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Catholic - Intermediate Material Address of Pope John Paul II to Pontifical Biblical Commission (April 23, 1993)

Note: This address was given Friday, April 23, 1993, during the course of an audience commemorating the centenary of the encyclical of Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus and the fiftieth anniversary of the encyclical of Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, both dedicated to Biblical studies. The audience was held in the Sala Clementina of the Vatican Palace, in the presence of cardinals, and the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, the Pontifical Biblical Commission and professors of the Pontifical Biblical Institute. During the course of the audience, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presented the Pope with the document of the Biblical Commission: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. The Holy Father's address follows:

Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, the Heads of Diplomatic Missions, Members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Professors of the Pontifical Biblical Institute:

1. I wholeheartedly thank Cardinal Ratzinger for the sentiments he expressed a few moments ago in presenting the document prepared by the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. I joyfully accept this document, the fruit of a collegial work undertaken on Your Eminence's initiative, and perseveringly continued over several years. It responds to a heartfelt concern of mine, for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture is of capital importance for the Christian faith and the Church's life.

As the Council well reminded us: "In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. And such is the force and power of the word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting source of spiritual life" (Dei Verbum, n. 21). For men and women today the manner in which biblical texts are interpreted has immediate consequences for their personal and community relationship with God, and it is also closely connected with the Church's mission. A vital problem is at issue and deserves all your attention.

 2. Your work is finishing at a very opportune moment, for it provides me with the opportunity to celebrate with you two richly significant anniversaries: the centenary of the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus, and the 50th anniversary of the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, both concerned with biblical questions. On November 18, 1893 Pope Leo XIII, very attentive to intellectual problems, published his encyclical on scriptural studies with the goal, he wrote, "of encouraging and recommending them" as well as "orienting them in a way that better corresponds to the needs of the time" (Enchiridion Biblicum, n. 82).

Fifty years later, Pope Pius XII gave Catholic exegetes further encouragement and new directives in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. Meanwhile, the papal Magisterium showed its constant concern for scriptural problems through numerous interventions. In 1902 Leo XIII established the Biblical Commission; in 1909 Pius X founded the Biblical Institute. In 1920 Benedict XV celebrated the 1500th anniversary of St. Jerome's death with an encyclical on the interpretation of the Bible. The strong impetus thus given to biblical studies was fully confirmed at the Second Vatican Council so that the whole Church benefited from it. The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum explains the work of Catholic exegetes and invites pastors and the faithful to take greater nourishment from the word of God contained in the Scriptures.

Today I want to highlight some aspects of the teaching of these two encyclicals and the permanent validity of their orientation through changing circumstances, in order to profit more from their contribution.

I. From "Providentissimus Deus" to "Divino Afflante Spiritu"


3. First, one notes an important differences in these two documents, namely, the polemical, or to be more exact, the apologetic part of the two encyclicals. In fact, both appear concerned to answer attacks on the Catholic interpretation of the Bible, but these attacks did not follow the same direction. On the one hand, Providentissimus Deus wanted especially to protect Catholic interpretation of the Bible from the attacks of rationalistic science; on the other hand, Divino Afflante Spirit was primarily concerned with defending Catholic interpretation from attacks that opposed the use of science by exegetes and that wanted to impose a non-scientific, so-called "spiritual" interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

This radical change of perspective was obviously due to the circumstances. Providentissimus Deus appeared in a period marked by vicious polemics against the Church's faith. Liberal exegesis gave important support to these polemics, for it made use of all the scientific resources, from textual criticism to geology, including philology, literary criticism, history of religions, archaeology and other disciplines besides. On the other hand, Divino Afflante Spiritu was published shortly after an entirely different polemic arose, particularly in Italy, against the scientific study of the Bible. An anonymous pamphlet was widely circulated to warn against what it described as "a very serious danger for the Church and souls: the critico-scientific system in the study and interpretation of Sacred Scripture, its disastrous deviations and aberrations."

