How Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Helped Shape My Exegetical Approach and the Emmaus Institute for Biblical Studies

How Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Helped Shape My Exegetical Approach and the Emmaus Institute for Biblical Studies

The following is a transcript of the similarly titled lecture given at the Emmaus Institute Spring Seminar, Benedict XVI: The Debt We Owe as Church and Academy, on April 15, 2023 at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center. 


As many of you know, I am a relatively recent convert. My wife and I were received at St. Peter Catholic Church here in Lincoln at the 2015 Easter Vigil, eight years ago, at age 65. What almost no one knows, however, except perhaps some former students with well-formed memories, is the profound, and perhaps unusual, debt I owe to the one whose legacy we honor today.

The story begins in 1992, when, having just earned a Ph.D. in Exegetical Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, and having taught a number of courses in Hebrew and Greek exegesis, I set about the task of preparing an exegesis manual for my students at the Associated Canadian Theological Schools, a consortium of graduate seminaries near Vancouver, B.C., where I had taken a position as Assistant Professor in Biblical Studies. As a first undertaking, it seemed fitting that I should provide an introductory essay on methodology as a kind of preface to my manual—a discussion that focused on how we ought to conceive of the task of studying the Sacred Text, with a view to hearing its living voice.

While preparing that essay, which ultimately grew into a 50-page introductory chapter, I came across two recently published items from which I drew rather heavily: a 1992 article “The Paradigm Is Changing: Hopes––and Fears,” by University of Heidelberg professor Rolf Rendtorff1; and a 1988 lecture “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis” by a certain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,2 whose middle name ‘Cardinal’ I found puzzling at the time—an unusual selection by his parents, I thought. ‘Cardinal’ had not yet made its way into my ecclesial vocabulary, which reveals, embarrassingly, how little I knew about the Catholic magisterial structure. I am not even certain that I was aware of Ratzinger’s Catholicism at the time; I simply knew that his published lecture added conviction to an approach to biblical interpretation which I was in the process of honing. So much was that the case that the name ‘Ratzinger’ shows up no fewer than eight times in that introductory essay.

Observant and curious students, and ones more familiar with Catholic hierarchy than I, must surely have wondered if it might be just a matter of time before Dr. Steiner defected and “went over to the other side,” as someone would later describe it. They would have been right, of course, although that prospect did not enter my mind for more than two decades, when a largely exegetical path would lead me home to the Catholic Church. When it did, I was able to look back and identify two specific areas where, at that early date, Ratzinger’s contributions were most evident, in ways that helped to shape my conception of the task of biblical exegesis—more than twenty years before I would do so as a Catholic.


The first, and most immediate for my purposes in 1992, related to the matter of methodology. Like many of my professional colleagues and fellows in the world of academic biblical studies, I had grown increasingly disillusioned with the presuppositions and perceived limitations of the historical-critical methods we had imbibed from some of our own teachers and other influencers, and had turned elsewhere for exegetical procedures that we believed were more faithful and fitted to the material being studied. Leading figures like the aforementioned Rolf Rendtorff and, in this country, Brevard Childs, my own professor John Sailhamer, and others had begun to forge a path forward that signaled a seismic programmatic shift in the academic world. The old categories that dominated the agenda of critical orthodoxy for several centuries3 and that dictated the assumptions and the methods that biblical scholars were obligated to follow in order to be respected in the academy had begun to unravel. In general, post-Enlightenment historical criticism, as conceived on the continent, refined in Great Britain, and popularized in America failed most transparently in how it conceptualized the subject matter. Following this approach, the Bible should be read and studied like any other ancient book, and with the same canons of critical inquiry applying.

And so, analytical biblical scholars, with an impressive surgical tray full of textual scalpels, scissors, and highlighter pens, set about their task as historians and scientists, enjoying, in Ratzinger’s words, a “new freedom of thought toward which the Enlightenment had advanced,” in which “dogma appeared as the one real hindrance to a proper understanding of the Bible. . . . Freed from this inappropriate presupposition, and armed with methodological means guaranteed to ensure strict objectivity, it seemed that we would at last be able to hear once more the voice of the source, pure and undistorted”4—the Bible’s original message.

