PUBLISHED IN LANTAYAN Vol. 12 (Academic Year 2013-2014)
Pastoral-Theological Journal of Don Bosco Center of Studies, Paranaque City, Philippines

Abstract: The recent document on “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria” from the International Theological Commission has devoted 16 paragraphs to “Listening to the Word of God” taking up the insistence of Dei Verbum 24 that “the study of the Sacred Page” is the “very soul of Theology.”  As the ITC document goes no further than the restatement of current Magisterium, the present essay reflects more critically on the challenge of “listening to the Word of God” today.  More attention needs to be devoted to a conversation with contemporary biblical scholarship that tends to focus on the endless possible interpretations of texts, rather than Christian truths.  This must be challenged.  The biblical text can and does nourish theological reflection, as both Scripture and Theology relate restlessly to tell “the Great Story” (Arundhati Roy).  This “restlessness” has the potential to generate energy for ongoing Catholic biblical and theological reflection.

The document “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria” is the fruit of reflection in the International Theological Commission (ITC) from 2004 until 2011.  It was authorized for publication in November, 2011.  The purpose of this document is admirable, clearly stated in its first paragraph: “what characterizes Catholic theology and gives it, in and through its many forms, a clear sense of identity in its engagement with the world of today.”  In the midst of contemporary “fragmentation,” it seeks “to identify distinctive family traits of Catholic theology” (Para. 3).  Chapter One of the document is entitled “Listening to the Word of God” (Paras. 4-19).  I trust that theologians and biblical scholars will derive comfort and guidance from this document, but as a practicing biblical scholar, I would like to express some concern.

As I rose from reading this document, I was puzzled by a document that claims to address “engagement with the world of today” (Para. 1), but which is entirely self-referential.  Not one contemporary issue is raised in detail by the document; there is no “engagement.”  In one hundred and sixty-three notes not one contemporary scholarly discussion is catalogued, much less assessed.  The vast majority of references are to Popes, Councils, Vatican documents and even the newly-canonized Magisterial document of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (note 22).  The only scholars mentioned are (in historical order): Tertullian, Justin, Origen, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, Anselm, Richard of St Victor, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas a Kempis, Melchior Cano, Teresa of Avila, John Henry Newman, Henri de Lubac, and Yves Congar.  None of these represent the “fragmentation” that is supposedly engaged by the ITC document.  Indeed, they are all used to demonstrate “the distinctive family traits of Catholic theology.”  Although, in their own time, John Henry Newman, Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar generated Angst among Roman authorities, Newman prior to the First Vatican Council and de Lubac and Congar prior to the second, they are nowadays well inside the fold.

It is disappointing to hear the Roman Catholic Church claiming to face the issues of contemporary theology, and only speaking to itself.  I am aware that Pontifical documents generally have a self-referential literary form, but documents of the ITC have had moments in the past when it broke free from that leg-rope. (1) This is one document that should have done so.  Added to that is the need for this document to mention, no less than six times in the nineteen numbers dedicated to “Listening to the Word of God,” the importance of the Word being interpreted in the light of the teaching of the Catholic Church.  Catholic scholars have no difficulty with this insistence, but a steady overstatement creates the impression that Catholic biblical scholars are out of control.  That is not the case.

It also renders documents like this irrelevant for the larger world of Christian thought.  The ITC has every right to produce the documents that it wishes to produce, and in their unique literary form.  Even as a long-time member of the ITC, (2) a concern that I often voiced at the plenary sessions was: “For whom are we writing these documents?”  I therefore ask: is this the best way for the Catholic tradition to approach contemporary “fragmentation” in biblical scholarship?  What follows faces the problems mentioned by the ITC, but responds to them somewhat differently.

