THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM – PART I – SECTION 1
APPROACH TO SCRIPTURE
A. There was a debate in the early Church about what books, both before and after Christ, were to be considered inspired by God.
1. The Jewish faith did not settle what books they would considered canonical (i.e. a part of Scripture) until the discussions centered in Jamnia around 90-110 A.D. Believing that the time of Scripture had closed by 400 B.C., with the priesthood of Ezra and the writing of the last prophet Malachi, and believing that the word of God was first written in Hebrew, the Jewish leaders of the late first and second centuries excluded seven books that the Catholic Church accepts as canonical. These books are: Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Tobit, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabes, as well as the last 2 chapters of Daniel. That belief continues among Jews until today, and most Protestants follow the Jewish beliefs about the books of the Old Testament.
- Some books,
such as the Book of Jubilees and 1 and 2 Enoch were considered but ultimately
not accepted as canonical by either Christians or Jews.
- The first
five books of the Old Testament, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers,
and Dueteronamy, have always been accepted by all Christians and Jews.
2. In the early Church, there was some debate about what books should be considered canonical. There were several lists, such as the recently discovered Muratorian Canon, and the lists in works of Eusebius, the court historian of the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century.
- Some books
in the Bible, such as Hebrews and Revelation, were heavily debated,
and other books not in the Bible such as the 1 and 2 Clement, the Didache,
The Shepherd of Hermas and the Gospel of Peter (not written by St. Peter),
were considered by some people to be inspired. See, e.g., Eusebius,
Ecclesiastic History, Book III, ch.3, 25; Book VI, ch. 25; New Jerome
Biblical Commentary, ch. 66.
1. The Antiochan
school, led by such figures as St. Ephraim and St. John Chrysostom,
emphasized the literal interpretation of Scripture, although certainly
with moral applications to the present. They focused heavily on
the doctrinal implications of Scriptural texts, such as the moral law
and the relationship between grace and nature.
2. The Alexandrian
school, led by such figures as Origin and St. Clement of Alexandria,
emphasized the spiritual meaning of Scripture. Thus, for example,
they would describe the Chosen People's journey to the Promised Land
as an allegory for our spiritual journey, or the parable of the Good
Samaritan as an allegory for Christ's saving us from the robbers of
our soul. Following the pattern of the Letter to the Hebrews,
they heavily used typology, presenting Old Testament figures as types,
or prefigurements, of Christ and the Gospels.
A. Theologians would say that there are four basic levels of meaning to a Scriptural text, the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical (or eschatological, heavenly) sense. See, e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Book I, question 1, article 10.
1. The literal sense is the sense expressed by the words themselves, as meant by the author for the audience he was writing and, by extension, to others. This sense may itself be allegorical, for the author may have intended allegory, as in the case of the visions of Daniel and Revelation, the parables of Jesus, and much of the first 11 chapters of Genesis.
literal sense must be distinguished from the literalistic sense, that
is, only the superficial meaning of the words. The literal sense
may have a figurative meaning, as in "White House" meaning the Executive
Branch of the federal government or "Wall Street" meaning the financial
6. The Catechism
expressly endorses this four-fold approach to Scripture, while emphasizing
that all of the senses must be built upon the literal sense. See
- Even regarding
matters accessible to reason (e.g., the existence of God, the immortality
of the soul, the natural moral law), the scholastics maintained that
Revelation is often needed so that these conclusions can more easily
and without error. See, e.g., Summa Theologica Part II-II,
question 2, article 4.
2. The Scholastics
also recognized the need for Church teachings so that the things stated
in Scripture that could be ambiguous or difficult, are made plain.
See Summa Theologica Part II-II, question 1, article 9.
3. The Scholastic
method would put together two seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture,
or from faith and reason, and ask how they can be resolved. For
example, Romans says that man is saved by faith and not works, but the
letter of James says that he needs works to be saved.
Compare Rom. 4:1-12; James 2:14-26. One resolution is that God
gives man saving faith, but man must act in a fashion befitting that
faith in order to keep it. Or, as St. Thomas asks, does God give
us faith directly, or is it caused by forces in this world, or by our
own decision. Compare Rom. 10:17, John 4:53 and John 3:21 with
Eph. 2:8-9. St. Thomas argues that, in general, there is usually
an external cause for faith, but also God's grace which enables us
to take advantage of that opportunity. See Summa Theologica
Part II-II question 6, article 1.
A. Starting in the fifteenth century, with an increase in literacy and the development of the printing press, many more people were reading Scriptures. There was also an increasing study in ancient languages, especially Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, making a deeper analysis of the Scriptures possible.
