Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 74 (June/July 1997): 35-40.
Father Albert Vanhoye recently began his second five-year term as Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In this interview with Catholic writer and lay theologian Peter Williamson, given in Rome on January 14, 1997, Vanhoye reflects upon key issues in Catholic interpretation of Scripture.—The Editors.
The major accomplishment of your first term of service was the publication by the Biblical Commission of "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" in 1993, with the English version appearing in 1994. How was that document received?
In general it has been very favorably received. I have been gratified to see multiple editions appear in various languages, often accompanied by useful introductions, responses, or commentary, such as Father Joseph Fitzmyer’s ample and careful commentary, which appears in one of the English editions.
Reviews have also been quite positive. A Protestant reviewer wrote that the document could not have been "more timely" and that "Protestants should identify profoundly with the appeal of the Pontifical Biblical Commission boldly to reaffirm the Church’s hermeneutical prerogatives." A Jewish scholar wrote that it is "a document of great value to both Catholic and non-Catholic interpreters of the Bible" and a "remarkably open and learned report." Of course, critical opinions have also been expressed. One Protestant reviewer wrote that this document was too traditional and too committed to obedience to the magisterium. Yet on the whole the document has enjoyed a very favorable reception.
What was the Pope’s response?
The Pope was very interested in the preparation of "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." He took the penultimate draft with him when he traveled to Africa in December 1992. He read it carefully and made a few observations which were communicated to me. When the Holy Father formally received the document from the Biblical Commission in an audience before the Cardinals and Diplomatic Corps, he expressed a very positive personal evaluation. He praised its "spirit of openness . . . its balance and moderation" and stressed his agreement with the Commission that "the biblical word is at work speaking universally in time and space to all humanity."
A few years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger, who is the President of the Biblical Commission, expressed some severe criticisms of contemporary biblical scholarship. Was he very active in the development of the document?
In New York in 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger spoke at a conference on the topic of "Biblical Interpretation in Crisis." In that talk he strongly criticized form criticism as practiced by Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius, and he argued that form criticism had been built upon philosophical positions contrary to the faith of the Church. But it was not the Cardinal who suggested the topic of the Commission’s document. Cardinal Ratzinger was always present in our discussions except when he had a conflicting commitment, but he was admirably discreet, not insisting on his criticism. We were completely free to discuss our perspectives on the historical-critical method. We responded to his concerns by indicating that, in its essence, the historical-critical method is not tied to the a priori assumptions of Bultmann and Dibelius, and that it is necessary to employ this method in a manner that liberates it from any a priori assumption that would be contrary to the faith of the Church.
There is a widespread perception that contemporary Scripture scholarship has become an exclusively historical or literary discipline, with little concern for the meaning of the Bible for believers today. Is this a real problem or only a mistaken perception?
It is a real problem, not a mistaken perception. In the legitimate desire to be scientific there is a tendency among scholars to study the Bible without paying attention to its religious message, seeking only to clarify, for instance, the historical context or the stages of the formation of a text. But the Bible is a collection of religious writings. If one does not explain the religious meaning of a biblical writing, one has not explained the text adequately. Of course the nature of this religious content varies, and in certain historical books, for example, it may not be obvious. Nevertheless, the religious meaning of the Bible is always present, and it is the indispensable task of exegesis to discover and communicate it.
The Commission also insisted that the Bible must be explained in its unity, with attention to the relations between the various books of the Bible. The unity of the Bible is animated by a strong and marvelous religious impulse that is capable of inspiring every believer. Finally, the Commission was concerned to show how exegesis must influence every dimension of the Church’s life and how attention must be paid to actualizing the biblical message.
One of the themes of the document that provoked intense interest by some commentators was the section on Actualization, which is a new term in Church documents on Scripture. What is the significance of the term?
To actualize Scripture means to bring the word of God into the present. The word of God as we find it written in the Bible stands at a certain distance in time from our daily life, from our culture, from our concerns, etc. But the Bible as the word of God is intended to reach every human person in his concrete present existence. So actualization means to make present and accessible to people today the meaning of the word of God written in the Bible.
