Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 121Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study ProgramJanuary 2006


by John F. McCarthy

1. In October 2005 the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales and of Scotland brought out a "teaching document," printed by the Catholic Truth Society of London, entitled The Gift of Scripture, intended to help the faithful "to hear, understand, and live God's word" in the conviction that "To read the Scriptures regularly and prayerfully is to live continually in the presence of Christ" (Forward). The British Bishops are convinced of the enduring relevance of the Scriptures, especially with regard to contemporary social issues. In their own words: "We have explored the Scriptures in the conviction that they still offer powerful words for today's world. Read as the heart of the living Tradition of the community of faith, these Scriptures provide guidance on countless contemporary issues: the rights and responsibilities of the human person, the value of human life from conception to death, the need to protect the created world, the search for lasting justice and peace for all peoples" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 70). In Part One of this document, the Bishops offer a panorama of God's reaching out to us in the history of salvation, as He spoke to the people of Israel and as He speaks in the fullness of time through Jesus the Son. In Part Two they consider what the word of God is like and how we should interpret it. "What does it mean to describe it as ‘God's word in human language’?" In Parts Three and Four they present a survey of the Old Testament and the New Testament, considering how they are relevant to our lives today and what are the difficulties to be met in the interpretation of certain texts. In Part Five they consider the use of the Bible in the Church today.

2. The Bishops view the Bible as "God's word in human language." They note that it would be a failure of proper veneration not to recognize the divine reality of the sacred text, but "not to recognize the human features of Scripture would lead us into fundamentalism, which brings a reluctance to ask deeper questions about the text. The difficulty with fundamentalism, they say, is that it has little interest in the historical origins and development of Scripture and thus impedes the understanding of "the gradual revelation of the word of God in changing historical situations." In the earliest times, the Bishops say, there was some realization that God's word comes in human form, "but modern study of the Bible has made great progress in working out the implications of this insight" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 13).

3. For instance, going back to the beginning of the Bible, modern study has found, say the Bishops, "certain similarities" between the "religious stories of the early chapters of Genesis and traditional material from other cultures, notably from the ancient East," and the discovery of this material "led the Church to develop her teaching concerning the literary genres found in the Bible." In fact, they say, "It became clear that the material found in these chapters of Genesis could not simply be described as historical writing. Though they may contain some historical traces, the primary purpose was to provide religious teaching (The Jewish People 27-28)."1 These chapters continue to teach us about the goodness and providence of the creator God, the devastating effects of human collusion with evil, the entrusting of the earth to human beings and their duty to care for it, the dignity and equality of men and women made in the image of God, and the divine command to keep the sabbath holy" (no. 28).

4. This declaration of the British Bishops is problematic. There is no doubt that certain myths of the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient Near East resemble the accounts in the first eleven chapters of Genesis nor is there any doubt that the Church has refined her teaching regarding the literary genres found in the Bible, but it is not the teaching of the Church that these eleven chapters are not historical or that they are simply religious teaching with some historical traces. The Bishops refer to The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible as their source for this doctrine, but this document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission does not constitute a teaching of the Church. The Pontifical Biblical Commission was restructured by Pope Paul VI in 1971 to the effect that it "is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office." 2

5. In the previous issue of Living Tradition, I reviewed the teaching of the Catholic Church on the historical character of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis. I recalled the following authentic magisterial teachings of the original Pontifical Biblical Commission, dated 30 June 1909: a) that those exegetical systems elaborated for the purpose of "excluding the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis" are not based upon solid arguments (Enchiridion Biblicum 324; Denzinger-Schönmetzer 3512); b) that these three chapters contain "a narrative which corresponds to objective reality and historical truth" and not "legends partly historical and partly fictitious" (EB 325; DS 3513); c) that we may not call into question the "literal and historical meaning" of facts narrated in these three chapters "which touch the fundamental teachings of the Christian religion, as, for example, the creation of all things which was accomplished by God at the beginning of time, the special creation of man, the formation of the first woman from man, the unity of the human race, ..." (EB 326; DS 3514); d) that not each and every word and phrase in these chapters need necessarily be interpreted "in a proper literal sense, so that it is never lawful to deviate from it, even when expressions are manifestly used figuratively, that is, metaphorically or anthropomorphically, and when reason forbids us to hold, or necessity impels us to depart from, the proper sense" (EB 328; DS 3516); e) that, since it was the intention of the sacred author of the first chapter of Genesis "to furnish his people with a popular account, such as the common parlance of that age allowed, one, namely, adapted to the senses and ability to understand of the people," we are not strictly and always bound, when interpreting these chapters, "to seek for scientific exactitude of expression (scientifici sermonis proprietas)" (EB 330; DS 3518). 3 Similarly, Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical letter Humani generis of 1950, stated that, while the first eleven chapters of Genesis do not conform to the historical method used by competent authors of our time, they "do, nevertheless, pertain to history in a true sense, which, however, must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people (EB 618)."4