4. In both cases the reaction of the Magisterium was significant, for instead of giving a purely defensive response, it went to the heart of the problem and thus showed (let us note this at once) the Church's faith in the mystery of the Incarnation. Against the offensive of liberal exegesis, which presented its allegations as conclusions based on the achievements of science, one could have reacted by anathematizing the use of science in biblical interpretation and ordering Catholic exegetes to hold to a "spiritual" explanation of the texts.

Providentissimus Deus did not take this route. On the contrary, the encyclical earnestly invites Catholic exegetes to acquire genuine scientific expertise so that they may surpass their adversaries in their own field. "The first means of defense," it said, "is found in studying the ancient languages of the East as well as the practice of scientific criticism" (EB, n. 118). The Church is not afraid of scientific criticism. She distrusts only preconceived opinions that claim to be based on science, but which in reality surreptitiously cause science to depart from its domain.

Fifty years later in Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII could note the fruitfulness of the directives given by Providentissimus Deus: "Due to a better knowledge of the biblical languages and of everything regarding the East,...a good number of the questions raised at the time of Leo XIII against the authenticity, antiquity, integrity and historical value of the Sacred Books...have now been sorted out and resolved" (EB, n. 546). The work of Catholic exegetes "who correctly use the intellectual weapons employed by their adversaries" (n. 562) has borne its fruit. It is for this very reason that Divino Afflante Spiritu seems less concerned than Providentissimus Deus to fight against the positions of rationalistic exegesis.

 5. However, it became necessary to respond to attacks coming from the supporters of a so-called "mystical" exegesis (EB, n. 552), who sought to have the Magisterium condemn the efforts of scientific exegesis. How did the encyclical respond? It could have limited itself to stressing the usefulness and even the necessity of these efforts for defending the faith, which would have favored a kind of dichotomy between scientific exegesis, intended for external use, and spiritual interpretation, reserved for internal use.

In Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius XII deliberately avoided this approach. On the contrary, he vindicated the close unity of the two approaches, on the one hand emphasizing the "theological" significance of the literal sense, methodically defined (EB, n. 551), and on the other, asserting that, to be recognized as the sense of a biblical text, the spiritual sense must offer proof of its authenticity. A merely subjective inspiration is insufficient. One must be able to show that it is a sense "willed by God himself," a spiritual meaning "given by God" to the inspired text (EB, nn. 552- 553). Determining the spiritual sense then, belongs itself to the realm of exegetical science.

Thus we note that, despite the great difference in the difficulties they had to face, the two encyclicals are in complete agreement at the deepest level. Both of them reject a split between the human and the divine, between scientific research and respect for the faith, between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. They thus appear to be in perfect harmony with the mystery of the Incarnation.

II. The Harmony between Catholic Exegesis and the Mystery of the Incarnation



6. The strict relationship uniting the inspired biblical texts with the mystery of the incarnation was expressed by the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in the following terms: Just as the substantial Word of God became like men in every respect except sin, so too the words of God, expressed in human languages, became like human language in every respect except error" (EB, n. 559). Repeated almost literally by the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum (n. 13), this statement sheds light on a parallelism rich in meaning.

It is true that putting God's words into writing, through the charism of scriptural inspiration, was the first step toward the incarnation of the Word of God. These written words, in fact, were an abiding means of communication and communion between the chosen people and their one Lord. On the other hand, it is because of the prophetic aspect of these words that it was possible to recognize the fulfillment of God's plan when "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (see John 1:14).

After the heavenly glorification of the humanity of the Word made flesh, it is again due to written words that his stay among us is attested to in an abiding way. Joined to the inspired  writings of the first covenant, the inspired writings of the new covenant are a verifiable means of communication and communion between the believing people and God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means certainly can never be separated from the stream of spiritual life that flows from the heart of Jesus crucified and which spreads through the Church's sacraments. It has nevertheless its own consistency precisely as a written text which verifies it.

