much “archeology”! The task is not for everyone, obviously, but it is indespensable that it be done and forever done again. Let us not think that it is possible to reach the goal cheaply: to try that would be a kind of fraud, and when it comes to essential goods, the crook is never successful.

It took forty years in the desert to enter into the Promised Land. It sometimes takes a lot of arid archeology to make the fountains of living water well forth anew.{16}

It is significant that de Lubac’s ressourcement zeal to forge a new unity between exegesis, dogmatic theology, and spirituality does not prevent him from recognizing scientific exegesis as a distinct discipline in the Church whose relative autonomy ought to be preserved. Rather than wistully looking back to the undifferentiated unity of exegesis, dogma, moral theology, and spirituality that prevailed before the twelfth century, he affirms that the establishment of historical exegesis as an independent, specialized discipline by Andrew of St. Victor was fundamentally a good and necessary thing.{17} De Lubac believes that the role of exegetical specialists is more important than ever today and agrees with Oscar Cullmann that their “great and unique responsibility” is “to be faithful to the text in radical fashion, even if the exegetical result thereby obtained is a modest one and possibly seems, at first glance, useless for dogmatics or for the practical life of the Chrurch.”{18} Thus, de Lubac, parting ways with certain proponents of renewed spiritual exegesis, deems it excessive and unnecessary to oblige scientific exegetes to add spiritual exegesis to their already long list of exacting duties.{19}

De Lubac’s own actions are commensurate with his statements in support of historical cricitism and its application to biblical studies. Jacques Guillet declares that de Lubac has indicated that he would have actually chosen to specialize in biblical studies if his chronic “physical suffering, confining him to his arm-chair, had not left him the volumes of Migne’s patrology as the only reading possible.”{20} Of course, as we have already seen, de Lubac’s own work in historical theology is itself characterized by a vigorous application of historical criticism.{21} In essence, it is the same critical method which he endorses for biblical exegesis that de Lubac himself uses to exorcise common misunderstandings of such authors as Origen and Thomas and to examine their ideas in their proper historical contexts. Moreover, whenever in the course of his writings the literal meaning of a biblical passage or the theology of a biblical author becomes a relevant issue, de Lubac refers to the work of biblical specialists. A perusal of the footnotes of his writings on the history of exegesis demonstrates that de Lubac is widely acquainted with the exegesis and biblical theology of French and Belgian scholars of his day, especially M.-J. Lagrange, André Robert, Louis Bouyer, Jean Levie, Oscar Cullmann, and Lucien Cerfaux. While references to German scholars are noticeably few, de Lubac does give evidence of having read a fair amount of English scholarship, particularly the writings of J. B. and R. H. Lightfoot, C. H. Dodd, and Edwyn C. Hoskyns.{22}

In light of all this, the contrast between de Lubac and a Dolindo Ruotolo becomes all too apparent. Perhaps de Lubac even had Ruotolo’s diatribe in the back of his mind when he assures his readers that Histoire et Esprit is not part of the “‘anti-scientific reaction'” which some believe “currently ‘pre dominates in the milieu of the spiritualists.'”{23} And, lest any doubt remain concerning his support for modern scientific exegesis, he goes on to add “we would consider as disastrous to the highest degree all those who would tend in the least to dispute its domain or to scorn its results.”{24}

De Lubac believes that twentieth-century polemics against scientific exegesis is reminiscent of the spirited opposition of certain twelfth-century theologians to the new dialectical theology which they thought displayed insufficient respect for God’s transcendence. As de Lubac sees it, the traditionalist protest of that era resulted from a mix of spiritual clearsightedness and a sensitivity to tradition on the one hand, and from laziness and a lack of spiritual imagination on the other. Though the warning of these traditionalists was a valid one, they were also guilty of injustice. In particular, de Lubac regards Paul Claudel’s strident denunciations of scientific exegesis in this light.{25} Though he possesses a lively sense of the spiritual exegesis of the ancient Churchóa sense which de Lubac in fact seeks to emulate at every turnóClaudel is nonetheless unfair towards biblical criticism, in de Lubac’s judgment.{26} In other words, de Lubac is ready to affirm what Claudel affirms with regard to the perpetual value of spiritual exegesis, but is not willing to deny what Claudel denies regarding the validity of critical biblical scholarship and its value for the life of the Church.


