The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method. By Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.


Pp. xii, 153 . New York/Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press , 2008 , $18.95 .

This volume reprints a selection of Fitzmyer's essays from 1961 to 2004, with some updating of footnotes and cross-referencing but otherwise leaving them largely unchanged. In a patient manner, Fitzmyer defends ‘historical-critical method’ against the attacks of largely what he calls ‘ultra-conservative’ Catholics, generally in close dialogue with the text of one or another official church pronouncement. In this respect the key documents in view are 1943's Divino afflante Spiritu, from which develops the whole tradition which this book has in view, Vatican II's Dei verbum, the 1964 document Instructio de historica Evangeliorum veritate (‘Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels’), and in some later pieces, the Biblical Commission's 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The last two chapters extend slightly more widely, one covering the ‘senses of Scripture’ (four-fold here: literal, spiritual, fuller, and accommodated), and one being a combination of two shorter pieces celebrating the life and achievements of Raymond Brown SS, who died in 1998 after a celebrated (and sometimes controversial) career as a Catholic NT scholar.

What is perhaps most interesting about the result of putting all these articles together is that Fitzmyer's ‘defence’ of historical-critical method is almost entirely mounted against those for whom it appears as a threat to established church doctrine. In so far as examples are given of specific points of controversy, they typically relate to such topics as the propriety of form-criticism, or how to handle such well-known flashpoints as the virgin birth or bodily resurrection, though these topics are not discussed in any detail. A fundamental sub-text is the question of scholarly freedom to investigate the text of scripture without doctrinal prejudgment being forced upon recalcitrant texts. Of course Fitzmyer has no difficulty showing that such prejudgment can often be too strong, flying in the face of the text as we have it, or misapplied with undue confidence beyond its useful boundaries. But one cannot help but feel that this ‘defence’ is really heavily dependent upon this particular (contingent) set of historical factors relating to specific moments in the 20th century reception (within Catholicism) of certain aspects of scholarship. In the key chapter which actually tries to give an apologia for historical-critical method, a great deal is left underdeveloped, with confident affirmations that ‘properly oriented’ use of the method will lead in due course to spiritual affirmation and the upbuilding of the church. Now in one sense this is fine: that scripture should play a constructive role in theology and church life is a claim too often underplayed in some circles. But in another sense the evidence of the practice of historical-critical method is a lot more diverse than one might guess from Fitzmyer's defence, and ironically (though this is noted in passing herein) the 1993 document in particular arrived at a time when a great many non-Catholic interpreters were beginning to wonder if an undue hegemony of historical-critical method was actually the cause of some problems rather than their resolution. And on that wider front, this defence has almost nothing to say to those whose criticism comes from the method's being too conservative. Of course, some of these chapters go back to the 1960's and clearly do not reflect such concerns as postmodern epistemology (entirely absent in this book), but it is odd that none of the more recent chapters really grapple with this either. The method is asserted to be neutral in itself, with no discussion, but much more could be said. It is also notable that ‘method’ in the singular is predominant throughout, rather than the range of methods more often noted under the ‘historical-critical’ rubric.

All in all these are pieces of their time, helpful as a historical document relating to various turns along the path of Catholic biblical scholarship in the mid 20th century. As a contribution to ongoing debates regarding the proper role of critical and historical scholarship in the wider economy of the church's reading scripture they are underdeveloped, well-intentioned certainly, but unlikely to persuade those for whom the canons of critical scholarship are a given without that being self-evidently a force for good.