How to Understand the Bible’s Dark Passages: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Ramage
In his pivotal 2010 exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI devoted an entire section to the so-called “dark passages” of the Bible:
“In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, [we must consider] those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult…
[W]e should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective, which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.
I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.” (VD, 42)
The Pope’s request could not be more timely. When we combine the perennial difficulty of these “dark passages” with the heightened attacks by contemporary atheists, who wield them as daggers against the Church, it’s clear we need a renewed focus on these troubling verses.
Thankfully, many Catholic scholars have stepped up to the plate. One of those experts, Dr. Matthew Ramage, assistant professor of theology at Benedictine College, has authored an important new book titled Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and St. Thomas Aquinas (The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).
Dr. Ramage examines three troublesome themes in Scripture: its apparent endorsement of polytheism, the Old Testament’s disconcerting violence, and what seems to be the rejection of an afterlife. If the Scriptures are truly inerrant and inspired by God, how can it contain these passages?
Following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI, Dr. Ramage applies fresh hermeneutical principles to this question. By wedding the historical-critical method, favored by modern scholars, to the patristic-medieval approach, which the Church Fathers and scholastic theologians preferred, Dr. Ramage analyzes each dark theme and reconciles it with Church doctrines concerning the nature of God, biblical inspiration, and inerrancy. The result is a tremendously helpful book.
Dr. Ramage recently agreed to chat with me about some of the book’s themes, including the interpretive Method C he uses and how Catholics should reply when atheists accuse God of being a “genocidal..capriciously malevolent bully.”
BRANDON: Early in Dark Passages of the Bible, you describe two methods of Scriptural interpretation, Method A and Method B, which the Church has used throughout her history. What are the features of each method?
Dr. MATTHEW RAMAGE: Here I could do no better than to cite the programmatic statement from Ratzinger himself which he gave during a roundtable following his famous “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict” lecture in 1988:
“You can call the patristic-medieval exegetical approach Method A. The historical-critical approach, the modern approach…is Method B. What I am calling for is not a return to Method A, but a development of a Method C, taking advantage of the strengths of both Method A and Method B, but cognizant of the shortcomings of both”
As Dr. Gregory Vall aptly stated in an article applying this “Method C” to Psalm 22, what we are dealing with here are not two methods per se but rather two general approaches.
Those of the “Method A” school (Church Fathers, medieval scholastics, and those of us who wish to emulate them) share certain first principles such as belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the importance of the Magisterium in forming the canon and guiding its interpretation, and the presence of spiritual senses intended by Scripture’s divine author. A key strength of this method is that it sees Scripture for what it truly is: a word not simply from the past but God’s word living and active with importance for our lives today. A critical weakness of relying solely on this method is the danger of whitewashing difficult biblical texts by jumping to their spiritual sense without seriously taking into account the challenges these texts present on the literal level.
Another danger lies what Benedict calls a “rigid and positivistic ecclesiasticism,” by which I take him to be referring to a phenomenon I have observed a lot in the past ten years of working on this topic. This tendency occurs among faithful Catholics who try to close the book on difficult questions claiming that Rome has already spoken and that the matter is finished, even though the exegesis and teaching of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI patently demonstrates that the highest exegete in the land seems to think there is need for development in the Church’s approach in light of what we have learned through modern exegesis. To my mind the main issue here is not that the Church needs to or ever will affirm particular findings or hypotheses of modern exegesis, but rather the need for faithful Catholics to overcome the fear that modern methods and findings tend to undermine the faith. In other words, faithful Catholics need to learn that there is room for legitimate diversity in exegetical approaches. This is not to say that there are no defined dogmas by which we need to abide. It means that Benedict XVI’s exegetical principles and conclusions might look somewhat different from those of Leo XIII, and that this is ok.
On the “Method B” side, meanwhile, we come into contact with thinkers who share a different set of presuppositions and tools. As Benedict tells us, the method is not intrinsically opposed to faith, but neither is faith an intrinsic component of it. For this reason, it can be used to deepen our faith, or it could be (and sometimes is) used in the attempt to undermine the faith. The emeritus pontiff believes that we cannot remain indifferent to or neglectful of modern exegesis, as it offers tools necessary to learn if we wish to understand and convincingly present the mystery of God’s word revealed in Scripture to people today. The modern, historical-critical approach brings a lot to the table. It benefits from scientific tools not available to the Church Fathers and scholastics, tools not limited to but including a broader knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern culture, recent discoveries in archaeology and the various natural sciences, and an increased competence in Semitic languages.