“Yet gradually, the picture became more and more confused,” Ratzinger continued. “The hypotheses branched out, separated from each other, and became a visible fence that barred the way to the Bible for the uninitiated. The initiate . . . no longer [read] the Bible but dissect[ed] it into the elements from which it is supposed to have grown . . . [in an effort] to remove the irrational remnant [i.e., the miraculous and the mysterious]. . . . Faith is not a component of this method, and God is not a factor in the historical events with which it deals.”5

In short, the dominant exegetical method that ruled the academy and crippled the Church from the 17th century until well into the 20th rendered theology and faith and listening for the voice of God inconsequential for the proper interpretation of Scripture. Belief in miracles and mystery might be a matter of personal taste, but it did not factor in the serious study of the Bible, with its assured results anchored in the confident soil of enlightened human reason, “scientific” procedures, and “historical ‘autopsy.’”6 The upshot of it all was that the Bible was thereby reduced to “the same status as any other ancient work,” and that became “a hallowed exegetical principle.”7 This also meant, for those who wished to retain a living faith, the divorce of theology from exegesis, the latter increasingly viewed with suspect. If you wanted to survive spiritually, then be sure to keep your distance from academic departments that trafficked in the dry, dusty, dull, and deadening study of the Bible.

To their credit, my own teachers had not embraced the more radical, anti-supernatural elements of the critical agenda; but for reasons and in ways I need not expound here, they adopted a similar hermeneutic, reflecting an indebtedness to the essential methodology, just driven in their case by more measured and sympathetic presuppositions.

To me and to a growing number of others, the entire program was deeply flawed and in need of more than a minor tweak or a superficial makeover. So much was that the case that as early as 1959, no less a literary critic than C. S. Lewis could denounce biblical critics who “ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read . . . the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.”8 By 1973, American theologian and New Testament scholar Walter Wink could boldly proclaim that “historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.”9 A year later German professor Gerhard Maier released his earth-shaking volume The End of the Historical-Critical Method,10 and shortly after that historian and theologian Charles Scalise noted that “the days when the historical-critical paradigm dominated the whole field of biblical scholarship are at an end.”11

It was this complete disarray in the critical landscape, with gaping cracks exposed in the walls of long-standing critical constructs, that led Cardinal Ratzinger to assert in his 1988 lecture that “Biblical Interpretation [was] in Crisis.”12 I was hooked from his opening paragraph, in which he boldly referenced Wladimir Solowjew’s History of the Antichrist, in which the enemy of our Lord “recommended himself to believers . . . by the fact that he had earned his doctorate in theology at Tübingen and had written an exegetical work which was recognized as pioneering in the field. The Antichrist, a famous exegete!” With laser accuracy Ratzinger proceeded to slice right through the whole mess into which academic biblical studies had gotten itself in the preceding centuries. What so troubled the professor and future pontiff was not the precision with which biblical texts were being examined in the academy—how could anyone ever study the Bible too carefully?––but the exclusionary way in which inspired texts were approached, with methods appropriate to the natural sciences but which “relegated God to the incomprehensible . . . in order to be able to treat the biblical text itself as an entirely worldly reality according to natural-scientific methods.”13

What Ratzinger called for was “a thorough reconsideration of the methods of exegesis. . . . At present we do not need any new [critical] hypotheses,” he insisted. “We need a critical view of the exegetical landscape already available, so that we may return to the text and distinguish between those hypotheses that can take us farther and those that are useless . . . in understanding the Bible.”14

As already noted, Ratzinger was not alone in exposing the shortcomings of the prevailing approach that had made its way, almost as academic dogma, into university and seminary departments of Bible and Religion—even belatedly into Catholic universities and seminaries––but he was one stout figure, along with others, calling for a reconsideration and revision of the methods appropriate to the study of the Church’s Sacred Text. In its most basic expression, he and others were contending that the Bible cannot be studied just like any other ancient book precisely because the Bible is not just like any other ancient book. In other words, historical and scientific dissection of biblical texts is not sufficient if the biblical texts purport to be more than historical and scientific objects of analysis, if they are truly the revelatory and living-breathing word of God, in which we encounter our Lord personally, as the Church has always confessed.15

