Friday, August 17, 2012

Dei Verbum can be used to explore the significant relationship between academic study and faith in the Scriptures. While tensions between the two are never entirely dissipated, Dei Verbum opens the door for a conversation between scientific study of the Bible and its place as the Church’s book. While the issues which students raise concerning Dei Verbum in Scripture courses are many, only six questions which students raise, or are raised by me in light of what the students know, will be discussed presently which arise often in the context of teaching:

1)      Apostolic Origin of The Gospels: “The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin” (DV 18). In addition Dei Verbum says that  “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named” have a “historical character {which} the Church unhesitatingly asserts” (DV 19).  There are two closely related issues here, which students raise on a regular basis. First, I think the claim of “historical character” is suspect for many students if it is an assertion made about each particular event in the Gospels.  Not only scholars but even educated laypeople see the development of certain traditions, and differences amongst similar traditions, which are found in the Gospels. These seem to have developed in the context of the liturgy and the Church’s teaching, and “historical character” seems to run against balanced and moderate Gospel scholarship regarding the formation of the Gospels if it is taken to mean that each event occurred exactly as described (cf. DV 19). Second, another question raised regularly by students is whether “apostolic origin” indicates apostolic authorship or simply the source of traditions in the Gospels. Does this mean that the apostles originate the oral traditions or have some sort of control over the development of these traditions? Must an apostle stand behind every Gospel as the originating source? Does the term ‘apostle” have a broader meaning than simply the Twelve?

2)       Development in Understanding:  “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the  contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (DV 8)..”  The notion of “development” must be clarified more fully. In what way is the laity in general able to participate in this task? In what may do academics participate through their research and writing in this task? Dei Verbum states that this happens not only through the Episcopate, but “through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience.” How is this realized? Could development also mean going back to the source, the Bible itself? As Dei Verbum 9 says, “this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it.” Could development itself be a resourcement? Students will often ask about passages which they find in the Bible which do not seem to comport with their understanding of the Church today.

3)       “Inerrancy”: “The books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV 11). What is meant by “without error”? This needs to be clarified because again some Catholics are claiming a sort of “inerrancy” for the Scriptures similar to that found amongst fundamentalist Christians, that is, everything in the Bible is literally true. Catholic biblical interpretation is becoming “evangelicalized” at least at a public level, or the level of the blogosphere, where I sometimes make my home. Does “without error” refer only to those truths necessary for salvation? Would the Bible assert things which are untrue, if God is the author of the Bible? Are only some things in the Bible “asserted” by God? How does one determine which these things are? The philosopher Alexander Pruss claims that “not everything in a sentence is asserted” and gives this example:

It seems that this tension still exists, as Chris Sullivan noted that Pope Benedict XVI, citing Dei Verbum 11 in full, in Verbum Domini 19 mentions that the interpretation of this passage is still an open question:

This, it seems to me, is a request for the faithful, including lay students and professors, to continue to examine these difficult questions. Alexander Pruss asks these hard questions, which could be seen as starting points for answers with respect to "inerrancy":

4)      Historicity: “For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse” (DV 12, cf. 11). What is the practical implication of understanding Scripture as more than historical? This actually cuts two ways for students: some students are angered if one claims that something is “true” but not “historical,” understanding “truth” to be only that which “really happened in this way” and wanting to maintain all of the Bible’s claims under the category of “history”; while others see this as a sly way to reject the truth claims of the Bible entirely, asserting that if some things in the Bible are not historically true than nothing in the Bible is true. In fact, both of these claims are similar. I will cite Alexander Pruss again,

This, too, requires more questions: Given that Christianity is incarnational, and certain realities must be asserted as actually having taken place, such as Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, what must be retained as historical? Do claims regarding the origin of humanity, for instance, fall into the realm of what must be claimed as historical? What Christian doctrines are impacted by claims that this thing or that person is not historical?

5)      Wide Readership: “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” (DV 22). In many ways easy access to Scripture is more a reality than any other time, at least for those with internet access or a smart phone, but we have also reached a stage where access is not equal to studying the texts or having been something the faithful, including my students, have been inculcated in. There does not seem to be a focus on Scripture amongst the faithful which Dei Verbum 21 intended:   

The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles.

I often hear students exclaim that the Bible is not that important for Catholics, since Catholics have Tradition and a Pope, and the liturgy of the Word and the homily are simple precursors to the Eucharist, but the statement that “the Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord” suggests that this is a problem which must be addressed (and fixed).

6)      The Soul of Sacred Theology: “For the Sacred Scriptures contain the word of God and since they are inspired really are the word of God; and so the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology” (DV 24). I approve of this statement very much, but do not know the extent to which it has been put into practice, for reasons stemming both from biblical scholars and other theologians. Students, both Catholic and otherwise, do not necessarily see the Bible as significant for the study of, for instance, systematic or moral theology; this has its roots in how they are trained, and by "they" I mean both the students and their professors Many theologians in sub-disciplines other than biblical studies keep themselves aloof from whatever is happening in biblical studies, claiming current biblical scholarship as too obtuse or technical for use, while biblical scholars do, sometimes, shy away from theological claims or ignore current applications of the Scripture. To put it bluntly, biblical scholars sometimes scare away scholars in other disciplines. This is a problem which must be addressed.

These, of course, are only questions raised. Next post, some more questions, though, it is possible some answers, tentative and otherwise, will be offered somewhere down the road.

John W. Martens

Follow me @Biblejunkies


  1. As Fr Harrington says, we have large doses of scripture in the Mass. That's great. But I agree with your students that it is not given the attention that DV calls for. It needs attention in the small group setting. That's not happening. So people keep leaving. Former Catholics are the the largest "denomination" in the country.

    1. Sorry I meant to say 3rd largest in the country. Well, you probably read the article by Fr Reese(citing the Pew study) in America magazine on this subject.

    2. Right you are Tom. And I do think we need to listen to these young people so we can present the Bible in all of its beauty and truth.