The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church

Author: Mons. Richard Malone, Editor, LOR


Mons. Richard Malone, editor

The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Acts of the Symposium held by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, September 1999. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001.

Acts of Symposium of 1999, published in 2001

In December 2001 the Libreria Editrice Vaticana published the papers of the Symposium in the volume L'interpretazione della Bibbia nella Chiesa, Atti del Simposio promosso dalla Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, Cittá del Vaticano 2001, 342 pages. The volume has a presentation, an introduction by the Steering Committee, and the 12 papers and 6 responses. In a brief presentation Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Bertone present the volume with a summary of the goals of the Symposium. In the introduction, the members of the Steering Committee, Rev. Prosper Grech, O.S.A., Rev, Jean Noel Aletti, S.J., Most Rev. Marc Ouellet (appointed Secretary of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity since the symposium was held) and Rev. Horacio Simian-Yofre, S.J., in Italian and English versions, offer a 15 page Introduction to the papers, the reactions and some convergences. The 12 papers and 6 responses are published in the language of the speakers: Italian, French, German and English.

Roman Symposium In 1999

In 1993 the Commission issued the document on "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church". It reviewed the key features of historical critical exegesis, other current exegetical methods, the philosophies and theologies that define hermeneutics, and the pre-understandings that the exegetes bring to the reading of the text. The text presented two sections on the characteristics of Catholic interpretation and the interpretation of the Bible in the life of the Church.

In September 1999 in Rome, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith held a Symposium with the members of the Biblical Commission and other experts from around the world, Catholic and non-Catholic, to explore more in depth questions that the 1993 document only hinted at when it spoke of the methods and theology of the interpretation of the Bible. More than 40 professors took part representing different academic institutions and, above all, different Christian confessions, and a variety of approaches to exegesis. That fact showed an ecumenism at work that is confessional and scientific.

Six major topics of Symposium

The new publication has organized the Symposium around 6 major topics: the inspiration and truth of the Bible, the Canon rediscovered in its importance, the RegulaFidel asa hermeneutical principle, the Relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the general criteria of Christian biblical interpretation (2 articles). The interdisciplinary and interconfessional discussion of the Symposium allowed for a charting of the dynamic history of inspiration, canon, interpretation, the truth of the sacred books, and the relationship between the Old and New Testament. The discussions served to clarify questions connected with the interpretation of the Word of God in a time of rapid change in methodology and epistemology. The history of theology is a kind of Wirkungsgeschichte ofthe inspired word. The Symposium did not set out to mark a radical turning point in biblical studies, but rather to be a chance for common reflection on the current progress in the methodology of biblical exegesis and to indicate possible new directions for future research.

12 presenters and 6 reactors

Presenting papers were Prof. James A. Sanders of Claremont, California, Prof. Prosper Grech, O.S.A., Prof. Norbert Lohfink, S.J. of Frankfurt and Prof. Albert Vanhoye, S.J., Prof. Gianantonio Borgonovo of Milan, Prof. Helmut Gabel of Rimpart-Maidbronn in Germany, Prof. Kern R. Trembath of Notre-Dame University in USA, Rev. Horacio Simian-Yofre, S.J., of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Mons. Bruno Forte of Naples, Prof. Christoph Dohmen of Osnabrück, Germany, Prof. Max Seckler of Tubingen, Rev. Adrian Schenker, O.P., of Fribourg, Switzerland, Prof. Edmund Arens of Lucern, Prof. Savas Agourdis of Athens, Prof. Thomas Söding of Wuppertal, Germany, Rev. Paul Beauchamp, S.J., of Centre Sèvres of Paris, Rev. Giuseppe Segalla of Milan and Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. of Washington, USA.

In conclusion, Card. J. Ratzinger and Archbishop T. Bertone, respectively Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation that promoted the Symposium, remind us in the Presentation of the volume, it is necessary to keep in mind that questions about inspiration and to the truth of the Bible, the canon, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and the general criteria of biblical interpretation have a notable effect on exegesis, theology and even on the life of the Church today.

Why the Text on the Interpretation of the Bible

The Christian community receive the Bible and Tradition as the norm of the life of the Church. Tradition and Scripture are the supreme rule of faith for the community. Both forms of the Word of God present us with problems of interpretation of language in order to understand the meaning. When we turn to the Bible, we find that some biblical books and texts are puzzles for us and have given rise to prolonged debates about the meaning of the passages and the literary genre of the book. For example, Catholics and Protestants lock horns over what Matthew 16,16-19, "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church" might mean. With a heightened sense of the ongoing value of the OT, we argue over the term "New Testament" in Matthew 26,27, Mark 14,4, Luke 22,20 in terms of the New Testament fulfilling the Old. In the same area of relationships between the Old and New Testament, we ask what does St Paul mean when he spoke about the Jewish People in Romans 11,1,12,25,29-32? One cannot ignore the history of exegesis and theology in which the ways of interpretating difficult books have been continually refined. Theologians, exegetes and experts in ancient history have worked, for example, in the area of the study of the original languages and of the resconstruction of the historical contexts in which the texts were written. For Catholics the living Church has been a positive factor both in spelling out the canon of inspired writings, in honouring and reading the inspired texts at Mass and the Office, and in protecting Sacred Scripture from the hands of brashly critical exegetical methods. This has taken place in the course of many debates among scholars and believers, and through dialogues with teaching authority.

