Living Tradition
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No. 31 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 1990

by John F. McCarthy


        Bultmann's publication in 1941 of his celebrated essay on the "demythologizing" of the New Testament did not pass unnoticed by the community of Catholic exegetes, who were soon aware of the presence of Bultmann's program at the center of debate in Protestant theological circles, just as they had been aware for two decades of Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition (1st ed., 1921) and would be aware of his equally epochal Theology of the New Testament (1st ed., 1948), all of which, together with his (commentary on) The Gospel of John (1941) and a fairly constant production of shorter books and articles were turning Bultmann's works and ideas into "Germany's dominant theological export throughout the world."

        Bultmann's proposal to "demythologize" the New Testament is articulated in terms of a particular notion of the historicity of the New Testament message. It may be useful to consider how a prominent Catholic exegete has interpreted the mind of the Church in matters touching upon this question. Jean Levie, professor of Sacred Scripture at the Theological College of St. Albert in Louvain, published in 1958 his studied opinion concerning the outlook of religious authority in the Church upon the Biblical Movement and how that outlook has developed.1 Of particular interest for the present article is the bearing of that outlook upon the question of "demythologizing."

        Levie notes that until about 1890 Catholic exegesis remained for the most part in the "severely traditional" climate of the preceding periods, but, in France, Renan's Vie de Jésus, by its deleterious influence, had already clearly shown "the need for the renewal of Catholic biblical studies." Then, between 1890 and 1914, there arose in Catholic exegesis a great effort of "scientific work," provoked by the impact of "recent archaeological and historical discoveries" and by the "undoubted advances and unjustifiable deviations of nineteenth-century liberal exegesis." What made this period of history "especially distressing" was the "incapacity" of most conservatives to distinguish between the "sound and necessary" progress attempted by some exegetes and the imprudent daring of others, although, on the other hand, "no less blameworthy" were the "deceitful methods" of some of the progressives, their anonymous articles and "their external attitude of fidelity to the Church, while estrangement from the faith had for long past existed in their heart."2 It has often and rightly been said that certain Catholic exegetes of the period between 1890 and 1914 failed to appreciate the "theological implications" of the problems raised; they often "made into a principle" the separation of exegesis and theology. This "lack of theological and philosophical training" was one of the causes leading up to the Modernism professed by several Catholic Scripture scholars of that time. One of the "clear gains" of religious history and exegesis, both Catholic and Protestant, ever since has been "that Christian theology has once more found its way into the interpretation of Christian events."3

        Levie recounts that Pope Benedict XV, in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), had repeated Leo XIII's teaching in Providentissimus Deus (1893) that the same principles which hold good for science can apply to history and cognate subjects, in the sense that one can apply a like line of argument when refuting the fallacies of adversaries and defending the historical truth of Scripture from their assaults, but Pius XII in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) "did not repeat the whole section" of Spiritus Paraclitus in which these words are found. Levie points out that Pius XII's omission of Benedict XV's explicit rejection of the theory of a twofold truth, absolute and relative, "attracted some notice and provoked considerable commentary" after Divino Afflante Spiritu appeared. "The Encyclical does not at this point dispel existing obscurities; it does so more completely in the second part, in dealing with the importance of literary form in history." Levie suggests in a footnote what turns out to be a basic premise of his book:

It may be that Pius XII deliberately chose to exclude the idea of two kinds of truth from his exposition. In fact, in exegetical research these words have designated two very different types of interpretation: the first, that of Loisy, according to which everything in dogma and theology is 'relatively' true (this interpretation springing from his relativist philosophy, which was destructive of all Christian revelation); and a second in which the phrase 'relative truth' might be used to qualify an exposition in keeping not with the reality of the facts, but with what popular contemporary opinion said on a subject. The fact that part of the truth might be contained in this second interpretation is in practice echoed in the theory of 'literary form. ' It was better to drop equivocal expressions."4

        (What Benedict XV actually said is that "those, too, who hold that the historical portions of Scripture do not rest on the absolute truth of the facts but merely upon what they are pleased to term their relative truth, namely, what people then commonly thought, are out of harmony with the Church's teaching." These exegetes, continues Benedict XV, maintain that "precisely as the sacred writers spoke of physical things according to appearance, so, too, while ignorant of the facts, they narrated them in accordance with general opinion or even on baseless evidence; neither do they tell us the sources whence they derived their knowledge, nor do they make other people's narrative their own." The exegetes in question claimed to deduce their approach from the teaching of Providentissimus Deus. "Such views are clearly false," says Benedict XV, "and constitute a calumny of our predecessor."5 )

