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John W. MartensMay 06, 2011

The local diocesan newspaper here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, The Catholic Spirit,  has a short piece on some comments the Pope sent to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, whose members were meeting from May2-6 to discuss Inspiration and Truth in the Bible. The Pope, according to this report, said,

"It is possible to perceive the Sacred Scriptures as the word of God" only by looking at the Bible as a whole, "a totality in which the individual elements enlighten each other and open the way to understanding," the pope wrote in a message to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

"It is not possible to apply the criterion of inspiration or of absolute truth in a mechanical way, extrapolating a single phrase or expression," the pope wrote in the message released May 5 at the Vatican.

The commission of biblical scholars, an advisory body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, met at the Vatican May 2-6 to continue discussions about "Inspiration and Truth in the Bible."

In his message, the pope said clearer explanations about the Catholic position on the divine inspiration and truth of the Bible were important because some people seem to treat the Scriptures simply as literature while others believe that each line was dictated by the Holy Spirit and is literally true.

There are a few significant issues raised even in this short report:

1) The Catholic position on Scripture is to see the Bible as a "whole," to read the texts in light of all of Scripture;

2) The criterion of inspiration should not be applied in a "mechanical way, a way I believe is becoming fashionable amongst some Catholic interpreters as issues of fundamentalism in biblical reading become more common in the Church;

3) The Catholic position neither denies the revealed nature of Scripture nor does it promote a simplistic sense of inspiration by dictation.

These are important issues, some of which I have been trying to get at in recent posts (here, here and here), but also in the earlier posts on Verbum Domini. The Catholic approach to Scripture is multivalent. This goes back to Bible itself, I would argue, but profoundly to the Church fathers, who were influenced by Jewish allegorical readings of Scripture in their own spiritual readings, and who did not maintain that only one reading was possible or that a good reading of a biblical text shut down discussion and exegesis. This continued on into the medieval period, where a scholar such as St. Thomas Aquinas was attuned to the many spirtual or figurative readings of Scripture, but whose understanding of the richness of the literal interpretation remains a model for readers today. Dr. John Boyle writes of Thomas' reading of the literal sense of Scripture:

The literal sense is the meaning or signification of the words themselves. In this, Scripture is like any other literary work and can be studied accordingly. While Thomas' linguistic and literary skills were modest by modern standards, he would no doubt delight in the deepened modern understanding of the linguistic and literary contexts of Scripture. Likewise with history, Thomas' tools were few, but here again, he would appreciate our deepened understanding of the historical context of Scripture. Nonetheless, these studies are not ends in themselves. What interests Thomas in considering the literal sense of Scripture is what do the words mean? In presenting the literal sense of Scripture, Thomas speaks, by way of a kind of formula, of "words signifying things." His own understanding of human intelligence is that words as sounds are signs of mental words -- what we might call concepts and ideas -- which themselves have some referent in reality. To know the literal sense is to know the reality intended by the author and signified by those words.

Within this understanding of the literal sense, Thomas includes metaphor. Indeed, any literary device used in Scripture, in so far as it is common to other literary texts, is a matter of the literal sense. So, for example, Thomas notes that Christ's sitting on the right hand of God is to be understood metaphorically, since God has no right hand, but that the metaphorical meaning (the power of God) is the literal meaning as it is the thing, the reality, ultimately signified by the words.

This is not to suggest that Thomas naively thinks the literal sense is obvious or self-evident. Thomas is well aware of the manifold possibilities presented by the letter. We catch a telling glimpse of this in one of the disputed questions when Thomas asks whether the creation of unformed matter precedes in duration the creation of things. 

The question is not only a metaphysical one; much of the debate is about interpreting the opening lines of Genesis. In this lengthy question, Thomas considers the interpretations of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and Moses Maimonides, as well as a host of presumably more contemporary "others." We need not rehearse the multiple and complex arguments of this question. Of interest to us are Thomas' general comments at the beginning of his response to the question.

