Friday, August 24, 2012

This is Part 4 of an ongoing series. Please see the first three installments here (1: Teaching), here (2: Raising Questions), and here (3: Raising Questions Dei Verbum Did Not).

The questions raised by the text of Dei Verbum itself ought to be the simplest to answer, since the questions arise from data in the document, but this does not mean the answers will be simple.

1)      Apostolic Origin of The Gospels: With respect to DV 18 (“The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin”) and DV 19 (“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” ) one must be careful not to interpret these claims to the maximal level: the Gospels as we have them were written directly by Apostles; and the Gospels give us straightforward historical accounts without development in understanding, through reflection, the guidance of the Holy Spirit,  liturgy, or literary tropes. We should not, however, make the more grievous mistake of rejecting these statements out of hand. What biblical scholars do not know about the actual authorship of the Gospels amounts to a lot.

Since Vatican II the understanding of the role of oral tradition by biblical scholars in guiding communities’ written tradition and a more amorphous sense of authorship  than we would claim in modernity (and post-modernity) allow us to posit the nascent role of the apostles in shaping and forming the tradition without actually being authors in the final sense. The bottom line is that we do not know the sources of all of the oral tradition, or the layers of the oral and written tradition, but it does not beggar the imagination to think that the Twelve whom Jesus chose, and other close disciples, had a hand in shaping the tradition at various stages of its promulgation. Someone had to make the initial translation from Aramaic into Greek – a fact often forgotten when discussing the Gospels – and some bilingual disciple (or disciples) must have taken on this role. Recall, even the tradition itself attributes authorship to two men who were not amongst the Twelve, Mark and Luke, and so it is reasonable to suggest that the tradition went through a number of stages before being written and that the final shape of any one Gospel is not attributable only to one person. Determining how many stages the Gospels went through, oral and written, to reach the final written document might be an impossible task, but it is a task that bears repeated attempts.

In any case, the claim of “historical character” must be treated with the same caution.  Careful readers will see variations, some small, and some great, amongst the Four Gospels. Philosophical foundations will cause some biblical scholars to reject parts of the Gospels, such as miracle accounts and Jesus’ resurrection, as a priori ahistorical events, but this is not done on the basis of history but a particular notion of reality in which God may not intrude or does not exist. Christians are not bound by this kind of pseudo-history. This does not mean, however, that we can render a verdict that the Gospels are, therefore, straightforward historical documents; what it does do is allow into the court of history as evidence all of the Gospel material. Cross-examination takes place in careful study of the Gospels, first century Judaism, the Greco-Roman world, and all of the cultural and religious data we can muster. In addition, philological and other literary data must be taken in as evidence where warranted. And such examination could find some of the Gospel material developed after the Easter event or in light of the Church’s tradition and the experience of the early Christians, or even perhaps by the hand of the redactor(s). This does not mean the Gospels are ahistorical, only that they are more complex than straightforward historical documents – because they are ancient; because they consider a unique man; because they make strange claims about this unique man; and because there are four accounts which must be reconciled. The Gospels do have a “historical character,” but this is a nuanced statement.

2)       Development in Understanding:  One of the most dissected statements is DV 8:“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.” 

There are two aspects in formulating a response to DV 8: the notions of “development” and “growth in the understanding" must be defined;” and the roles played by “believers” who contemplate and study these things and the Episcopate in determining what counts as genuine development and growth in understanding must be defined. DV foresees a role for the laity, I would argue both ordinary believers and experts, through “a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience.”  At this point, however, many laity see their role as superfluous to the task of the Church and how it reads Scripture, both for ordinary believers, including students, and experts in their given fields. The relationship is seen as a one way street in which the Church authoritatively pronounces on Scripture and the laity receives it. The manner in which the Church listens to the laity is currently seen most profoundly, and unfortunately, in its condemnations of theologians. The Church has authority and theologians must listen, but the relationship must be brought to balance.When does the Church publicly praise theologians for their penetrating insights, advances in understanding, and expert guidance? The laity must listen, but a laity which is not heard is a laity that cannot aid in  development and growth of understanding.

The model given for the laity is Mary, which DV references twice (Luke 2:19, 51), who heard the voice of God and listened to something new in her midst. If the laity are given this same task, as DV 8 states then the means by which something new could develop, such as growth in understanding, could take place through a genuine hearing of the laity. For many students whom I have taught what they hear through their study takes us back to the New Testament: a focus on the simplicity of the early Church and its teachings which they do not find in the Church today. That is, development partly consists of going back to the sources to hear the words of God anew. Beyond that there is a constant and ongoing process, too fast for some and too slow for others, of hearing God’s voice saying something new in our midst.

3)       “Inerrancy”:  The dispute regarding the interpretation of DV 11 (“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”) is longstanding. Does it mean that the Bible contains spiritual truths which are “without error” or does it mean that the Bible is in all respects, scientifically, historically, theologically, "without error"? The claim that the Bible contains “no errors” is simply not able to be maintained and students and other readers of the Scripture simply will not accept this, if it means that all things stated in the Bible must be accepted as true, because they know it is not true. What is essential is an ability to interpret the Bible carefully in its own historical, cultural, and literary context and this is where DV in speaking about literary genre opened the door for unraveling this statement.

