One of the famous phrases of the Second Vatican Council that has always stuck in my mind is from Dei Verbum, which teaches that “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written” (section 12). That is the translation from the Vatican website. The Latin reads, “Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit.” Notably, the phrase “eodem Spiritu” means “same Spirit” not “sacred Spirit.” The old Walter Abbot translation gets this right and so does the Catechism (section 111). But the point is, where does this principle come from?
Well, if you take a look at the footnote to the line, you’ll see this:
9. cf. Pius XII, encyclical “Humani Generis,” Aug. 12, 1950: A.A.S. 42 (1950) pp. 568-69: Denzinger 2314 (3886).
Great, so we have to go back and look at Humani Generis for this idea. The Denzinger reference 3886 equates to the 21st paragraph of the encyclical which talks about the value of biblical exegesis, that it renews theological inquiry, giving it a constant freshness. The paragraph does refer to Pius IX’s letter Inter gravissimas from 1870, but the funny thing is that the phrase about the “same Spirit in which it was written” does not appear anywhere in the encyclical.
So, here’s where Thomas a Kempis comes in. In his famous book, The Imitation of Christ, he talks about reading Scripture in Book I, chapter 5 and says that “it should be read in the same spirit with which it was made” (Harold Gardiner translation, 1955). So, is Vatican II quoting Thomas a Kempis without attribution? It’s hard to say. You can read the original Latin text online from this 1486 publication of the Imitation of Christ. Here’s an image for you:
For those of you without a magnifying glass, the underlined text reads “Omnis Scriptura Sacra eo Spu debet legi quo facta est.” (“Spu” here is an abbreviated form of “Spiritu.”) My translation is then: “All of Sacred Scripture ought to be read in the same Spirit in which it was made.” However, a translation from 1938 that was republished in 1959 reads quite freely, “Each part of the Scripture is to be read in the same spirit in which it was written.” I’m not suggesting that the Council Fathers were reading this translation and then formulating their Latin text, but that Thomas a Kempis was on their minds when penning this line. I would be interested to see if there is further evidence for this in some of the background documents of the Council. I just stumbled across it, and thought you would like it if I’d share it with you.