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On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu

Posted on by Jonathan F. Sullivan

Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order “to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” (2Tim 3:16-17) This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness.

– Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu

Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu 65 years ago today, in 1943 on the feast of St. Jerome . Later described as a “Magna Carta for biblical progress,  the encyclical letter outlines a general approach to the Catholic understanding of the Bible and biblical studies. In particular Pope Pius reviews some of the prevailing œsecular  approaches to studying Scripture and outlines their proper use by Catholic scholars, so that modern scholars will “neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers.” (40)

Pius begins his letter by praising Pope Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus , which sought to safeguard the Scriptures against various modern readings (collectively referred to as “higher criticisms”). Leo was concerned about the use of the historical-critical method in interpreting Scripture and declared that true science will never contradict Scripture properly understood.

Having acknowledged Pope Leo for his stern defense of Scripture, Pius then outlines how the landscape of biblical studies has changed in the 50 years since Providentissimus Deus was issued. (11) Pius draws particular attention to new archaeological findings in the Holy Lands, including the discovery of ancient versions of the biblical books and related early Christian writings (Pius may have been referring to the various documents found in the city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt at the end of the 19th century). Such discoveries had considerably added to scholars’ knowledge of the language, customs and culture of the Ancient Near East peoples.

Indeed, Pius commends scholars in their use of the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek) to more accurately perceive the meaning of the original authors. While still maintaining the privileged place of the Latin Vulgate, Pius recognizes that use of the original languages will allow scholars a keener insight into the intent of the Sacred Writers, since œthe original text… has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation.  (16)

Pius also commends the use of modern methods to identify the most authentic texts available, i.e. textual criticism. It is one of the “dirty little secrets” of biblical studies that there are hundreds of ancient versions of the biblical texts, and not all of them agree on the exact wording or phrasing of some passages. In Pope Leo’s time scholars made use of textual criticism “quite arbitrarily and often in such wise that one would say they did so to introduce into the sacred text their own preconceived ideas,” while by the time of Pius’ writing such criticism “has rules so firmly established and secure, that it has become a most valuable aid to the purer and more accurate editing of the sacred text and that any abuse can easily be discovered.” (18)

Finally, Pius commends the use of literary (or form) criticism, which is the means by which biblical scholars interpret Scripture through the use of different literary forms (poetry, narrative, laws, parable, etc.). (36) Ancient authors, including the authors of Scripture, “did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries.” By examining these forms, and their use in ancient literature, scholars gain insight into the intent of the Sacred Writers. For instance, when a charge is made that the Bible contradicts some historical fact, the cause may actually be found in the particular linguistic expressions found in ancient culture.

The goal of all these methods, according to Pius, is to arrive at a literal interpretation of Scripture. (23) By that he does not mean a “literalistic” interpretation in which every word is interpreted without regard for context, but one in which words are taken for their “plain” meaning. For instance, when Christ says, “I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved: and he shall go in and go out, and shall find pastures” (Jn 10:9), he is not saying that he has hinges, is mounted into a wall and can be opened and closed; the literal meaning in this passage is that he is talking in metaphor: Jesus is the way to heaven. On the other hand, when the evangelists describe Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, there is nothing within the text to indicate that they are recording anything but history; here, the literal sense is historical in nature. Pius contrasts this literal sense with an overly mystical sense, by which he means interpreting all of Scripture as a metaphor for the spiritual, rather than as a record of actual events.

Pius concludes his encyclical by encouraging Catholic scholars to continue to unpack the riches of the Bible and to not be deterred by the challenges that remain. (40) He also exhorts bishops and priests to make great use of Scripture in their preaching and teaching (50, 51) and seminaries to train all future priests in the means of exegesis (54) so that they may be instilled with a love of the Divine Word.

