Home Page Fr McGovern    


by Fr Thomas McGovern

In the Vatican II Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the principles for the interpretation of Scripture are outlined in paragraph 12. The first two sections of this paragraph deal with the literary and historical criteria which should be used to 'carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind', if the interpreter 'is to ascertain what God had wished to communicate to us'. [1]

After describing the requirements of critical exegesis, the conciliar document articulates the theological principles for a Christian interpretation of the inspired text as follows:

But since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in whom it was written (Sed, cum Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit), no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of the Scripture, taking into account the living Tradition of the entire Church, and the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts. It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgement. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgement of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God. [2]

After the phrase interpretanda sit, a reference to a footnote is inserted which reads as follows: Cf. Benedict XV, Encycl. Spiritus Paraclitus, 15 September 1920: EB 469. - St Jerome, In Gal. 5:19-21: PL 26, 417a. [3]The definitive text of Dei Verbum was promulgated on 18 November 1965, just a few days before the close of the Council on 8 December of that year.

History of the Text

What precisely is the significance of the phrase that 'sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in whom it was written', and the fact that Dei Verbum refers to St Jerome's commentary on Galatians at this point? A review of the historical development of the conciliar text will help put it in perspective.

From the time of the first session of the Council in October 1962, Dei Verbum went through five different drafts before it was finally approved by the Council Fathers in November 1965. In chapter 5 of the first draft, under the heading De exegetis catholicis, in no. 28, exegetes are advised that in their task they should always have recourse to the help of the Holy Spirit, since, it affirms, quoting St Jerome's commentary on the Galatians, 'Sacred Scripture cannot be understood in a sense different from that willed by the Holy Spirit, in whom it was written'. Exegetes should also be guided by principles of the analogy of the faith, the tradition of the Church and the norms of the Holy See. [4]

The second draft, where it speaks of the exegesis of the Gospels (cf. no.19), requests that this be done according to the norms of rational and Catholic exegesis under the guidance of the Magisterium. However, at this stage, the content of paragraph 28 of the first draft has disappeared, and with it an important theological principle of exegesis, a point to which a number of the council Fathers drew attention. [5]

In the third draft, in response to requests from some bishops, the theological principles of the analogy of the faith, the tradition of the Church, and the content of Scripture are recovered in paragraph 12. [6] Little of significance was added in the fourth draft except that the principle of 'the content of Scripture' is now expanded to say 'the content and unity of the whole of Scripture'. [7]

In the definitive text, the tradition of the Church as a hermeneutical principle is redrafted to read 'the living Tradition of the whole Church' (now printed with a capital 'T'). [8] However, of much greater significance is the recovery of the reference to reading and interpreting Scripture 'in the Spirit', a point which was practically lost sight of in all the conciliar discussions after the first draft of the constitution was presented to the Fathers. [9]

The Edelby Discourse

The third draft of the schema on divine revelation was published in July of 1964, and at the beginning of the following session, in October 1964, Archbishop Edelby of Edessa, an Eastern prelate of the Melchite rite, expressed his concerns about the inadequacy of the text in relation to the theological principles for the interpretation of Scripture. To him it seemed that these specifically Catholic principles of theological exegesis were merely added on as an appendage to the rest of the text. He said he wanted to offer the testimony of the Oriental Catholic Churches on the interpretation of Scripture, a testimony with which he affirmed the Orthodox Churches concurred.

His perspective is original and illuminating. In relation to the interpretation of Scripture, he says that, while the draft constitution contained well developed ideas in relation to the application of human sciences to biblical exegesis, especially as regards literary criticism, he found the theological criteria in the document very weak by comparison - timiditas is the word he uses. This he said reflected the difficulties of the Church of the Latin rite with the post-tridentine problem and the controversies with the Reformed Churches. [10 ]

What did he mean by this reference to Trent and the Reformation? Biblical exegesis and theology in the post-tridentine years were strongly influenced by the religious controversies which were a consequence of the Reformation. As a result, theology drew heavily on Scripture, but from a particular perspective:

a) it was mainly concerned with texts which proved Catholic dogma. The Bible was used as an instrument for theological controversy; its role as the inspired word of God addressed to all men was lost sight of;

b) in the sixteenth century the doctrine of the faith of the Church was not expounded as an explication of Scripture, but according to the diverse schools and theological systems created by scholasticism;

c) theologians, when they do exegesis, go from theology to Scripture, and not from Scripture to theology, as the Fathers did;

d) in addition to the polemical atmosphere of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the conviction that the meaning of Scripture is the doctrine of the Church is used not so much to guide the interpretations of Catholics, as to rebut the exegesis of Protestants.

