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A Catholic Reflection on Biblical Criticism

By Jonathan Bennett

One of the more controversial aspects of Scripture study today is the issue of biblical criticism. I will share my thoughts of the merits and limits of biblical criticism a little later. First, I want to say that I would not be Catholic today if it weren't for biblical criticism.

To provide some background, I was raised strongly Protestant evangelical. One of the advantages of this is that I learned the contents of the Bible as well as to love and respect it. However, I was also deeply wedded to the concepts of sola scriptura (without ever even hearing the word mentioned until university) and biblical inerrancy (once again, a word I don't recall hearing until I went to university). Even without always knowing the "lingo," I certainly understood the concepts and held to them without thinking.

The conflict began when I went to university and began to encounter, as much as I hate to use the word, "diversity." I met Catholics, Orthodox, and even stauncher evangelicals than myself. I also encountered Calvinism for the first time. After a period of virtual agnosticism, I returned to evangelical Christianity my junior year, but with admittedly a far more open mind. I was being pulled in two directions: the academic and the evangelical.

Among the evangelicals I befriended, inerrancy was one of their foremost emphases. The campus groups gave multiple lectures on it and it was a frequent topic of discussion in the "small groups." My friends and mentors frequently noted that the Bible simply had to be inerrant in the fundamentalist sense or Christianity fell apart. As one of the few who had actually read large chunks of the Bible, I recall mentioning, offhand of course, that it didn't really matter if one biblical passage says Solomon had 5,000 horses and another 10,000. I was simply noting that such a discrepancy is hardly relevant. I was told that I was wrong. It did matter and I was treated to the apologetics of reconciling the number of Solomon's horses. Contrary to their intentions, such intellectual gymnastics only made me doubt this view of inerrancy even more.

My other direction was academic, which included the study of religion and even Church history. Part of this included buying a copy of the New Jerusalem Bible as an evangelical. The NJB uses "moderate" critical study, yet it struck me as irreverent. The translators in the preface asked the reader to pray for them. I remember being somewhat indignant and thinking I wasn't sure if I would pray for them because I wasn't sure they were even Christian given their views on the Bible! However, a strange thing happened. I read the book of Revelation in the NJB and found their interpretation, which essentially places many of the events in the context of the first century, to be a welcome antidote to the silly "end times" speculation of some Christians. As I read through the entire Bible and took a course on the New Testament, I found critical study to be somewhat liberating. Critical study allowed me to avoid a philosophically weak inerrancy that, for example, spent time reconciling the number of Solomon's horses, or even worse, a system of biblical interpretation that identified the Word of John 1:1 with the Bible (yes, I actually heard this from a speaker at a "talk" by an evangelical campus group).

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Critical study, in some ways, de-mystified the Bible. Now, by this, I'm not talking about the stories or the people in the Bible or even the holy book itself. Critical study simply put the Bible in history and in context. I no longer saw the Bible as simply a divine manual or sourcebook straight from God's mouth to my ears, but a record of God's working with his people in their own context. Biblical criticism allowed me to put the Bible in a communal, historical, and developmental framework, something my evangelical friends and I were unable to do. This included understanding the development of the canon and doctrine, which was also helped by a concurrent reading of the Church Fathers. So, how does this lead to Catholicism?

First, seeing the Bible put in an historical context helped me think in a more broadly historical context about Christianity in general. If the Bible has a history, then the people of God have a history, one that could even possibly be continuing under the guidance of the Spirit (later of course I'd find that in the Church). I don't think it's a coincidence I took up the Church Fathers and the critical study of the Bible at the same time. Second, seeing the development of Hebrew thought helped me look to and appreciate the development of Christian thought. Many evangelicals cringe at the thought that the Hebrews may have developed their belief in the resurrection over centuries just as much as they cringe that a doctrine like purgatory could have developed over the centuries. Studying the developments of Hebrew religion throughout the Bible helped prepare me to appreciate and understand the development of doctrine in Catholicism.

In short, I could never have become Anglican and eventually Catholic if I had rigidly held on to sola scriptura and inerrancy in the Protestant sense. Seeing the reverent biblical criticism from Catholic sources helped me greatly in questioning my basic Protestant assumptions. In a sense, my evangelical friends from university were right, assuming we were discussing evangelical Christianity and not Christianity as a whole. Many forms of evangelical Christianity do succeed or fail based on the complete inerrancy of the Bible. To deny the Bible gets every minute detail correct would raise the more complex issues of development, history, and authority. Biblical criticism brings out the complexity of the Bible, which forever removes a person from the "just read the Bible yourself and the Holy Spirit will reveal to you the truth" school, which is foundational to some forms of evangelicalism (the frustratingly elusive "plain sense" of Scripture). Although leaving behind this evangelical view of Scripture may not lead a person to become Catholic or Orthodox, the serious believer will likely find the idea of the interpretation of the Bible by the Church, rather than by multiple individuals and denominations, far more attractive.

Of course, unbridled biblical criticism can lead to the opposite error, where the Bible is viewed as "errant" enough that nothing at all can be said about truth. Certainly some folks who discover biblical criticism go down this path. They become liberated from fundamentalism only to fall into the slavery of secular academia, accepting almost uncritically the newest whims of queer/feminist/speciesist or whatever brand of faddish "interpretation."

This is where it becomes important to always read the Bible with the Church. One is able to read the Bible in an honest manner, while still recognizing that it is first and foremost the book of the Church and source of our teachings. For example, it doesn't matter to Catholics if there are two creation accounts edited together in Genesis. It doesn't touch us dogmatically because even if there were fifty accounts in those 2 chapters, for example, the truth of creation ex nihilo is still dogma. That the New Testament never unequivocally declares the Holy Spirit to be God may be troublesome for evangelicals, but not for Catholics. The first Council of Constantinople settled it. Like the unfolding of the truth of the resurrection of the dead from the Old to New Testaments, our doctrines developed from the already latent truths. We can deal with it.

In conclusion, moderate biblical criticism led me to not only a greater love of the Bible, but to the Church that gave us the Bible. And I still love them both. The catechism declares:

Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures (107).

So, when it comes to the truths of our salvation, the Bible, as interpreted by the Church, is inerrant. That is quite liberating and comforting! But, we don't have to fret about how many horses Solomon had. That's pretty liberating and comforting too.

Last Updated 11-30-2007

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