Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 17: Vatican II on the Historical-Critical Method"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

St. Augustine, when he was 19, fell into the bizarre errors of Manichaeism. He soon found that Manichaean explanations of the sun and moon did not square with the astronomy of his day. So he did a prudent thing. He consulted the local Manichaean authorities. They could not solve his problems, but they said that a great bishop, Faustus, would be coming in time, and that he would explain everything.

For nine years Augustine waited. But when Faustus came, he could not answer Augustine's difficulties either. Then Augustine paid Faustus a fine compliment: "He knew that he did not know those things.... He was not altogether ignorant of his ignorance" (Confessions 5.7). If Faustus, or anyone, could always know that he did not know when he did not know, he would have an infallibility greater than that of the Pope: he would never make a false statement.

As we saw, modern practitioners of the historical-critical method have all too often not resembled Faustus. They have been too cocky, claiming scientific certitude in matters of opinion.

Vatican II, in its Constitution on Divine Revelation, if taken seriously, has two statements that could prevent errors of many kinds. "The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God," it says, "whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ" (par. 10).

Many scholars scream that the Church should listen to them. Otherwise, they claim, the Church is undemocratic and interferes with academic freedom. Now, of course, Church authorities should and do check to see what scholars uncover in the field of Scripture. The final judgment, however, depends, not on scholarship, but on the providentially protected magisterium. We trust the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, because of the promises of Christ (see chapter 2).

A specially glaring case of the opposite way of working appears in Consensus in Theology? (ed. Leonard Swidler, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1980). Most of the nineteen contributors to this work, many of them Catholic, are in substantial agreement with the featured writer, Hans Kueng, who says that there are two poles, or sources, of Christian theology. "The first ... is God's revelational address on the history of Israel and the history of Jesus" (p. 5). This means, of course, the Old and New Testaments. "The second," says Kueng, "is our own human world of experience" (p. 11).

The teaching of the Church is simply omitted, not mentioned at all as a source of Christian Theology. Instead, we should use the Bible, plus human experience, as the two sources. As to the Bible, Kueng says: "The criterion determining all other criteria of Christian theology can never again be some ecclesiastical or theological tradition or institution but only the Gospel, the original Christian message itself ... analyzed by historical-critical analysis" (p. 14). Many Protestant critics today are saying that the historical-critical method is "bankrupt," as we saw in chapter 16. Since the method is bankrupt, they argue, it is to be supplemented, as R. H. Fuller puts it, by "feedback received from the believing community." That is, of course, the same as Kueng's "human world of experience."

The Vatican has quite rightly declared that Kueng is not a Catholic theologian at all. Kueng, as we just saw, rejects the idea that God's providence protects the teaching Church from error. He prefers private judgment, which is a purely Protestant approach to Scripture. Numerous Catholic scholars do much the same. R. E. Brown, in Critical Meaning of the Bible (Paulist, 1981), leaves much to be desired. "It is crucial," he says, "that we be aware that the church [sic] interpretation of a passage and the literal sense of that passage may be quite different" (p. 35). Similarly: "Various stages of church interpretation ... are not always harmonious among themselves" (p. 34, n. 19). And also: "Limited too is the ability of church authorities to determine the literal sense of a passage of Scripture" (p. 39). Since Brown insists that Scripture contains even religious errors, these statements are not too surprising.

Yet scholars do not merely repeat the magisterium, nor must they always wait for a statement. Vatican II said that "Catholic exegetes and others who cultivate Sacred Theology ... should work so that, under the vigilance [emphasis added] of the Sacred Magisterium, they may, with apt helps, so investigate and present the divine letters that as many ministers of the divine word as possible may be able to effectively provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the people of God" (par. 23).

An earlier version, finally rejected by the Council, had lead instead of vigilance. But the Council did not want to close off originality to scholars. Yet scholars must remember that their work is merely "preparatory" (par. 12) to the judgment of the Church, which is the final criterion.

Vatican II adds a further important provision, in On Revelation (par. 12): "But since Sacred Scripture is also to be read and interpreted by the same Spirit by which it was written, to rightly extract the sense of the sacred texts, we must look not less diligently at the content and unity of all Scripture, taking into account the living tradition of the whole Church and analogy of faith."

If, as we have established, the principal author of all parts of Scripture is the Holy Spirit, there can be no contradiction of one part by another. There can, however, be differences—short of real I contradiction—between one Gospel and another, in outlook, scope, intention. Hence we cannot approve of Raymond Brown's claim that Mark "did not think that Mary and the brothers [of Jesus] were disciples of Jesus during his ministry" (Critical Meaning of the Bible, p. 80; see also p. 42), while Luke makes Mary the first believer.

