The New Biblical Theorists: Raymond E. Brown and Beyond
By George A. Kelly
Publisher: Servant Books
Review Author: Edith Black
In an engaging journalistic style that is bound to appeal to the average reader, Msgr. George A. Kelly presents us with a book that he hopes will initiate more debate over the current widespread use of the historical critical method to call into question the traditional scriptural bases of Roman Catholic teachings such as the Virgin Birth and the origin of the priesthood. He explains at the outset that he is focusing on the exegetical work of one scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown, because Brown is widely regarded as the chief representative of the school of exegetes that now predominates among American biblical scholars.
The greatest strength of the book is that it makes accessible to the general public a scholarly debate between Fr. Brown and his critics that has hitherto been largely confined to learned journals and books. The two best chapters (Four and Five), those which I recommend reading first provide useful summaries of two of Raymond Brown’s books, The Infancy Narratives and Priest and Bishop: Biblical Reflections, as well as summaries of the articles in which his more prominent scholarly critics such as Fr. René Laurentin, Fr. Manuel Miguens, and Lawrence Cardinal Shehan answer him. These chapters are helpful to anyone who wants to familiarize himself with the debate without wading through the lengthy works they summarize (but these chapters do provide, of course, the necessary references for those who wish to read further).
These chapters, however, are sandwiched in between others of mixed value in which Msgr. Kelly offers his own comments, interspersed with the summarized or quoted opinions of others, on the historical critical method in general (Chapters One and Two) and on Fr. Brown’s use of it in some of his other articles and books (Chapters Three and Six to Eight).
Kelly’s own observations are most compelling when he speaks from his own expertise as a social scientist. For instance, he draws oh his acquaintance with the scientific method to show that biblical exegesis cannot conform to its strict standards and that any claims of exegetes to be arguing scientifically are dubious. He effectively demonstrates that biblical scholars may follow the first two steps of established scientific procedure (formulation of a hypothesis and accumulation of evidence), but cannot proceed to the third (experimental verification of their conclusions). For the nature of their data is such that they cannot subject their conclusions to the type of empirical demonstration that scientists conduct.
Kelly furthermore argues lucidly that any rigorous attempt to apply the scientific method to a scriptural passage inevitably results in skepticism toward the truth of its supernatural contents because these cannot be validated experimentally. When Brown attempts to apply the method to the scriptural accounts of the virginal conception he must conclude that the “scientifically controllable evidence” leaves the doctrine in a state of doubt. As a result, he must rely on the fact that the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church) asserts it to be true as the sole basis for his belief in it. As Kelly points out, such an over reliance on Church authority for his beliefs opens Brown up to the very charge of “fundamentalism” (one could also say fideism) that he uses to dismiss his critics. Brown thereby falls victim to his own misuse of “methodological doubt” — a technique necessary to the scientific method because “people die and bridges fall down” when its conclusions are wrong, but inappropriate to a discipline that focuses on rationally arguable but empirically unverifiable faith propositions.
Kelly also has a number of cogent insights to offer on the polemical methods of argumentation and debating techniques Brown uses skillfully to discredit his opponents. For instance, he effectively exposes Brown’s tendency to politicize what should be a scholarly debate by the use of such terms as “left wing” and “right wing,” and to co-opt for himself the rhetorical “center.” He furthermore shows how Brown’s use of derogatory labels (such as “fundamentalist”) and demeaning phrases (such as “people whose work has been judged as quite inadequate” and “ultraconservative member of the hierarchy” who has aligned “himself with right wing forces”) to isolate both his scholarly and episcopal critics is an example of a means of social control that sociologists have long warned against.
Kelly has himself stressed the need for scholars to subject their work to critical peer evaluation and chides Brown for failing to do so. In this light, I do have a number of criticisms to make of Kelly’s book. I offer them as a friendly colleague in hopes that those who engage in the debate over the proper use of the historical critical method in the future will avoid the mistakes he makes — mistakes that I fear may limit the readership of his book to those already convinced and may deter many well-meaning scholars (some of whom have already begun privately voicing criticisms of Brown’s most recent exegetical conclusions to me and to others in the field) from according credibility to its valid insights.
Kelly does not merely focus on Brown’s polemical use of labels to discredit his scholarly critics. He also takes the exegete to task for his use of even more emotionally charged terms to dismiss the opinions of his non-scholarly opponents — terms such as “right wing vigilante,” “alienated unhappy voices,” and “those whose opinions have little or no scholarly respectability.”
I fear, however, that Kelly’s arguments here are not as convincing as they would have been if he had given equal attention to the fact that many of Brown’s critics do the same to him. Kelly has appropriately excluded from his coverage of the debate the more uncharitable critiques, and has wisely disassociated himself from the tactics of those who picket and disrupt Fr. Brown’s lectures. But in all fairness, some of the more misrepresentative charges should have been quoted to show that labeling has not been an entirely one-sided affair.
Moreover, Kelly is not entirely free of the tendency to discredit by innuendo, which he criticizes in Brown. Such comments as, “Fr. Brown’s approach creates the suspicion that the case against the virginal conception controls Brown’s thinking” stated a few paragraphs after he admits that Brown has affirmed his belief in the doctrine, and “the presumption frequent in Brown that the Catholic position is dubious in advance,” go considerably beyond what Brown has actually said in public discourse — which is all other scholars have a right to critique.