III. De Lubac’s critique of biblical criticism

De Lubac’s defense of scientific exegesis against its unjust detractors does not, however, prevent him from undertaking a critique of his own. “It is no good wanting to go back to a pre-critical stage,” he observes. “But we must get at the root of criticism, and, moreover, establish a critique of criticism.”{27} The goal of de Lubac’s critique is twofold. One of his objectives is to identify those hidden and arbitrary presuppositions which have been bound up with historical criticism from its inception and which have often interfered with its proper implementation and prejudiced its results. Another related goal is to clarify the proper limits of exegesis’s competence as a specialized discipline and then to expose biblical criticism which oversteps these limits.

A. The influence of Blondel

At this juncture it is important to note that Maurice Blondel, one of de Lubac’s mentors,{28} had undertaken just such a two-pronged critique of scientific exegesis at the turn of the twentieth century. In L’Action, his doctoral dissertation, Blondel laid the groundwork of this critique by reflecting upon the nature and limitation of scientific knowledge. In this work he points out that, since each of the various sciences views reality from a different angle, none can provide a comprehensive and total view of reality in isolation from the others.{29} Making a case for the “radical insufficiency” of either the empirical, inductive sciences or the exact, deductive sciences to provide a complete picture of human reality, Blondel goes on to reprimand “positivism” for thinking it can completely unlock the unique secrets of reality solely by means of a scientific examination of phenomena. Against such positivist pretensions, Blondel asserts that phenomena, in other words, scientific and historical facts, are only outer images of the real, inner reality of human life.{30}

In “History and Dogma,” Blondel applies L’Action’s general critique of positive science to the more specific issue of biblical exegesis. His comments hinge on an important distinction he makes between “technical and critical history” on the one hand and “real history” on the other. Technical and critical history deals not with the inner reality of life itself but rather with phenomena, i.e., the outer manifestations of life’s inner, spiritual reality. Real history, on the other hand, is “the substitute for the life of humanity, the totality of historical truths.” It includes the vital spiritual reality of human life which is never wholly represented or exhausted by the historical phenomena. “Between these two histories, of which one is a science and the other a life, one resulting from a phenomenological method and the other tending to represent genuine reality, there is an abyss.”{31}

For Blondel, “tradition” plays an indispensable hermeneutical role in the interpretation of historical persons, events, and texts because it has as its content precisely what technical/critical history fails to reach, viz, that “real history” which includes the inner, spiritual character of the persons and events under study. Tradition, then, “preserves not so much the intellectual aspect of the past as its living reality.”{32} If interpretation is to yield life and not just abstractions, in Blondel’s view, tradition must not be excluded from the hermeneutical process.

There is an additional hermeneutical principle that Blondel identifies which goes beyond the bounds of critical history. In a chapter of L’Action entitled “The Value of Literal Practice and the Conditions of Religious Action,”{33} Blondel insists that active performance of religious practices is essential for real entrance into the conceptual knowledge of a religious idea in all its fullness and profundity. Thus, a believer cannot attain the “spirit” of religion, i.e., its sublime and inner meaning, without first observing the “letter,” i.e., the very ordinary and mundane practices it counsels, since, according to Blondel, “the letter is the spirit in action.”{34} “The thought that follows upon the act,” declares Blondel, “is infinitely richer than the thought that precedes it.”{35} This is so because action, more than mere thoughts or sentiments, penetrates into the very depths of a person, causing the truth of which it is a vehicle to become immanent in him or her. Hence, the truth that is practiced is known from within and is therefore grasped more completely and accurately than one which is known and held “exteriorly” through intellectual assent alone. The thinker who fails to do the truth will never really be able to understand it.

This methodological principle surely carries over to “History and Dogma.” In order to know and adequately explain the reality to which the data of Scripture points, the exegete must not only be operating from within the tradition, but also must be engaged in the concrete practices which it counsels. Christian asceticism and obedience, then, constitute for Blondel a sort of hermeneutical principle: “Nothing is more reliable than the light shed by the orderly and repeated performance of Christian practices.”{36}

