II. The approach Pope Benedict takes in Jesus of Nazareth he calls “canon criticism.” The term relates to various ways to interpret the Bible as a written document. The four “senses of Scripture” go back many centuries, and are summarized in the Catechism (see nn. 109-119): the literal sense (what the words actually say, taken in their proper text and context); and three “spiritual” senses: the allegorical (seeing events and prophecies as pointing to their full meaning in the person of Jesus), the moral (the implications for how we are to live in justice and charity), and the anagogical (seeing how the texts point us to our eternal destiny with God).
In the 19th century, much attention was given to critical reading of Scripture among theologians, and the ideas of “form criticism” and “redaction” criticism were popularized. These brought tools of literary criticism long used on secular writings to the Bible, and often focused on the human history of the books’ development: influences, authors, borrowed themes from other writings and cultures, and how texts changed over time to reflect new concerns and applications to the issues of the day. In addition, some authors argued for “demythologization,” minimizing or eliminating any supernatural interpretation of events and seeing Scripture primarily as the historical development of certain moral or social ideals.
Pope Benedict does not discount the value of these forms of critical reading of the Bible to assist in understanding the human aspects of how Scripture came to be and to sharpen our interpretive skills. But he does oppose reading the Bible like any other work of literature; our approach to the inspired Word of God can be enhanced, but not exhausted, by methods of literary criticism.
“Canon criticism,” then, looks at the Scriptures as God’s Word communicated in human terms. It is not simply a record of a past, but it is an ongoing dialogue between God and his people. It thus can only be adequately understood within the community that receives this Word as a living and relational exchange of God’s self-revelation and the human person’s faithful response.