The Bible Gap

Author: Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.

The Bible Gap

by Benedict M. Ashley, O.P.

(Thus the abyss today opening between the Bible and theology, must be overcome by a type of exegesis that does not stop with historical and literary criticism but interprets the biblical text precisely as the Word of God redeeming our theological systems, not as re-written to conform to them. We must be instructed by God not instruct him.")

Vatican II urged theologians to root their theological systems more firmly in the Bible. This effort would favor ecumenical dialogue with Protestants and make for a sounder, richer understanding of the Faith. "Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation" (, afterwards DV, n. 24). This challenge was received enthusiastically by most theologians. Today, thirty years after the Council, it has not yet been met.

This failure is particularly obvious in my own field of moral theology. The mainstream opinion seems to be that there is no such thing as a specifically Christian ethics. The Bible, it is said, can furnish moral theology with only the most general of moral norms-the Love Commandment or the call to liberation from every form of oppression. But what is "love"? What is "oppression"?

Somewhat less obviously, but even more dangerously, a similar gap is opening between the Bible and systematic theology. The dominant theological systems today rest on principles largely independent of biblical revelation. Rahner makes his transcendental deductions from intuitions of the thinking, willing subject. Lonergan proceeds from cognitive theory. Schillebeeckx from religious experience. Gutierrez from the consciousness of the oppressed poor and Rosemary Radford Ruether from that of oppressed women. These theologians may select biblical themes that seem to support these extra-biblical agenda, but they hardly do more than "proof-text." Current human projects, not God's Word, furnish the principles of such theologies. Theology can, of course profit much from sound philosophy, but the truth of philosophy must be tested by theological truth before it can become theology's profitable servant.

Recently the Pontifical Biblical Commission has instructed us on the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of modern biblical exegesis. Yet when it was consulted by the Holy See on what the Bible might have to say about the ordination of women to the Christian priesthood its own performance was ambiguous. It lamely concluded:

It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate. However, some think that in the scripture there are sufficient indications to exclude this possibility, considering that the sacraments of eucharist and reconciliation have a special link with the person of Christ and therefore with the male hierarchy, as borne out by the New Testament. Others, on the contrary, wonder if the church hierarchy, entrusted with the sacramental economy, would be able to entrust the ministries of eucharist and reconciliation to women in light of circumstances, without going against Christ's original intentions.

That the Bible actually contributes more to solving this question than the Biblical Commission was able to uncover is well argued recently by Francis Martin, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994). Other biblical data is cited in my own article, "Gender and the Priesthood of Christ" (, 57, 343-379). Thus John Paul II, with so little help from his Biblical Commission, was forced to appeal to Tradition rather than to Scripture when he firmly declared "the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the faithful" ("Apostolic Letter on Ordination and Women," 1994).

Vatican II emphasized the intimate relation of Scripture and Tradition as "one sacred deposit of the Word of God" (DV, nos. 9- 10). Has this unify been severed, so that the Magisterium, is forced to base its decisions on Tradition alone? Does this justify theologians in seeking some more credible basis than Scripture or Tradition on which to construct their systems? From the view point of faith, the Bible is an absolutely unique book because it is the Word of God.

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching, firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth (DV no. 11).

The phrase I have italicized saves us from any temptation to slip back into fundamentalism, but it does not nullify what precedes. Thus the Bible has many fallible human authors, but only one inerrant principal author, the Holy Spirit. Hence, by the witness to Sacred Tradition given by the Church under the Holy Spirit's guidance, the Bible forms a canonical unity. Its interpretation, therefore, rests primarily on two grounds: (1) its canonical consistency ("Scripture is its own interpreter" as Protestants say); (2) its interpretation by the Church through its Magisterium, i.e. by living Sacred Tradition.