Blondel’s view of the proper role of scientific exegesis, then, can be summarized as follows: while technical-critical history possesses a “relative autonomy”{37} as a distinct scientific discipline, it is nonetheless only one element in a much more comprehensive hermeneutical process involving both Christian tradition and Christian life. While the view of the past it provides is valuable, it is nonetheless incomplete. Its specific and limited role is to reconstruct as intelligible a representation of the past as possible from the facts uncovered in research. In addition, it must do its best to explain the determinism of causality linking the past’s successive moments. While critical historians ought to make this determinist explanation as complete as possible, they are also bound “to leave the issue open or even to open it as widely as possible to the realist explanation which lies always beneath.”{38}

‘Historicism,’ for Blondel, is that positivist exercise of critical history which refuses to leave the issue open in this way. Forgetting that scientific history is a mere abstraction, it identifies the whole subject matter of history with what it can uncover of the naturalist evolution produced under the pres sure of external events and forces.{39} By narrowly equating history’s meaning with the determinism of observable events in this absolute way, historicism would reduce the Bible’s inexhaustibly rich subject matter to a series of hollow abstractions. Critical history which forgets its own limitations in this egregious fashion oversteps the boundaries of its competence and thus violates an important canon of truly scientific method.

Morevover, in its naive confidence that it can successfully prescind from all traditonal presuppositions in order to cling to the facts alone, historicism also violates another important canon of scientific method, namely, objectivity. Ironically, it is those historians who believe they are engaged in presuppositionless interpretation who, notes Blondel, compromise their objectivity most severely since they are

influenced by prejudices on the pretext of attaining to an impossible neutralityóprejudices such as everyone inevitably has so long as he has not attained a conscious view of his own attitude of mind and subjected the postulates on which his researches are based to a methodical criticism. In default of an explicit philosophy, a man ordinarily has an unconscious one. And what one takes for simple observations of fact are often simply constructions. The observer, the narrator, is always more or less of a poet; for behind what he sees the witness puts an action and a soul so as to give the fact a meaning; behind the witness and his testimony, if they are really to enter history, the cnhc puts an interpretation, a relation, a synthesis; behind these critical data the historian inserts a general view and wider human preoccupations; which is to say that man with his beliefs, his metaphysical ideas, and his religious solutions conditions all the subordinate researches of science as much as he is conditioned by them.{40}

B. An impovershing and impossible objectivity

In the course of surveying the birth and subsequent history of scientific exegesis, de Lubac observes that the precious ore of historical interpretation has not infrequently been shot through with a great deal of dross. It is necessary, in his view, to distinguish the positive contributions of the historical method from the “narrowness and contradictory myopia which were the inevitable ransom of an exegesis that wanted to become more ‘critical.'”{41} As we turn now to examine de Lubac’s critique of exegetical science, we shall notice many echoes of Blondel’s insights and terminology as well as some explicit references to the philosopher’s works discussed above.

One impurity from which scientific exegesis must be cleansed, in de Lubac’s view, is that excessive fascination with facts which is characteristic of historical positivism. Such a tendency inevitably leads to a distracting preoccupation with isolated texts and events that blinds the interpreter to a deeper and more synthetic apprehension of the truth which is the true subject matter of the various texts and the unified history they record. Repeatedly criticizing that historicism “which reconstructs the past without paying any attention to what the past was pregnant with,”{42} de Lubac here attacks the deforming superficiality of certain unnamed exegetes of the past century who were

so accustomed to reading all texts at the level of the letter that they completely overlooked the elementary conditions of all human language, so careful never to “exceed” the sense of the words that they regarded the most lofty thoughts as mere platitudes or reduced the Sermon on the Mount to the manifesto of an illuminated adventurer.{43}

For de Lubac, then, historical criticism, as a positive science, is completely unable to render an exhaustive account of the dramatic personalism and deep interior life we find throughout the Bible: “all the criticism in the world, even if allied with the greatest power of historical evocation, will not explain Abraham’s faith, or the struggles of Elijah the Prophet, or the range of prophecy of a Jeremiah. . . . It will not let us into the intelligence [sic, understanding] of the Sermon on the Mount, or the trembling of Jesus in the Spirit.”{44}

