Saturday, September 1, 2012

This is Part 5 of an ongoing series. Please see the first four installments here (1: Teaching), here (2: Raising Questions), here (3: Raising Questions Dei Verbum Did Not) , and here (4: Answering Questions Raised by Dei Verbum).

Whether Dei Verbum was “too early” to have foreseen issues that would be raised in the second half of the 20th century by biblical scholars, it is interesting that other documents of Vatican II perceived something of the impact these “unraised” issues were having and would have in society, the Church, and theology more broadly. It is not a harsh criticism to say that there were some missed opportunities, as no one can predict how issues will play out culturally and theologically in the future. Perhaps it is best that these issues are only raised now, as there is research more able today to address these concerns. My comments below are simply an initial attempt to do so in light of Dei Verbum and the teaching of the Church.  As I said before, these are issues which arise naturally not just for scholars of the Bible, but for students and ordinary readers of the Bible. It is the case, too, that in raising these questions above, I went farther along the path to answering them, but there are a few things left to be said.

1) The Jewish People: As I said in Part 3, Nostra Aetate 4 (e.g., “He {God} does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues - such is the witness of the Apostle;” and “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures”) went further than DV 15 (“The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ,” etc.) in staking out ground both for the continuing reality of the Jewish covenant with God and the rejection of previous “theological” positions held by many faithful regarding the rejection of the Jews.   It is true that DV was staking out the Christian understanding of revelation, but in discussing the OT/Hebrew Bible it would be appropriate to reiterate that the role of Scripture for the Jews is not as a stale relic or monument to Christian interpretation. Both Christians and Jews seek the literal sense of the OT/Hebrew Bible and as such the Scripture remains relevant, in different ways, for both Jews and Christians. Only Christians seek the typological sense of the OT, in which Jesus is professed and prophesied, which is a profound difference, but a difference which was maintained by Jesus and the NT writers from the vantage of deeply Jewish forms of interpretation. It was not and is not a dead letter for Jews or Christians, though both interpret the Scripture differently.

From a Christian point of view, particularly Paul’s, these diverse ways of interpreting the Scriptures – why some see Jesus revealed in them and others do not - are a mystery. It is from Romans 11 that this point of view comes, a passage which NA footnotes four times, but DV not at all.  It is the case that Christian openness to and positive response to Judaism and the Jewish roots and reality of Christianity have flowered since 1965, but what a gift it could have been for biblical scholars and all readers of the Bible to have had these words, by which I mean naturally something in this vein, from The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in The Christian Bible over 30 years prior on which the Church could meditate:

36. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul makes clear that for Christians who have come from paganism, what is involved is a participation in Israel's election, God's special people. The Gentiles are “the wild olive shoot”, “grafted to the real olive” to “share the riches of the root” (Rm 11:17,24). They have no need to boast to the prejudice of the branches. “It is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (11:18).

To the question of whether the election of Israel remains valid, Paul gives two different answers: the first says that the branches have been cut off because of their refusal to believe (11:17,20), but “a remnant remains, chosen by grace” (11:5). It cannot, therefore, be said that God has rejected his people (11:1-2). “Israel failed to attain what it was seeking. The elect [that is, the chosen remnant] attained it, but the rest were hardened” (11:7). The second response says that the Jews who became “enemies as regards the Gospel” remain “beloved as regards election, for the sake of the ancestors” (11:28) and Paul foresees that they will obtain mercy (11:27,31). The Jews do not cease to be called to live by faith in the intimacy of God “for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29).

The New Testament never says that Israel has been rejected. From the earliest times, the Church considered the Jews to be important witnesses to the divine economy of salvation. She understands her own existence as a participation in the election of Israel and in a vocation that belongs, in the first place, to Israel, despite the fact that only a small number of Israelites accepted it.

While Paul compares the providence of God to the work of a potter who prepares for honour “vessels of mercy” (Rm 9:23), he declines to say that these vessels are exclusively or principally the Gentiles, rather they represent both Gentiles and Jews with a certain priority for Jews: “He called us not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles” (9:24).