That was precisely the conviction which I was attempting to formalize in terms of an exegetical method or procedure in 1992, and that remains my passion and ours here at the Emmaus Institute, where my colleagues and I offer no apology for studying the biblical text with precision and depth, but always with a view to encountering there the living and breathing and transforming voice of our Lord. Reading Scripture, hearing God, we often say, with motto-like conviction. In these sacred words, properly read, we hear God speak; in these sacred words, properly read, we encounter Christ in all his revelatory glory (cf. Jn 1:14-18; Heb 1:1-4).

Referring to the need for a thoroughly revised hermeneutic, wise man that he was, Cardinal Ratzinger admitted that “At least the work of a whole generation is necessary to achieve such a thing.” I am humbled to consider myself a tiny part of that generation, and to know that the Emmaus Institute continues on the trajectory broadly outlined in Ratzinger’s seminal address.

As a side note, and for reasons I cannot develop here, I would learn later that by about the time many Protestant biblical scholars were beginning to abandon the dogmas of critical orthodoxy, their counterparts on the faculties of Catholic universities and seminaries were just getting around to becoming enamored with the same.16 Little wonder many a seminarian in the mid- to latter-twentieth century could not wait to be done with his Scripture classes, as reported to me personally by some of our own priests, perhaps some in attendance today, who endured those life-sucking courses and who lived to tell us about it.

And so, when on April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, I rejoiced. Imagine that, I thought to myself, still a decade before entering the Church: A pope who knows something about biblical exegesis, with a sense of how exegetes ought conduct themselves and their work!

Years later, my journey would bring me across some of Benedict’s many books and papal documents, thanks in part to the loving influence of our featured speaker this morning, Dr. Christopher Blum, during a generous three- or four-hour conversation in the fall of 2015, part of which focused on his spotting a lacuna in my library: Vern, you need to read more Benedict XVI!

And so I did. Among these were Benedict’s trilogy Jesus of Nazareth, which showcased some of his 1988 convictions—the proof of the pudding, as we say––including, in the Foreword to volume 2, his fuller discussion on what he considered to be the limits of the historical-critical method.17 There also I discovered a refreshing humility by one of the greatest intellects of recent centuries––a Pope, mind you, who writes in that same Foreword: “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”18 I already knew by this time that the Church does not claim what many of us Protestants had mistakenly assumed on many points, but here was the Pope’s own invitation to the world to disagree with his views. No claim to unqualified papal infallibility there!

I pray that my work as a biblical academic and all our work at the Emmaus Institute may always reflect, then, the methodological contributions and the exemplary humility of Benedict XVI, who insisted that Sacred Scripture ever speaks the living voice of our Lord—a voice to be heard, heeded, and heralded––and who envisioned in his 2010 apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, “a rediscovery of God’s word in the life of the Church as a wellspring of constant renewal” and a “hope that the word will be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity” (1).


There is a second and related area where Ratzinger’s influence found its way into my thinking early on and ultimately into the work that we do here at Emmaus. It relates to the matter of context, by which I mean the Church as context, the Church as the proper home of biblical study, the locus of interpretive authority, and the guardian of a lived reality and a preserved memory––a Tradition, I would learn to call it––that creates the space for confident biblical study and provides a default understanding of its meaning.

This, too, goes back to that project on which I was working in 1992, when I read the closing paragraph in Ratzinger’s 1988 address, in which he stressed that “the exegete must realize that he does not stand in some neutral area, above or outside history and the church,” but rather “must recognize that the faith of the church is that form of ‘sympathia’ without which the Bible remains a closed book.” Only such a stance “allows the solitary possibility for the Bible to be itself.” Benedict would himself expand upon these convictions in his 2005 Wort Gottes (ET 2008, God’s Word) and in his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, both of which I was to discover later.