Pius concludes his encyclical with an appeal for peace. (56) Writing in the midst of the Second World War, Pius calls all people to search for Christ in Scripture, for

those who are wearied and oppressed by adversities and afflictions will find true consolation and divine strength to suffer and bear with patience; there – that is in the Holy Gospels – Christ, the highest and greatest example of justice, charity and mercy, is present to all; and to the lacerated and trembling human race are laid open the fountains of that divine grace without which both peoples and their rulers can never arrive at, never establish, peace in the state and unity of heart; there in fine will all learn Christ, “Who is the head of all principality and power” (Col 2:10.) and “Who of God is made unto us wisdom and justice and sanctification and redemption.” (1Cor 1:30)

Posts in this Series:

  1. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (October 13, 2008)
  2. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Dei Verbum (October 7, 2008)
  3. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu (September 30, 2008)

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Skip to content

Jonathan F. Sullivan

On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu

Posted on by Jonathan F. Sullivan

Inspired by the Divine Spirit, the Sacred Writers composed those books, which God, in His paternal charity towards the human race, deigned to bestow on them in order “to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” (2Tim 3:16-17) This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness.

– Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu

Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu 65 years ago today, in 1943 on the feast of St. Jerome . Later described as a “Magna Carta for biblical progress,  the encyclical letter outlines a general approach to the Catholic understanding of the Bible and biblical studies. In particular Pope Pius reviews some of the prevailing œsecular  approaches to studying Scripture and outlines their proper use by Catholic scholars, so that modern scholars will “neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers.” (40)

Pius begins his letter by praising Pope Leo XIII’s 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus , which sought to safeguard the Scriptures against various modern readings (collectively referred to as “higher criticisms”). Leo was concerned about the use of the historical-critical method in interpreting Scripture and declared that true science will never contradict Scripture properly understood.

Having acknowledged Pope Leo for his stern defense of Scripture, Pius then outlines how the landscape of biblical studies has changed in the 50 years since Providentissimus Deus was issued. (11) Pius draws particular attention to new archaeological findings in the Holy Lands, including the discovery of ancient versions of the biblical books and related early Christian writings (Pius may have been referring to the various documents found in the city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt at the end of the 19th century). Such discoveries had considerably added to scholars’ knowledge of the language, customs and culture of the Ancient Near East peoples.

Indeed, Pius commends scholars in their use of the original languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek) to more accurately perceive the meaning of the original authors. While still maintaining the privileged place of the Latin Vulgate, Pius recognizes that use of the original languages will allow scholars a keener insight into the intent of the Sacred Writers, since œthe original text… has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation.  (16)

Pius also commends the use of modern methods to identify the most authentic texts available, i.e. textual criticism. It is one of the “dirty little secrets” of biblical studies that there are hundreds of ancient versions of the biblical texts, and not all of them agree on the exact wording or phrasing of some passages. In Pope Leo’s time scholars made use of textual criticism “quite arbitrarily and often in such wise that one would say they did so to introduce into the sacred text their own preconceived ideas,” while by the time of Pius’ writing such criticism “has rules so firmly established and secure, that it has become a most valuable aid to the purer and more accurate editing of the sacred text and that any abuse can easily be discovered.” (18)

Finally, Pius commends the use of literary (or form) criticism, which is the means by which biblical scholars interpret Scripture through the use of different literary forms (poetry, narrative, laws, parable, etc.). (36) Ancient authors, including the authors of Scripture, “did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries.” By examining these forms, and their use in ancient literature, scholars gain insight into the intent of the Sacred Writers. For instance, when a charge is made that the Bible contradicts some historical fact, the cause may actually be found in the particular linguistic expressions found in ancient culture.

The goal of all these methods, according to Pius, is to arrive at a literal interpretation of Scripture. (23) By that he does not mean a “literalistic” interpretation in which every word is interpreted without regard for context, but one in which words are taken for their “plain” meaning. For instance, when Christ says, “I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved: and he shall go in and go out, and shall find pastures” (Jn 10:9), he is not saying that he has hinges, is mounted into a wall and can be opened and closed; the literal meaning in this passage is that he is talking in metaphor: Jesus is the way to heaven. On the other hand, when the evangelists describe Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, there is nothing within the text to indicate that they are recording anything but history; here, the literal sense is historical in nature. Pius contrasts this literal sense with an overly mystical sense, by which he means interpreting all of Scripture as a metaphor for the spiritual, rather than as a record of actual events.

Pius concludes his encyclical by encouraging Catholic scholars to continue to unpack the riches of the Bible and to not be deterred by the challenges that remain. (40) He also exhorts bishops and priests to make great use of Scripture in their preaching and teaching (50, 51) and seminaries to train all future priests in the means of exegesis (54) so that they may be instilled with a love of the Divine Word.

