Friday, November 03, 2006

Biblical Fundamentalism and the Catholic Biblical Hermeneutic

"If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" –Psalms 11:3

Biblical fundamentalism is an odd bird. To some it is fanatical and exclusive, to others it is warm, welcoming, and promises a sense of Christian community. Some see it as naive, simplistic, and intellectually suicidal; others see it as the only scholarly way to approach the Bible. Some see it as harmless and hardly worth our attention, but the Church has taken great pains to engage biblical fundamentalism and to educate her members about its weaknesses. If it is anything, it is divisive: either you love this approach to Scripture or you hate it. Before any Catholic can make up his mind about it, he must know what it is and how it compares to the Catholic biblical hermeneutic. This paper sets out to achieve that end.

The Church has defined biblical fundamentalism in a variety of ways. The Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has this to say:
  • Fundamentalism indicates a person’s general approach to life which is typified by unyielding adherence to rigid doctrinal and ideological positions;

  • it presents the Bible, God’s inspired word, as the only necessary source for teaching about Christ and Christian living;

  • it tends to interpret the Bible as being always without error or as literally true;

  • it extends inerrancy even to scientific and historical matters;

  • it tries try to find in the Bible all the direct answers for living; and

  • it eliminates from Christianity the church as the Lord Jesus founded it.1
The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, defines biblical fundamentalism in a similar manner:
  • Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details;

  • it understands, by “literal interpretation,” a naively literalist interpretation that excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development;

  • it demands an unshakeable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical research;

  • it seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human;

  • it shows a tendency to ignore or to deny the problems presented by the biblical text in its original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek form and is often narrowly bound to one fixed translation;

  • it separates the interpretation of the Bible from the Tradition, which, guided by the Spirit, has authentically developed in union with Scripture in the heart of the community of faith; and

  • it invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide and a false certitude.2
Granted, the Church’s understanding of biblical fundamentalism is not entirely negative; she does acknowledge at least some good qualities3. However, her assessment is overwhelmingly condemning, and more is said to condemn it beyond what has been listed here.

This hypercritical view4 of biblical fundamentalism is nothing new. J. I. Packer, a prominent evangelical author, was contending with such views back in the 1950’s. In fact, in his book 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God, one can find almost every one of the Church’s criticisms of biblical fundamentalism in Packer's summary of the popular objections of the day5. He goes on to boldly assert that "the adverse judgments on 'Fundamentalism' which we have noted spring partly from failure to discern the nature of the thing judged and partly from failure to criticize the presuppositions on which those judgments rest."6 He asserts that Fundamentalism, rightly understood, is none of those things, and that when "anti-fundamentalists" make criticisms like the ones listed above, they are actually criticizing a caricature of fundamentalism, not fundamentalism as it was truly intended (and as it is lived in "consistent evangelicalism").7 Whenever Christians tout obscurantist, unreasonable, or sectarian beliefs in the name of fundamentalism, they do not represent the principles of fundamentalism, they have in fact fallen beneath them.8

Of course, this is just one man’s assessment; there are many others. Packer himself acknowledges that fundamentalism is difficult to define, and that many people have defined it in a variety of ways9. Even The Fundamentals, a work published in 1917 that is generally cited as marking the beginning of Christian fundamentalism, would say that biblical fundamentalism is not in fact what many of its critics (in this case, liberal theologians and bible scholars) say that it is. Unfortunately, an examination of the various definitions and explanations given by both its critics and its proponents is beyond the scope of this paper. Thus, this paper will engage biblical fundamentalism as it is understood by the Church and presented in her documents, particularly the Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (IBC).

We can already see from the critiques previously listed how biblical fundamentalism is inconsistent with the Catholic biblical hermeneutic. The basic problem of biblical fundamentalism is that it skews the incarnational quality of Sacred Scripture10. This incarnational quality is important because it establishes the relationship between the divine and the human dimension of Scripture. The two natures of Jesus Christ exist in such a way that the divine is not degraded by the human, and the human is not overwhelmed by the divine. Similarly, the Church teaches that God is the principle author of Scripture, but that he communicated his word in human language, with the human author having free control over his faculties, to utilize particular modes of writing and to inject his own personality and method into his writing11.

Another problem is the "literalist" interpretation of Scripture most often employed by biblical fundamentalists. Here, the IBC makes an important distinction between a "literal" reading and a "literalist" one. A literal reading attempts to identify the meaning intended by the author, making use of all the resources of literary and historical research. Furthermore, "When it is a question of a story, the literal sense does not necessarily imply belief that the facts recounted actually took place, for a story need not belong to the genre of history but be instead a work of imaginative fiction."12 There can even be multiple levels of the literal sense, for example, when the human author intends to refer to more than one level of reality at the same time, or when the divine author intends a meaning other than what the human author intended.13

The Church reads Scripture in a very dynamic way because it acknowledges the complexity of Scripture and the co-existence of both a divine and a human author. However, the fundamentalist reading is a strictly literalist one, in which a word-for-word, literal meaning is used. This approach was initially created as a reaction to the liberal theology and ideologies that were present at the dawn of the 20th century, but, what was originally intended to preserve the true intent of Scripture has actually stripped it of much of its meaning.

This literalist reading also has implications for how one understands the historical and scientific portions of the Bible. The Pastoral Statement puts it bluntly: "We do not look upon the Bible as an authority for science or history. We see truth in the Bible as not to be reduced solely to literal truth but also to include salvation truths expressed in varied literal forms."14 Note that this does not mean that the Church sees apparent discrepancies in historical or scientific matters found in the Bible to be evidence of its errancy or lack of inspiration. The Bible is inspired in all its parts15. But, the Church also realizes that ancient writers told history in a different way than we tell it today. They were more concerned with the lesson of history than with factual details.

