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Fr Ignace DHert, op Fundamental theology

Chapter 3
Entering a new era

CHAPTER 3 ENTERING A NEW ERA ........................................................................................................... 1
TOWARDS A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF FAITH .............................................................................................................. 3
1. Scripture: the Word of God ? ! ....................................................................................................................... 3
2. Scripture: Inspired by the Spirit? ...................................................................................................................... 7
3. Historical survey of the written traditions ................................................................................................. 12

Or rather: we find ourselves somewhere in between. We have not reached

the new era yet. All we know for sure is that we have left the old era. The new
era is still the call of the future. So we may be helped to understand out situation
by applying the metaphor no mans land.

Clarification of the metaphor.

No mans land is the territory between two states, two cultures.

No mans land has nothing much to offer. There are no institutions, no
organisations, no social network. As believers we have left a particular culture,
with a whole set of values and principles, with a quite clear vision on the
meaning of human life, a set of regulations, customs, symbols and rituals. Today
we feel: that culture is no longer capable of sustaining our life. We have to
move towards something new. Yet, no one can tell how this new culture will
look like. We have to be patient with ourselves and with each other. We have to
try and understand as thoroughly as possible what the crisis we are going
through is all about. Which land are we leaving behind? It is important that we
should be able to see what evolutions we have gone through so that we may be
able to understand the different reactions of people in the church.

The shift which made us enter no mans land, is felt on the three levels
which together constitute our faith:

- In any religious system we find, in one way or another, a creed, a

content of faith, what we believe, the founding story or myth, the good
news, which brings people together. It is a never ending task and a
challenge that this content should be translated and interpreted time and

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time again, into the language of the evolving culture which is ours. Today
we feel that the language of our faith does appeal any longer to our deep
religious feelings and convictions. We are incapable of transmitting the
content of our faith onto the younger generation. They show no more
interest. And even more directly, when we try to clarify the content of our
faith to ourselves: are we able to say in an understandable way what we
believe? At mass we stand to say the creed. Can we make sense of what
we are saying? Is it not a matter of self respect, of rational honesty that
we should try as much as we can to clarify our language of faith?

- The praxis of faith is the second basic element in which a religious

attitude is brought to expression. Here too, we cannot escape from the
historic situation which is ours. The challenges on the moral level that we
are confronted with are of a completely different nature than those in the
time of Moses or Jesus, or Thomas Aquinas. Charity may be a very noble
attitude; it will not suffice to tackle the problems of starvation and of aids.
A more structural approach is the least that can count as plausible. The
whole appreciation of sexual life has entered a completely new era since
we have a better understanding of organising human fertility. The notion
of a just war sounds completely different today than it did in the days of

- Symbols and rituals are the third element where considerable shifts are
to be noticed. We have left the Latin mass behind. We are still working
very hard to find a liturgy where the link with everyday life is an essential
part of the assembly getting together to celebrate that everyday life in the
light of the gospel. We are rediscovering the meaning of symbolism. The
importance of rituals. People in completely secularised situation discover
the importance of organising some kind of ritual to mark the significant
moments in their life. We are getting away from a somewhat magical
interpretation of the sacraments (e.g. The emphasis on the almost
physical real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) into a more symbolic

It is our ambition to try to cover two of these elements:

A - Towards a new understanding of faith: reinterpreting the creed

B Towards a new meaning of symbolism, rituals and sacraments

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Towards a new understanding of faith

The second Vatican council (1962-65) inaugurates a new vision on the
meaning and nature of the church. We put an end to the Holy Roman Empire
and rediscover the church of the beginning. In order to carry out this exploration
we need to go back to out very beginnings. In doing so, we imply to grant more
respect to Scripture as a criterion of faith than we grant to the last letter of the
Holy Office. Of course this could only come about, if underneath the surface
there was already this new current in theological thinking which wanted to
rehabilitate the importance of the bible. In dealing with the sort of questions
which are implied here, we introduce a new theological discipline, called
hermeneutics. (cf. below)

Does this mean that the magisterium of the church is ruled out? This is yet
another question which belongs to this new discipline. It is of course an obvious
question. For ages we have been led by the leaders of the church. They were
thought to be the privileged people who disposed of special insights and
knowledge. So what is their relationship to the authority of Scripture? How
much weight can be attributed to scientific investigation into the texts of the

It brings us right away to a number of questions concerning the weight

and meaning of the bible.

