LESSON 24: May 2007


By Msgr. John F. McCarthy

170. The traditional teaching of the Church about the divine inspiration of the Bible. The neo-patristic approach follows the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture, as it is summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It maintains that God is the Author of Sacred Scripture, that the divinely revealed realities that are presented in it have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that the canonical books of the Old and the New Testaments have been written, whole and entire, with all their parts, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Dei Verbum 11; CCC 105). The neo-patristic approach holds that God used the sacred writers in such a way that they made full use of their own faculties and powers so as to be true authors, but also in such a manner that they wrote whatever He wanted written and no more (cf. Dei Verbum 11; CCC 106). This means that they were preserved from writing any historical or natural errors, either because God willed that they write such errors or that they added them on their own. Thus, the books of Sacred Scripture “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (Dei Verbum 11; CCC 107).

171. The definition of biblical inspiration. “For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write – He so assisted them when writing – that all of the things which He ordered, and these only, they first rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed aptly and with infallible truth. Otherwise, He would not be the author of all Sacred Scripture. Such has always been the persuasion of the Fathers” (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, EB 125).3

172. The neo-patristic approach. The neo-patristic approach to divine inspiration is based upon the method of the Fathers of the Church, amplified by the great Catholic theologians of medieval and modern times, and developed according to the mental framework of the Four Senses as elaborated by St. Thomas Aquinas. The neo-patristic method makes use of the valid techniques of modern historical science while it develops the Catholic exegetical tradition and, at the same time, critically examines the results of historical-critical exegesis.

173. Neo-patristic defense of biblical inerrancy. Since it is the teaching of the Church that biblical inspiration absolutely excludes and rejects any error (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, EB 124-125), and since it is an obligation of interpreters to refute the objections of those who deny the inerrancy of the Scriptures (Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, EB 564), neo-patristic exegesis undertakes the time-honored task of defending biblical inerrancy in the face of difficulties that continue to be raised. Therefore, it rejects the approach which casts biblical apologetics under the names of “concordism” and “fundamentalism” and it seeks to show the methodological mistakes of those who attribute errors to the sacred text.

174. The form-critical approach. The techniques of form-criticism, initiated by Hermann Gunkel in the 1890s, are a development of a liberal Protestant approach to biblical interpretation known as historical criticism. These techniques are problematic, because form-criticism is now being practiced widely in the Catholic Church. Typically, in the practice of form-criticism, every plausible crack discovered in the biblical fabric is considered to be an advance of historical science, and almost every remaining vestige of historical truth in the Bible is deemed an obstacle eventually to be overcome. The reason is that for Hermann Gunkel, and for his celebrated successors, such as Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, the Sacred Scriptures are essentially works of religious fiction which need to be exposed and interpreted as such. Catholic form-critics do not start out with this presupposition, but their work tends in the same direction. According to the form-critical method, which Catholic form-critics also use, the Sacred Scriptures are composed of small units that are mostly forms of literary fiction, such as apophthegms, controversy dialogues, miracle stories, legends, myths. The method is based upon the philosophy of naturalism, according to which the idea of the supernatural is considered a religious fantasy, and so a natural explanation is sought for every supernatural idea or event recounted in the Scriptures. Thus, the books of the Bible are scrutinized in exactly the same way as are other works of merely human literature.

175. The neo-patristic exegete. In contrast to the form-critical approach, the neo-patristic exegete begins with the presupposition that the books of the Bible belong to a unique form of literature, because they have God for their Author and they have the supernatural characteristic of inerrancy. While mainline form-critics begin from the presumption that most passages of Sacred Scripture are not factual reports, neo-patristic interpreters assume that the reports are factual and study them from there. The difference in results is remarkable. Neo-patristic interpreters seek to defend the historicity of the respective passages, while form-critics are readily disposed to categorize them as non-factual and to brand their defense as fundamentalist. As a result, Catholic form-critics tend not to work very hard to refute the fallacies in the interpretations of naturalists like Hermann Gunkel and Rudolf Bultmann, and so for the past century they have left this work remaining to be done by neo-patristic exegetes. Regarding the truth of Sacred Scripture, many Catholic form-critics maintain that the Second Vatican Council, in its constitution Dei Verbum, where it speaks of “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” restricted the guaranteed inerrancy of Sacred Scripture to religious matters pertaining to our salvation, while neo-patristic scholars keep in mind the teaching of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani generis, where he says: For some audaciously pervert the sense of the [First] Vatican Council’s definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already several times condemned, according to which the immunity from errors of Sacred Writ extends only to those things which are conveyed concerning God and moral and religious matters.

176. The so-called “primitive Christian community.” Form-critics don’t exactly say that the creators of the biblical fiction were liars. Rather, the critics follow the theory of Émil Durkheim (1858-1917), a French non-believer whose writings and teachings were very influential, for weal and for woe, in the rise of modern sociology. He made a basic distinction between primitive society and modern society, and he said that, while modern society is “organically” and “functionally” organized, primitive society is only “mechanically” organized, and so it depends for its cohesion on the pressure of a collective consciousness which makes “collective representations,” that is, group thoughts and images that are independent of individual consciousness. Durkheim claimed that religious beliefs and practices arose from a natural instinct of primitive societies. Bultmann applied Durkheim’s idea of the primitive society to what he called the “primitive Christian community,” and thus he attributed the so-called “fictitious stories” that came forth and are recorded in the Gospels to the instinctive and preconcepual consciousness of the early Christians, for which those who originated them and those who quoted them were not to be considered personally responsible, since they were not capable of personal responsibility, although, he said, it is the task of modern Christians to correct them now.