7. Consequently, the two encyclicals require that Catholic exegetes remain in full harmony with the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery of the union of the divine and the human in a determinate historical life. The earthly life of Jesus is not defined only by the places and dates at the beginning of the 1st century in Judea and Galilee, but also by his deep roots in the long history of a small nation of the ancient Near East, with its weaknesses and its greatness, with its men of God and its sinners, with its slow cultural evolution and its political misadventures, with its defeats and its victories, with its longing for peace and the kingdom of God.

The Church of Christ takes the realism of the incarnation seriously, and this is why she attaches great importance to the "Historico-critical" study of the Bible. Far from condemning it, as those who support "mystical" exegesis would want, my predecessors vigorously approved. "Artis criticae disciplinam," Leo XIII wrote, "quippe percipiendae penitus hagiographorum sententiae perutilem, Nobis vehementer probantibus, nostri (exegetae, scilicet, catholici) excolant" (Apostolic Letter Vigilantiae, establishing the Biblical Commission, October 30, 1902: EB, n. 142). The same "vehemence" in the approval and the same adverb ("vehementer") are found in Divino Afflante Spiritu regarding research in textual criticism (cf EB, n. 548).

8. Divino Afflante Spiritu, we know, particularly recommended that exegetes study the literary genres used in the Sacred Books, going so far as to say that Catholic exegesis must "be convinced that this part of its task cannot be neglected without serious harm to Catholic exegesis" (EB, n. 560). This recommendation 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 (see Genesis 1). Far from destroying differences, God respects them and makes use of them (See 1 Corinthians 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 so complex, so necessary and so fascinating! None of the human aspects of language can be neglected. The recent progress in linguistic, literary and hermeneutical research have led biblical exegesis to add many other points of view (rhetorical, narrative, structuralist) to the study of literary genres; other human sciences, such as psychology and sociology, have likewise been employed. To all this one can apply the charge which Leo XIII gave the members of the Biblical Commission: "Let them consider nothing that the diligent research of modern scholars will have newly found as foreign to their realm; quite the contrary, let them be alert to adopt without delay anything useful that each period brings to biblical exegesis" (Vigilantiae: EB n. 140). Studying the human circumstances of the word of God should be pursued with ever renewed interest.

9. Nevertheless, this study is not enough. In order to respect the coherence of the Church's faith and of scriptural inspiration, Catholic exegesis must be careful not to limit itself to the human aspects of the biblical texts. First and foremost, it must help the Christian people more dearly perceive the word of God in these texts so that they can better accept them in order to live in full communion with God. To this end it is obviously necessary that the exegete himself perceive the divine word in the texts. He can do this only if his intellectual work is sustained by a vigorous spiritual life.

Without this support, exegetical research remains incomplete; it loses sight of its main purpose and is confined to secondary tasks. It can even become a sort of escape. Scientific study of the merely human aspects of the texts can make the exegete forget that the word of God invites each person to come out of himself to live in faith and love.

On this point the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus recalls the special nature of the Sacred Books and their consequent need for interpretation: "The Sacred Books," he said, "cannot be likened to ordinary writings, but, since they have been dictated by the Holy Spirit himself and have extremely serious contents, mysterious and difficult in many respects, we always need, in order to understand and explain them, the coming of the same Holy Spirit, that is, his light and grace, which must certainly be sought in humble prayer and preserved by a life of holiness" (EB, n. 89). In a shorter formula, borrowed from St. Augustine, Divino Afflante Spiritu expressed the same requirement: "Orent ut intelligant!" (EB, n. 569).

Indeed, to arrive at a completely valid interpretation of words inspired by the Holy Spirit, one must first be guided by the Holy Spirit and it is necessary to pray for that, to pray much, to ask in prayer for the interior light of the Spirit and docilely accept that light, to ask for the love that alone enables one to understand the language of God, who "is love" (see 1 John 4:8, 16). While engaged in the very work of interpretation, one must remain in the presence of God as much as possible.