Pius concludes his encyclical with an appeal for peace. (56) Writing in the midst of the Second World War, Pius calls all people to search for Christ in Scripture, for

those who are wearied and oppressed by adversities and afflictions will find true consolation and divine strength to suffer and bear with patience; there – that is in the Holy Gospels – Christ, the highest and greatest example of justice, charity and mercy, is present to all; and to the lacerated and trembling human race are laid open the fountains of that divine grace without which both peoples and their rulers can never arrive at, never establish, peace in the state and unity of heart; there in fine will all learn Christ, “Who is the head of all principality and power” (Col 2:10.) and “Who of God is made unto us wisdom and justice and sanctification and redemption.” (1Cor 1:30)

Posts in this Series:

  1. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (October 13, 2008)
  2. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Dei Verbum (October 7, 2008)
  3. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu (September 30, 2008)

Share this:

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Divino Afflante Spiritu

New Catholic Encyclopedia
COPYRIGHT 2003 The Gale Group Inc.

DIVINO AFFLANTE SPIRITU

Encyclical of Pope pius xii concerning the advancement of biblical studies. The document is dated Sept. 30, 1943, feast of St. Jerome, patron of studies of the Bible. The present article treats of the contents of the encyclical, the circumstances leading to the document, its characteristics, and its effects.

Contents. The introduction states that the occasion of the encyclical is the 50th anniversary of the biblical encyclical of Pope Leo XIII , providentissimus deus, and declares that the purpose of the document is to encourage in the most opportune way further developments in biblical studies.

The first section is devoted to a historical summary of the teachings and activities of Leo XIII and succeeding popes concerning the study of the Bible. Emphasis is placed on the teaching of Leo XIII on the inerrancy of the Bible with reference to problems arising from the physical sciences and history, and on his establishment of the Biblical Commission. The remainder deals with the founding of the Pontifical Biblical Institute by Pius X, with the encyclical spiritus paraclitus by Benedict XV , and with progress made during the previous half century in Catholic Biblical studies.

The second and more important part of the encyclical sets down a scientific program for biblical studies. It first cites recent discoveries in archeology, ancient history, linguistics, and other technical sciences contributing to a better understanding of the Bible. The pope encourages the furtherance of the scientific study of the Bible through the investigation and translation of the biblical texts in their original languages rather than in the traditional Latin Vulgate, and insists upon the importance of textual criticism to obtain the most accurate biblical texts. He defines the prime task of the biblical interpreter as the discovery of the literal sense of the Word of God, as intended by the inspired human author.

Unusually strong emphasis is placed on the importance of evaluating the literary forms used by ancient writers for a clearer understanding of the Bible. The Catholic commentator is warned that the study of the ancient literary forms “cannot be neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis.” The pope urges the use of archeology, ancient history, and ancient literature as subsidiary sciences contributing to a better understanding of the Bible. The doctrinal section concludes on the positive note that the scientific method in Scripture studies, having already solved many difficulties of long standing and demonstrated the historical nature of the Bible, still affords promise of the solution of remaining difficulties.

The encyclical concludes with an assurance of liberty to Catholic Scripture scholars and with a request that the scholars be judged by all with the utmost charity. In conclusion the Holy Father exhorts bishops, priests, laity, and seminarians to use the Holy Bible for spiritual profit.