Surprisingly, the courageous approach to the issue of a critical reading of the biblical text of Leo XIII’s Providentissumus Deus and Pius XII’s epoch-making Divino Afflante Spiritu do not come into play in this document which carefully avoids affronting the “critical” question.  Dei Verbum broke genuine further new theological ground, and this is well articulated in paragraphs 7-9 of the ITC’s document.  In former times, the biblical scholar entertained him- or herself in the playpen of foreign languages, cultures, literary forms, archeology, hermeneutics, and those matters that were proper to a somewhat arcane discipline. (3) The great Tradition was separated from the Word of God, another source of Revelation.  Generally speaking, maybe with one eye on useful biblical passages in a “proof-text” tradition, Theologians turned to the great Tradition to articulate – in every different age – Christian and Catholic truths.  That this should no longer be the case has been made clear by the Magisterium, from Leo XIII to Vatican II, and beyond. (4) The relationship between the study of the Sacred Page and the articulation of a relevant Theology in an increasingly complex period of rapid cultural change on the one hand, and resistance to it on the other, guiding “the Church, during its pilgrim journey here on earth … until such time as she is brought to see him face to face as he really is (cf. Jn. 3:2)” (Dei Verbum 7), is fraught with difficulty.  This must not ne glossed over by repeated recourse to authority.

 Biblical Truths

Subsequent to Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), gifted and hard-working scholars gave much to see that historical-critical scholarship took its rightful place in the Catholic tradition of biblical interpretation (see also Dei Verbum 12).  The Council’s discussions of the role of the Bible in the Church reflects an acceptance of this achievement (see especially, Dei Verbum 7).  But since that time biblical interpretation has developed further, encouraged to pursue the “objective truth” by means of the historical-critical approach to the Bible (see The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 34-41). (5) A respectful application of historical-critical methods to both text and tradition should benefit the Theologian’s concern to affirm the “truths” of the Catholic belief system in a way that was faithful to the Tradition, yet relevant for the world into which it was proclaimed.  Biblical historical-critics were confident that they could uncover “the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind” (Dei Verbum 12.  See Divino Afflante Spiritu 23: “let the Catholic exegete undertake the task, of all those imposed on him the greatest, that namely of discovering and expounding the genuine meaning of the Sacred Books”).  In theory, this looked like a good direction for the mutual enrichment of Scripture and Theology.  This “genuine meaning” was something to be shared.

The relentless application of the criterion of objectivity, so important to historical-critical methods, is dissipating as contemporary biblical criticism recognizes the “worlds” involved in the process of (a) the original production, (b) the ongoing relevance and (c) the interpretation of the Sacred Text.  This can create further difficulty for the Theologian’s oversight of the ongoing interpretation of “the things (God) had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples” as it is “transmitted to all generations” (Dei Verbum 7).  There are worlds “behind,” “within,” and “in front of” the text.  Thus, the Bible, one of the great classical texts of all time, must be approached as a window through which one can look to discover what lies behind it, a portrait with a world of its own, and a mirror in which one may or may not find one’s own reflection. (6) But all is not lost.  Interpretation of the Bible must attempt to create a “horizon” which respects all three elements generated by the world behind, within, and in front of the text.  This could lead to a greater sense of humility in interpretation.  As a contemporary literary critic has written: “The meaning of a text is inexhaustible because no context can provide all the keys to all its possibilities.” (7) It can with reason be claimed that there has never been an objective reading of any text.  The patristic and reformation traditions focused upon the world in the text, but unashamedly read their own worlds and their own texts into it.  The use of the Johannine literature to develop the language and doctrines articulated at Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and the Reformers use of Paul, especially Romans, to bolster their fundamental doctrine “faith alone,” are eloquent proofs of that inevitable process in any use of text.

The nineteenth-century quest for the historical Jesus produced a figure who resembled the researcher, the Form Critics focused upon the world behind the text, but their reconstruction of that world is now seen to have been often influenced by their own worlds.  The Redaction Critics claimed to have returned, in a more scientific fashion, to the world in the text.  But their dependence upon form critical conclusions concerning the world behind the text, (8) and the risk that they rendered the Evangelists in their own image, makes their work open to the criticism leveled against both Form Criticism and Patristic-Medieval exegesis.  Rather than producing the “genuine meaning,” so confidently suggested by the objective historical study of the biblical text, the Scripture scholar asks the Theologian to exercise her or his ministry by providing interpretations that are more focussed upon the subjective and culturally conditioned nature of all interpretation, including that of the Tradition itself.