Kelly may legitimately argue, as he does at one point, that Brown’s writings often leave the reader with “ambiguous feelings about the Word of God.” But he too often goes beyond an analysis of the potential pastoral effects of Brown’s writings to suggesting an intent on Brown’s part to bring them about. Whether such remarks merely represent rhetorical flourish or whether they represent Kelly’s true opinion, only he can judge.
Similarly misrepresentative are Kelly’s attempts to describe the theological alignments within the Catholic Biblical Association. For instance, he speaks rather confidently of a “Brown-Fitzmeyer-McKenzie school of thought,” which supposedly predominates. Yet even a most rudimentary acquaintance with the organization should inform him that he has inaccurately linked together two scholars, Fr. Brown and Fr. John McKenzie, who, however much they agree in their use of the historical critical method to question the historicity of certain scriptural passages on which the traditional tenets of Christianity are based, do not agree on the doctrinal implications they draw from such exegesis. McKenzie is so very much more radical in his conclusions — in his apparent denial of the virginal conception and of the need for a rite of ordination — than Brown that Kelly seriously weakens his critique when he repeatedly presents McKenzie as an authentic interpreter of what Brown really means to say.
My major criticism, however, is the degree to which Kelly fails to tread as cautiously as he should when his own comments (as opposed to those of the critics he cites) range beyond his legitimate competence as a sociologist. His discussion of the historical critical method in his first few chapters displays clarity only when, as I said above, he speaks from his own expertise as a social scientist. Otherwise his treatment of the method is overly negatively skewed and ends up more as a polemic against its misuse than as a scholarly appraisal of both of its strengths and weaknesses.
It is, of course, not out of line to warn against the potential harm that an overreliance on the historical critical method (such as its use to assess the historicity of miracles) may do to the faith of Catholics. But any fair evaluation should also bring out its potential for undergirding as well as undermining the faith — a potential as great as that of all preceding methods used by patristic and scholastic scholars, some of which, like the allegorical, were just as non-Christian in origin. For just as the allegorical method proved fruitful in an age whose dominant mode of thought was mystical and symbolical, so also has the historical critical method proved fruitful in an age whose dominant mode of thought is empirical and scientific.
Another example of the carelessness is Kelly’s failure to distinguish between the different types of magisterial documents whose contents he summarizes. He does later acknowledge generally that the Church has changed her policy “about what may or may not be safely held by Catholics about the Bible.” But at the point where he discusses the documents themselves, he does not carefully point out that the Pontifical Biblical Commission decrees of 1906-1933, which address mainly questions of authorship and composition, are changeable disciplinary ones which the Church enacted to protect the faith from lines of research that seemed at the time to endanger it but which she has subsequently allowed to fall into disuse. Instead he summarizes their contents along with those of the papal encyclicals and conciliar decrees that reiterate constant Church teaching on more fundamental questions such as historicity and inerrancy, as if they were of the same level of authority.
I stress this oversight because “conservative” scholars often overlook the fact that an uncritical confusion between disciplinary and doctrinal issues can result in as serious a crisis of faith as can over-confidence in the use of the historical critical method. One need only bear in mind the terrible confusion caused in the post-Vatican II Church by the pre-Vatican II tendency to regard a violation of the disciplinary rule prohibiting eating meat on Friday as serious an infraction as adultery to see the pastoral danger of sloppiness here.
Even where Kelly scores points in his argument with Brown, he tends to weaken the impact of his critique by pushing his case too far. For instance, in Chapter Six Kelly criticizes Brown’s tendency in his most recent book. The Community of the Beloved Disciple, to read into the selection of events reported in the Gospel of John an intent that is not obviously manifest, in order to bolster his hypothesis of the existence in New Testament times of a Johannine charismatic community organized on a different basis than the Petrine institutional church. Kelly, however, undermines the soundness of his critique when he himself reads into Brown’s thesis an intent that is no more obvious than that which Brown reads into the Gospel of John.
He cites or quotes passages that are ambiguous (at worst) as evidence of his own hypothesis that Brown is attempting to lay a biblical basis for an ecumenical Catholic church managed by non-clerics as well as clerics who will permit the teaching of contradictory doctrinal positions, and to blame the conservatives for resisting this development which the Holy Spirit is trying to bring about. Kelly states emphatically that there is “no question” that Brown is promoting such a view, despite the fact that he initially admits Brown nowhere states such an intent and at one point acknowledges that Brown might “disavow” the similar interpretation of his work given by Fr. Richard McBrien. One might legitimately raise the question whether Brown had such an aim in mind, but Kelly goes considerably beyond the evidence in claiming that he certainly did. It is also possible, even from the information that Kelly himself provides, to interpret Brown as attempting only to show that the tensions that have existed between low church and high church polities since the Protestant Reformation also existed in the early church.
I say none of the above to dissuade anyone from reading this book, but only to express a regret that Kelly did not expand the sections in which he summarized the debate between Brown and his biblically and patristically trained critics to include the opinions of those whose works he mentions only briefly, such as Fr. John McHugh and Fr. William Most, and contract his own comments to those sociological insights he is so skilled in making.
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