Leaning on Augustine, Thomas says that with questions such as this one there is a twofold debate, namely, concerning the truth of the matter, and concerning the sense of the letter. In disputing the truth of the matter, one should neither assert something false, especially what would contradict the truth of faith, nor assert that what one believes to be true is a truth of faith. Thomas is particularly concerned that one might tie some personal belief to the truth of faith, which if shown to be false, would hold the faith up to the ridicule of non-believers. Those who maintained the ptolemaic universe to be a truth of faith may provide a good, albeit subsequent, example of what concerns Thomas here.

Concerning the sense of the letter, Thomas again notes two extremes to be avoided. One should neither assert that something false is in Scripture, nor should one insist upon a particular meaning to the exclusion of others that contain the truth and that fit the circumstances of the letter. The first seems clear enough: one ought not maintain something known to be false as scriptural since Scripture is the revelation of God who is truth.The second is of particular interest for Thomas notes in passing the grounds for entertaining competing literal interpretations. They must not claim anything known to be false, and they must fit the text or, to quote more precisely, "the circumstances of the letter must be preserved." Thomas does not explain what he means here. He does provide an example a bit later in the question when he considers how to understand the firmament that divides the waters. He explains that some (including Maimonides) hold that this refers to the air or that part of the atmosphere between the rain clouds and the water on the earth. Thomas argues that this interpretation does not seem to fit the circumstances of the letter since the text also says that God placed the two great lights and the stars in that firmament. Thus minimally, Thomas appeals to context and a contextual coherence.

Let us note the implications of these cautions for the literal interpretation of Scripture as understood by Thomas. Thomas grants that one may be confronted with competing literal interpretations each of which is true with regard to the nature of things and each of which fits the "circumstances of the letter." In these cases one is not to insist on one's own interpretation to the exclusion of the others. Thomas even goes so far as to suggest that these all may have been the author's intention, and if they were not, they nonetheless could be the intention of the divine author and thus all acceptable.

It is the final paragraph here that is telling for how we ought to do biblical interpretation and understand competing interpretations: acknowledging the inspired character of Scripture, we nevertheless must be open to a broadness of interpretation and not insist on our own interpretation to the exclusion of others. We must also not let Scripture interpretation or our understanding of Scripture devolve into a mechanical exercise. Let the whole of it speak and let us listen carefully to others.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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Chris Sullivan
12 years 4 months ago
Thanks for those words from the Holy Father about the ened to read in the light of the whole of scripture.  I liked the part rejecting the idea "that each line was dictated by the Holy Spirit and is literally true".

The ancient Jewish rabbi's taught that any passage of sacred scripture has 70 (ie infinite) meanings, which is worth keeping in mind when we push too hard our own interpretation, something I am prone to do.

I'm reminded of something a nun who taught me scripture, Sr Alice Sinnot, once said : that very often something asserted by one passage was developed/balanced/corrected by some other passage ie that scripture itself asserts the idea that one needs to read in the light of the totality of the scriptures.

God Bless
Michael Barberi
12 years 4 months ago
Great article. There are some words and thoughts in the Bible that are clear, while others are not. It does take much reflection to interprete Scripture. Yet, many of our doctrines are based on interpretation that in modern times are somewhat controversial.

The Genesis 38 Story of Onan: did God strick down Onan because he spilled his seed on the ground; or did he violate Levitrate Law by violating justice in not giving children to his widow sister-in-law and thus blotting the name out Israel; or both?

One can argue that it was both, however, what does this say about the alternative argument....avoiding and preventing conception by deliberately limiting sexual intercourse to infertile periods by physical acts of abstinence and the plotting of temperture and cervical mucus BEFORE the martial act?

Chris Sullivan
12 years 4 months ago
Onan was said to have spilled his seed because the ancients did not know that sexual reproduction involved the union of sperm and ovum but thought of the womb as merely the "ground" in which the male seed, fully a potential human person, grew in.

