New Scripture Document 'Thinking in Centuries.' (Pontifical Biblical Commission's "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church")

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OXFORD, England -- "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church," prepared by Rome's Pontifical Biblical Commission, recently out in translation (Origins, Jan. 6), is the most important statement on this topic since Vatican II declared that "scripture is the soul of theology."

It contains some sensational material in its nuanced critique of feminist or liberationist interpretations of scripture. But they are the wrong place to start.

The document is first of all an extraordinary example of "thinking in centuries." The first pope to set down a marker on scripture was Leo XIII with his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, Nov. 18, 1893.

He was pretty negative about "modern" methods of exegesis, but that was understandable at a time when critical liberalism was rampant and was, it seemed, tearing the heart out of the gospels. Even so, he was much more open than his successor, St. Pius X, who set Catholic biblical studies back by at least two generations.

On the 50th anniversary of Leo's Providentissimus, Deus, Sept. 30, 1943, there appeared Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritus. Why was the pope fiddling while the world exploded and burned?

No doubt because he was "thinking in centuries." The effect of Divino Afflante Spiritu was to liberate Catholic exegetes from the most chafing anti-modernist shackles. It allowed, indeed encouraged, them to study the "literary forms" of the Bible.

That innocent phrase meant that to understand the Bible you did not have to interpret in the same way a narrative, a canticle, a psalm, a parable, a law text, a genealogy and so on. You had to respect the genre of each.

Then came Vatican II. Augustin Bea, the wily German Jesuit who had authored Pius' biblical encyclical and had also been his confessor, was made founding president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity by Pope John XXIII.

John also revamped the biblical commission when he thought they were behaving like dunces.

Today the commission is, according to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the commission's president, "not an organ of the teaching office but rather a commission of scholars who, in their scientific and ecclesial responsibility as believing exegetes, take stands on important problems of scriptural interpretation and know ... they have the confidence of the teaching office."

The 20 members, marshaled by their secretary Belgian Jesuit Albert Vanhoye, are all priests and consequently all male. There are five Jesuits -- including American Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer -- three Dominicans and one Oblate of Mary Immaculate. Serious scholars, they will probably never talk to Time and are unlikely to set the Tiber on fire either collectively or individually. But they are sound, essentially sound, incredibly sound. It is always important for theologians to know how far they can go: In biblical studies, this is how far you can go.

They submitted their document to Pope John Paul II in April 1993, in good time for the centenary of Leo's Providentissimus Deus. Maybe they saw their text as the draft for an encyclical.

Fortunately, John Paul had more pressing literary work in hand. He simply praised the document and ordered it to be published in November 1993 in French, its original language. But on reflection it could never have been an encyclical, for it mentions names and argues its case.

Is there such a thing as Catholic exegesis? The document answers firmly no, if by that is meant some special approach to scripture not shared by other Christians. Any "method" will do -- provided it throws light on the scripture. Methods have proliferated in the past 30 years: rhetorical analysis (scripture as persuasive religious discourse); narrative analysis (stories with a purpose -- salvation); structuralism (look at the text "in itself")" the text-in-its-effect-on-the-community. …