 Contemporary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation

Following the larger world of literary criticism, contemporary biblical scholars focus more and more upon the world in front of the text (see The Interpretation of the Bible, 41-69).  But this shift of focus presents its own problems.  There are many “worlds,” cultures, individuals, faith communities and interpretative traditions in front of the text.  The emergence of narrative critical and reader-response criticism in the late 1980’s initiated a process in which more attention was given to the multiplicity of readers and cultures, and to an increasingly sophisticated literary critique of a the biblical text. (9) In an attempt to devote greater attention to the world in the text, narrative critics trace implied authors and readers within a text that maintains its status as Divine Revelation.  However, many of them have exaggeratedly claimed that the only issue that deserves attention is the text itself and the world receiving it.  Thus, questions concerning the world behind the text become irrelevant.  This approach can have detrimental results.  A detachment of the biblical text from its historical setting, and an interest in the reader(s) of the text has led into increasingly subversive readings where the reader and her or his contexts are the determining factors in interpretation.  Some attempt, however, even in these more subversive readings, where the text can be regarded as ideologically offensive, to show that it still forms part of a revealing tradition. (10) Others, however, produce and endless multiplicity of interpretations, determined by reading from a post-colonial, feminist, agnostic, or postmodern “place.” (11) These approaches to the biblical text can become a serious obstacle to the essential and ongoing mutuality between the interpretation of the Word and the theological task.   Between these two extremes there are many other interpretations, produced by readers reading “from their place.” (12)

One of the most significant axioms behind these contemporary so-called postmodern methods of reading a biblical text can hardly be challenged: every interpreter inscribes his or herself in interpretation.  On the basis of this axiom a wave of newer scholars suggests that we be honest at all times, admitting that the story I read into my interpretation is my story.  But must one accept that biblical interpretation can be no more than a multiplicity of never-ending possible interpretations, reflecting the fragmented story of the reader, the highly mobile result of intertextuality, with no place for a time-honoured canon?  Some scholars are developing what is known as autobiographical criticism, claiming that the most honest way to interpret a biblical text I still regard as revelatory is to read it as neither his- or her-story, but as my-story. (13)

The Theologian faces an impossible task if she or he wishes to dialogue with this multiplicity of contemporary approaches to the Bible.  Nevertheless, these approaches indicate an important truth:  no interpretation of a given text can lay claim to ultimate authority.  It must be admitted that no contemporary religious, historical or cultural context can claim to understand all the possibilities of an ancient text, especially one which has remained alive in a reading public, across many cultures and historical eras, for 2,000 years.  The traditional theological use of the “proof text” should be a practice of the past.  Paul Ricoeur has done much to indicate that once the act of interpretation has come to its conclusion, there is always a significant “remainder” which lies beyond the limits of the completed interpretation, “the residue of the literal interpretation.” (14) However, this same philosopher has also insisted that many interpretations are possible, but not any interpretation. (15) The contemporary interpreter of the biblical text must serve the theological task within the Christian community by creating a horizon where the worlds meet, behind, within and in front of the text.  This should contribute to the role of the Theologian who locates this horizon within the faith-tradition of the Catholic Church which reveres the Bible as part of Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum 11-12, 23; Fides et Ratio 5-6, 55). (16) There is far more mutuality required here than the situation described by Bernard Lonergan in 1971: “His (the exegete’s) principle concern is to understand, and the understanding he seeks is, not the understanding of objects, which pertains to the second phase, but the understanding of texts, which pertains to the first phase of theology, to theology not as speaking to the present but as listening, as coming to listen to the past.” (17)

Text and Context

So-called postmodern criticism lays claim to “point the way toward a more rigorously self-reflective and contextualized biblical criticism.” (18)  But such claims have a certain arrogance.  At the beginning of the third Christian millenium, after several decades of intense ecumenical activity and scholarly communion, biblical scholars are aware of the motivating principles, scholarly, cultural and ecclesial, of their various (and sometimes conflicting) interpretations. (19)  Within this dialectic, Jews and Christians demand that the rights of believing biblical scholars to inscribe their age-old stories in Jewish and Christian interpretations be respected.  The limited comprehension created by context is not detrimental until one pretends to be free from it.  Aggressive anti-Jewish and anti-Christian readings of the biblical text cannot be part of a healthy dialectic as “every investigation is conducted within some horizon.” (20)

How is the Theologian, locating him- or herself within two thousand years’ experience of reading and responding to the biblical text as Divine Revelation, to play his or her rightful role in the process of interpreting the Bible within the Church (see The Interpretation of the Bible 50-57; Fides et Ratio 94-95)?  Much culturally driven interpretation invites the reader into the text, giving primacy to cultures and a multiplicity of possible reading experiences.  Such interpretations correctly point to the subjective nature of any interpretation, but they ignore an even more important hermeneutical principle.  Read within the Christian Tradition, not only does the reader shape the text.  As any observer of the Christian story can point out, the text has shaped the reader, and the practice of reading the Bible, for almost two thousand years. (21)  In a Catholic “study of the Sacred Page” primacy must be given to the text and its literary, historical and theological context, not to the socio-cultural context of the contemporary reader, however important the latter may be, especially for the theological articulation of the great Tradition in different times and cultures.