Thus for faith, both the work of biblical and of systematic theological scholarship are secondary and subject to ultimate judgment by the Magisterium as to the truth of their results. What then does this secondary role of biblical scholarship as practiced today amount to? It certainly is of great service to the Church, but this service is chiefly , and so. The present historical-critical method was developed by Protestant and Catholic scholars to answer nineteenth-century skeptics who denied the credibility of the Bible. For example, by this method believing scholars can reply to skeptics that the Genesis creation narratives read in historical context do not contradict Darwin, nor did St. Paul create Christianity. It is too much to expect of the historical-critical method to do much more.

More recently, there has been a shift of interest in exegesis from the historical-critical method, which for lack of new data seems largely to have done its work, to a literary-critical method. This approach abstracts from the diachronic methods of historical criticism and takes the canonical text synchronically as it is. Yet this newer method (at least as usually practiced) is also hardly more than a negative apologetic. It abstracts from whether what the text asserts is true or false, and asks only whether it has a coherent meaning. Thus it is able to answer those non- believers who say the Bible is a mass of contradictions or meaningless God-talk or that today it is irrelevant. Literary criticism is able to show that the Bible is as meaningful in our times as are other great literary classics, but it cannot read the Bible as in fact the Word of God. Hence, we ought not look to either the historical-critical or the literary-critical method to contribute directly to faith or to expect them to secure a foundation for theology.

This does not mean, of course, that a negative apologetics for the Bible is without real value. Apologetics is one of the difficult but necessary secondary tasks of Catholic theology. But since apologetics is addressed to those without faith, it cannot be the basis of theology's essential work, which is "Faith seeking understanding." Yet apologetics does also have a certain positive role in arguing for the credibility of biblical inspiration. While it cannot demonstrate the Bible to be the Word of God, since that fact is accessible only to faith, it can and should point out the extrinsic that reasonably oblige us to believe the Bible to be divinely inspired.

Catholics do not accept the notion of the Protestant Reformers that the Bible is God's Word.

Surely modern biblical scholarship has shown how incredible that notion is! Hence the mainline Protestant churches no longer unequivocally accept biblical inspiration, while Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants do so because of a Reformation tradition that ultimately has no other grounds than the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church!

That Sacred Tradition is guaranteed by the witness of the living Church, which as Vatican I solemnly defined, remains a sign, a "moral miracle" accessible to all to whom that Catholic Church is able to preach. Thus it is the Church as a living miraculous sign that obliges us to believe the Word of God on God's own word, just as the earthly Jesus, still present in his Church, once obliged his hearers to believe him on his own word made credible by his miraculous life and deeds.

While theology must be based on faith, modern biblical scholarship, for all its apologetic success, can only be based on reason in the form of historical arguments or literary hermeneutics. Even some of our best exegetes find themselves writing books in which their methodology forces them to frankly admit that certain Church doctrines cannot be established from the Bible as they read it. For example John Meier finds the "brothers" of Jesus more probably to be blood brothers inspite of the Sacred Tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Raymond Brown finds it not possible to support the Sacred Tradition of the apostolic succession by evidence of the universality of episcopal polity in the New Testament church. And, as we have seen, the Biblical Commission finds no clear warrant for the Tradition's restriction of priestly ordination to men. As faithful Catholics these exegetes can only add footnotes to say that of course they do not mean to contradict the Church's teaching.

In my opinion, as one who is not a biblical scholar but is fascinated by their work, the results they have come up with are often, even on their own terms, both tenuous and tendentious. For that reason alone they can hardly serve as a secure basis of theology-but that is not here my point. What is really wrong in our present situation is that exegetes have confined themselves to secondary, although important, apologetics tasks. Instead one would think they should be busy with their main job of reading the Bible as the Fathers of the Church read it, on the basis of faith in its inspiration. Hence biblical research has ceased to be theology proper and become simply historical and literary scholarship.

On the other hand, theologians err if they conclude that since biblical exegetes contribute little to establishing a unified and consistent basis for theology, this frees theologians to construct their own systems on some other basis than what God says in the Bible. They have moved very far from the patristic and medieval theologians who like St. Thomas Aquinas, called theology and chiefly meant by this simply the Bible.