Raymond Brown thinks that he sees more clashes within Scripture. For example, in his book The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (Paulist, 1984), he says that he can detect, even in Scripture, clashes between beliefs of different local churches. "In Ephesians ...," he writes on page 21, "the wall of hostility has been broken down [between Jew and Gentile]: those who were once far off have come near: Jew and Gentile are reconciled in one body to God through the cross (Eph. 2:11-22). For the author of Acts (28:25-29), however, the very last words of Paul ... indicate the Jews will never see. nor hear. nor understand: they are permanently closed off from the gospel [sic]. Salvation. according to the Paul of Acts, is for the Gentiles who will listen and understand.... Both attitudes are at a distance from that of the historical Paul in Romans, who argues that the Gentiles were converted to make the Jews jealous, that ultimately the Jews themselves will be converted, and that the Gentiles are but a wild olive branch grafted onto the tree of Israel (Rom. 11:11-16)."

The alleged triple clash is really a triple lack of perception. The complete and true picture is this. In Romans 11:11-26, Paul pictures a tame olive tree (the original People of God), and a wild olive tree (the Gentiles). Many of the branches of the tame tree were broken off, that is, they rejected Christ and, thus, were unfaithful. In those places, the Gentiles were engrafted to form one People of God—the people envisioned in Ephesians 2: 11-22. This people is formed of two groups: Gentiles plus a remnant of converted Jews who accepted Christ. But the majority of Jews are broken-off branches, that is, they have rejected Christ and, therefore, lost their places among the People of God. The Jews who dismayed Paul in Rome were the Jews who rejected Christ, though a few Jews in Rome accepted. Him.

In brief, there are three groups: (1) unfaithful Jews who rejected Christ and are outside the People of God as a result, (2) a smaller group, a remnant of Jews who did accept Christ and form part of the one People of God, and (3) the converted Gentiles. So there is no clash at all.

In the quote above from Vatican II, we saw that in interpreting Scripture we must take into account "the living tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith." This means that a proposed interpretation that would clash with anything in the teachings of the Church is to be rejected, even if the Church has not yet spoken directly and explicitly on the passage under consideration. In this connection, some have misunderstood Pius XII, who said, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, that there are few texts "whose meaning has been declared by the authority of the Church, nor are there more on which there is a unanimous view of the Holy Fathers" of the early centuries. This is, of course, true. But even if the Church has not spoken directly and explicitly on many texts, and even if the Fathers have not been unanimous on many, yet indirectly we find much guidance by comparing proposed interpretations with all the truths taught by the Church. Hence Pius XII points out that we must check with the analogy of faith, as Leo XIII also told us in Providentissimus Deus. Commenting on texts not yet directly interpreted by the Church or by the Fathers in unanimity, Pope Leo said that "the analogy of faith must be followed.... Hence it is clear that an interpretation is to be rejected as inept and false which either makes the inspired authors, as it were, fight among themselves, or is opposed to a teaching of the Church."

By following this guide, practitioners of the historical-critical method can obtain better results and avoid countless errors. Further, when we say that we must reject any interpretation that would clash with any teaching of the Church, we must not confine ourselves to solemn definitions. For Vatican II (Constitution on the Church, par. 25) tells us that there are three levels of Church teaching, all of them mandatory. In addition, paragraph 12 speaks of the "passive infallibility" of the believing Church.

The first of the three levels is that of the solemn definition by the Holy Father. "His definitions of themselves, and not from consent of the Church," says Vatican II, "are rightly called unchangeable, for they are given under the assistance of the Holy Spirit promised him in blessed Peter; and so they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment." Even with collegiality (of which the Council spoke in par. 23) the pope can act entirely alone when he so wills, even in defining.

The second level of Church teaching is this: "Even though individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can still proclaim the doctrine of Christ infallibly, even when scattered throughout the world, if, keeping the bond of union among themselves and with the Successor of Peter, in teaching authoritatively on faith and morals they agree on one view as the one to be held definitively." This means that the ordinary magisterium of the Church, giving the day-to-day teaching of the Church definitively throughout the world, is infallible.

On the third level, the Council wrote, "Religious submission of will and of mind is to be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not defining."

The Council also said, "The entire body of the faithful anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief'' (par. 12). This means that if the whole Church, people as well as authorities, has—even for one period of history—accepted a teaching as revealed, that belief of the Church cannot be in error.

A rather obvious instance of such a universal belief would be the existence of angels. It has become fashionable today to deny them because in some Old Testament passages (for example, Judges 6) we find practically an alternation of expressions. Sometimes it is said that the Lord spoke; other times, that the angel of the Lord spoke. Hence a question: Was the expression "angel of the Lord" just a literary device meaning simply God? There are three answers.

First, it is a basic principle of Scripture study that we must get into the thought world of the original readers. But the original readers of the Old Testament, at least in the later period, and those of the New Testament as well, clearly did understand that there are separate beings called angels. Second, even though the Church has not defined the existence of angels, yet it has taught their existence on the second level mentioned by Vatican II. Third, the believing Church for centuries has taken it as revealed that there are angels.

So the Church gives as a rich abundance of guidance in our use of the historical-critical method. If we follow the rules of Vatican II, we can safely study Scripture by means of this method.

To Most Collection home page