79. The resistance mounted by the majority of Jews to the Christian preaching produced in Paul's heart “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (Rm 9:2), clear evidence of his great affection for them. He said that he himself was willing to accept on their behalf the greatest and most inconceivable sacrifice, to be branded “accursed”, separated from Christ (9:3). His afflictions and suffering forced him to search for a solution: in three lengthy chapters (Rm 9-11), he goes to the heart of the problem, or rather the mystery, of Israel's place in God's plan, in the light of Christ and of the Scriptures, without giving up until he is able to conclude: “and so all Israel will be saved” (Rm 11:26). These three chapters in the Letter to the Romans constitute the most profound reflection in the whole of the New Testament on Jews who do not believe in Jesus. Paul expressed there his most mature reflections.

The solution he proposed is based on the Scriptures which, in certain places, promised salvation only to a “remnant” of Israel. In this phase of salvation history then, there is only a “remnant” of Israelites who believe in Christ Jesus, but this situation is not definitive. Paul observes that, from now on, the presence of the “remnant” proves that God has not “rejected his people” (11:1). This people continues to be “holy”, that is, in close relationship with God. It is holy because it comes from a holy root, the ancestors, and because their “first fruits” have been blessed (11:16). Paul does not make it clear whether by “first fruits” he means Israel's ancestors, or the “remnant” sanctified by faith and baptism. He exploits the agricultural metaphor of the tree when he speaks of branches being cut off and grafted (11:17-24). It is understood that the cut off branches are Israelites who have refused to believe in Christ Jesus and that those grafted on are Gentile Christians. To these — as we have already noted — Paul preaches humility: “It is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (11:18). To the branches that have been cut off, Paul opens up a positive perspective: “God has the power to graft them on again” (11:23); this would be easier than in the case of the Gentiles, since it is “their own olive tree” (11:24). In the final analysis, God's plan for Israel is entirely positive: “their stumbling means riches for the world”, “how much more will their full inclusion mean?” (11:12). They are assured of a covenant of mercy by God (11:27,31).

In a world in which anti-Semitism still exists and at times flourishes, the placement of such words from a conciliar document would have meant that these complex but necessary discussions would be front and center in the life of students studying the Bible in a catholic context. It also would give them the necessary authority that a conciliar document carries for all readers of the Bible and be a bulwark against any latent anti-Semitism or attempts to minimize the continuing role of the Hebrew Scriptures for the Jews.

2) The History and Development of the Church (Ekklesia): One of the difficulties in teaching the NT and the development of the early Church to students is a stubborn understanding that many share that the Church as it is constituted now in all of its external realities was so constituted at the time of Jesus and the Apostles.  Changes in the early Church present  a practical example of how the Church develops and how a “growth in the understanding” takes place historically of which Dei Verbum 8 does speak. It would have been a perfect way to note the reality of historical development in the structures of the Church and bring into conversation this reality as stated in Gaudium et Spes, that “historical studies make it much easier to see things in their mutable and evolutionary aspects.”  This does not weaken the strength of the Church, but would allow students to see historical development as a role that members of the whole Church participate in and note that not all aspects of Church structure or governance are immutable but subject to necessary and essential change. 

3) The Impact of Science on the Study of the Bible: It has perhaps become more of a current issue amongst evangelical scholars to raise questions about evolution, the creation accounts in Genesis, the reality of a primal Fall by two original human beings and how this impacts a doctrine such as Original Sin and whether this casts in doubt the inerrancy of the Bible, but that is only because most of these issues have been considered settled by Catholic biblical scholars. Whether they are, though, is a question mark, if not for biblical scholars then for many Catholic writers in the blogosphere. When the conciliar fathers penned Gaudium et Spes 62, which states that “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,” it is too bad that DV did not enter into this discussion. Perhaps it was too early, even scientifically, to answer such questions, but it could have settled the boundaries of such a discussion if not the answers to all questions raised.  The reason, though, that evolution, what sort of original first pair existed, and original sin are up in the air and problematic has to do to a large degree with fundamentalist readings of Scripture and faulty hermeneutical stances (see point 4 below). But there are also significant scientific issues that remain.

