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"A Word Addressed by God to His People": Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | May 19, 2009

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"The God of the Bible is not some absolute Being who, crushing everything he touches, would suppress all the difference and all nuances. On the contrary, he is God the Creator, who created the astonishing variety of beings 'each according to its kind,' as the Genesis account says repeatedly. Far from destroying differences, God respects them and makes use of them (cf 1 Cor 12:18, 24, 28)." -- John Paul II, "Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." [1]

"Being faithful to the Church means, in fact, fitting into the current of the great Tradition. Under the guidance of the Magisterium, Tradition has recognized the canonical writings as a word addressed by God to his People, and it has never ceased to meditate upon them and to discover their inexhaustible riches." -- Benedict XVI, "The Life and Mission of the Church Based on the Word of God." [2]


The major milestones in the Church's official dealing with the methods of interpreting Scripture and what Scripture essentially means have been recently commemorated. In 1893, Leo XIII issued Providentissimus Deus, which dealt with the issue of whether or not modern science has made the material found in Scripture obsolete. It hadn't. Leo XIII established the Biblical Commission in 1902. Pius X founded the Biblical Institute in1909. On the 1500th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, Benedict XV, in 1920, wrote an encyclical on interpreting the Bible.

In 1943, Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu fifty years after Providentissimus Deus was published. At that time, Pius was concerned with a movement that apparently denied that any use of scientific critical method was of value. This encyclical is generally considered to be the mandate summarizing the Church's ideas of Bible scholarship and modern methods of research.

Vatican II, in 1965, issued its own document on Scripture, Dei Verbum. "Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture," the Council stated,
have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Holy Mother Church, relying on the belief of the apostles, holds that the books of the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (#11).
The essential themes are here: 1) Divine realities are presented. 2) The Church relies for this truth on the testimony of the apostles. 3) The parts and the whole of both testaments as such are canonical and sacred. 4) Biblical authors are inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writing. 5) God is the ultimate author. And 6) what is written is found in the Church.

In 1993, the Biblical Commission itself produced a lengthy document (105 pages), entitled, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. In its Preface, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger clarified the legal status of this Commission. It "is not an organ of the teaching office, but rather a commission of scholars, who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take positions on important problems of Scriptural interpretation and know that for this task they enjoy the confidence of the teaching office." [3] The Church wants scholars to be genuine scholars, but it also wants them to be prepared for the whole picture of what they study.

The Church recognizes the place of scholarship in its mission. At the same time, it recognizes that those who pursue scientific knowledge of any sort have their own presuppositions. For better or worse, these assumptions will affect their work. This is but a particular application of the general discussion of faith and reason found in all modern popes.

This combination is why Ratzinger uses the term "believing exegetes." There are "unbelieving" ones who find in their methods only what methods can reveal, which is themselves. The method as such does not know what it is looking for. The methods thus can come to be used to manifest the ideology in the researcher's mind. Faith directed to reason, and reason directed to faith, means that a higher unity involves both. What methods each employs can respectively by each be taken together and correlated.


On April 23, 2009, Benedict XVI delivered a short address to the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, chaired by his successor in the Doctrine of the Faith Congregation, William Cardinal Levada. In all of his scholarly life, Benedict has taken a lively interest in biblical scholarship. Often he is reported to have a Greek Bible with him for easy reference. As a scholar in his own right, he is very much aware of what "method" means and what "Bible" means. He does not see them in necessary conflict. Both depend on what one means by either term method or Bible.

The subject of the current session of the Biblical Commission was "Inspiration and Truth in the Bible." The purpose of inspiration is not merely to inspire. It is to arrive at the truth. There is truth in the Bible. It is spoken to us by those who wrote its words. They are the authors, Isaiah, Amos, Matthew, John, Paul, or Peter, but they write under the inspiration of God who is the main author of the whole enterprise of the Bible. This is what inspired by the Holy Spirit means.

The Church is based "on the word of God, which is the soul of theology and at the same time the inspiration of Christian life." Theology means to use our reason to understand what is revealed to us in an orderly and intelligible manner. What is revealed, we are to confidently live. It is not just a series of ideas, though it is that too. This relation to actual living is why an error of theology easily leads to a false or incomplete way of conduct.

Benedict acknowledges that the interpretation of Scripture is "very much at his heart." He too recalls Providentissmus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu. Pius XII "urged Catholic exegetes to find solutions to full agreement with the Church's doctrine, duly taking into account the positive contribution of the new methods of interpretation which had developed." Scholarship ought to be an ally, not an enemy, of Scripture.

