Edward Sri is provost and professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, and is the author of several books, including The Bible Compass: A Catholic’s Guide to Navigating the Scriptures (Ascension Press).
In an era when “mainstream” biblical scholars deny that the Lord instituted the Eucharist or that Jesus really rose from the dead, Pope Benedict’s insights on how to interpret the Bible are perhaps needed now more than ever. No pope of recent memory has devoted more time and thought throughout his life to weighing carefully both the benefits and challenges of modern biblical scholarship.
Pope Benedict discusses two essential levels to interpreting the Bible: historical and theological. First, he recognizes the importance of a serious historical study of the Scriptures. He is no fundamentalist.
Since Christianity itself is about God’s saving actions in history, and since the Bible bears witness to this history, it is important to understand the meaning of the biblical texts in their original historical settings.
Interpreters, therefore, should take seriously the human dimension of the Bible and discern the original meaning of the text. They can do this by using historical methods that consider the literary genre of a text, its historical context and the modes of expression and narration used in the time of the sacred authors. This first level of interpretation, Pope Benedict notes, is being pursued vigorously by much modern biblical scholarship.
However, he notes that the second level of theological interpretation appears to be “almost absent” in academic work on Scripture. And the effects are devastating.
The second level considers the divine dimension of Scripture. Since Scripture is inspired by God, it must be interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written (Catechism, No. 111). Here, the Pope calls on biblical scholars to avoid a myopic reading of Scripture that focuses only on the historical. He reminds us of the three criteria from Vatican II for authentic interpretation of the Bible: (1) one must read individual biblical texts in light of all the books of the Bible, since the same Holy Spirit coauthored them all; (2) one must read Scripture in light of the living Tradition of the Church, since the same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures is animating the Church’s tradition; and (3) one must interpret Scripture in light of the coherence of truths revealed by Christ and taught by the Church, which also is guided by the same Spirit (see Catechism, Nos. 112-114).
When, however, biblical scholarship fails to interpret the Scriptures theologically — from the standpoint of faith in its inspiration and faith in the God who acts in history — two tragic consequences follow. First, “the Bible becomes solely a history book.” Instead of being experienced as God’s divine words spoken personally to each individual, “the Bible remains in the past, speaks only of the past.”
Second, interpreters tend to deny the divine acting in history. Consequently, when miracles, prophecy or anything else supernatural is found in the Bible, it is automatically discredited as not being even possibly historical. Benedict critiques this bias toward the supernatural: “When there seems to be a divine element [in the Bible], the source of that impression must be explained, thus reducing everything to the human element. As a result, it is the grounds for interpretations that deny the historicity of divine elements.”
Only by reuniting the historical and theological levels of interpretation will modern Scripture scholarship be able to serve a reading of the Bible from the heart of the Church.
About This Series
Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of what a Pope is. On the rock of Peter our Church is built. To him and his successors — Christ’s vicars — have been entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Christ prayed for him that his faith might not fail, that he might strengthen his brethren.
The untold story right now in the media is how much God has worked through Pope Benedict XVI in his first five years as Pope. That’s why we began to commission short essays to honor him for his anniversary just a few weeks ago.
As the media tries in vain to pin the lion’s share of the blame for the developing abuse scandal on him, those essays are now taking on a meaning and depth we couldn’t have imagined. We’re fortunate to have this man leading us, and these tributes tell why.
We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did.
— The Editors