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Citation for Modern Developments

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Harrington, Daniel J. . "The Bible in Catholic Life." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Oct 25, 2021. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-9>.


Harrington, Daniel J. . "The Bible in Catholic Life." In The Catholic Study Bible. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780195282801/obso-9780195282801-div1-9 (accessed Oct 25, 2021).

Modern Developments

The gradual Catholic acceptance of scientific biblical criticism (or the historical‐critical method) while remaining true to the Church's heritage can be traced with reference to a series of official Roman documents issued during the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. For a full collection of official Roman Catholic documents pertaining to the study of the Bible, see The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (Dean R. Bechard, ed., Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002).

A cautious beginning was made with the papal encyclical Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII in 1893, only to be blunted by fears of Modernism under Pius X and by Benedict XV's encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus issued in 1920. A new age dawned with the encyclical titled Divino Afflante Spiritu that was promulgated by Pius XII in 1943, in which the historical study of the Bible was given official approbation. The approach outlined by Pius XII was put into practice by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in its 1964 Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels.

The culmination of official Catholic pronouncements on biblical studies was the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. The nature of these documents is cumulative; that is, the latest document generally restates the teachings contained in previous documents and clarifies matters not discussed earlier in detail. However, the document of an ecumenical council has far more official weight than a papal encyclical or an instruction from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Moreover, the Council's document on Scripture was a “dogmatic constitution,” the most authoritative kind issued by Vatican II. Thus Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation can be taken as the authoritative climax of a long series of developments in the Church's attitude toward the Bible.

Vatican II was a pastoral council. It sought to address the needs of the Church and the world in the twentieth century and beyond. Its constitution on divine revelation (also known by its Latin title, Dei verbum)was addressed not so much to scholars or theologians as to the Church at large. In effect, the bishops were saying, “This is what the Catholic Church thinks and believes about the Bible and related matters.” The document had a rocky history from its first draft in 1962 to its final form in 1965. Pope John XXIII's rejection of the initial draft, which favored a propositional understanding of revelation (revelation consists of statements of abstract truths) and a theory of two sources of revelation (Scripture and tradition), set the Second Vatican Council on its path of aggiornamento (Italian for “bringing up to date”). (All quotations are from the translation by Liam Walsh and Wilfrid Harrington in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post‐Conciliar Documents [Austin Flannery, ed., Northport, NY: Costello, 1975] 750–65.)

The six chapters in Dei verbum treat divine revelation itself, the transmission of divine revelation, Sacred Scripture‐its divine inspiration and its interpretation‐the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church. What the constitution teaches on these topics will be taken up in the remaining parts of this essay. Here, only what it teaches about scientific biblical criticism will concern us.

The conciliar statement about biblical criticism appears in paragraph 12, which is part of the chapter on the inspiration and interpretation of Scripture. It is prefaced by an acknowledgment that since God speaks in Scripture through human beings, and so in human fashion, interpreters should give careful attention to the ways in which the sacred writers thought and expressed themselves:

In determining the intention of the sacred writers, attention must be paid, inter alia, to literary forms for the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression. Hence the exegete must look for that meaning which the sacred writer, in a determined situation and given the circumstances of his time and culture, intended to express and did in fact express, through the medium of a contemporary literary form. Rightly to understand what the sacred author wanted to affirm in his work, due attention must be paid both to the customary and characteristic patterns of perception, speech and narrative which prevailed at the age of the sacred writer, and to the conventions which the people of his time followed in their dealings with one another.

The statement, which is really a condensation of Pius XlI's 1943 encyclical Divine Afflante Spiritu, makes three points. First, it insists that we take into account the various literary forms in which the Bible is written, and it warns us against confusing historical, prophetic, and poetic texts. Next, it urges us to pay attention to the historical setting in which the sacred author wrote, suggesting that such historical awareness is necessary for grasping what the author intended. Finally, it recommends that we learn about the literary conventions and cultural assumptions that people accepted at the time when the biblical books were composed. Thus the conciliar document encourages the literary, historical, and sociological study of biblical texts.

The acceptance of biblical criticism, of course, does not reduce the Sacred Scriptures to the status of other, strictly human books. In fact, the very next sentence in the document affirms the divine authorship of the biblical texts and urges biblical interpreters to take that into consideration:

But since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind, no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking into account the Tradition of the entire Church and the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts.

