Raymond E. Brown’s The Critical Meaning of the Bible is a book meant for those who want to ask the questions, not for those who want to find the answers. While there is a lot of information that helps to inform the serious thinker and the theologian both, the book is mostly concerned with the question as to how historical criticism affects the church. Although he is a Catholic himself, this book should be seriously considered by Protestants as well as Eastern Orthodox and any other Christian for that matter.
The book starts out with the affirmation of what the Bible is—the Bible is the word of God. How exactly is it the word of God? What is the distinguishment between the “Biblical meaning” of the Bible vs. the “critical meaning” of the Bible? These questions are important to discern for the church. Brown insists that the Biblical meaning is the meaning that the church gives to it after it is put together—this would mean that there really was no explicit “Biblical meaning” until the 4th century C.E., by the way…a definite challenge that the Protestants will have to face. The Bible is God’s words in human language—it requires a human interpreter and God has involved his church in the interpretation of this process. Now what happens when historical criticism starts to challenge church teaching on what the Bible means?
Fr. Brown goes into the next section analyzing different statements made by the Catholic Church over the years on its theology. What is a doctrine? What is not a doctrine? What is permanent? What is not permanent? Are arguments for a certain doctrine considered part of the aforesaid doctrine or are they just supplemental in reasoning out a doctrine? Brown’s opinion is that arguments aren’t infallible but the teachings that which are derived from the arguments are infallible—now what do we have to work with at this point? Perhaps our old arguments for Biblical inspiration aren’t infallible but the doctrine itself is and we now need new reasoning to defend this doctrine. God is always reforming his church.
Fr. Brown refutes the position that theologians and the magisterium are dogmatically against each other focusing the magisterium as the bishops and the priests and the theologians as generally in the laity. Often times this isn’t made clear by the media who will only point out a theologian in disagreement with the church on a given subject. They may disagree from time to time but this is far from saying that they’re always in disagreement. Sometimes a bishop might be out of line and he would need to be corrected preferably in person first.
Fr. Brown goes onto discussing the concepts of the priesthood and the overlooked priesthoods in both Protestantism and Catholicism. Starting with the need to emphasize a completely new order of thinking on the priesthood. Brown’s order starts with the high priesthood of Jesus. Not only is this at times overlooked by Catholics, it’s also overlooked by Protestants. Brown argues that Jesus alone needs to be seen as priest and this thinking will allow us to see that only Jesus can sufficiently challenge either the Catholic Church, the Protestants, or the Eastern Orthodox Church. Then, Brown puts the priesthood of all believers into the next rank. We need to acknowledge that every single baptized Christian has claim on the priesthood and that they exercise this claim as participants in the global church at large. The third priesthood he emphasizes is the cultic priesthood. Although this priesthood is not mentioned in the New Testament, it’s impact on Christians is made evident by the reminder that we are apart of a Jewish tradition stemming from the Old Testament. This priesthood needs to be seriously overthinked and re-worked in the Catholic Church though to evolve toward a better understanding of its role as a cultic priesthood administering themselves as a sacrifice to the community as did Christ—nevertheless, since all the baptized are priests, they offer themselves as a sacrifice as well in their own unique way.
Brown is no feminist though. While he insists that Mary, the theotokos, is the first and foremost priest as the first Christian, he insists that is theologically improper to see her as an administer of the sacraments in the way the cultic priesthood in the Catholic Church is seen today. Brown’s challenges nevertheless are serious issues that the Catholic Church needs to re-think and continue to re-emphasize. Exactly, how do these three priesthoods relate together? Should we really think in terms of the three priesthoods as an authoritative hierarchy? Brown strongly disagrees pointing out that such an idea would be in disagreement with Jesus’s own prohibition for us not to rule over one another.
Brown then goes on to discuss reform not just in the Catholic Church but in the Protestant churches as well. What Brown suggests is going to be upsetting for a Protestant to bear but he suggests that the Catholic Church is actually better at reforming than the Protestant churches nowadays! However, Brown actually praises some of the different reformers for their high value of a sacramental theology! The lack of emphasis of a sacramental theology in mainline Evangelical Protestantism is going to be a significant problem in the future. Brown complains how most Protestants he interacted with in his life simply just want to talk about social issues. At least Catholics still will passionately debate the doctrines of the incarnation, the resurrection, the deity of Christ, and the Trinity. You don’t see any of this in standard Protestantism today. I remember myself in my own 21 years as an Evangelical only hearing one sermon on the Trinity and everything else was a social issue! This was not the vision of the reformers at all. Their vision was to continue to see a theological emphasis within the churches. How would the churches reform? I suppose the same way a muscle reforms. By challenging itself only to grow stronger rather than just adopting everything it sees but by actively engaging and resisting and rebuiliding after something works against it is what is meant by reforming. Both the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches will have to face this issue.
Brown finally brings up the development of the structure of the early Christian Church in order to understand why so many Protestants (other than High Anglicans/Episcopalians) refuse to embrace the bishop-priest-deacon system as seen in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches today. Brown’s focus concentrates on how the New Testament authors saw the social structure of the Church as quite different from one author to the next. The author of Luke-Acts’ position may be more familiar to the theology of the Twelve Apostles seen in Orthodoxy and Catholicism today while the Pauline apostleship is a little bit different though the Lukan apostleship is still not quite what is thought about in Catholic theology and is possibly quite anachronistic in its understanding of the social structure of the Church. Brown points out how there were female presbyters and female deacons though the presbyterate and the diaconate were both understood differently back then than they are by Catholics nowadays. In fact, Brown’s pointing this out and his reference to a certain verse in one of the Timothy’s is actually going to end up infuriating feminists more-so than actually causing feminists to say “A-ha! Catholic scholarship admits this!” as he insists that is because women held positions of potential authority that they were told to remain silent and kept from having ultimate teaching authority over the men. (Honestly, this is probably more probable than some of the other efforts from feminist scholars I’ve seen on this subject.) Lastly, Brown ends on a positive note for Catholics. This development of the standard bishop-priest-deacon system that we’re accustomed to seeing now was deemed necessary for unification of the Church and we should be glad it was deemed necessary.
Overall, Fr. Brown’s book is going to stir up offense from numerous different sides of the issues. Does he answer the question sufficiently as to how the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation fits into everything? I don’t think so. I personally find myself a little bit on the edge at times wondering as to how it fits in. Nevertheless, what he points out are serious challenges that the entirety of the churches need to answer for. A re-emphasis on developing theology may be necessary. A re-emphasis on theology and sacraments may be necessary as well as what they mean for people (something perhaps stronger than adult baptism or “Look! The piece of bread is only a symbol!” hopefully). Brown’s not budging on Catholic Mariology and this, I agree is something that Protestants will eventually have to suck up sooner or later or they’ll have been the ones known for causing senseless separation.
 Fr. Brown never actually mentions the Eastern Orthodox or the Eastern Catholics in this book but they nevertheless suffer the same challenges faced by every other Christian community in this world.