Vatican II's document Dei Verbum, Benedict states, benefited from this previous papal encouragement to study the Bible according to modern methods. First, the Council affirmed that "God is the Author of Sacred Scripture." How is this authorship to be understood? "All that the inspired authors ... state is to be considered as said by the Holy Spirit, the invisible and transcendent Author." This transcendent authorship is what lies behind the Church's insistence that method alone is not enough and that the whole plan of salvation has a single source.

These books of the Bible teach "that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures." The sentence is a citation by Benedict from #11 of Dei Verbum. What is significant about it, I think, is it reminds us that the whole of Scripture has a single purpose, namely, to save us, and in doing so to explain what God is like. We ask: "Why is Scripture written the way that it is, even though we may not see its purpose?" The fact is, its purpose is that we attain our transcendent good. This good is achieved only by our freely living the life that we are guided to lead in Scripture through the Church. Christianity is both a religion of intellect and a religion of living well so that we might achieve, as St. Ignatius said, "the end for which we were created."


Are there norms for the "correct" presentation of the "inspiration and truth of Sacred Scripture?" The first step is to remember that even if God is the Author of Scripture, "he speaks to man in a human fashion." We find both human and divine speech in the same text. "God really speaks to men and women in a human way." This aspect of human speaking means that what the sacred writer says and how he says it are significant. We need to seek "attentively" what the writer said, or "what it has pleased God to express in human words." This knowledge is why we carefully read and study them.

This view, incidentally, is very different from the Koran, which Muslims claim to be literally the words of Allah in Arabic; Mohammed was a mere recorder, not a speaker or writer. The fact that what is said in the Koran actually rescinds the central doctrines found in Scripture on the basis of a presumed later "revelation" makes it impossible to consider both texts "divinely" revealed as they claim to be. One "contradicts" the other. Indeed, it seems quite clear that much of the source of the Koran is Scriptural in Old and New Testament sense.

Benedict then sets down a primary principle: "Since Scripture is inspired, there is a supreme principle for its correct interpretation without which the sacred writings would remain a dead letter of the past alone: Sacred Scripture 'must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind'" (#12 Dei Verbum). This understanding means that the one reading or commenting on Scripture must be aware that, throughout his analysis, the author of what he reads is the divine author. This divine authorship is what holds all of Scripture together as a text ultimately from one single source.

The three criteria for interpreting Scripture are these:

1) The whole of Scripture is a unity. The different books take on many forms of style and wording, still they have one author "by virtue of the unity of God's plan whose center and heart is Jesus Christ." In this sense, everything in Scripture is related to this divine plan that ended with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, the Word made flesh, who will come again to judge living and dead.

2) The Church has a living Tradition of understanding Scripture. This means the whole Church—not just the experts or just one rite. Benedict cites Origen as saying that before Scripture is written so we can read it, it is first found in "the heart of the Church." The Church has a "living memory of the Word of God." This memory reminds us of Augustine's treatment of memory as that which brings our real selves together before our active understanding.

3) What is known as the "analogy of faith" means that the individual truths must be seen in relation to all other truths within the overall plan in which these words and events did take place. And as Vatican I said, what we can learn from reason is also pertinent to what we find in Scripture and Tradition. All truth has one ultimate source.

Those who do research need to keep all three of these criteria in mind. "The scientific study of the sacred texts is important but it is not sufficient in itself because it would respect only the human dimension. To respect the coherence of the Church's faith, the Catholic exegete must be attentive to perceiving the Word of God in these texts, within the faith of the Church itself." The human dimension is not the only dimension if there is both divine and human authorship of the same text.

If the exegete concentrates only on the human side of the written word—granted that there is a human side that can be studied—he will lose "sight of its principal goal, and risk being reduced to a purely literary interpretation, in which the true Author—God—no longer appears." To lose sight of this plan is to use a "reductionist" scientific method that limits what is to be investigated by the terms of the method employed in the study.

Nor can the study of Scripture be just an individualistic thing. "The Catholic exegete does not only feel that he or she belongs to the scientific community, but also and above all to the community of believers of all times. In reality these texts were not given to individual researchers or to the scientific community, 'to satisfy their curiosity or to provide them with material for study and research.'" This latter phrase is taken from Divino Afflante Spiritu. As a person, what even the exegete reads belongs to "the community of believers of all times." That is an extraordinary phrase.

