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by John F. McCarthy
(November 1998)            

       13. Historical criticism in two senses.   Historical criticism of Sacred Scripture, taken in a general sense, simply means examination of Sacred Scripture according to sound historical method, and, in this sense, it has been a common practice of Catholic exegetes from the beginning. But "historical criticism" of the Old and New Testaments now has the special meaning of examination of the inspired text according to the methods of the "historical-critical school," and, in this sense, it has come into use among Catholics only since around the turn of the nineteenth century. It is now in common use in Catholic exegetical circles. The neo-Patristic approach uses the historical methods of the great Catholic exegetes of the past together with refinements of true historical method that have been made in more recent times, but it takes a critical approach to the methods of the historical-critical school. That is to say, neo-Patristic exegetes exercise textual criticism in its classical meaning as they examine the authenticity, integrity, and trustworthiness of the inspired text, the historical background of the text, the history of the "canon," or approved list, of the books of Sacred Scripture, and the correctness of translations of the original text. Neo-Patristic exegetes also study the results of biblical criticism announced by historical-critics, but they do not accept these results without checking the reasoning in terms of their own method.

       14. The historical-critical school.   The roots of the historical-critical method in the special sense used today are to be found in the rationalism of the eighteenth century and the liberalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Father Marie-Joseph Lagrange and other Catholic exegetes began to take up the method in the late nineteenth century, and it has grown to the point where most Catholic exegetes of today follow the method, but with the reservation that they try to reconcile its results with the Catholic outlook. Catholic historical-critics tend to see themselves as pluralists, following on the one hand a method that does not respect the Catholic faith, and retaining on the other hand their Catholic beliefs. Thus, Catholic historical-critics have the appearance of taking part in a discussion that is dominated by non-Catholic thinkers who pay little or no attention to the contributions of the Fathers of the Church or of the great Catholic exegetes who followed them over the centuries. This is what Father Raymond E. Brown, in his Introduction to the New Testament, calls the "larger Christian centrist approach."1 The writings of Father Brown, who died suddenly on 8 August 1998 at the age of 70, may well be taken as representative of the contemporary Catholic historical-critic, since he was until his death the best known and most influential Catholic Scripture scholar in the English-speaking world. An historical summary of New Testament historical-criticism from the viewpoint of Catholic historical-critics is given in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC),2 of which Father Raymond Brown was one of the three editors. Neo-Patristic interpreters are interested in learning what historical-critics think about the history of their approach, but they methodically compare such ideas with the work of outside critics, such as Msgr. John E. Steinmueller's essay, "The New Testament and Rationalist Critics",3 and Father Giuseppe Ricciotti's essay, "The Rationalist Interpretations of the Life of Christ" in his Life of Christ (unabridged edition).4 The comparing of historical-critical expositions with parallel examinations from within the Patristic tradition is characteristic of the neo-Patristic approach.

       15. The neo-Patristic approach to historicity.   While the historical-critical method tends to assume that accounts in the Sacred Scriptures are unhistorical in the modern sense, the neo-Patristic method assumes that Scriptural accounts presented as history are historical. This difference between the two methods arises historically from the fact that historical-criticism is rooted in rationalism, while the neo-Patristic method is rooted in belief that the Sacred Scriptures have been written by God through the human instrumentality of the sacred writers. The sacred writers were not used as subhuman instruments in the sense of automatic writing in which the human writer writes unconsciously under the influence of someone else, but through their use by the Holy Spirit as rational persons who were cooperating with their mind and will. In the neo-Patristic understanding of divine inspiration, what the sacred writers wrote was not limited entirely by their own background and personal capacities; they were not confined by their own knowledge and experience. The neo-Patristic approach follows the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus: (EB 124-125):
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; 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 and more expressly formulated by the [First] Council of the Vatican (EB 124-125).