Let me give two examples of what I am talking about. (1993 ), the well-reviewed work of the feminist theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, reworks the major dogmas of Catholicism with many references to current biblical scholarship. Johnson then concludes that to avoid the sin of sexism it is necessary to revise the Church's teaching that the order of procession of the Divine Persons in the Holy Trinity is first, second and third. Such an ordering at least suggests subordination, and subordination is necessarily oppressive and evil.

How did Johnson arrive at this odd view, contradictory to the solemn definitions of the Magisterium and the practice of the liturgy, and certainly alien to the New Testament? Following the feminist exegete Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Johnson begins with the assumption that the political agenda of radical feminism is unquestionably correct. Hence if she is to remain a Catholic (which, thank God, she wants to do!) she must, with the aid of a "hermeneutic of suspicion," recast the Scriptures to support women's liberation as radical feminism defines it.

Johnson's program, which she grounds only by occasional appeals to "women's experience," turns out on closer examination to be a kind of Christian anarchism. Johnson seems to believe that the essential Gospel message is the abolition of all "hierarchy" so that someday we can live in an egalitarian community where all decisions are made by consensus only. In such a community no one need obey anybody else, since obedience implies subordination and subordination is always oppressive. She makes no attempt to prove that God created a non-hierarchical cosmos or promised us the oxymoron of an Anarchic Kingdom of God. Yet her unargued assumption that such an egalitarian community is the Gospel message is the basic hermeneutic principle on which her whole reconstruction of Catholic theology depends.

What enables Elizabeth Johnson to proceed in this arbitrary fashion is that she has first proposed an apophatic view of God as the "Incomprehensible Mystery" on which as on a blank screen it becomes possible for her to project her own program. The Bible's claim that God, Mystery that He is, has definitively revealed that Mystery to us in Jesus Christ, the Bible, and the Church is set aside. For "God" with its patriarchal symbolism, she substitutes the feminine sounding "Sophie," ignoring the fact that in the Bible "Sophie" is chiefly used not to name the Creator but the Law by which the Creator has established an hierarchical order in creation and human society. "She is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; all who cling to her will live, but those will die who forsake her" (Bar 4:1). Thus the androcentric Bible names not God but itself, God's self- revelation, "Sophie."

A second example of the Bible gap is the conception of moral theology which our most renowned American moral theologian, Richard A. McCormick, proposes. It has even led him to dissent on certain issues from the teaching of the Magisterium and to denounce John Paul II's for misrepresenting the current mainstream of moral theology. In the voluminous and highly influential writings of McCormick, along with his sometime collaborator Charles E. Curran, we find a specious argument to the effect that moral theology needs to free itself from a too close reliance on specific moral norms found in the Bible. According to this view, modern biblical scholarship has demonstrated that these concrete biblical norms are so historically conditioned that they are of little help in solving modern moral problems. Moreover, in so far as some still relevant content can be salvaged from these obsolescent biblical norms it turns out to add little to what is common to most ethical systems independent of Christian faith.

Hence there really is no such thing as a specifically Christian ethics. At most the Bible supplies us with the motivation of Christian love and with homiletic exhortations to do good and avoid evil. The definition of what is good and what is evil in today's world, therefore, is not to be sought in proof-texting or fundamentalist biblical literalism, but in arguments based on philosophy and modern science.

Many other examples could be cited both in the fields of dogma and of moral theology to show this widening gap between theology and the Bible. This is not the place to try to show in detail how this gap might be narrowed so as once more to ground theology in the Word of God, making use of the more secure results of current biblical scholarship but not asking of it what it cannot supply. In a very modest, text-book way I have attempted to do this for moral theology in a work to be published soon by Alba House. Here, I want only to raise the problem and to point out the direction in which I believe we must search for answers.