The task of scientific exegesis itself is not to actualize the text, but to prepare for actualization. Actualization is a pastoral task. But scientific exegesis must keep in view the ultimate goal of actualization in order to be faithful to the orientation implicit in the written word of God. Actualization transfers the word of God from its ancient context to the present context. This is not easy, and the document explains how it should be done, seeking first the meaning of the words in their original contexts, and, after the historical meaning is understood, to find the points that can be actualized in the life of the believer and of the Christian community.
Despite its openness to other approaches, the Commission’s document strongly reaffirms the importance of the historical-critical method. Why is the historical meaning of the text so important?
The historical meaning of the text is important precisely because God has manifested himself in history. The Bible is not a collection of philosophical or theological treatises, nor does it present us with a set of eternal truths expressed in propositions. Instead, more than anything else, the Bible recounts the initiative of God to enter into relationship with human beings in our history. For this reason it is necessary to pay attention to the historical circumstances of the word of God and to use our knowledge of the historical context to illuminate it. Only if we make this effort can we accurately transfer the word of God into contemporary life.
Some scholars such as Harvard’s Jon D. Levenson [see First Things, August/September 1994—eds.] have disagreed with the Commission that it is possible to embrace the historical-critical method and maintain an interpretation of the Bible that is consistent with a doctrinal tradition.
According to Levenson, the lingua franca of the scientific exegetical community "has long been historicism and naturalism, that is, philosophical positions averse to the monotheistic traditions and biased toward secularity." He suggests that "if the transcendent dimension of the text is to be upheld without suppressing the human, historical dimension" it is necessary to abandon that lingua franca of historicism and naturalism. This suggestion agrees with the Biblical Commission document. Levenson goes on to urge that means be found to pursue "biblical scholarship on public grounds, that is, on grounds that are pluralistic," and he states that on this issue "the Commission offers no help." As a matter of fact, the members of the Commission were not able to discuss that point. We only insisted on the proper context in which every page of the Bible must be read. It is a context of religious faith—whether the Jewish tradition of the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian tradition of reading the Old Testament and New Testament together.
Some exegetes have sought to escape the limitations of an exclusively historical reading of the text by reference to the tradition of the "spiritual sense." Others have contested this approach, considering it eisegesis [reading into a text], and have insisted on the priority of the literal sense understood as the meaning intended by the human author.
There is a temptation to escape the limitations of an exclusively historical reading by resorting to a "spiritual sense" that has no relationship to a historical reading of the text. To yield to this temptation would be eisegesis and would not be sound interpretation. The Biblical Commission insisted upon the relation between the spiritual and literal senses. We emphasized several times in the document that the meaning of a biblical text is not closed, and that instead, in many cases, the meaning of a text is like a direction which is given, and in that direction it is possible to go further and further. This dynamic character of biblical texts is evident from the "re-reading" of many texts within the Bible itself. So, the spiritual sense proceeds in the direction given by the literal sense of the text, but without stopping at the first level of meaning.
For example, Old Testament texts assume a deeper meaning in view of the paschal event. The death and resurrection of Jesus have established a radically new historical context which sheds fresh light upon the ancient texts and causes them to undergo a change in meaning. The spiritual sense is the meaning of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, when it is read in the context of the paschal mystery. This is a real context, not an imaginative romantic context. While every text has an original meaning, when it appears in this new real context its open-endedness becomes apparent. The remedy to the tendency to limit the meaning of the Bible to an exclusively historical reading is not to abandon the historical meaning but to be conscious of the openness of the text.
The Commission seems to agree with canonical criticism that the final form of the text read in light of the entire Canon of Scripture and in light of the believing community is what really matters. This would seem to diminish the importance of source criticism except insofar as it sheds light on the meaning of the final text.