BRANDON: The hermeneutical key you pursue in your book, however, is Pope Benedict’s Method C. How does this differ from previous methods and how is it particularly fruitful for biblical scholarship?
Dr. MATTHEW RAMAGE: As the above quote from Benedict indicates, “Method C” is not a new method precisely bur rather a synthesis of Methods A and B, taking what is best from both and purifying them of their respective weaknesses. Benedict’s conviction is that the two are mutually enriching and equally necessary for doing justice to the Bible’s most challenging texts. His desire is thus to move beyond the false notion that the two approaches are mutually exclusive or even contradictory. Among traditionally-minded Catholics in America, this dichotomy manifests itself when we refer to professionally trained exegetes who disagree with us as so-called “critical biblical scholars”—with an emphasis on the quotation marks used condescendingly with the implication that said scholars are neither truly critical nor true biblical scholars.
In addition to the important scholarly tools Method B brings to the table, it has involves another more subtle element which often leads Catholics to fear or deride the method. This is its willingness to ask questions—and entertain corresponding answers—that faithful Christians of previous ages did not tend to raise. For example, in incorporating this aspect of Method B into our synthesis, we might ask: Could certain biblical texts actually reflect a belief in multiple gods? Did God command genocidal actions? Do some authors reject the possibility of an afterlife? If the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant word of God that Christians claim them to be, how can they contain these things? For many believers in the modern age, traditional Christian answers to these challenges are no longer convincing. Though spiritually edifying, they are unable to account for the sheer scope and depth of problems raised through the advent of historical-critical scholarship. This is where Method B comes in to our synthesis. When Method B is taken up into our approach, we don’t have to whitewash difficult passages of the Bible. We don’t have to rely upon forced interpretations which don’t convince us, let alone would-be believers for whom they are obstacles. Rather, what we are doing here is admitting that modern people and modern scholarship in general have something positive to say, and that it might actually help us defend the faith better rather than destroying it.
This, however, is where we have to remember the importance of Method A within the Method C synthesis. It is well known among faithful Christians that there are those belonging to the historical-critical school who seek to undermine central tenets of the faith, especially when it comes to the figure of Jesus. As Pope Benedict noted in his Jesus of Nazareth series which sought to combat precisely this mentality, modern exegesis can become a tool of the Antichrist! Benedict’s critiques of Method B throughout his corpus help us to see that the method’s fundamental strength turns out also to constitute its principal weakness: its willingness to ask radical questions of Scripture and ability to provide a scientific analysis of Scripture often leads to excess of regard for its own competence and lack of regard for Christ. It is easy for modern scholars to get too caught up and overconfident in our hypothetical reconstructions of biblical history and the genesis of biblical texts. It is also easy to forget that the purpose of Scripture is to put believers in communion with Christ.
BRANDON: You focus on three types of “dark passages” in your book, those dealing with the nature of God, the nature of good and evil, and the afterlife. What do you mean by “dark passages” and where do these challenging themes appear in Scripture?
Dr. MATTHEW RAMAGE: The term “dark passages” is often and rightly applied to those texts of the Bible in which God seems to be implicated in evil either by commanding violent actions or doing such actions himself. In this book, however, I broadened the term. While people (including Christians as well as atheists challenging our faith) often tend to focus on the problem of God seeming to be a “moral monster,” there are at least two other key areas in which the Bible appears especially “dark.” What could be darker, for example, than Job and Ecclesiastes categorically denying the possibility of life after death? And what could be more theologically problematic than the sacred author apparently thinking that Yahweh is one among many divinities in existence? We are clearly dealing here with issues at the heart of the Christian faith.
Where do these passages appear in Scripture? They occur all throughout the Old Testament, and this is where my book’s focus lies. With Benedict XVI and the Church Fathers, I contend that the fullness of divine revelation lies in the person and message of Jesus Christ. So thankfully, although the New Testament is not without its difficulties, a good portion of the “dark” material lies in the Old Testament (which, incidentally, also comprises most of the Bible). The first chapter of the book is devoted entirely to laying out various types of problems that Benedict’s interpretive method can help us to address. Dozens upon dozens of texts are taken from the Pentateuch, prophets, and wisdom literature, but other books are treated as well. The nature of good and evil, for example, is addressed in comparing and contrasting the books of Samuel with their parallels in Chronicles. Even so, this 300-page book only scratches the surface. It seeks to lay out the principles needed to address these passages, and then delves into exegesis of many passages in its later chapters. But I am hoping that this book is the one of many in which authors will follow suit in the effort to apply Pope Benedict’s brilliant principles to texts which demand our attention for the sake of evangelization but also for our own spiritual lives.
