Friend or Foe?

In Catholicism, the use of what is called “historical-critical” method of biblical interpretation has had a somewhat rocky history. Simply put, “historical criticism” is a blanket term used to describe an approach to biblical interpretation that uses historical, literary, and social science methods in an attempt to reconstruct the intent and circumstances of the biblical books and their authors.

The roots of historical criticism can be traced to the Enlightenment and the rise of empiricism. The term “critical” does not necessarily have a negative connotation but refers to critical or scientifically objective judgment exercised by the interpreter in an analysis of the biblical texts. This approach has many subcategories. For example, “textual criticism” attempts to reconstruct as much as possible the original Hebrew or Greek text based on an analysis of the many fragments and ancient manuscripts available.

Form criticism” studies the impact of the social and historical settings on the formation and development of biblical materials.

Redaction criticism” is concerned with the role and perspective of the biblical author in the composition of a biblical book by study of his use of sources, characteristic language, and theological perspective.

Composition criticism” is quite similar and emphasizes the literary unity and coherence of a biblical book as a whole.

Literary criticism” brackets historical questions and focuses on the form, structure and major motifs of a particular biblical book from a literary point of view.

There are other examples of what can be called a historical-critical approach but this catalogue gives some illustration of what is at stake.

Pere Lagrange and the Historical-Critical Methodology

One of my personal heroes is Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P., the founder of the Ecole Biblique, one of the premier Catholic graduate schools in the world. Lagrange, a French Dominican, founded the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem in 1890 because he believed that one of the best ways to study the Scriptures was in the context of the land and cultures out of which the Bible emerged.

Lagrange began his work at a time when leaders of the Catholic Church were becoming very concerned about certain methods of biblical interpretation which they feared represented a reductionist view of Sacred Scripture and therefore could undermine the faith.

Lagrange believed that the Church had nothing to fear from authentic historical inquiry about the Scriptures and their original context. He considered these methods as a search for the truth and that Christianity itself should in fact embrace any authentic search for truth. Not long after his arrival in Jerusalem, he utilized the historical-critical method in a commentary on the Book of Genesis.

He often spent the winter months in Cairo and frequented the Cairo Museum, finding there in inscriptions and ancient Egyptian texts parallels to some of the stories and perspectives found in Genesis. These kinds of comments worked their way into his commentary. Lagrange’s work came under scrutiny by Church officials and he was forbidden to publish his Genesis commentary (it remains unpublished to this day!).

This stricture also cast a shadow of suspicion over the entire work of the Ecole Biblique, and at one point its students were forbidden to pursue doctoral work on any biblical topic! Lagrange himself was ordered by his religious superiors in 1912 to leave the Ecole and to return to Toulouse to teach mathematics in a high school; later he was allowed to return.

What is significant about Lagrange is that he was not only a man of great intellectual integrity but also a faithful religious and member of the Church. He submitted to the strictures imposed upon him, although we know from his letters that it was at a great personal cost and with much suffering. Ultimately, though, his personal holiness and fidelity — along with the similar witness of other Catholic scholars in this period — paved the way for Church authority to come to terms with historical criticism and to understand that it was not necessarily an assault on the religious significance of the Bible but opened the possibility of understanding the Scriptures in a more profound way.

The Path to Acceptance

The path opened by Lagrange and other Catholic scholars in this transition period at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries would eventually lead to a major shift in the Church’s approach to modern biblical interpretation. The “magna carta” of modern Catholic biblical scholarship came with Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, published in 1943 at the height of the Second World War.

While upholding the Church’s traditional teaching about biblical inspiration and inerrancy, the Pope at same time encouraged Catholic scholars to explore the historical context of the Scriptures in order to ascertain the original purpose and meaning of the biblical texts. He also encouraged a new generation of scholars to do advanced biblical study and to master the biblical languages and the history of the biblical lands where archaeology had made great advances.

He noted that much had changed in the past 50 years prior to his writing — Pius XII’s encyclical was issued on the 50th anniversary of Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus — and therefore much needed to be done, including new translations and new exploration of the original context of Scripture using authentic historical methods.

Impact on the Second Vatican Council

Pius XII’s encyclical was a major turning point for Catholic biblical scholarship and would have a direct impact on the Second Vatican Council that would open only a few years after the Pope’s statement. The biblical renewal that spread through the Church in the decades prior to the Council, fueled by a new generation of Catholic exegetes, would, along with the liturgical movement, be a strong catalyst for the Council itself and have great influence on the spirit and style of the Council’s pronouncements.

The dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum, on divine revelation and the role of the Scriptures in the life of the Church, is one of the Council’s most important legacies, both from a doctrinal and pastoral point of view. The final chapter of Dei Verbum laid out a program of renewal for the Church and included many of the exhortations made by Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu. It called for continuing Catholic investment in biblical scholarship, new translations from the original biblical languages (also encouraging ecumenical translations), more use of Scripture in catechesis, theology and preaching, and urged that Catholic laity have full access to the Scriptures.