Even a believer might see that everything is “intertext,” the product of a highly volatile number of possibilities which happened to come together at one particular, but passing, point in time.  This interpretative stance asks: why bother involve oneself in the process of interpreting a text which exists because of a tradition?  Why subject to analysis a cultural, historical and religious moment “frozen” in the past to generate (and subsequently impose) a normative “canon,” if all that matters is the enculturated reader who is also the product of an infinite number of possibilities that have come together in one particular reading experience?  An exegete working in the Catholic tradition must respond: to displace the primacy of the biblical text in the act of interpretation and to replace it with the cultural context of the reader and the reading community would be a tragic loss.  Christians would be faced with the giddy possibility of spiralling through a never-ending whirlwind of interpretative possibilities, accepted today and discarded tomorrow.  But this interpretative stance has no place in the exegetical task of the believing biblical scholar.  No human community, especially the one served by the biblical scholar and the Theologian as members of a Christian community that accepts the Bible as Divine Revelation, can survive in such a whirlwind (Fides et Ratio 46, 81, 91).  Of course, the opposite destructive stance must also be avoided.  The primacy of the biblical text in the act of interpretation can be replaced by the context of the culturally conditioned perspective of a particular Catholic authority or community.

 A Contemporary Catholic Approach

Contemporary cultural, postmodern, and biographical interpretations focus more intensely upon the cultural situations of the interpreters and their reading and hearing communities.  Catholic biblical scholarship accepts that agenda, but submits that the process must run in two directions.  Biblical exegesis is not only shaped by culture and the cultures.  Culture and the cultures have been profoundly shaped by the biblical revelation (Fides et Ratio 69-71).  This essential interplay between text and reader and reader and text affirms the ongoing importance, and indeed the priority, of the text transmitted in the Tradition above the culturally situated reader.

 At least two factors lie behind the Catholic insistence upon the priority of the text over the situated reader, individual or communitarian.  The first is the tradition, which has its beginnings in Israel’s recognition that Torah, Nebi’im and Ketubim provided an authoritative word of God determining all aspects of the life and practice of the individual Israelite and the nation.  This, of course, was particularly the case with Torah, but the commentary upon Torah provided by the Prophets and the Writings also gave them an authoritative status as Tanak.  This sense of “Scripture” (gra,fh) passed rapidly into the early writings of the Christian communities.  Widely recognized as Sacred Scripture late in the Second Century, there are indications from the very beginnings of a Christian literature that a Christian Sacred Scripture was emerging.  This can be sensed in the Lukan and Matthean use of Old Testament texts and the literary forms in their narrative, and in the explicit Johannine claim that: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples that are not written (gegramme,na) in this book; but these are written (ge,graptai) that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).  John is consciously passing on a “writing” (a gra,fh), a Scripture to “those who have believed without seeing” (v. 29), that their belief may be life-giving. (22) The same impression is created for the Pauline Corpus in 2 Peter 3:14-16, early in the second century.

The second factor is the evidence that culture, especially – but not only – European culture, has been shaped by the biblical tradition.  Language, art, music, architecture, literature, ethical traditions, national constitutions and modes of government bear its imprint.  To use the language of contemporary literary criticism, the biblical text is the essential intertext for much contemporary culture.  The English poet, William Blake, described the biblical text as our “great code.” (23)  A rejection of the formative nature of what Jews and Christians regard as the Word of God is the rejection of 4,000 years of human endeavor.  Such a rejection, present in some contemporary philosophical and hermeneutical schools, in unacceptable in the Catholic community.  Catholic life depends upon a history that, despite its ambivalence, reflects the unfolding of God’s design. (24)