       16. An historical-critical interpretation of a conciliar teaching.   Catholic historical-critics have often said that this teaching about the absence of all error in the Sacred Scriptures applies only to the absence of religious error, but not to the absence of scientific and historical errors. Thus Fr. Brown says that the stress by those at what he calls the "literalist end of the spectrum" upon the effects of divine inspiration "is often correlated with a sweeping theory of inerrancy whereby biblical data relevant to scientific, historical, and religious issues are deemed infallible and unquestionable. Practically, then," he continues, "all biblical literature is looked upon as historical: and apparent contrarieties, such as those between the infancy narratives of Matt and Luke, must be harmonized."5 Fr. Brown favors a "qualitative" solution to the problem of inerrancy, "whereby all Scripture is inerrant to the extent that it serves the purpose for which God intended it," and he claims that "recognition of this type of limitation is implicit in the statement made at Vatican Council II (DV 11): `The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.'"6

       17. An examination of this interpretation.   I find that Brown's limitation of biblical inerrancy is not implicit in the quoted statement from Vatican II for the following reasons: 1) The Latin original does not say "that truth which" but "the truth which." 2) Fr. Brown has omitted the first and qualifying part of the sentence, which states in its entirety: "Since, therefore, all of that which the inspired writers, or hagiographers, say must be held as having been spoken by the Holy Spirit, consequently, the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth which God for the sake of our salvation wished to be recorded by Sacred Writings." 3) The footnote references placed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council at the end of this same sentence make explicit that the statement is not placing any such limit on the inerrancy of the Sacred Scriptures.
       a)   In the reference to the Council of Trent is mentioned "the Gospel's very purity from all errors," whose "saving truth and moral discipline" have been "handed over to us by the Apostles at the dictation of the Holy Spirit."7 This decree has been understood by the Church as meaning no restriction on the inerrancy of the Scriptures (see no. 15 above).
       b)   In the first reference to Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII points out that the Holy Spirit did not intend in the Scriptures "things in no way profitable unto salvation", but rather "described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms that were commonly used at the time."8
       c)   In the second reference to Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII 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."9
       d)   In the third reference to Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII avers that "the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error," even in those passages which have been targeted by the "higher criticism," that is, by historical critics.10
       e)   In the reference to Divino afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII quotes and reaffirms what Pope Leo XIII declared in the above references.

       17a. Conclusion.   Rationalist higher-criticism of the text of Sacred Scripture has been condemned over and over again by the Church. The "historical-critical method" currently practiced by many Catholic exegetes has its roots in rationalist higher-criticism, restrained where it clearly conflicts with the articles of Catholic faith. Catholic historical-critics have been unable to incorporate their method into the Catholic exegetical tradition begun by the inspired writers themselves and continued by the Fathers of the Church. The neo-Patristic method does not ignore the conclusions of historical-critics; it examines them critically in order to derive increased incentive to expand and develop the method of the Fathers of the Church and of the entire Catholic exegetical tradition in the hope of achieving a deeper and a fuller understanding of what the inspired word is telling us.


  1. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (The Anchor Bible Reference Library: New York, etc.: Doubleday, 1997), p. 42.
  2. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy, editors, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990), chap. 70.
  3. John E. Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies (see lesson 2), vol. 3, pp. 7-28.
  4. Giuseppe Ricciotti, The Life of Christ (English trans. of the unabridged edition: Milwaukee: Bruce, 1949), nos. 194-224 = pp. 179-216. Note that the later abridged edition omits this important General Introduction.
  5. Brown, Introduction, p. 30. In Living Tradition 11 (May 1987) I presented four possible solutions to the question of an historical conflict between the genealogies of Our Lord in Matthew and Luke.
  6. Brown, Introduction, p. 31.
  7. Denzinger-Schönmetzer 1501.
  8. "There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist .... If dissention should arise between them, here is the rule laid down by St. Augustine for the theologian: `Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so" (De Gen. ad litt. 1, 21, 41). To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Spirit `who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation' (De Gen. ad litt., 2, 9, 20). Hence, they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are daily used at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers - "went by what sensibly ap-peared" (Aquinas, S. Th., I, q. 70, art. 1, ad 3), or put down what God, speaking to men, signified in the way men could understand and were accustomed to" (Prov. Deus, in the Enchiridion Biblicum 121).
  9. "It may also happen that the sense of a passage remains ambiguous, and in this case good hermeneutical methods will greatly assist in clearing up the obscurity. But 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. For all the books ...." - quoted in paragraph 15 above (Prov. Deus, EB 124).
  10. "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. And so emphatically were all the Fathers and Doctors agreed that the divine writings, as left by the hagiographers, are free from all error, that they labored earnestly, with no less skill than reverence, to reconcile with each other those numerous passages which seem at variance - the very passages which in great measure have been taken up by the `higher criticism'; for they were unanimous in laying it down that those writings, in their entirety and in all their parts were equally from the afflatus [inbreathing] of Almighty God, and that God, speaking by the sacred writers, could not set down anything but what was true" (Prov. Deus, EB 126-127).

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