BRANDON: The notorious atheist Richard Dawkins described the God of the Old Testament as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” How should Catholics begin to respond to such claims?
Dr. MATTHEW RAMAGE: First, I think we have to admit that the Bible really does say what it seems to be saying. It says God did some violent things. And these things seem to conflict with the nature of God such as we understand it through reason. In other words, I am acknowledging that Dawkins and people like him—though by no means competent philosophers or theologians—may be onto something. They may actually be raising problems which Christians need to take seriously rather than smugly writing them off as musings of those who should keep quiet and go back to their own area of expertise.
Second, I think we need to be up front about our presuppositions or first principles. We are going into our interpretations already convicted that the Bible is God’s word. This is going to (and indeed should) color the way we read every biblical passage. In interpreting a given text, our job is not to prove to our atheist interlocutors that God exists, that Jesus is God, or that the Bible is God’s word. These are all discussions that should be had, but you and your partner in dialogue have to be very clear about your respective principles. Don’t expect to convince Richard Dawkins that you have vindicated the presence of dark passages in the Bible even though you have brilliantly and meticulously applied the principles of my book to the passage in question:) In defending a particular dark passage, the Christian’s job is to do just that: defend the passage against objections—not definitively prove its truth—as Aquinas says. As I see it, our job is to provide answers to objections from unbelievers so that they might see what a reasonable way to deal with dark biblical passages might look like if faith in Christ and his revealed word is granted.
That said, there are a couple keys which I tease out in the book and which I try to concisely apply to any passage someone challenges me about. The first lies in seeing every passage in the Old Testament as part of a history of revelation by which God slowly led his people toward the fullness of revelation in Jesus. As Pope Benedict says in many different ways and in many different places, problematic passages in the Old Testament are “valid insofar as they are part of the history leading up to Christ.” Perhaps scandalizing some traditionally-minded Catholics, he says, “It follows straightaway that neither the criterion of inspiration nor that of infallibility can be applied mechanically. It is quite impossible to pick out one single sentence [of the Bible] and say, right, you find this sentence in God’s great book, so it must simply be true in itself.”
Benedict does not deny the doctrines of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, but he has a much more nuanced understanding of them than the typical Catholic has. This leads me to Benedict’s second key principle. In assessing particular dark passages, we have to be on the lookout for the particular text’s main purpose, what it is trying to teach or affirm. As Vatican II’s Dei Verbum says, whatever Scripture’s human authors assert is asserted by the Holy Spirit. But, as Ratzinger says in many places, we have to distinguish the “message” or “kernel” a passage from its “form” or “worldview.” This is where Method B’s tools are very handy. The same tools which can be used to criticize the Bible and find problems in it can also help us ascertain what precisely a particularly difficult passage really means in light of its historical context, literary genre, and place within the canon of Scripture.
BRANDON: You describe the Church as a “community of interpretation” and the saints as “true interpreters of Scripture.” How do both help Catholics better understand the Bible?
Dr. MATTHEW RAMAGE: For Benedict, the Church is “the primary setting for scriptural interpretation.” The Bible was written by men of faith, redacted by men of faith, compiled by men of faith, and canonized by men of faith. The Bible’s native home is not in an exegetical laboratory but in the community of believers, especially the praying community in the liturgy. A fact not enough Catholics know is that a book’s use in the Church’s early liturgies was one of the criteria used to determine whether it should form part of the Bible, i.e. whether it was inspired by God. Lex orandi, lex credendi. The Church’s law of prayer is her law of belief.
To say that the primary setting for interpretation lies within the Church means simply this: The same Church by which we know that the Scriptures are God’s word is the same Church which still today enables us to know how this magnificent book is rightly to be read. In Verbum Domini Benedict offers an eloquent analogy which speaks beautifully to this point: Just as Mary gave birth to the Word of God, Jesus Christ, so the Church gave birth to the word of God, the Bible. And just as Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), so the Church over the centuries has ever pondered the words of Scripture and brought forth treasures old and new. This contemplative pondering continues today in the work and legacy of Benedict XVI. To close with just one final insight based on a text in which he riffs off the above verse, I would like to praise Benedict for being a model of how to critically yet faithfully “keep together” the truths conveyed in Scripture. I also wish to thank him for showing us the way to emulate Mary by “pondering” or conversing with our God who comes to meet us in Sacred Scripture.
For more, check out Dr. Matthew Ramage’s new book titled Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and St. Thomas Aquinas (The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).