I agree entirely. I would be happy to see the attention given to source criticism decrease. Some exegetes give the impression that for them exegesis consists only in distinguishing different sources behind a biblical text. They multiply sources, sometimes finding as many as ten strata in the composition of a text. This sort of work can be useful but is not sufficient. It can be useful because it gives a more lively consciousness of the historical elaboration of the biblical texts. But we must admit that what we say about sources and strata are only hypotheses. Another scholar who studies the same text will distinguish other sources, different strata. It is always necessary in the end to return to the final text and the Canon, which is the real thing. Scholarly studies are genuinely useful for the faith and life of the Church only insofar as they illuminate the problems of the final text.
The document offers a more theological description of the role of an exegete than many expected, arguing, for example, that those who would provide an exegesis should "explain the Christological, canonical, and ecclesial meanings of the biblical texts." Might this emphasis on the theological dimension warrant some adjustment in the training of Catholic exegetes to equip them to integrate theological perspectives?
Yes, this sentence is important and points in that direction. The Commission took this position because it took seriously the difficulty mentioned in the introduction of the document, namely, that there exists a type of exegesis that remains the exclusive domain of a small number of specialists, and that lacks a vital or fruitful relationship with the people of God. For this reason the Commission insisted on an orientation that must be consistent: all the steps in exegetical work must aim at understanding more deeply the religious meaning of the biblical text, since this is its principal meaning. If an exegete does his work well, he prepares the way for actualizing the text, because he brings to light the true meaning of the text, yielding a more profound and complete understanding of the word of God, communicated centuries ago, but always capable of inspiring and shaping the lives of men and women.
Exegetes need to explain the Christological meaning of the biblical text because in the faith of the Church, the Bible—the whole Bible—speaks about Christ and every text of the Bible finds its definitive meaning in its relationship with Christ. In turn, the canonical meaning protects against an interpretation that is too restricted or that grants too little attention to essential values. The canonical sense also can correct possible distortions, because in the Bible we find complementary truths expressed. Some texts seem contradictory, but when we reflect more closely we see that they are not contradictory, but rather are expressions from two diverse points of view that are both necessary for the apprehension of the truth.
An example would be the justification apart from works in St. Paul and the justification with works in St. James. This, in appearance, is a contradiction. But if we look at the texts more closely we see there is no contradiction, since St. James speaks of justification by works of faith. On this point Paul is in complete agreement with James, even if he does not express himself the same way. For St. Paul, the faith that counts is the faith that works through love. This example illustrates apparent contradictions in the Bible that can stimulate theological reflection and are important because they help us avoid perspectives that might otherwise be one-sided.
Beginning from the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, which affirms "the impossibility of interpreting any text without starting from a ‘pre-understanding’ of one type or another," the Commission declares that Catholic exegesis "deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the Church, whose first concern is fidelity to the revelation attested by the Bible." How is this kind of a priori commitment consistent with scientific objectivity in exegesis?
It is the kind of a priori commitment that is necessary because it is impossible to understand the text without some kind of pre-comprehension. To understand a sentence said in English it is necessary to know the meaning of the English words. To understand a text it is necessary to have some idea of the concepts expressed in the text. So, when the Commission says that the historical-critical method may be practiced without any a priori assumption, we meant that the method is not necessarily tied to the particular assumptions of the Bultmann school that reduce the content of Scripture to an anthropological message. But we do not deny that some position is necessary to be able to understand the text, and we emphasize that the most appropriate pre-understanding is one that stands in continuity with the biblical text, namely, the pre-understanding of the living tradition of the Church. If we attempt to read the Bible with materialistic presuppositions as our pre-understanding, we exclude in advance its primary message.
Of course, there is the danger of reading into the Bible opinions or positions that are developments of the tradition and do not exactly reflect the meaning of the text. The document expressed a concern to defend exegesis against this danger of attributing to the text developments that occurred subsequently in the tradition. This is a danger to which precritical exegesis frequently succumbed. It was common to read into the text later conciliar definitions. But today this is not a common problem, although there may always be the tendency to read into the text pres ent theological positions instead of distinguishing the various stages in the handing on of revelation.
