Henri de Lubac and the critique of scientific exegesis Marcellino D'Ambrosio






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Henri de Lubac and the critique of scientific exegesis

Marcellino D'Ambrosio


Communio 19 (Fall, 1992). ©1992 by Communio: International Catholic Review.

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.
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