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Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman
Newman and Ratzinger on the Scriptures
St. John Henry Newman by Mary Fotheringham

St. John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI had many similarities in their approach to the Sacred Scriptures. Both theologians looked to the Sacred Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. The Bible for them, is more than a collection of books. It is the inspired Word of God that reveals God to man and how man can reach his supernatural end.

Newman acknowledged in a lengthy article the many difficulties in the canon of the Scriptures, the authorship of its books and in certain passages but he argued that if we question the authenticity of the canon and the inspiration of the books of the Bible we will also question the veracity of the Church Creeds. In other words, the Bible and the Creed go together. They stand or fall together. The Creeds put forth by the early Church councils attest the beliefs held by the early Christians who were the ones that ratified the canon of the Scriptures.

For Newman, difficult passages did not cause doubts of faith. He said: ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt. We approach the Bible with complete faith that God has revealed Himself through the inspired texts. In an analogous manner, Newman explained to his students and readers that when placed before apparent contradictions between faith and reason, there are various possibilities such as mistakes in the explanation of a dogma and errors in scientific conclusions. There are times when one needs to wait for future light to understand such difficulties.

Over a century later, Ratzinger would say that doing away with words in difficult passages is no exegesis at all. He stated this, for example in Jesus of Nazareth (vol 2) when commenting on the passage of chapter five of the Letter to the Hebrews which reads that during the days of his life “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”  Ratzinger argued against some exegetes who thought the word “not” must have been omitted since Jesus was crucified. Instead, Ratzinger explained that Jesus’ glorification is the answer to his prayers. Ratzinger also noted that there are other biblical passages awaiting a future explanation.

Newman grew up memorizing large portions of the King James version of the Bible as a young protestant. He knew the Bible from the first to the last page. In his writings he quotes the Bible extensively so much so that an author has said that if the text of the Bible were lost it could be reconstructed in large measure from Newman’s writings.

This leads to another characteristic element in the reading of Scripture on the part of Newman and Ratzinger which was in keeping with Augustine’s teaching on the unity of the Scriptures where the Old Testament contains an anticipation of the New and the New fulfills the Old. Both Newman and Ratzinger read and studied the passages of Scripture with this in mind. Influenced by the Eastern Church Fathers, Newman looked for the types of Christ in the Old Testament. For his part, Ratzinger wrote that after tracing the historical origins of a text and interpreting it in its historical context, the text should be understood “in light of the total movement of history and in light of history’s central event, Jesus Christ.” (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, Jan. 27, 1988, St. Peter’s Church, NY)

The Oxford don lived during a period when the historical critical method began to be applied intensely in biblical studies. He warned of the possible errors in this method without discouraging the benefits to be gained by it in biblical studies. Ratzinger on the other hand was very familiar with the use of the historical critical method and yet as he noted in the preface to Jesus of Nazareth he maintained that exegesis cannot be limited to ascertaining the precise sense of words at their time and place of origin. “[This method] is good and important. But – aside from the fact that such reconstructions can claim only a relative certainty – it is necessary to keep in mind that any human utterance of a certain weight contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at the time. When a word transcends the moment in the which it is spoken, it carries within itself a ‘deeper value’.”

Both thinkers, taught that the Scriptures must be read in the great body of the Church’s Tradition and Magisterium. Newman refers to this in his Essays on Inspiration, anticipating the teaching on the subject in Vatican II’s constitution Dei Verbum.

For both theologians, the written Word of God must be approached in a prayerful manner, with humility and faith. God’s revelation is meant to lead man to a deep supernatural knowledge and love of God. Rather than a pure exercise in intellectual knowledge, it is an exercise in holiness and a lifelong pursuit.

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