by John F. McCarthy

120. The rise of the modern biblical movement. In a widely circulated book entitled The Bible, Word of God in Words of Men, published originally in French in 1958 and in English translation in 1961, Father Jean Levie summarizes and defends the rise of the modern biblical movement within the Catholic Church. The movement actually developed outside of the Catholic Church among liberal Protestant Scripture scholars of a rationalist bent, who utilized an approach called “historical criticism” to call into question the historical truth of the Bible. After about two centuries of development, Hermann Gunkel, a liberal Old Testament Evangelical scholar, introduced the historical-critical technique known as “form-criticism” in the 1890s, and it was at this time and with this technique that the method of historical criticism was brought into Catholic biblical research by Father M-J Lagrange and others. In the early 1920s the form-criticism of the New Testament was introduced into liberal Protestant biblical scholarship by Rudolf Bultmann, Martin Dibelius and others, and this too was taken up by Catholic scholars. Form-criticism has now become the approach of most Catholic biblical scholars.

121. Condemnation of the idea of the “twofold truth” of Sacred Scripture. The introduction of historical criticism, especially in the use of form-criticism, caused great anxiety within the Catholic Church. Some Catholic scholars adopted explicitly the rationalism under­lying the method and emerged as Modernists. Father Levie points out that the condemnation of Modernism with its accompanying historical-critical method by Pope Pius X in 1906 was a setback for the biblical movement, because the Church authorities were unable to distinguish between the “sound and necessary progress” of some Catholic interpreters and the “imprudent daring” of others, such as the Modernist writers (Levie, pp. 41-43). The non-Modernist Catholic form-critics kept under cover for the time being, but saw some room to maneuver under Pope Benedict XV, even while their method of the “twofold truth” of Scripture was again condemned by this Pope in his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus of 1920, where he stated 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” (EB 456).

122. A claim that the idea of the “twofold truth” was reinstated. Catholic form-critics considered themselves finally to have been liberated by Pope Pius XII, with his encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu of 1943, which did not again elaborate in condemnation of the theory of the twofold truth (Levie, pp. 145-146). Writing in 1958, Father Levie recommends the historical-critical view of the “twofold truth” of the sacred text. There is, he says, the “relative truth” of the text, that is, the truth of an account that is not in keeping with the reality of the facts, but rather with what popular contemporary opinion thought about the facts, and the “absolute truth” of what actually took place. And, he adds, this understanding of the “twofold truth” of the sacred accounts “is in practice echoed in the theory of 'literary form'” (Levie, pp. 145-146). But, in fact, Divino afflante Spiritu neither approved of the form-critical method of literary forms nor did it diminish the condemnations of this method by Popes Leo XIII and Benedict XV (see no. 127 below).3

123. The form-critical theory of literary forms. In Divino afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII did not approve the form-critical method of literary forms. What he approved was the standard approach of historians to narrative documents, distinguishing truly historical accounts from poetic, prophetic, legal, and didactic writings, but he makes no mention of the novel literary genres introduced by form-critics, such as myth, legend, miracle stories, angelic appearances, dialogue stories, I-sayings of Jesus, apocalyptic sayings, polemic sayings, resurrection appear­ances of Jesus, and other things of this sort, all of which assume the fictional character of the respective passages. Rather, the encyclical goes on to say: “so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error,”4 therefore, not in form-critical literary genres that presume fiction or error in the narrative accounts of Sacred Scripture.

124. The historical-critical interpretation of the teaching of Dei Verbum no. 11. The character­ization of the modern biblical movement presented by Father Levie with his endorsement of the principle of the “twofold truth” of the historical accounts in Sacred Scripture has been the position taken by Catholic historical-critics over the years both before and after the Second Vatican Council. To support their method they refer to paragraph 11 of the Constitution Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council, (dated 18 November 1965). The Council document states as follows (in the Austin Flannery translation):

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.”

What historical critics see especially in this quotation from Dei Verbum is not so much that the sacred books teach the truth “firmly, faithfully and without error,” but rather that they teach “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures,” and so they understand the teaching of the Second Vatican Council to have limited the guarantee of absolute truth of the sacred writings to the “salvific” implications of the respec­tive texts and to have excluded any guarantee of scientific or historical truth from all other aspects of the writings. And, at the present time, even those Catholic scholars using the histor­ical-critical method tend actually to assume in most cases the non-absolutely historical truth of the biblical accounts, placing the burden of proof on those who would call them truly historical.

125. Words of men. The form-critical phase of historical criticism begins and ends with the assumption that the words of Sacred Scripture are words of men limited by the cultural possibilities of their own time and place. Catholic exegetical tradition has always recognized that the Bible was written by men in words of men, but this form-critical assumption excludes in advance any recognition of divine inspiration under­lying the text of the Scriptures. The liberal Protestant founders of the form-critical approach, most notably Hermann Gunkel, Rudolf Bultmann, and their followers, do not acknowledge any supernatural inspiration guiding the writing of the Bible. Catholic form-critics, in using the form-critical method, can say that they believe that God is speaking to men in the Scriptures, but their belief has no influence on their method, and it is to be noted that, when Catholic historical critics are challenged by liberal Protestant interpreters, such as Rudolf Bultmann, to give evidence for their belief, they have little to offer. Father Levie claims that Divino afflante Spiritu, while it does not use the term “histor­ical criticism,” nevertheless, “sets out the principles of an authentic historical criticism that are reconcilable with the standards of inspiration” (Levie, p. 161). We would say rather that the encyclical expounds the principles of authentic historical study of the Scriptures without in any way approving of the method that goes by the name of “historical criticism.”