        The encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, observes Levie, seems to have spoken "the last word" regarding the principles of an "authentic historical criticism" reconcilable with the standards of inspiration. This final decision is "that God speaks to us through human beings, and that it is through this human language, in all its diverse forms, and within its inescapable limitations, that the divine message must be grasped, understood and accepted as infallible." The "persevering work" of Catholic exegetes, "momentarily halted" after the publication of Pascendi and Lamentabili in 1907, with regard to the theory of literary forms, but encouraged by a "more explicit acceptance of the principle of literary forms in historical narratives" in Benedict XV's Encyclical of 1920, led these exegetes ever more clearly to postulate it "as absolutely necessary for the true interpretation of many of the historical narratives in the Old Testament." This "long evolutionary process" was "successfully concluded" by the decision of Divino Afflante Spiritu.6

        Levie maintains that the principle underlying the method of distinguishing between literary forms in the 'historical' narratives of the Bible "is indisputable." It is the "guiding principle of profane historical criticism," and at the same time it is a "legitimate extension" of the Thomist idea of biblical inspiration "as it is universally understood today."

        "Any literary form," he says, "as long as it is intrinsically moral," can convey the message which "God speaks to us through a real man, as he was in his world and in his own age." But the application of this principle is "singularly difficult." The fact that it can occasion "all sorts of capricious and reckless mistakes" is what undoubtedly persuaded the retention of "a certain obscurity" of expression even in Divino Afflante Spiritu. Levie is sorry to note that "at this point in the Encyclical" there is "a marked lack of proportion" between the breadth of the principles laid down and "the simplicity, indeed the banality, of the examples occasionally brought forward." The problem raised in the light of former controversies certainly goes far beyond the kind of examples actually given to illustrate the teaching. While there is no intention of giving exegetes a free hand in the unlimited use of this method, it is left to Catholic exegetes themselves "to steer a course that is so straight, true and right that it will never need correction."7

        In Levie's view, the Encyclical concludes that, because Catholic exegesis no longer restricts its endeavors to the refutation of opponents, but strives now to work "constructively," confidence in the authority and historical truth of the Bible, which, in the face of so many attacks, had in some minds been partially shaken, "has now among Catholics been wholly restored."8

        Levie assures his readers that, Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis of 1950 has "only a few passages" concerned with Sacred Scripture, and they merely recall the directives restated in Divino Afflante Spiritu. Four errors regarding the interpretation of Scripture are listed and forbidden: the limitation of Scriptural inerrancy to the truths of morality and religion; the illegitimate distinction between the divine meaning, hidden in Scripture and said to be alone infallible, and the human meaning; failure to interpret the Scriptures according to the mind of the Church by not taking into account either the analogy of faith or the tradition of the Church; replacing the literal interpretation with a symbolic and spiritual exegesis.9

        Levie concludes his account of the progress of Catholic exegesis with the expression of three "apparently essential conditions" for the preservation of the modern Catholic Biblical Movement in its pristine purity within the framework of the faith. The first condition is that attempts at synthesis be loyally and increasingly continued. The second condition is that the Movement show an enlightened understanding of and profound respect for Catholic doctrine. The third condition is trust in the Church, in the instructions of the Church, and in the general movement of thought and faith in the Church. What is essential and fundamental for Catholic theologians and exegetes is that, as a visible society, under the invisible guidance of Christ, the Church alone is authorized to bring the teaching message of Christ to its true fulfillment as foreseen and willed by God. Only in unity with the Church can theological or exegetical science enjoy intellectual security and the guarantee of reaching the whole truth.10


        Levie's review of the progress of Catholic exegesis in the twentieth century may be summarized under the following points.

