Wednesday, September 14, 2011

America Magazine and Catholic Biblical Literalism

The following is an excerpt from a September 12th article in America magazine by Brian B. Pinter:

"I led a Bible study series recently at a parish in Manhattan, where most of the participants were hip, advanced-degree-holding professionals. I worked hard to prepare for the classes, and during my presentations on the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis I used the best of historical-critical exegesis by respected Catholic scholars. We explored the differences among various literary forms, examined the historical contexts in which the Genesis accounts took shape and considered the function of foundation myths in ancient Near Eastern cultures. When the participants raised questions about scientific theories concerning the origins of the universe and humankind, I made reference to the 2004 statement by the Vatican-sponsored International Theological Commission, which spoke positively about the Big Bang theory. I also quoted Pope John Paul II’s affirming remarks on the theory of evolution.

Nonetheless, a number of individuals were shocked at the suggestion that the first and second chapters of Genesis did not contain literal, historically accurate accounts of creation. One woman protested, saying, “How do you know the world wasn’t made that way? You can’t prove otherwise!” Another was flabbergasted that I did not affirm the historicity of the talking serpent in Genesis 3: “Are you saying that God can’t create a talking snake?” Finally, an irate young man sent me e-mail to tell me, among other things, that my treatment of Genesis had no place in a Catholic parish and that I should consider becoming Protestant
....." You can finish reading the article here

The article then goes on to discuss the issue of Biblical fundamentalism in the Catholic Church. For the most part, the article is on point and follows the general teachings of the PBC document Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. However, while he gives examples of how "Catholic scholarship has moved beyond literalism in its interpretation of the Bible" and names a number of those scholars who have helped move us away from fundamentalism, he does not really give examples of those who teach Biblical literalism within the Church. Rather he refers to the nearly 21% of Catholics, according to a 2007 Gallup poll, who "could be described as unconscious or naïve" in their reading of the Bible. So, is it simply that the 21% just doesn't "know" better or are there Catholic teachers who promote a more fundamentalist approach to Scripture?

My only other issue with the article is that it espouses the importance of avoiding fundamentalism by promoting the use of the historical-critical method in isolation. I am in no way opposed to the historical method, but there is far more to the Catholic interpretion of Scripture than the historical-critical method. Again, see CCC 109-119 or Dei Verbum 7-13 or B16's introduction to Jesus of Nazareth I.


Jonny said...

I like the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible for that very reason, Tim. It will often give multiple views of interpretation; modern and traditional, with good arguments to support both. But at the end of the day one must be humble enough to admit that in some places the Church has an acceptable margin for interpretation in Scripture; and that we will probably never know with absolute certainty exactly what happened thousands of years ago. No matter how strong our opinions are, they still must be considered opinions until they are confirmed by the Magesterium.

Michael Demers said...

This link discusses Adam and Eve and modern biology in the Aristotle-Thomas Aquinas mode.

Leonardo said...


I think that it is normal to engage in disagreements while reading and explaining the bible in a group because the difference of the points of view.

In a past blog comment, Dr. Mary Healy suggested the lecture of the gospels as an introductory way of reading and studying the Bible.

In my personal experience, the process of learning the Bible is a very long one, and it helps when someone tries to present the themes of study in a scholarly way while considering the character and the faith of the students.

At the end, I think that the Bible is a matter of knowledge, but also of growing of faith.

rolf said...

When I led a Bible study group and we covered the Book of Genesis, I was careful to explain all sides on some of the contentious issues like creation. If the analysis in the commentary is a hypothesis, then I explain that also. That is why I like to use several different commentaries, both historical critical and something more traditional like 'Navarre.' Sometimes the reality might be in the middle.

Pomeranian Catholic said...

The "International Bible Commentary" has proven very beneficial in my studying and teaching experience. If you can get past the vertically inclusive language a few of its authors use in their articles, I'd highly recommend it.

As to the present matter, Brian B. Pinter's first mistake was to assume that being highly educated entails an automatic acceptance of "scientific" exegesis. It doesn't. His second mistake was to act like more literalist approaches aren't accepted by the Church. They are and always will be. True humility resides in acknowledging other viewpoints to be equally valid in the eyes of faith as our own, insofar as they are compatible with the great tradition handed down to us once and for all.

Ter said...

Part of the difficulty is in how what is being said is presented e.g. a priest/lecturer might say "Mark puts in this healing of the blind man after Jesus' preaching on spiritual blindness to emphasise what Jesus said" - most people will hear that as saying "Mark made up the story of the blind man to back up what Jesus said", whereas the speaker meant (hopefully!) that Mark used an actual healing event that he knew of in this particular place "to emphasise ..." etc. People who teach the bible to ordinary/beginning bible students should be aware of the need to clarify that you are not saying 'x' or 'y' isn't true.

Mark in Spokane said...

Historical-critical analysis is necessary but not sufficient for the Catholic Bible scholar and study leader. A large part of much of modern Catholic Bible scholarship's problem is that it views historical-critical analysis as both necessary and sufficient. The magisterium has been working to correct this problem -- by emphasizing that Catholic scholarship needs to look to other methods of understanding the text, not as a substitute to historical-critical analysis but as a way of enriching and deepening our understanding of the truth of the text.