1. These advances
could help people understand the Scriptures more, but there were also
difficulties in the indiscriminate use of the methods of science to
2. The deeper
study of languages led to new translations of the Bible even into Latin.
Furthermore, there was an increasing demand for translations into vernacular
B. The early Protestants
rejected seven books of the Old Testament as non-canonical. Furthermore,
different translations of the Bible could lead to very different results.
C. Among the first issues the Council of Trent took up was Sacred Scriptures. In 1546, it published its Decree and Canons on Sacred Scripture.
1. The Council
first reaffirmed that the Scriptures are the word of God, written with
the Holy Spirit as one of the authors.
A. In the eighteenth
century, geological evidence was beginning to indicate that the world
was at least some millions of years old. Furthermore, fossil evidence
was beginning to indicate that species had lived and died out long ago.
Alone, these discoveries were not a problem for the Church, for many
exegetes had read the creation accounts of Genesis in a metaphorical
fashion. However, many people tried to pit science and philosophy
against religion. These attempts reached a height with Darwin's
theory of natural selection; the theory itself did not contradict the
faith, but many implications, such as the idea that man is nothing but
an advanced ape, do.
B. In religion, many Christians, exemplified by the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann, began to say that Scriptures may be inspired, but were erroneous in many details. They said that we have to get beyond the factual assertions to the realm of faith.
- Many people,
both liberal Protestants and non-Christians tried to downplay everything
supernatural in the Bible.
- He said
that knowing Scripture is necessary to know the truths of the faith,
and essential for oratory regarding the faith. He began a long
tradition in the Church of quoting St. Jerome, "Ignorance of Scripture
is ignorance of Christ."
reviewing briefly the history of Scriptural interpretation, he called
for clerics and scriptural scholars to confront "our adversaries"
who "defuse their deadly poison by means of books, pamphlets and newspapers."
The deadly poison is the rationalist belief that would dismiss the Bible
as the inspired word of God.
the need for study of the Bible, against those who said that its meaning
is always clear, he called for a careful preparation of clerics and
scholars. In particular, he argued that the Church Fathers had
great authority in interpreting the Bible and should be studied carefully.
4. He reiterated
the need always to interpret Scripture with the "analogy of faith,"
that is in the context of Church teachings, never contradicting them.
Within the boundaries of Church teachings, he argued there remains a
great deal of freedom.
5. Recognizing the legitimate advances of modern knowledge, he affirmed that greater knowledge of ancient languages and scientific history. But he criticized the excessive use of such studies as though Scripture could be critiqued like any other book.
He argued very strongly that there can never be any real conflict between
faith and science, and that any apparent conflict is due to a misreading
of one or the other.
b. In particular,
he affirmed that, while Scripture deals with real historical events,
the authors "did not seek to penetrate secrete of nature, but rather
described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language,
or in terms which were commonly used at the time."
6. He concluded
by affirming strongly the inspiration and therefore inerrancy of all
of Scripture, although granting that study is needed to understand the
true meaning that the sacred authors were conveying.
B. On the 50th anniversary year of Provindentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII published the next great encyclical letter on Scriptures, Divino Afflante Spiritu, in which he called for greater studies in Scripture and for care in understanding the literal sense and building upon it.
1. At this point,
in the midst of World War II, Pope Pius was dealing with a different
problem, namely, those who would defend the value of the Bible, but
wanted to put a primarily "spiritual" meaning on it, avoiding the
6. Pope Pius XII cautioned against getting too far afield with extraneous research so that people study about the Bible in an academic fashion, but do not draw forth the riches of the Bible itself. For Scriptures are "of themselves rich in original meaning; endowed with divine power, they have their own value; adorned with heavenly beauty, they radiate of themselves light and splendor" and offer to the intelligent "treasures of wisdom and prudence."
7. In speaking
of the literal sense, Pope Pius XII drew even more attention to the
fact that one must recognize the author's way of writing. As
he said, "the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their
ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech that we
use today." He praised efforts to understand ancient ways of
writing in order to understand the Bible.
1. The document
begins by emphasizing that there is one unified plan of salvation, manifested
in God's saving actions, of which His Son's Incarnation, life, death,
and Resurrection are the climax. God gave us Revelation to make
this plan of salvation clear.
- The Council
emphasized that the Magisterium of the Church can authentically interpret
Revelation, but "is not above the word of God," instead at its service.
Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium make up what would come
to be called the "tripod of truth."