Scripture and contemporary Catholic theology: Surveying the field

Scripture and contemporary Catholic theology: Surveying the fieldSean Maher

This article asks where Catholic biblical studies lie today, considering that historically Catholicism was more credited with being of a 'sacramental' disposition and left Scriptural tradition to the reformers. Sean Maher, a priest of the diocese of Kildare and Leighlin, is currently Chaplain of the Irish College in Paris.

In Tertio Millennio Adveniente (1994) Pope John Paul II asked the Church to examine its conscience:

'An examination of conscience must also consider the reception given to the Council, this great gift of the Spirit to the Church at the end of the second millennium. To what extent has the word of God become more fully the soul of theology and the inspiration of the whole of Christian living, as Dei Verbum sought?'1

This examination of conscience might be a good place to start a survey of the field of Catholic biblical studies today. The field has dramatically changed over the past one hundred years. Have we been successful in placing Scripture where the Council asked us to place it?

How did this situation come about?
The Scriptures have always been, along with Tradition, the primary source of transmitting Divine Revelation from one generation to the next. One of the primary aspects of a Catholic attitude to Scripture lies in this relationship between Scripture and Tradition.

God reveals himself to humanity in history and in historical realities. This is true for the Jewish people who were the first recipients of this Revelation of God and who have preserved it in their writings and in their traditions. For Christians, the fullness of this Revelation of God is in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. God has revealed himself to humanity. Yet these events happened a long time ago. Are we simply preserving the memory of an historical event, such as the death of Caesar on the Ides of March? No, the God who has revealed himself seeks to enter into relationship with us. Revelation is not simply an historical fact, but a living reality " transmitted to us through sacred Scripture and Tradition. Tradition has as its foundation the gift of the Spirit to the Church, which guides our appreciation and allows us, down the centuries, to use our intelligence and our imagination to grasp this reality in new and fresh ways that are adapted to our own time and our own culture. This is to be seen in our liturgy and preaching, our prayer, our spirituality and in the teaching office of the Church.2

Examples might help to clarify this. The Fathers offered reflections on Scripture as openings to a dialogue with Greek philosophy to credit Christianity as a credible and intelligent form of world outlook. The Medieval artists were inspired by the great biblical imagery to create much of the art- work that still inspires and enlivens us today.

Yet there are difficulties. The relationship of Church to Scripture has often turned from the ideal of the 'drawing of water' from the well of the Scriptures to sustain and nurture growth and freshness among the People of God, to sometimes niggardly and petty arguments. Scripture is a means of God's self-communication to us in human terms, but as human terms are always open to corruption and misuse, so we have often misused Scripture.

This has been the backdrop to a subtle but dangerous attitude which grew up among Catholics. Theology for too long had to deal with defending the position taken rather than with a real engagement with the power of God's Word, constantly being made incarnate in Tradition. Unfortunately, Scripture has often been manipulated in every tradition as a means of proof-texting already firmly adopted positions.

This polemical context had a very strong effect on the study of Scripture in Catholic circles. Too long in theological tradition and in devotional praxis, there was a certain mistrust and a lack of confidence with reference to Scripture. People were sure of the answers they needed to give and Scripture would sometimes need to be gently manipulated to offer a firm background to those certain answers.

The biggest trouble with this is, of course, that once we are sure of the answers, we often forget that they may no longer be the answers to the questions being posed. This is precisely what happened in the nineteenth century. The questions began to change from polemic assertions to an appreciation of the historic milieu from which the Scriptures came. New scientific methods of scrutinizing the text of Scrip- ture were matched by a new interest in the manuscripts and witnesses to that text. History as a discipline became more scientific and critical and there arose a parallel need to critically examine the historiography of the biblical world in the light of what was being discovered in archaeology and in manuscripts about the entire region of the Ancient and Near East. A new appreciation of literary genres and of redactional arrangements and 'layers' within texts offered new possibilities of theorizing when and where some of these texts had their origin and why they were deemed worthy of preservation by the communities in which they had a role and an importance. These approaches of criticism and forensic examination of the text, literary genre, historiography and life setting of the Scriptures make up part of what is called generically 'the historical-critical method'.

On the whole, Catholicism and Catholic faculties of theology did not embrace this new élan of study but stayed with a view of Scripture that was needed to bolster apologetics.

