More than twenty years ago I encouraged my Irish mother-in-law to find a Bible Study group and to “get into the Word.” Because we lived ten hours apart and she couldn’t participate in our local group, she liked the idea and thought it was just what she needed.
She called us several weeks later and, through sniffling tears, told us the nun who facilitated the group spent her time making fun of people who “actually believed that stuff” – you know, that “stuff” written in the Bible.
I told her to stop attending and that I would send her my notes.
I have subsequently been exposed at times to the same mantra from catechists and facilitators who believe in a “scientific” approach to studying Scripture rather than taking a heart-changing approach to Scripture as outlined in the Documents of Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, I’ve always been assured by them that they are following the teachings of the Church.
The Modern Debunkers
Under the title of “Modern Historical-Critical Interpretation” of the Scriptures, exegetes (biblical scholars) attempt to make us believe that what they are proposing is the modern, true, and scientific interpretation of Scripture. When I was in training for the diaconate, the scenarios went something like this from the facilitator of my formation group (Note: the following is paraphrased, but the concepts are germane):
“You don’t really believe everything in the Bible is actually true, do you?” Condescending, as if we are morons.
“You don’t really believe Moses held up his staff and the Red Sea parted so the Israelites could cross on dry land, do you? And then closed in on Pharaoh’s chariots, charioteers, horses, and warriors?” Oh, what fun dismantling our faith (or attempting to do so) the facilitator had in the group I attended.
“That was Cecil B. DeMille, all movie make-believe,” he explained. “The Bible was mistranslated somewhere along the line. It wasn’t the ‘Red Sea’ but the ‘Reed Sea’.”
The facilitator opined that the “Reed Sea” was an area of marshland that would be exposed to high, drying winds, so that one could walk over it. When the winds reversed, a small amount of water returned. Therefore, according to him, when Moses and the small band of Israelites fleeing Pharaoh made it to the Reed Sea, they just walked over it. Then the few inches of water flowed back.
Dissent from the Pews
I raised my hand and remarked that this was an even greater miracle, then, if the horses and warriors drowned in only a few inches of water.
The men in my formation group begged me to keep my mouth shut. I kept making the facilitator angry. My main concern was that the men in formation did not have enough knowledge to confront the facilitator regarding the truths taught by the Church.
Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (on Divine Revelation) explains that, “God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations” (DV, Ch. II, § 7). DV further explains in Chapter IV that God
chose for himself a people to whom he would entrust his promises. By his covenant with Abraham and, through Moses, with the race of Israel, he did acquire a people for himself, and to them he revealed himself in words and deeds as the one, true, living God, so that Israel might experience the ways of God with men. Moreover, by listening to the voice of God speaking to them through the prophets, they had daily to understand his ways more fully and more clearly, and make them more widely known among the nations. Now the economy of salvation, foretold, recounted and explained by the sacred authors, appears as the true Word of God in the books of the Old Testament, that is why these books, divinely inspired, preserve a lasting value: ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Rom. 15:4).
There it is: God chose a people for Himself by His covenant with Abraham and through Moses. He literally “revealed himself in words and deeds as the one, true, living God.”
Tiresome “Modern” Methods
Although it is called “modern,” what is termed the Modern Historical-Critical Interpretation of the Scriptures began with the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and his contemporary Richard Simon, a Roman Catholic of France (1638-1712).
Thought to be free from subjective styles of interpretation, as well as claiming the label of “scientific”, the Historical-Critical Method for interpreting Scripture was, from its inception, an attempt by the philosopher to combat his personal struggle with the “tyranny of dogma,” both Jewish and Christian (David Dungan, A History of the Synoptic Problem, Doubleday, 1999). Spinoza’s goal was to negate the traditional interpretation of all major biblical concepts and to redefine Scriptures in accord with the world-view of his day.
Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976), a German Lutheran theologian and professor of the New Testament at the University of Marburg, rejected the Historical-Critical Method and with a few others founded the method of “Form Criticism”. Bultmann’s goal was to demythologize the Bible, namely, to distinguish the “essence” of the Christian message from its ancient mythical trappings. He attempted to reconcile Christian teaching with the modern philosophy of existentialism (Rudolf Bultmann, cf. New World Encyclopedia, 2015).
The Catholic priest Alfred Loisy (1856-1940), a French professor and theologian, is recognized as the founder of biblical modernism in the Roman Catholic Church. He was a critic of traditional biblical views of Creation and argued that biblical criticism could be applied to interpreting Sacred Scripture. He was subsequently excommunicated and his books condemned by the Vatican in 1908. The condemnation focused on five propositions regarding Loisy’s teaching: namely, that “the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, the first five chapters of Genesis were not literal history, the New Testament and the Old Testament did not possess equal historical value, there was a development in scriptural doctrine, and Biblical writings were subject to the same limitations as those by other authors of the ancient world.” (Wikipedia, 2019).
Rather than chide and condescend, Catholic catechists and facilitators of Bible studies may find it more expedient to search for the economy of salvation, foretold, recounted, and explained by the sacred authors of the books of the Old Testament. They may benefit from a careful, personal study of the Documents of Vatican II, focusing on Dei Verbum.
Standing on the Truth
How would the Church appear today if we relied firmly on the Documents of Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Is it possible that the Church teaches the truth through the Word of God? Again, DV states:
Therefore, all clerics, particularly priests of Christ and others who, as deacons or catechists, are officially engaged in the ministry of the Word, should immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant sacred reading and diligent study. For it must not happen that anyone becomes ‘an empty preacher of the “Word of God to others, not being a hearer of the Word in his own heart,” (St. Augustine). (DV, Ch. 6 § 25)
Although many persons have attempted to redefine the teachings of the Church by limiting, minimizing or negating the Word of God, in the name of science, Pope St. John Paul II stated clearly, “Truth cannot contradict Truth.” Amen to that.