Rev. Raymond E. Brown, S.S.
October 10, 1996
The Rev. Brown is Auburn Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary, retired 1990.
- The public image of the Catholic Church is that it is monolithic and does not change. This is untrue. The 20th century in particular has been a time of great change in the Church.
- In 1893 Pope Leo XIII put out an encyclical on biblical interpretation. He wanted to promote biblical studies and to counteract the Lutheran interpretation. It was, on the whole, a positive document. Pope Leo was not interested in ecumenicism.
- During this same time, many Protestants were defending the King James version against newer translations.
- In the early part of the 20th century, new forms of criticism developed. New ideas were put out, such as the theory that Isaiah was originally several books, or that John and Matthew were not written by eyewitnesses. At the time, Catholics were required to reject these ideas. However, the traditional reading presented problems, e.g.: why do the two gospels place the Cleansing of the Temple at different times in Christ's ministry?
Pope Pius X, in 1905 (1915?) put out an encyclical critical of modernism.
- During the 1920's and '30's, there was a considerable decay in doctrine/dogma among the adherents of the new biblical criticism.
The different groups of Christians, Fundamentalists, liberal Protestants and Catholics, were not communicating with each other.
- In the late 1930's under Pius XII, the Catholic situation changed. The Pope realized that Catholics, who did not read the bible, were being deprived of a great resource.
Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu contained very different directives from previous encyclicals. Some bishops refused to teach it, and some considered it a fascist forgery.
Some of the changes were:
1) Translations from the original languages, rather than latin, were now allowed.
This allowed Catholics to use the same bibles as Protestants and led to improved communication between the two.
2) Catholic biblical scholars should be carefully trained to teach the bible.
Prior to this, scriptural teaching in seminary was often haphazard. Teachers were not professionally trained. This new directive was the beginning of the professionalization of Catholic universities and seminaries.
- Pope Pius' position was as follows:
1) The Pope took a "literal stance", that is, he held that a given scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the intention of its author.
This position was in contrast to that of Catholics who wished to do away with biblical criticism altogether and permit only "spiritual reading". Spiritual reading led to subjective interpretations of Scripture, whereas the Pope's stance anchored the Church to a serious search for the basis of Scripture.
2) The Pope recognized that the bible contains different literary forms, and that books should be judged according to the style in which they were written. This position saved the Church from fundamentalism.
- The Pope realized that this new approach would pose a challenge to theology. For example, scholastic theology involved predetermined conclusions. Scripture was interpreted in light of an answer already known.
The Pope cautioned that biblical researchers should be judged with justice and charity, and that new ideas should not be rejected solely because they are new.
- Joseph Ratzinger has adulated "those who, with humility, promoted new ideas out of love for the Church, which surpassed their desire for a peaceful life."
Our present pope knows biblical criticism.
- The new criticism was accepted more readily for the Old Testament than for the New. Eventually, the Church's offical position was that the Gospels are solidly founded on Jesus, but the product of developing tradition. By 1965, the Church's teaching was very different from what it had been in 1905 and 1915.
- After 1965, the ecumenical movement permitted cross-fertilization between Catholic and Protestant scholars, in research projects and at universities. Hostility between the two was much diminished. This development was unforeseen by the popes.
- The liturgical movement, likewise, was not foreseen in its full development. It included liturgy in the vernacular, and new lectionaries that permitted the reading of each of the three Gospels in context (previously, the same 52 readings had been read each year). They also included Old Testament readings, which had never been read in church before. This led to a new appreciation of the Law and Prophets. Moreover, new lectionaries produced a need for new translations in the vernacular, which were done from the original languages.
So, where are we going from here?
- New biblical archeological discoveries have led to problems with some recent translations. For example, among the Dead Sea scrolls, different copies of the same book differ radically. This means that people felt free to adapt the texts for teaching purposes. The "fixation" of the texts came centuries later. We now realize that we will never get to the original text. The copyists were also interpreters.