On an official level, this position was some- what endorsed, if not adopted, by the decree of the First Vatican Council, Dei Filius (April 24, 1870). This document reflects the concern of the time to see how to balance the traditional and sacred views of the divine authorship and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture with these new methods of research, which seemed to challenge, or even undermine, these sacred principles. In an atmosphere of distrust of these new methods, there is a reinforcement of these sacred principles of inerrancy, inspiration and divine authorship.

At the end of the nineteenth century, this is precisely the quandary of a Catholic approach to Scripture: can Catholic scholars use these new methods in good con- science or would their so doing be an implicit, or even an explicit, denial of central Catholic teachings around Scripture?

This is the backdrop to a new movement within academic circles in the Catholic Church, the Biblical Movement. Without outlining an entire history of this movement, two figures are of utmost importance. Père Marie"Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938) was a French Dominican who was the founder of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. Cardinal Augustine Bea was one of the principal movers behind Dei Verbum.

The importance of the Biblical Movement and the integrity of its principal characters in promoting scientific research while remaining loyal to the essential principles of Catholic teaching is beyond measure. As the Church rolls towards Vatican II and its four major constitutions, Catholic exegetes are demonstrating that scientific methods of research into the Scriptures can be reconciled with Catholic Tradition and teaching.

On an official level, this takes wings also. In Providentissimus Deus (1893), Pope Leo XIII seeks 'to impart to Scripture study a direction suitable to the needs of the pre- sent day.'3 In 1943, as we mentioned already with Bea as one of the collaborators, Pius XII promulgated Divino Afflante Spiritu which acknowledged the benefits of the years of Biblical study and the fruits of using historical methods. The highpoint of recognition for Biblical studies comes with the Constitution Dei Verbum of Vatican II.

The drafting of Dei Verbum was to be a long and intriguing process but ultimately produced a very fine document that held together a sense of faithfulness to the essentially Catholic question of how Revelation is transmitted through Tradition and Sacred Scripture and simultaneously balanced the need for an openness to new methods and approaches to Biblical studies.

Ronald Witherup, in his book on Dei Ver- bum in the series 'Rediscovering Vatican II' has a pithy summary of how Dei Verbum manages to retain essential Catholic principles about Revelation and how Revelation is transmitted (in continuity with Trent and Vatican I) but still manages to incorporate openness to novelty. He lists twenty-one major emphases of the Constitution, some in continuity and some quite novel. I can- not discuss all these here, but I would like to mention some of them4:

  • While the Constitution expresses itself in a way that is consistent with the standard doctrine on Revelation, there is a novelty in the expression of this. Dei Verbum uses a more personalist view of Revelation. Revelation is not simply a 'depositing' of ideas and concepts, but rather the act of a self-giving TrinitMyISAMn God who seeks to enter into relationship with humanity. God invites people into a relationship: humanity can choose to accept.
  • There is a more dynamic view of Revelation. Christ is the fullness of Revelation but the Church on her pilgrim path needs to grow in understanding of this Revelation until, ultimately, 'the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her' (DV 8). This is important. Tradition is a living reality that develops and grows. While the Truth of who God is does not change, our perception and appreciation of it does!
  • The Constitution reasserts the doctrine of inspiration, that God is the author of the Sacred Scriptures and that the human authors are under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. DV 12 is a firm recognition that 'God speaks through humans in human fashion'. This is followed by a call to the interpreter to investigate what meaning the biblical writers really intended. This is the clarion call to Catholic exegetes to use the methods and the approaches open to them to seek out the meaning of the Scriptures.

Is there a distinctly Catholic approach to the interpretation of Scripture? Despite great progress, we have not arrived at the perfect situation and we do have challenges, too many to discuss in this short time. However, there are three challenges (or, more optimistically, opportunities) upon which we might reflect. These three challenges I have drawn from a famous lecture in 1988 by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, from the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and from a reading of Dei Verbum.

  • There is the rising challenge, already known in Protestant circles, of fundamentalism.
  • There is the challenge inherent in DV 5, which is often ignored, of how 'faith' as a response to God's Revelation can be accommodated with the rigours of scientific research and become part of the Tradition.
  • There is the challenge of continuing to integrate the study of Scripture into the life and into the mission of the Church.

