On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church

The eternal Word became incarnate at a precise period of history, within a clearly defined cultural and social environment. Anyone who desires to understand the word of God should humbly seek it out there where it has made itself visible and accept to this end the necessary help of human knowledge. Addressing men and women, from the beginnings of the Old Testament onward, God made use of all the possibilities of human language, while at the same time accepting that his word be subject to the constraints caused by the limitations of this language. Proper respect for inspired Scripture requires undertaking all the labors necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning. Certainly, it is not possible that each Christian personally pursue all the kinds of research which make for a better understanding of the biblical text. This task is entrusted to exegetes, who have the responsibility in this matter to see that all profit from their labor.

– Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Magisterum of the Church underwent various reorganizations. The Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC), originally established by Pope Leo XIII, was removed as an institution of the Church and reorganized as an unofficial body of consulting scholars; Pope John Paul II later incorporated the PBC into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where it continued its work of aiding the Magisterium in ensuring the proper interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

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On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Dei Verbum

Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction from these words of St. John: ‘We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ’ (1Jn 1:2-3). Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.

Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation)

22 years after Pius XII’s encyclical on biblical studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Paul VI promulgated Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council.

Dei Verbum begins with an extended reflection on the nature of Divine Revelation itself. Stressing the importance of both God’s words and deeds (2), the document goes on to show that “Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself… especially through His death and glorious resurrection.” Because revelation has been perfected, “we now await no further new public revelation” (4). Finally, the Council Fathers affirm that while God can be known through the light of human reason, it is only through grace that man is able to submit to revealed truth (5,6). Continue reading “On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Dei Verbum”

On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu

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.

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