From this we can see that, in the ancient view, the male semen was considered as an infant in potential (similar to how we see the inital products of conception).

Now that we know that semen is not an infant in potential, I think we read the references to male seed somewhat differently.

An interesting example of Holy Scripture as the union of the human authors own time-conditioned understanding together with divine inspiration.

God Bless
David Nickol
12 years 4 months ago
Isaiah 7:14 in the New American Bible reads, ''Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.'' The same verse in the New American Bible, Revised Edition, reads, ''Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign; the young woman, pregnant and about to bear a son, will name him Immanuel.'' [The Jewish Study Bible translates the verse as follows: ''Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of his own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about ti give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel.'']

If it is a fact that Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus, what is the justification of revising the translation of ''virgin'' to ''young woman''? [The Jewish Study Bible says, ''Young woman (Heb 'almah'). The Septuagint translates as 'virgin,' leading ancient and medieval Christians to connect this verse with the New Testament figure of Mary. All modern scholars, however, agree that the Heb merely denotes a young woman of marriageable age, whether married or unmarried, whether a virgin or not.'']

When the author of Isaiah 7:14 wrote the Hebrew word in question (almah) did it mean ''young woman'' or ''virgin'' to him?

In the revised translation of the verse in question, it seems clear to me that the sign being referred to is the naming of the child, not a virginal conception or birth. The Jewish Study Bible says, ''It is not clear whether the sign is the woman's pregnancy, the child's birth, his name, or his diet; nor is it clear when the sign comes to pass—immediately (if the sign is his name), soon (birth), or several years into the future.'' 

Both the original and revised versions of the New American Bible have similar notes to the reference to this passage in Matthew. The revised version says, ''God's promise of deliverance to Judah in Isaiah's time is seen by Matthew as fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, in whom God is with his people.'' It seems clear to me that the phrase ''is seen by Matthew'' is not an endorsement of Matthew's interpretation of Isaiah 7:14. 

In this instance, is the New American Bible looking at Scripture as ''a totality in which the individual elements enlighten each other and open the way to understanding''? Or is it backing away from interpreting Isaiah 7:14 in the light of Matthew's interpretation of it?
David Nickol
12 years 4 months ago
From The One Who Is to Come by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.:

A Christian interpreter of the Old Testament should be able to agree with a contemporary Jewish interpreter of the Hebrew Scriptures on the literal meaning of a given passage, even one mentioning masiah, or one related to such a concept, before the Christian invokes his or her canonical meaning. After all, the extent of the writings that the Jewish interpreter regards as the written word of God is identical with the Old Testament that the Christian interpreter seeks to expound. [Footnote: Prescinding, obviously, fron the difference of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Cathlic canons.] For the Christian canonical sense of the Old Testament is a ''plus,'' a sense added to the literal meaning of the Old Testament. That meaning may be a ''closed'' meaning for the Jewish interpreter, but it remains ''open'' for the Christian interpreter, who has to reckon with the literal meaning in its historical formulation and take into account all the aspects that it may have that allow it to be ''open'' to the subsequent Christian interpretation. 
Michael Barberi
12 years 4 months ago
Indeed, in ancient times the male sperm was thought to carry the potential for life in iteself. However, the argument that most theologians make of the Onan story, is that God would not have penalized Onan by death because he did not fulfull Levitrate law. If a person did not abide by this law, the widow could denounce him publically and spit in his face. So, the argument is that spilling his seed was a worst offense, so God killed Onan.

The fallacy with this interpretation is not with its cogency, but with its misleading context that is in tension with other stories of the Bible.  For example, Lot offered his two virgin daughters to the angry mob so they would let him and his angel visitors go. Lot's daughters also sleep with him and conceived children. Yet, God does not kill any of them and the Bible does not mention that these sins angered God.

David essentially orders the death of Uriah by placing him is a dangerous situation, in order to marry his wife Bethsheba. Throughout David's reign, he has many marriages, commits many sins and has numberious deaths associated his rise to power. Yet, he was annointed by God and revered as one of the greatest kings of Israel.

