John Paul II on the Mission of Bible Scholars

John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission upon receipt of their document, the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. In that speech, he outlined a few points regarding the mission of biblical scholars that I found helpful and motivating. Unfotunately, it’s not in English on the Vatican website, but it is in French. There’s an English translation of some excerpts here. Here are a couple quotes:

“To this end, it is obviously necessary that the exegete himself perceive the divine Word in the texts. He can do this only if his intellectual work is sustained by a vigorous spiritual life.” (sec. 9)

“In order better to carry out this very important ecclesial task [the explanation of Scripture], exegetes will be keen to remain close to the preaching of God’s word, both by devoting part of their time to this ministry and by maintaining close relations with those who exercise it and helping them with publications of pastoral exegesis.” (sec. 11)

-John Paul II, “Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” In ¬†The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings (trans¬†Dean P. Bechard; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002) 175, 177.

In the first quote, John Paul highlights the importance of arriving at the meaning of the text intended by God, the so-called “divine meaning” or the “theological meaning” (a phrase often used by Fr. Frank Matera in describing the exegete’s aim). To me, this concept is very helpful in understanding what biblical exegesis is all about. It really does have a goal that is realizable. Sometimes it seems in the face of the immense stacks of exegetical books in theological libraries that no one will ever figure out the meaning of the Bible! I mean, if people have been seriously working on it for 2,000 years and still feel the need to publish more and more books about it, where’s the hope for a resolution? But the Bible does have meaning, one that can be discovered and related and believed in. John Paul also frames the task of exegesis well as a matter of “perception,” and a kind of perception that is informed by prayer, spiritual life. So the exegete could never be replaced by a robot. Rather, his personal spiritual life is somehow involved in the act of perception of the divine meaning of the biblical text.

In the second quotation above, John Paul highlights the pastoral dimension of the exegetical task. Exegetes, he says, either ought to be preachers themselves or to help preachers in their exposition of God’s word. Lots of Bible scholars, I think, do not see themselves this way at all. But here John Paul insists that biblical scholars ought to be engaged in publishing pastoral exegesis–i.e. popular works–not just scholarly works. He adds after the sentence I quoted above, “Thus they will avoid becoming lost in the complexities of abstract scientific research, which distances them from the true meaning of the Scriptures. Indeed, this meaning is inseperable from their goal, which is to put believers into a personal relationship with God.” (sec. 11, p. 177). So, in John Paul’s mind, there is a distinct possibility of BIble scholars becoming lost! That would not be good. However, I wonder if John Paul had some biblical scholars in mind that he had met in his lifetime–ones who were obsessed with weird little details of Hebrew poetry or archaeology and unable to inspire anyone’s faith. That would be a bad place to be, a lost, uninspiring Bible scholar, trapped in the ivory tower and unable to communicate what he knows to regular people who want to be in a personal relationship with God. I’ll have to think about this one for a while.

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