        A) Between 1890 and 1914 there arose in Catholic exegesis a great effort of scientific work, based upon the need for renewal in Catholic biblical studies shown by the deleterious influence of Renan's Vie de Jésus and stimulated by the impact of recent historical discoveries as well as by certain undeniable advances of nineteenth-century liberal exegesis. The task was to show in the presence of increasing denial the supernatural character of the work of Christ and of the origin of Christianity.11

        B) Certain Catholic exegetes of the period between 1890 and 1914 failed to appreciate the theological implications of the problems raised; they often made into a principle the separation of exegesis and theology. One of the clear gains of both Catholic and Protestant exegesis since then has been that Christian theology has once more found its way into the interpretation of Christian events.12

        C) In order that Catholic exegetes could honestly, in accordance with their conscience as sincere historians, solve the strictly historical problem of the narratives of the earlier books of the Bible, from about 1900 on there gradually emerged the principle of 'literary forms'; this long evolutionary process was successfully concluded by the decision in 1943 of Divino Afflante Spiritu that it is through the language of human beings, in all its diverse forms, and within its inescapable limitations, that the divine message must be grasped, understood, and accepted as infallible.13

        D) Divino Afflante Spiritu expresses the law of unity of the faith: God, the principal Author of the Scriptures and of the definitive teaching of the Church, cannot contradict Himself; there are not two Christian doctrines.14

        E) Divino Afflante Spiritu does not present a doctrinal warning against any error or grave danger for the Church and for souls that certain persons were falsely alleging to be menacing from the critical-historical exegesis of Sacred Scripture; the Encyclical is entirely positive in its approach; it is an optimistic and trusting exhortation to exegetes to work freely and fruitfully, and it stems from the awareness of Pope Pius XII that the numerous groups of Catholic research scholars would not distort the mind of the Church either by daring excess or by narrowness.15

        Levie, however, makes other assertions which indicate respectively the problematic character of these five points.

        A) Progress in Scripture studies in the twentieth century has consisted in a better understanding of the part played by the concrete man in his actual environment and era in the expression of God's message; the notion of inspiration as 'dictation' by God did not sufficiently recognize the real, complete causality of the human author, as the free instrumental cause, under the action of God as the principal cause.16

        B) Providentissimus Deus was more dogmatic than exegetical, just as Catholic exegesis of its time tended to be more dogmatic and theological than critically historical.17

        C) The principle underlying the theory of literary forms is the guiding principle of profane historical criticism, and it is at the same time a legitimate extension of the Thomist idea of inspiration as it is universally understood today; any intrinsically moral literary form can convey the message which God speaks to us through a real man as he was in his world and in his own age.18

        D) Benedict XV exposed the dishonesty of those exegetes who were falsely claiming a foundation in Papal teaching for the theory that the sacred writers sometimes narrate untrue things because they were limited by the general opinion of their time; Benedict XV rejected the theory of a twofold truth, absolute and relative, in the Scriptures, but Divino Afflante Spiritu conspicuously avoids any such rejection; Pius XII may have left out the affirmation that there is a twofold truth in the Scriptures for the reason that it could have been confused with Loisy's theory, but he does admit the principle of the twofold truth in the sense that there are expositions in the Scriptures which are in keeping, not with the reality of the facts, but with what popular contemporary opinion said on the subject.19 A distinction must be made between the general spirit of scriptural interpretation and the interpretation of definite and specific passages. The argument from Patristic unanimity ought not to be invoked in purely historical or literary questions, but only where the discussion is concerned with doctrine concerning faith and morals.20 Exegetes are striving for perfect sincerity both as historians and as believers.21 Because Catholic exegesis is now working 'constructively,' the confidence of Catholics in the historical truth of the Bible, badly shaken before the turn of the century, has now been fully restored.22

        E) Since 1918 many Christian people want to make a careful and personal study of contemporary exegesis and of the thought of contemporary minds, and Protestant exegesis has been showing a greater concern for living theology; this has transformed the atmosphere in Catholic exegetical circles from one of fear to one of joy.23

        In making these assertions Levie weakens his position and plays into Bultmann's hands.

        A) It is contradictory to say that the task of showing the supernatural character of the work of Christ and of the origin of Christianity was fulfilled precisely by this, that there emerged a better understanding of the part played by the concrete man in his actual environment and era in the expression of God's message. Only paradoxically could increased knowledge of the natural causes show the supernatural character of the work of Christ and of the Word of God. Nowhere does Levie succeed in showing that exegetes have reinforced our knowledge of the supernatural character of the Bible, except as the postulated antithesis to the natural element. Nowhere does Levie suggest any defense worked out by new-wave exegetes against Bultmann's arguments excluding the role of God in the writing of the Bible.

