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What Is Biblical Criticism—and Should We Trust It?

Faithful Christians are understandably wary of scholars who talk about reading the Bible “critically,” because they often also mean “skeptically.” But Catholics have nothing to fear from applying genuine science to our faith.

This past December, Newsweek devoted its cover story to the birth of Jesus. The author set out to compare two views of the story as told in the Gospels. The two rather stereotyped views we will call the “fundamentalist” view and the “critical” view. What was missing was a genuine Catholic view (although individual Catholics were cited in support of each side).

The fundamentalist (sometimes also called “literalist”) view maintains that the meaning of Scripture is obvious and needs no interpretation. The critical (sometimes called “historical”) view maintains that a scientific study of languages, culture, history, archaeology, and many other things is necessary to overcome the vast distance in time and culture between us and the Bible events. (For a fuller explanation, see “Questions Biblical Criticism Strives to Answer” on page 11.)

Faithful Catholics often end up sympathizing more with the fundamentalists—at least fundamentalists insist that the Bible is reliable. The critical view, on the other hand, usually seems to debunk miracles and undermine people’s faith. Look how many “scholars” were trotted out to support the anti-Catholic (and unhistorical) novel The Da Vinci Code.

But obviously Catholics can’t be content to read the Bible in a fundamentalist way. We have nothing to fear from genuine Bible scholarship. Indeed, Pope John Paul II has taught that “faith . . . has no fear of reason but seeks it out and has trust in it” (Fides et Ratio 43:2). The Bible is the word of God: It cannot err. The Church is the body of Christ and dwelling place of the Holy Spirit: There cannot be contradiction between scientific discoveries about Scripture and Catholic doctrine.

Nevertheless, the Church has been wary of critical methods of reading the Bible over the past two centuries or so. How did this situation come about?

A Fully Catholic Reading

Although we are not usually aware of it, all of us rely on methods of interpretation to understand the things we read. We don’t often reflect on the method we are using because the meaning of a text seems obvious. Normally, we subconsciously adopt the method of our surrounding culture. Catholics grow up with the Eucharist, genuflecting before the tabernacle and showing reverence in other ways toward the Blessed Sacrament. Because we hear “This is my body” during the Consecration at every Mass, it’s easy for us to understand Jesus’ words literally when we read them in Scripture. (Ironically, this is a passage that fundamentalists do not read literally.)

The Church traditionally has affirmed that Scripture possesses several senses or meanings. Usually, four are given: the literal, the christological, the moral, and the anagogical. In other words, Scripture not only means what the original author meant (literal), but it also possesses a meaning in reference to the revelation of Christ (christological), a meaning in reference to the moral life of the Christian (moral), and a meaning in reference to our hope of eternal blessedness in heaven (anagogical). For an example of how this works in real life, see “Using the Four Senses of Scripture to Interpret the Exodus.”

But the Church Fathers who teach the four senses of Scripture also maintain that there can be no spiritual understanding without understanding the literal or historical sense. Just as it is necessary for the Church to retain the Old Testament in order to understand the New, we must preserve the literal sense in order to understand the spiritual sense.

Bridging the Cultural Gap

While none of us intentionally would read the Bible anachronistically or uncritically, it is difficult for the non-specialist to avoid. After all, the Bible was written over the course of a thousand years by dozens of human authors in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), none of which are spoken by the majority of Christians today. Furthermore, as we noted above, our means of interpretation is affected by our own present cultural situation. Because all of the human authors of the Bible lived in cultural situations that were vastly different from our own, we need to investigate their cultures in order to be certain of understanding their meaning.

This problem was recognized in biblical times. Mark, writing for a Gentile audience around A.D. 60, felt the need to explain certain Jewish customs and terms (cf. Mark 5:41; 7:1–4, 34; 15:34).

The problem is even older than that, though. After the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, the great reforming scribe Ezra held a gathering in which the entire law was read to the people. He needed interpreters there to explain what certain terms meant and probably to clarify the meaning of customs no longer up-to-date (cf. Neh. 8:1–8). The phenomenon goes back even further: As far back as Genesis, the human author inserts asides to make certain that later audiences understand the places to which he refers (cf. Gen. 14:7; 36:1; see also Josh. 18:13).

What the historical-critical scholar undertakes, then, is a study of the cultural situation of the text. This requires careful study of languages, historical circumstances, archaeology, and so on.

It is important to recognize that, to some extent, this type of study always has gone on in the Church. The Church Fathers Origen and Jerome learned Hebrew in order to understand the Old Testament better. On the other hand, the Church has tended not to be as interested in this historical understanding precisely because in Tradition, it had a reliable set of ground rules for biblical interpretation.

Scripture Scholarship Explosion

Those ground rules were not accepted by the Protestant Reformers. Because they explicitly rejected Tradition as revelatory and relied on Scripture alone, it became more important for Protestant theologians to research the meaning of the Bible apart from Tradition. In other words, the Reformers set out to determine what the original text meant at the time it was written rather than what meaning the Church’s traditional interpretation gave the text to present believers.

Let us illustrate with a famous example. When Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18), Catholics hold that he is not merely singling out Peter as the man to be head of the Church; he is providing for the office of unity that we have come to know as the papacy. Most Protestants would reject such a claim, maintaining that it refers to Peter alone and not his successors.

However misguided were the efforts of the Reformers who separated the interpretation of Scripture from the Church, their original intent was to seek Christ. The problem was that without Tradition, critical scholarship possessed no way to bridge the gap between the original meaning of the text (what it meant) and its power to convert the hearer today (what it means). By breaking from the Church, they broke the cultural continuity between the Church as founded by Christ and the present day.