In this way the conciliar document achieves a balance between the human and the divine contributions to Scripture. Interpreters are thereby encouraged to apply all the tools of biblical criticism, while bearing in mind the Church's longstanding conviction that the Bible contains “the Word of God in the words of men.”

In 1993, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Providentissimus Deus and the fiftieth anniversary of Divino Afflante Spiritu, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, with the full approval of Pope John Paul II, issued a document titled “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” Prepared by an international team of distinguished Catholic biblical scholars, this document describes various methods of and approaches to biblical interpretation, examines certain questions of a hermeneutical nature, reflects on the characteristic features of a Catholic interpretation of the Bible, and considers the place that biblical interpretation has in the life of the church. This document spells out in some detail many of the directions recommended in the papal encyclicals and in Vatican II's Dei verbum.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission's document describes the historical‐critical method as “the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts.” While giving attention to the many possible contributions from certain “new” literary and social‐scientific approaches, it criticizes fundamentalism as “dangerous” and even as inviting people to “a kind of intellectual suicide.” And it insists on the pastoral significance of the whole exegetical enterprise when it states: “Exegesis produces its best results when it is carried out in the context of the living faith of the Christian community, which is directed toward the salvation of the entire world.”

Methods of Biblical Interpretation

The term biblical criticism refers to various methods of scientific biblical study that have as their goal establishing the text, understanding the content and the literary style of biblical books, and determining their origin and authenticity. This undertaking is sometimes called the “historical‐critical method”‐“historical” because it focuses on the original historical settings of the biblical texts and the historical processes that gave rise to them, and “critical” because it applies reason to the texts and makes judgments about them in the effort to be as objective as possible. Biblical criticism aims to understand what a text was saying to its original audience and to make clear its significance then (and now).

Textual criticism (sometimes called “lower criticism”) seeks to establish the wording of the biblical text as the biblical authors wrote it. Since we no longer have direct access to the manuscripts written by the biblical authors (autographs), textual critics try to come as close as possible to the original form of the texts by gathering all the pertinent manuscript evidence (Hebrew and Aramaic for the Old Testament, Greek for the New Testament, ancient translations for both Testaments). When the evidence has been assembled, textual critics determine where the ancient manuscripts differ and proceed to decide which reading is original and to explain how the other readings arose. The rejected readings may have been unconscious mistakes (for example, confusing similar letters of the alphabet, omitting words or phrases, inserting marginal comments into the main text) or deliberate modifications (for example, harmonizing with parallel texts, correcting grammar or style, removing “offensive” material). The accepted readings should be consistent with the content and style of the document and follow the rules of grammar and good sense.

Literary criticism attends to the words and images, the characters and their relationships, the structure and progress of thought, the literary form, and the meaning. These processes are used today in studying all kinds of literature; they are by no means confined to biblical study. Bible concordances, dictionaries, and encyclopedias make it possible to trace the development of a word (for example, faith) or a theme (for example, covenant) and to locate a particular occurrence within such a framework. Careful inspection of a text enables one to chart out the interactions among the characters or to outline the progress of the argument. The biblical writers used many different literary forms. The Old Testament consists of law codes, narratives, psalms, prophecies, proverbs, visions, and even love poetry. The New Testament contains stories of Jesus' words and deeds (Gospels), the actions of some apostles (Acts), letters (Epistles), and visions (Revelation). Rather than stating theological truths in the form of theses or propositions, the biblical authors conveyed their message in artistic and memorable ways. Literary criticism helps us to read the biblical books on their own terms and thus to appreciate their artistry and their truth.

Historical criticism concerns the world behind the biblical texts; that is, the origin and growth of the biblical documents. Scholars assume that sometimes a complicated process of composition lies behind a finished book of the Bible. Smaller literary units‐for example, a saying from Jesus, or a hymn‐were told and retold, or used orally in worship. Later, perhaps, a collection of sayings or hymns was generated. Still later, a writer created a longer narrative into which various sayings were fitted, or which quoted a hymn in order to make a point. At each stage, the original small unit was being used in a slightly different context, and it may have been changed in small ways in order to fit its new use better.

