On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu

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Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order “to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” (2Tim 3:16-17) This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness.

– Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu

Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu 65 years ago today, in 1943 on the feast of St. Jerome. Later described as a “Magna Carta for biblical progress,  the encyclical letter outlines a general approach to the Catholic understanding of the Bible and biblical studies. In particular Pope Pius reviews some of the prevailing œsecular  approaches to studying Scripture and outlines their proper use by Catholic scholars, so that modern scholars will “neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers.” (40)

Pius begins his letter by praising Pope Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, which sought to safeguard the Scriptures against various modern readings (collectively referred to as “higher criticisms”). Leo was concerned about the use of the historical-critical method in interpreting Scripture and declared that true science will never contradict Scripture properly understood.

Having acknowledged Pope Leo for his stern defense of Scripture, Pius then outlines how the landscape of biblical studies has changed in the 50 years since Providentissimus Deus was issued. (11) Pius draws particular attention to new archaeological findings in the Holy Lands, including the discovery of ancient versions of the biblical books and related early Christian writings (Pius may have been referring to the various documents found in the city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt at the end of the 19th century). Such discoveries had considerably added to scholars’ knowledge of the language, customs and culture of the Ancient Near East peoples.

Indeed, Pius commends scholars in their use of the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek) to more accurately perceive the meaning of the original authors. While still maintaining the privileged place of the Latin Vulgate, Pius recognizes that use of the original languages will allow scholars a keener insight into the intent of the Sacred Writers, since œthe original text… has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation.  (16)

Pius also commends the use of modern methods to identify the most authentic texts available, i.e. textual criticism. It is one of the “dirty little secrets” of biblical studies that there are hundreds of ancient versions of the biblical texts, and not all of them agree on the exact wording or phrasing of some passages. In Pope Leo’s time scholars made use of textual criticism “quite arbitrarily and often in such wise that one would say they did so to introduce into the sacred text their own preconceived ideas,” while by the time of Pius’ writing such criticism “has rules so firmly established and secure, that it has become a most valuable aid to the purer and more accurate editing of the sacred text and that any abuse can easily be discovered.” (18)

Finally, Pius commends the use of literary (or form) criticism, which is the means by which biblical scholars interpret Scripture through the use of different literary forms (poetry, narrative, laws, parable, etc.). (36) Ancient authors, including the authors of Scripture, “did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries.” By examining these forms, and their use in ancient literature, scholars gain insight into the intent of the Sacred Writers. For instance, when a charge is made that the Bible contradicts some historical fact, the cause may actually be found in the particular linguistic expressions found in ancient culture.

The goal of all these methods, according to Pius, is to arrive at a literal interpretation of Scripture. (23) By that he does not mean a “literalistic” interpretation in which every word is interpreted without regard for context, but one in which words are taken for their “plain” meaning. For instance, when Christ says, “I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved: and he shall go in and go out, and shall find pastures” (Jn 10:9), he is not saying that he has hinges, is mounted into a wall and can be opened and closed; the literal meaning in this passage is that he is talking in metaphor: Jesus is the way to heaven. On the other hand, when the evangelists describe Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, there is nothing within the text to indicate that they are recording anything but history; here, the literal sense is historical in nature. Pius contrasts this literal sense with an overly mystical sense, by which he means interpreting all of Scripture as a metaphor for the spiritual, rather than as a record of actual events.

Pius concludes his encyclical by encouraging Catholic scholars to continue to unpack the riches of the Bible and to not be deterred by the challenges that remain. (40) He also exhorts bishops and priests to make great use of Scripture in their preaching and teaching (50, 51) and seminaries to train all future priests in the means of exegesis (54) so that they may be instilled with a love of the Divine Word.

Pius concludes his encyclical with an appeal for peace. (56) Writing in the midst of the Second World War, Pius calls all people to search for Christ in Scripture, for

those who are wearied and oppressed by adversities and afflictions will find true consolation and divine strength to suffer and bear with patience; there – that is in the Holy Gospels – Christ, the highest and greatest example of justice, charity and mercy, is present to all; and to the lacerated and trembling human race are laid open the fountains of that divine grace without which both peoples and their rulers can never arrive at, never establish, peace in the state and unity of heart; there in fine will all learn Christ, “Who is the head of all principality and power” (Col 2:10.) and “Who of God is made unto us wisdom and justice and sanctification and redemption.” (1Cor 1:30)

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