Befriending the Old Testament: Part 5

WelCom July 2019: Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm continues her eight-part series about the Old Testament. So far we have seen the Old Testament, describing God’s love affair with a particular group…

WelCom July 2019:

Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm continues her eight-part series about the Old Testament.

Befriending the Old Testament: Part 5 Archdiocese of Wellington

Elizabeth Julian RSM.

So far we have seen the Old Testament, describing God’s love affair with a particular group of people, follows a basic storyline involving many different characters, places and events, spread over 46 books. This month we will consider the tricky subject of inspiration.

All Christians believe the Bible is inspired, that is, it was produced under God’s guidance; but not all Christians share the same understanding about how this happened. Some believe God directly dictated the Bible to a human author while others believe God worked indirectly through the story tellers and writers.

What’s the Catholic position? A correct understanding of inspiration is important because it affects our understanding of truth in the Bible – next month’s topic.

A little bit of history

Throughout history people have asked, ‘What does the Bible mean?’ Various answers have been suggested. For example, it means exactly what it says, nothing more, nothing less; or, it’s an allegory; or, it’s a book of moral guidance. However, educational and cultural developments from the 11th to the 16th centuries, including the founding of universities, brought new questions challenging these understandings. For example: What really happened at creation? Is the Bible literally true? How did the Exodus take place?

What is known today as ‘biblical criticism’, began about the middle of the 17th century. ‘Criticism’, from a German word meaning a ‘scientific study’, has nothing to do with criticising the Bible. It’s not a negative judgement but a process of exploring a biblical book or passage within its own particular context, that is, respecting the text’s historical, literary, cultural and religious background. Biblical criticism tries to determine what the author intended saying to the original audience.

In 1650, French priest Richard Simon, published a book suggesting Moses was not the Pentateuch’s* only author. So radical was this claim that Catholics were forbidden to read it! However, biblical scholarship continued developing and various methods of historical and linguistic analysis were applied to the Bible.

Befriending the Old Testament: Part 5 Archdiocese of Wellington

God’s Revelation is the beginning of our salvation. When we say ‘yes’ to God, as an act of faith, it is in reply to his invitation. Fifty three years ago, on 18 November 1965, the Second Vatican Council explained what is meant by Revelation with the promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, known by its Latin title, Dei Verbum (the Word of God).

By the 19th century some scholars began to suggest the Bible was purely a human composition and divine inspiration played no role. Several studies questioned the historical and scientific accuracy of parts of the Bible. Now, for Catholics the Bible was a fundamental source of truth. Pope Leo XIII worried that Catholics’ faith would be seriously challenged by these studies. His ensuing encyclical Providentissimus Deus (The God of All Providence) emphasised the traditional Catholic teaching that the Bible was true and free from any errors because it was inspired by God. However, Pope Leo encouraged Catholic scholars to continue their studies responsibly and in 1902 he established the Pontifical Biblical Commission, a body of experts to deal with biblical matters and guide biblical interpretation. Unfortunately, some of its recommendations slowed the progress the Pope had intended. In fact, several scholars were either reprimanded or indeed silenced!

It wasn’t until 50 years later in 1943 that Catholic scholars were really given the ‘green light’. Pope Pius XII wrote Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Divine Spirit), an encyclical encouraging further biblical research. Linguistic and archaeological studies etc, had made it glaringly obvious that historical truth is not the main concern of the Bible. This ‘Magna Carta’ of Catholic biblical studies tried to maintain a balance between the divine and human elements in the Bible.

While biblical scholarship made further progress in the decades prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962‒1965) ordinary Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible privately in case they misinterpreted it. However, in 1965 all that changed. The Council published a remarkable document **Dei Verbum (On Divine Revelation), one of the most important Council documents. This Dogmatic Constitution was revised frequently during the four years of the Council as conservative and liberal bishops fought for their respective positions. One of its most important decisions was that ‘easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful’ (#22).


Now back to inspiration. What exactly did Dei Verbum say? Paragraph 11 is especially important for our purposes: ‘…the Church…holds that the books of both the Old and the New Testament in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical, because having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they have God as their “author’.’’ Did God pick up a pen and write? Did God choose various writers and dictate a message? ‘No’. While God chose men to write what God wanted said this doesn’t mean God treated them like machines or puppets. Respecting their freedom and individuality God made use of their various abilities and talents. Inspiration basically means then that God is the ultimate author of the Bible and the human authors were guided by the Holy Spirit. In some mysterious way God entered into the composition of these writings. So, the doctrine of inspiration ultimately affirms the Bible is the ‘word of God’. Note, however, nowhere does the document explain how inspiration works, it merely affirms it in a broad fashion. It does not say God whispered words into the ears of the biblical writers even though some paintings depict this!

Catholics believe the Bible is inspired, not only because the Church says so but because the Bible has spoken to the experience of people over a very long time. It has stood the test of time. So, the Bible is inspired in its origins and inspiring in its effects. But is it true? We will address that topic next month.

*Pentateuch means the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The word Pentateuch comes from two Greek words that mean ‘five books’ or ‘five scroll’. According to tradition, the books were written by the Israelite leader, Moses.

**Dei verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 18 November 1965, following approval by the assembled bishops by a vote of 2,344 to 6. It is one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council. ‘Dei verbum’ is Latin for ‘Word of God’ and is taken from the first line of the document.