On the other hand, the fundamentalist, because of his literalist reading of the Bible, must see every statement given in the past tense as a statement of historical fact16, and must find a way to reconcile every detail of history provided in the Bible with the facts of reality that have been discovered through other means. This is a difficult task, but if the fundamentalist is to be consistent, he must undertake it.

The Church is also right in criticizing an approach to the Bible that regards it as the sole authority in the lives of Christians and that also wrests it from the hands of the community from which it came. "According to fundamentalism, the Bible alone is sufficient. There is no place for the universal teaching church—including its wisdom, its teachings, creeds, and other doctrinal formulations, its liturgical and devotional traditions. There is simply no claim to a visible, audible, living, teaching authority binding the individual or congregations."17 But, the Church predates the Bible, and before the word of God was consigned to writing, in was passed on to man in the teaching of the apostles, and preserved by their legitimate successors18. As a writing of the Church, the Bible is properly understood not when it is separated from the Church, but when it is understood in light of what the Church has always believed and practiced. This is Sacred tradition, and together, "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church."19

Finally, biblical fundamentalism tends to reject any type of scientific or critical research of Scripture, seeing such research as an endeavor that undermines their faith and the Bible message. This is certainly at-odds with the approach of the Church, which is one that embraces science for all that it is able to achieve regarding the discovery of truth:
Catholic tradition is optimistic about reason’s ability to discover truth, and in this it tends to side with modern science, and to differ both from fundamentalism and from skeptical movements such as deconstruction and post-modernism. In particular it is optimistic about progress by means of the scientific study of Scripture, expecting critical exegesis to help the Church’s understanding of Scripture to become more complete.20
It is important to note that the Church accepts scientific inquiry because of what she believes about the nature of truth21. For one, truth is objective22. Catholic philosophy has always held that some statements correspond to reality (and thus, are "true") and others do not. It is simply not true that all things are subjective, or relative. The Church also believes that truth is discoverable23. While there are certainly some things that are beyond our grasp, such as the mystery of the Trinity or certain scientific, historical, or literary data that is no longer available to us, the Church believes that a great deal of truth can still be discovered, and this through the faculties of reason that God has given us and the exercise of this reason through scientific inquiry. Finally, truth is one24. Since God is responsible both for the realities that we perceive through human scientific research and those we receive through divine revelation, these realities will be in natural accord with each other. "Christian faith has nothing to fear from science. [. . .] All dual-truth theory, which distinguishes separate spheres for truths of science and for truths of faith, is to be rejected, as are fideism and rationalism."25

Indeed the fundamentalist biblical hermeneutic is very much at odds with the Catholic understanding and interpretation of Scripture. Essentially, it is our disagreement on a few foundational principles that have caused this separation. The fundamentalist is hesitant to acknowledge any human involvement in the work of the Lord, whereas the Catholic sees mankind as "co-workers" with Him26, each person maintaining his own free-will prerogatives. Secondly, the fundamentalist identifies Scripture as his sole rule of faith, failing to acknowledge the relationship between Scripture and the traditions out of which it came. The Church, however, identifies greatly with these traditions, for it is the Church who preserved them, and who even designated the very canon of Scripture. Finally, some fundamentalists have an almost knee-jerk reaction against the subjection of the Bible to scientific inquiry, whereas the Church, who acknowledges the objectivity, discoverability, and unity of truth, is not afraid to use science to increase her own understanding of Scripture. These foundational principles make all the difference. When they are destroyed, what are the righteous to do?
- - -
[1] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism (March 27, 1987), hereafter "Pastoral Statement."
[2] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1993), 72-75; hereafter "IBC."
[3] These include the following: "Insistence on the teaching Bible is usually accompanied by a spirit that is warm, friendly, and pious. Such a spirit attracts many (especially young) converts. With ecumenical respect for these communities, we acknowledge their proper emphasis on religion as influencing family life and workplace" (Pastoral Statement, paragraph 3); "Fundamentalism is right to insist on the divine inspiration of the Bible, the inerrancy of the Word of God and other biblical truths included in its five fundamental points" (IBC, 73).
[4] Williamson (Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture [Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001], 260) provides the following footnote: "The Commission’s treatment of fundamentalism lacks the equanimity that characterizes their description of other approaches. One reviewer wrote, 'The document displays a measured and balanced response to other methods, including liberation theology and feminism, but explodes with revulsion toward fundamentalism' (Shea, "Catholic Reaction to Fundamentalism," 279)."
[5] J. I. Packer, 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), 10-14.
[6] ibid., 22.
[7] ibid., 19-22.
[8] ibid., 21.
[9] ibid., 10-14, 24.
[10] IBC, p. 73.
[11] Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (November 18, 1965), no. 11.
[12] IBC, p. 82.
[13] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001), 168-169.
[14] Pastoral Statement, paragraph 5.
[15] Dei Verbum, no. 11.
[16] IBC, p. 74.
[17] Pastoral Statement, paragraph 3.
[18] Dei Verbum, no. 7-9; Pastoral Statement, paragraph 10; IBC, p. 94-96.
[19] Dei Verbum, no. 10.
[20] Williamson, p. 46.
[21] The treatment that follows is guided by Williamson’s summary of Catholic philosophical positions on the nature of truth as they are presented in Fides et Ratio. See Williamson, p. 45-47.
[22] John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (September 14, 1998), no. 25, 56, 82.
[23] ibid., no. 44, 56, 84-85.
[24] ibid., no. 16-17, 34, 43, 51.
[25] Williamson, p. 47.
[26]1 Cor 3:9 (RSV) "For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building."


  1. I like how they take everything word for word with the exception of "this is my body"!


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