The Principles of Catholic Biblical Scholarship

The Church’s most extensive and authoritative teaching on the Scriptures is found in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. It often is referred to by its first words in Latin, Dei Verbum (The Word of God), abbreviated below as DV.

Dei Verbum n. 12 (see also CCC, 109-114) offers principles for Catholic biblical scholarship. In the first place, it firmly endorses the methods of historical-critical exegesis:

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another

The Bible evolved over some 1200 years and almost every book includes earlier oral and written traditions. Sometimes the process took many centuries (in the case of the Pentateuch), or in the case of the Gospels, several decades. The written text is the third stage of development that followed the oral traditions or earlier writings. The first stage in each text is the events that gave rise to the traditions. Therefore, in line with DV n. 12, historical-critical exegesis operates on three levels:

  • At the final or third stage – the writing – it tries to establish as far as possible, the intention, meaning and message of the original authors. Using this or that literary form, what did the biblical authors intend to say to their audience? In the contexts in which they wrote and using the resources of their culture, what did the sacred writers have in mind?
  • As regards the second stage, it tries to identify the nature of the oral traditions formed and handed on prior to the composition of the texts. What function did these oral traditions have?
  • Finally, historical-critical exegesis also attempts to go back to stage one: the actual events that gave rise to the oral tradition and written text.

This exegesis is historical, because it tries to go back to the historical contexts in which the biblical texts were fashioned. This exegesis is critical, because it requires professional knowledge and judgment to determine, even to some extent, what the writer wanted to communicate and what sources were used.

DV n. 12 adds a second principle that should guide the work of exegetes in understanding and explaining the meaning of Scripture. The principle is that “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit through whom it was written”. The Holy Spirit inspired the original writing of the Scriptures and should inspire one’s reading and interpretation today. In this sense, exegesis has a spiritual dimension. The Holy Spirit links the past formation of the sacred texts and their present interpretation.

To explain this ‘spiritual’ principle for biblical interpretation, Dei Verbum mentions three rules:

  • Attention to the content and unity of the entire Bible, unified by God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the centre and heart.
  • Attention to the living tradition of the whole Church, for Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart which carries Tradition, the living memory of God’s Word; and
  • Attention to the harmony that exists between elements of the faith.

The teaching on biblical scholarship in Dei Verbum integrates reason and faith: the right use of historical-critical reasoning and the appropriate attention to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The first aspect keeps a certain critical distance as it reads a text in a scholarly way (the ‘world behind’ and the ‘world of’ the text). The second aspect means the text addresses and transforms the reader (the ‘world in front of the text’). It is the difference between grasping the meaning of the text and being grasped by its meaning, or between finding the truth and being found by it (O’Collins, 1991).

When the Three Worlds of the Text approach is used in an integrated way, it reflects the principles of Dei Verbum. The world ‘behind’ and the world ‘of’ the text call for proper enquiry and study and the world ‘in front of’ the text calls on the reader to be grasped by its meaning. Dei Verbum is a reminder for the teacher that the study of the Bible in Religious Education, though rigorous and appropriately academic, is always more than a ‘text’. It is never detached from the faith it expresses, the tradition that formed it, the Church that believes, celebrates, lives and prays it, and its capacity to transform the reader, irrespective of the reader’s predispositions and prior knowledge.

Methods of Biblical Criticism

Biblical criticism is the process of making informed judgements about biblical literature. The word ‘criticism’ does not imply anything negative; the word comes from the Greek word for judgement. Matters for scholarly ‘judgement’ include the dating, authorship, historical background, sources, literacy forms and meaning of texts. Some methods are:.

  • Efforts to establish the original and most authoritative text (textual criticism)
  • Efforts to establish the oral and written sources a biblical author used (source criticism)
  • Efforts to study the text as a work of literature, considering its style, structure and distinctive language and literary forms (literary criticism)
  • Efforts to study the literary form of a text (eg, myth, narrative, hymn, parable) in its oral stage and original life setting (form criticism)
  • Efforts to study how the final author (the ‘redactor’) assembled the text in order to express its theological emphasis (redaction criticism)

Biblical Fundamentalism

The teaching of Dei Verbum and Catholic biblical interpretation do not accept a naïve, literalist fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. The problem of biblical fundamentalism is addressed in the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993), The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, section 1F.

Biblical fundamentalism insists that every detail the Bible should be read and interpreted in a literalist way. It tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Holy Spirit. Fundamentalism, unlike Catholic Biblical interpretation, pays no attention to literary forms and to the human ways of thought, language and figurative expressions found in biblical texts, many of which are the products of processes extending over long periods and very diverse historical situations. As a result, it often treats as factual history material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It confuses the divine substance of the Biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations.

Fundamentalism separates the interpretation of the Scriptures from the tradition of the faith community. It fails to realize that the New Testament took form within the Christian church and that it is the Holy Scripture of this church, the existence of which preceded the composition of the texts.

In 1987 the United States Catholic bishops issued a pastoral statement on biblical fundamentalism in which they proposed greater study and understanding of Scripture as the best Catholic response to fundamentalism.