Besides incorporating the Catholic position on the Bible and Biblical Studies into many church documents, the Roman Catholic Church has published a separate document on the Bible three times:
- Providentissimus Deus, Encyclical by Pope Leo XIII in 1893
- Divino Afflante Spiritu, Encyclical by Pope Pius XII in 1953
- The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Address of His Holiness Pope John Paul II and Document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1993
The following synopsis is derived from the 1993 document, which in turn incorporated the wisdom of the previous two documents.
The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church is published by Pauline Books & Media, Daughters of St. Paul – www.daugthersofstpaul.com
An electronic version of this document can be accessed at: http://www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum=561
An interview (1997) with the current head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the Document can be accessed at: http://www.catholicculture.org/docs/doc_view.cfm?recnum=560
We have some copies of this document for sale through the diocesan Scripture Resources Office @ $9.50. If you are interested, please contact Sr. Anna Aulie @ 306-382-4240 or email: scriptres [at] saskatoonrcdiocese.com.
The Church and the Bible
Just as God formed and guided Israel long before the Hebrew Scriptures were written, so Jesus formed the Church and guided it with his Spirit decades before the New Testament was written. The Bible was written and given its final form by the faith community. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to separate the Church and the Bible.
The Bible is the Word of God in human words. Just as Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, is both fully divine and fully human, the Bible is fully God’s Word and fully human words – another expression of Incarnation:
"The Words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.” (Constitution on Divine Revelation, par. #13)
In his address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pope John Paul II said:
“(The task of Biblical Studies) starts from the concern to understand the meaning of the texts with all the accuracy and precision possible and, thus, in their historical, cultural context. A false idea of God and the incarnation presses a certain number of Christians to take the opposite approach. They tend to believe that, since God is the absolute Being, each of his words has an absolute value, independent of all the conditions of human language. Thus, according to them, there is no room for studying these conditions in order to make distinctions that would relativize the significance of the words. However, that is where the illusion occurs and the mysteries of scriptural inspiration and the incarnation are really rejected, by clinging to a false notion of the Absolute.
The God of the Bible is not an absolute Being who, crushing everything he touches, would suppress all differences and all nuances. On the contrary, he is God the Creator, who created the astonishing variety of beings ‘each according to its kind,’ as the Genesis account says repeatedly (Gn 1). Far from destroying differences, God respects them and makes use of them (cf 1 Cor 12:18, 24, 28). Although he expresses himself in human language, he does not give each expression a uniform value, but uses its possible nuances with extreme flexibility and likewise accepts its limitations. That is what makes the task of exegetes (Biblical scholars) so complex, so necessary and so fascinating!” (page 18)
It is clear that the Church recognizes the need for instruction, scholarship and interpretation, a need dating back to the early Church. In Acts 8:30-31 we read:
“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I unless someone instructs me?” (Acts 8:30-31)
Basing his argument on the above passage from Acts, Pope Pius XII said in Divino Afflante Spiritu, (1943): “Let the interpreter, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from ancient research, endeavour to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written and oral to which he had recourse, and the forms of expression he employed.”
This acknowledgment for the importance of study and interpretation, and Pope John Paul II’s words at the beginning of the 1993 document as quoted above, immediately raises the question of what has come to be known today as a Fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) devotes a special section to this phenomenon on pages 72-75, and the following comments are derived from this section.
Definition of Fundamentalist Interpretation of Scripture:
A literal interpretation without taking into account the social, cultural, religious, and economic contexts of the time, and without consideration for literary forms unless clearly identified as such by the Scripture itself, e.g. parables.
Characteristics of a fundamentalist interpretation:
1. Fundamentalism recognizes Scripture as the divine Word but ignores the humanity of the Word – in effect then this denies incarnation. The human element is what produces style, language, cultural influences and a particular world view.
2. Fundamentalism fails to recognize that Scripture proceeds from the community’s faith and experience of God. Fundamentalism considers faith and life secondary and as proceeding from the Word. The Catholic position is that the divine Word proceeds from the life and faith of the community.
3. “With regard to the Gospels, fundamentalism does not take into account the development of the gospel tradition, but naively confuses the final stage of this tradition (what the evangelists have written) with the initial (the words and deeds of the historical Jesus).” (p. 74, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church)
4. Fundamentalism tends to use the Book of Revelation (the very last book to be written) to interpret life rather than the Scriptures as a whole.
5. “In its attachment to the principle of ‘Scripture alone,’ fundamentalism separates the interpretation of the Bible from the Tradition, which, guided by the Spirit, has authentically developed in union with Scripture in the heart of the community of faith.” (p. 75, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church)
Page 73 of The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993):
“Fundamentalism is right to insist on the divine inspiration of the Bible, the inerrancy of the Word of God and other biblical truths included in its five fundamental points (see footnote below). But its way of presenting these truths is rooted in an ideology which is not biblical, whatever the proponents of this approach might say. For it demands an unshakable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical approach.
The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the Incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired Word of God has been expressed in human language and that this Word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources.”
The 1993 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission calls the fundamentalist approach dangerous, for “it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life” and going so far as to accuse fundamentalism of intellectual suicide, seducing people into a false certitude by confusing “the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations.” (p. 75, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church)
Catholic Approach to Understanding the Bible
The Church encourages us not to shy away from the complexity that interpreting God’s written Word can entail:
“The problem of the interpretation of the Bible is hardly a modern phenomenon, even if at times that is what some would have us believe. The Bible itself bears witness that its interpretation can be a difficult matter. Alongside texts that are perfectly clear, it contains passages of some obscurity.” (p. 30)
Living almost 20 or 30 centuries later than the times in which the biblical writers wrote adds to the complexity. Furthermore, progress in human sciences has created new questions and challenges when we come to the ancient texts and seek to understand them. Nevertheless, all these factors make a responsible and thoughtful approach to the Bible even more important and fascinating:
“Biblical studies have made great progress in the Catholic Church and the academic value of these studies has been acknowledged more and more in the scholarly world and among the faithful. This has greatly smoothed the path of ecumenical dialogue. The deepening of the Bible’s influence upon theology has contributed to theological renewal. Interest in the Bible has grown among Catholics, with resultant progress in the Christian life.” (p. 31)
There are many different approaches to biblical interpretation. The Church does not favour any particular method, but encourages the use of diverse approaches to mine the diversity of content which the biblical texts reveal.
“Catholic exegesis does not claim any particular scientific method as its own. It recognizes that one of the aspects of biblical texts is that they are the work of human authors, who employed both their own capacities for expression and the means which their age and social context put at their disposal. Consequently, Catholic exegesis freely makes use of the scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts, while explaining them as well through studying their sources and attending to the personality of each author (cf Divino Afflante Spiritu: EB 557). Catholic exegesis actively contributes to the development of new methods and to the progress of research.
What characterizes Catholic exegesis is that it deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the Church, whose first concern is fidelity to the revelation attested by the Bible.” (p. 88)
The Church rejoices in the increased interest among both scholars and lay faithful for the written Word of God in Scripture. It encourages the use of Scripture for study, for prayer and reflection (in groups and in private), for worship and for ecumenical dialogue.
“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since from the table of both the word of God and of the body of Christ she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life, especially in the sacred liturgy.” (Constitution on Divine Revelation, par. #21)