177. The inadequacy of Catholic form-criticism. It is a common belief of Catholic form-critics that most of the accounts of biblical events in the Sacred Scriptures, even in the four Gospels, can no longer be taken at their face value,4 and that most of the words of Jesus quoted in the Gospels were invented much later and then placed falsely on his sacred lips. This belief is based on the failure of liberal Catholic biblical scholars to recognize and refute the errors of the liberal Protestant founders and promoters of form-criticism. For instance, Hermann Gunkels’s Genesis (1901) and Rudolf Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), which are the principal founding works of form-criticism, present a huge amount of logical fallacies and unfactual statements, but liberal Catholic scholars have not had the insight and mental structure needed to refute them. Rather, they have secretly envied and admired these destructive works.5 It must be kept in mind that Catholic historical-critics, having abandoned the Scholastic tradition, have no intellectual tradition of their own, but tend to make use as best they can of the tradition of the liberal Protestant exegetes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the most part they have rejected the mental framework used by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and by most Catholic theologians and exegetes over the centuries. Thus, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in a widely circulated article published originally in 1989, called upon historical-critical exegetes to employ “a less arbitrary philosophy which offers greater possibilities for a true hearing of the text.”6 He pointed out that it has become imperative at this juncture of time to build a new and better synthesis of exegetical method,7 to challenge the framework of systematic presuppositions underlying the exegesis of writers like Rudolf Bultmann,8 and to get modern exegesis away from the influence of Immanuel Kant, which has reduced history to philosophy.9 It is a task of the neo-patristic method, in its critical review of the historical-critical method, to formulate and correct the poorly formulated or incorrect principles of the historical-critical method, to work with more clearly defined terms, and to recast the vague and largely implicit mental framework of Catholic form-criticism into an explicit framework of historical science.

178. Catholic form-critics’ use of improperly defined terms. In addition to the framework of the Four Senses, neo-patristic exegetes use the mental framework of Scholastic philosophy and theology, with which they conjoin the principles of a truly historical method, all of which provide for them precise definitions of terms. A methodological error characteristic of the approach of Catholic form-critics is the use of improperly defined terms, such as the words scientific, historical, critical, real, and literary form. For example, Catholic form-critics often refer to their method as being “scientific,” but they ignore the essential element of all science, which is functional adherence to the concept of reality. Catholic form-critics expound at length the “meaning” of biblical passages, but usually without any reference to whether the events they are explaining really took place or not. On the other hand, Gunkel and Bultmann clearly affirm that most of the literary forms presenting biblical events are fictional and that all of the miraculous events are simply products of religious fantasy. In many instances, and especially in the case of biblical accounts reporting dogmas of the Church, the best that Catholic form-critics can do is to be silent, but to be silent about this matter is to be unscientific in one’s approach.

179. Form-critics’ use of improperly defined literary forms. In his encyclical letter on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, Divino afflante Spiritu (1943), Pope Pius XII refers to such analytical and clearly distinguishable literary forms of Catholic exegetical tradition as the historical, the juridical, the poetic, the didactic, and the prophetic, while form-critics introduce novel and non-analytical forms that they claim to have discovered in Sacred Scripture, such as apothegms, dominical sayings, miracle stories, legends, and myths, all of them assumed to be fictitious. These novel forms are shattering to Catholic belief in the reality of the objects of faith and of the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture. It was for this reason that then Cardinal Ratzinger, in his article of 1989, challenged the fundamental ideas of the form-critical method, called for a “radical new reflection on exegetical method,”10 and proposed some “basic elements of a new synthesis.”11 This would require, he said, a return to “the insights of the great believers of the past.”12 What we need today, he explained, is “a self-criticism of the historical method which can expand to an analysis of historical reason itself.”13 In his essay quoted above, then Cardinal Ratzinger notes that “at a certain distance the observer determines to his surprise that these interpretations, which were supposed to be so strictly scientific and purely ‘historical,’ reflect their own overriding spirit, rather than the spirit of times long ago.”14 The neo-patristic method is an old approach in the sense that it retains and uses the method of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and of Catholic exegetical tradition, but it is also a new approach in that it uses the techniques of contemporary historical science to process historical-critical literature and to solve the problems that historical criticism raises against the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture.


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157. Email: jfm@rtforum.org

2. For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see the article “A Neo-Patristic Approach to Biblical Inspiration,” in Living Tradition 129 (May 2007).

3. The notation EB refers to the Enchiridion Biblicum, a compilation of the official documents of the Church regarding Sacred Scripture.

4. Cf. L. Swain, “The Inspiration of Scripture,” in R.C. Fuller et al., editors, A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1969), p. 55, col. B.

5. Pope Benedict XVI observes that liberal Protestant exegesis “was regarded even by Catholic exegetes with envy and admiration” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 186). This observation tells a lot about the modern Catholic biblical movement.

6. J. Cardinal Ratzinger, “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” in Richard John Neuhaus, ed., Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p.17.

7. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 21.

8. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 19.

9. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 16.

10. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 21.

11. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 17.

12. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 16.

13. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 6.

14. Ratzinger, op. cit., p. 8.