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"Chapter 22: Form and Redaction Criticism II"


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The Instruction has told us that the Evangelists may change the wording of the reports about Jesus while faithfully keeping the sense. Now it adds that the various incidents in the life of Jesus were not always reported in the same sequence as that in which they occurred, and perhaps an item might be affected by being placed in a different context.

"Since the meaning of a statement depends also on the sequence," the Instruction says, "the Evangelists in handing on the words and deeds of the Savior explained them, one writer in one context, another in another, for the benefit of the readers. So the exegete should search out what the Evangelist meant in putting a word or deed in this way in a certain context. For the fact that the Evangelists report the words or deeds of the Lord in different order does not affect at all the truth of the narrative, for they keep the sense while reporting His statements, not to the letter, but in different ways."

If we compare the various Gospels, it is apparent that they do not always report events in the same sequence. There is apt to be some bunching, such as is commonly thought to have occurred in St. Matthew's report of the Sermon on the Mount. And there are other kinds of variations of sequence too. The Instruction tells us that mere variation in sequence in itself does not affect the truth. The reason is the writer's concern, which the Instruction has insisted on, to report accurately the information that came from those who themselves had been witnesses.

It is even possible to say that a change in sequence may result in putting a saying of Jesus in a different context. And context can affect sense. But' the sense that the Evangelist intended to express in this way is what he asserted, and that, as we saw in our discussion of Vatican II in chapter 21, is also asserted by the Holy Spirit. So we should seek out what that sense is.

Is it often that there is a real change of sense resulting from a change of context? Not really, but an interesting example is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew 10:27 says, "What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops." Luke 12:2-3, however, has this: "Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops."

The context shows that the saying in Matthew means that the Apostles will later preach in public what Jesus told them in private. That is of course true. In Luke, however, the saying refers to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. It will come to light. And that, too, is true. Each Evangelist made use of a saying to teach a different truth. But both items were true. (We happen to know, from a Targum or Qoheleth 12:13, that the saying was a proverb.) But, and this is important, if we check the six basic facts used in chapter 2 to reestablish the teaching authority of the Church, not one of them is by nature such that it could vary in sense if placed in a different context. Hence the basic doctrine is fully safeguarded, and the shifts in sense of the type we have seen all yield truths.

St. Paul not infrequently uses Old Testament texts in a way different from their use in the original context. For example, in Romans 1 :17, Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk (2:4), "The righteous shall live by faith," to bring out his great theme of justification by faith. Yet Habakkuk was referring to something else. He meant that Judah's deliverance would be accomplished through fidelity to God, in contrast to the Chaldean invaders, who depended on their own might. Yet, this change by Paul not only did not falsify the doctrine of Christ, rather it taught it all the more clearly as a result of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under which Paul wrote.

R. Brown (Critical Meaning of the Bible, p. 60) cites the last sentence of the Instruction that we quoted above to try to prove that "it is a sign of obedience" to say the Gospels are not factual history, "for the official teaching of the Catholic Church requires Catholics to hold that the Gospels are not literal accounts of the ministry of Jesus." This statement by Brown is quite misleading; for it is true in one way, not in another. It is true in that Evangelists may change the sequence and even the context at times, but is not true that they do not give us the facts about Jesus and His doctrine. They do, even when they make the kinds of changes we have just explained.

We saw in chapter 7 that Brown insists that Vatican II allows us to see even religious errors in Scripture. "Limited too," says Brown, "is the ability of Church authorities to determine the literal sense of a passage in Scripture" (p. 39). Brown also says that "it is crucial that we be aware that the Church interpretation of a passage and the literal sense of that passage may be quite different" (p. 35). Such words make a contrast to what the Instruction really said, a bit below the passage cited above about investigations of the type we saw earlier in this chapter, as to what the Evangelists meant by changes in sequence or context: "Since from the results of new investigations it is clear that the doctrine and life of Jesus were not merely recounted for the sole purpose of being remembered but were 'preached' so as to provide for the Church the foundation of faith and morals, the interpreter, in unwearyingly studying the testimony of the Evangelists, will be able to bring out more profoundly the permanent theological value of the Gospels, and to show in full light how greatly necessary and important is the Church's interpretation [of the Gospels]."

The very fact that we have seen the possibilities of variations in sense that we have just described does make it all the more necessary to have a providentially protected Church that is able to give us a divinely guaranteed interpretation of the Scriptures. Yet it must be insisted that the testimony of the Gospels on the six points studied in chapter 2, which establish the teaching commission of the Church, can be had even without the interpretation of the Church. The very simple nature of the six points makes that help unnecessary and avoids the vicious circle that would result if we did depend on the Church for the six points.

In the very next paragraph. the Instruction underscores again this need of the Church. It says that the exegete "must always be read! to obey the magisterium of the Church, and must not forget that the Apostles. filled with the Holy Spirit, preached the good news and that the Gospels were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. who kept their authors from all error."

R. Brown is very fond, too, of asserting that all the words of Scripture are "time-conditioned." In Crisis Facing the Church (Paulist, 1975, p. 116), we read: "The battle of biblical criticism has been to get Christians and the Church to recognize that the books of the Bible contain the words of God phrased in the words of men and that therefore to discover God's revelation one must take into account the historical situation, the philosophical worldview, and the theological limitations of the men who wrote them."

There is no problem about this, if one goes no further. Of course the Holy Spirit uses human beings as His instruments, and in such a we! that they retain their own personal characteristics and style yet write what the Spirit wills, and without error. The problem is that Brown and many others with him want to go much further.