1. Scripture: the Word of God ? !


Catholic position : scripture and tradition

Until quite recently, people drew their religious knowledge from 1)the
narratives of the history of salvation (the history of the chosen people), and 2)the
catechism. It was not allowed to read the bible. Only learned people were
entitled to do so. Only those privileged ones, the clerics, who had enjoyed the
necessary formation could read the bible. Most people in the Middle Ages could
not even read. That explains why there are so many paintings and statutes and
decorations showing episodes from the bible. It was the common way to instruct
the ordinary people, which was the vast majority in those days. And even if they
were able to read, they might easily be misled by an oversimplified

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interpretation. The great majority of the laity was illiterate. So scripture had to
be explained. Otherwise it might easily be misunderstood. E.g. Song of songs
1,1.9-11 is to be read as an allegory! Not as erotic literature.
This reflects the dominant catholic position in this matter. Criterion for our faith:
scripture and tradition. It was mainly understood as: tradition (magisterium) will
tell you the true intention of the scriptures.

Protestant position: sola Scriptura

The 16th century has been a tumultuous time. Luther reacts vehemently
against the renaissance popes and their excesses. The way they interpreted the
gospel was unacceptable in his eyes. The institution has injustly taken the place
of the word of God. We need to make a radical turn. The true church is an
invisible reality, a societas in cordibus . We should be guided by the word of
God only: sola scriptura. She is the only criterion for our faith.

The emphasis of the Enlightenment

The emphasis of the Enlightenment is on the awareness that all human

knowledge is part of that enormous historic process which is our human history.
Therefore, all the things we say are provisional. We are not capable of eternal
truth. There is no standpoint outside history from where we should be able to see
this world from a super-humane standpoint. The same holds true for the bible. It
is the result of human reflection, embedded in a variety of historical situations.
Only when we are allowed to examine the texts critically can we feel the real
weight of the expressions which we find there. So, this becomes the critical
question: to what extent can uncensored critical research be allowed? Can it be
an autonomous actitivity, or should it be conducted under the supervision of the

Bultmann: demythologising

The protestant position was more open to an historical approach. A real

break through was the work of R. Bultmann. In the 20s he launched his program
of demythologising. The biblical message makes use of a primitive,
mythological view of the world as though there are three stages: heaven, earth
and hell. This however does not belong to the content of our faith. Its is just a
way of putting things. If however we feel bound by the image itself, we are then
led astray. We have to distinguish the message from the world view.

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Hermeneutics as a new characterisation of theology.

It took quite some time before official catholic theology accepted the
findings of this historic approach. To include these new insights was at the same
time to accept the priority of the gospel over against tradition. This meant quite
a new appreciation of the dogmatic expressions which we had become familiar
with. Until now, we had been taught to read the gospels through the eyes of the
council definitions. We read Mark and the others through Nicene and
Chalcedonian eyes. We now had to turn round and read the other way. Not the
council of Ephesus or Constantinople were the norm of our faith, but the word
of God as we find it in the gospel. Every text has to be understood from its
proper context. The same holds true for all ecclesiastical documents. We have to
discover the keys to open up the meaning of these texts to let them speak to us
today. In that sense can we say that the whole of theology has become a
hermeneutical enterprise.


1. Many of the narratives in the bible is not original at all. The same
narratives or similar ones are to be found in other religions. Either these biblical
stories have been taken over, or they exist in various religions, independent of
one another.

See e.g. :

a. Gen. 1-11: creation stories are to be found all over the world, which
is also the case for the story of Cain and Abel, the flood
threatening all created beings, the tower with its top in the heavens.
They express basic human experiences of finding ground to stand
upon. But is these narratives are indeed to be found everywhere,
why then talk about revelation to the people of Isral? In what
sense can the biblical stories said to be the fruit of the holy Spirit?

b. The miracle stories in the NT: here too we find quite a few
parallels with miracle-stories in Jewish and Hellenistic literature. It
looks as though existing narratives have been borrowed and
attributed to Jesus. There is also within the gospels themselves a
tendency to enlarge and to multiply the miracles. Compare e.g.
Mark and Matthew. There are furthermore the miracles which are
clearly meant as an illustration or an affirmation of faith in the
resurrection (raising of dead people), or which have been composed

