Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Teaching Dei Verbum, however, also reveals ways in which the document was, as some have said of Vatican II in general, “too early,” in that significant issues and questions remained untouched. Many, but not all, of these issues in biblical studies have still not been addressed in a systematic manner by the Church, but some were actually hinted at in other documents of Vatican II and not integrated into Dei Verbum. These are issues which when teaching the Bible today demand some attention not just for biblical scholars but for current students.

1) The Jewish People: DV, 15 states, “The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy (see Luke 24:44; John 5:39; 1 Peter 1:10), and to indicate its meaning through various types (see 1 Cor. 10:12).” I think the passage regarding the OT should have taken more account of the continuing role of the Hebrew Bible/Tanak for the Jewish people and the continuing place and role of the Jewish people in God’s salvific plan. As this issue was covered in Nostra Aetate 4 in some depth, some of the reflections found in NA should have found its way into DV, in expanded form, such as these comments which follow:

Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle.(11) In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and "serve him shoulder to shoulder" (Soph. 3:9).(12)

Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.

It is the case, frankly, that Jewish and Christian dialogue at the academic level has taken root and been incredibly fruitful since Vatican II, although much of this was already taking place in light of reflection by biblical scholars on WWII and the holocaust. The knowledge of Judaism at the time of Jesus has grown amongst Christian biblical scholars and numerous Jewish scholars of early Christianity and the New Testament have made their mark on the study of Christianity. It should have been reiterated in DV, though, particularly by examining Paul’s words in Romans 9-11, which are footnoted four times in NA, but not once in DV. This passage should have been discussed and examined at some point in DV IV, 14-16;

In addition, the claim made in NA 4 regarding the Christian response to the Jews should also have made its way into DV:

Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

This sort of statement, as a starting point, should have been placed in the discussion of the OT and Judaism in Dei Verbum. This would have meant that everyone studying the Scriptures would have come face to face with the need for Christians to understand not just the historic role of Judaism in the Church, but the continuing place of the Jewish people in God’s covenant. It would take almost 40 years for the Pontifical Biblical Commission to produce the document The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in The Christian Bible, which is not to suggest this was too late, but it could have been, in shorter form naturally, much earlier.

2) The History and Development of the Church (Ekklesia): Dei Verbum does not make much note of the reality of historical development. The word historical appears twice - in DV 12 where it simply notes that truth is expressed differently in historical, poetic and other sorts of texts and in 19 in which it states that the Church maintains the “historical character” of the Gospels. There should have been some discussion of historicity especially in connection with development in the Church. This was on the minds of the Council fathers as Gaudium et Spes discusses the development of the Church (GS 54, “historical studies make it much easier to see things in their mutable and evolutionary aspects”); this should have been covered as well, in DV  II, 7-10, preferably 8, in which it states, “this tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.” This development and the historical reality of change could have been made abundantly clear by discussing the growth and development of the Church structure, which many students understand as having been established at one point in history and not having developed over centuries; some discussion of the Church itself, beyond the apostles, and the growth and development of the structures of the Church, emerging from both Judaism and early Christianity itself, including of course the New Testament, would have been welcome. The 1993 PBC document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church covered historical critical method well, but not its application to Church structures.

3) The Impact of the Science on the Study of the Bible:  Gaudium et Spes 62 states, “The recent studies and findings of science, history and philosophy raise new questions which effect life and which demand new theological investigations. Furthermore, theologians, within the requirements and methods proper to theology, are invited to seek continually for more suitable ways of communicating doctrine to the men of their times; for the deposit of Faith or the truths are one thing and the manner in which they are enunciated, in the same meaning and understanding, is another.” A similar comment in DV, perhaps in Chapters I, II or VI would have been very productive in opening up discussions of creation and evolution, especially as it relates to the creation itself, the creation of human beings with respect to evolution, the first human pair and the doctrine of original sin, and the way in which the Bible makes assertions in the language of its day as does science in the language of our day.

Instead, we remain in the tentative stages of determining this relationship (the following two paragraphs are taken from my piece Adam and Eve: Real People?). In the Letter Of His Holiness John Paul II To Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J. Director Of The Vatican Observatory (1988), John Paul II acknowledged that we were still in a feeling out period between science and theology. His comments though looked positively to the flowering of this relationship:

 Apart from the general claim that we cannot ignore the relationship between science and theology, significantly he stated  that “theology will have to call on the findings of science to one degree or another as it pursues its primary concern for the human person, the reaches of freedom, the possibilities of Christian community, the nature of belief and the intelligibility of nature and history.” This is a task that will be perpetually unfinished in some ways, as both science and theology are perpetually unfinished, but it seems that clarity is still needed in determining the basic implications of what even a theistic understanding of evolution implies for human origins. This is quite apart from the literary study of Genesis, which has clearly outlined the complex nature of these myths of human origins, their relationship to and dependence upon other ancient Near Eastern accounts of human origins and the theological not historical nature of these accounts. As John Paul II asked,

These are all excellent questions, but though GS raised the issue at the time of Vatican II, these same questions did not find their way into DV which have left these questions less settled than many Catholic biblical scholars might have thought. For those of us who have thought the answers of human origins in Catholic theology were more clearly in line with the findings of evolutionary theory, there seems to be more ambiguity still to explore.

