Light in our darkness – celebrating Divino Afflante Spiritu

On 19th July 1943 Pope Pius XII made a visit to the Tiburtino quarter of Rome. Allied bombing had flattened the ancient church of San Lorenzo. Having emptied his bank account, the Roman pope rushed to the area, prayed with the people and provided practical assistance. Some weeks later, in the early hours of 16th October, the Jews of Rome were rounded up by the Nazi occupying forces. Pius immediately telephoned the German ambassador, and instructed the Cardinal Secretary of State, Luigi Maglione, to lodge a formal protest with the German authorities. As a result of Pius’ quick intervention the arrests were brought to an end by 2 p.m. on the same day. (1) Furthermore, Pope Pius immediately gave orders to parishes, convents and monasteries to provide places of refuge for the Jews. (2) Pope Pius XII, who had become pope just before the beginning of the Second World War, would lead the Catholic Church until his death at Castelgandolfo on 9th October 1958.

It seems quite incredible that, amid such turmoil and the crucial interventions he made, Pope Pius would also promulgate a new encyclical on biblical studies. Divino Afflante Spiritu, together with Mediator Dei on the liturgy, and other teachings of this war-time pope, prepared the Church for the Second Vatican Council twenty years later.

Promulgated on 30th September 1943, the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu played new music to the delighted ears of Catholic biblical scholars, after years of anxiety concerning the Church’s attitude to modern methods of biblical research. The biblical music had begun with the publication in 1893 of the Encyclical Letter of Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus. This encyclical struck solemn chords of defence of the truth of the Bible. While Leo criticised those who ‘attack and pull to pieces the authenticity of the sacred books’ (3), he nevertheless raised critical questions concerning science and history in the Bible, inspiration and inerrancy. The way was being cautiously opened up for the progress of biblical studies which would be painstakingly constructed in the twentieth century.

Fifty years later, in Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius XII employed a more eirenic tone. Pius acknowledges the work of Pope Leo, which he intends to ‘ratify’ and to ‘inculcate’, while also pointing to what seems required in his own time ‘in order to incite ever more earnestly all those sons of the Church who devote themselves to these studies, to so necessary and so praiseworthy an enterprise’ (n.2). His encyclical prepared the ground for the harmonious climax of Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which was promulgated in 1965 towards the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

Fifty years of progress (1893-1943)

In the first part of his encyclical Pope Pius surveys the developments in the fifty years since Pope Leo’s intervention. During this time there arose ‘new and serious difficulties and questions, from the wide-spread prejudices of rationalism and more especially from the discovery and investigation of the antiquities of the East’. (n.4)  Pius wisely plays down the difficulties which arose as the Church became aware of the challenges which biblical studies could present. There is nothing more than this oblique reference to the problems of the so-called ‘modernist crisis’. By contrast, Pius is more interested in the progress arising from excavations and scholarly studies.

Pius lists the more significant steps taken by his predecessors: the founding in 1890 by Marie-Joseph Lagrange OP of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, the institution in 1902 of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the establishment of the Jesuit-run Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 1909, and the beginning of work on the revision of the Vulgate. Pius is fulsome in his praise of his predecessors who laid solid foundations for the work that would be taken up with renewed vigour in the future. He also recalls – and this will be a surprise to many – that earlier popes had often commended the reading of Scripture by the faithful. He mentions specifically the encouragement given by Pius X and Benedict XV. (n.9)

In the field of biblical scholarship there had been many developments over the previous fifty years, developments which Pius XII is keen to acknowledge. He speaks of ‘excavations’ and ‘the discovery from time to time of written documents’. Amid the plethora of work going on at various sites it is hard to establish what specifically the pope may have had in mind. The extraordinary discoveries at Qumran were to begin only in 1947, but Pius is enthusiastically recording an attitude of welcome to new discoveries.

How to embrace the work which lies ahead

Catholic exegetes should undertake the work of biblical scholarship with enthusiasm, beginning with a commitment to the biblical languages, those languages in which the biblical texts were originally written (n.14). The availability of critical editions of the Hebrew Bible and of the Greek New Testament meant that the desire of scholars to delve into the original texts could now be satisfied in a way that hitherto had not been possible due to the paucity of resources. Pius affirms it to be ‘the duty of the exegete’ to pay reverent attention to ‘the very least expressions which, under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, have flowed from the pen of the sacred writer, so as to arrive at a deeper and fuller knowledge of his meaning’ (n.15).