10. Docility to the Holy Spirit produces and reinforces another attitude needed or the correct orientation of exegesis: fidelity to the Church. The Catholic exegete does not entertain the individualist illusion leading to the belief that one can better understand the biblical texts outside the community of believers. The contrary is true, for these texts have not been given to individual researchers "to satisfy their curiosity or provide them with subjects for study and research" (Divino Afflante Spiritu: EB, n. 566); they have been entrusted to the community of believers, to the Church of Christ, in order to nourish faith and guide the life of charity.

Respect for this purpose conditions the validity of the interpretation. Providentissimus Deus recalled this basic truth and observed that, far from hampering biblical research, respect for this fact fosters its authentic progress (cf EB, nn. 108-109). It is comforting to note that recent studies in hermeneutical philosophy have confirmed this point of view and that exegetes of various confessions have worked from similar perspectives by stressing, for example, the need to interpret each biblical text a part of the scriptural canon recognized by the Church, or by being more attentive to the contributions of patristic exegesis.

Being faithful to the Church, in fact, means resolutely finding one's place in the mainstream of the great Tradition that, under the guidance of the Magisterium, assured of the Holy Spirit's special assistance, has recognized the canonical writings as the word addressed by God to his people and has never ceased meditating on them and discovering their inexhaustible riches. The Second Vatican Council asserted this again: "All that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church, which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the word of God" (Dei Verbum, n. 12).

 It is nevertheless true-the Council also states this, repeating an assertion of Providentissimus Deus - that it "is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment" (Dei Verbum, n. 12; cf Providentissimus Deus: EB, n. 109: "ut, quasi praeparato studio, iudicium Ecclesiae maturetur").

11. In order to carry out this very important ecclesial task better, exegetes will be keen to remain close to the preaching of God's word, both by devoting part of their time to this ministry and by maintaining relations with those who exercise it and helping them with publications of pastoral exegesis (cf Divino Afflante Spiritu: EB, n. 551). Thus they will avoid becoming lost in the complexities of abstract scientific research which distances them from the true meaning of the Scriptures. Indeed, this meaning is inseparable from their goal, which is to put believers into a personal relationship with God.

III. The New Document of the Biblical Commission



12. In these perspectives, Providentissimus Deus stated, "a vast field of research is open to the personal work of each exegete" (EB, n. 109). Fifty years later, Divino Afflante Spiritu again made the same encouraging observation: "There are still many points, some very important, in the discussion and explanation of which the intellectual penetration and talent of Catholic exegetes can and should be freely exercised" (EB, n. 565).

What was true in 1943 remains so even in our day, for advances in research have produced solutions to certain problems and, at the same time, new questions to be studied. In exegesis as in other sciences, the more one pushes back the limits of the unknown, the more one enlarges the area to be explored. Less than five years after the publication of Divino Afflante Spiritu, the discovery of the Qumran scrolls shed the light of a new day on a great number of biblical problems and opened up other fields of research. Since then, many discoveries have been made and new methods of investigation and analysis have been perfected.

13. It is this changed situation that has made a new examination of the problems necessary. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has worked on this task and today presents the fruit of its work, entitled L'interpretation de la Bible dans l'Eglise.

What is striking on first reading this document is the spirit of openness in which it was conceived. The methods, approaches and interpretations practiced today in exegesis have been examined and, despite occasionally serious reservations which must be stated, one acknowledges in almost every case, the presence of valid elements for an integral interpretation of the biblical text. For Catholic exegesis does not have its own exclusive method of interpretation, but starting with the historico-critical basis freed from its philosophical presuppositions or those contrary to the truth of our faith, it makes the most of all the current methods by seeking in each of them the "seeds of the Word."


