on Ratzinger and reading

Another thing I’m not is a theologian. Nonetheless, here’s something I wrote a few years ago on Benedict’s exegesis (his interpretation of the Bible) and hermeneutics (his theory of interpretation generally). Warning: very long and dense.


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, shortly after becoming Pope Benedict XVI, published a book entitled Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. Unsurprisingly, for a pontiff who served as doctrinal enforcer for his very conservative predecessor (John Paul II), Benedict seeks in this work to refute liberal theologians, whom he constructs as exegetic sceptics and moral relativists. Against these, Benedict presents his own work as an exegetic objectivism, founded in the stable and self-identical meanings spoken by Christ.

To be sure, Benedict recognizes that interpretative relativism presents a genuine danger for any reader of the New Testament. This is because of the extraordinary readings of the Old Testament offered by the biblical Christ (plus Peter and Paul). The annihilation of the innumerable Jewish laws in the single Christian law of love – coupled with the insistence to be fulfilling Torah complexity thereby, without abrogating “one jot or tittle” – places the Gospel on a paradoxical, even an antinomian, footing.  Mustn’t the law of love have the power to annihilate any and all scriptural injunctions, replacing them with “humanistic” interpretations, as long as the latter appear consistent with the law of love? Doesn’t Christ himself give license for this sort of thing?

Benedict answers very clearly, and very firmly, in the negative. Christ could radically reinterpret scripture, the pontiff writes, solely and precisely because He was the Christ: the Word of God, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit; the scriptural author, in effect, made flesh. Having determined, authorially, the meaning of Torah in the first place, Christ is uniquely and exclusively, empowered to revise its meaning. Thus in examining the relationship between the Mosaic law and Christ’s revisionist treatment of it, we are not exposing ourselves to “the personal opinion of one teacher,” a mere “liberal reform rabbi.” As a matter of fact, Benedict writes,

“Jesus’s teaching is not the product of human learning, of whatever kind. It originates from immediate contact with the Father, from “face-to-face” dialogue – from the vision of the one who rests close to the Father’s heart. It is the Son’s word. Without this inner grounding, his teaching would be pure presumption. That is just what the learned men of Jesus’ time judged it to be, and they did so precisely because they could not accept its inner grounding: seeing and knowing face-to-face.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 7)

The interpretative diktat of the divine author, emanating from a dialogue that is before all dialogue, is the only standard that the Pharisees could have accepted for Jesus’s inversions of Torah. But unbeknownst to them, this is exactly the standard that he (on Benedict’s reading) brought. It is precisely “adherence to Jesus himself, to his Torah” that hermeneutically validates the Gospel: for

“if Jesus is God, then he is entitled and able to handle the Torah as he does. On that condition alone does he have the right to interpret the Mosaic order of divine commands in such a radically new way as only the Law-giver – God himself – can claim to do.” (Jesus of Nazareth, 115 [my emphasis])

It follows that Christ gives Christians (according to Benedict’s argument) no hermeneutic licence at all. He sanctions no new ways of making sense out of scripture. Rather, Christ sanctions new senses of scripture – which he, out of an “original understanding” unique to himself, makes.

To be sure, Christians are called upon to believe that the resulting interpretations of Jewish law are, without any doubt or question, valid (even for Jews). This validity, however, rests only and terminally on its posited origin in Christ. Gospel hermeneutics, for Benedict, devolves on the mystery of the Incarnation. Therefore, for anybody to read the Bible as Christ reads Torah would be blasphemy, not exegesis. It would be tantamount to claiming Christ’s hermeneutic position. Even the Church, despite its traditional claim to be filled by the Holy Spirit, shrinks (in Benedict’s construction) from such an usurpation. In this way, Benedict purchases doctrinal security from exegetic scepticism and moral relativism. The intensionality of Christ, placed before and beyond scripture, controls and determines its meaning absolutely and finally.

But at a very high price. Benedict’s objectivism depends on a posit of incomprehensible validation. Christ’s interpretations, Benedict tells us, are a priori valid; but only Christ can understand that a priori validity. All anybody else can understand, or needs to understand, is that Christ, and Christ alone, understands it. Therefore (1) nobody else should claim or expect to follow, in the last analysis, the hermeneutic logic of Christ’s insights into Torah; and (2) Christ’s power of incomprehensible validation (incomprehensible, that is, to anybody who is not Christ) is his unique and effective exegetic privilege. We must be prepared to accept, precisely without understanding, the posited validity of Christ’s interpretations. Acceptance, for us, must be our exegetic validation; and such validation, by definition, must be incomprehensible.