Scholars have various names for this sort of investigation of a biblical text, depending on what level they are examining. Source criticism attempts to establish where previously existing material (for example, a hymn, a saying, or a vision account) has been used by a later author in a longer work, either by accepting what is stated in the work itself or by noticing differences in content, vocabulary, and literary style. Form criticism seeks to classify literary genres or forms, and to isolate the historical settings in which the forms developed and functioned before they became part of the main text. A sermon, for instance, will have characteristics that are different from those of a letter or a story. Redaction criticism deals with the ways in which a biblical author or editor (redactor means editor) used sources, and sometimes changed them, to address problems and concerns facing his readers. So biblical criticism takes account of historical settings at three levels: the sources, the small units, and the finished document.

Archaeological excavations and textual discoveries such as the Ugaritic texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls can shed light on the material world and culture in which the biblical books were written. For example, ancient epics outside the Bible have helped us to appreciate the creation stories in the book of Genesis. And the Dead Sea Scrolls, besides providing the earliest extant manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, have illumined the thought and organization of the early church.

The interpretive process can also be enriched by the application of concepts and methods used in the social sciences such as sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology. These approaches help in exposing the cultural assumptions about the human condition and the world that people in biblical times took for granted, and in explaining the development of ancient Israel into a nation and the early Christian communities into what we call the church.

Historical criticism is sometimes defined narrowly to refer to the reality of the event behind the text, to determining what actually occurred at (for example) the first Passover or the first Easter. What really happened in detail is sometimes hard to discern, since the biblical authors were often more interested in the meaning of the events than in their precise details. Some historical critics (in the narrow sense) rule out the miraculous and divine intervention on philosophical grounds and make negative judgments about the communities that handed on the biblical texts. But this is not true of all historical critics, nor is it at all consistent with the Catholic approach to Scripture, which assumes that the biblical texts tell the “honest truth” about the events described in the texts.

While the classic historical‐critical method is oriented mainly to illumining the history of the text and the world behind the text, certain new methods of literary analysis focus more on the text as it now stands (the world of the text) and on its effects on the reader today (the world before or in front of the text). Rhetorical analysis explores the capacity of a biblical text to persuade and convince the reader, while narrative analysis investigates how a text works in the sense of its success in telling a story involving plot, characters, and point of view. Structuralist analysis and semiotic analysis are modern linguistic methods that examine the various temporal and spatial relationships in a text, with an eye toward revealing the deeper patterns of meaning underlying the text.

Another set of approaches to biblical interpretation privileges the interpreter and the social location of the interpreter. Liberation theology takes as its starting point the lived experience of poor people today and enters into conversation with biblical texts (e.g., Israel's exodus from Egypt, or Mary's Magnificat in Lk 1, 46–55 ) as a way of illumining both the biblical text and the present situation of the poor. Feminist interpretation calls attention to the prominence of certain women in the Bible, exposes the patriarchal or male‐centered assumptions of the cultures in which the Bible was originally produced, and challenges interpreters to recognize the liberating contributions of women to the biblical story of salvation.

Other reader‐oriented resources in biblical interpretation include the history of interpretation (how a text has been understood by Jewish and Christian readers throughout the centuries) and the history of effects (the impact or influence that a text has exercised in the course of history). Canonical criticism focuses on the final canonical form of a biblical text, explores its place within the biblical canon as a whole, and considers its significance for the church's faith and way of life. Hermeneutics is concerned with discerning the present significance of a biblical text. While this is what preachers have always done, the hermeneutical phase of the interpretive task is open to and incumbent upon all Bible readers. It involves the fusion of horizons between the ancient text and the reader in the present, and envisions a process by which the reader is changed intellectually and spiritually by encounter with the biblical text.

Two terms that have recently become prominent with regard to Catholic biblical interpretation and its practical impact in church life are actualization and inculturation. The Christian Scriptures are ancient texts, and so they need to be presented in ways in which they can speak to peoples of different times (actualization) and places or cultures (inculturation). The Scriptures are made “actual” whenever their spiritual insights are presented in such a way that they can address the problems and possibilities of the present day. Likewise, the Scriptures are “inculturated” whenever they are translated, interpreted, and applied in terms that peoples from outside the ancient Mediterranean world can understand and so live out their challenges and opportunities.

