Vatican II opened a new epoch for the Bible in Latin America. In chapter VI of Dei Verbum (the Constitution on Divine Revelation) the council gave unequivocal approval to the effort to providing “easy access to Sacred Scripture … for all the Christian faithful” and promoted the production of Bible translations made from the original texts “in cooperation with the separated brethren.”

With this encouragement, in the last few years the Roman Catholic church in Latin America has developed an impressive array of programs intended to put the Scriptures in the hands of the people. And, interestingly enough, no translation has enjoyed a wider distribution in Roman Catholic circles than Dios llega al hombre, the popular version of the New Testament produced and distributed by the United Bible Societies as the Spanish counterpart to Good News for Modern Man.

A very significant event in relation to Rome’s new attitude toward the Bible, the first Conference of Bible Scholars in Latin America, took place in San Miguel (near Buenos Aires), Argentina, at the end of August. Sponsored by the Departments of Ecumenism and of Catechism of CELAM (the Latin American Episcopal Council, an official body existing for the service and coordination of the episcopal conferences throughout the continent), it attracted fifteen people directly involved in biblical scholarship, plus four Latin American bishops, including Eduardo Pironio of Argentina and López Trujillo of Colombia, president and secretary of CELAM respectively.

To underscore the importance of the gathering, several distinguished visitors from Europe were present also: the Reverend John van der Valk, general secretary of the World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate; the Reverend Albert Descamps, secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission; and Miss Elizabeth Pregardier, vice-chairman of Adveniat, a German organization whose financial assistance has made it possible for CELAM to develop those aspects of its program related to the Scriptures.

The conference was basically an occasion for the Bible scholars to think on the pastoral dimension of their work. The stated purpose was not only to study together but also to wrestle with questions regarding the service that the scientific study of the Scriptures should lend to the churches, whether in relation to the synod of bishops or in relation to the proclamation of the Word of God in Latin America. In accordance with Pope Paul VI’s belief that “the Bible is a privileged place for meeting with ecclesiastical communities in imperfect fellowship with the [Roman] Catholic Church,” however, there were also ecumenical overtones given by the presence of four Protestant guests—two representing the United Bible Societies and two New Testament professors.

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Assuming Rudolph Bultmann’s program for “demythologizing” the New Testament, Carlos Bravo (Bible professor at the theological school of a Jesuit university in Bogota, Colombia) spoke on “The Hermeneutical Problem.” The reception accorded his paper showed the small extent to which the critical approach developed by the Marburg professor has affected Roman Catholic Bible scholars in Latin America.

Two other papers were more representative of the climate prevailing among the scholars attending the conference: “Evangelization and the Bible” by Jorge Mejia (secretary of the Department of Dialogue of CELAM and active promoter of the Scriptures on an international scale) and “Bible Translations in Latin America and Cooperation With the United Bible Societies,” by Pedro Ortiz (Bravo’s colleague in Bogota) and Armando Levoratti (seminary professor in La Plata, Argentina, and well known as a Bible translator). Both of them reflected the new evangelical outlook in Rome, an outlook that only now Protestants are beginning to accept as a work of the Spirit of God rather than as a mere mask for courting the “separated brethren.”

The only Protestant speaker was a young evangelical Anglican, Andrew Kirk, until recently professor of New Testament at the Union Seminary in Buenos Aires. A firm believer in the authority of Scripture, Kirk in his paper on “Technical Exegesis and the Proclamation of the Gospel” referred to the principle of sola Scriptura as the fundamental difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant hermeneutics and underlined the importance of recognizing the limits of all the historical-critical methods of biblical research. “The notion that the historical-critical methodology is scientific,” said he, “is one of the greatest illusions in the history of Christian theology.”

According to Kirk, the degree of objectivity that may be attained with the various exegetical methods in use today goes in a descending order from textual criticism to linguistic criticism, form criticism and theological criticism. None of these methods is strictly “scientific,” and that makes it all the more necessary for the interpreter to be attuned to the purpose of the biblical writers—the communication of the faith.

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Kirk insisted that the trouble with a great amount of modern exegesis results from a wrong approach to the Bible in which ideological and cultural premises take the place of responsible participation in the Christian mission. He challenged the group to commitment to the proclamation of the Gospel as one of the indispensable keys to the correct understanding of the link between the historicity of Jesus and faith.

For four centuries Roman Catholicism in Latin America failed to give the Bible a place of priority. Vatican Council II set in motion a spectacular reversal with regard to “easy access” to the Scriptures on the part of all the faithful. The new emphasis on biblical teaching has already brought renewal to many. The CELAM Conference of Bible Scholars in Latin America recently held in Argentina is a further step in an aggiornamento that is meant to infuse new life into every aspect of the old ecclesiastical structure.

A direct result of the conference, according to the explicit desire of those attending it, will probably be the establishment of an institute for biblical studies sponsored by CELAM but on an ecumenical basis. There is a felt need to cancel the great debt to Bible scholarship that has accumulated for several centuries in this part of the world, a debt that (at least partially) explains the absence of Latin Americans (as well as of Asians and Africans) from the renewed Pontifical Biblical Commission. Quite definitely, Rome is set on a return to the Bible, and many within its ranks see in this move a sign of hope for unity with the “separated brethren.”

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