14. Another characteristic feature of this synthesis is its balance and moderation. In its interpretation of the Bible, it knows how to harmonize the diachronic and the synchronic by recognizing than the two are mutually complementary and indispensable for bringing out all the truth of the text and for satisfying the legitimate demands of the modern reader.

Even more importantly, Catholic exegesis does not focus its attention on only the human aspects of biblical Revelation, which is sometimes the mistake of the historico-critical method, or on only the divine aspects, as fundamentalism would have it; it strives to highlight both of them as they are united in the divine "condescension" (Dei Verbum, n. 13), which is the basis of all Scripture.

15. Lastly, one will perceive the document's stress on the fact that the biblical Word is at work speaking universally, in time and space, to all humanity. If "the words of God...are like human language" (Dei Verbum, n. 13), it is so that they may be understood by all. They must not remain distant, "too mysterious and remote for you.... For the word is very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out" (see Deuteronomy 30:11, 14).

This is the aim of biblical interpretation. If the first task of exegesis is to arrive at the authentic sense of the sacred text or even at its different senses, it must then communicate this meaning to the recipient of Sacred Scripture, who is every human person, if possible. The Bible exercises its influence down the centuries. A constant process of actualization adapts the interpretation to the contemporary mentality and language. The concrete, immediate nature of biblical language greatly facilitates this adaptation, but its origin in an ancient culture causes not a few difficulties. Therefore, biblical thought must always be translated anew into contemporary language so that it may be expressed in ways suited to its listeners. This translation, however, should be faithful to the original and cannot force the texts in order to accommodate an interpretation or an approach fashionable at a given time. The word of God must appear in all its splendor, even if it is "expressed in human words" (Dei Verbum, n. 13).

Today the Bible has spread to every continent  and every nation. However, in order for it to have a profound effect, there must be inculturation according to the genius proper to each people. Perhaps nations less marked by the deviances of modern Western civilization will understand the biblical message more easily than those who are already insensitive as it were to the action of God's word because of secularization and the excesses of de-mythologization.

In our day, a great effort is necessary, not only on the part of scholars and preachers, but also those who popularize biblical thought: they should use every means possible-and there are many today-so that the universal significance of the biblical message may be widely acknowledged and its saving efficacy may be seen everywhere.

Thanks to this document, the interpretation of the Bible in the Church will be able to obtain new vigor for the good of the whole world, so that the truth may shine forth and stir up charity on the threshold of the third millennium.

IV. Conclusion


16. Finally, I have the joy as my predecessors, Leo XIII and Pius XII had, of being able to offer to Catholic exegetes, and in particular, to you, the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, both my thanks and encouragement.

I cordially thank you for the excellent work you have accomplished in service to the word of God and the People of God: a work of research, teaching and publication; an aid to theology, to the liturgy of the word and to the ministry of preaching; initiatives fostering ecumenism and good relations between Christians and Jews; involvement in the Church's efforts to respond to the aspirations and difficulties of the modern world.

To this I add my warm encouragement for the next step to be taken. The increasing complexity of the task requires everyone's effort and a broad interdisciplinary cooperation. In a world where scientific research is taking on greater importance in many domains, it is indispensable for exegetical science to find its place at a comparable level. It is one of the aspects of inculturating the faith which is part of the Church's mission in connection with accepting the mystery of the Incarnation.

May you be guided in your research by Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who opened the minds of his disciples to the understanding of the Scriptures (see Luke 24:45). May the Virgin Mary serve as a model for you not only by her generous docility to the word of God, but also and especially by her way of accepting what was said to her! St. Luke tells us that Mary reflected in her heart on the divine words and the events that took place, "symballousa en te kardia autes" (see Luke 2:19). By welcoming the Word she is the model and mother of disciples (see John 19:27). Therefore, may she teach you fully to accept the word of God, not only in intellectual research but also with your whole life!

In order that your work and your activity may make the light of the Scriptures shine ever more brightly, I wholeheartedly give you my Apostolic Blessing.

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