        Bultmann was as fully (even though distortedly) aware, as is any Catholic exegete, of the natural causes at work in the formation of the Bible. Because of his awareness only of the natural element, Bultmann has diminished the supernatural element to the point of extinction. To maintain the opposite position, Levie would have to show that Catholic exegesis has recognized, elaborated, and reinforced aspects of the supernatural character of the work of Christ that were not known prior to the year 1900. Levie does not do so.

        B) Levie admits that it is an error to make into a principle the separation of exegesis and theology, yet in an important sense he uses this principle, for he accuses Providentissimus Deus of being more dogmatic than exegetical, just as the exegesis of its time was "more dogmatic and theological than critically historical."24 He is therefore opposing the (preferred) exegetical approach to the (dogmatic and) theological approach. But Levie is using the word 'theology' equivocally. While exegesis prior to 1914 was too "dogmatic and theological," he says, a clear gain since then has been that "Christian theology" has once more found its way back into the interpretation of Christian events. Obviously, Levie has never defined clearly in his mind what he means by "theology." What he seems to be saying is that a fusion of theology and exegesis has been taking place with the rise since 1918 of the existentialist approach and the decline of what Gogarten calls the "medieval metaphysical approach." But, if this is what Levie means, he is playing into Bultmann's hands, for Bultmann is the theologian of the Bultmannian era. There are enormous implications in the suggestion that Christian theology was not very operative in the interpretation of Christian events prior to 1914, and these implications are entirely consonant with Bultmann's position.

        C) Bultmann, one of the founders of the form-critical method, holds that what he sees as the "mythology" of the New Testament conveys a message spoken to us through real men as they were in their world and in their own age. The principle which Levie says was finally decided by Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943 fits perfectly the theology of Bultmann as enunciated two years earlier in his essay on "demythologizing" and in his commentary on the Gospel of John, viz.: "through this human language, in all its diverse forms, and within its inescapable limitations, the divine message must be grasped, understood, and accepted as infallible."25 Catholic form critics will protest that they do not mean this in the Bultmannian sense, but Catholic form critics like Levie have never presented the technical and historical refutation of Bultmann's conclusions that would be necessary to give them a viable alternative position. On the grounds proposed by Levie, Bultmann wins. Catholic form critics like Levie may say, "We believe that God is speaking," but Bultmann will reply that God and all the dogmas of the Church are mythological, and you Catholic form critics, with your principle of literary forms, can point to no historical proof that they are not.

        If Levie's principle of literary forms were true and had been properly formulated, it would not have been the occasion of "all sorts of capricious and reckless mistakes." Why would it have been so difficult for Pius XII to formulate it properly? Is a principle occasioning all sorts of capricious and reckless mistakes operative in profane historical studies as well? Levie claims that the breadth of this principle laid down by Pius XII is matched by the banality of the examples used. Is it not rather that the examples of Pius XII are aptly illustrating a principle diverse from the one that Levie is superimposing upon the Encyclical?

        D) The question has never been whether there are two Christian doctrines, but whether an infallible Christian doctrine has been set down in a pattern of human errors. The principle of the unity of truth is that God cannot contradict Himself by saying in the Word of Scripture what is contradicted by the verifiable facts of nature and history. In upholding the principle of the twofold truth, Levie interprets Divino Afflante Spiritu as saying the opposite of Spiritus Paraclitus and Providentissimus Deus on this issue. But in doing so he paraphrases the words of the Encyclical, draws his clear formula out of the "deliberate obscurity" of the Encyclical, and then reproves the Encyclical for not using examples that apply to his formula. Is this a sample of contemporary exegesis?

        Furthermore, Levie distinguishes between purely historical or literary questions and doctrine concerning faith and morals. Is there such a thing as a purely historical or literary question about the Bible that is not in some way concerned with faith or morals? Those who have followed the demythologizing debate will tend to think there is not. In addition, only specific passages are ever of immediate, concrete interest in any discussion about the truth of the Bible. Levie's distinction between the general spirit of interpretation and the interpretation of specific passages could ultimately relegate the teaching of the Church and of the Fathers to the "obsolete realm" of "medieval metaphysical interpretation."