One traditional way of bringing together all these different methods in a simple and coherent framework is through the traditional Catholic approach developed in monastic circles and known as lectio divina (divine or spiritual reading). There are four steps. The first step is lectio (reading); that is, a careful reading of the text from various critical perspectives (literary, historical, and theological) and the assimilation or appropriation of the text on both intellectual and emotional levels. The second step is meditatio, which explores what this text may be saying to me (or us) now. One can open up the text by focusing on a theme or a few phrases, by applying the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) to the biblical scene, and by trying to make connections between the text and one's present situation. The third step is oratio (prayer) in which on the basis of reading and meditating one may speak words of praise, petition, adoration, and/or thanksgiving to God. The fourth step may take the form of contemplatio (relishing the religious experience generated by the encounter with the text and resting in the mystery of God) and/or actio (coming to a decision about one's life, or finding new ways to express what one has learned‐through dance, drama, artwork, group sharing, homily, etc.).

Catholic Biblical Research

Catholic institutions and scholars make important contributions to scientific biblical research. The Vatican Museum and other such institutions conserve and make available important manuscript evidence. The publishing programs of the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Rome), the Catholic Biblical Association (Washington), and the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (Jerusalem) are among the most ambitious and respected. The research of Catholic scholars appears in prestigious journals published under Catholic auspices: Biblica, Biblische Zeitschrift, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Estudios Biblicos, Revue Biblique, and Rivista Biblica Italiana. Of course, non‐Catholic scholars are welcome to publish in these Catholic scientific journals. Catholic scholars routinely write for periodicals not under Church auspices: Journal of Biblical Literature, New Testament Studies, Novum Testamentum, Vetus Testamentum, Zeitschrift für Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, and so forth. The major bibliographical services‐Old Testament Abstracts, New Testament Abstracts, the Elenchus of Biblica, and the International Review of Biblical Studies‐emanate from Catholic institutions. Articles on biblical topics frequently appear in Catholic theological journals, and popular periodicals (The Bible Today) and books make available to a general audience the results of scientific biblical research.

Many Catholic biblical scholars have received their professional training at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Jerusalem, as well as at European Catholic universities such as Louvain, the Catholic theological faculties at German universities, and the departments of theology at Catholic universities in the United States (Boston College, Catholic University in Washington, Notre Dame, Loyola of Chicago, etc.). Others have gotten philological and archaeological training at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, Emory, and many other institutions. A major professional organization for biblical scholars in the United States is the Catholic Biblical Association. Catholic scholars are also heavily involved in the non‐denominational Society of Biblical Literature, the American Schools of Oriental Research, and the Society of New Testament Studies.

Modern biblical scholarship is an international and interconfessional enterprise. The Catholic Church contributes to this dialogue by providing well‐trained scholars and channels for publishing research. Some good examples of Catholic biblical scholarship in the United States are the New American Bible, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and the Sacra Pagina series of New Testament commentaries published by Liturgical Press.

Scripture as Tradition

The official Catholic emphasis on attention to the literary forms, historical settings, and cultural assumptions of the biblical writings flows from the nature of the books themselves. Far from being individual creations generated in solitude, the biblical books include many ideas, traditions, and even small pieces that already existed before being integrated into the texts in which they now stand. Biblical literature is thoroughly and deliberately traditional.

The traditional character of the Old Testament has long been acknowledged. The first five books, which are customarily called the Pentateuch or Torah, are generally recognized to incorporate material from at least four different sources (Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, Priestly; see “Introduction to the Pentateuch”). The historical books (Joshua to 2 Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) include earlier accounts, memoirs, genealogies, and the like. The prophetic books are anthologies of short pieces of poetry and prose, and the wisdom books contain ideas and sayings that circulated in the ancient Near East for centuries. The Psalms are a collection of varied kinds of songs used mainly in the Jerusalem Temple; in the Psalms there may even be remnants of non‐Jewish hymns (see 29 ). So complicated and so rich is the process of transmission that it is difficult in most cases to speak of the author of a biblical book as one may speak of an author today. The situation is further complicated by the fact that in biblical times personal creativity and originality were not important values. One displayed real creativity by using traditional ideas and expressions in new settings and in new combinations.