In Critical Meaning of the Bible, Brown insists that there are contradictions in Scripture (p. 9), and all sorts of errors, even religious errors. As we saw in chapter 20, Brown even charges Jesus not only with ignorance but with superstition. And in Critical Meaning of the Bible Brown writes that, "in the words of Jesus it is dubious that one encounters an unconditional timeless word spoken by God. The Son of God who speaks in the first three Gospels is a Jew of the first third of the first century, who thinks in the images of his time, speaks in the idiom of his time, and shares much of the world view of his time" (p. 12).

In Crisis Facing the Church (pp. 116-118) Brown quotes extensively from Mysterium Ecclesiae, a declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Church (June 24, 1973): "The meaning of the pronouncements of faith depends partly on the expressive power of the language used at a certain point in time, and in particular circumstances."

Of course this is true. It merely means that the resources of the language at a given period may be inadequate for perfect expression of divine truth. Hence the document adds: "Moreover, it sometimes happens that some dogmatic truth is first expressed incompletely (but not falsely). and at a later date, when considered in a broader context of faith or human knowledge, it receives a fuller and more perfect expression."1

A still further qualification is made by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Church: "Finally, even though the truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch ... it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated ... in terms that bear the traces of such conceptions."

An obvious example is the use of the word transubstantiation by the Council of Trent to describe the change of the entire substance of the bread and wine into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus. Many of those at the Council doubtless believed the theory of Aristotle about substance and accidents, and that fact influenced the language. However, this does not mean that the Church is committed to the theory of Aristotle. No, the word substance can be used in a nontechnical, everyday sense, and the meaning will be the same. Hence the Council of Trent, aware of this fact, used careful language: "This change is fittingly and properly called transubstantiation by the Catholic Church."

So from this instance occurring in the Council of Trent we can gather something very important. Even if we know the thought-world of the Fathers of a Council, the divine protection covers only what they explicitly state in writing, not what we just happen to know was in their minds. Aristotelianism was in their minds, but they did not teach Aristotelianism, even though they borrowed words from it, words which yet could be understood outside of Aristotelianism, as part of the everyday language of that time.

We happen to know that some writers of conciliar texts, during and after the time of St. Augustine, had in mind his unfortunate theory of predestination. Yet Providence prevented them from explicitly teaching it in writing, and it did not become part of our doctrine. We may well surmise, too, that Pope Pius IX may well have had in mind a thought-world that went beyond what he wrote on religious freedom and indifferentism. But only what he explicitly taught counts as the teaching of the Church.

Again, the framers of the Vatican II Declaration on Religious Liberty may have held ideas beyond what they explicitly taught. Those ideas are not part of official teaching. Similarly, if an Old Testament writer, or even a New Testament writer, held erroneous ideas but did not explicitly assert them in Scripture, they are not part of the teaching of Scripture. Revelation was incomplete before Christ. so some writers may have believed error; but only what they explicitly taught counts.

Because of this historical situation, the document of Mysterium Ecclesiae adds: "The dogmatic formulas of the Church's Magisterium were from the very beginning suitable for communicating revealed truth and ... they remain forever suitable ... to those who interpret them correctly.... For this reason theologians seek to define exactly the intention of teaching proper to the various formulas."

Words change in meaning over time. Thus the word sacramentum meant something different in the first centuries from what it meant in texts of the Council of Trent. So we should study the usage of words at the time an official statement was made. In so doing, we will observe the reservations expressed above. Even if we know that the thought-world of the writers went further than what they explicitly taught in writing, we must not let this knowledge lead us to think they have taught what they did not teach, what they only kept in their minds.

One could even say there is a sort of divine brinkmanship. For God needs to honor two commitments simultaneously. On the one hand, He has given free will; on the other hand, He has promised to protect the teaching of the Church. In doing both at the same time, it is sometimes necessary to draw a very tight line, conceding much to each claim, yet allowing no contradiction.

If, then, we wish to speak of time-conditioning in the words of Scripture without going beyond the lines just drawn, we do positively well. But if we go beyond those boundaries, we soon reach the realm of error.

The 1964 Instruction adds a few valuable admonitions at the end. "Those who instruct the Christian people by sacred preaching," the Instruction says, "need the greatest prudence.... They must altogether abstain from futile novelties and things insufficiently proved. As to new opinions that are already solidly proved, they may present them cautiously if necessary, taking into account the characteristics of their hearers. When they narrate biblical events, they must not add fictitious things that are out of conformity with the truth.

"This virtue of prudence must especially be cultivated by those who write for the faithful at the popular level.... They must consider it a sacred duty never to depart in the least from the common doctrine and tradition of the Church. Yes, they may turn to their own use the real advances in biblical knowledge ... but must avoid altogether the rash fancies of innovators. They are strictly charged not to give in to a dangerous itch for novelty, recklessly disseminating attempts at the solution of difficulties without prudent sifting and serious discrimination-disturbing the faith of many."2

Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation repeats part of the 1964 Instruction but in no way goes beyond it or beyond previous official teachings about Scripture.


1 The reason is that divine truths are often simply beyond the power of human language to express fully. So the Church may make a pronouncement that is not false but yet is not perfect, does not exhaust the possibilities of the divine revelation. That will leave room for an improved expression later on. However, this will not mean there is anything positively wrong with the early statement.
2 What would the Instruction think of one who not only proposes rash things but ridicules all attempts to defend the truth of a certain passage of Sacred Scripture as "an unmitigated disaster?" (cf. chapter 7).

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