But the point which registered with me at the time, if no more than a seed idea awaiting years of further cultivating, was his insistence that the proper setting and space in which the Bible is most faithfully studied is within the “sympathetic” faith of the Church. A decade and a half later, while still a Protestant, a colleague and I would develop a sequence of courses in biblical interpretation in which I argued for the essential role of a Spirit-led interpretive community as the proper location for biblical study, that God never intended individual Christians simply to pick up the Bible, curl up in a neutral corner (or a faculty office or library cubicle), figure out what it says all on their own, and then proceed to declare its meaning with an assumed certitude that warrants publishing a new commentary . . . or birthing a new denomination.

Ratzinger’s words resonated with me, even if at the time I was not able to locate the “faith of the church,” as he called it, in the Catholic Church. That would come much later. And when it did, I somewhat rudely awakened to the realization that I had spent years developing a series of courses, the essential outline of which already existed—you guessed it, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 74-141, with the fingerprints of Cardinal Ratzinger all over the pages which he was instrumental in producing. Alas, I had spent hours and years reinventing the proverbial wheel! I might have saved myself a mountain of work had I just read the Catechism and more of Ratzinger earlier!

I also discovered in due time how freeing and fun it is to do biblical study as a Catholic, which is surprising to some of my non-Catholic friends, who mistakenly imagine a Bible so tethered to magisterial control that there’s nothing left for the rest of us to do with it, certainly not to study it for ourselves. They are especially puzzled when I tell them that, as a Catholic biblical scholar, I actually enjoy a greater freedom in doing what I am called to do than I ever did as a Protestant, and that I am doing better exegetical work as a Catholic than I ever did previously. Which only makes sense when one thinks about it. After all, the Bible belongs to the Church in a way that it does not belong to anyone else. Specifically, it belongs to those who stand confessionally in the stream of that very heritage which produced, received, preserved, and interpreted these books as Sacred Scripture. Reading the Bible in context, whatever else it might entail, means sharing in and submitting to that Church’s own truthful confession—reading from the soul of the Church, through the lens of the Church’s teaching, according to the Church’s “rule of faith.”

My Protestant friends worry, of course, that, left in the hands of the Church, the Bible will lose its own life and power, which being translated means, they will lose their ability to interpret the Bible on their own, freed from ecclesial authority. I am always delighted to clarify for them that the same Pope Benedict XVI who asserted that “authentic biblical hermeneutics can only be had within the faith of the Church, which has its paradigm in Mary’s fiat” (Verbum Domini §29) goes on to say, in connection with the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum of Vatican II, that “The [Council] Fathers acknowledged with joy that study of the word of God in the Church has grown in recent decades, and they expressed heartfelt gratitude to the many exegetes and theologians who with dedication, commitment and competence continue to make an essential contribution to the deeper understanding of the meaning of the Scriptures. . . .” (§31, italics mine)

In other words, the Church welcomes the kind of study and teaching some of us are called and trained to do. It only asks that we locate ourselves within the context of the Church’s own truthful confession, not as those who attempt to stand “in some neutral area, above or outside . . . the church”—not even as an isolated apostolate doing our own thing––but as those who stand joyfully in that place which “allows the solitary possibility for the Bible to be itself” and to have its intended effect in bringing God’s people into ever deeper conversion through a life-giving encounter with the living and loving Lord who meets us and speaks to us there.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI was right all along, and my colleagues and I are committed to pressing forward on the path which he outlined with such clarity and conviction for those of us who serve the Church through the study and teaching of the Church’s most Sacred Writings.

Thank you for listening so attentively and graciously, as I have attempted to explain the debt I and we owe to our late Holy Father, with profound gratitude. May he rest in peace and in his eternal reward.

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen”


  1. Rolf Rendtorff, “The Paradigm Is Changing: Hopes––and Fears,” Biblical Interpretation: A Journal of Contemporary Approaches, Sample Issue (1992): 1-20. Republished in Biblical Interpretation 1 (1993): 34-53. See also idem, Canon and Theology: Overtures to an Old Testament Theology, trans. and ed. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), esp. 1-56.