        E) Just as Benedict XV reproved exegetes who were claiming a basis in Providentissimus Deus for their theory of a twofold truth, so did Pius XII reprove in Humani Generis those exegetes who falsely claimed a basis in Divino Afflante Spiritu for their theory of a twofold truth in Scripture. Levie does not mention this fact or try to explain it. Since Pope Pius XII himself had come out in 1950 and declared the grave dangers still present in the questions with which Divino Afflante Spiritu deals, is it perfectly honest for Levie as an historian to assure his readers that Pius XII saw no such dangers? If the Christian people of today want to make a careful and personal study of contemporary biblical interpretation, is their purpose being served by a history of recent exegesis that omits to mention the gravity and extent of the problems with which it is dealing?

        It would seem from Levie's presentation that the demythologizing debate had never occurred, that the attack of liberal thought upon Christian faith was no longer operative, that Catholic believers of the non-exegete class could never be confronted with troublesome doubts from ideas in circulation as long as they maintained their trust in the exegetes. Can Levie assume a reading public so hermetically sealed within their faith milieu that even those making a personal study of contemporary thought will never have to ask themselves how the problems raised by non-Catholic thinkers are to be answered, but need only turn to the Catholic exegetes, whom they implicitly trust? Can the intelligent Catholic reader be so sure that Catholic exegetes have solved these problems; will they never have reason to examine the problems for themselves? What kind of "careful and personal study" would that be? Levie's review of the history of Catholic exegesis in this century does not present to the reader all of the significant facts. It seems rather to be a one-sided selection of items intended to illustrate his assumption that progress in Catholic thinking means becoming less dogmatic and more "historical." Levie's systematic use of this assumption to the exclusion of the whole series of facts relating to the problem of "demythologizing" and of the urgent need to solve it - his refusal to recognize the gravity of this menace to the faith of Christians - does not indicate the openness of mind which he himself claims to be advocating.


        While Levie favors form criticism to the extent that it makes people realize that the Bible is the Word of God in words of men,26 it is interesting to note the ways in which some of the original principles and presuppositions of the form criticism of Bultmann and Dibelius, as summarized by Levie, are adapted to his purpose.

                A) "The material found in our synoptic Gospels is essentially communal popular literature which originated and developed in a collective source (the early Church) and in response to the religious needs of this collectivity" 27: "God therefore spoke to these men through men like themselves using the only literary form then possible. Although at this lower level, the sacred book belongs to the same category as other human books, it yet remains unique because in this unsophisticated form it tells us the unique story of this world, the history of God's actions and it does so under the impulse of God himself."28 Regarding the text of Genesis 2-3, he adds: "No type of philology will ever be able to distinguish here definitively and with certainty between the religious thought and the context in which it is presented, for the simple reason that, in my opinion, they were not clearly separated and formed an undifferentiated whole in the human thought of the inspired author."29 And thus he arrives at a major conclusion of his work: "The Church, so closely linked to the past through her Scripture and her tradition, is perpetually obliged to rethink her dogma, to reread her holy Scripture in terms of the present. ... New Testament Scripture is never for the Church the book of a past that has gone and which can only be reached through history. It remains a book of the present which grows clearer in the light of the doctrinal acquisitions of the passing centuries."30

        B) These narratives are now presented in a framework which is not historical in the modern sense: "Holy Scripture contains different literary forms to be interpreted according to the norms of the period in which these books appeared and not according to a priori norms drawn up in our own times. ... In the first place, there may be fictional historical forms whose sole aim in the mind of the inspired writer is to supply moral or didactic teaching and not to provide an account of real events in the past. ... It is therefore possible today to discover that a book, interpreted in the past as strictly historical, was in reality a kind of moral fable, intended to inculcate an edifying lesson, not to state historical facts, or no more than an imaginary tale situated in the past, but not a historical narrative."31 Jean Levie and other Catholic exegetes "were overjoyed to find the principle of 'literary forms' in holy Scripture clearly established and formally approved in the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu," and that books which are apparently historical in form seem in fact to be didactic writings, philosophical and religious discussions, theses, or haggadic midrash.32

        C) We must study the evolution of the tradition in order to discover the concrete historical and social situation which gave rise to the literary forms: As with the Old Testament, "we must distinguish between what is contingent and what is definitive in a New Testament assertion."33 "We should misunderstand the meaning of the New Testament if we lost sight of this aspect of effort towards the perfect expression of a new truth, this aspect of a movement of thought towards a summit which will be more clearly formulated in days to come. ... Increasingly the experience of Christian life confirms this dogmatic truth: the holy Scriptures, which are to accompany mankind throughout the centuries, are not self-sufficient. They can only be understood as God wishes them to be, if they are constantly interpreted by the Church." But in unfolding this work of interpretation "the Church needs the work of her exegetes, historians and philologists. She cannot do without their exertions or ignore their conclusions. She perfects their work, but in completing it, she fully accepts it."34 "We have to take the Gospel narratives and think them out again in terms of the religious needs of the early Church and not in terms of an overriding preoccupation with historical truth."35