How do the principles of "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" apply to Catholics who teach or publish in non-Catholic academic settings or in other ways do exegesis that requires a non-confessional starting point? One thinks of Father John Meier’s The Marginal Jew, which attempts to affirm only the facts about the historical Jesus with which a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic could agree. Should one distinguish Church exegesis from academic exegesis?
Some distinctions are necessary. One cannot express one’s faith in secular academic settings with the same liberty that one can before a Catholic audience. But, in the end, there is not a difference. The Catholic scholar must approach his work with the utmost scientific rigor, seeking to know what the Bible says, what its various authors intended to communicate, and to explain the texts accurately and thoroughly.
The distinction that I would make would be between exegesis, properly speaking, and the use of biblical texts for historical purposes. In my opinion, The Marginal Jew is not an exegetical work but a work of historical research. Fr. Meier adopts as his method finding data in biblical texts and other historical sources, then analyzing and assembling the facts in a way that would be convincing to a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, and agnostic regarding their historicity. This may overlap with what exegesis does, but its main result is to produce a history that conforms to the current requirements of historical science.
Exegesis, on the other hand, seeks to illumine the total content of the text, not just which details are historical or nonhistorical. Exegesis emphasizes the content of faith, divine revelation, and the invitation to a renewed existence that is at the heart of the biblical text. The larger picture that the biblical text seeks to communicate concerns a religious message and not historical facticity. Naturally, for the essential facts, such as the crucifixion of Jesus, the texts render testimony that is very strong, and they intend precisely to affirm the facticity of this event. Similarly, the texts clearly affirm the facticity of the Resurrection on the basis of testimony. But for many other details—one sees, for example, the minor differences among the Gospels—historicity is not really the important thing. The important thing is the overall picture and the message it communicates.
Some have interpreted "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" as a vigorous defense of the historical-critical method by its leading exponents.
It is true that there was a concern, especially on the part of some members of the Biblical Commission, to defend the historical-critical method against excessively radical criticisms that were denying its validity. It is therefore not surprising that in some passages of the document one can see this posture of defense.
The Commission, however, also wished to open up perspectives, to enlarge the horizons of exegesis, and was therefore unwilling that the historical-critical method have a monopoly in the interpretation of the Bible. So we summarized various methods and approaches currently being practiced, wishing to show that these can yield insights and make a contribution that the historical-critical method could not achieve by itself. So the various methods and approaches are complementary. Indeed, the document as a whole "redimensions" the position and function of the historical-critical method, affirming its value, but denying its sufficiency.
Father Avery Dulles has noted that in quoting Dei Verbum (para. 11) the Biblical Commission omitted key phrases affirming the inerrancy of Scripture, including the line "everything that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit." He wonders whether the Biblical Commission is "deliberately backing away from even a moderate and nuanced doctrine of biblical inerrancy."
The Biblical Commission decided not to study the theology of inspiration. It states this at the beginning of the document. To do so would have been to enter into another field of study—very demanding in its own right—for which we are less well prepared. It belongs to systematic theology to seek to clarify the concept of inspiration in its diverse modalities. Similarly, we did not wish to enter into a discussion regarding the precise meaning of inerrancy. If we did not cite the entire paragraph of Dei Verbum it was solely because it sufficed to cite a few words to make the point and it was not necessary to quote the entire passage. It would be a useful task to review the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy in light of the progress of biblical sciences in order to define with greater precision issues that are obviously of fundamental importance for the Christian reading of the Bible.
The Scripture scholars who participate in the Jesus Seminar claim that objective historical study of the texts leads them to deny the reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and particularly, of His Resurrection. How should Catholic scholars respond to this challenge?