My point is this: we cannot leap to a conclusion that God killed Onan because of the speculation that coitus interuptus is worse than Levitrate law, or that spilling the male seed on the ground was equivlent to abortion.
Michael Barberi
12 years 4 months ago
If I may have a little freedom to extrapolate.

Pius XI's Casti Cannubii relied on Augustine who relied on the Onan Story in condemning coitus interuptus and condom use.

Paul VI and JP2 did not mention the Onan Story as a basis for condemning contraception, but did rely on Casti Cannubii and Tradition which relied on the Onan Story.

Benedict XVI now rightly proclaims that you cannot select particular sentences or paragraphs in Scripture and formulate moral law; you need to study the Bible in its totality. Indeed, our understanding of Scripture and moral law is constantly changing but not doctrines such as Humanae Viae.

This seems like a circular argument in contradiction.
George Trejos
12 years 4 months ago
As I read your comments regarding St. Thomas, I recalled an earlier reference on this subject by St. Augustine in his Confessions (12 xviii): What harm is it to me again, if I think the writer had one meaning, someone else thinks he has another?

All of us who read are trying to see and gasp the meaning of the man we are reading.  And given that we believe him a speaker of the truth, we should obviously not think that he was saying something we know or think to be false.

While therefore each of us is trying to understand in the Sacred Writings what the writer meant by them, what harm if one accepts a meaning which You, Light of all true minds, show him to be in itself a true meaning even if the author we are reading did not actually mean that by it; since his meaning, though different from mine, is true.

We need to celebrate the richness of Scripture and God's constant revelation of truth to us.
Edward Stansfield
12 years 4 months ago
Truth and Inspiration
According to Vatican II (the constitution Dei Verbum):
“Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation,” (Chapter III, paragraph 11).
Back in the in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s a slew of scholars and teachers came forward to claim that the bible was not true. They claimed that Jesus did not say the things he said in the gospels. They claimed that he (and other biblical characters) did not perform supernatural miracles, They claimed that the bible contained numerous errors of every kind. These included contradictions, historical errors, moral errors, salvific errors, theological errors and every kind of error. Thus, after all these years it may be helpful to have a greater sense of clarity regarding what the “truth” of the bible does and does not entail.
The first thing it will probably require will be a change of perspective. According to Dei Verbum, the bible is about salvation and this is what its “truth” is primarily about. The problem is that, generally speaking, catholic biblical scholarship is NOT about salvation and typically has nothing to do with it. For example, Raymond Brown’s commentary on the Death of the Messiah actually said that the “spiritual implications” of the crucifixion, “lie outside the task of this commentary.” It seems to me that a 1600 page commentary on the crucifixion of Christ that avoids discussing its “spiritual implications” and “import for the theology of redemption” is what I would call a waste of paper.
Brown’s other in depth commentary on the Birth of the Messiah is even worse. He begins by accusing the gospels of numerous contradictions (which many other scholars have reconciled without seeing a problem). Then in his discussion of Mathew’s genealogy of Jesus, Brown looks at the three sets of 14 generations and actually asks the question, “Could Matthew count?” He devotes several of his typically discursive paragraphs to a thorough discussion of the question as the esteemed scholar alleges mathematical errors. Does such mathematics really have anything to do with salvation? Is this approach to the scriptures really what Matthew intended?
In one of Daniel Harrington’s books on the New Testament, the esteemed scholar provided a discussion of the story of the good Samaritan in which he recalled how the traveler in the story was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. Father Harrington latched onto the word “down” and proceeded to explain the altitude in feet of elevation of Jerusalem and compare this with the depth below sea level of Jericho and combined the two estimates to determine exactly how far down the traveler was going (in feet of elevation). Does Harrington really believe the story was told for the purpose of conveying topographical information? Harrington wrote it for a series called, “New Testament Message,” (that nobody read) but I think it could have been more properly called, “New Testament Technical Details.”
These are just a few examples but there are many others. This is all part of what the pope previously called a “gulf between theology and exegesis.” As long as scholars keep insisting that the bible is about things that don’t matter to ordinary modern people (outside academia) they will continue to fail to teach us about it. And as I said before,
Michael Barberi
12 years 4 months ago
If the God of love and His word is truly revealed in Scripture, then it is meant for all who have ears. However, Christian Churches differ on Scripture interpretation and in moral wisdom.