        Form criticism begins and ends with the biblical writings as the words of men limited by the cultural possibilities of their own time and place. To a form critic like Rudolf Bultmann, "God's message" is a mythological notion - an imaginary object of preconceptual belief. To a form critic like Jean Levie, "God's message" is not defined as mythological; at becomes a "mystery," assumed to have valid meaning, but out of the reach of historical criticism. This "mystery" is thought to reside in the dogma and doctrine of the Church, whose credentials are unrecognized by form criticism as such, but which can be accepted by the form critic as a believer. The Catholic form critic continues to believe what his form-critical conclusions have not eliminated, but he strives as well to update the dogmas and doctrines of the Church in keeping with what he has concluded as a "critical historian."

        It is not necessarily a mistake in scientific method to undertake an interpretation of the Gospels beginning from what is presented on the human level and progressing from there to a penetration of God's message on the divine and mystical level. The great Catholic exegetes of the past have done that. But to limit the power of inspiration to the human powers of the inspired writers and of the primitive Christian community is a mistake in historical method for two reasons.

        1) Inspired writing means that the writers present a viewpoint that is above and superior to the merely human outlook, and they were protected from errors that they might otherwise have made. Levee is impressed by the limitations that the inspired writings seem to show, but he forgets that these writings do not show such limitations except to those who have not studied them in depth or who began by assuming the limitations that they afterwards thought they had observed. It is the presuppositions of form criticism that are especially deadly, and the presupposition here in point is that there was no supernatural cause active on the level of inspired historical writing.

        2) Scientific conclusions are limited to the boundaries of the scientific medium of thought that is being used. To approach divine inspiration on the human level alone means to limit one's conclusions to the human level alone, and the subsequent 'understanding' of God's message derived from these conclusions cannot be anything higher than a merely natural understanding. It is standard exegetical procedure to examine first the literal and historical level of the Gospels and then the mystical level. Yet without an awareness of the supernatural dimension of biblical inspiration, not even the literal and historical level of the Gospels can be completely investigated by historical science.

        But in this case we are not dealing with historical science. Form criticism is a pseudoscience, both in its presuppositions and in its method of reasoning. It does not have a true concept of history, and it does not proceed according to the rules of logic that govern all scientific method. Hence, the conclusions of form criticism as such are per se fallacious. Looking at the rise of form-critical exegesis in the history of the Catholic Biblical Movement, which Levie attempts to narrate, what is especially striking is the paucity of ideas and arguments against the false methodology of form critics like Rudolf Bultmann, together with the attempts of some Catholic exegetes to join an erroneous movement that they were not capable of refuting. It can truly be said that contemporary Catholic form-critical literature about the Gospels is in large part a popular (nonscientific) literature which has originated from the collective source of the Catholic exegetical community in response to the need of that community to accommodate to the false methodology of form criticism. What such exegetes write tells us what they want to believe about the Gospels, but it does not tell us what true historical science says about the Gospels.

        There is no valid opposition between the historical and the theological approach to Sacred Scripture. When the medium of historical understanding is subjoined to the medium of theological understanding, the conclusions derived are an expression of the science of historical theology. When the medium of historical understanding is separated from the medium of theological understanding, the conclusions derived are usually distorted and always incomplete. While this is true of all history, it is especially true of biblical history. What is proposed by the historical narratives of Sacred Scripture is a series of humanly observable, or at least humanly perceivable, events whose meaning cannot be fully perceived on a merely human level, because their historical meaning, and therefore their complete historical being, has a divine dimension. This meaning is historically final in the sense that the words of Sacred Scripture are endowed both with theological meaning that is eternally true and with historically theological meaning that is encased forever in the events that it narrates. The words of biblical history present objective reality supporting a structure of objective meaning that is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar and which can never be dissolved as historically unfactual.

        No type of philology will ever adequately distinguish the historical content of the Scriptures from the context in which it is presented; only historical science can do it. And the first task of historical science is to distinguish its own historical medium from the context in which it is presented. It is equally true that no unelevated historical science will ever adequately distinguish the 'religious' context of the Scriptures from the context in which it is presented; only theological science can do it. And the first task of theological science is to distinguish its own theological medium from the context in which it is presented. It follows that only the science of historical theology can resolve the problems presented by Jean Levie.

