Ignore, avoid, reject?
Today I want to move now to the key documents for the theology student, and focus first and foremost on the teaching of the Magisterium on how to approach Biblical exegesis.
Most modern theology courses seem to adopt one of three approaches to Magisterial teaching on Scripture. The first is to just ignore it. The course may refer, briefly, to Vatican II's Dei Verbum (1965) - or more likely give a rendering of the 'spirit' of the document - that that will be it. Not even a pretense at presenting it in a 'hermaneutic of continuity'.
Another common tactic seems to be to focus on some of the useful but of a considerably lesser status documents, such as those put out by the modern Pontifical Bible Commission, particularly The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.
The third approach is to devote some time to arguing why older teaching no longer binds, assisted by vague references to Divino Afflante Spiritu (1947).
None of these approaches, alone or in combination, are sufficient in my view!
Questions of authorship
Take for example questions of authorship and process of composition of the Gospels.
The Encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1894) argues that the witness of history and tradition should be given priority over any supposed internal evidence:
"There has arisen, to the great detriment of religion, an inept method, dignified by the name of the "higher criticism," which pretends to judge of the origin, integrity and authority of each Book from internal indications alone. It is clear, on the other hand, that in historical questions, such as the origin and the handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance, and that historical investigation should be made with the utmost care; and that in this matter internal evidence is seldom of great value, except as confirmation. To look upon it in any other light will be to open the door to many evil consequences. It will make the enemies of religion much more bold and confident in attacking and mangling the Sacred Books; and this vaunted "higher criticism" will resolve itself into the reflection of the bias and the prejudice of the critics. It will not throw on the Scripture the light which is sought, or prove of any advantage to doctrine; it will only give rise to disagreement and dissension, those sure notes of error, which the critics in question so plentifully exhibit in their own persons; and seeing that most of them are tainted with false philosophy and rationalism, it must lead to the elimination from the sacred writings of all prophecy and miracle, and of everything else that is outside the natural order."
Following this teaching, the Pontifical Bible Commission made a number of rulings on the proper limits of what was and wasn't open to debate.
Now it is true that this paragraph from the encyclical itself is not infallible teaching. And the PBC readings have a lesser status still. So it could in principle be reversed, the rulings found no longer binding. But have they been? That is a matter of debate.
How much is open to debate?
Those claiming that the doors are wide open to debate of any kind rely primarily on Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu (and subsequent papal statements) which do acknowledge some place for historico-critical methods.
But it is perfectly possible to read Divino Afflante (and Dei Verbum) in a way that is consistent with upholding that earlier teaching, and those earlier rulings, giving a much more limited permission to adopt these techniques than most modern exegetes in practice adopt. It is worth noting that Pius XII himself attempted to reign in some of the claims made about Divino Afflante in Humani Generis (1950).
More recently, Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed the teaching of these texts in Verbum Domini (2010):
"The Church’s living magisterium, which is charged with “giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of tradition”, intervened in a prudent and balanced way regarding the correct response to the introduction of new methods of historical analysis. I think in particular of the Encyclicals Providentissimus Deus of Pope Leo XIII and Divino Afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII. My venerable predecessor John Paul II recalled the importance of these documents on the centenary and the fiftieth anniversary respectively of their promulgation. Pope Leo XIII’s intervention had the merit of protecting the Catholic interpretation of the Bible from the inroads of rationalism, without, however, seeking refuge in a spiritual meaning detached from history. Far from shunning scientific criticism, the Church was wary only of “preconceived opinions that claim to be based on science, but which in reality surreptitiously cause science to depart from its domain”. Pope Pius XII, on the other hand, was faced with attacks on the part of those who proposed a so-called mystical exegesis which rejected any form of scientific approach. The Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu was careful to avoid any hint of a dichotomy between “scientific exegesis” for use in apologetics and “spiritual interpretation meant for internal use”; rather it affirmed both the “theological significance of the literal sense, methodically defined” and the fact that “determining the spiritual sense … belongs itself to the realm of exegetical science”. In this way, both documents rejected “a split between the human and the divine, between scientific research and respect for the faith, between the literal sense and the spiritual sense”. This balance was subsequently maintained by the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission..." (33)
So some reading...
Accordingly, the first task in my view, for any serious Scripture student is to read and make themselves extremely familiar with the key Magisterial documents on Scripture. Apart from the texts I've mentioned above:
- Council of Trent on canonicity. The canons on bible editions, though effectively superseded, are also worth a look;
- Vatican I;
- Pascendi Domini Gregis (1907).
History and current state of play
And have a read of some of the articles on the debate on their status. You won't have any trouble finding the modernist case articulated. But some helpful articles on the historical and theological context (noting that I don't agree with all of their conclusions) are:
- Pete Brown's Catholic Biblical Scholarship;
- Fr Brian Harrison's On Rewriting the Bible Catholic Biblical Scholarship in the '60s;
- Mgr McCarthy's Pontifical Bible Commission: Yesterday and Today; and
- the then Cardinal Ratzinger's speech On the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Pontifical Bible Commission.