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in function of the life of the first Christian communities. (Jesus

walking on the sea)

2. How explain the different images of God in the bible? Not simply
in a logical evolution, but to a certain extent contradictory. Are all of them
revealed, worked by the Spirit? Has God really changed that much during our
human history, or should we rather say that we are dealing here with human

3. The cultural character in a number of texts is too visible to be

called the word of God: the skin-diseases described by and to be treated
according to Lev. 13-14. The prescriptions concerning the cleaning of dishes,
washing hand and feet : all of them inspired by the Spirit? Why is it that the
prophets only appear when the people have settled down in the promised land,
and have installed the royalty? Is it a mere coincidence that the creation
narrative finds a new expression during the exile in Babylon? Is there a
connection between the emergence of the wisdom-literature and the situation of
the Jewish people after the return from Babylon Why do we only hear of the
resurrection of the body at the time of the Maccabees, and that the notion of the
immortality of the soul comes to the fore only in the first century ? etc.

4. Ethical quality: Gods sadistic attitude with regard to Abraham,

when he demands him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Or at the time of the
taking of the promised land, when God commanded that all the inhabitants
ought to be slaughtered, including women and children, even the animals. Think
of king Salomons household, some 300 women, not counting his slaves.

5.A whole list of historical incompatibilities can be enumerated:

crucifixion (compare Mk 15,25 with Jo 19,14, Judas end Acts 1,18 and Mt
27,3-10, the flight into Egypt (Mt 2) or dedication in the temple (Lk, 2),
Where is the inspiration of the holy Spirit?

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2. Scripture: Inspired by the Spirit?

1.Three essential keys

A there is a distinction between a narrative culture and a

scientific one
A scientific culture relies on theories, calculations, prognoses, reports,
statistics, computers. We have developed all kinds of theories about the origin of
the world, the first traces of human existence, we have classified all possible
animals and all vegetation in schemes with the various characteristics, etc. That
is how a scientific culture works and is organised. Narratives have no essential
function in this culture. They are considered as a pass time. Yet, this is not the
case in a narrative culture, which is the kind of culture in which the bible
originated. This is a culture where narratives are not considered as a pass time,
but rather as the professional way to deal with this kind of questions. Where
human beings come from, what their purpose in life is, whether or not there is a
god or many of them, why the vegetation exists in such a rich variety, etcit is
by way of narration that a meaningful perspective is evoked.
The effort to try and understand these narratives is essential to enter the
atmosphere of meaning which the narratives try to convey.

B there is a distinction between the event and the story

recording the event
The same holds true even today. Every reporter speaks form his personal
point of view. This is inevitable. Every perception of reality bears the
characteristics of my education, the way I have been taught to look, my
personal preference, my ideology or absence of ideology, etc. There is no
neutral standpoint. Whatever happens, be it a soccer game, a tennis match, a
movie or a play, a political discussion, a military intervention, there is no
objective report possible.
To say that the bible is inspired by the holy Spirit is not to say that we escape
from this subjective interpretation. We could easily indicate various instances
where we find duplicates which provide us with obvious differences. One can
therefore never argue: things really happened like this because we find it like
that in the bible. Inspired appears to mean something other than an infallible
neutral report.
The same can be illustrated in the NT. We have various stories of Jesus life,
showing important differences. Are all of them inspired by the Spirit? Is the
Spirit at the origin of the diversions?

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C there is a distinction between an historical account and a

religious story.
An historical account tries to report as precise as possible. Difficult
though this may be, that is the objective. This is quite different from a story with
an explicit religious point. Ultimately, the outcome of any event is attributed to
God. A military collision, a political discussion, they were a king of test-case
to see which divine power proved to be the strongest. Therefore, every war was
a sacred war: the result showed which divine power was the stronger one. It is
therefore so important that JHWH proves to be the stronger power over against
all those who meant a threat to the chosen people. These narratives are not
concerned with historical accuracy, they want to make a religious point.

