Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method

“When one comes to inerrancy, it has to be understood as a consequence of inspiration, but one that is not conterminous with it. It is restricted to inspired statements in the Bible, and not to its questions, exclamations, or prayers. For the Constitution [Dei Verbum, Vatican II Council] plainly states, ‘Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers should be regarded as asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that we must acknowledge the Books of Scripture as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth that God wished to be recorded in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation’ (§11). Especially noteworthy are two things: the verb ‘asserted,’ which is used twice, and the last phrase, ‘recorded…for the sake of our salvation.’ In other words, inerrancy is the quality of all assertions in the Bible that pertain to human salvation. That important phrase saves Catholic interpreters from crass fundamentalism, because it means that the charism of inerrancy does not necessarily grace every statement made with a past tense verb as if it were historically true.” J. Fitzmyer, The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method (Paulist Press 2008), 8.

“The method is called ‘historical-critical,’ because, as we have seen, it applies to the Bible the critical techniques developed from Alexandrian classical philology. It recognizes that the Bible, though containing the Word of God, is an ancient record, composed by a multitude of authors over a long period of time. Being an ancient composition, it has to be studied and analyzed, as are other ancient historical records. Since much of the Bible presents a narrative account of events that affected the lives of ancient Jews and early Christians, the various accounts have to be analyzed against their proper human and historical backgrounds, in their contemporary contexts, and in their original languages. It is called ‘critical,’ not because it seeks to criticize the ancient records in any pejorative sense, but because it uses the techniques of different forms of literary and historical criticism,” ibid. 63.

“The method makes use of two preliminary steps, borrowed from classical philology: (1) the consideration of introductory questions concerning (a) the authenticity of the writing (e.g. Did Paul write the Epistle to the Ephesians?); (b) the integrity or unity of the writing (Did Paul write all of it, or has the text suffered secondary interpolation?); (c) the date and place of composition; (d) the content of the writing, analyzed according to its structure or outline, its style, and its literary form (Is it a letter, a parable, a prayer? Is it poetry, rhetoric, historical narrative, or fiction?); (e) the occasion and purposes of the writing (i.e., the author’s intention in composing it); and (f) its background (Has the OT author been influenced by Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, or Canaanite ideas? Has the NT writer been influenced by Palestinian, Jewish, Hellenistic, or eastern Mediterranean ideas?). All such preliminary questions help much in the comprehension of the biblical writings as something coming to us from a definite literary context, time, and place in antiquity,” ibid. 63-64.

“Likewise borrowed from classical philology is (2) textual criticism, which is concerned with the transmission of the biblical text in the original language and its ancient versions,” ibid. 64.

“Along with such preliminary questions to which the biblical text is submitted, there are refinements of historical criticism that have come to be associated with it. Though they are not per se historical criticism, they are forms of criticism that in the long run affect the historical judgment about an ancient text [e.g. literary criticism, source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism]…Finally, it should be clear that the use of all such criticism is geared to one end: to determine the meaning of the text as it was intended and expressed by the human author moved long ago to compose it,” ibid. 64-66.

“Sometimes Catholic who are impatient with the historical-critical method ask, ‘Why should not modern biblical scholars interpret the Bible as did the Fathers of the Church or other writers of the patristic period?’ The main reason is that so much has happened in this world since the patristic period. The Catholic Church, in its interpretation of Scripture, has learned much from the scholars of the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance emphasis on recursus ad fontes opened up the study of the Bible to its original languages and some of its ancient versions, which notably changed the orientation and interpretation of the whole Western Church, which previously had read the Bible only in the Latin language, either the Vulgate or the Vetus Latina. The new study in the Renaissance period opened, indeed, the way further to the translation of the Bible into various vernaculars among the Reformers. It also broke with the highly allegorical typological, and homiletic interpretation that had characterized the patristic and early medieval modes of expounding the biblical text, which in many cavalier ways disregarded the contexts and the basic literal meaning of the Mosaic, prophetic, and sapiential writings of the OT,” ibid. 78-79.

“The Catholic Church also learned much from scholars at the time of the so-called Enlightenment, even though it resisted their rationalistic and anti-dogmatic presuppositions. Today we often forget how, on the heels of the Enlightenment, great historical and archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century affected our reading of the Bible. Such discoveries were unexpected, but they make it impossible for one to interpret the Bible in the simplistic and often allegorical ways that had been in vogue since the time of the Fathers of the Church and of medieval theologians,” ibid. 79.

“Though Pope Benedict XV, in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), could find no good in the study of the literary genres of the Bible, Pope Pius XII corrected that misguided advice in his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (1943),” ibid. 81.

“If the meaning of a biblical text could take on a meaning different from its originally expressed—and, I would add, originally intended—meaning, then how could one say that the Bible is still the source par excellence of divine revelation, the means that God has chosen to convey to generation after generation of his people what his plans, his instructions, and his will in their regard actually are. This characteristic of the written Word of God demands that there be a basic homogeneity between what is meant and what it means, between what the inspired human author sought to express and what he did express, and what is being said by the words so read in the Church today. This, then, is the major problem that the literal sense of Scripture raises today, and one with which theologians and exegetes have to deal,” ibid. 89.


  1. Thanks for that Steve,

    Again, thanks for the multitude of great stuff at Tribo. What a blessing!
    Just one question-

    I'm puzzled with Fitzmyer's endorsement and refutation of Dei Verbum- when he declares that, 'the text means what the HUMAN authors intended it to mean'. Is he denying what is said in Dei Verbum chapter 3,that "they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted"?


  2. Hi Ron,

    The source of the problem may be the difficulty in offering a consistent exposition or interpretation of inconsistent tradition.

  3. And his book is still worth reading?
    Seems Joe's noggin is on the fritz.
    Or is he a victim of Neuman's development theory?
    Care to comment on Frame's comment that 'the historical-grammatical method has no biblical warrant' in a following blog?

    Thanks Again,


    “And his book is still worth reading?”

    It’s not a book that Protestants need to read for their own benefit. It’s useful in doing apologetics on Catholicism since it documents mainstream Catholic hermeneutics.

    But there are better books on how to exegete the Bible.

    “Seems Joe's noggin is on the fritz._Or is he a victim of Neuman's development theory?”

    Catholicism has quietly adopted Protestant Bible criticism—and of a somewhat liberal variety at that.

    “Care to comment on Frame's comment that 'the historical-grammatical method has no biblical warrant' in a following blog?”

    I’d need to have the precise reference.