6. It is not correct to say that this perennial teaching of the Church about the historical truth of the early chapters of Genesis, and, in general, about all of the narrative accounts in the Bible, was changed by the Second Vatican Council. It is true that the Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on Divine Revelation (no. 11) states that "the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation ("nostrae salutis causa") wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" (Dei Verbum 11). But the meaning of the words "for the sake of our salvation" was discussed at length by the Fathers of the Council, and, in order to give fuller assurance that these words in no way limited the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture to statements pertaining to its salvific purpose, they added footnotes referring to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus of Pope Leo XII, and the encyclical letter Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII. The reference to Providentissimus Deus declares that "it is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. As to the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because, as they wrongly think, in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider, not so much what God has said, as the reason and purpose which he had in mind in saying it – this system cannot be tolerated" (EB 124). Some say that this teaching of Pope Leo XIII was changed by Pope Pius XII, but the reference to Divino afflante Spiritu included in Dei Verbum by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council restates the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in the following words: "The first and greatest care of Leo XIII was to set forth the teaching on the truth of the sacred Books and to defend it from attack. Hence, with grave words did he proclaim that there is no error whatsoever if the sacred writer, speaking of things of the physical order ‘went by what sensibly appeared,’ as the Angelic Doctor says, speaking either ‘in figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even among the most eminent men of science.’ For ‘the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately – the words are St. Augustine's – the Holy Spirit, who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things of the universe – things in no way profitable to salvation’; which principle ‘will apply to cognate sciences, and especially to history,’ that is, by refuting, ‘in a somewhat similar way the fallacies of the adversaries and defending the historical truth of Sacred Scripture from their attacks.’ Nor is the sacred writer to be taxed with error, if ‘copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible,’ or, ‘if the real meaning of a passage remains ambiguous.’ Finally, it is absolutely wrong and forbidden ‘either to narrow inspiration to certain passages of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred,’ since divine inspiration ‘not only is essentially incompatible with error but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church’" (Divino afflante Spiritu 3 – EB 539).5

7. How, then, are we to understand the following expression of the British Bishops? "It is important to note this teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the truth of Scripture is to be found in all that is written down ‘for the sake of our salvation.’ We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters. We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 14). And again: "It became clear that the material found in these chapters of Genesis could not simply be described as historical writing. Though they may contain some historical traces, the primary purpose was to provide religious teaching" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 28). I think that these expressions must be understood in keeping with the footnotes given in Dei Verbum, and in the text of the other documents of the Magisterium of the Church cited above, namely, that, while we should not expect "full scientific accuracy" or "full historical precision" in the biblical accounts, they do, in non-precise language, present the facts as they really took place, and they are true historical accounts, with the result that even the material found in the early chapters of Genesis can be described as giving true historical accounts of true historical events, not to be reduced to a set of general religious teachings, such as the goodness and providence of God, the devastating effects of sin, the entrusting of the earth to men, the dignity and equality of men and women, and the divine command to keep holy the Sabbath Day.

8. In their emphasis upon the human dimensions of Sacred Scripture, the British Bishops note that we can learn the intention of the respective human author "from those who developed techniques for understanding other ancient literature," which techniques "generally come under the title of ‘the historical-critical method.’" In this regard they cite the document of 1993 of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, which "surveys the various techniques used in this method and evaluates them, as well as providing a detailed review of other methods and approaches to the Bible." The Bishops point out that the appreciation of the literary genres used in the Bible is a major tool for the correct understanding of the text, and that Pope Pius XII, in Divino afflante Spiritu, "encouraged interpreters of Scripture to explore the literary genres in use among the ancient people of the East." Hence, they say, "We need to be aware both of the kinds of writing in use among those who wrote the Scriptures, and of the genres employed by other ancient peoples (Dei Verbum 12), [ . . . ] for example, to determine the precise nature of the writings we call ‘gospels’" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 17). And here the Bishops come to "the danger of fundamentalism." What is wrong with the fundamentalist approach, they aver, is that it "disregards the diversity of views and the development of understanding which is found in the Bible and does not allow for the presence of ‘imperfect and time-conditioned elements’ within Scripture." Fundamentalism, they say, quoting from The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (I.F), "actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide," because, they continue, it gives "insufficient consideration of the place of a given text within a developing tradition" and it "will often take a simplistic view of literary genre, as when narrative texts which are of a more complex nature are treated as historical" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 19).