Circumstances. As the document itself states, the remote occasion for this encyclical was the considerable development in archeological, historical, and other technical fields during the decades preceding 1943. The encyclical lists (without further explanation) six areas of scientific progress in biblical studies. An analysis of these six areas demonstrates why, in 1943, it was clear that the traditional fundamentalist approach to biblical study was insufficient and why a new and scientific approach to Bible study was necessary: (1) Archeology in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and in Palestine itself had developed with unparalleled rapidity after 1918 and had succeeded in rewriting in considerable detail the history of Egypt, of the Mesopotamian civilizations, and of Palestine itself. Excavations at Ur, Nippur, Nineveh, Babylon, Mari, Ras Shamra , Byblos, Jericho, and Samaria, among other sites, had yielded much new information relating to the Bible.(2) The numerous monuments and written documents from the ancient Near East had shown parallels between the Bible and the literature of other ancient peoples. Other documents had greatly increased our knowledge of the history, the daily life, and the religious thought of the ancient world. (3) The discovery of papyri in Egypt had revealed much information concerning the daily life and language of the Egyptians in the first centuries of Christianity, and had led to the discovery of numerous biblical texts from as early as the 2d and 3d centuries after Christ.(4) The discovery and publication of new manuscripts of the Bible and of improved critical texts of the Greek New Testament had given scholars a closer approximation of the original texts of the Bible than had been available 50 years before. (5) An increasingly extensive and thorough study of patristic exegesis during the preceding 50 years had led to better knowledge of the texts and the intellectual characteristics of early exegetical schools in the Church. (6) The establishment (from many examples) of how ancient peoples spoke, narrated, and wrote had led to a greater appreciation (by modern students) of the concrete ways in which the writers of antiquity expressed their thoughts, and of the literary forms by which the Bible should be interpreted.

The progress in knowledge in these six areas in particular had already resulted in an increasing use, before 1943, of the scientific method by many Catholic exegetes, but at the same time had caused hesitation on the part of some concerning the propriety of using scientific means to interpret Sacred Scripture.

The opposition between traditional and scientific approaches to Bible studies was epitomized in a pamphlet written by an Italian priest, Dolindo Ruotolo (using the pseudonym Dain Cohenel), protesting strongly against the use of scientific, historical, and critical methods in the study and interpretation of Holy Scripture, particularly by the Pontifical Biblical Institute. This pamphlet was answered in a letter of the Biblical Commission dated Aug. 20, 1941, which, by its vindication of a scientific approach to biblical studies and its insistence on the primacy of the literal sense, was a significant antecedent of the Divino afflante Spiritu.

Characteristics. This encyclical can be described as positive in tone and liberalizing in effect. Its historical section does not dwell on the serious controversies over rationalism and modernism. They are treated as past issues, and Pius XII dwells upon the positive contributions of scientific research towards the solution of biblical difficulties. In this attitude the Divino afflante Spiritu differs from the previous Scriptural encyclicals of Leo XIII and Benedict XV . The encyclical is likewise liberalizing in that it removed the requirement that official Catholic Bible translations be from the Vulgate, stressed the fact that only a few biblical texts had been officially interpreted by the Catholic Church, and encouraged Scripture scholars to make full use of scientific means in studying and interpreting the Holy Bible.

Effects. Catholic exegetes received the Divino afflante Spiritu with profound gratitude. During the preceding 50 years they had been gradually improving their methods and principles. This encyclical was a vindication of the persevering work of the Dominican Father M. J. lagrange in the employment of critical and historical approaches to biblical interpretation.

There was a significant return in the Church to the scientific study of the Bible. Although started by the Catholic Oratorian priest Richard Simon in 1678 and continued by the Catholic doctor Jean Astruc in 1753, this scientific approach had been the domain for nearly a century, almost exclusively, of rationalist scholars such as those of the Tübingen school. The encyclical put a decisive end to the crisis of Catholic exegetes who had been encountering difficulties in presenting an exegesis at the same time scientific and orthodox.

Modern Catholic biblical exegesis, which is both scientific and religious, was greatly furthered by this encyclical. The satisfaction of Pius XII with the new directions given by the Divino afflante Spiritu was demonstrated shortly before his death. On July 28, 1958, he sent a message to the first Catholic International Biblical Congress at Brussels. In that message Pius XII referred with gratification to the beneficial results of his encyclical of 15 years before.

Bibliography: pope pius xii, “Divino afflante Spiritu,” (Encyclical, Sept. 30, 1943) Acta Apostolicae Sedis 35 (1943) 297326; English translation, Rome and the Study of Scripture (5th ed. rev. St. Meinrad, Ind. 1953) 79107. a. bea, “Divino afflante Spiritu,” Biblica 24 (1943) 313322. h. levie, The Bible, Word of God in Words of Men ( New York 1962) 3199. r. b. robinson, Roman Catholic Exegesis since Divino Afflante Spiritu (Decatur, GA, 1988). j. r. donahue, “The Bible in Roman Catholicism since Divino Afflante Spiritu,” Word & World 13 (1993) 40413.

[j. f. whealon]

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