Given the nature of the Old Testament and the ancient concept of creativity, one would expect the New Testament to be thoroughly traditional also‐and it is. The earliest complete documents in the New Testament are Paul's letters. Even these highly original and occasional pieces rely at key points on preexisting material (for example, Rom 1, 3–4; 1 Cor 13, 1–13; 15, 3–5; Phil 2, 6–11 ). Those epistles whose direct Pauline composition is doubtful (for example, the Pastorals, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) are best understood as later attempts to bring the figure and teaching of Paul to bear on situations facing the churches in the late first century. We often regard Paul as a creative genius. However, not only did he use some traditional material, but also almost all his undisputed letters contain some indication of joint authorship (see 1 Thes 1, 1; 1 Cor 1, 1; Rom 16, 22; etc.). Moreover, throughout his letters Paul gives credit to his co‐workers and encourages the collection for the Jerusalem community as a sign of solidarity with the mother church there.

The complicated process of tradition and composition also applies to the Gospels. Most scholars today place the final composition of the four canonical Gospels in the late first century: Mark around AD 70, Matthew and Luke around AD 80–90, and John around AD 90–100. Yet all scholars acknowledge that the evangelists used already existing material in their Gospels. For example, Matthew and Luke each seem to have read both Mark's Gospel and a collection of Jesus' sayings that modern scholars call Q (from the German word Quelle, meaning “source”). John utilized a collection of miracle stories (signs) and perhaps also some revelation discourses. The Markan and Johannine Passion narratives surely contain much traditional information, accounts that had been passed from one person to another.

The Gospels and the traditions incorporated in them tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified around AD 30. Like other Jewish teachers of his time, Jesus taught by word (parables, proverbs, debates, other sayings) and deed (example, healings, symbolic gestures). His disciples remembered and retold his words and deeds, thus providing the basic materials for what became the Gospel tradition. Jesus did not write books. What we know of Jesus comes to us through the process of tradition from Jesus to the early church and finally to the evangelists.

The nature of the Gospels demands that in‐ terpreters attend to three stages in their development. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum 19) captures that development in this marvelously concise statement:

The sacred authors, in writing the four Gospels, selected certain of the many elements which had been handed on, either orally or already in written form, others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches, the while sustaining the form of preaching, but always in such a fashion that they have told us the honest truth about Jesus.

The council's document affirms that the Gospels tell us the “honest truth” about Jesus. It recognizes that there was an intermediary stage in which traditions about Jesus circulated in oral and written forms as “preaching” about the significance of Jesus. It acknowledges that the evangelists give us only a selection (see Lk 1, 1–4; Jn 20, 30–31; 21, 25 ) of the traditions about Jesus. It also recognizes that the evangelists used the traditions about Jesus to address the situations of their own day. Therefore Catholics must read the Gospels as traditional documents (because they are such) and attend to three stages in their development: Jesus, the early church, and the evangelists.

Although in the past there has been some Catholic resistance to accepting the traditional character of the biblical books, this emphasis is perfectly compatible with the principles of Catholicism. There is no obligation for Catholics to be conservative historians of early Christianity (nor is there any obligation for them to be reckless or indifferent). As long as Catholic scholars make clear the link from Jesus through the early church to the evangelists, they remain faithful to their theological heritage.

In fact, an emphasis on the traditional nature of the biblical writings is fully consistent with certain distinctively Catholic principles. The Catholic stress on the communal character of our way to God and God's way to us sensitizes Catholics to the complexity of early Christian tradition and to the role of the Church in shaping it and being formed by it. The Catholic emphasis that encounter with God is rooted in history and is a mediated experience helps us to see the continuity between Jesus and the early reflections on him, as well as the significance and correctness of those reflections. The Catholic sacramental approach, which sees God in and through all things, leads us to view the very human process of tradition as a vehicle for expressing, safeguarding, and adapting divine revelation.

Scripture and Tradition

The Catholic Church does not restrict divine revelation to the biblical text. Against the Protestant Reformation's slogan of “Scripture alone,” Catholic theologians insisted on “Scripture and tradition.” The term tradition recognizes the fact that the living reality of the Church has the task of preserving the Gospel as well as interpreting and applying it in new situations. Catholic Christianity is not simply a “religion of the Book.”