If Scripture and the history of Christianity are to be deeply penetrated, if they are to be truly understood and not just explained,{45} then the critical historian needs to abandon the kind of false objectivism and cool detachment which characterizes the attitude of so many historians tainted by historicism. Borrowing words from Barth, de Lubac laments the fact that too many modern commentators consider the Bible “‘as a book which interests them, but which does not concern them.'” There is, for de Lubac, something “defiling” in this sort of historical curiosity which is fascinated with all the color and specificity of religious history and psychology and yet completely glosses over the truth-claims made by the religious texts and personalities of the past. Again, making use of a Barthian image, de Lubac condemns such an approach which so sharply contrasts with that of the traditional Christian commentators and asserts that if one hopes to understand, one must stop “‘playing the spectator'” before the Bible{46}

Yet the pure objectivity sought by historcism is not only impoverishing, in de Lubac’s view, but also impossible. Like Blondel, de Lubac believes that the use of some sort of conscious interpretive schema or pre-understanding is as inescapable for the historian as it is essential:

Everybody has his filter, which he takes about with him, through which, from the indefinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to confirm his prejudices. And the same fact again, passing through different filters, is revealed in different aspects, so as to confirm the most diverse opinions. It has always been so, it always will be so in this world.

Rare, very rare are those who check their filter.{47}

Thus, aware that “human knowledge is never without a priori,”{48} de Lubac knows that we can give meaning to things only by choosing our perspective. While our particular standpoint at any one moment should never be canonized, we should never imagine that we can simply transcend it. The most insidious threat to true historical objectivity, then, is not so much having a presupposition as it is not being aware of having one, since when one’s fundamental assumptions are unconscious, they are necessarily untested and more likely to make themselves into rigid absolutes:

Theology has been greatly reproached for reducing all thought to slavery.

To which it may be replied in the first place that, at least, the situation it established was clear. The believer, indeed, unequivocally declares that he submits his intelligence to Faith. How much so-called free thought is hypocritically enslaved!{49}

De Lubac sees this general problem of unexamined presuppositions as having caused a good bit of arbitrary biblical exegesis. In Histoire et Esprit, he relates how a certain tacit rationalism caused severe blind spots in many of the pioneers of critical exegesis: “it would not be difficult to show the impoverishments or even the errors caused in excellent exegetes by their excessive skepticism or their total incomprehension of all symbolism.”{50} As if to assure us that this is no isolated phenomenon, de Lubac recalls how Karl Barth showed that so many works by “independent and critical” Prostestant exegetes of the nineteenth century merely reflect the philosophy of their time.{51} He cites Barth in yet another circumstance to show how modern critical “biblicists,” who reject the Christian dogmatic tradition so as to be rooted only in the Bible, free themselves from the dogma of the Church only to enslave themselves to their own dogma and the dogma of their times.{52} Unfortunately, de Lubac points out, such tendencies are not restricted to Protestant exegetes of bygone centuries. “In more than one case,” he notes, “Catholic exegesis, which on the one hand was hindered in its development by traditionalist suspicions, on the other sometimes accepted too uncritically presuppositions coming from other sources.” This explains for him why some supposedly “scientific” Catholic exegesis “often led, thanks to some clever interpretive acrobatics, to quite arbitrary modern-day ‘applications.’{53}

Frequently, in de Lubac’s view, this sort of hidden dogmatism is what drives the hyper-critical exegesis practiced by some modern scholars which does violence to the biblical text and to the person of Jesus. In this kind of exegesis, oppositions and contradictions are exaggerated and multiplied. The Old Testament is frequently made to oppose the New. The human Jesus of the Synoptics is separated from and pitted against the divinized Jesus of the Johannine and Pauline writings. The historicity of virtually everything is not only questioned, but positively doubted. “Disdaining all real critical spirit, the spirit of criticism prevails.”{54} Such a skeptical approach to interpretation, dubbed “reductionist exegesis” by de Lubac, confuses critical reflection with the rank prejudice of criticizing, and, in so doing, renders itself blind.{55} In its exclusive exploitation of the analytical or critical function of the human mind, it proves to be inacapable of constructing anything positive or synthetic. Rather, it can only progressively dissect its object, thereby destroying it. True understanding, then, is completely beyond its ken:

Actually, when the critical function alone is active, it succeeds rather quickly in pulverizing everything. It makes it impossible to see what is invariable in the mind of man and in doctrinal tradition. It clouds over the continuity and the unity of revealed truth as seen in diverse cultural expressions which coincide with and follow one from another. As a result, divine revelation, inasmuch as it does not reach man except through signs, finds itself reduced to a series of thoughts and interpretations which are entirely human. Christian faith, in its first authenticity, becomes no more than a fact of culture, important surely, but, as such outdated.{56}