Another milestone in history of Catholic biblical scholarship came with the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s major statement on “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” published in 1993 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Divino Afflante Spiritu.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission had been created at the beginning of the 20th century to serve as something of a watchdog over the influence of historical criticism and originally was staffed by bishops.

However, under Pope Paul VI it was placed under the wings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and was then composed of biblical scholars from around the world. The purpose of the newly organized Commission was to advise the Congregation and ultimately the Pope on matters of biblical interpretation.

The Commission’s 1993 statement was a ringing endorsement of the various methods that fall under the heading of “historical criticism.” Parallel to this, the Commission also strongly condemned a fundamentalist approach to biblical interpretation that made no room for the historical context and human authorship of the biblical texts.

Such a rigid doctrinaire approach that naively accepted the entire Bible as factually true without any nuance or any allowance for the human limitations of the biblical authors leads its adherents to a kind of intellectual suicide because “it injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what in fact its human limitations.”

It should be noted that the Commission’s own work over the past two decades produced a series of major studies on various issues utilizing historical-critical methodologies. In 2002 at the express request of John Paul II, the Commission published “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.” This study charted the extraordinary dependence of Christianity on its Jewish roots and the absorption of the Old Testament as part of the Christian Scriptures. It also dealt forthrightly with the question of some apparently anti-Jewish elements in certain New Testament texts.

In 2008, the Commission published another major study entitled “The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct.” Here the question was how should the Scriptures be used to address modern moral problems. Most recently the Commission completed another major study on the question of inspiration and inerrancy (this statement has been approved for publication but has not yet appeared).

This was prompted by the concerns of the 2008 General Synod that the Church needed to advance a stronger Catholic perspective on these key issues — particularly in the face of the strong inroads of fundamentalist perspectives in Latin America and Africa. Each of these major statements — all of them formally approved by the pope — employed a variety of historical-critical methods in unfolding their case.

We should note the most recent presentation on the role of the historical critical method is found in the 2010 post-Synodal exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI, in direct response to the proceedings of the 2008 General Synod on “the role of the Scriptures in the life and mission of the Church.” Entitled Verbum Domini, it is a rich and extensive reflection on authentic Catholic interpretation of the Bible and the role of the Bible in the life of the Church.

As prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had presided over the composition of the Biblical Commission’s 1993 statement on “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” and that statement’s influence is apparent in Verbum Domini. But Pope Benedict also advanced beyond that statement and dealt with both the strength and limits of the historical critical method and situated it in the overall context of Catholic interpretation of the Bible.

At the outset Pope Benedict emphasized the necessity and importance of utilizing historical criticism in understanding the Scriptures, reaffirming the 1993 statement of the Biblical Commission: “Before all else, we need to acknowledge the benefits that historical-critical exegesis and other recently developed methods of textual analysis have brought to the life of the Church” (No. 32). The Pope provided a theological basis for this emphasis on historical analysis: “For the Catholic understanding of sacred Scripture, attention to such methods is indispensable, linked as it is to the realism of the Incarnation” (No. 32).

This analogy appeared as well in the Council’s Dei Verbum and in other key documents — namely, just as the Eternal Word becomes flesh so the Scriptures themselves are God’s Word incarnate in human form. The role of the human author, the historical and social context in which the biblical text was composed, the limits of culture and language that are intrinsic to the human condition — all of these constitute the “flesh” in which the biblical word is embedded and, therefore, all authentic methods of historical and literary inquiry are appropriate for plumbing the meaning of the biblical text.

But Pope Benedict’s contribution in Verbum Domini goes beyond this important confirmation of the value of historical criticism in biblical interpretation and considers the entire context in which Catholic biblical interpretation ought to take place. An underlying conviction apparent in the Pope’s discussion here is a concern that he often expressed: the split between faith and reason.

Faith divorced from reason, the Pope noted, can become ideological and lose its moorings; on the other hand, reason that is not open to the reality of the transcendent is limited and can also go astray. In the case of biblical interpretation, this means it is not enough simply to describe the historical context of a biblical text. It also must be realized that the Scriptures are the Word of God and therefore to advance to the question of the meaning of a biblical text for contemporary life.

Therefore, the proper context for authentic and mature biblical interpretation, the pope notes, “is the life of the Church” (No. 29). Here the pope cites the 1993 statement of the Biblical Commission to affirm that this is not something imposed arbitrarily by Church authority but “rather is something demanded by the very nature of the Scriptures and the way they gradually came in to being.” The Bible is the Church’s book, and its essential place in the Church’s life gives rise to its genuine interpretation” (No. 29).

