Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Biblical Cardinal?

Pope Benedict today announced the appointment of fifteen new cardinals, and one is garnering some attention that captures SWNID's attention. Arthur Vanhoye, a well-known New Testament scholar specializing in the book of Hebrews, is among the red caps.

Blogger Michael Barber, a Roman Catholic completing a PhD in theology at Fuller Seminary (yes, gentle readers, it is a brave new world), offers this analysis:

Notice here Pope Benedict's clear interest in highlighting the importance of biblical studies. In fact, one of the distinctive elements of Cardinal Ratzinger's work is his
attempt to do BIBLICAL theology
. Catholic theolgoy [sic] needs to be bibilcally [sic] based. I'll have more to say about this in the future. Suffice it to say, the appointment of Vanhoye reveals two things. First, it indicates that the Pope has great respect for this biblical scholar. Second, it underscores his interest in fulfilling the Second Vatican Council's call for making the study of the Bible ("the study of the sacred page") the "soul of theology" (Dei Verbum, 24).

We too affirm that Catholic theology needs to be biblically based. What we wonder is whether Benedict and others are willing to allow a biblical theology to critique other voices in the Roman Catholic magisterium.

Since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has produced an impressive array of biblical scholars. As a Neutestamentler up past his bedtime, I will name only a few American Neutestamentlers as examples: Joseph Fitzmyer, Raymond Brown, Luke Timothy Johnson. Without question, these giants of the academy have made enormous contributions to the understanding of Scripture, to the benefit of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians.

However, it is not at all clear that their scholarship can penetrate a theology that draws from other sources--tradition and the bishops--in significant measure. We recall a most remarkable turn in the impressive commentary on Mark's Gospel by German Roman Catholic scholar Rudolf Pesch. In an excursus on the "brothers" of Jesus in Mark 3:31ff, Pesch reviews in extensive detail the various views set forth historically on these figures. At his conclusion, he asserts that they are best understood as the natural sons of Mary and Joseph, born after Jesus. What then is to be done with the dogma of the Church that Mary was perpetually a virgin? Pesch simply remarks that the teaching of Scripture is one thing and the authoritative teaching of the Church is another.

Well, indeed it is. The question is what to do about it. While Catholicism has been in a state of off-and-on counter-reformation since the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers' justification for breaking free of Rome's control is as clear now as it was for Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. It's tough to see the good news clearly through all that tradition. So here we Protestants stand, critiquing the tradition with Scripture. We cannot do otherwise.

We are happy that these days in some quarters Catholic lay people are discovering the Bible and grounding their personal faith in it. We hope that the same can be true for the Vatican, and that Vanhoye's appointment might presage that. The letter that Vanhoye studies, Hebrews, if read with even a modicum of care, sets forth a christocentric theology that utterly destroys what the Reformers insisted is wrong with the Roman Catholic Church, namely, its promotion of other mediators.

Roman Catholic thinkers are contributing mightily to the intellectual life of our republic these days (N.B. that five Supreme Court justices are Catholic: Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, Roberts and Alito; also N.B. that the MSM still treated Alito's Catholicism as a novelty). Can they contribute to the life of their own church?


JB from CA said...

While I'm largely in agreement with SWNID on his negative critique of certain Catholic doctrines, I'd like to point out that, philosophically, Catholicism is light years ahead of Protestantism (in both its liberal and conservative expressions). The idea that one can start with the Bible alone--apart from any interpretive perspective, epistemic grounding, evidential support, moral philosophy, etc.--is, I suspect, largely what has led to the marginalization of Christianity in historically Protestant cultures. If we insist, as Protestants are prone to do, that there is no common ground upon which believers and unbelievers can meet, apart from Scripture, then, once Scripture is no longer held in high regard, Christianity becomes irrelevant in the eyes of society. (Bear with me here. I realize that there are exceptions to this rule, but they are exceptions, after all.) Fortunately, Catholicism has rejected this largely fideistic approach and attempted to reverse the order of support. So, e.g., rather than trying to ground a proper conception of morality on the truth of Scripture, Catholics attempt (in part) to ground the truth of Scripture on a proper conception of morality (which is, itself, derived largely through rational argumentation with unbelievers). In this way, they have managed to remain relevant in the public square (witness the number of Catholics on the Supreme Court, as SWNID has pointed out). Christians everywhere, I believe, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Catholics in this regard. It's hard to imagine what the moral climate in our own country--bad as it is at present--would be like if Catholics had not been out there on the front lines arguing with unbelievers for a commonly acceptable social, and Christian, morality.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Heartily and totally agreed to! Our SWNIDish hat is off to Catholic intellectuals of the last century or so who have tackled the West's growing secularism with vigor.

In fact, the attention that the Roman church needs is completely unrelated to what jb from ca notes. It deals not with Catholic engagement in the public square but Catholic dogma and piety, which are still mired in the excesses of Medieval Europe. This is where the critique of a genuinely biblical theology would be best felt and do the most good.