I’m reading through Verbum Domini now and it is a serious challenge not to race through it. For a Scripture geek like me, this is a real page-turner. But I’m pacing myself so that I can really digest what is in this document (although I’m sure I’ll read it multiple times anyway). Yesterday I mentioned that it would be helpful to read other Papal documents on Scripture from the past century in order to better understand Verbum Domini. I think it would also be very helpful to understand the context in which all these documents were written; i.e. the current debates and challenges within the world of biblical interpretation that these documents address. I’ll give a high-level overview here.
There are two major, and opposing, currents in modern biblical interpretation (“modern” meaning the past 200 years or so). They are historical-criticism and fundamentalism.
Historical-criticism is the dominant method of biblical interpretation in the academic world. Historical-critics look at the Bible as simply a human document and study it as such. They want to answer questions such as: “Who wrote this?” “When was it written?” “What is the history of its development?” “How was the text handed on through the centuries?” They are not concerned with topics such as inspiration or inerrancy, nor do they look at how one’s life might be impacted by reading the Bible. To historical-critics, biblical interpretation is a purely scientific affair that attempts to uncover the origins of the biblical text. Anything beyond that is seen as superfluous. In the academic world, whether Protestant or Catholic or secular, this is almost the only biblical interpretation that exists.
Fundamentalism is a reaction to historical-criticism that became widespread in the early 20th century and is most commonly found among conservative Protestants. It is the viewpoint that takes every word completely literally and at face-value. For example, a fundamentalist will count the years noted in Genesis and then determine how old the earth is. Fundamentalism grew because many faithful Christians believed that the historical-critical method denied the divine authorship of the Bible and they wanted to recover that.
Unfortunately, the world of biblical interpretation has become very political and advocates of these two methodologies keep each other at a distance. Anyone in the academic world who suggests divine authorship of the biblical text is immediately branded a “fundamentalist” (the worst insult in modern academia) and any Christian who suggests that perhaps certain biblical texts are not to be read as a newspaper account is labeled by fundamentalists as a godless heathen.
But which method does the Church consider the proper method of biblical interpretation? Neither…and both. While it is willing to take whatever is true and useful in both these methods, the Church does not embrace either one wholeheartedly. Many of the methods used in the historical-critical method are accepted as helpful, but the Church does not believe that the divine Word of God is only a human text that can be examined under a microscope to fully understand it (just like putting a Eucharistic host under a microscope would not reveal its reality either). And although the Church embraces the divine authorship of the Bible and does not believe it is just a human document, but it does not embrace fundamentalism as a proper method for understanding the Scriptures’ true meaning.
Proper Catholic biblical interpretation has two main pillars it bases itself on. The first is the belief that the Bible must be read in the context in which it was written, i.e. within the Church. If a historical-critic rejects the Virgin Birth because it is not “historical”, then a Catholic can be sure that this critic’s interpretation is invalid, because the same Spirit that inspired the writing of the Bible led the Church to accept this doctrine as true. Likewise, if a fundamentalist believes the earth is only 6,000 years old and thinks that rejecting that belief is “contrary to the Bible”, then a Catholic can be sure that the fundamentalist is going beyond the text, since the Church has made clear that the age of the earth is a scientific, not theological, question.
The second pillar of proper Catholic biblical interpretation is the concept of multiple “senses” of Scripture. Just as there are two authors of every biblical book – the human and the divine – so there can be two or more possible meanings of a Scriptural passage: the literal and the spiritual (often the spiritual is broken into three levels, but I’ll keep it simple for this analysis). The literal meaning is what the human author intended by the passage. Note carefully that this is not the same as the “literalism” of the fundamentalist. The human author might have intended a passage to be poetic and not a historical account. He might have intended to be making a theological point and not been reporting on events as a newspaper reporter. The literal meaning is always the first meaning of a text and it allows us to know exactly what the original author was trying to say to his original audience.
The second meaning of Scripture is the spiritual. Since the Bible has a divine author, it can have multiple layers of meaning behind each passage. For example, a Psalm which talks about the destruction of my enemies could remind us of our fight against our enemies of pride, vanity and selfishness. This might not have been what the original human author was thinking about when he wrote the Psalm, but it is a legitimate meaning, nonetheless. But the spiritual “sense” of Scripture does not give one permission to go off into flights of fancy; again, biblical interpretation – including the spiritual “sense” – must be done within the context of the Church. So if you think a bible passage’s spiritual meaning gives you permission to leave your parish and start your own church, then you have sadly misinterpreted the Bible.
This is the challenge of Catholic Scripture interpretation today: navigate the Scylla of historical-criticism and the Charybdis of fundamentalism. Verbum Domini is another notable effort by the Church’s magisterium to chart the proper course for Catholics reading the Scriptures, whether they be scholars or laypeople. Let us pray that all those who read and interpret the Bible will follow the wise counsel of the Church in this matter.
For further reading:
- Catholic Scripture Interpretation: Resting on Fundamentals, Resisting Fundamentalism
- Interpreting the Holy Bible: How the “Senses” of Scripture Provide the Foundation for a Proper Interpretive Stance