PONTIFICAL BIBLICAL COMMISSION. The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. pp. 204. $19.95 pb. 978-0-8146-4903-9. Reviewed by Jason BERMENDER, Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI 53228.
This document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) is a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s desire, in Verbum Domini no. 19, to see more research into the inspiration and truth of Sacred Scripture. The PBC is currently structured to be a biblical research organization under the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Catholic Church but it does not enjoy magisterial authority which means that this document does not officially define or establish any doctrine for the Catholic Church. Instead, it is intended to provide the results of their research to other theologians to continue developing the beliefs in the Church that the Scriptures are inspired and true. The PBC draws primarily from the Vatican II document Dei Verbum (DV) for its hermeneutical principles and explanations of the concepts of inspiration and truth.
The document is divided into three main parts with a general introduction and a conclusion. The first part is entitled, “The Testimony of the Biblical Writings on Their Origin from God” and this section investigates evidence within the Scriptures concerning their divine provenance. The PBC distinguishes between inspiration as a charism from God that moves the human authors to communicate divine revelation and the quality of inspiration in the written texts left behind by those whom God inspired (no. 5). For this first part of the document, the PBC states that it is not concerned with whether the Scriptures are inspired because this explanation belongs to the realm of fundamental theology. Rather, the PBC identifies some passages in Scripture that reveal the God-human relationship and how some passages claim that what is communicated by the human author has its origin in God. One example from the limited list of texts surveyed is the prophetic formulae such as “the word of the Lord came to…” or “Thus says the Lord.” These formulae—like several other texts analyzed in this document—attest that the Lord is the author of the content found in these prophetic books so that these books can be called inspired because they have a divine origin.
Part two of the document, “The Testimony of the Biblical Writings to Their Truth,” defines what is meant by truth in Sacred Scripture and explains some biblical passages according to their definition. Quoting DV 11, the PBC says that the Scriptures teach, “without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” The PBC clarifies that this truth is not limited to faith and morality but concerns all communication from God that pertains to salvation (no. 63).
The two themes of God Himself and His plan of salvation guide the rest of this part when the PBC examines a select number of biblical passages to explain what truth is being communicated by them. The Synoptic Gospels are a good example that reveal the nature of God by manifesting the unique relationship between the Father and Jesus, the relationship between the Father and the disciples of Jesus, and God’s mercy (no. 85). These Gospels also reveal God’s plan of salvation by teaching that humans are burdened by sin, succumb to illnesses, and are offered salvation from God in Jesus Christ (no. 86).
“The Interpretation of the Word of God and Its Challenges” is the title of the third part which addresses problematic passages not only for scholars but for the general public as well. Some difficulties present within the Bible are apparent contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and ethical norms that offend Christian sensibilities today. The PBC constantly affirms that the biblical texts have a historical core but they are not primarily chronicles of historical information because they are ultimately concerned with God as the protagonist of salvation history (no. 104).
Within this part there are two sections: 1) Historical Problems and 2) Ethical and Social Problems. The promises made to Abraham in Genesis 15 and the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14 are two historical problems the PBC addresses. These historical-like biblical chapters are not to be read as exact historical accounts but they communicate normative behavior for the people of God to emulate and that God is always among His people to save them. An example of an ethical problem is the law of extermination found throughout Deuteronomy. The PBC states that these narratives of extermination are not historical accounts but are composed much later when the alleged victims of extermination in the biblical writing have all but vanished during the time the text was written. This type of literary genre provides an account of the literary motif of the judgment of the nations found in various prophets.
The document presupposes that the Sacred Scriptures are inspired and that only the books in the Bible have this divine quality. This makes it very useful for catechetical and pastoral purposes but this methodology is not as beneficial for biblical scholars. The PBC develops the concepts of truth and inspiration in the Bible in a minimal fashion due to their desire to present only a general illustration of these concepts in the biblical writings (no. 7). However, the hermeneutical principles and selection of texts provides some limited but important guidelines to aid theologians in their attempt develop a deeper understanding of the truth and inspiration of the Bible.
One major weakness that can cause problems on both the catechetical and theological levels is the sharp distinction between the historical and theological truths in the Bible found in part three of the document. While the PBC affirms a historical core, it takes an agnostic stance on whether some historical material—particularly in the Old Testament—can be known factually and focuses on the meaning of the text beyond the historical-like information presented in the biblical passage. This may unintentionally threaten to undermine the teaching in DV 2 that God reveals Himself through words and deeds because if the biblical writings are words about deeds that may or may not have happened, it weakens the notion that God also reveals Himself through deeds that occur in history even if the record of those accounts are not accurate by modern standards. The relationship between the truth of God and the plan of salvation that contains no error with the inaccurate historical truth requires further study. This document provides a good impetus to theologians to consider more deeply the divine quality of biblical writings to assist the Church in her understanding of these concepts.