2 The process out of which Scripture came forth

Scripture is the result of human beings describing their national history as

a religious story. We have three elements which are important. A) Human
beings. They only dispose of human words and sayings to tell their story. Their
story covers several centuries. During that time they made contact with a variety
of peoples and cultures, they learned from all kinds of narratives and sayings
which helped them to tell their own story. Among these are legends from the
Egyptians, proverbs from the Philistines, the Persians, the Greek, creation stories
from the Babylonians, etc B) This is how all cultures gather a whole set of
narratives which they make use of to tell their own national history. The result is
a mixture of historical reliable stories and stories which are historically not
reliable at all, legends, wisdom, proverbs, all kind of material that has been
taken in the service of their national history. C) They want to tell more than just
neutral facts. The literary material they have gathered serves a religious purpose.
They intend to evoke the religious dimension. The fact that this literary material
has been taken into the bible does not alter the nature of these writings. They
remain what they were before. But they can be used as tools at the service of a
particular inspiration which seeks to come to the surface. And that is
undoubtedly an inspiration of faith.

This inspiration does not add any new knowledge which people did not
have before: it is not additional information, nor is it supplementary science. It is
rather a way of discovering a deeper level in everyday life. This is a basic
insight: there is no privileged access to the world of the divine. The place where
we live and work, our everyday occupations are the primary instance where we
can find truth, where revelation may happen, where we sense the presence of the
divine. There is no special entrance to meet the divine in separate places, special
circumstances, privileged situations. It is where we live that we can discover the
divine (or rather: traces of the divine). There is no evident experience of the
divine. It is much more an ongoing process, a continuous human search, surmise

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and experiment. People have guesses His presence, and have tried to imagine
Him according to their possibilities. This is how the tradition of faith occurs.
This is how people tell to their children what they have discovered.

This is the story which we read when we look up the text of the Jewish
tradition. The story grows extensively. Every generation adds its own life and
happenings. This is the external line of events which we can follow. We hear
about the persons who figure in it, their tribulations. We hear about people by
the name of Abraham who emigrates from his native land to find new territory.
He generates a family Jacob and his sons who emigrate into Egypt. When
the situation becomes intolerable, they draw out into the desert and make their
way to settle down in the land of Canaan. For a short time they play a political
role of some importance. But then, the situation deteriorates gradually. They are
driven into exile, and after that time the people are spread all over the world.
That is the main line when we look at the surface of things: it evolves from a
nomadic existence into a sedentary state, to finally end up as a world

There is yet another kind of growth. A growth in depth, intensively. The

external events are not all that special. However, if you look at the outside of
things or when you take the narrative literally, it looks as though this is what the
gospel wants you to believe. It is however the same course of events which we
meet with other peoples in those days. They go through a similar process. What
makes the history of Isral special is the way they have lived it. A profane or
neutral history is lived as a history of faith. Though God may seem silent and
absent, people feel his presence in the way they are drawn to unmask the idols
all around. God is silent and hidden. Yet, He is felt in his luring call to seek the
truth and the fullness of life. It requires the unmasking of the divine character of
nature, of the royalty, of all those instances which take human beings into their
service. This call to break out of everything that diminishes the quality of human
life, is felt as reliable and trustworthy. This is a trustworthy presence.

How is this expressed in the biblical narratives? The biblical stories

portray Gods activity as something observable, as a series of events which took
place in the past and which impressed people. This is how the bible wants to
sustain peoples confidence. This is also how we can understand the heavy
exaggerations in lots of the narratives. E.g. the plagues in Egypt. It means a
simplification of history. The complex network of all the events that happened
among those tribes is pictured as a straightforward history in which Moses is the
leading figure. But that is surely a simplification of the historical truth. This is
not the standpoint which the bible is interested in. They want to sustain the
inspiration of faith. And in order to do so, they create examples, models of faith.
So, when do we believe in the bible?

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3. He made his Name known to them

When can we think ourselves to be truthful believers? Is it when we

accept that the things described in the bible actually happened? When we take it
as a matter of fact that Moses received the 10 commandments from God on the
mountain? Is taking it as a matter of fact a sign of being a good believer?

We have already pointed out that the bible does not want to inform about
historical events, but rather alludes to a deeper understanding of the meaning
and purpose of human life. The important thing is to get in touch with this
dimension, which we call the inspiration of faith. The biblical narratives tell us
that people have discovered that life can be lived in a meaningful way, no matter
the situation we find ourselves in. That is what they discovered in Egypt, in the
desert, in Canaan and in Babylon. Though we are wondering through the desert
where there is nothing to be found, no food, nothing to drink, yet we can make
the best of it. We can take care of one another, keep one another upright. This
caring will make us find food and drink when we lack everything. We can share
life to make it a shared life. Rejoice in one anothers joy and partake in one
anothers sorrow. Something in the sense of Bone of my bones and flesh of my
flesh (Gen. 2,23).