Achtung: incomprehensible validation, on Benedict’s view, is supposed to be a unique privilege of Christ. Yet in trying not to touch that privilege, we find ourselves taking it up. We find ourselves defining Christ’s hermeneutics by an idea of ours: namely, the idea of a limit to our understanding. We propose that we understand that Christ’s validation is something that we can’t understand. But how can we possibly understand that?

Meanwhile: if we are unable to understand what makes Christ’s interpretations valid, that amounts to saying that we cannot, finally, understand them to be valid. (We can only accept them to be valid; which, etc.) Now, understanding an interpretation means understanding it to be valid or invalid. Understanding an interpretation to be valid is entailed in understanding that valid interpretation. Presumably, Christ gives only valid interpretations (this would appear to be a theological necessity). Therefore, if we cannot understand Christ’s interpretations to be valid, it follows that we simply cannot understand Christ’s interpretations.

But if we cannot understand Christ’s interpretations, we cannot specify what they say or don’t say. For being able to specify that would be understanding them; which, apparently, we cannot do. Now, if we cannot specify what Christ’s interpretations say or don’t say, we surely can claim no grounds for validating or invalidating anybody else’s account of what they say or don’t say. For our account of what the interpretations say or don’t say can make no claim of correctness. All accounts of Christ’s interpretations, therefore – all readings of the Gospel – must be accounted equally valid, and/or invalid. But that amounts to the view that we don’t even know what the Gospel says. This is a position of absolute, even incoherent, exegetic scepticism. But this is what follows from Benedict’s attempt to establish exegetic objectivism.

Finally: Benedict is saying that Christ’s interpretations of Torah are a priori valid. An interpretation of Torah is sound and correct (mutatis mutandis) simply on the basis that Christ gave it.

Now, Christ can, presumably, experience no restriction on his interpretative choices. This would be inconsistent with divine freedom, as well as with the very idea of an interpretation – a selection of textual meanings, out of the range of all possible meanings. Therefore, Christ could have given any number of different interpretations (of a given Torah precept) from the one that he actually gave.

Moreover, the interpretation Christ actually gave is no more intrinsically valid, in and of itself, than any of the other possible interpretations he could have given. The Gospel, in short, could have been different (even though it is not).

Christ could, in principle, enthusiastically have joined in stoning the adultress.

He could have excommunicated himself for healing on the Sabbath.

He could have insisted that his Gentile followers undergo circumcision.

Such possibilities, however, make the Gospel that is – as opposed to the Gosepls that might have been – a mere entry in an illimitable, and effectively random, catalog of potentially-valid religions. But this, again, is exactly the sort of view against which Benedict conceives himself to be polemicizing.

Willy-nilly, Benedict has repeated the error of Plato’s Euthyphro – who thinks that piety is just what is God-beloved, rather than thinking that the gods love what is pious. Such voluntarism evacuates, rather than safeguarding, the ethical content of pious phenomena. They become arbitrary, conventional, from the divine point of view. And the divine point of view is exactly the one that matters.

The way to save exegesis from scepticism, in fact, is not to propose (with the pontiff) that Christ’s interpretations are a priori valid. It is to propose, rather, that Christ gives a priori valid interpretations – but precisely as valid, rather than as arbitrary re-determinations of what counts as valid. They are a challenge for human interpreters, the recipients of the divine to teaching, to understand, with the tools and abilities given to them for that purpose.

Similarly, the way to save the Gospel from relativism is not to point out (with Benedict) that God, freely, has given it. It is to point out, rather, that God has freely given the Gospel – and nothing other than the Gospel —  the truth as the truth, not as one of any number of ways “the truth” could have been. The Gospel, in this manner, is opened up as something that the individual Christian can, and must, try to understand, precisely in the very nature of its challenging validity. And that means, finally, that the hermeneutic keys to the Kingdom cannot be left, pace Benedict, in its ruler’s keep.

Benedict’s exegesis is authoritarian; his hermeneutics, empty. His is a theory of reading as not reading at all. There’s a long tradition, going back at least to Augustine, behind this kind of view. More’s the pity.

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2012, I initiated the international conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World."

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