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What is biblical hermeneutics?



Anthony Sciglitano - published on 01/16/18

Scriptures are not merely documents from the past to be studied historically, but rather living ones.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Lk. 1:30) says the angel Gabriel just prior to the Annunciation, prior to what for John is her bearing of the Word of God (Jn. 1:1-1:18). Like Mary, the Church bears the word of God for its time and, like Mary, the Church should receive the comforting words of Gabriel amidst a whirlwind of challenges.

In 1943, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, credited as a landmark document because it endorsed the use of modern literary and historical methods to study the Bible in the Catholic Church. The text is a testimony to intellectual courage. Historical-critical method had been a tool frequently used to debunk Christian doctrine, call into question the mission and divinity of Christ, and unmoor the Church from its foundation. Nevertheless, Pius XII distinguished the method from the uses to which it had been put. A hammer can be used to murder or to build. Knowledge of the former should not proscribe the latter.

This, however, is to put the case too defensively. Following Saint Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana, Pius knew that knowledge of “secular” or “profane” sciences was important to reading the Scriptures with genuine insight. His vision is a capacious one:

Let those who cultivate biblical studies … neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archaeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers, as well as their manner and art of reasoning, narrating and writing. (par. 40) For all human knowledge, even the nonsacred, has indeed its own proper dignity and excellence, being a finite participation of the infinite knowledge of God, but it acquires a new and higher dignity and, as it were, a consecration, when it is employed to cast a brighter light upon the things of God.

Subsequent developments only sharpened his point. The 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has increased tremendously our knowledge of the cultural and religious life of Jesus’ time. Methods of study have also multiplied as sensitivity to readings from voices too often excluded (i.e., women, the poor) have lent genuine insight to biblical study.[1]

The theological justification for the use of historical and literary analysis is consistent throughout Church documents.[2] They all draw an analogy between the Word of God expressed through Jesus’ fully human life on the one hand, and the gift of this Word, given in the Holy Spirit to the Church through human authors: “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (DV, art. 13). Dei Verbum considers the writers of the biblical texts “true authors” (DV art. 11); God “speaks through men in a human fashion” (art. 12). For this reason Dei Verbum advocates the study of  literary forms, the “customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another” (DV, art. 12).

The documents make another, equally important point: the Holy Scriptures are not merely documents from the past, to be studied historically, but living documents, with God as their ultimate “author,”[3] to be proclaimed in the life of the Church. This is its most important setting. Historical study certainly enriches, and in some cases even corrects or purifies this proclamation; it cannot substitute for it. The final form of Scripture remains God’s self-revelation through the unity of Old and New testaments: the first a pedagogy or education for humanity to receive God’s Word in Christ; the second, the preeminent revelation of God’s Word made flesh. This grasp of the unified “canon” of scripture, the biblical texts authoritative for Christian truth and life, in the interrelation of texts, in promise and fulfillment, in law, prophecy, wisdom and gospel holds primacy of place for the Church. To encounter the divine Person through the gift of his Word in Scripture, through proclamation and liturgy is to encounter the living Word of God, the Word of God “for us,” who meets us where we are in the present just as he met the apostles along the road to Emmaus, where their hearts burned as the risen Jesus “opened the scriptures up” for them (Lk. 24:32).

[1] See especially the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s (PBC) document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), which observes and remains open to the insights coming from newer methodologies such as feminist and liberationist thought, though not uncritically.

[2] I am thinking of several documents here: Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), Dei Verbum [2] (DV) (Vatican II 1965), and two Pontifical Biblical Commission documents: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) and The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture (2014). It is important to note that the Pontifical Biblical Commission is not an arm of the magisterium.

[3] Especially the case in The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture.

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