One of the main reasons historical-critical scholarship remains problematic is that it has lacked the Catholic perspective for most of its own history. The past two centuries have witnessed a dramatic increase in knowledge about Scripture, but that knowledge has been disconnected from Tradition.

Properly embraced, historical-critical interpretation can and should deepen our own sense of the way in which God’s revelation is given. We can learn to appreciate the difference between the original words of Scripture and the meaning that God has revealed in them through a living tradition and through historical circumstances.

Reason for Caution

Despite the potential, though, the Church has been slow to embrace the historical-critical method—and not just because it is a Protestant phenomenon. First of all, scientific inquiry into the original meanings of the texts of the Bible is still a relatively new endeavor. Many of the techniques derived by scholars, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were applied immaturely and often appeared objective while concealing biases (see “What Is the Documentary Hypothesis?” on page 14).

This illustrates another problem that has plagued the historical-critical methods: It’s easy to draw assumptions not from the text itself but from an underlying philosophy or ideology.

For example, a study of biblical history can be corrupted by historicism, a theory that denies revelation. Similarly, the application of scientific methods (forming a hypothesis about a group of texts and testing it against the evidence) often is influenced by materialism, the theory that denies anything spiritual. For example, a materialist would say that miracles cannot happen because they contradict scientific theories. This is simply a false conclusion based on a hidden assumption, not on the testimony of the texts of the Bible.

Power to Change Lives

A last concern of the Church, and one that lingers today (and here I write as a priest who has been trained under these methods and preaches on Scripture), is that on their own, critical methods simply are not designed to produce the transformative meaning that believers seek in the Bible as the word of God.

Many Catholic scholars distinguish between what a text meant—the focus of critical scholarship—and what a text means—the interpretation given by the authoritative Tradition.

The historical-critical method has a real importance, but in the words of Vatican II, “since Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind, no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture . . . if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts” (Dei Verbum 12).

In other words, critical methods have only limited value when applied to the word of God. They can help us better to understand “what the sacred author wanted to affirm in his work” (ibid., 12). In the end, though, the interpretation of Scripture must lead us to Christ. If not, then the whole enterprise is a failure.

This past century, particularly in Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (On Biblical Studies) and Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), the Church has given Catholic scholars the proper tools for the purification and incorporation of critical methods into the Church’s reading of Scripture.

This movement of the Holy Spirit addresses the reality that modern persons are culturally more aware of the developments of history and of the cultural conditioning of texts and interpretations. Therefore, it would be a failure on the part of those who wish to spread the faith among modern persons to neglect responsible scholarship on the Bible. I used the qualification “responsible scholarship” because there is still plenty of ideologically driven scholarship around, and because it is controversial, it tends to get the most press. As a rule of thumb, most of what appears in the mainstream media as “the latest findings” of scholars can be treated with a healthy suspicion. Newspapers seek excitement and conflict, and the dull truth is that most reliable scholarship proceeds slowly and tends to be consonant with Catholic belief.

This brings up an important truth about critical scholarship: It stands in need of the leaven of Catholic belief in order to remain accountable. To quote the Holy Father again, “by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God” (FR 43.2).

Defending Mary

Scholarship with the leaven of Catholic belief has led to a deepening of our knowledge of Mary, for example. Because of historical-critical scholarship, we can discern within Scripture the Church’s trajectory in coming to understand her privileged role in salvation. By comparing the development of stories about Mary in the Gospels from Mark (the earliest, according to most scholars) through Luke and John (usually considered the two latest), we can see that the development of doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception and Assumption do indeed have biblical roots, even though they are not explicitly stated in the Bible.

A better understanding of how Church doctrine develops from its biblical roots also can give us a more abiding faith amidst our present historical circumstances. The historical-critical method is sometimes used incorrectly to argue that the early Church featured a greater variety of beliefs and practices. Yet use of The Gospel of Thomas by authors such as scholar Elaine Pagels and novelist Dan Brown can be seen in another light—that the guidance of the Holy Spirit eventually will separate the orthodox from the heterodox. We live amidst a certain amount of confusion among worshipers and challenges to our doctrines. That this situation is not new should be a comfort to us; the Holy Spirit still guides us in continuity with biblical witness.

Finally, as we saw at the beginning of this article, our present society tends to divide biblical interpretation into two irreconcilable camps: the fundamentalists and the critical. A healthy Catholic interpretation should avoid the naiveté of fundamentalism as well as the skepticism of secular critical scholars.

A New Path for Ecumenism

As we noted above, the historical-critical method also has contributed to the undoing of the faith of many, especially Protestants whose theology is more closely tied to the results of critical scholarship. A Catholic perspective can help point the way back to a living faith that incorporates the findings of scholarship into traditional doctrine more profoundly expressed. By demonstrating that faith is not contradicted by reason or history, we will be able to preach the good news more effectively to those who have wandered into darkness.

We will do this best by honing our cultural conditioning as Catholics. That way, our interpretation of the Bible will be Catholic in the fullest sense. For even though the forms of the practice of our faith have changed, we still belong to the one body of Christ. We remain, in an important sense, part of the same culture as all of the saints who have gone before us. We should bear in mind that the Catholic method for interpreting Scripture is always liturgical—that is, it grows out of hearing the word of God at the liturgy and by participating in the sacraments. By delving more deeply into communion with the Church, we will present a more convincing reading of Scripture, a more compelling testimony to the salvation offered by our Lord Jesus Christ.

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