At the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, the Magisterium intervened with two encyclicals and the responses of the Biblical Commission to questions that were debated in the Church. One of the questions then was precisely, "can we trust the Bible over and above its teaching on faith and morals when it deals with important historical matters?" The Council dealt with the material and moved the Church in a basic direction for the future with the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, DeiVerbum. Afterthe Council, the Biblical Commission took on a new character as a consultative arm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issuing research documents on current questions. Three documents are: Fede e cultura alla luce della Bibbia (LDC, Torino 1981), Bible et Christologie (Cerf, Paris, 1984) and Unitéet Diversité dans l'Eglise (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del vaticano 1989).

Overview of 3 papers

Here are three examples of the excellent papers of the Symposium. Prof. James A. Sanders of Claremont in California in his paper "Scripture as Canon in the Church" called attention to the need for both a believing and a critical reading of the Bible. He observed that all Christian confessions, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant (and Jewish as well), rely on traditions, that in the course of time become hermeneutical principles for the interpretation of the Bible. While Luther rejected the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and developed the idea of sola Scriptura for reading the Bible, Protestants later found they needed to find criteria to create unity in the diversity of the sacred books, and thus they had to find "a canon within the canon" to make sense of the whole. There is diversity in Scripture and in the multivalent language that comes from the variety of historical contexts in which the texts arose, and therefore different Christian confessions place different stress on different points. One has to understand this reality in order to face some of the issues of ecumenical dialogue.

Today it would not be possible to return to the principle of sola Scriptura, if only because in all the Christian confessions that have come into existence since the time of the Reformation, internal traditions have been set up that function as hermeneutical principles for interpreting the Bible. A critical reading of the biblical text can no longer prescind from the recovery and publication of so much ancient literature (with the help of epigraphical, papyrological and archeological tools) that contributes to grasping the forms and thought content of the cultural context, in which the Word of God was incarnated or inculturated.

In his paper, "The 'Regula fidei' as Hermeneutical Principle Yesterday and Today", Rev. Prosper Grech, O.S.A. of the Augustinianum and the Biblicum, notes that today it is recognized that no interpretation occurs in vacuo, namely, without a hermeneutical principle that functions as a source of pre-comprehension. For Catholic exegesis this principle has been the regula fidei. In history the regulafidei cameto include, with Scripture, the tradition handed on by the Bishops in apostolic succession, the formation of Baptismal creeds and Conciliar creeds, the approved way of living the faith, the lexorandi, the teaching of the Fathers, the antiquity and universality of doctrine, the sensusfidelium, and the consensus of the Churches. A standard rule is that the exegesis of a text must not contradict the rule of faith, but at the same time it is not to be predetermined by it. This is the negative side of the rule. The positive side is that the rule of faith provides a third context, in addition to the literary and canonical, in which a text acquires meaning for today. One of the exegete's hermeneutical principles is the living Church herself, with everything that the Church believes, practices, and prays. The principle of her faith is not a dead letter, but rather the truths of the Bible which the Spirit actualizes in history.

In his paper "EinBund oderzweiBûnde in der Heiligen Schrift" Prof. Norbert Lohfink, S.J., of Frankfurt, on the question whether there exist Two Covenants or One, stated that the newness of the Second is not so much in its content nor in the covenant relationship, but in the event through which the earlier relationship is renewed.

Disagreeing with him, Prof. Albert Vanhoye, S.J., of the Pontifical Biblical Institute sustains that such a position does not take into account the biblical texts that state that the new covenant is based on a radically different foundational act. Referring to such texts as Jeremiah 31, Paul's letter to the Romans and to the Galatians, and the Letter to the Hebrews, he notes that with the new covenant in the blood of Christ, we pass from an imperfect or provisional situation to its perfect and definitive realization through the Spirit dwelling in the hearts of believers.

The Congregation offers the papers to readers so that they take stock of the progress that has been made in the area of biblical exegesis. A publication like this is a guarantee that we can learn how to deal seriously and fruitfully with major questions for the interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church.

Reviewed by Mons. Richard Malone, editor

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 January 2002, page 10

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