Honoring Pope Benedict’s Legacy, part 7

By Guest Blogger Dr. Chris Baglow

Ratzinger on Divine Inspiration and Human Freedom

I have a question I hope to one day ask God about a peculiarity of the human mind, one of his greatest creations.  I am ever perplexed by the seemingly universal intellectual instinct for taking two kinds of experiences – experiences of fear and experiences of insight- and embroidering them so that they become more like security blankets or primitive fetishes instead of what experiences ought to be: namely, helpful signposts that point to truth but never claim to be perfect comprehension of it.  One example of how this happens with experiences of fear is the human penchant for racism.  An example of how this happens with experiences of insight is when human beings turn their concepts about reality into foundations for it.  Hence the modern sickness of foundationalism, the notion that we can come to a true understanding of the world if our theories are logically based on some indubitable foundation, a fixed point from which we can leverage the rest of the world, a fixed point that we have privileged possession of.  (Foundationalism has a Christian cousin, fundamentalism, the notion that we can acquire a perfect understanding of reality through an exclusive reliance on our personal understanding of the Bible.)

The foundationalist tendency (which is in polar opposition to the Catholic theory of how the human mind knows truth, called critical or moderate realism[1]), is one devil of a problem when it emerges in theology.  The paradigm that we discover that we think makes God all so clear becomes the tomb where we bury any sense of Absolute Mystery. And yet we keep shoveling on the dirt because this paradigm has become our pet thought, has come to make us secure, safe, sterilized.  We nod when Augustine bellows “If you understand it, it certainly is not God,” but deep down inside we believe we’ve got Him all figured out.

Take the important doctrine of biblical inspiration, which refers to the divine action stimulating the human authors of the biblical books to produce their work in such a way that the Bible also has God for its Author.  It is the root of our belief in the authority of Sacred Scripture as one of two sources for discovering Divine Revelation (along with Sacred Tradition), as well as our belief in the freedom of Scripture from error.  When it remains a simple acknowledgement that God did inspire the biblical authors without too much embroidering, it is helpful, indeed essential.  But when it becomes embroidered by us into a rigid cookie-cutter, clearly defined process, like God dictating verbally to a group of stenographers, a kind of biblical coin-sorting emerges that never lets the Bible simply be itself and speak before we’ve predetermined what it ought to say. The Bible ceases to be able to speak to us as a human word.  Our theory ruins our reading, and leaves us constantly perplexed by what we sometimes find in the Bible’s pages: primitive cosmologies (see Genesis 1), sinful human assertions expressed as true (see Titus 1:12-13 for a bit of racial stereotyping), detail disagreement (see Matthew and Luke’s genealogies), etc.

With this in mind, consider today’s BENE DICTUM quote, which steers us away from the naivete of theological foundationalism in our understanding of the Bible.  For him, the paradox of biblical inspiration is this: divine inspiration doesn’t cancel out human freedom but enables it.  The Bible is not less human because it is divinely inspired, it is MORE fully human.  Here in an interview he makes a comparison, for the sake of contrast, with the Muslim doctrine of the divine authorship of the Koran:

Cardinal Ratzinger: Moslems believe that the Koran was directly dictated by God.  It is not mediated by any history; no human intermediary was needed; it is a message direct from God. The Bible, on the other hand, is quite different.  It is mediated to us by a history… [it] bear[s] the impression of a history that he has been guiding.

Interviewer: Anyone who starts reading this book will find… a great mountain of contradictions.

Cardinal RatzingerI can understand the Bible as the Word of God only if I read it in the tension engendered by seeing it as a whole, accepting everything and taking one thing with another—not merely isolated words and phrases.  It is something very real and very dramatic. It is because faith is not set before us as a complete and finished system that the Bible contains contradictory texts, or at least ones that stand in tension to each other.

The Bible is not a textbook about God and divine matters but contains images with perceptions and insights in the course of development.  I can only understand these…as God’s Word if I relate one to another and let each correct the other… If I isolate them from their living context as God’s Word, then they are all merely fragments—and no longer always speak as the Word of God… It is quite impossible to pick out one single sentence and say, right, you find this sentence in God’s great book, so it must simply be true in itself.

This is the reason why patristic theology and medieval theology never referred to the Bible itself as ‘revelation.’  Revelation is the greater thing that stands behind the Bible.  And inspiration means that the people who wrote the text–and in many cases, this was a process of collective development–speak as members of the people of God and speak out of the history of God’s people.

If you take [the effects of divine authorship] in a superficial, mechanical way, then it is quite wrong…The whole totality of the Bible, as it really is, is quite different.  The Bible speaks of the whole of history and gives those lights that are essential to illuminate its path.  But God does not do the thinking for us.  He does not replace careful learning, does not replace our own spiritual striving… He does not jump in to plug the gaps in our knowledge, but he does give us wisdom–and naturally the wisdom brings knowledge with it; otherwise it would not be true wisdom… There is a saying of Gregory the Great that goes like this: The Word of Scripture grows with the reader.  And the reader grows as well, and then the Word really shows its greatness, and at the same time it grows out into history.

If therefore, I read the Bible in the Spirit in which it was written, from Christ,..then indeed it has the power to transform me. (Joseph Ratzinger, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald)

In summary: Let the Bible be divine by letting it be human.  It is only through the fully human element of Sacred Scripture, with its human imperfections, that the fully divine encounter with Jesus Christ, “God’s one Utterance,” can occur;.  When we let the Bible be fully human Christ, fully God who became fully human in order to save us, meets us in its pages.

Well said!


[1] Even the great G.K. Chesterton had to struggle to be free of foundationalism. Fr. John O’Connor, he priest whom Chesterton based his famous Father Brown stories, noted that Chesterton’s dilemma was ‘Do I begin from thought within myself, or from reality outside my thought? If I choose my thought as the measure of reality,I am free to perish in the wilderness.”

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