Given that evolutionary polygenism seems to be a scientific reality, at what point do the first pair come into being and what creates their relationship with God? Is it the giving of the human souls? Was it only given to a first pair, while others of their (physical) kind were not given a soul? Did two sorts of beings exist at once, those human in every way but the soul and those without the soul? Since death and suffering must have been realities prior to the evolution of the first homo sapiens, do we still term death one of the effects of the Fall? Was their sin prior to the origin of the first humans or can it only be termed such in light of the first humans entering into a conscious relationship with God? I believe we are still at the early, tentative stages of determining the real questions, some of which might be answered with solid biblical interpretation, but the opening of such questions by DV would have placed us farther along this trajectory. At some point, I am sure, the Church will respond to these issues, but an opportunity was missed 50 years ago to move farther along the road John Paul II envisioned:

It is a call that Catholic biblical scholars need to heed and much of biblical scholarship has already made clear a way to read these ancient texts, but these methods need to be brought into conversation with the sciences more fully.

4) Types of Biblical Interpretation Suitable for the Church: It has become clear, to those who examine the matter, that there is not a problem with historical critical methods as such, but with the philosophical presuppositions that are used by various interpreters. This was stated by the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, and its focus on philosophical hermeneutics as a means of determining what presuppositions cannot be maintained by scholars working in ecclesial settings. Its discussion of hermeneutics centers on presuppositions which deny the revealed character of the Bible or dismiss certain parts of the Bible as ahistorical without actual historical study due to a priori assumptions about the nature of what can and cannot be historical, for instance, questioning the reality of God, or Jesus’ divinity.

While the issue of historicity in a general way is dealt with in DV 12 - “truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse” - no guidance is given as to what methods might be best suited for different forms of literature in the biblical corpus. By this I do not mean to say that we needed a comment on when historical critical techniques are useful, and what sorts of methods are most useful for poetic texts or prophetic texts, as each interpreter will use what methods they find applicable and put them before an audience for acceptance or rejection at a scholarly level.  What I mean is that though the NT itself contains spiritual readings of the OT,  and though the Church Fathers employed allegorical and other spiritual readings of Scripture, and so this is part of the heritage of the Church and ecclesial interpreters, there is no guidance as to whether these spiritual methods ought to be utilized anew by interpreters today, or whether the techniques of modern interpretation remove the need for that kind of spiritual interpretation as we can utilize historical, literary and other forms of interpretation that take the place of these methods.

As noted previously, the Catechism of the Catholic Church  115-119 listed  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." Yet, there is no guidance as to how to work “according to these rules,” in the CCC or DV. It would have been helpful if DV had said something about the continuing use of these spiritual senses, which often seem to reflect the unique flights of fancy of Patristic interpreters and it is not obvious how such methods might be replicated today. If the truth of Scripture can be found in utilizing a  panoply of modern exegetical techniques, which account for the literal sense of Scripture, not the literalistic sense, and which can guide by taking account of advances in the sciences, as well as theology, it is not clear to me that  allegorical methods are needed to maintain the depth of the spiritual meaning of Scripture, as it was for the ancient and medieval interpreters.

5) The Role of Women in the Church:  Many passages on women in the Bible have been reconsidered in light of the literary and historical contexts of the writings themselves, including considering certain passages as responses to other Christians who might devalue the place of sexuality in Christian marriage (e.g., 1 Cor. 7, 2; 1 Timothy 2:12-15), the cultural milieu in which a passage was written (1 Cor. 11:2-16), or the overlooked place of women in the early Church (such as Priscilla, Julia, and Phoebe, or perhaps 1 Timothy 3:11). As Gaudium et Spes 55 stated that “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,” it has become obvious that the roles of women as culturally defined in the ancient world are not the roles necessarily culturally defined in the modern world.  While the Church has spoken authoritatively about what women may not do in the Church it has spent less time defining the possible use of women’s’ gifts in new cultural climates. This reality jumps out to our current students, Catholic and otherwise, who see many of the positions of the Church as cultural artifacts to which they are stubbornly clinging. Why do passages regarding the role of women have eternal value, for instance, while those concerning slaves do not, even when such roles are defined in the same passage (Ephesians 6:1-9, Colossians 3:18-4:1, 1 Peter 2:18-3:7) – this is the sort of question asked by students. While it would have been a great boon if DV had taken note of women and their changing roles specifically, it would have been almost as effective if it had said a word on the ongoing, perhaps perpetual, task of sorting out culturally bound tradition from that which has eternal value for the Church. This might have been what was meant by DV 8 but it is not clear or direct enough to guide us in this respect. 