Most, even if not all, elements in the Christian Creeds reflect a mutuality between biblical texts and the cultural contexts that generated the Creeds. (25)  This mutuality, however, does not detract from the truth that the biblical text has shaped the culture that has, in its own turn, interpreted that text for its credal formulations. One example must suffice, taken from a passage in the Gospel of John.  Such examples could be multiplied to form a sizeable volume.  The text of the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus recorded in the Fourth Gospel (John 3:1-21) provides formative articulations of a number of fundamental elements of the Christian belief system.  We learn the Christian Tradition was born within Judaism (3:1-2).  To see and to enter into the Kingdom (for John, the Christian community), one had to pass through the waters of Baptism and receive the gift of the Spirit from above (vv. 3-5).  Those who wish to belong to that “Kingdom” must allow the impulse of the Spirit draw them beyond rituals, accepting the divine origins of their beginning and their end (vv. 6-10).  We are instructed that in both past and present times, many claim to speak authoritatively of God, but there is only one who has come from God, and has made God known (vv. 11-12).  Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Man, has been lifted up on a cross to show in his flesh the love of God, so that all who gaze upon this unique revelation of a unique God will have life (vv. 13-15).  In this God’s love has been made known; God sent Jesus, his Son, not to judge us but to give us life (vv. 16-17).  Christianity is life, not judgment, but we are shapers of our own destiny.  Johannine “realized eschatology” is not just a technical term dear to Charles Harold Dodd, Joachim Jeremias and Rudolf Bultmann.  It speaks to those of us who need to be taught that we are responsible for our words and deeds (vv. 18-21). (26)  From this brief example, one can see that the list of Christian “truth-claims” that flow naturally from a critical acceptance of the biblical text is potentially very long.  These claims have an impressive history in the confessed and lived faith of the Church, entrusted to the Theologian in the service of the Church and its people (Fides et Ratio 7-12, 82).

The Theologian and, one would hope, the Magisterium must allow a multiplicity of possible readings of the biblical text and a multiplicity of interpretations resulting from such readings.  But the biblical text has shaped and continues to shape a Catholic Community and a Catholic Tradition which recognize Jesus as Son of God, Son of Man, the unique revelation of God in the human story (Dei Verbum 2). (27) But there is more.  The person of Jesus Christ gives the text authority, not the text itself.  Christian Tradition pre-existed the text, and gave us the bi,blia of the New Testament to grant access for their own and later generations to the person of Jesus Christ.  We continue to read the story of Jesus within that Tradition. (28)  Not only is there a narrative world behind, within and in front of the text, but there is also a Christian Tradition which pre-dated the text, generated the text, and which continues to give it life within the many contemporary cultures.  The relationship between Tradition and Scripture, however, is never stable; much less “frozen.”  The Tradition gave birth and continues to enliven the Scriptures in a Christian community, but the Scriptures perform the prophetic role of keeping the Tradition honest when it falls to the temptation of absolutising, through accommodation, any age, culture or particular religious practice (Dei Verbum 9-10; Fides et Ratio 64-65). (29)  Not all will accept this view, but within a postmodern world, where “différance” is important, we Catholics affirm our “difference.” (30)  Within this highly volatile interaction of Scripture, Tradition, and the many, increasingly fragmented, cultures addressed by the one Word of God that the Catholic scripture scholar and Theologian exercise their difficult, but exciting ministry.


The narrator in Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning novel, The God of Small Things (1997), has a reflection appropriate for this setting:

The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again.  The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably.  They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings.  They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen.  They are as familiar as the house you live in.  Or the smell of your lover’s skin.  You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t.  In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t.  In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t.  And yet you want to know again. (31)

It is important for Catholic Christians that there be a Catholic community where “the study of the Sacred Page” is treasured.  For the Catholic Tradition, the Bible is one of the ways God is made known, it is our Great Story.  It is the house we live in … the smell of our lover’s skin.  It has given us the fixed points that support the silken threads upon which the many possible tapestries of Jewish and Catholic responses to that belief can be woven.  We know, and yet we want to know again. (32)  Our interpretation of the text is not determined by a dogmatic tradition, itself interpretation of text, but inspired by its beauty and the Tradition that continues to give it life (Fides et Ratio 79).  As Joseph Ratzinger comments, using the image of the “house”:

The “house” of theology is not a building erected once and for all, it stands only because theologizing continues to go on as a living activity, and so the foundation (i.e. Sacred Scripture) is always something that is actively founding and hence the constant starting-point for the possibility of theology’s existence.  Hence the image is changed into one of the organic sphere, and Scripture is described as the rejuvenating force that keeps theology alive. (33)