- Textual variations undermine the (Protestant) idea of getting at the original texts of Scripture.
- Many problems cannot be solved based on manuscript evidence.
For example, some texts contain the passage, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.", whereas others omit it. Was this added? (Why would a scribe leave out such a beautiful passage?) Or was it deleted? (St. John Chrysostom preached that those who had executed God could not be forgiven.)
- Today, the issue of inclusive language is extremely difficult, but it is being dealt with by Protestants and Catholics together.
The use of inclusive language is unobjectionable when speaking of humanity. 'Men' may be changed to 'people', because the meaning of the word 'men' has changed. Since the original version intended 'men' to mean 'all', the meaning of the passage has not been altered.
The issue is much more difficult when speaking of God. Some phrases, such as "Son of Man", cannot be adequately translated into inclusive language. Likewise, Christ's reference to God as Father. Christ says, "Those who hear and obey the word of God are my mother and brothers and sisters." He does not say "father". We must accept the significance of this.
- I oppose the alteration of ancient texts. People today feel that "the bible ought to say what I want it to say, and not offend my sensitivities." This will be an ongoing issue.
- There is also the problem of lack of vocations, and of poor training in seminaries in biblical languages. With a shortage of parish priests, it is difficult to spare priests for biblical studies. It is a blessing that increasing numbers of lay people are going into biblical studies. The problem is, they don't get the same formation in theology and Church history that priests get.
- There is, as well, the problem of the poor level of general education today. This is a pastoral issue. People need to be able to live as intelligent Christians.
In universities, you can get a good course on the bible while never learning its theological implications. Religious Studies departments are not allowed to teach theology.
- New media developments are also important, as is the migration of the Catholic population. For example, many Catholics have moved to the South, to areas where there were no Catholics before. They are closely exposed to Protestant bible groups, which are an important element in the social life of the community. The Church was not prepared for large numbers of Catholics to become interested in Scripture due to the influence of Fundamentalists.
- In the mass media we have the appearance of liberal scholarship, such as the "Jesus seminar", which actually sought out media attention. This raises the question of how people are hearing about the bible in the public domain. Where is the center between the extremes of Fundamentalism and liberal scepticism? Centrist scholars ought to get together to communicate through the media. We need to have the courage to say that certain positions are nonsense. People's lives are dominated by the media, but media-sponsored "scholarship" often stands on very thin legs.
- In the future, the problems of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox will become common, non- denominational problems. It will be the question of the center vs. the fringe.
- My conclusion is inspired by the words of St. Paul as he faced death :
1) We Catholics in the 20th century have fought the battle. We have kept the faith. (II Tim. 4:7)
2) Paul hopes in Timothy, whom he has trained. (II Tim. 1:6-7) No new generation should fear the future.
3) Paul is in chains, but the Gospel is not. (II Tim. 2:9) For the Roman Catholic Church today the power of the Gospel is unchained, thanks to the work that has been done in this century.
*Below are some of Fr. Brown's responses to questions from the audience.
Q: How does one deal with a Fundamentalist?
A: Remember that a Fundamentalist is also a Christian. We are more united than separated. Pray with them, and show them by your conduct that you are a Christian. Depending on the person, you may also be able to show them another way of reading Scripture. However, some Fundamentalists are so rigid in their mindset that you will make no impression. Moreover, if you present some with an irrefutable argument against their approach to the bible, they may end up not changing their understanding of Scripture but losing faith completely. Beware of creating such disillusionment. Better a Fundamentalist than an atheist.
A: A theologian's view may depend on how he was shaped.
Q: Isn't spiritual reading a legitimate approach to the Scripture?
A: Some portions of the bible, such as the psalms, lend themselves to spiritual reading in that they can be read without any background. Other portions cannot be understood without background. We have a responsibility to educate ourselves in a manner commensurate with our education.
Notes by Sara Frear