Fear of Catholicism and the New Testament Use of the Old Testament

This morning I was reading in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.  I read Kaiser’s chapter on the single referent view.  It seemed that part of his problem with the sensus plenior approach was that it was formulated by Catholic scholars and that it only would only work within a Catholic context.  He states:

Since (Raymond) Brown takes it (meaning) out of the hands of the human authors who stood in the counsel of God, the question is: In whose hands now does the final court of appeal rest for discovering the authoritative meaning of a biblical text?  Roman Catholic scholars, of course, can fall back on the magisterium of the church, to the ecclesial tradition.  But to what can Protestants appeal that matches such additional grounds of appeal?

I wondered if maybe I was reading a bit much into this to take offense, but it’s almost as if he’s saying that something like the sensus plenior approach couldn’t possibly be correct because it emerged in a Catholic context and could only work in a Catholic context.  But, I was glad to see I was not alone because Peter Enns calls him out for this in his response to Kaiser’s essay.  He states:

Kaiser’s discussion of sensus plenior is likewise problematic.  By citing Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown, Kaiser seems to be using guilt by association to undermine sensus plenior.  Brown is able to take meaning “out of the hands of human authors who stood in the counsel of God” because Brown’s Catholicism has an ecclesiastical tradition that allows him to treat scripture so shabbily.  I am no Catholic, but I was a bit offended by such a caricature, since Protestant scholarship owes so much to the careful nuanced work of Roman Catholic scholars.  Moreover, it is somewhat beside the point to portray Roman Catholics as manipulating the meaning of scripture so casually.  The real hermeneutical issues before, generated as they are by the NT evidence itself, will not be settled by such rhetoric.

Kudos to Peter Enns (who actually has an excerpt from Divino Afflante Spiritu on his blog).  I’m quite certain I could not have said that better myself.  I have appreciated the work of Enns for quite some time on account of this kind of clarity of thought.  I’m not saying that I personally agree with the sensus plenior approach, but it really doesn’t matter one way or another where it came from or in what context it might work.  What matters is how the NT authors themselves actually treated the Old Testament.  In fact, I think this is the gist of Enns’ critique of Kaiser, namely he doesn’t really deal with the raw data of the New Testament.

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8 Replies to “Fear of Catholicism and the New Testament Use of the Old Testament”

  1. While far from being a RC Jeremy…I have a lot to be thankful for the RC church and their scholarship. I recently attended 2 funerals – at a baptist and Catholic church. Both of the deceased were people of faith and both services celebrated that fact. I have to say though, that I found the RC service and the homily more encouraging and dignified then I did the other.

    What really irks me though is how Protestants will selectively claim what some of the church fathers have written as their own and yet distance themselves from them when it suits.

    1. Craig, I’m far more ecumenist than apologist for the RCC. And I learn a great deal from those of a variety of Christian traditions. From someone like Kaiser, I’d just expect better than this.

  2. I like the nuance of being an ecumenist than you are an apologist….I’m thinking through the ideas of orthodox theology and how that can be incorporated into a protestant world view.

  3. Why should anyone take offense at any of this is simply beyond me. Surely it ought to be just fine for a scholar of certain confessional commitments, and who is consciously writing within those boundaries, to note that this or that way of reading Scripture is not easily reconciled, or is perhaps even antithetical, to said confessional commitments. Which is to say that it is hardly blameworthy for Kaiser, a confessional Evangelical with definite views on the doctrine of Scripture and its bearing on hermeneutics, to note that the classical Evangelical formulation that he is seeking to uphold is fundamentally incompatible with the that of the Roman church in both theory and practice. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place for an orthodox Roman Catholic to make the same argument in reverse.

    Kaiser has often been accused of not seriously dealing with the witness of the New Testament in his discussions of the use of of the Old Testament in the New, but it is my considered opinion this charge arises from mere piecemeal engagement with his work. Anyone who has read his larger monographs and various other articles on this and related subjects would be hard pressed to seriously make such an accusation, even if they ultimately disagree with him.

    1. I can deal with a bit of confessionalism, but I don’t think Kaiser’s is a healthy one, at least not in this instance. The charge that Raymond Brown would formulate anything simply because he was Roman Catholic is one that could only “arise from mere piecemeal engagement with his work.” I wonder if Kaiser is even aware what many confessional Roman Catholics (myself not included) think of Raymond Brown. Thus, I think Kaiser here is using the connection to RC to be overly dismissive.

      As per Kaiser often being accused of not actually dealing with the NT, I don’t know about his wider work. But I was completely unimpressed with his chapter in this book. He starts with Ryle and works from there.

  4. Well, being a little bit confessional is like being a little bit pregnant. I don’t see what the problem is with arguing that the late Father Brown would formulate his published views on the matter because he was a Roman Catholic and therefore operated within that particular confessional matrix. (Incidentally, the excellent book by Johnson and Father Kurz has much to say on this point.) I would certainly hope that Kaiser and others would conclude that, say, my own approach to the use of the Old Testament in the New arises from an Orthodox context and could only really work within it.

    Kaiser is not targeting Father Brown’s views just because he was a Roman Catholic, or because he imagines that his views were universally accepted among his correligionaries, but because his views gained a certain currency among Evangelicals of an earlier generation. He rightly points out that the hermeneutical watershed between Rome and the Reformation rests on this very point, and that Evangelicals need to tread carefully here lest they unwittingly compromise their own confessional hermeneutical commitments.

    No one needs to be impressed with Kaiser’s chapter. He is not even right. But let Kaiser be Kaiser — and that is an ardent exponent of classical Evangelical hermeneutics.

    1. Confessionalism is all or nothing, like being pregnant? I’m not buying that. People limit by varying degrees how much they allow their confessional commitments to influence their scholarship.

      I don’t concede about Brown. In fact, he is a great case in point. He so thoroughly engaged critical New Testament scholarship that some within the Catholic Church label him a heretic. He came to conclusions that were not traditionally Catholic. He taught at a Protestant seminary. What if Brown formulated sensus plenior because of his intense critical engagement with the New Testament? I’m not saying that he did, but Kaiser doesn’t even seem open to that possibility.

      An analogous example might be the documentary hypothesis. Wellhausen was anti-semitic and a Protestant (an anti-Catholic one at that). But, do I as a Catholic throw source criticism out because it was given its first thorough, systematic formulation by a non-Catholic and thus couldn’t possibly be right? No. It’s part and parcel of the Old Testament introductory courses I teach at Catholic institutions, though in its more modern forms.

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