We must begin not with history, nor literary criticism, nor human reason, nor religious experience, nor philosophy (Kantian or Aristotelian), nor a political program however admirable. As Vatican II urged, we must begin from divine faith that the Bible as understood in the Sacred Tradition of the Church is God's Word guiding us to union with him. This does not mean, of course, reading the Bible as fundamentalists do in an anachronistic and literalistic way, but as God intended his message to be conveyed through human authors writing in human ways in particular historical contexts. Nor does it mean that the Scriptures substitute for the rational pursuit of scientific truth or give us all the data and analysis that we need to live in our contemporary world. What it does mean is that God in his wisdom and mercy has, with a certainty far surpassing any human research, given us in the Bible read in its proper context of Sacred Tradition, the fundamental truths of faith and morals that alone can securely direct our lives.

Hence we must take with utmost seriousness, as did the Fathers of the Church, every thing relevant to our salvation asserted in the Scriptures. Thus, for example, we must avoid the current superficial "explaining away" of such biblical assertions as St. Paul's condemnation of sexual relations between same-sex partners (Rom 1:26-27). To say, as some do, that Paul was only talking about child abuse, or that the reasons he gives do not apply to constitutional homosexuals is to stop our ears and close our minds to God speaking through Paul. It also ignores Paul when he says that the Scriptures "were written for our instruction that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scripture we might have hope" (Rom 15:4).

What every verse of the Bible means for our salvation may not be clear, but it is clear that it means something, and it is the task of the exegete to try to find that meaning. It is also the responsibility of theologians to base their reasoning upon the rock of biblical teaching not on some foundation of sand. We must take the canon as it is and not reduce it to a "canon within the canon" by a "hermeneutic of suspicion" that exorcises whatever in the text might expose the falsity of our own opinions.

Second, the fundamental hermeneutic clue for all exegesis is, as DV said, what . What we need for our salvation is to know God as He reveals himself to be and how we are to respond to him in our own lives, not merely as individuals but as a Church which he has chosen in Christ and called to be his witness to the world. The Bible cannot be read, therefore, simply as a collection of documents with a variety of sources written on the different occasions and expressing the authors' contrasting insights. It must be read as ultimately a unified revelation of who God is and a consistent and sufficient guide for Christian living. This is not to deny the polyphony of biblical voices, but to show that they form a harmonious composition not a cacophony.

Third, since the Word of God is voiced by the Holy Spirit not only in the Bible, but also through Sacred Tradition, and since, as DV says, these are not two disconnected sources of revelation, but unified in their witness, they are joined in a hermeneutical circle. Sacred Tradition is expressed in a privileged way in the Bible, but the Bible cannot be understood except in the context of the living faith of the Christian community as it exists through time down to the present moment. Yet at the same time the good wheat of Sacred Tradition must be winnowed from the chaff of human traditions by its consistency with the Bible. The teaching authority of the Church has the final judgment on what is authentic tradition and what is not. Yet it too, as our Protestant brethren remind us, "stands under the Bible's judgment." The Catholic exegete's task, therefore, is not completed until this hermeneutic circle is closed and Scripture and Tradition confirm each other.

Fourth, this means that the development of doctrine in the Church, though it is the work of the Holy Spirit, must constantly submit itself to judgment by the Bible. We cannot begin with some intellectual, moral, or political program, no matter how true or just it may seem to us, and use it as the criterion of what we accept or do not accept in the Scriptures. We come to the Scriptures to be judged, corrected, enlightened, and to repent, not to rewrite the Bible, nor to cleanse it of its supposed defects. One can admit that the Bible is androcentric in that it was written principally by men not women, but that does not and cannot mean that it fails to tell us what God meant the relation of men and women to be when he created them "in his own image, male and female: (Gn 1:27). If God does not instruct us on this fundamental problem of human life, we men and women, mutual enemies that we often are, are never going to find reconciliation and peace.