In my opinion this is an example of historical research that is far from exegesis, operating according to principles that are agnostic or opposed to Christian faith. It therefore leads to negations founded not on the texts but on a priori positions. Naturally it is possible to analyze the accounts of the appearances of Christ after the Resurrection and to show that they are not perfectly consistent. But the Resurrection is affirmed very forcefully on the basis of testimony. What is important is not the details of the accounts, but the strength of the testimony taken as a whole. On this point, we have one of the oldest texts of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, which gives a list of witnesses to the Resurrection. Furthermore, all the other texts also attest to the Resurrection of Jesus. So it is only with presuppositions and a method that is "naturalistic and historicist," to use Levenson’s words, that one can derive from the biblical texts negations that directly contradict essential affirmations of all of the New Testament. That this is history, in any acceptable sense, I sincerely doubt.
Can you say something about the role of the Holy Spirit in our reading and interpreting the Bible?
I would say that the Spirit’s part is to put us into personal and living contact with God by means of the written word. A scholar who simply analyzes the text might discover its meaning but lack the contact with God that renders the biblical word truly present, truly efficacious. But the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see the deeper meaning, the religious message, that is found in the text. At the same time the Spirit causes us to realize that this message is personally directed to us who read or who hear the word read, and that it has to do not so much with the past as with the present, with the meaning of our existence today.
The Holy Spirit also communicates the ecclesial meaning of the text, that is, the Spirit makes us realize that this biblical text forms part of a continuing dialog between Christ and His Church, and we are involved in that dialog. This makes an enormous difference. The text ceases to be an object, but becomes a living mediation that deepens and sheds light on our relationship with God, which even communicates to us the power of doing what the text proposes. In this way the Bible becomes something truly alive and life-giving.
What is the next topic the Biblical Commission will consider?
For the next five-year period we will be reflecting on the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, particularly as it bears on the relationship between Jews and Christians. This is an immense topic, and we cannot treat all its dimensions in five years of annual week-long meetings, so we will have to limit our task. It is always timely to make Christians more aware that our New Testament is rooted in the Old Testament, and that the life of the Church is rooted in the life of the people of Israel. In addition, it seems a good time to give some orientations, to make clear that the texts of the New Testament must not be used to further anti-Semitism. On the contrary, the New Testament can provide a basis for promoting positive relationships between Jews and Christians.
In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Holy Father has encouraged the Church to answer the call of Dei Verbum to make Scripture "the soul of theology and the inspiration of the whole of Christian living." How do we respond to the Pope’s exhortation?
For exegetes the first task is to remember that Scripture is the soul of theology. With this awareness, one cannot limit one’s study of the biblical word to research that is exclusively historical or literary. It is necessary to get to the heart of the matter, to express the religious meaning of the text. If exegesis does not do this, theology cannot take Scripture as the soul of theology, since there would exist no proportion or affinity between the results of exegesis and the task of theological systematization.
For theologians the task is to give to the biblical texts the fundamental place owed them, and to stay current with exegetical research in its principal findings. Theologians already do this. One no longer finds theological exposition that takes only a few texts of the Bible out of context to prove a theological thesis. Theologians are aware that the Bible is a historical revelation, that each text must be studied in its specific context along with attention to its place in Scripture as a whole.
In order to make Scripture "the inspiration of the whole of Christian living," it seems to me that the highest priority must be what has traditionally been called lectio divina, an attentive reading of the biblical texts accompanied by reflection, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. A few years ago Cardinal Martini showed how attractive and powerful this practice can be when he introduced it in the cathedral of Milan, filled time and again with young people who gathered for these encounters. During a long vigil the Cardinal would read the word, allow time for meditation, and then reflect on the text before the assembly. Songs and prayers were interspersed throughout the evening. In this way all the audience was helped to taste the word of God, to understand it, to relish it, and above all, to let it enter their hearts so that it might transform their daily lives. Lectio divina can be done individually, in small groups, or in large gatherings, and it seems to me one of the principal means of making Scripture "the inspiration of the whole of Christian living."