9. It needs to be noted, in the first place, that The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church is not a document of the Magisterium of the Church, but rather is only a statement of a commission of Catholic Scripture scholars who enjoy the confidence of the teaching authority of the Church, and whose opinion is opposed by other scholars in the Church. In his Preface to this document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted the highly critical manner in which Pope Leo XIII was forced to characterize the historical-critical method, and that, while Pope Pius XII gave encouragement to some modern methods of exegesis, and Dei Verbum provided a synthesis of the lasting insights of Patristic theology with some of these new methods, "the emergence of the historical-critical method set in motion at the same time a struggle over its scope and over its proper configuration which is by no means finished as yet." And in their Introduction to this document the Commission admit that the historical-critical method has been brought into question by the rise of alternative methods and approaches and by "the criticisms of many members of the faithful, who judge the method deficient from the point of view of faith."

10. The use of the word "fundamentalism" in the Bishops’ document appears to be equivocal. They start out by saying that the fundamentalist approach to the Scriptures "is dangerous, for example, when people of one nation or group see in the Bible a mandate for their own superiority, and even consider themselves permitted by the Bible to use violence against others" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 19). Now, the classic example of a nation who have seen in the Bible a mandate for their own superiority are the Jews, who, with reason say that in the Sacred Scriptures (of the Old Testament) they were made the "Chosen People" and were given a mandate to occupy with violence the territory of Palestine, which they did in ancient times, and which Zionist Jews did again with violence in the twentieth century on the ground that God has given them this land. And to this day there is widespread belief among Jews that there is "no distinction," as they put it, between the land (of Palestine), the people, and the religion. I don't know what message the British Bishops are sending with this example. The other great contemporary example is the fanaticism of "Moslem Fundamentalists," who are seeking violently to impose the Moslem religion and the Law of the Koran upon the rest of the world. It is to this meaning of the word fundamentalism that Pope Benedict XVI refers in his Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2006, where he says: "Not only nihilism, but also religious fanaticism, today often labeled fundamentalism, can inspire and encourage terrorist thinking and activity." But this is not the meaning of the word as used by Pope John Paul II, quoted in The Gift of Scripture (no. 23), where he says: "Catholic exegesis does not focus its attention only on the human aspects of biblical revelation, which is sometimes the mistake of the historical-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 13), which is the foundation of all Scripture." 6

11. The name "fundamentalism" originates from a meeting of a group of Protestant communities, called the American Biblical Congress, held in Niagara, New York, in 1895, to adopt principles to oppose the attack of historical critics upon the truth of Sacred Scripture. Those at the meeting adopted what they considered to be the five fundamental truths of Christian belief: the verbal inerrancy of the sacred text; the virginal conception and divinity of Jesus; the Redemption; his bodily Resurrection; and the resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world. Historical critics, in their historical method, deny or at least question all of these truths, and they call a "fundamentalist" any biblical scholar who refuses to question them, especially the verbal inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. This original use of the term fundamentalist has little to do with its second meaning described in the preceding paragraph. But the document of the reconstituted Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, while it speaks sympathetically of several other approaches to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, such as the liberationist approach, the feminist approach, the sociological approach, and the psychoanalytic approach, severely rejects the fundamentalist approach for reasons such as the following: that fundamentalist interpretation refuses to admit that the word of God has been expressed by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources; that it pays no attention to the literary forms and the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts; that it places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth; that it naively confuses the final stage of the Gospel tradition with the words and deeds of the historical Jesus. But these are "defects" that appear only to those who are uncritical believers in the historical-critical method; otherwise they are simply caricatures of the way in which traditional Christians have always interpreted the Bible. Other "defects" reported in the PBC document, such as failing to take into account possible figurative meanings, or accepting "the literal reality of an ancient, out-of-date cosmology," pertain to some fundamentalists but not to all.7