126. The official background of Dei Verbum, no. 11. Pope Leo XIII. The encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus of Pope Leo XIII (18 November 1893) declared that “it is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. As to the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because, as they wrongly think, in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider, not so much what God has said, as the reason and purpose which he had in mind in saying it – this system cannot be tolerated” (EB 124). This passage is referred to by a footnote in Dei Verbum 11.

127. Pope Pius XII. The encyclical letter Divino afflante Spiritu of Pope Pius XII (30 September 1943) actually made the following clarifi­cation regarding the truth of Sacred Scripture. “The first and greatest care of Leo XIII was to set forth the teaching on the truth of the sacred Books and to defend it from attack. Hence, with grave words did he proclaim that there is no error whatsoever if the sacred writer, speaking of things of the physical order 'went by what sensibly appeared,' as the Angelic Doctor says, speaking either 'in figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even among the most eminent men of science.' For 'the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately – the words are St. Augustine's – the Holy Spirit, who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things of the universe – things in no way profitable to salvation'; which principle 'will apply to cognate sciences, and especially to history,' that is, by refuting, 'in a some­what similar way the fallacies of the adversaries and defending the historical truth of Sacred Scripture from their attacks.' Nor is the sacred writer to be taxed with error, if 'copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible,' or, 'if the real meaning of a passage remains ambiguous.' Finally, it is absolutely wrong and forbidden 'either to narrow inspiration to certain passages of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred,' since divine inspiration 'not only is essentially incompatible with error but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and constant faith of the Church'” (Divino afflante Spiritu 3 – EB 539).5 This passage is also referred to in Dei Verbum 11.

128. Pope Pius XII again. The encyclical letter Humani generis of Pope Pius XII (12 August 1950) made the follow­ing clarification: “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. In interpreting Scripture, they will take no account of the analogy of faith and the Tradition of the Church. 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, instead of explaining Holy Scripture according to the mind of the Church which Christ Our Lord has appointed guardian and interpreter of the whole deposit of divinely revealed truth. 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” (Enchiridion Biblicum, nos. 612-613).

129. Conclusion. What Father Jean Levie refers to as the “biblical movement,” is the emergence of a particular method of biblical interpretation, known as “historical criticism,” that stems from a larger movement outside of the Catholic Church and that entered Catholic biblical studies in the 1890s. It is not to be identified with historical science itself. The founders and the principal exponents of this method have been non-Catholic liberal scholars of a rationalist bent. “Form-criticism” and “redaction-criticism” are phases of this method which employ a novel theory of “literary genres” presuming the fictional character of the biblical accounts. Catholic biblical scholars who use this method try to avoid drawing conclusions that undermine the dogmas of the Catholic Church, but their hesitations are not always consistent with the method itself, whose basic principles they do not question. In order to attempt some safeguard of the dogmas of the Catholic Church, Catholic historical-critics (in contrast with their liberal non-Catholic counterparts) maintain the theory of the “twofold truth” of many Scriptural accounts (often of supernatural char­acter), according to which the accounts are mistakenly presented as history and do not relate historical facts but do have an underlying religious message from God. The message coincides with the teaching of the Church, which is thus superimposed upon the inspired text. This theory was condemned by Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, by Pope Pius X in Pascendi Dominici gregis, by Pope Benedict XV in Spiritus Paraclitus, by Pope Pius XII in Divino afflante Spiritu, and by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum 11 (somewhat ambiguously in the text of the conciliar pronouncement but clearly in its footnote references). These official documents of the Magisterium of the Church do indeed point out that, for a proper interpretation of the text of Sacred Scripture, careful distinctions need to be made in analyzing the biblical texts and the forms used by these ancient writers need to be recognized and understood. But these documents do not say or imply that the forms of expression used in the Sacred Scriptures in any way are the same as the novel forms used by form-and-redaction critics in the unfolding of what they call “historical criticism.”


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157.

2 For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see the article “Jean Levie and the Biblical Move­ment,” in Living Tradition, number 31 (September 1990).

3 For a fuller refutation of the idea that the teaching of Spiritus Paraclitus against the theory of the twofold truth was rendered obsolete by the teaching of Divino afflante Spiritu, see Fr. Brian Harrison, “”The Encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus in its Historical Context, in Living Tradition 60 and 61, September-November 1995.

4 Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, (EB 559).

5 For a fuller treatment of the meaning of “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation (“nostrae salutis causa”) wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” in Dei Verbum 11, see Fr. Brian Harrison, “The Truth and Salvific Purpose of Sacred Scripture Accord­ing to Dei Verbum, Article 11,” in Living Tradition 59.