4) Types of Biblical Interpretation Suitable for the Church: Although the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, noted above, added much to our understanding of methods acceptable for interpretation, DV would have benefited from some additions to Chapter III, 11-13 specifically dealing with what it means to say that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit” (DV, 11). Does this indicate that everything written in the Bible is “asserted” by the Holy Spirit? Since the “truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture” (DV, 12). Some direct word that not every text of the Bible is intended to reflect historical and scientific reality would have been helpful in teaching students beyond the mention that there are literary genres within the biblical corpus. While this would open up other questions regarding the historical contextuality and factual nature of statements in the Bible, it would also have been able to orient these discussions to the theological truth of particular passages and the Bible as a whole.

As well, though this has been covered to some extent in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the relationship between historical methods and the traditional methods of biblical interpretation in the Church from antiquity to modernity, such as allegorical, typological and anagogical, was not explored at all in Dei Verbum. Only DV 15 regarding the OT even mentioned the word “types:” “The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy (see Luke 24:44; John 5:39; 1 Peter 1:10), and to indicate its meaning through various types (see 1 Cor. 10:12).”   Since that time, the Catechism of the Catholic Church  115-119 has noted the spiritual senses and then cited DV 12 in CCC 119 to say that, "It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgement. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgement of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”

But really no guidelines have been given for how historical study is to relate to the spiritual senses. This remains a lacuna in biblical studies: how are historical studies, which I call the style of Antioch, to relate to spiritual senses, which I call Alexandrian (both styles named after the ancient interpretive styles associated with these ancient Churches)? It is one thing to take account of ancient and medieval use of allegory, but are current scholars also intended to engage in such studies as more than archaeological, albeit significant archaeological, work? Is historical critical work sufficient for research?

5) The Role of Women in the Church:  Gaudium et Spes 55 reads in part, “from day to day, in every group or nation, there is an increase in the number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the authors and the artisans of the culture of their community. Throughout the whole world there is a mounting increase in the sense of autonomy as well as of responsibility. This is of paramount importance for the spiritual and moral maturity of the human race.” Gaudium et Spes 54 reads, “the circumstances of the life of modern man have been so profoundly changed in their social and cultural aspects, that we can speak of a new age of human history.(1) New ways are open, therefore, for the perfection and the further extension of culture. These ways have been prepared by the enormous growth of natural, human and social sciences, by technical progress, and advances in developing and organizing means whereby men can communicate with one another.”

The role of women in the Bible and the developing Church were not considered at Vatican II and this is a gaping lacuna now for students of the Bible. Students of the Bible in the five decades since the opening of the council have started to study the structures of human life in the ancient Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds in a way that might never have been imagined back then, gaining understanding of the hierarchical nature of such life, the role of women in marriage, the age of women (or girls) at marriage and the function of women in both broader social life and the life of the emerging Church. As such understanding has been gained, it is hard not to see these structures as socially constructed roles in many respects; yet, it is these socially constructed roles which influenced passages on women in the NT which are then said to have eternal value. Sorting out what is a culturally bound tradition from that which has eternal value for the Church is an ongoing enterprise of biblical scholarship. Nothing of this issue, however, was noted directly in DV.

6) The Family: Directly related to the role of women and the passages just cited from Gaudium et Spes 54-55 is the understanding that the family as represented in the OT and NT and in the developing Church was mutable and part of a hierarchical familial structure common in the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. As we understand more the family structure in the ancient world we understand the roles played by husbands, wives and children in the family and it makes certain biblical passages regarding family clearer, but also more challenging. The fact that slaves could not legally be married or have legally accepted families, or control of their own bodies, that women remained under the power of the pater familias or husband, that children attained the age of majority, especially girls, at a much younger age, subverts our  accepted understanding of family and clarifies the differences between today’s sense of family. The stable nature which we assign to the nuclear family was not necessarily evident in the ancient world, at least not for the vast majority of people.

I have raised two sorts of issues or questions: those which are explicit in Dei Verbum (Part 2); and those questions which have arisen due to new research on the biblical texts but might have been hinted at by other Vatican II documents, directly or indirectly (Part 3). The question now is: how should we answer these two sorts of questions?These will be coming up in the next posts.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. Thanks for a most interesting and helpful series.

    God Bless

  2. Thanks Chris! I expect two more "parts." I hope to get them done before I stand in front of a class this semester!