What is inspiring about this narratives is the human experiences we

witness. Narratives inspire in a way which differs from a theoretical discourse,
or an intellectual expos. Attracted by their example we may be brought to
believe that what is told in the story may become our history. What happened
then and there may happen here and now. What is told of Abraham and Moses
may become my personal story, the story of our people today. No one ever sees
God. But time and time again, people have been inspired by the story of the
flight out of Egypt, to get away from their Egypt. That is how the history of
salvation goes on. That is how faith takes shape: in the human search for
meaning in life.

In doing so, people encounter a mysterious presence which makes them

draw out, time and time again. Draw out in search for fullness of life. It follows
that the way people imagine God evolves together with their social and political
situation. As long as they went through the desert, God went along with them,
he is a nomadic god. At the time when they settle down in Canaan and became
sedentary, God gets his place in the temple. And when after the return from the
exile, people are spread all over the world, he is proclaimed as the creator of
heaven and earth. It looks as though different human situations produce different
images of God. One might just as well say: gradually people have become

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acquainted with the meaning of Gods name. That meaning does not exist up
there, independent from human experience. It is rather the case that people
discover the meaning of that name depending on the situation they find
themselves in.

E.g. the story of the ten commandments in Exodus 19-24. The story as
such is a dramatic scenery which in fact mirrors a human process of years,
decades, perhaps centuries. In the course of time, by trial and error, people have
made the experience that these rules are absolutely essential to preserve and
protect human life. They are the minimum criteria to which human beings have
to conform if they want to survive. Therefore they regard these rules as holy.

4. Scripture inspiration
For centuries people in the church were taught that scripture as such was
inspired. It was the result of a unique, special influence of the holy Spirit. He
made use of the holy writer to make him write down the words which he
whispered in his ear. In this sense scripture had a unique, indisputable authority.
It was fruit of divine revelation.

It may help to realise that it was in the context of the controversy with the
reformation with its exclusive emphasis on scripture as the sole criterion of our
faith that the church wanted to safeguard the divine character of these writings
which could not simply be left to be interpreted by just anyone. A special know
how was required to do justice to the texts. It emphasised the revelatory value of
the text.

Long before this time, we may discern a few traces which led up to this
vision. We have to go back to the time of the exile. By that time, the very
structure of the Jewish faith had been fundamentally altered. The temple was
destroyed, the prophets murdered, the royalty and the leading classes had been
displaced, only a minority was allowed to remain in Jerusalem. How be a
practising Jew without a temple, without cult? The situation was a challenge.
They found a new way of practising their faith through reading and re-reading
and re-interpreting their own religious writings. We can see how the importance
of the texts had increased. That is even more so when after the return from the
exile, lots of Jews did not come back to their home land but were scattered in
various countries across the world. How be a practising Jew in that situation? By
reading the texts and contemplating them.

A comparable phenomenon is to be noticed in the early churches. By the

end of the second century when Christianity had to face the threat of all kinds of
heretical tendencies, the need was felt to define the writings which could be

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considered reliable. By about 180 the canonical writings were fixed to exclude a
number of so called gnostic writings. Here too, there is a tendency to protect
those writings which were believed to be the authentic expression of what Jesus
had really intended by his message.

It was however the council of Trent in the second half of the 16th century
which elaborated the theory of the inspired writer. Only in the beginning of the
20th century, with the new methods adopted by exegesis, we find a new
approach. The quality of the inspired texts seemed to be quite different. Were
really all these texts the result of the working of the holy Spirit? It was very hard
to discern between what was important and was not. Because to introduce the
principle was to question the authority of the bible as a whole!

5. Ongoing inspiration
A miracle-book?
Why there and then and not now and here?
The same charisma at the basis of the origin of scripture as at the basis of
the interpretation of Scripture (possible excursus: Israel, or the church as the
chosen people).

3. Historical survey of the written traditions

Main lines of the Jewish history

How, when and where the texts originated

To be furthered by the reading of SPONG, J.S., Rescuing the bible from


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