The problem of fundamentalism is more widespread and more pernicious than one might imagine. It is not reserved to dramatic acts. It is, unfortunately, often more subtle and more pernicious. It can permeate preaching, piety and even some forms of teaching.

One of the clearest and most direct responses to this comes in the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission from 1993, Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. This document is pivotal in furthering and developing the implementation of Dei Verbum. The one approach that it condemns is the fundamentalist approach, which it describes as 'a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development.'5

Catholicism, and particularly the Catholic sense of Tradition, asks us to use our intelligence and our faculties to delve deeper than the immediate and to discover the richness of the Scriptures.

DV 5 offers a reflection on what might be the human reaction to the Revelation of God. It is the 'obedience of faith', quoted directly from Paul's Letter to the Romans. Faith is not a passive attitude but a dynamic reality. Our reading of Scripture is not simply a personal and individual action but rather it is an entry into the Tradition of the Church, the community that keeps this Word alive. Our reading of Scripture has to be scientific and researched but has to remember always that this is an essential part of the Tradition that traces itself back to the Apostles, that has been enriched by the imagination and intelligence of great figures and that is constant- ly actualized in the life of believers.

This is not something that has been taken for granted. This is a very challenging reality. Cardinal de Lubac notes that it is interesting that the Constitution speaks of a person- al faith as a response rather than of a submission to authority. We do not read Scripture as a rulebook of an organization to which we belong but as an act of coming to understand and to know. Henri de Lubac defines it as both don et assentiment6 (gift and assent).

In that light, it is good to define one essential element that may help to constitute a specifically Catholic attitude to Scripture studies: the obedience of faith. This is not a call to pietistic or devotional attitude to Scripture, but rather a call to recognise the nature of the text in the Tradition to which it belongs. True appreciation of the text in a Catholic context recognizes and includes a firm historical-critical examination of the text but also recognizes the reality that these writings have enlivened and continue to enliven, have nurtured and continue to nurture, have guided and continue to guide " and that is what we call Tradition!

The challenge to integrate Scripture into the life and mission of the Church
Here I would like to make reference to two concepts from the 1993 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In that document, two practices are promoted and encouraged. One is the very ancient practice of Lectio Divina, defined as a reading of a passage of Scripture, 'received as the Word of God and leading, at the prompting of the Spirit, to meditation, prayer and contemplation'.7 Lectio Divina is not simply another devotion but rather an exercise of breathing the life into the Church on an individual and communal level.

'Actualization' is a parallel and related term, from the French, where actual means 'present' or 'current'. Actualization is recognition of the fact that the Scriptures are more than a collection of historical documents but God's Word that is addressed to the Church in our own time and place. In Tradition, the message of the Bible comes to be applied to contemporary circumstances and in contemporary language. It begins with a correct interpretation of the text and then it continues in the stream of living Tradition. This is described as a necessary task, 'that of bringing the message of the bible to the ears and the hearts of the people of our time.'8

These two concepts carry the interpretation of the Bible beyond any academic or scholastic usage but into the heart of Christian living. An essential aspect of the Catholic biblical scholar will be this work of formation of the People of God in the Word of God.

'Into the complex knot....'9
As I read more into the complex collection of prayer and poetry that is the Book of Psalms, I appreciate more and more the utter humanity of these poems. They are composed of the tears and laughter, the sadness and the sorrow, the hope and the thanks of very real people in situations of exile, sickness, relief, hope and fear. These are formulated into prayer and offered in the Temple as part of the worship of the People of God. This leads me to my first reflection. The Word of God bears the scars of humanity. As surely as the Word-made-flesh knew the whip, the lance and the nails, so the Word in letters also knew and continues to know 'the joys and the hopes, the fears and the sorrows'10 of humanity. It might be a good idea to sit by the rivers and hang up our harps for a while, and ask, ask, ask 'how can we sing the Lord's song in this strange land?'! It is through this reading of Scripture into our life situations and indeed into the crisis of our times that we might reach the path to a wisdom that assures us of the balance of God's presence. It was so for the generations who formed the tradition of the Psalms as elements of the Temple worship, it was so for the generations that preserved them after that, so it may be also for us.