Posted by: littletoe | June 26, 2007

How to Interpret the Bible?

This RCIA class was to be about “Salvation History”. We were on the edges of our seats, eager to learn about what the Catholic Church teaches on the subject. Our presenter had seemingly good credentials, had studied in Catholic schools and had two Masters Degrees.

She began to tell us how we might be surprised to know that all of the mainstream Protestants, especially the Lutherans and the Episcopalians were all studying at the same seminaries as the Catholics were. As a former Episcopalian that made the hair at the back of my neck stand on end.

You see, all the controversy in the Episcopal Church (and the Anglican Communion) is ostensibly about human sexuality. The truth is, however, it is not about that at all. It’s about who Christ is and why He came. We had come to believe that the confusion about who Christ is and why He came had to do with people teaching us that the Bible is a collection of interesting but irrelevant myths. And here we were in our first real RCIA class (we had been to an introductory class before) and it was happening here, too!

She began to tell us that monotheism had its roots in Egypt and that the Israelites had been influenced by the Egyptians and most likely “invented” their God as a result of that influence. She told us that the Pentateuch had not been written by Moses or even during his time, but several hundred years later. There were other assertions as well that we found troubling. It wasn’t that we couldn’t live with the fact that Moses didn’t actually write the books attributed to him, it was that the motive for this “research” was to essentially discredit the Bible.

My normally laid-back, conflict-avoiding husband went into orbit with this lady and really she didn’t get to do much presenting. Our time was spent observing the argument between the two of them. The argument ended when we were informed that we could believe whatever we wanted, but this is what the Catholic Church believes.

Imagine our distress! We had been called to the RCC and had come VERY reluctantly, attracted by her orthodoxy only to find that the Holy Scriptures were being discredited here, too. We couldn’t believe we had been called here only to discover another corrupt church, so we started doing a little research.

Catholic Bible scholars have been using the Historical-Critical method to determine through anthropological and linguistic study, the true intent of the authors of Holy Scripture. Historical Criticism was first embraced by liberal Protestant exegetes and later adopted by the Catholic Church. This method has been controversial since the beginning but became more accepted after the publication of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflant Spiritu in 1943. Msgr. John F. McCarthy writes:

“The historical critics eventually won the long and at times bitter fight for the ear of the hierarchy over the contested Replies of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and the reason for this victory seems to have been a tactical error in the approach of the traditional Catholic exegetes who opposed them. Many of these traditional exegetes were able scholars, but they pitched their arguments against the historical critics more in terms of the questionable orthodoxy of the presuppositions and logical results of the form-critical method than by analyzing in detail and refuting the technical procedures of the method itself. On the other hand, Catholic historical critics were using the form-critical method usually without adverting to its questionable presuppositions and often without drawing the seeming obvious implications of their reasonings that might be construed as undermining the belief in the historical truth of the inspired text. This lack of focus in the debate is what made the controversy so bitter at times.”

The whole article can be found here.

While the Pontifical Biblical Commision fully endorses this method of biblical exegesis, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ex officio President of the PBC, wrote an article in 1989 where he called for “a better synthesis between historical and theological methods, between criticism and dogma” and for self-criticism by exegetes of the historical-critical method. He said that errors made in biblical exegesis over the preceding century “have virtually become academic dogmas,” especially due to the influence of Martin Dibelius and Rudolf Bultmann, whose “basic methodological approaches continue even today to determine the methods and procedures of modern exegesis,” and he saw the urgent need to challenge the fundamental ideas of this method. The Cardinal pointed out that Bultmann the exegete “represents a background consensus of the scientific exegesis dominant today,” even though Bultmann’s exegetical conclusions “are not the result of historical findings, but emerge from a framework of systematic presuppositions.” And so the Cardinal called for “a new and thorough reflection on exegetical method,” for which task the great outlines of patristic and medieval thought must also be brought into the discussion.”

So this is as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” We breathe a great sigh of relief that the debate is not over and the pope is on “our side”. I guess that means we will stay and attend the next RCIA class.



  1. Hey, I like your blog.

    Read the Pope’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth. It gets even better. He’s sooooo on your side.

  2. Thanks, Mike! How did you find me? I just started blogging a couple of months ago…

  3. Unfortunately many Catholic educators, especially those who came of age during the 70s and 80s, drink from the same stream as do mainline liberals. Many seminaries uncritically teach a certain style of biblical criticism that goes much further than Church Teaching permits. Just hang in there and remember, God may be using you and your husband to act as a counter to some of the nonsense you may hear in class, so if you feel confident enough, speak up, or act like Socrates, asking the right questions which show the inconsistencies in liberal views (for example: “how does what you just taught square with what I just read in Pope Benedict’s new book?”). Hang in there and remember that many in the American church WOULD like to see the Catholic Church turn into the Episcopal church, but they know they are losing the battle, as the Vatican disagrees with them and the younger generation is more conservative.

  4. Why don’t they just go to the Episcopal Church?? Why do they have to CHANGE the Catholic Church? Ah, but it’s not really about ordaining women or same sex marriage, is it? It’s about spiritual warfare, an attack on, and attempted destruction of, the Church in whatever forms the faithful exist. Rant over.

  5. Little toe,

    You are right, but I wonder, why don’t they just go to the Episcopal church, rather than try to change a Church with a 2000 year old tradition?

    Remember the Church has been through rough times…St. Jerome in the 4th century lamented that the “whole world groaned and found itself Arian,” and there were only a few non-Arian bishops left, including St. Athanasius, the pope, and St. Hilary of Poitiers (my patron saint). The Church goes through hard times, and we are in the midst of one right now. However, the signs do seem to suggest we are emerging. Dave Hartline, who runs the Catholic report ( has written a book entitled “The Tide is Turning Toward Catholicism” highlighting the good news, and that things are looking up. I recommend it for all those discouraging moments, moments I too have.

  6. LittleToe,

    Hang in there. I’m a PhD grad in New Testament from a major program. The times, they are a changing. The so-called ‘historical critical method’ is on the ropes. Liberals are going postmodern, believers are going more theological. Basically, many Catholic scholars adopted the hist-crit model somewhat uncritically, but many Catholic scholars are faithful people trying to relate the Bible to the faith of the church. Especially the younger ones.

    Feel free, btw, to visit me at, as I consider my own conversion.

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