  2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” Erasmus Lecture delivered for the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York City; revised and reprinted in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Wort Gottes: Schrift, Tradition, Amt [God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office] (ed. P. Hünermann and T. Söding; trans. H. Taylor; Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 2005; ET, San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008), “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict,” 91-126; reprinted in First Things, April 26, 2008.

  3. With philosophical, religious, and political roots in still earlier Medieval European soil. See Scott W. Hahn & Benjamin Wiker, Politicizing the Bible: The Roots of Historical Criticism and the Secularization of Scripture 1300-1700 (New York: Crossroad, 2013); and idem, The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture: How the Bible Became a Secular Book (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road, 2021), who contend that “the historical origins of modern Scripture scholarship actually stretch back to the early 1300s, almost four centuries before the advent of modern science” (The Decline, 6).

  4. God’s Word, 91-92, italics mine. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from this updated version of the original 1988 address.

  5. God’s Word, 92, italics mine.

  6. Ratzinger 1988.

  7. Hahn & Wiker, The Decline, 204-05, 220.

  8. C. S. Lewis, Fern-seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianity, ed. W. Hooper (Glasgow: Collins, 1975), 106, 111; quoted in Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 59.

  9. Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 1.

  10. Gerhard Maier, Das Ende der Historisch-Kritischen Methode (Wuppertal: Brockhaus, 1974; ET, St. Louis: Concordia, 1977). See especially the scathing reaction by Maier’s Tübingen colleague Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Toward a Hermeneutics of Consent, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 66-71, whose own biases are on rich display.

  11. Charles J. Scalise, Hermeneutics as Theological Prolegomena: A Canonical Approach (Studies in American Biblical Hermeneutics; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1994), 13. By the year 2000, Old Testament scholar Craig Bartholomew could declare in an influential volume Renewing Biblical Interpretation (ed. Craig Bartholomew; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) that: “In the academy it is widely recognized that the historical-critical paradigm no longer dominates biblical interpretation the way it did even fifteen years ago. . . . [T]here is a pervasive sense that the historical-critical paradigm can no longer be taken for granted, and if it is to be adopted than [sic] it will have to be argued for in competition with alternative hermeneutics” (xxiii-xxiv).

  12. Ratzinger 1988.

  13. Ratzinger 1988.

  14. God’s Word, 124-25.

  15. If he stopped short of laying out a full methodology for the actual task of exegesis—that was not his objective, after all, in the 1988 address––he did call for an approach to biblical interpretation which lets the text speak as truly the word of God, with a relevant message for the people of God throughout all ages. The fuller discussion in his 2005 Wort Gottes (2008 God’s Word) advances proposals which move toward an actual methodology.

  16. See Robert Royal’s helpful discussion in A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015), 279-357.

  17. Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (trans. A. J. Walker; San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007), xi-xxiii. In fairness, Ratzinger/Benedict XVI maintained that “the historical-critical method—specifically because of the intrinsic nature of theology and faith––is and remains an indispensable dimension of exegetical work. For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events” (xv). Again, “[t]his method is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretive task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God” (xvi). Without speculating on why the Pope went only as far as he did in his critique, at least three observations are worth noting: (1) There is a certain ambiguity in his usage of the terms ‘historical-critical method’ and ‘historical exegesis.’ The two are not synonymous, but he appears to use them interchangeably. (2) While his positive reflections on ‘canonical exegesis’ (xviii-xx) are laudable, they stop short of clarifying the real methodological differences and, in some respects, the incompatibility between a canonical approach and historical-critical approaches. (3) Almost everything he finds of value in historical criticism (or historical exegesis) applies more suitably to the New Testament than to the Old Testament, with the latter’s far more complex compositional and canonical history. It remains unclear how Ratzinger/Benedict XVI would apply his qualified positive assessment of historical criticism (or historical exegesis) to the Old Testament, where identifying such things as the original author’s intent (or identity!) or the historical audience and their understanding are exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to establish in a great many cases. A canonical approach to exegesis neutralizes the historical-critical demand for ascertaining what the biblical documents are disinterested in preserving and providing.

  18. Ibid., xxiii-xxiv.