Vatican II called for two significant reforms. The inclusion and importance of Scripture, especially in the Mass, and the study and broadening of moral theology. Before Vatican II, the old testament was never heard or understood by Catholics. Moral theology from the 16th century to Vatican II was largely based on the moral manuals that were essentially unchanged.

Hence, the Catholic Church and its tradition is grounded in a long history where Sin-Confession-Eurcharistic Communion was the main focus. This focus was about norms and obligations, rules and duties. Little was mentioned about spiritual development and how to live one's life morally with a love of self, neighbor and God. Morality was based on an act-centered, not a person-relational centered anthropology.

Ecumenism has made some progress but clearly not anything significant. The totality of moral wisdom of Christ's Church is divided. The patterns of moral insight are not considered to be anything but a series of interpretations, with each camp claiming their interpretation is right.

If we are to embrace B XVI's proclaimation about Scripture, then we also need to embrace a critical theology. This means not solely condemning erroneous beliefs, but to challenge our own tradition in order to seek and find a better understanding of truth. My point is that a critical view of Scripture is good, but we need to carry this forward to our tradtion, so that the faithful can be better guided to their ultimate end in Christ without the ambiguity and controversy that seems to divide us.
Edward Stansfield
12 years 4 months ago
Skepticism doesn't sell bibles.

(It's an important point that does bear repeating).
Michael Barberi
12 years 4 months ago
There are Scripture passages that are understandable to everyone, and some that are not. That is why most Catholics took to the Church for gudinance.

Take the issue about wheither Mary had children by Joseph. If you read the Bible, it is clear that Jesus had brothers and sisters. The Catholic Church says that they were Joseph's children from a previous marriage and that sometimes the term "brothers and sisters" referred to cousins or children by marriage, not necessarily those born of a widower's second wife. However, other Christian Churches disagree and say Mary and Joseph had other children.

If you can find a Scripture passage that proves one argument, you will find many others that prove otherwise. Sometimes Scripture and meanings are choosen to fit a teaching and tradition, rather than admit to an incorrect interpretation with implications.
For most Catholics, it is not important if Mary and Joseph had other childern together. For the Church, they believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Maybe she was, but can anyone really prove it by reading Scripture?
Joseph Quigley
12 years 4 months ago
It seems to me that the Bible is so obviously a collection of different genres of writing:myths, history, poetry, speeches, letters, etc. The truth that these different genres are trying to communicate requires us to understand the nature of the genre. I find that comparing the myth of the temptation of Eve by the snake in the creation story to the fables told by Aesop where talking animals are the norm helps children understand that the details of a particular Bible story are not as important as the (theological) message behind them. Just as they don't have to believe there once was a wolf in the fable of the sour grapes. But they do know that there are people who when they don't get what they desperately wanted rationalise that the sweet things they desired were probably sour anyway.
I do wish though that someone would express in simple clear and unambiguous  English the point St Thomas Aquinas was making when he writes " the circumstances of the letter must be preserved".
I have my own idea but I think I would be accused of relativism if I enunciated it so I shall keep a reverent silence.
David Nickol
12 years 4 months ago
For example, Raymond Brown’s commentary on the Death of the Messiah actually said that the “spiritual implications” of the crucifixion, “lie outside the task of this commentary.”

E. B. Stansfield,

Could you provide a page reference for that please? Something doesn't sound right, and I doubt that the fault is with Raymond Brown.

The Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke cannot be harmonized or reconciled, and no Catholic Biblical scholar of any standing would claim they could. The same is true of the accounts of the Last Supper in the synoptics compared to the account in John.  
Edward Stansfield
12 years 4 months ago
The quotes from Death of the Messiah are on page 386 (volume 1 paperback). Harmonies of the nativity that reject contradiction have been explained by many commentators. For catholic ones, see Joseph Girzone's Book on Jesus, or the recent commentary on Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri. One might also consult Saint Augustine's Harmony of the Gospels. Oh by the way, there are many protestant scholars who have said the same thing.

My overall point was that most of what passes for biblical scholarship in the church has nothing to do with salvation, fails to teach people the "truth" of the bible, and is therefore ineffectual for educational purposes. As I said before, "skepticism doesn't sell bibles." Perhaps you could prove me wrong if you could find a skeptical edition of the bible (such as the NAB) that can out-sell the NIV or KJV, but I don't see that happening anywhere.

Incidently, difficulties invloving the scheduling of the last supper were discussed at length and resolved by none other than Brown himself.
David Nickol
12 years 4 months ago
Harmonies of the nativity that reject contradiction have been explained by many commentators. For catholic ones, see Joseph Girzone's Book on Jesus, or the recent commentary on Matthew by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri.

E. B. Stansfield,

Girzone is a novelist, not a Biblical scholar, and in footnote 6 on page 38 of The Gospel of Matthew, Sri and Mitch say, ''Matthew's genealogy corresponds substantially to Luke's presentation of Jesus' ancestry from Abraham to David (Luke 1:2-6; Luke 3:31-34). From David to Jesus, however, the genealogies are very different (Luke 1:6-16; Luke 3:23-31). Many explanations for harmonizing the two accounts have been offered, but none has captured consensus among modern scholars.'' 

I am not going to type all of page 386 of The Death of the Messiah, but I think anyone who reads the phrases you quoted in context will find your criticisms bizarre. 

Incidently, difficulties invloving the scheduling of the last supper were discussed at length and resolved by none other than Brown himself.
In a nutshell, Brown suggests that John is correct in dating the Last Supper, that it was a Passover-like meal on the day before Passover, and that the Synoptics erroneously report it as being a true Passover meal on Passover. It is not harmonizing Gospel accounts to say that John got it right and Matthew, Mark, and Luke got it wrong!
12 years 4 months ago
Thank you for this wonderful post on the Holy Father's words on the truly Catholic understanding of the Scriptures.  When I was working on my graduate degree in Theology, one of my Scripture professors would often say that we Catholics place our belief and trust in the Word of Scripture (the Lord Himself) and not simply in the ''words'' themselves (fundamentalism).

Recently, I heard Father Robert Barron (Archdiocese of Chicago), famous for his Catholic Evangelization initiative, advise that perhaps the most fruitful way to understand and interpret both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is through the lens of the Book of Revelation!  It's an intriguing approach, and I think he's onto something!
Edward Stansfield
12 years 4 months ago
Girzone may be a novelist, but he knows how to sell books and most catholic biblical scholars do not (incidentally, he is also a seminary educated retired priest). As for my remarks on the nativity, I was referring to the course of events in the nativity stories in general, not the genealogies in particualr. It is obvious that Matthew and Luke offer us two different sets of names in the genealogies.

You called my remarks on one of Brown's books "bizzare" and I will admit that they may be unusual or unexpected, but what I said was factually correct. Brown excluded the spiritual implications of the gospels from the volume in question and most of his other books. Brown did not actually insist that the synoptics were wrong, but instead concluded that the Saducees and Essenes calculated the passover on two different days. The last supper was held in the Essene quarter of Jerusalem while the temple where the lambs were sacrificed was run by the Saducees. The gospels did not disagree on when these things happened, but rather, what calendar to use.

I can't help but notice that no one has disputed my "overall point,": skepticism doesn't sell bibles.

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