The Theologian continues to construct and watches over “the house we live in,” “not superior to the Word of God, but its servant” (Dei Verbum 10).  Herein lies the tension, an inevitable “restless relationship.”  The scholar, whether biblical or theological, belongs to a community of human beings grappling with the timeless mysteries of God’s action in and through Jesus Christ.  There is always the risk of distorting the Word of God by demanding that the interpretation of Scripture correspond to the demands of a particular time, place or culture.  Such distortions are understandable, as Joseph Ratzinger pointed out in his 1967 commentary upon Dei Verbum.  Addressing the problem of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition described as “in unum quodammodo coalescunt” (Dei Verbum 9), the then Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen rightly remarked:

We shall have to acknowledge the truth of the criticism that there is, in fact, no explicit mention of the possibility of a distorting tradition and the place of Scripture as an element in the church that is also critical of tradition, which means that a most important side of the problem of tradition, as shown by the history of the church – and perhaps the real crux of the ecclesia semper reformanda – has been overlooked. In particular a council that saw itself consciously as a council of reform and thus implicitly acknowledged the possibility and reality of distortion in tradition could have achieved here in its thinking a real achievement in theological examination, both of itself and of its own purpose.  That this opportunity has been missed can only be regarded as an unfortunate omission. (34)

In a later article, in the same volume, commenting on Dei Verbum 23 and the use of the Scriptures in the Church, Ratzinger again correctly focuses upon the necessity of the “restless relationship” which must exist between “the study of the Sacred Page” and the role of the Theologian in the Church:

A reference to the ecclesial nature of exegesis on the one hand, and to its methodological correctness on the other, again expresses the inner tension of church exegesis, which can no longer be removed, but must simply be accepted as tension. (35)

The interpretation of Sacred Scripture within the Catholic Tradition, and the ever caring, but critical and scholarly role of the Theologian, necessarily generate this tension.  Neither exegete nor Theologian has the right to ease its pain by either a rigid and unbending dogmatism or a playful interaction with the vagaries of some contemporary postmodern biblical scholarship. (36)  In the end, neither the exegete nor the Theologian can resolve this restless relationship.  It is a tension that the Catholic Church embraces willingly, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and directed by its teaching authority.  It is yet another indication of the mystery and messiness of the Incarnation. (37)

The mystery of the Catholic Church, local and universal, itself a “world” within and yet beyond the cultures, cannot not freeze the Christian response to the biblical revelation, ever attentive to “the living voice of the Gospel” (Dei Verbum 8), into an irrelevant past.  Nor does it create for the Catholic believer of any particular time a comfortable house to live in.  The proclamation of the Kingdom is a never-ending summons to conversion: “The Kingdom is at hand.  Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15.  See Lumen Gentium 8).  Those who “study the Sacred Page” and the Theologians must accept and live their restless relationship that this summons be heard and re-heard until the Lord comes again.  It will call for love, humility, and not a little patient pain, from both parties. (38)  It is fitting that we close with words from Pius XII:

Nevertheless no one will be surprised, if all the difficulties are not yet solved and overcome; but even that serious problems greatly exercise the minds of Catholic exegetes (and Theologians).  We should not lose courage on this account; nor should we forget that in the human sciences the same happens as in the natural world; that is to say, new beginnings grow little by little and fruits are gathered (Divino Afflante Spiritu 44. Parenthesis mine).


 1 See, for example, “From the Diakonia of Christ to the Diakonia of the Apostles,” in International Theological Commission. Texts and Documents (eds. Michael Sharkey and Thomas Weinandy, 2 vols., San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989-2009), 2:229-317.  This very important – indeed foundational – document, produced during my time as a member of the ITC, was released in 2003. It engages with all the significant interlocutors in this discussion.

2 I attended the ITC as the representative of Oceania from 1979-1994, one of its longest serving members.

3 Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Paulist, 1973), 6, described that period as follows: “Tradition could always correct Scriptural interpretation, but never vice-versa.  If the biblical scholar was going to insist on the freedom to play with his new-fangled toys of language and literary form, he was to be kept in a playpen and not let out to disturb the good order of the theological household.”