Fifth, the inevitable historical conditioning of every part of the Bible cannot be understood to render any part of it obsolete. Whatever the value of the current fashion for "narrative theology," the history of God's work for our salvation from creation to the eschaton is certainly the chief mode in which he has chosen to reveal himself, and is the Way which we are called to journey. Historico-critical scholarship contributes much to understanding this history, but its results are in large part controversial and constantly shifting. It has not, for example, been able to establish as historic fact so fundamental a part of the Biblical narrative as the Exodus, on which, by the way, liberation theology is based. Literary criticism abstracts from this historicity, but theology cannot be content simply to accept it as a meaningful myth. Of course, we theologians should be grateful when such fundamental data receives apologetic support from archaeology and biblical criticism. Moreover we should never on supposed biblical grounds claim as historic fact what has been certainly proved by rational methods to be false. Nevertheless, neither ought we be ashamed to claim as historical fact what seems to be well attested in biblical revelation even when it has not been proved to be such by purely historical methods.

Sixth, the Word of God is found principally neither in Scripture or Sacred Tradition but in Jesus Christ, who is that Word (Jn 1:1- 14). He is both the revelation of the Father, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" fen 14:10) and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the way to the Father. "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). But Jesus remains palpably present and visible to us only in his yet imperfect Church, "Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the ages" (Mt 28:20). This is why the theologian and exegete must submit their conclusions to the judgment of the those in the Church commissioned by Christ to speak in his name, as he said to the seventy-two disciples when he sent them out as his authorized representatives, "Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me" (Lk 10:16).

To return to the two examples of the Bible gap I gave earlier: if we do not project feminist anarchism on to the cipher of The Mystery, but listen to that Mystery:' reveal itself in the Bible, what do we hear? Jesus calls the Mystery, "Abba, Father" (Mk 14:6; cf. Gal 4:6; Rm 8:15), himself "The Son" (Mt 11 :27; Lk 10:21-22). and declares, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9).

When Jesus named the Mystery "Father" not "Mother," he was not teaching male dominance, but was selecting the analogy from common human experience which best reveals the true relation of the Mystery to us all. This relation differs from the one we as children have to our mothers which tends to simple identification with her from whom our bodies are drawn and nursed. That analogy would favor-as feminists themselves admit-a pantheistic or panentheistic understanding of God, as have the mother goddesses of many religions, like those that tempted Israel to idolatry. Instead, the one God is revealed through his Son Jesus as the wholly Other transcendently free Creator, infinite in power yet infinitely tender in his love for all his creatures. This Father puts aside his otherness so as to share without Oedipal rivalry all that he has with his Son. "All things have been handed over to me by my rather" (Lk 10:22). The paradox of God's transcendent immanence can be communicated to us by no truer name than "Abba."

Does this biblical symbol marginalize woman? At a marriage banquet do all eyes turn toward the bridegroom or to the bride? She is the center of attention, as her groom, like Adam when he first saw Eve (Gn 2:23), exclaims, "Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, ah, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil" (Sg 4:1). The Old Testament uses the symbol of Wisdom () not for the Holy Spirit himself (who as the mutual paternal-filial love between Father and Son is masculine), but for the Bride of God, the Creation, the Law, and the Chosen People, united to Him in the covenant partnership of mutual love (Hos 1-3, etc.) The New Testament speaks even more clearly of the Church as the bride of Jesus (RV 21:2). He is her head, but she is his body (Eph 5:23), "bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh" (Gn 2:23), on which St. Paul comments, "For just as woman came from man, so man is born of woman; but all things are from God" (I Cor 11:12).

To read these texts as if they aim to exalt God as superior to his creation, the male as superior to the female, is to miss their point. What they aim to express is that our relation to God ought and can be that of true lovers whose difference is complementary and whose union is not for domination but for true self-donation. Johnson, somewhat reluctantly, admits as much when she grants that a male Incarnation at least is the or emptying of male pride, since Jesus by his pacificism and virginity rebukes male violence and sexual exploitation. The maleness of Jesus, she says, "proceeds under the negating sign of analogy, more dissimilar than similar to any maleness known in history" (p. 163). If men were to follow the Pauline exhortation to sacrifice themselves for their wives as Jesus did for his people (Eph 5:25) what would remain of male tyranny?

