Rome's Battle for the Bible
"It looks like the papered-over compromise from Vatican II is coming to the fore at the conference in Rome," said John Woodbridge, research professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. "After years of 'don't ask, don't tell,' they are asking and telling."
Catholic challenges to inerrancy in the late 20th century went against longstanding church teaching. No less an authority than Augustine of Hippo set the church's standard. "The authority of these books has come down to us from the apostles through the successions of bishops and the extension of the church, and, from a position of lofty supremacy, claims the submission of every faithful and pious mind," Augustine wrote in a response to Faustus the Manichaean. "If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, 'The author of this book is mistaken;' but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood."
Pope Leo XIII cited Augustine in his landmark 1893 encyclical on the study of Holy Scripture. The Vatican subsequently launched a decades-long crackdown on higher criticism. At the same time, controversies over the authority of Scripture were wreaking havoc in Protestant seminaries and denominations.
More recently, Catholic seminaries and universities have tolerated scholars who deny the historicity of some biblical events, such as Jesus' miracles. Pope Benedict XVI is an Augustinian, and his years as a university professor have acquainted him with the challenges posed by critical scholarship. According to Allen, the pope advocates "canonical exegesis," which "takes the unity of the Bible for granted and aims at a theological rather than a simply literary-historical interpretation."
Before the synod, the Catholic Biblical Federation commissioned a study of 13 countries to learn how they viewed the Bible, according to Allen. "In broad strokes, the survey found that even in highly secularized nations, people have a basically positive attitude towards the Bible, finding it 'interesting' and wanting to know more about it," Allen reported. At the same time, few surveyed knew anything about the Bible — even whether Paul or Moses was an Old Testament leader.
The problem at the congregational level has been diagnosed. Reaching a solution among the church's leadership will be much more difficult, as history indicates. After fighting their own battles over inerrancy, Protestants will be watching.
"The only way forward in ecumenical dialogue is the biblical pathway," George said. "The Roman Catholic Church is taking the Bible more seriously now than it did 30 to 50 years ago. This is a good sign."
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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