Tag Archives: Church teaching

Thomas a Kempis in Dei Verbum?

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:

EDIT 1/6/2014 (deleted text struck out and added text maroon):

9. cf. Pius XII, encyclical “Humani Generis,” Aug. 12, 1950: A.A.S. 42 (1950) pp. 568-69: Denzinger 2314 (3886).

9. cf. Benedict XV, encyclical “Spiritus Paraclitus” Sept. 15, 1920:EB 469. St. Jerome, “In Galatians’ 5, 19-20: PL 26, 417 A.

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.

I made a mistake in this original post by associating a footnote belonging to Article 11 to Article 12, as was pointed out to me by a friendly reader. The correct footnote points to Benedict XV and St. Jerome. The relevant text from Benedict XV’s encyclical is this:

35. But in a brief space Jerome became so enamored of the “folly of the Cross” that he himself serves as a proof of the extent to which a humble and devout frame of mind is conducive to the understanding of Holy Scripture. He realized that “in expounding Scripture we need God’s Holy Spirit”;[55] he saw that one cannot otherwise read or understand it “than the Holy Spirit by Whom it was written demands.”[56] Consequently, he was ever humbly praying for God’s assistance and for the light of the Holy Spirit, and asking his friends to do the same for him. We find him commending to the Divine assistance and to his brethren’s prayers his Commentaries on various books as he began them, and then rendering God due thanks when completed.

I have bolded the most important text, which is really a couple citations from St. Jerome. The two references are: “55. Id., In Mich., 1:10-15” and “56. Id., In Gal., 5:19-21.” The drafters of Dei Verbum point us to the second citation, from Jerome’s commentary on Galatians, the phrase there reads in Latin, “Quicumque igitur aliter Scripturam intelligit, quam sensus Spiritus sancti flagitat, quo conscripta est…” (Source: p. 417)This can be rendered in English, “Whoever, therefore, understands Scripture in any other way than the sense of the Holy Spirit by whom they were written…” This phrase seems to be underlying Dei Verbum‘s statement, but the wording is actually closer in yet another text.

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:

Kempis_Chap5For 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.


Protestant Reformers on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

So I was skimming an article by Gary Anderson on “Mary and the Old Testament” Pro Ecclesia 16 (2007): 33-55. and found a fascinating footnote:

Timothy George notes that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were all in agreement about the perpetual virginity of Mary even though Scripture makes no explicit judgment on this matter. “Strangely enough,” George observes, “Zwingli attempted to argue for this teaching on the basis of scripture alone, against the idea that it could only be held on the basis of the teaching authority of the church. His key proof text is Ezekiel 44:2: ‘This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened: no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through if” (“Blessed Virgin Mary,” 109). But this is hardly as strange as it appears. Zwingli is simply working from a typological identification that goes back to the patristic period.

Really?! The most protestant of Protestant reformers–in many ways the Big Three of Protestant reformers–all believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. And they even use biblical evidence to back up their claims. Wow!

(Anderson refers to an article by Timothy George, “The Blessed Virgin Mary in Evangelical Perspective,” in Mary Mother of God, ed. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 100-1.)

To me, this seemingly little point is actually huge for Protestant-Catholic dialogue, relations and for Protestants considering becoming Catholic. Often, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is a sticking point since it is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible and it is one of the big four Catholic Marian dogmas. To realize that the original Protestant reformers embraced this doctrine could, I think, soften some of the tension between Catholics and Protestants on Marian issues.