PioXIIThe discipline of textual criticism involved the correction of the original texts where necessary. Augustine of Hippo had affirmed the necessity that ‘the uncorrected may give place to the corrected’. Pius quotes from Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana in this regard (n.17). The reverence the scholar has for sacred scripture leads him to employ these techniques in order to restore the original text. It must be purified from the corruptions due to the carelessness of the copyists, freed from glosses and omissions, and from all the other kinds of mistakes ‘which are wont to make their way gradually into writings handed down through many centuries’ (n.17). It seems likely that in the detailed presentation of the work of textual criticism Pius had learnt from the expertise of his confessor, Fr Augustin Bea SJ, rector of the Biblical Institute and professor of textual criticism (4). This clear endorsement of literary study allows the methods used for secular writings to be applied to the sacred text too.

The original texts have greater authority than any translation. This raises the question of the proper status of the ancient Latin Vulgate translation. Pius restates the traditional view that the Vulgate translation is authentic, but with the qualification that its authenticity is juridical rather than critical.

The work of criticism has as its aim the discovery and the expounding of the ‘genuine meaning’ (germana sententia) of the sacred books (n.23). The interpreter must establish the ‘literal’ meaning of the biblical words. As with secular writings the ‘mind of the author’ (intentio auctoris) is to be sought out. Since they are dealing with a divinely inspired text the explanations given by the teaching authority of the Church, and by the Fathers, will help expound the theology of the text. This will be seen in the ‘analogy of faith’, the way in which the truths of faith fit together in harmonious fashion. The exposition of the text is above all theological, and this should put to silence those who claim that biblical commentaries contain nothing to feed their interior life (n.25). The word of God does not need ‘artificial devices and human adaptation to move and impress souls’ (n.27). It has its own power and beauty.

Pius is keen that the interpretations given by ‘the Holy Fathers, the Doctors of the Church and the renowned interpreters of past ages’ be rediscovered (n.28). Students of the history of exegesis are thus encouraged. To these past insights must be added ‘the greater erudition and maturer knowledge of the modern (authors), having as its result new progress in the never fully explored and inexhaustible field of the Divine Letters’ (n.30). Such words lead us to admire the wisdom of Pope Pius XII, as he combines positive evaluation of past teachings with openness to what lies ahead. He is indeed a precursor of the Second Vatican Council.

The teaching on literary genres

Pius foresees that there is more to discover in the interpretation of the Bible. He suggests that ‘matters pertaining to history’ present a particular challenge. Commentators of earlier times lacked the tools for the clear exposition of many texts. Pius insists that it is quite wrong to affirm ‘that nothing remains to be added by the Catholic exegete of our time to what Christian antiquity has produced’ (n.32).

It is of special importance to recognise that in addition to being inspired by the Holy Spirit the biblical writers also use their own ‘faculties and powers’. (n.33) It follows that ‘the character and circumstances of the sacred writer’ and the writer’s use of ‘written and oral sources’ should be explored, as well as, most importantly, ‘the forms of expression employed’ (n.33). There is a clear anticipation in these lines of the assertion of Dei Verbum n.11  that, while the Scriptures ‘have God for their author’, they are also the work of the writers who behave as ‘true authors’. No wonder that the excellent commentary on Divino Afflante Spiritu produced by the Jesuit Jean Levie in 1958 is entitled in the English translation ‘The Bible: Word of God in words of men’ (5).

The most significant element in all this is the question of the ‘forms of expression’, the literary genres used by the biblical writers. The issue had been brought to the fore in the work of Fr Marie-Joseph Lagrange, Dominican scholar and founder of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. Pius would certainly have taken advantage on this point too of the expertise and biblical wisdom of his confessor, Fr Augustin Bea SJ. (6). He invites the biblical scholar accurately to determine ‘what modes of writing the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use’ (n.35). Pius may well have been concerned about the nature of the early chapters of Genesis, and how the discoveries of such works as the epic of Gilgamesh shed light on how Genesis might be interpreted. But the issue of literary genre is obviously of relevance throughout the sacred writings. Once again, the path trodden by Pius is followed in Dei Verbum, when in paragraph 12 the study of literary genres is endorsed in words reminiscent of Divino Afflante Spiritu.