While acknowledging the twofold reality of Scripture and tradition, Catholic theologians have long debated the precise relation between the two. One way of approaching the problem was to assume that Scripture and tradition constitute two separate sources of divine revelation. The Second Vatican Council rejected this view in the second chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum 10): “Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church.” In other words, the Word of God (or divine revelation) is the source of both tradition and Scripture.

How exactly Scripture and tradition are related remains a problem. The conciliar document uses the analogy of a wellspring or fountain to insist on their unity while preserving their diversity in Dei verbum 9:

Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine wellspring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

The same paragraph rejects the “Scripture alone” principle of the Reformation and preserves the Catholic approach of “Scripture and tradition” by insisting that the Church does not draw certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Hence, both Scripture and tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence. Thus the Second Vatican Council insisted that Scripture and tradition flow from the same divine wellspring and that both must be accepted and honored. Without endorsing any one theological approach to their relation, the council rejected the opinion of those who wished to keep the two separate.

The same tension appears when the Dogmatic Constitution addresses the issue of authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures in Dei verbum 10:

… the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.

On the one hand, this statement entrusts authentic interpretation to the magisterium (the bishops with the pope). On the other hand, it insists that the magisterium is the servant of divine revelation and can teach only what is drawn from the single deposit of faith constituted by divine revelation.

The precise relation between Scripture and tradition also remains a problem. As a pastoral council, Vatican II avoided becoming an arbiter of theological disputes. Its insistence on the oneness of Scripture and tradition, however, did have a pastoral dimension. While not conceding to the “Scripture alone” position, it insisted that the Bible take again its rightful place in the center of Catholic life and that appeals to tradition be judged according to their consistency with Scripture.

The Nature of the Bible

What is this book that it should be studied so intensely and guarded so carefully? The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation made its own a theological formula that had become prominent before Vatican II: “the words of God, expressed in the words of men” (Dei verbum 13). That formula derives from the classical theological definitions of the divine and human natures in the person of Jesus Christ. In speaking about the Bible in this way, the Second Vatican Council sought to hold together the transcendent nature of Scripture and its human form. Although the Bible may look like other books and may be studied profitably as other books are studied (that is, with the techniques of biblical criticism), the Bible is different with regard to its origin and its nature. The different character of the Bible is expressed by means of some rather complicated terms: revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, and canon. As with “Scripture and tradition,” the Second Vatican Council used these terms without adjudicating the theological disputes surrounding them. As a pastoral council it sought to express the significance of the words for the way in which the Bible is read within the Church.

Revelation is fundamentally God's self‐revelation; it is the communication of the mystery of God to the world: “It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will” (Dei verbum 2). The Christian theological tradition affirms that God's self‐revelation comes to us through creation, history, persons, society, and reason. It is also customary to refer to the Bible as a privileged revealer of God‐that is, a place where the divine revelation is particularly clear. This tradition appears prominently in Dei verbum 6:

By divine Revelation God wished to manifest and communicate both himself and the eternal decrees of his will concerning the salvation of mankind.

The order adopted in this statement (“both himself and the eternal decrees”) is significant, for it gives pride of place to the personal character of divine revelation without denying the content and the consequences. Although this point may seem obvious today, the council's emphasis on the personal dimension of revelation was correctly taken as a major step in clarifying Catholic attitudes toward Scripture. Through the Bible we encounter the mystery of God, not simply lists of commandments or interesting stories. The personal God makes those commandments and stories meaningful.

Two other theological terms for talking about the difference of the Bible from other books are inspiration and inerrancy. Again the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation asserts the basic point expressed by these terms without arbitrating the very complicated theological debates surrounding them. On inspiration Dei verbum 11 states:

The divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20, 31; 2 Tm 3, 16; 2 Pt 1, 19–21; 3, 15–16 ), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.

The same paragraph treats inerrancy:

Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures. Thus “all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3, 16–17 , Greek text).

The key expression in this statement is “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures.” Without explicitly embracing the theory of only limited inerrancy, that statement suggests that the Bible's inerrancy consists primarily in its being a trustworthy guide on the road to salvation. Thus it expresses “inerrancy” in a positive way and avoids conceiving it as a defensive program of protecting the Bible against accusations of scientific or historical error.