12. What may seem surprising is that, among the other approaches surveyed in the document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, there is no mention of the method used for nineteen hundred years by all Catholic exegetes, including the Fathers of the Church, the great interpreters of the Middle Ages, and all traditional Catholic exegetes of modern times up to the present moment. According to this traditional Catholic method, passages of Sacred Scripture are assumed to be inerrant, their inerrancy is defended by reasonable arguments, and the burden of proof is on the one who calls this inerrancy into question. This approach differs radically from that of the historical-critical tradition, according to which passages of Sacred Scripture are assumed to be fictional, reasons to stress their fictional character are sought out, and the burden of proof is on the one who claims that they are historical. The PBC document leaves some leeway for figurative interpretations of the Fathers of the Church, but it ignores the fact that these figurative interpretations were based upon a solid adherence to the literal truth of the text, which the Fathers zealously sought out and defended. And the reason for which this traditional Catholic approach is not mentioned in the PBC document is that it is vaguely and implicitly contained under the category of "fundamentalism." Thus, for instance, the PBC document notes that the fundamentalist approach "tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit" and "fails to recognize that the Word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods." The expression "dictated word for word" is an inexact expression of the traditional Catholic approach to biblical inspiration, which is better formulated by the Magisterium of the Church as follows in the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus: "For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit (Spiritu Sancto dictante); and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican. [ . . . ] Hence, the fact that it was men whom the Holy Spirit took up as his instruments for writing does not mean that it was these inspired instruments – but not the primary author – who might have made an error. For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write – He so assisted them when writing – that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth (infallibili veritate). Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture. Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers. [ . . . ] It follows that those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration or make God the author of such error."8

13. This expression of the "unchanging faith of the Church" in Providentissimus Deus was not changed either by Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII or by Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council (see paragraph 6 above). The paragraph of Providentissimus Deus that contains the definition of biblical inspiration given above is cited more briefly in Dei Verbum 11, and referred to fully in the footnote to the same (EB 125). And while, ever since 1943, Catholic historical-critics have claimed that Divino afflante Spiritu opened the door to their novel theory of literary genres, the facts do not sustain their case.9 The central place in the encyclical upon which they especially rely is the following: "For the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East. The investigation carried out, on this point, during the past forty or fifty years with greater care and diligence than ever before, has more clearly shown what forms of expression were used in those far-off times, whether in poetic description or in the formulation of laws and rules of life or in recording the facts and events of history." 10 It is to be noted that the literary genres mentioned here are the standard ones of all time used also by the Fathers of the Church, namely, the poetic, the legal, and the historical, while no mention is made of the novel literary genres of the historical-critics, namely, myth, legend, miracle stories, angelic appearances, dialogue stories, I-sayings of Jesus, apocalyptic sayings, polemic sayings, resurrection appearances of Jesus, and other things of this sort, all of which assume the fictional character of the respective passages. Rather, the encyclical goes on to say: "so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error," 11 therefore, not in form-critical literary genres that presume fiction or error. And Pope Pius XII, in a later encyclical, Humani generis, published in 1950, goes on to warn of a false interpretation of "the words of God in human language," where he says: "To return, however, to the new opinions mentioned above, a number of things are proposed or suggested by some even against the divine authorship of Sacred Scripture. For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the Vatican Council's definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters. They even wrongly speak of a human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning, lies hidden." 12

14. Hence, it seems that the major credit for the discovery of literary forms used in ancient times that is referred to in Divino afflante Spiritu belongs to archaeologists and historians who were using other approved methods, such as William Foxwell Albright, who made some major contributions in the field of biblical archaeology, and here are some of the things that he had to say about the phase of historical criticism known as form-criticism: "Nearly every book and passage of the Old Testament has been stigmatized as a literary forgery by at least one scholar. Now it cannot be emphasized too strongly that there is hardly any evidence at all in the ancient Near East for documentary or literary fabrications." 13 And again: "The method employed by form-critics is essentially an application of the ‘logico-meaningful’ principle of Sorokin, which is only a prolix statement of the familiar adage, ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating thereof.’ In practice it becomes a complex case of the logical fallacy known as argumentum in circulo, except where it can be controlled by entirely independent outside facts. In New Testament studies such outside facts are seldom available and many of those which have at one time or another been thought to exist, have been disproved by the progress of archaeological and papyrological research. From the standpoint of the objective historian data cannot be disproved by criticism of the accidental literary framework in which they occur, unless there are solid independent reasons for rejecting the historicity of an appreciable number of other data found in the same framework." 14 Such independent reasons have never been found.