4 For an earlier reflection on some of the following, see Francis J. Moloney, “L’Écriture Sainte et le Magistère: une relation mouvementée,” in La Responsabilité des Théologiens.  Mélanges offerts à Joseph Doré (eds. François Bousquet, Henri-Jérôme Gagey, Geneviève Médevielle and Jean-Louis Souletie; Paris: Desclée, 2002), 493-505.

5 The document, The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), has no paragraph numbers.  I will refer to it throughout by means of the page numbers of the above edition.

6 For this image, see Murray Krieger, A Window to Criticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), 3-70.  To my knowledge, it was first applied to the New Testament literature by Norman R. Petersen, Literary Criticism for New Testament Critics, (Guides to Biblical Scholarship NT Series; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 24-48.

7 Edgar V. McKnight, Post-Modern Use of the Bible: The Emergence of Reader Oriented Criticism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1988), 241.

8 See, for example, the comment of a founding father of Redaction Criticism, Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of St Luke (London: Faber & Faber, 1961 ), 9: “The analysis of the sources renders the necessary service of helping distinguish what comes from the source from what belongs to the author”  (italics mine).

9 See Francis J. Moloney, “Narrative Criticism of the Gospels,” Pacifica 4 (1991): 181-201; Idem, “Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect,” Pacifica 25 (2012): 1-11

10 See, for example, Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text.  Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (2d ed.; Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1999).

11 See The Bible and Culture Collective, The Postmodern Bible (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Stephen D. Moore, Poststructuralism and the New Testament.  Derrida and Foucault at the Foot of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).

12 See Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert (eds.), Reading from This Place (2 vols.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995-96).

13 See Jeffrey L. Staley, Reading with a Passion.  Rhetoric, Autobiography, and the American West in the Gospel of John (New York: Continuum, 1995).  Janice Capel Anderson and J. L. Staley (eds.), “Taking it Personally” Semeia 72 (1995); Ingrid R. Kitzberger (ed.), The Personal Voice in Biblical Interpretation (London: Routledge, 1998).

14 Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 55.

15 See, for example, Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences (Edited by J. B. Thompson; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 210-213.

16 For Fides et Ratio, see John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) (Strathfield: St Paul Publication, 1998).

17 Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1971), 167-68.  Expanatory parenthesis mine.

18 Anderson and Staley, “Taking It Personally,” 16.

19 On the rich results that can proceed from this “dialectic,” part of the journey “to discover the self-transcendence proper to the human process of coming to know,” see Lonergan, Method, 235-66.  The citation is from p. 239.

20 Lonergan, Method, 247.  On “dialectically opposed horizons,” see pp. 247-49.

21 Artistic and musical expression, every-day language and practices across all the cultures where the Bible is read are eloquent proof of the formative power of the biblical text.  See Fides et Ratio 24.

22 See Dwight Moody Smith, “When Did the Gospels Become Scripture?” JBL 119 (2000): 3-20; Francis J. Moloney, “The Gospel of John as Scripture,” CBQ 67 (2005): 454-68.  See also, Francis J. Moloney, “What Came First – Scripture or Canon?  The Gospel of John as a Test Case,” Salesianum 68 (2006): 7-20.

23 See Northrop Frye, The Great Code.  The Bible and Literature (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).

24 The consistent intervention of the Magisterium to stimulate the use of the Bible in the Catholic Church recognises this important truth.  As well as Providentissumus Deus (1893), Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), Dei Verbum (1965) and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), used for this reflection, recent decades have been marked by two further important documents, one from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Bible (2001), and the significant post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini.  The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church (2010).  The continued need for these interventions may be a sign that the Bible still remains little known and used in the life of the Catholic Church.  For a reflection on the Australian situation, see Francis J. Moloney, “Scripture Since Vatican II,” in Vatican II. Reception and implementation in the Australian Church (ed. Neil Ormorod, Ormond Rush, David Pascoe, Clare Johnson, and Joel Hodge; Melbourne: John Garratt, 2012), 47-61.

25 The problem of the non-biblically based doctrine that form part of the Roman Catholic tradition cannot be explored here.  It has long been a contentious issue between the Protestant and the Catholic traditions.  In the end, it depends upon the careful use of the Paraclete saying in John 16:12-15.  It is unacceptable for a Catholic theologian to reject those elements in the tradition that are not biblical, or cannot be located in a reading of the historical Jesus.  See, for example, Roger Haight, Jesus Symbol of God (New York: Maryknoll, 1999).  See especially, pp. 187-212.