The council's statement on inspiration refers to the books of the Bible as “sacred and canonical.” The word canon (reed or measuring stick) originally meant the rule or characteristics that decided whether a particular book was judged to be part of Sacred Scripture. It now usually refers to the collection of books that are acknowledged to be authoritative in the Church and by which the Church's faith can be measured. The canon of Old Testament books traditional in Catholicism contains all the books of the Hebrew Bible (which is the same as the Protestant Old Testament canon) together with seven others that were part of the Greek and Latin Bible tradition (Judith, Tobit, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach/ Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom). All Christians today share the same canon of twenty‐seven New Testament books. The history of the canon's development is quite complex. The final definitive list of biblical books (including the seven additional Old Testament books) for the Catholic Church was drawn up only at the Council of Trent in 1546, though there was little disagreement about the substance of the canon from the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Bible is different. How it is different has been expressed with the help of some traditional words: revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, and canon. The Second Vatican Council in its authoritative declaration on Scripture (Dei verbum) took over those hallowed terms. In interpreting the Council's use of these words we must take account of the pastoral orientation of the council as a whole. Rather than working out theolog‐ ical subtleties or choosing among theological schools, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation used those words to convey basic attitudes about how the Bible differs from other books. It affirmed that God's self‐revelation comes to us through the Bible, that in some mysterious way God entered into the composition of these writings and inspired them, that the biblical books provide reliable guidance (inerrancy) for those who walk the way toward salvation with God, and that these books constitute the norm or rule (canon) by which the life of the Church is to be guided and measured in all ages. These are the basic pastoral meanings of revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, and canon.

The Authority of the Bible

The terms by which Christians express the difference of the Bible indicate that it possesses great authority for them. The Bible is the “words of God, expressed in the words of men.” It is revealed, inspired, inerrant, and canonical. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation goes beyond the general assertions conveyed by the traditional theological vocabulary and speaks about the authority of various parts of the Bible.

The Old Testament (see Dei verbum 15) prepares for and declares in prophecy the coming of Christ. It conveys our basic understanding of God and the human situation: “how a just and merciful God deals with mankind.” It provides “sound wisdom” and “a wonderful treasury of prayers.” The document also mentions “matters imperfect and provisional” in the Old Testament, without specifying precisely what these are (presumably legislation about sacrifices and ritual purity, “vengeful” psalms, and other such material). The unity of the two Testaments is traced back to God who “in his wisdom has so brought it about that the New should be hidden in the Old and that the Old should be made manifest in the New” (Dei verbum 16).

The Council accorded the Gospels a special place within the Bible “because they are our principal source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Saviour” (Dei verbum 18). It insisted on the historicity and apostolicity of the Gospels, while recognizing the complex process of their composition from Jesus through the early church to the Gospel texts. Catholics find a basic continuity between Jesus and the Gospel tradition under the guidance of the Spirit working in the church. Their tendency is to insist that the tradition is basically historical. They assume that the modifications and reinterpretations made necessary by changing circumstances do not do violence to the original teaching or event. The “apostolic” character of the Gospels refers not so much to their direct composition by apostles as it does to the faithful transmission of the material in them by those who had experienced the risen Lord and bore witness to his resurrection. The term apostolic describes the generation between Jesus' death (about AD 30) and the composition of the New Testament books. The claim implied by the term is that those witnesses have told us the “honest truth” about Jesus.

The New Testament also contains Paul's letters and other writings (Hebrews, the Catholic Epistles, Revelation). After affirming their composition under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Dei verbum 20 describes the contributions that these writings make in the following way:

In accordance with the wise design of God these writings firmly establish those matters which concern Christ the Lord, formulate more and more precisely his authentic teaching, preach the saving power of Christ's divine work and foretell its glorious consummation.

It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this description that the Epistles have a secondary status as supplements to the Gospels. In fact, Paul's authentic letters (1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Romans) are the earliest complete documents in the New Testament from the standpoint of their dates of composition. Thus they give us precious information about how Paul and other early Christians in the fifties of the first century AD (some twenty‐five years after the death of Jesus) understood the significance of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. They show us how early Christians struggled to articulate their new faith in an environment that was often hostile and foreign to them. They reveal the kinds of problems that early Christians faced within their own communities (see especially 1 Cor) and so warn us against too easily viewing the apostolic period as a trouble‐free and conflictless “golden age.”

