Scripture, Theology

Biblical Interpretation: Catholic Response

According to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, biblical fundamentalism is:

“a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development” (IBC: 72).

Biblical fundamentalism fails the Catholic Church’s vision of Scripture and exegesis because it is anti-science, anti-authorship and ahistorical. As an ideology, fundamentalism rejects any science as a force undermining the Christian faith. The natural sciences refute the ancient cosmology and Creation stories, while historical criticism demonstrates the development of the inspired text, denying their doctrine of strict verbal inspiration, and consequently, of total inerrancy. And so, despite its ability to bear good exegetical fruit, it is rejected from root to tip as valid tools for the biblical fundamentalist.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has never rejected the ability of human reason to know truth, affirming reason and faith, being neither rationalist nor fideist. Within this appreciation of human reason, comes the legitimization of the sciences: natural, social, and literary. Historical criticism was rejected initially by the Church in Pope Leo’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus, because it was attached to a “much too intrusively dogmatic liberalism” that was buttressed by rationalism and modernism (IBC: 28). Through Catholic exegetes making careful use of these critical methods, the Church, in freeing the methods from unacceptable presuppositions, fifty years later allowed her exegetes to make use of this criticism wisely in the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. In her cautious approach to ‘higher criticism’, she was able to avoid many of the abuses of liberal Protestant exegetes that the fundamentalists reacted against so strongly.

 

Catholicism: On Inspiration

In the Catholic understanding of inspiration, the Bible is the Word of God in human language, possessing a two-fold nature: human and divine, analogous to the Incarnation. The fundamentalist does not fully accept human authorship of the Bible and as such “it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human”(IBC: 73). The Bible is revealed through the limitations of human writing and language, just as Jesus took on the limitations of human nature to communicate his divinity (Williamson: 30). Pope John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Biblical Commission, stating fundamentalists 

“tend to believe that, since God is the absolute Being, each of his words has an absolute value, independent of all the conditions of human language... [God] does not give each expression a uniform value, but uses its possible nuances with extreme flexibility and likewise its limitations” (IBC: 18).

However, the Biblical Commission has distinguished here at least three characteristics of the human activity in the writing of the Bible:

“(1) the literary role of the authors and editors in the composition of the Scriptural books,
(2) the historical nature of the process, and
(3) the human limitations of the authors and editors” (Williamson: 35).

In affirming both the freedom and the limitations of human authorship, the Church necessarily rejects the fundamentalist claim to strict verbal inspiration and their literalistic interpretation of the Bible in all its details.

 

Catholicism: On Interpretation

Continuing with the Catholic doctrine of the two-fold nature of the Bible, the Church cannot find biblical fundamentalism acceptable in their refusal to acknowledge the legitimate historical development of the biblical texts. While the Church and fundamentalists agree that the Bible concerns history, they differ in that Catholic interpretation acknowledges different literary forms within a text, “the historical conditioning in the biblical word, and is not preoccupied with the accuracy of the narrative details” (Williamson: 62). The fundamentalist obsession with this narrative accuracy is the attempt to force the text to say something that it was not intended to say, such as make authoritative comments on science or history.

Furthermore, it is through historical development within the local Christian communities and in the universal Church that the final written form of the inspired text came together. This communal development of the sacred texts is rejected by the fundamentalist, who is decidedly anti-ecclesial in his or her theory of strict verbal inspiration. There is simply no need for a Church or historic community of believers in which God reveals Himself. There is only the individual human copyist receiving a direct word-for-word revelation.

 

Conclusion

This post sought to present an understanding biblical fundamentalism, its ideology, doctrines and methods, as incompatible with Catholic teaching on the inspiration, inerrancy, historical quality of divine revelation. Though it desires to safeguard revelation, fundamentalism ultimately weakens exegesis by its reaction against human reason and the sciences and their contribution to understanding the written Word of God and by their absolutizing of nineteenth century conservative Protestant doctrine.

Through the various Church documents and scholars, my position was that the approach of fundamentalism cannot satisfy what the Church asks of her exegetes, to interpret the Bible as the Word of God in human language. The Bible can be better grasped, though not completely, through the scientific methods of criticism and this is why the Church today not only recommends them, but requires them of her exegetes.