Scripture is first given to us that we might believe and enter the plan of salvation that Christ has for each of us. We will in fact make more scientific progress if we understand this twofold relation of Scripture to its authorship and to our final end. Benedict adds, "I would say, a rationalistic hermeneutic of faith corresponds more closely with the reality of this text than a rationalistic hermeneutic that does not know God." If we "lower out sights," we will only see what we can see by our own self-chosen limits.


The tradition that understands these approaches sees in the canonical writings "a word addressed by God to his people." When we meditate on this word, we always discover new richness of meaning and of being. The Church is given the task of judging Scripture's final meaning and unity. Tradition also transmits the whole word of God, the same word that is found in Scripture. The Church has certainty of what Scripture teaches both from Scripture itself and from Tradition, from what is passed down within the Church.

Tradition with the authority of the Church over Scripture, however, "in no way is an obstacle to a serious and scientific interpretation but furthermore gives access to the additional dimensions of Christ that are inaccessible to a merely literary method." We might add that often in universities today the Bible is proposed to be studied as "literature," say as English, Italian, or German literature in its translation. This approach may be well enough, but the only reason to study the Bible is because it is true.

Allan Bloom, in Shakespeare's Politics, put it quite wittily: "One could never reestablish the Mosaic religion on the basis of a Bible read by the Higher Critics." This observation is the same as Benedict has been making all along. The prior assumptions of the "higher critics" often make it impossible for them actually to read what is in the Bible.

"It is indispensable that exegetical science attain a good level." Scripture does have an ecclesial context in which to understand the "Word of God which makes itself the guide, norm and rule for the life of the Church and the spiritual growth of believers." The Church is not concerned primarily with "scientific knowledge," though it does not disdain it. It is concerned with the souls of actual human persons in this life.

But this salvific concern, Benedict affirms, is "in no way an obstacle to a serious and scientific interpretation but furthermore gives access to the additional dimensions of Christ that are inaccessible to a merely literary analysis, which remains incapable of grasping by itself the overall meaning that has guided the Tradition of the entire People of God down the centuries."

Thus, it is possible to "study" Scripture scientifically and still not know what it is really about. A "literary analysis" will not tell us what it is about, however exalted the diction and however memorable the works in our language. But a scholar who understands what Scripture means will find that scientific method can indeed help him and will enable him to deal with those critical sources that claim that "scientific study" undermines the validity of the Bible.

To conclude, I had, in the beginning of these considerations, cited a passage of John Paul II to the Biblical Commission in 1993, in which he said, almost poetically, that "God created an astonishing variety of things." Half the joy of human life is simply noticing such things. God, John Paul added, does not "destroy differences but makes use of them."

It is significant that such words were spoken in the context of the scholarly study of the Scripture. The Scripture itself is filled with an astonishing variety of things, the familiarity with which is a constant impetus into the reality in which we are cast in our finite lives directed to eternity. The infinite variety of Scripture reflects the infinite variety of things.

I wonder if this fact is not the reason for both a human and divine authorship of its text.
The story Augustine tells us in the Confessions of his finally opening an apparently arbitrarily selected passage from Paul's Epistle to the Romans only to find that it explained to him exactly what he needed to know about himself at the time properly to live his actual life is most instructive. Not only did Augustine have to understand what the text told him about how not to live his life, but he had to see it as addressed precisely to himself.

No scientific exegesis could have done this self-enlightenment for Augustine. What did happen to him was his recognition that these words of Paul were also authored by God but were meant also for him and no doubt for myriads of others, including us. Such a passage comes pretty close to what Benedict, lover of the works of Augustine that he is, told the Biblical Commission about what, ultimately, their work is about.


[1] John Paul II, "Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," April 23, 1993, in The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1993), 20.

[2] Benedict XVI, "The Life and Mission of the Church Based on the Word of God," Address to Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, L'Osservatore Romano, English, April 29, 2009.

[3] Interpretation, ibid. 28.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

Introduction to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's God's Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office | Peter Hünermann and Thomas Södin
God, The Author of Scripture | Preface to God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology | Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.
Going Deeper Into the Old Testament | An Interview with Aidan Nichols, O.P.
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue | From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | From You Can Understand the Bible | Peter Kreeft
Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
Enter Modernism | From Truth and Turmoil: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church | Philip Trower
Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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