The pope is careful to note that this does not mean that every article or book about Scripture has to end up with a theological interpretation and he recognizes the use of historical criticism on its own can provide interesting and helpful information about a particular biblical book or passage. But a priori viewings of these types of analysis as the only legitimate object of biblical interpretation, thereby viewing the Bible as a kind of historical or cultural artifact, “inevitably prove merely preliminary and structurally incomplete efforts” (No. 30).

To view the Bible merely as an interesting and highly influential form of ancient literature and to rule out in advance the transcendent dimensions of the text as the inspired Word of God is to bring into biblical interpretation the spilt between faith and reason that the pope sees as a serious problem of modernity. Biblical interpreters, therefore, “arrive at the true goal of their work only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God’s word for today” (No. 33).

In both the 1993 statement of the Biblical Commission and in Pope Benedict’s exhortation Verbum Domini, biblical interpretation within the context of a community of faith leads to other considerations or “rules of the road” beyond the legitimacy of the historical-critical method.

For example, the person of faith who views the entire Bible as God’s inspired word must also take into account the full span of the Scriptures when giving attention to the meaning of a particular passage.

While the Bible was obviously composed over time and contains a variety of books and literary forms and theological perspectives, it is also, from the point of view of Christian faith, one unified Word of God. And that overall context must be in play when trying to understand a particular biblical passage or motif.

As the pope notes, this is particularly true when encountering difficult passages where violence seems to be condoned or where the religious perspective of a passage seems limited; in considering such passages we are reminded “that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history and that od’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance” (No.42).

Furthermore, Christian faith leads the biblical interpreter to a truly Christian reading of the entire Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. The pope cautions that this should not be a forced reading of the Old Testament nor does it detract from reading and interpreting the Old Testament texts in their own right. Yet, at the same time, for the Christian who believes that Jesus Christ is God’s Word incarnate and that Jesus represents the full embodiment of the hopes and longings of God’s people Israel, it is salutary to find a deeper level of meaning in the Old Testament texts as a kind of prefigurement of Christ. For inevitably, “Christians. . .read the Old Testament in the light of Christ crucified and risen” (No. 41).

Citing the Biblical Commission’s statement on “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” the pope notes that this perspective should not lead to a kind of “supersessionism” that considers Judaism as no longer valid and totally replaced by Christianity, nor does it render invalid and erroneous Judaism’s own reading and interpretation of its sacred Scriptures.

And, finally, authentic Catholic interpretation of the Bible should be done in harmony with the Church’s tradition and teaching authority. Scripture, the pope notes, “must be interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written” and this means taking into account “the living tradition of the whole Church” (No. 35). The Council’s statement Dei Verbum had proposed a now famous formulation that emphasized the inherent harmony between the Scriptures and the Tradition and teaching authority of the Church; namely, there is one Biblical Word of God which is expressed “both in Scripture and in tradition.”

Therefore the biblical interpreter, who is a member of the community of faith and works in that spirit, will emphasize the harmony between the biblical text and the profound life of the Church. One might call this a “hermeneutics of grace” in contrast to a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” A hermeneutics of suspicion is a legitimate approach to interpretation that begins at the outset by questioning the accepted view of things and wondering about the original motivation or purpose of a biblical text. While Catholic exegetes might well use this vantage point in challenging traditional interpretations of a particular passage as a means of moving to new perspectives, belonging to a community of faith also means exercising as well a hermeneutics of grace that respects the life of faith and the Church’s tradition and seeks to find authentic harmony between the biblical message and the life of the Church.


All in all, over the past century or so the Catholic Church has experienced a remarkable change of perspective regarding the use of historical methods in biblical interpretation. From fearing and condemning its use, it has come not only to accept it but to consider it essential for the work of biblical exegesis. At the same time the Church developed a nuanced understanding of the full work of biblical interpretation at the service of the community of faith.

In this fuller perspective, the work of the biblical interpreter is not complete until it arrives at the meaning of the Scriptures for the life of faith. Taking the long view, the Catholic Church may have been prepared for this absorption of modern historical methods by its ancient wisdom. The Fathers of the Church always insisted on multiple levels of meaning in the biblical text and, therefore, multiple ways of interpretation.

Pope Benedict points to this precedent in Verbum Domini. The theology of the Fathers was primarily commentary on Scripture, and they invariably did their interpretation “in communion with the experience of the Church.” At the same time, they were aware of the rich complexity of the biblical text and its many layers of meaning beyond the literal sense (No. 37).

From the Second Vatican Council and from the subsequent teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the modern popes, the Church has acquired a well-grounded and balanced understanding of the role of the Scriptures in the life of the Church and an intelligent and thoughtful understanding of what biblical interpretation at the service of the community of faith requires.

FATHER SENIOR, C.P. is a professor at the Catholic Theological Union.