The second of my examples was taken from McCormick's notion that the moral teachings of the Scripture should be read today as motivational rather than as strictly obligatory. I believe that this opinion originated in the laudable effort after Vatican II to correct the legalism of post-Tridentine moral manuals by centering moral theology in the Great Commandment of Love (Mt 22:40). It is true that the New Testament, rather than supply a detailed code of morals, motivates and transforms moral life through the work of the Holy Spirit and his gift of the Christian virtues. But it also shows us Jesus not as one who abrogates the Law but as one who interprets and completes it in the true sense intended from the beginning of creation by the Father. "Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not abolish but to fulfill" (Mt 5:17).

Thus when we read the Bible as a canonical whole it will be found to instruct Christians in concrete detail how to live in the world but not of it (Jn 17:15-16; Jas 1:27). Yet, as the prophets of the Old Testament had already shown, the purpose of the Law is not that hypocrisy of mere external conformity which Jesus rebuked in some of the Pharisees. It is our transformation into the image of Jesus who is the image of the Father (Col 1:15). By the transforming power of God's grace in the baptized this divine image is to be found first of all in the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity (I Cor 13:13) and their actions by which the Trinity dwells in us and works through us.

In scholastic theology these theological virtues were thought to be supported by the four cardinal or moral virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Yet these were borrowed from Greek philosophy and are listed only once in the Bible and then only in the Old Testament (Wis 8:27). Yet these four virtues are by no means absent from the New Testament, since "prudence" is another name for the practical aspect of faith which is that same "wisdom" that is so prominent throughout the whole Bible. "Justice" is the "righteousness" of meeting our obligations to God and neighbor without which the Commandment of Love cannot be genuinely fulfilled. "Fortitude" is the courage and patience of the Cross and of martyrdom, while "temperance" is that control of bodily desires by which the chaste Christian becomes a "temple of the Holy Spirit" (I Cor 6:19). Together fortitude and temperance constitute Christian asceticism motivated by the theological virtue of hope, since hope for eternal life leads us to "live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age" (Tit 2:12; cf. Rom 8:1-13 ).

These Christian virtues are not mere formal "values" to be approximated in action in ways of our own choosing, as some moralists think, but are defined by concrete norms of action, such as the Ten Commandments. Such concrete norms, as John Paul II teaches in set absolute limits to what we may and may not do, whatever the circumstances of our lives, if we are to keep our feet on what Jesus called "the narrow road that leads to life" (Mt 7:14). How then does moral truth set us free (Jn 8:32)? St. Paul answers, "You were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather serve one another through love" (Gal 5:13). We are freed by the Holy Spirit not to wander into sin, but to walk straight in Jesus' footsteps as he calls, "Come, follow me!" (Mk 10:21).

Thus the Bible shows us how we are to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus and through him of the Father by faith joined to prudence, love to justice, and hope to fortitude and temperance. The measure of each of these virtues is not conformity to the world but to Christ, because, as St. Paul asks, "Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish?" (1 Cor 1:20). It should be evident, therefore, that a Christian ethics differs in many specific ways from those not guided simply by human reason.

Thus the abyss today opening between the Bible and theology, must be overcome by a type of exegesis that does not stop with historical and literary criticism but interprets the biblical text precisely as the Word of God redeeming our theological systems, not as rewritten to conform to them. We must be instructed by God, not instruct him. "For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? (Rm 11:34 quoting Jb 15:8).

Dominican Father Benedict Ashley teaches at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, MO.

This article was taken from the Mar-Apr. 1996 issue of "Catholic Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a year by Ignatius Press. For subscriptions: P.O. Box 1639, Snohomish, WA 98291-1639, 1-800-651-1531.