15. Parts Three and Four of The Gift of Scripture present overviews of the Old and the New Testaments. Under the heading of "Reading the New Testament," summaries are given of events in each of the Four Gospels. What is striking is that all of these events are reviewed in the literary present, not so much as events that actually took place but rather as events that are portrayed by the sacred writers as having taken place according to the adaptations made by the catechesis of the first century. Form-critics question the historicity of almost all of these events in one way or another in accordance with the theory of literary genres elaborated by Hermann Gunkel, Martin Dibelius, Rudolf Bultmann, and others of the liberal Protestant tradition. It seems that Catholic historical critics, overawed by the apparent logic and erudition of Protestant works like Gunkel's Genesis (1901) and Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), rather than refute these brazenly rationalist works, as they had been urged to do by Providentissimus Deus, found it easier to get on the bandwagon, at first hesitantly but gradually ever more boldly, while dragging their feet wherever the method led to the denial of biblical events which are dogmas of the Catholic Church, such as the Incarnation of the divine Word in Jesus of Nazareth and the bodily Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Typically, the Catholic form-critics would say: "The scenes are imaginary, but that doesn’t mean that the Incarnation never took place," or "The scenes are imaginary, but that doesn’t mean that the Resurrection of Jesus never happened," although, even in their making these dogmatic exceptions, as the research progresses their voices have tended to grow weaker and weaker. As the principal founder of the form-criticism of the Gospels, Bultmann plainly used the method to conclude that none of the supernatural events portrayed in the Gospels really took place, and Catholic form-critics have never cogently responded to his standing query: "Once you have begun to use the method, where can you draw the line?" To draw the line automatically every time that a dogma of the Church comes under attack does seem a bit contrived

16. The British Bishops express their belief in the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture and in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus, but they also call for awareness that "the gospels are a wonderful weaving together of history and theology, as they report the events of Christ's life intertwined with later understandings of Christ from the communities of the first century" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 44). For instance, with reference to the Gospel according to St. Matthew, they say: "The antagonism between the Jewish Christians and Jews who did not accept Jesus has profoundly influenced the gospel" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 51). What this means is that the stern reproaches that Jesus makes to and about the Jews of his time in this Gospel were not actually spoken in this manner by Him but were invented or at least exaggerated and placed on his lips as an effect of the later quarrels between Christians and Jews (cf. ibid.). The document also points out that the ‘I-sayings’ of Jesus, such as "I am the light of the world" (John 9:5) "are a major feature of the rich christology of (St. John's) gospel" (The Gift of Scripture, no. 59). But is the document saying that this "rich christology" expresses what Jesus really and historically said? Bultmann found that hardly any of these ‘I-sayings’ date back to Jesus in any way. He concluded a long analysis of these sayings in the Synoptic Gospels as follows: "The ‘I-sayings’ were predominantly the work of the Hellenistic Churches, though a beginning had already been made in the Palestinian Church." 15 Now, other form-critics of the Gospels may disagree with this sweeping conclusion of Rudolf Bultmann, but he is the great founder of the method, and, while the British Bishops offer no word of caution against outrageous conclusions that some form-critics may have made, the fact in this case is that Catholic form-critics tend basically to agree.16

17. Bultmann claims that the bodily Resurrection of Jesus never took place, and he avers that "cross and resurrection form a single, indivisible cosmic event,"17 in that it was the image of the "lifting up" of Jesus on the Cross that suggested to later Christian believers the mythological ideas of the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his Ascension into Heaven. Catholic form-critics fall into Bultmann's hands when they maintain that historical proof of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus cannot be affirmed, because "it is not possible to observe by the senses that this living man is sharing the glory of God the Father, and this is the principal assertion in the doctrine of the Resurrection." 18 Or when they claim that the Resurrection stories in Matthew and Luke cannot be reconciled unless they are taken as literary (that is, fictional) compositions, even though, as typical Catholic form-critics, they do not exclude that there was some historical event underlying them.19 But where does such an approach lead, according to Catholic form-critics themselves, except to the Empty Tomb of Jesus and to the question implicitly asked there by Jesus to the historical critic and to the believer: "Who do you say that I am?"20 If, as an historical critic, he replies that Jesus is the human personality who has survived the devastating process of form-critical analysis, then Bultmann is there to ask him: "Then why do you not reject all of the ‘imaginary supernatural adornments’ in the Gospels and emerge as a modern man of modern times?" Or if, as a believer, he says that Jesus is the Man-God truly presented on the face of the inspired narratives of the Gospels, then the "historical Jesus" of the form-critics, with the aid of proper apologetic study, can be identified as the elaborate fiction of an intriguing but unscientific historical-critical method. And thus, in an updated manner, we can return to the traditional Catholic exegetical approach that always has been and hopefully always will be.21

18. Juridically, The Gift of Scripture is a teaching document of the Episcopal Conferences of England and Wales and of Scotland which depends largely on sources that have the confidence of the teaching office of the Church but do not represent the teaching of the Church. On the other hand, as a literary form, this document seems to me to represent mainly the current opinions of a select group of Catholic biblical scholars who have the confidence of the teaching office of the Episcopal Conferences of England and Wales and of Scotland, but which opinions do not exactly represent the perennial teaching of the Universal Church.