26 For more detail, see Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina 4; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998), 88-103.

27 There can be no laziness in this pursuit.  The biblical meaning of the Christological expressions “Son of God” and “Son of Man” must be incorporated into theological discussion.  Too often the Patristic association with “Son of God” with Jesus’ divinity (and the Trinitarian debate) and “Son of Man” with his humanity (and Chalcedon) are taken for granted.  This is a serious impoverishment of Christological possibilities that emerge from a serious interaction between biblical scholars and theologians.  The biblical uses of “Son of God” and “Son of Man” are far richer than the theological debate over the human/divine in Jesus.

28 Parallel affirmations could (and should) be made concerning the place of Torah, Nebi’im and Ketubim within the Jewish Tradition.  It is beyond the scope of this paper to do so.

29 For further development of this important point, see Francis J. Moloney, “Jesus Christ: The Question to Cultures,” Pacifica 1 (1988), 15-43.  See also Lonergan’s remarks on the interpreter in Method, 161: “He can succeed in acquiring that habitual understanding of an author that spontaneously finds his wavelength and locks onto it, only after he has effected a radical change in himself.”

30 This play on words refers to the practice, developed by Jacques Derrida, of continually deferring meaning, and thus never locating a “metaphysic” behind text that can never constitutes a definitive “meaning.”  To describe this practice he invented the neologism “différer/différance.”  As Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign.  Deconstruction, theology and philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), describes it: “[D]ifférance can be neither self-present nor self-identical; it is never constituted, only ever constituting: thus Derrida’s talk of the play of différance” (p. 37).

31 Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (London: Flamingo, 1997), 229.

32 To this point, Lonergan, Method, 161, cites Friedrich Schlegel: “A classic is a writing that is never fully understood.  But those that are educated and educate themselves must always want to learn more from it.”

33 Ratzinger, “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church,” in Vorgrimler (ed.), Commentary, 3:268.  Explanatory parenthesis added by author.

34 Ratzinger, “The Transmission of Divine Revelation,” in Vorgrimler (ed.), Commentary, 3:192-93.  Stress in original.

35 Ratzinger, “Sacred Scripture,” in Vorgrimler (ed.), Commentary, 3:268.  Stress mine.  It is unfortunate that Ratzinger’s two volumes on Jesus of Nazareth no longer display this breadth of vision. He rejects the ongoing usefulness of critical scholarship.  He writes to “be helpful to all believers who seek to encounter Jesus and to believe in him” (2:xvii).  The stated aim of the work is “to make possible a personal relationship with Jesus” (2:xvi).  See above, note 14.  As Krister Stendhal (“The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Consciousness of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56 [1963]: 199-215) pointed out many years ago, European scholarship, under the influence of Augustine and Luther, often reads the introspective situation of the contemporary Christian into first century documents.  While never doubting good intentions, a study of the figure of Jesus (die Gestalt Jesu) that disregards critical scholarship (1:xi-xvi) cannot hope to produce “a personal relationship with Jesus.” As nineteenth century Jesus research indicated, such work can only produce the Jesus of Joseph Ratzinger.

36 See the remarks of Raymond E. Brown, “Critical Biblical Exegesis and the Development of Doctrine,” in Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine (New York: Paulist, 1985), 52: “Neither a fundamentalist interpretation of the NT, which finds later dogmas with great clarity in the NT era, nor a liberal view, which rejects anything that goes beyond Jesus, is faithful to Catholic history.”

37 See the interesting study of a number of contrasting and potentially mutually enriching “theologies” of the Bible as revelation (Dei Verbum, Karl Barth, Sandra Schneiders, Brevard Childs, Stanley Hauerwas, Tony Kelly) in John Thornhill, “Do We Need a More Adequate Theology of the Scriptures?” Pacifica 9 (1996): 15-34.

38 I add a personal note.  In 1972 I was the student representative on the Academic Board of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome.  That year Pope Paul VI visited the faculty.  He devoted particular attention to me as the representative of the student body.  He directed the following words to me, instructing me to report them to the students: “Nella Chiesa il biblista avrà sempre delle difficoltà.  Abbiate corragio!  Il Papa è sempre con voi.”  (English: “In the Church the biblical scholar will always have difficulty.  Courage!  The Pope is always with you”).

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