De Lubac is convinced that, if we look closely enough, we will see that the negations and divisions to which this kind of dissolving exegesis leads us “are obtained only thanks to a veritable ‘philological massacre’ destined to satisfy some a priori which is only too evident.”{57} For de Lubac, the work of Bultmann illustrates this dynamic perfectly. De Lubac seeks to unravel the “enigma” of Bultmannian exegesis by exposing its “doctrinal, let us say more precisely its doctrinaire roots” such as the systematic application of Heideggerian existentialism, “the old heritage of the myth of the creative communities,” and the various equivocations involved in his ‘demythologization’ enterprise. Probably more decisive for his exegetical results than any of these, however, is “the transposition of the Lutheran sola fide into the idea that in order to obtain an authentically Christian faith it is necessary that we not know anything about Jesus that could possibly induce us to believe in him.”{58} For Bultmann, then, it is theologically necessary that faith not base itself upon any ‘work,’ that is, upon any result of historical research. Hence, since historical research may not find anything in biblical history which might have some importance for faith, it in fact does not.{59} There simply cannot, in de Lubac’s view, be anything more arbitrary and unscientific.{60}

In his enthusiastic acceptance of historical criticism on the one hand and his acute awareness of its historical pollution with the sediment of various and sundry dogmatisms on the other, de Lubac sounds very much like the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In its 1964 “Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels,” the Commission urges Catholic exegetes to avail themselves of the legitimate insights which form criticism can provide into the understanding of the gospels while at the same time warning them to be wary

because quite inadmissable philosophical and theological principles have often come to be mixed with this method, which not uncommonly have vitiated the method itself as well as the conclusions in the literary area. For some proponents of this method have been led astray by the prejudiced views of rationalism. They refuse to admit the existence of a supernatural order and the intervention of a personal God in the world through strict revelation, and the possibility and existence of miracles and prophecies. . . . All such views are not only opposed to Catholic doctrine, but are also devoid of scientific basis and alien to the correct principles of historical method.{61}

C. The limitations of exegetical science

Regardless of the attention which de Lubac gives to the many distortions in modern exegesis which arise from the blending of a priori presuppositions with legitimate scientific methodology, this, for him is not the most critical issue. On the contrary, these abuses only raise the more fundamental question which de Lubac calls the “problem of criticism”óthe proper role of scientific thinking, its particular place within thought as a whole, and the limits of its competence. Historically, de Lubac sees the issue of the competence and limits of critical biblical exegesis being raised for the first time simultaneously with the birth of biblical exegesis as a “separated science” in the work of Andrew of St. Victor (d. 1175). While de Lubac applauds the technical specialization initiated by Andrew as being necessary for the progress of knowledge, he nonetheless finds something very disquieting about the way Andrew pushes methodological abstraction to such an extreme that the scholar and the believer are split in two. Such a dichotomy, de Lubac believes, opens the way to fideist isolation on the one hand or to the negation of a superior order of truth on the other.{62}

For de Lubac, the fundamental problem raised by Andrew’s ‘separated science’ is, mutatis mutandis, the same issue which Blondel had tried to address in his “Histoire et dogme.” It is significant that de Lubac here confesses that this methodological issue of criticism is really the node of the problem of history and allegory with which he has been preoccupied in all his works on ancient exegesis.{63} As de Lubac attempts to articulate the problem at hand, he does so, interestingly enough, by making use of the very terminology employed by Blondel in his attempt to grapple with “les lacunes philosophiques d’exégèse moderne”:

It is the problem of the relation of history as science to history as reality, and it is at the same time the problem of history and dogma or, as one would have said of old (in certain cases the signification would be about the same) the problem of history and allegory. This problem cannot be reduced to the question of knowing what literal sense ought to be recognized in this or that text, as it could sometimes seem to be. It is of a much more general and fundamental order. And one recognizes it as much regarding the gospel as regarding prophecy, as regards all spiritual history. How should we understand the reticence [the reserve in making faith affirmations] of criticism? Does it really deny, and in this case has it the right to deny, all that which the scientific examination of texts does not permit it to affirm? Do other methods exist which will permit, under certain conditions, anything more to be affirmed? Does the rank prejudice which is thought to be and is called the objectivity of science make it possible to understand the object under study? Does not such an exegesis, dogmatic in a wrong sort of way, suffer from grave “philosophical lacunae?” These and other similar questions, do not only raise a critical problem; they raise a prior problem, the problem of criticism [de Lubac’s emphasis], of its role, of the place assigned to it within thought as a whole, and the limits of its competence.{64}