Dei Verbum, the Minor Prophets and a Catholic Textbook: A Case Study

The Vatican II document on Scripture, Dei Verbum, has some very specific language about how to read the Bible. The document states, “Since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out.” (sec. 21) Also it states, “the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and in turn shed light on it and explain it.” (sec. 16, footnotes removed)

So, as Catholics, we are supposed to read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old. They go hand-in-hand. We are supposed to pay attention to the “content and unity of the whole of Scripture.” So let’s put these ideas to the test in a miniature case study:

1. The New Testament says, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 2:20-21 ESV)

2. A common Catholic textbook on the Old Testament commenting on Haggai says, “Haggai’s enthusiastic nationalism and hope for independence led him to extol Zerubbabel as the person God would use to bring blessing to the land.” (Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament. New York: Paulist Press, 1984. p. 439)

The textbook’s explanation of Haggai certainly sounds as if the author believes that Haggai’s prophecy about Zerubbabel was produced by Haggai’s will because of his nationalism and hope for political independence and not by the Holy Spirit. The oracle is a result of Haggai’s personal thoughts, struggles, weaknesses and dreams. That is, it was produced by “the will of man.” But this understanding is directly in opposition to the understanding laid out in 2 Peter 2:20-21. There, the author emphasizes thoroughly that the prophecies of Scripture are not the product of human thinking or striving, but of the Holy Spirit’s leading and inspiration.

It seems it would be quite difficult to reconcile 2 Peter 2:20-21 and the statement of the textbook. Oh wait, Dei Verbum just makes the problem worse. It says we are supposed to read Scripture as a unity, Old and New Testaments together interpreting one another. Here, 2 Peter is telling us how to read the prophets. So, if we accept Dei Verbum, then we should follow 2 Peter’s guidance.

The point is simple, the prophets spoke “under the influence of God”(2 Pet 2:21 NAB). They did not make up their prophecies because of their pet political issues or their psychological problems. God spoke through them. And to read the Bible in a Catholic way, we must accept this simple teaching of the Bible and the Church.

(Photo: Siena, Cathedral of S. Maria, west facade, head of prophet Haggai: ca. 1280-1300 from mtholyoke.edu)


The Early Responsa of the Pontifical Biblical Commission

I have recently become very interested in a twisted problem that has polarized debate among Catholic exegetes for the past 100 years. It is the question of the authority or non-authority of the early responsa of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

The PBC was established by Pope Leo XIII in the document Vigilantiae studiique to undertake “the challenge of explaining and safeguarding” the Scriptures (sec. 3). It was made an official arm of the Magisterium with this statement, “Its work will have the happy result of providing the Apostolic See with the opportunity to declare what ought to be inviolably maintained by Catholics, what ought to be reserved for further research, and what ought to be left for the judgment of each individual.” (sec. 9)

Later, when the PBC’s authority was questioned, Pius X gave a formal pronouncement saying that “Wherefore we find it necessary to declare and to expressly prescribe, and by this our act we do declare and decree that all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission relating to doctrine, which have been given in the past and which shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the decrees of the Roman congregations approved by the Pontiff; nor can all those escape the note of disobedience or temerity, and consequently of grave sin, who in speech or writing contradict such decisions, and this besides the scandal they give and the other reasons for which they may be responsible before God for other temerities and errors which generally go with such contradictions.”(Praestantia Sacrae Scripturae 18 November 1907 text here)

The PBC convened and proceeded to answer specific questions addressed to it. Some of the answers it gave directly contradicted the “scholarly consensus” of its day and ours. Here is a simplified summary of their decisions:
13 February 1905 – Implied quotations of non-scriptural sources in Scripture have the same authority unless the sacred writer does not approve them or make them his own.
23 June 1905 – The Biblical narrative is historically accurate.
27 June 1906 – Moses is the author of the Pentateuch.
29 May 1907 – The Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John.
30 June 1909 – First three chapters of Genesis are historical, not mythical narratives.
1 May 1910 – The authorship of the Psalms
19 June 1911 – Matthew’s Gospel came first and was written in Aramaic.
26 June 1912 – The authorship of Mark and Luke
26 June 1912 – The Two-Source Hypothesis is wrong
12 June 1913 – Luke wrote Acts
12 June 1913 – Paul wrote 1 Tim, 2 Tim and Titus
24 June 1914 – The book of Hebrews
18 June 1918 – The Second Coming
17 November 1921 – Textual variants not in the Clementine edition of the Vulgate are acceptable for publication.
1 July 1933 – Ps. 15 and Matt. 16:26
(Full text of the PBC decisions here.)