The end.


1. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001).

2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Preface to the document of the PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993).

3. J.F. McCarthy, "Is the Genesis Account of Creation Literally True?" in Living Tradition 120 (November 2005), paragraph 5.

4. Cf. "Evolution and the Truth about Man," in Living Tradition 72, (Nov. 1997), par. 12-13.

5. For a fuller treatment of the meaning of "that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation ("nostrae salutis causa") wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" in Dei Verbum 11, see B. Harrison, "The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture According to Dei Verbum, Article 11," in Living Tradition 59 (July 1995).

6. Pope John Paul II, De tout Coeur, address given on 23 April 1993, at an audience in which the document of the PBC, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, was presented by Cardinal Ratzinger to the Holy Father.

7. Cf. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, I.F.

8. Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus (Enchiridion Biblicum, 124, 126).

9. See "Jean Levie and the Biblical Movement," in Living Tradition 31 (September 1990).

10. Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, (EB 558).

11. Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, (EB 559).

12. Pope Pius XII, Humani generis, (EB 612).

13. W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (2nd ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1957), p. 78.

14. Albright, op. cit., pp. 381-382.

15. R. Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition (English trans. of the 3rd German edition [1958], Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), p. 163.

16. In the words of Father Xavier Léon-Dufour "John gives the message of Jesus principally in long discourses like the apologia in chapter 5 or the prayer in chapter 17. The statement that these speeches were composed by the evangelist will come as a surprise only to those readers who do not realize that the earlier gospels also contain similar speeches put together by the writers on the basis of sayings uttered by Jesus in varying circumstances. [ . . . ] We shall see later how in the Synoptic Gospels certain sayings of our Lord were given a particular slant by the primitive Church. But in the fourth gospel the style of the writer seems to be one with that of Jesus himself, though it is not always impossible to distinguish one from the other" (Xavier Léon-Dufour, The Gospels and the Jesus of History (translated and edited in abridged form by John McHugh, London: Collins 1968), p. 103. And Matthew "has no scruples about placing on the lips of the disciples terms and phrases like ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God,’ even though these had not been applied to Jesus before the Resurrection" (ibid., p. 183). Of course, he adds, Jesus is called "Son of God" at his baptism and at his transfiguration, but these texts must be left aside, because "Christian belief may well have influenced the expression here" (ibid., p. 244). Léon-Dufour is confident that "certain short phrases" were actually spoken by Our Lord, but these "are not numerous and are rarely of importance." Hence, rational criticism of the Gospels is "indispensable" in order to comprehend "the religious teaching of Jesus" (ibid., pp. 207, 209).

17. Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology," Eng. trans. in Kerygma and Myth: a Theological Debate (vol. 1, London: SPCK, 1953), p. 39.

18. Léon-Dufour, op. cit., p. 255.

19. Léon-Dufour, op. cit., p. 257.

20. Cf. Léon-Dufour, op. cit. pp. 275-276.

21. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ex officio President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in his Preface to the 1993 document, spoke about "new attempts to recover patristic exegesis and to include renewed forms of a spiritual interpretation of scripture." In fact, already in an article published in 1989 ("Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today," in R. J. Neuhaus, ed., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis (William B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1989), Cardinal Ratzinger had called for "a better synthesis between historical and theological methods, between criticism and dogma" and for self-criticism by exegetes of the historical-critical method. He said that errors made in biblical exegesis over the preceding century "have virtually become academic dogmas," especially due to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose "basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis," (ibid., p. 9) and he saw the urgent need to challenge the fundamental ideas of this method (ibid. pp. 10-16). The Cardinal pointed out that Bultmann the exegete "represents a background consensus of the scientific exegesis dominant today," even though Bultmann’s exegetical conclusions "are not the result of historical findings, but emerge from a framework of systematic presuppositions." And so the Cardinal called for "a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method," for which task "the great outlines of patristic and medieval thought must also be brought into the discussion" (ibid. pp. 21-23).

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