De Lubac stands with Blondel in his insistence that positive historical science is incapable of providing a complete interpetation of those spiritual realities which are the ultimate subject matter of biblical texts. For an integral exegesis to occur, both Christian tradition and Christian practice must be brought into the interpretation process. Indeed, the fundamental goal of de Lubac’s lengthy study of the history of exegesis is essentially to prove that, underlying all the different commentators of the centuries with their disparate terminologies, a single “traditional hermeneutic”{65} can be identified which, in its basic outlines, can and must guide Christian interpretation of the Bible even today. Though it necessarily begins with an attempt to apprehend the literal or historical meaning of the Bible with the help of the best scientific tools available in a given epoch, this comprehensive hermeneutic invariably proceeds to search out the deeper “spiritual sense” of the biblical texts by means of a corresponding “spiritual understanding.” This movement of spiritual understanding, often termed allegory, aims not merely at the interpretation of texts, but, more fundamentally, the reinterpretation of the heritage of Israel, indeed of all history and reality, in the light of the Mystery of Christ which the Christian tradition unamimously identifies as the subject matter of both Old and New Testaments. De Lubac repeatedly points out that, since the interpreter is part of this reality which is to be transformed and reinterpreted, application or appropriation is an integral part of the traditional process of exegesis rather than some subsequent operation tacked on only after interpretation has been successfully completed. This is necessarily so, as Origen and many other traditional commentators realize, both because the transformation of the reader is the inherent objective of the text and also because the text can only be fully understood by someone who has put it into practice.{66}

For de Lubac, the very specialization of scientific exegetes, who are primarily concerned with the historical reconstruction of what the text meant to its original audience, thus imposes limits on them. Their science, in the modern sense, cannot be the whole of scriptural ‘science,’ in that wider sense given to the term by the tradition. “This realization,” observes de Lubac, “is something they have occasionally lacked.”{67} This is not a fault specific to exegetical science, however. De Lubac detects an overweening, self-aggrandizing attitude on the part of many practitioners of modern science:

Without in any way minimizing what the human sciences have to contribute, we are forced to admit that in the absolute statements and totalitarian pretensions of a certain number of the representatives of these sciences they go far beyond the limits of their competence and give an additional proof of a dogmatism which is both foreign and contrary to the scientific spirit.{68}

In de Lubac’s mind, the tendency towards this kind of ‘totalitarianism,’ is endemic to the scientific enterprise. “We must recognize the fact,” he observes, “that it is in any case difficult in practice for the same man to give these sciences the place due to them without yielding to that illusion which gives them all the place there is.”{69} Nevertheless, this perpetual temptation towards reductionism must be steadfastly resisted by the exegete who deals with the interpretation of literature which witnesses not only to the spiritual life of men and women, but to the very revelation of God.

Thus, de Lubac’s criticism of historical criticism needs to be seen in the larger context of his general, life-long protest against every sort of scientific reductionism, every attempt of logical intelligence, whether deductive or analytical, to reckon itself the whole of knowledge and to reduce the mysteries of God and the human person to objects that it can dissect and examine.{70} De Lubac objects to sciences insofar as “they are applied to what lies beyond them, to what can in no case be their object, because it is not in fact an object.”{71} This critique of science, then, is not unrelated to de Lubac’s resistance in the thirties and forties to those neo-scholastic theologians who seemed to think that they could contain the mystery within their rational constructs. The kind of theological and exegetical science to which he objects exhibits the same dangerous impulse as that ‘curiosa cupiditas’ denounced by Hugh of St. Victor in the twelfth century: “it wants to explain in order thereby to possess and dominate. It wants to make the infinite Truth its thing.”{72}