After the publication of the Encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, the curia set out to publish the Enchiridion Biblicum, which was a 1954 handbook of official Church statements on the Bible. But at the time of its publication Catholic scholars were feeling constrained by the PBC’s early 20th century pronouncements. Two members of the PBC, the secretary Athanasius Miller, OSB and subsecretary Arduin Kleinhans, OFM published nearly identical articles in two different journals clarifying that the PBC’s statements were not binding on Catholic exegetes. Miller’s article was published in German and Kleinhans’ was in Latin. The citations for the articles are below. (I got much of this info from Bechard, Dean P. The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teachings. Collegeville, MN: Litugical Press, 2002, pp.318-329.) The clarification article was also published in the American journal, Catholic Biblical Quarterly.

So the question is whether the semi-official clarification published in these journals truly repealed the statement of Pius X on Nov 18, 1907 which made the PBC decisions binding. Unfortunately this question has not been completely resolved. Catholic Bible scholars, effectively, do their work as if the responsa of the PBC are not longer binding on the faithful. But as is pointed out by Sean Kopcynski, the responsa have never been officially repealed or eliminated by an official statement or clarification. In the meantime, the PBC has lost its status as an official organ of the Magisterium and is now merely a consulting body (See Paul VI, Sedula cura, 27 June 1971).

Interestingly, the reality of the present-day irrelevance of the responsa is confirmed by some very important figures including Cardinal Ratzinger–now Pope Benedict XVI. Quoted Bechard’s book (p.328, footnote 38), Ratzinger regards some warnings of the Magisterium as statements which “their core remains valid, but the individual details influenced by the circumstances at the time may need further rectification” including “the statements of the Popes during the last century on religious freedom as well as the decisions of the Biblical Commission of that time.” Ratzinger made these comments in L’Osservatore Romano 2 July 1990. Update 3/27/08: I got the text of Ratzinger’s comments from L’Osservatore Romano 2 July 1990, p.5. Here’s a fuller quotation from his explanation on The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, “The text also offers different forms of binding which arise from different levels of magisterial teaching. It states–perhaps for the first time with such clarity–that there are magisterial decisions intended to be the last word on the matter as such, but are a substantial anchorage in the problem and are first and foremost an expression of pastoral prudence, a sort of provisional disposition. Their core remains valid, but the individual details influenced by the circumstances at the time may need further rectification. In this regard one can refer to the statements of the Popes during the last century on religious freedom as well as the anti-modernistic decisions at the beginning of this century, especially the decisions of the Biblical Commission of that time. As a warning cry against hasty and superficial adaptations they remain fully justified; a person of the stature of Johann Baptist Metz has said, for example, that the antimodernist decisions of the Church rendered a great service in keeping her from sinking into the liberal-bourgeois world. But the details of the determinations of their contents were later superceded once they had carried out their pastoral duty at a particular moment.”

There is at least one Catholic biblical scholar who did not accept the majority view about the clarification. That was J.E. Steinmueller in The Sword of the Spirit (Waco, TX: Stella Maris, 1977). Update 3/24/08: Here’s a quote from Steinmueller f
rom 1941 showing his position before the semi-official clarification, “On October 30, 1902, Pope Leo XIII instituted the Pontifical Biblical Commission to promote and direct biblical studies, and on November 18, 1907, Pope Pius X in his Motu Proprio determined the authority of its decisions. From these it follows: (1) that the Decrees are neither infallible nor irreformable; (2) that they are of the same authority as the other Sacred Congregations; (3) that external as well as internal consent is required; (4) that this assent need not be absolute and irreformable; (5) that the formal object of these Decrees is either security or non-security of any doctrine.” (Steinmueller, J.E., A Companion to Scripture Studies [New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1941] p. 245) There is a lot of technical language in Steinmueller’s summary, but I think it’s clear enough. (end update) Update 4/14/08: I finally got my hands on Steinmueller’s comments about the semi-official clarification of 1955. I quote two sentences and their footnote in full from his book Sword of the Spirit, p.7. First the sentences, “The Church has made no definite and dogmatic pronouncements as the the authorship of any book of the Bible. The decrees of the first Biblical Commission, however, should be regarded as directive norms, and it would be temerarious to disregard them, even though research may be carried further.” Now the footnote:

“I was consultor of the first Pontifical Biblical Commission from 1947 (after the publication of Divino afflante Spiritu) to 1971; and I never heard any intimation that any decrees of the Commission were ever revoked. At most they were clarified (cf. Letter to Cardinal Suhard of Paris, 1948). Recently some Catholic scholars have asserted that the decrees were implicitly revoked by Divino afflante Spiritu (1943) and that this is confirmed by two articles written in 1955 by A. Miller and A. Kleinhans, who seem to restrict the scope of the decrees to matters of faith and morals (cf. Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol. II, p. 629). The articles referred to were unauthorized and were condemned by the voting Cardinal members of the Commission. A. Miller and A. Kleinhans were to be brought before the Holy Office because of the articles, but were saved from this ordeal through the personal intervention of Cardinal Tisserant before the Holy Father. It was my friend, Father Miller, O.S.B., who told me the whole story before his return to Germany.
“Decisions of this Pontifical Biblical Commission were sent to the Holy Father, who ratified them or sent them back for further consideration. The official decisions were published only at his command.
“This first Pontifical Biblical Commission as an independent commission came to an end by the apostolic letter issued ‘Motu Proprio’ by Pope Paul VI, June 27, 1971. As a new body the Biblical Commission was to be a dependent subcommission under the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presided over by its Cardinal Prefect. Its members are appointed by the Supreme Pontiff, on the proposal of the Cardinal president after consultation with the episcopal conferences.”

Phew! Ok, so that was a really long quote, but I think it’s good to get this stuff out there. The only question I still have about Steinmueller’s story is who “Father Miller, OSB” actually is. I suppose it could be the same as Athanasius Miller, OSB but I’m not sure. I also wonder if Miller, Kleinhans or even Tisserant have published memoirs or recollections about this event. It would be very interesting to find more in writing about this. It is also fascinating that Steinmueller recounts the cardinals on the PBC voting to condemn the articles which were ostensibly semi-official PBC documents. True, Steinmueller does not actually say the articles were condemned by a vote, but that they were “condemned by the voting cardinal members of the commission.” This whole story keeps getting more convoluted! (end update)

So it seems to me that while the issue has never been officially resolved, the reponsa have been effectively sidelined as no longer binding. It seems unfortunate to me that the situation has never been officially clarified and Pius X’s warnings of grave sin on the part of those who disagree with the PBC’s statements is still out there. But I suppose that the issue may be resolved at some point, but maybe not.

Text of Pontifical Biblical Commission Responsa from Catholic Apologetics International (unofficial translation)
Leo XIII. Vigilantiae studiique. 30 October 1902.
Pius X. Lamentabili Sane. 3 July 1907.
Pius X. Pascendi dominici gregis. 8 September 1907.
Pius X. Praestantia Sacrae Scripturae. 18 November 1907.
Pius XII. Divino afflante Spiritu. 30 September 1943.
Paul VI, Sedula cura, 27 June 1971.

Bechard, Dean P. The Scripture Documents. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. 24 May 1990.
Kleinhans, Arduin. “De nova Enchiridii Biblici editione.” Antonianem 30 (1955): 63-65.
Kopczynski, Sean. “Rediscovering the Decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.” Living Tradition 94(2001).
Miller, Athanasius. “Das neue biblische Handbuch.” Benediktinische Monatschrift 31 (1955): 49-50.
Miller, Athanasius. Catholic Biblical Quarterly 18 (1956): 24-25.
Pontifical Biblical Commission Documents List from Vatican site.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. “Relationship Between Magisterium and Exegetes.” An address to the PBC. 10 May 2003.
Steinmueller, J.E. The Sword of the Spirit. Waco, TX: Stella Maris, 1977.