Plenary Session of the Pontifical Biblical Commission
on the theme "Interpretation and Truth in the Bible"
April 23, 2009
I am happy to welcome you again at the end of your annual plenary session. I thank Cardinal William Levada for his greeting and his concise exposition of the theme which was the subject of your careful reflection during your meetings this week.
You met this time to examine in depth a subject that is very important: the inspiration and truth of the Bible. It is a subject that concerns not just theology but the entire Church, since the life and mission of the Church are necessarily founded on the Word of God, which is the soul of theology as well as the inspiration for all of Christian existence. The subject also responds to a concern that has been particularly dear to my heart, because the interpretation of Sacred Scripture is of capital importance for the Christian faith and for the life of the Church.
As you recalled, Mr. President, the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, of Pope Leo XIII, offered Catholic exegetes new encouragement and new directives on the subject of Biblical inspiration, truth and interpretation. Much later, Pius XII in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu took up and completed that precedent to exhort Catholic exegetes to reach solutions in full accord with the doctrine of the Church, taking due account of the positive contributions of new methods of interpretation that had developed meanwhile.
The living impulse that these two Popes gave to Biblical studies, as you said, found full confirmation and was developed farther by the Second Vatican Council, in a way that the entire Church has drawn from and benefited. In particular, the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum illumines even today the work of Catholic exegetes and invites Pastors and the faithful to nourish themselves more assiduously at the table of the Word of God. The Council recalls, in this respect, first of all, that God is the Author of Sacred Scripture:
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.
Some norms which directly concern the interpretation of Scripture derive from the correct formulation of the concept of divine inspiration and truth in Sacred Scripture. The same Dei Verbum, after having stated that God is the Author of the Bible, reminds us that in Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way.
This divine-human synergy is very important: God truly speaks to men in a human way. For a correct interpretation of Sacred Scripture, therefore, it is necessary to research carefully what the sacred writers truly meant to say and what God wished to manifest to man through human words. "The words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men" (Dei Verbum, 13).
These indications, very necessary for a correct interpretation of the historico-literary character as the first dimension of every exegesis, must then be linked to the premises of (Catholic) doctrine on the inspiration and truth of Sacred Scripture. Indeed, since Scripture is divinely inspired, there is a supreme principle of correct interpretation without which sacred writings would remain a dead letter, a thing of the past: Holy Scripture "must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written" (Dei Verbum, 12).
In this respect, Vatican-II indicated three criteria which are always valid for interpreting Sacred Scripture according to the the Spirit that inspired it.
First of all, one must pay great attention to the content and unity of all Scripture - it is Scripture only in its unity. No matter how different are the books that compose it, Sacred Scripture is one in the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and the heart (cfr Lk 24,25-27; Lk 24,44-46).
In the second place, one must read Scripture in the context of the living tradition of the entire Church. According to Origen, "Sacra Scriptura principalius est in corde Ecclesiae quam in materialibus instrumentis scripta." (Sacred Scripture is written in the heart of the Church before it is on material instruments.) Indeed, the Church carries in its Tradition the living memory of the Word of God, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives it the interpretation in the spiritual sense (cfr Origen, Homiliae in Leviticum, 5,5).
The third criterion is the need to pay attention to the analogy of the faith, that is, the cohesion of the single truths of the faith among themselves and with the overall plan of Revelation, and the fullness of the divine economy that it encloses.
The task of the researchers who study Sacred Scripture in different ways is to contribute, according to the aforementioned principles, to a more profound understanding and exposition of the sense of Sacred Scripture. The scientific study of sacred texts is important, but does not suffice alone since it only satisfies the human dimension. In order to respect the coherence of the faith of the Church, the Catholic exegete must be careful to perceive the Word of God in these texts within the context of that faith.
Without this indispensable reference point, exegetic research will remain incomplete: losing sight of its principal goal, it risks being reduced to a purely literary reading in which the true author, God, no longer appears.
Moreover, the interpretation of Sacred Scriptures cannot be simply an individual scientific effort - it should always be confronted with, inserted into and authenticated by the living Tradition of the Church. This norm is decisive in identifying the correct reciprocal relationship between exegesis and the Church Magisterium.
The Catholic exegete is not only a member of the scientific community, but also, and above all, a member of the community of believers of all time. Indeed, these texts are not given to individual researchers or to the scientific community "to satisfy their curiosity or to provide them with subjects for study or research" (Divino afflante Spiritu, EB 566). Texts inspired by God are entrusted in the first place to the community of believers, to the Church of Christ, in order to nourish their life of faith and guide their life of charity. Respect for this goal must condition the validity and effectiveness of Biblical hermeneutics.
The encyclical Providentissimus Deus recalls this fundamental truth observing that, far from hindering Biblical research, respect for this datum favors its authentic progress. I would say that a hermeneutic of faith corresponds more to the reality of this test than a rationalistic hermeneutic which does not recognize God.
To be faithful to the Church means, indeed, to place oneself in the current of the great Tradition which, under the guidance of the Magisterium, has considered the canonical writings as the word addressed by God to his people and has never ceased to meditate on them and to discover their inexhaustible riches. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed this with great clarity: "All of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God" (Dei Verbum, 12).
As the above-mentioned dogmatic Constitution reminds us, there is an inseparable unity between Sacred Scriptures and Tradition, because both come from the same source:
There exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.
For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known.
Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.
As we know, the phrase “pari pietatis affectu ac reverentia” - the same sense of loyalty and reverence - was created by St. Basil, and accepted in the Decree of Gratianus, from which it came into the Council of Trent and then into Vatican II. It expresses precisely this inter-penetration between Scripture and Tradition. Only the ecclesial context allows Sacred Scripture to be understood as the authentic Word of God which becomes guidance, standard and rule for the life of the Church and the spiritual growth of believers.
This, as has been said, does not prevent in any way a serious and scientific interpretation, but moreover, it opens access to further dimensions of Christ, that are inaccessible through a purely literary analysis, which remains incapable of incorporating the global sense that for centuries has guided the Tradition of the entire People of God.
Dear members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, I wish to conclude my intervention by expressing to you all my personal thanks and encouragement. I thank you sincerely for the demanding work that goes with serving the Word of God and the Church, through research, teaching and publication of your studies.
I would add to this my encouragement for the path that still remains ahead. In a world where scientific research takes on even greater importance in many fields, it is indispensable that exegetic science be situated at an appropriate level. It is one of the aspects of the inculturation of the faith which is part of the Church's mission, along with acceptance of the mystery of Incarnation.
Dear brothers and sisters, may the Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God incarnate, and Divine Master who opened the spirits of his disciples to the sense of Scriptures (cfr Lk 24,35), guide and sustain you in your reflections.
May the Virgin Mary, model of obedience to the Word of God, teach you to accept ever more the inexhaustible richness of Sacred Scripture, not only through intellectual research, but also in your life as believers, so that your work and your actions may contribute to always make the light of Sacred Scripture shine before the faithful.
Assuring you of my support through prayers for your efforts, I impart to you the Apostolic Blessing from the heart, as a token of divine favors.