It is at this point that Pope Pius introduces the richest theological teaching to be found in Divino Afflante Spiritu. He quotes the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on Hebrews, where he writes: ‘In Scripture divine things are presented to us in the manner which is in common use among men’. Pius then speaks of the ‘condescension’ of God (Greek synkatabasis), an expression used by St John Chrysostom. He says: ‘For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect except error’ (n.37). Dei Verbum will speak of God’s condescension in paragraph 13.

What about history?

For Pius the serious student of the Bible must address the question of genre (n.38). The elephant in the room is of course the question of the historical truth of Scripture. A fundamentalist will tend to consider any narrative in Scripture to be historical, but the scholar who is aware of literary genres will be more insightful and realise that third-person narrative can equally well be parable, didactic story or even joke. The parable of the prodigal son does not convey historical truth. The Book of Jonah might be classified as ‘didactic story’. There is a connection here with what Dei Verbum will teach concerning inerrancy. In a very open formulation, fruit of much discussion, Dei Verbum affirms in paragraph 11 that the Scriptures teach without error ‘the truth that God wished to be recorded in the sacred books for the sake of our salvation’. The truth conveyed in the Scriptures will emerge from the genre used, and will in a certain way depend on the identification of that genre. Once again, the teaching of Pius XII quietly contributed to the progress of doctrine reached at Vatican II.

From suspicion to encouragement

The tenor of Divino Afflante Spiritu is remarkable. While biblical scholars in earlier times behaved with caution to avoid censure, they now find themselves appreciated and encouraged. Pius states that Catholic exegetes have risen to the difficulties which interpretation of the Bible presents (n.42). All difficulties are not yet solved, for, as Augustine observed, ‘God wished difficulties to be scattered through the sacred books inspired by him’ (n.45). The Catholic commentator must continue to ‘grapple again and again with these difficult problems’ (n.46). The exegete therefore must be treated ‘not only with equity and justice, but also with the greatest charity’. He continues: ‘All moreover should abhor that intemperate zeal which imagines that whatever is new should for that very reason be opposed or suspected’. (n.47) Pius once again is revealed as a significant precursor of Vatican II, and a prophet for the Church in our present time too.

The labours of scholars over two thousand years mean that the faithful have a ‘serious duty’ to treasure the Scriptures (n.49). Priests and bishops must lead the way, so that Christian families may read the Bible. (n.50-51). Seminaries make an important contribution to imbuing aspirants to the priesthood with ‘love for the sacred letters’ (n.53).

The serenity and the vision contained in this encyclical are all the more remarkable in a time of war. Pius speaks of ‘our sorrowful times’, ‘a sea of calamities’, ‘a cruel war’, ‘most bitter hatred’ and the extinguishing ‘not only of Christian moderation and charity, but also of humanity itself’ (n.56). There must be a return to Christ, who can be known through the Scripture. He quotes the famous dictum of Jerome: ‘To ignore the Scripture is to ignore Christ’ (n.57). And further words of Jerome: ‘If there is anything in this life which sustains a wise man and induces him to maintain his serenity amidst the tribulations and adversities of the world, it is in the first place the meditation and knowledge of the Scriptures.’ (n.57)

Pius ends with a final commendation of biblical scholars as they strive ‘through their assiduous labours that the faithful may comprehend all the splendour, stimulating language and joy contained in the Holy Scriptures’ (n.61). Amid all the other significant commitments of this extraordinary pope, his teaching on the Bible, though unknown to the vast majority of Catholics, is nevertheless still producing plentiful fruit in Christian life.

(1) Margherita Marchione, Papa Pio XII: Tra Cronaca e Agiografia, 2010, pp.91-92, 98

(2) Margherita Marchione, p.144

(3) Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter, Providentissimus Deus, 1893, para 17

(4) Stjepan Schmidt SJ, Augustin Bea, the cardinal of unity, 1992, p.106

(5) Jean Levie, Parole Humaine et Message de Dieu, 1958. English translation: The Bible: Word of God in Words of Men, 1961

(6) Stjepan Schmidt SJ, pp.107-108

Fr. Adrian Graffy

(Published in: The Pastoral Review 14 (2018) 22-27

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