Enough has been said about the Bible in general (revelation, inspiration, inerrancy, and canon) and about its major parts (Old Testament, Gospels, Epistles) to indicate that it possesses great authority. But what kind of authority does the Bible have? It is surely not the coercive authority of a parent or the state or the police, which have the power to enforce a law or decision and to punish the uncooperative. It is not even the persuasive authority of the lawyer or the mathematician who convinces another by logic, arguments, proofs, and so forth. At some points in his epistles (for example, in 1 Cor 15 ) Paul does labor to make a convincing case on the basis of logic. But that is not his usual mode of presentation, nor is it the customary idiom of other biblical writers.

The authority that the Bible possesses can perhaps be best described as compelling. Compelling authority is the authority of the witness, the expert, the participant. Much of the Bible concerns what God's people say about God's action on their behalf. Without narrowing the testimony of the Bible to the concept of an eyewitness, it is possible to describe the Scriptures as a collection of testimonies to God. The biblical descriptions of creation, exodus, monarchy, exile, and return from exile all stress God's relatedness to Israel and Israel's responses of praise, confession, thanksgiving, and so forth. The New Testament writers portray Jesus as the revelation of God's power (and weakness). The proper response is faith, hope, and love. Thus the biblical documents contain the proclamation and articulation of people's faith about God and God's ways with creation.

God is the real basis of the Bible's authority. Insofar as the biblical books bear witness to God and thus enable us to understand better who God is and how God acts, and to grow in love for and trust in the God of the Scriptures, the Bible can be aptly called the “word of God.” And so Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which so emphasizes God's self‐communication, is appropriately titled from its initial two words Dei verbum (Latin for “word of God”).

Scripture in Church Life

This essay began with a comparison regard‐ ing the Bible's place in church life of the 1950s and today. A look at Catholic liturgy, education, piety, and theology led to the conclusion that the Catholic Church today is far more biblical than it was in the 1950s. This development mirrors some powerful statements made in the final chapter of Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

The centrality of Scripture in Catholic liturgy involves both preaching and sacramental practice. Dei verbum 21 insists that “all the preaching of the Church, as indeed the entire Christian religion, should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture.” The same paragraph directly confronts and dissolves the opposition between word and sacrament that had been prominent since the Protestant Reformation. It does so with reference to the celebration of the Eucharist:

The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the Body of the Lord, in so far as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ.

The council document insists that word and sacrament belong together in the Eucharist, to the point of asserting that they form “one table.”

The popularity of Scripture in Catholic education and piety responds to a very strong statement in Dei verbum 22: “Access to sacred Scripture ought to be wide open to the Christian faithful.” The document goes on to urge the production of modern‐language translations made from the ancient biblical texts. It also encourages biblical exegetes to examine and explain the sacred texts so that preachers, teachers, and catechists “may be able to distribute fruitfully the nourishment of the Scriptures to the People of God” (Dei verbum 23).

The importance of Scripture for Catholic theology is stated in no uncertain terms: “The ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the very soul of sacred theology” (Dei verbum 24). The document mandates that all those officially engaged in the ministry of the word should “immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant sacred reading and diligent study” (Dei verbum 25). The same paragraph recommends the preparation of volumes such as the present one: “translations of the sacred texts which are equipped with necessary and really adequate explanations.” There is overwhelming evidence that in response to the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has become much more biblical. One of its most important documents was the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which has served as our principal guide in this article. At nearly every point the post‐Vatican II Church has fulfilled the mandates of that council document and thus become more biblical.

The challenge facing the Catholic Church today is to look upon Dei verbum not only as the end of a long development (which it was) but also as the beginning of a process that has taken us into the twenty‐first century and beyond. A still more biblical church will paradoxically be better able to adjust to the rapid changes that the new millennium is already bringing upon us. A still more biblical church will be better prepared to make common cause with other Christians, with Jews and Muslims, and with all truly religious people. A still more biblical church will preserve its spiritual heritage and open its riches to others. An obvious step in the process toward a more biblical church is an increase in knowledge and love of the Scriptures.

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