        To the historical scientist the invitation to reread Sacred Scripture in terms of the present can mean nothing else than to read Sacred Scripture in terms of the explicit and objective theological and historical medium which is his own scientific present.36 The result will be the objective historical truth of what the Scriptures say. The historical content of the New Testament is a past that can only be understood through historical science; to reduce this content to a preconceptual awareness of mystery is unhistorical and unscientific.

        By reason of its inspired character, Sacred Scripture claims a special charismatic gift in the field of history. While the Scriptures do contain poetic and didactic as well as historical literary forms, these forms must be analyzed according to the objective norms of historical science. Without a grasp of these norms it is certainly impossible to determine scientifically which are the "fictional historical forms" in Scripture "whose sole aim in the mind of the inspired writer is to supply moral or didactic teaching and not to provide an account of real events in the past."37

        One thing that Divino Afflante Spiritu did not say is that some books of the Bible which are apparently historical in form seem in fact to be haggadic midrash. While Levie claims that this encyclical approved the idea that in the Scriptures "any literary form as long as it is intrinsically moral can convey the divine message." he admits that "there is at this point in the Encyclical a marked lack of proportion between the breadth of the principles laid down and the simplicity, indeed the banality, of the examples occasionally brought forward."38 The examples apply to other principles than those of Jean Levie. What Pope Pius XII had said in Divino Afflante Spiritu about the historical forms in the Bible he had also clarified in Humani Generis:

For some go so far as to pervert the sense of the (First) Vatican Council's definition that God is the author of Holy Scripture, and they put forward again the opinion, already often condemned, which asserts that immunity from error extends only to those parts of the Bible that treat of God or of moral and religious matters. They even wrongly speak of the human sense of the Scriptures, beneath which a divine sense, which they say is the only infallible meaning, lies hidden. ... Thus they judge the doctrine of the Fathers and of the Teaching Church by the norm of Holy Scripture interpreted by the purely human reason of exegetes.... Further, according to their fictitious opinions, the literal sense of Holy Scripture and its explanation, carefully worked out under the Church's vigilance by so many great exegetes, should yield now to a new exegesis which they are pleased to call symbolic or spiritual. ... Everyone sees how foreign all this is to the principles and norms of interpretation rightly fixed by Our Predecessors of happy memory, Leo XIII in his Encyclical Providentissimus, and Benedict XV in the Encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus, as also by Ourselves in the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu."39

        For Levie to have ignored this clarification in a lengthy exposition of the Encyclical indicates a bias obstructing historical objectivity. It is obvious to the historical scientist that the studied inability to recognize fact in one's own historical present precludes the ability to recognize fact in the historical narratives of Sacred Scripture.

1. J. Levie, La Bible, parole humaine et message de Dieu (Paris-Louvaine, 1958); English translation: The Bible, Word of God in Words of Men (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1961 - henceforth to be referred to as BWG).

2. BWG, 41-43.

3. BWG, 52.

4. BWG, 145-l46.

5. Spiritus Paraclitus, no. 22.

6. BWG, 161-162.

7. BWG 167-168.

8. BWG, 171-173.

9. BWG, 184-185.

10. BWG, 195-199.

11. BWG, 41-43, 60.

12. BWG, 52.

13. BWG, 161-162.

14. BWG, 156-157.

15. BWG, 142.

16. BWG, l63-164, 65-66.

17. BWG, 68-69.

18. BWG, 167.

19. BWG, 145-146.

20. BWG, 175-176.

21. BWG, 157.

22. BWG, 172-173.

23. BWG, 126-l27.

24. BWG, 68-69.

25. BWG, 161.

26. BWG, 214.

27. BWG, 120.

28. BWG, 228.

29. BWG, 275.

30. BWG, 300.

31. BWG, 222-223.

32. BWG, 224-227.

33. BWG, 280.

34. BWG, 299-301.

35. BWG, 120-121.

36. See J.F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology (Rome, 1976; reprinted by TAN Books, Rockford, Illinois, 1991), pp. 63 and 92-100.

37. BWG, 222-223.

38. BWG, 167-168.

39. Humani Generis, nos. 22-24.

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