IV. Conclusion

During the last three decades, a broad movement has emerged in the sciences and humanities which has been characterized by the desire to move beyond the predominantly detached, critical, and analytical approach to reality that emerged in the Enlightenment to a more personal, synthetic, and holistic stance in the face of the world and its mysteries. With particular regard to hermeneutics, this trend, often described as ‘post-critical,’ translates into a growing awareness that the historical-critical method, though an indispensable tool in the interpretation of historical texts, is of itself incapable of generating the kind of fruitfulness for human life that must be the final result of the interpretation of any great text, especially one that purports to be the Word of God. Its serious limitations thus recognized, historical criticism is dethroned by post-critical hermeneutics and made to serve a much broader interpretive process in which tradition and personal application each occupy an important place. Hence, in the words of one author, a post-critical exegesis is an exegesis which no longer admits the “critical question as its central concern.”{73}

At a time when the Roman Catholic community of biblical scholars was still preoccupied with acquiring the tools of the historical-critical method, Henri de Lubac, who unhesitatingly accepted that method’s validity, had already anticipated several of the important, post-critical questions of hermeneutics that would dominate scholarly circles decades later. It was this foresight, and not some pre-critical hostility to the emerging exegetical science, which inspired his lifetime study of ancient Christian exegesis.

In both his critique of exegetical science and appreciation of the hermeneutical productivity of tradition, de Lubac was decisively influenced by the seminal French philosopher Maurice Blondel who, fifty years before Bultmann’s famous essay on the subject and twenty years before Heidegger made the point in Being and Time, had already exposed the illusory character of presuppositionless exegesis and warned of the havoc it could wreak in historical interpretation.{74} My goal in this essay, then, is not to prove Henri de Lubac to have been an original hermeneutical thinker, but simply to point out that his hermeneutical insight was much more sophisticated and forward-looking than is commonly recognized. Prepared by his appropriation of Blondel’s philosophy, his immersion in the Christian tradition, and his own prayerful practice of the Christian life, he was able to recognize, long before many others in the Catholic theological community, both the limitations of critical exegesis and the profound hermeneutical richness of that traditional exegesis that is so often thoughtlessly dismissed as “pre-critical.”

Click to open the footnotes in a separate window.


This essay, which originally formed part of the doctoral dissertation of Marcellino D’Ambrosio (Henri de Lubac and the Recovery of the Traditional Hermeneutic, Catholic University of American, 1991) appeared in the English edition of Communio 19 (Fall, 1992). It is essentially a review of Cardinal Henri de Lubac’s critique of what he called scientific exegesis but what is most often called the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation or historical criticism. De Lubac does not reject the method outright, but shows its limitations. De Lubac’s approach is , after affirming the legitimacy of scientific exegesis, to identify and critique the hidden and arbitrary presuppostions of the historical-critical method and clarify the proper limits of exegesis’ competence as a specialized discipline. In doing so, he draws on the work of Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel as elaborated in L’Action and the essay “History and Dogma.”

1 Comment
  • Mara319
    Posted at 17:18h, 30 January

    That “certain Dolindo Ruotolo” happens to be the Servant of God, Don Dolindo, a pastor, mystic, healer, and victim soul, contemporary of St. Padre Pio, whose beatification is being spearheaded by the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate.

    Don Dolindo’s exegesis of the bible is meditation, prayer, and poetry combined, with great consideration to the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition and enough historicity thrown in to prove that the Gospels really did happen. His commentary on the Gospel of Luke shows he regarded Sacred Scripture as truly sacred, the word of God that covers all ages. A love letter from God, instead of a history book.

    Between Fr. Raymond Brown’s historical-critical method and Don Dolindo’s traditional breaking open of the presence of God in the bible, I take Don Dolindo’s as more spiritually satisfying.

    Some of Fr. Brown’s commentaries on the infancy narrative in the Gospel of Luke are downright scandalous, they upset me. I can never forget the time a Dominican Sister, a follower of Fr. Brown’s, conducting bible studies in my parish, said that the infancy narrative in Luke just did not happen.

    She said that as they were written much later than the Passion and Resurrection narratives, the writer of Luke simply “invented” the story of the childhood of Jesus after people realized He was “a great man.” Like George Washington. “Christ was a great man, so let’s make Him a childhood.” That, according to the Dominican Sister, was what Fr. Brown discovered in his historical-critical study of the bible. I almost wept.

    I totally agree with Fr. Michael Giesler’s review of Fr. Brown’s “Birth of the Messiah” here:

    If you’re not familiar with Don Dolindo’s method of praying and interpreting the Scriptures according to the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition, try this:


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