In the protracted debate on the Constitution on Divine Revelation at the end Session IV of the Council, we saw that the main focus of contention was the Bible itself. Monday’s (February 8) post was devoted to the Church’s power to interpret Scripture in the post-Apostolic era, with the body of such interpretations called the Church’s Tradition. After a great amount of behind-the-scenes work in which the pope was personally involved, a formula was finally arrived it in which the Scripture was recognized, naturally, as the Word of God, while describing the work of the Church as handing on the Word in ways that make it fully known. The promulgated text would read that “it is not from the Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.” It may have helped future generations if the sentence had said “literal Scripture alone” instead of “Scripture alone;” The Council would close with the often misunderstood “Two Source” sense of Revelation which remains a problem for theologians to the present day.
One of the difficulties in the discussion above was the changing nature of Scripture study itself, which had evolved enormously since about 1800. In this debate the lines of division were a little clearer to follow. The Curial old guard saw great danger in recognizing the advances of modern Bible study, which inevitably found historical and linguistic errors in existing texts. Several critical Church doctrines rested upon literal historical understanding of Bible texts: the doctrine of original sin and the origins of the human soul rested upon the facticity of the second creation account of Genesis, the Adam and Eve narrative. By the 1960’s biblical scholars were in fair agreement that the Adam and Eve narrative was written relatively late in Jewish history as a philosophical work to explain evil and human nature.
Thus there was considerable minority resistance to any statement on Biblical revelation that failed to establish historical certainly of the events described. In the United States we would term the conservative alternative “fundamentalism.” The final document crafted a subtle formulation which stated that the “books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” The quest of the bible reader, then, is the inspired intent of the sacred writer in passing on God’s truth in the totality of the book. It is the intent which is inspired, not the literal rendering. Such an understanding of inspiration and texts does not damage Church doctrine (the Adam and Eve narrative is still an expression of the basic truth that man, even in his first instance, was prone to sin and needed redemption, even if the narrative is the philosophical fruit of an inspired thinker just several centuries before Christ.)
The Gospels, in this regard, came under closer scrutiny in Council discussion. It was one thing to say that the factual historical nature of Adam and Eve might not be absolutely essential to the Christian body of belief. But the entire meaning of history rested upon the divine Son of God entering human history once for all. The four evangelists were thus treated with special profound care at the Council.
Throughout the Christian era there were debates about the nature of Jesus. It is often forgotten that toward the end of his life Thomas Jefferson created a life of Jesus which eliminated all references to his divinity. But within the mainstream of Christian belief no one to my knowledge ever proposed that the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels were contrived or created from whole cloth. But it was true that as early as the Church Fathers there was concern about the texts. St. Jerome, for example, retired to Bethlehem from Rome to pen a Latin translation (the Vulgate) which he believed to be an improvement of the Greek translations then in circulation.
Linguistic issues were the lesser of the Church’s concern throughout history. The major issue was disagreement of the texts themselves. Today the differences between Mark, Matthew, and Luke, are considered valuable insights into the theology of each evangelist, and even in 1965 the study of the Synoptic Gospels in parallel text lines (books referred to as ‘synopses” or “parallels”) was standard fare in seminaries, including my own. A synopsis was sitting on my desk when I entered grad school in 1971. Here was a case where Biblical study, even in Catholic academia, was running far ahead of the main office, so to speak.
Again a carefully worded formula was passed by the majority of the fathers. “Holy Mother the Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day he was taken up into heaven…the sacred writers wrote the four Gospels …always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.
This formulation pleased most fathers and Catholic scholars. Again, a distinction is made between the intent of the Sacred Authors and the factual basis of everything reported. For example, the report of St. Mark (and only Mark) that Jesus cast demons into a hundred swine who then rushed headlong into the sea can be interpreted in light of Mark’s entire message that Jesus had come to expel demons as a sign of the Kingdom of God on earth. On the other hand, this text deeply upset conservatives, to the point that Xavier Rynne reported some tinkering with the text to be brought up for final voting. As he observes, “Vigilance was more than ever the order of the day.” (544).
As the calendar ticked down, there were efforts to treat of new subjects not specifically addressed in the Council deliberations. One reason suggested by Rynne is that Paul VI was gathering topics for future Synods of Bishops, meetings mandated by the Council. The topics included indulgences, canonizations of Pope Pius XII and John XXIII, reform of the Curia or Holy Office, nuclear warfare. But the calendar was the final arbiter, and after promulgating all of the approved documents of the Council, Pope Paul led the closing Eucharist on December 8, 1965. I will summarize Xavier Rynne’s concluding observations, and a few of my own, next week, before we move on to the issues of Catholic moral theology.