6) The Family:  The nature of the family is as impacted by changes in modernity as is the role of women, but especially today arguments regarding the nature of the family have to account for cultural constructions and roles, just as the ancient family did. It is no exaggeration to say that the ancient family, including Christian families, continued to utilize the lives of slaves and did so for centuries. What is related in the parables of Jesus and the epistolary evidence (of Paul and others) regarding slaves was found throughout the Christian world to the end of antiquity at least. Beyond antiquity, slavery was found even until the 19th century as a legal practice even in the United States and often buttressed by biblical passages.  As in the previous discussion on women, slavery represents a role in the family and society that is now rejected by the Church: how and on what basis were passages considering slavery understood to represent ancient institutional practices and not present day realities, even though the NT does not speak against such an institution, at least not directly and with unanimity? Does slavery offer a model for re-examining the continuation of other familial and societal roles which are still maintained today?

Children were not the equivalent of slaves but their role in the family in antiquity was organized by a strict hierarchy in which they might have, at certain ages, have come under the authority of slaves. Children were considered incipient adults, and there was not a great deal of focus on their psychological or moral development, or the impact of trauma, physical or otherwise, upon them, only that when they reached a certain physiological age they would be treated as adults. Modern understanding of how children develop has altered views of when children are considered able to work, when they ought to be married or have sexual relations, and how physical and other abuse harms them in their development and might affect behavior in the long term. As the various sciences have considered child development, and as these considerations have changed the way in which we treat and value children, not only do we need to reconsider the role of children in the family as outlined by certain biblical passages –often used to excuse abuse of various sorts or unquestioning obedience – but we need to reconsider Jesus’ positive statements regarding children as model disciples. Again, as with respect to women, DV did not offer even general guidance in this respect, not that it would have needed to speak directly about every familial role, but it could have taken the lead from Gaudium et Spes 54-55 that biblical scholarship must consider certain roles in the family and what remained eternally useful and valuable and what simply reflected the culture of its day with respect to women, children and slaves, and, for that matter, men and masculinity.

DV is a document which remains a touchstone regarding the inspired and revealed nature of  Scripture and a wonderful document for introducing the Catholic understanding of Scripture to students of all religious backgrounds. As with any significant document, it might raise more questions than it answers, and considering these answers remains the ongoing task of the laity, biblical scholars and the Church. Just as DV said!

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. John: Excellent series. Thank you so much. Have you covered or will you be covering Dei verbum 15 ("incomplete and provisional" elements in the OT)? I'm trying to get started with some study on how God could order Joshua to kill, and jive that with the message of Jesus. I love the OT, but as of now I'm not too skilled at giving a defense for what I believe on this subject. Any help or tips on where to start would be appreciated. Tom Schuessler Mayville WI

  2. Tom: The OT's "The LORD says this..." is the standard stock introduction to the prophet's message, being how the prophet interprets God's will. That interpretation is, of course, socially and historically conditioned. The PBC has a document on the Jewish interpretation of scripture with some very helpful comments on Joshua and the "ban".

    At the time when Deuteronomy was written — as well as the Book of Joshua — the ban was a theoretical postulate, since non-Israelite populations no longer existed in Judah. The ban then could be the result of a projection into the past of later preoccupations. Indeed, Deuteronomy is anxious to reinforce the religious identity of a people exposed to the danger of foreign cults and mixed marriages. 251

    Therefore, to appreciate the ban, three factors must be taken into account in interpretation; theological, moral, and one mainly sociological: the recognition of the land as the inalienable domain of the lord;the necessity of guarding the people from all temptation which would compromise their fidelity to God; finally, the all too human temptation of mingling with religion the worst forms of resorting to violence.

    para 52 on the particularly vehement prophetic writings is also helpful to put Joshua into a wider context of Israel reflecting back on her past infidelities during/after the exile.


    You have written a wonderful tribute to that great scripture scholar Cdl Martini RIP.

    God Bless