Biblical interpretation must focus on the context for individual books, historically, culturally, and literarily, and individual passages within these books; one must also know the ancient languages and carefully study the individual words for meaning. One must also, at the higher levels of study, pay attention to the texts themselves, the textual variants in the original languages and the other ancient versions and the use of the Scripture by the Church fathers. The human dimension, that is, the human authorship of which DV speaks, must be accorded the same attention as the claim of divine authorship in assessing DV 8.  

At that point, one may ask, as Alexander Pruss does, what is being asserted by the divine author in this sentence (or passage) because “not everything in a sentence is asserted.” Biblical interpretation strives for the literal meaning of a text, but not literalism; by literalism I mean the position that everything asserted in the biblical text is true or everything in a biblical passage is equally significant. What is needed today is a focus on “Antioch” (the primacy of the literal sense) combined with a focus on “Alexandria” (the affirmation of the full scope and unity of divine revelation). While the ancient Alexandrians, and the ancient Church as a whole, needed the allegorical sense as a means to maintain the unity of Scripture due to a lack of a sense of history, of change and development as necessary aspects of human life and of the diversity of human life and experience, we do not have the same need. We are able, since the rise of historical consciousness, to understand change and development, diversity and unity, and to maintain the unity of Scripture as God operating amongst people at different points in human history.

The focus since the rise of the historical consciousness has been on the literal sense. But in turning away from the allegorical and the spiritual senses more generally, we have turned away from transcendence in biblical studies. This is the barrenness which people find in much biblical studies, even though it is technically excellent and essential and sometimes unfairly maligned. “The most pressing exigence in biblical hermeneutics today is for a critical synthesis of Antioch and Alexandria, i.e., for the projecting of horizons at once fully differentiated by a historical consciousness and fully open to the transcendent mystery of salvation” (Ben F. Meyer, CRINTS, 33).  The lack of this synthesis is the reason people are turning to a sort of undifferentiated Alexandrian interpretation today, or to fundamentalist readings of the Bible: strictly Antiochean readings do not meet spiritual needs for most. But they will find Alexandrian readings alone a difficult place to sojourn as the reality of the Bible cannot be fulfilled in simplistic readings. We cannot just turn to the past, we need to turn to new spiritual readings of the Bible today and discern how it is speaking authentically to those in need throughout the world. In this sense, we have to take Pope Benedict XVI’s words, noted earlier in Part 2, from Verbum Domini 19 where he writes,

4)      Historicity: DV 12 acknowledges that the biblical writings are not simply historical documents (“For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse”), but the practical implication of this assertion is not explored. In fact, 1) above is a subset in many ways of this claim. First, students must be introduced to the literary genres in the Bible and to understand the historical contexts in which they were first written. Second, and concurrently, students need to be presented with the incarnational nature of Scripture, that it was written by human beings who were bound by their own time and place, just as we are. These might be considered “limitations” in a negative sense, bound by history and the limited capacities and resources of the human writers, but also as a “limitation” by and through which God takes account of human beings in their concrete reality, which also places a burden on us to make sense of these texts concretely for our own time and place. Third, students must be introduced to the fact that not everything from the past was intended as historical, at least not as we understand that meaning today, and we need in light of literary genre to determine which texts ought to be read symbolically or figuratively.

      This is also a difficult process, precisely because Christianity is incarnational. Since Christianity rests on the reality of  Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection, it is essential that these events be historical, though the manner in which they are described may not fully be historical (e.g., I am thinking particularly of the Infancy Narratives.  Yet, this process must be engaged in consistently at the concrete level of particular passages, people, events and determining what such study implies for certain doctrines and we must not shy away from the hard questions.

5)      Wide Readership: The Catholic Liturgy is peppered with Scripture, but DV 22 (“Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful”) will not be realized until the faithful realize it and meditate on it. This ought to be done in various ways, such as through lectio divina and other sorts of prayerful reading, but also in critical Bible study which is not a “walk through the Bible” type approach in which all the events are made to fit together like pieces in a divine puzzle or in which someone holds the key that unlocks all of the doors previously closed to you. Bible study, at the university level naturally, but also at a parish level, needs to account for the serious questions that the faithful have and not suppose that the issues discussed in critical academic study are beyond understanding. This will only take place through intentional practice so that the truth of DV 21 can be realized: the only way the Scriptures will be venerated just as the Church “venerates the body of the Lord” will be to make available to the faithful serious study of the Bible even beyond the liturgy.

6)      The Soul of Sacred Theology:  In Catholic theological circles, there must be a consistent effort to see that DV 24  (“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”) is realized in every theological sub-discipline. Biblical scholars must make new findings and research available to all theologians, but theologians in other disciplines must constantly keep the word of God at the forefront of their own research. The reality is that most theologians have more than a cursory acquaintance with Scripture, and many have been trained extremely well in it, but it is easy in any sub-discipline to be drowned in the minutiae of one’s own field and lose touch with the Bible. Biblical theologians, by consistently maintaining contact with theologians in other sub-disciplines, will not only introduce moral and systematic theologians, for instance, to new study in the biblical fields, but  will keep themselves apprised of how research in other theological fields – or in psychology, physics, history or sociology -  might impinge on their own research, i.e., how research into mass conversion in the 20th century might aid us in understanding the growth of the early Church.

Next entry will deal with tentative answers to issues raised by reading Dei Verbum, but not raised in Dei Verbum itself.

John W. Martens

 Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. This is brilliant ! Thank you!

    Very much charts a way forward in the present difficulties, including for theology.

    God Bless

  2. Chris,

    Thanks so much for your kind comment. I appreciate it!