This post-tridentine situation, Edelby continued, was now a problem of the past which has no relevance to the Churches of the Oriental rite or to the new Churches of Asia and Africa. He said it was time to put an end to this obsession, so that we could once again enter into the totality of the mystery of the Church, and produce a document relevant to the whole Church. [11] He then went on to affirm five theological principles of exceptional richness, opening up a horizon with which, perhaps, some of the Fathers were not very familiar:

1. The Reformers put Scripture and the Church in opposition to each other. This was able to happen because in the Western Church there had been a certain clouding over of the authentic Tradition of the Church, which the East and West shared for a thousand years until the time of the schism in 1054. After the West withdrew from the Eastern sources, by the sixteenth century Latin theology had reached a point of sterility due to scholastic decadence, a situation which gave rise to several difficulties, the most serious of which was the question of the interpretation of Scripture. The solution, he affirmed, consisted in the relocation of Scripture within the mystery of the Church, rejecting a juridical and nominalist mentality, which the theology of both Catholics and Reformers had become shut into. This is the mentality which, he maintains, had already in the Middle Ages opposed the Consecration to the Epiclesis in the Mass, and which more recently considered the Petrine Primacy and Episcopal collegiality as separate realities. This same mentality juxtaposes Scripture and Tradition, which is an incorrect way of posing the question. Rather, he says, there should be a return to the mystery of the Church which is the centre and the hinge of this Council.[12]

One cannot, he continued, separate the mission of the Holy Spirit from the mission of the Word Incarnate. [13] This is, he affirmed, the first theological principle of any system of interpretation of Scripture. The aim of Christian exegesis, beyond the role of all the auxiliary sciences, is the spiritual understanding of Scripture in the light of the risen Christ, as the Lord taught the Apostles in Luke 24. [14]

2. His second principle is that Scripture is a liturgical and prophetic reality, a proclamation rather than a written book. It is the testimony of the Holy Spirit about the Christ event, whose privileged moment is the Eucharistic celebration. [15]The Western Church, from the time of the post-tridentine controversy, regards Scripture as primarily a written norm, whereas the Eastern Church sees in Scripture a consecration of the History of Salvation under the species of the human word, inseparable from the Eucharistic consecration in which is recapitulated the whole body of Christ. [16] In other words, as the reality of Christ is not possible without the flesh of Mary, and the Eucharist without the bread and the epiclesis, so the Bible is not the living word just because it is a book, but is such as a consequence of the enlivening force of the Spirit. [17] The sanctifying power of the Paraclete is present in an analogous way in all three.

3. The third principle derives from the Eastern formulation of the Eucharistic consecration. This is brought about by the words of the priest over the offerings and by the epiclesis, or the invocation and action of the Holy Spirit, who by his power converts the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. [18] Something parallel happens with Scripture. In order that the written word become the living Word of God, an epiclesis is required. Sacred Tradition is the epiclesis of the History of Salvation, the theophany of the Holy Spirit without which the history of the world is incomprehensible, and Scripture a dead letter. Scripture read in the Church is not a dead letter precisely because, when it is interpreted in the Spirit, the life of the Spirit is verbalised in its words. This exposition of Archbishop Edelby coincides with Jerome's conception - that Scripture was written in the ambit of the Spirit, an expression which signifies the one economy of salvation, the one unique history of salvation. This, with small variations, is the conviction of the whole of patristic exegesis, which was continued in the mediaeval elaboration of the theory of the four senses of Scripture. [19]

4. From the above considerations Edelby's fourth principle flows: Scripture ought to be interpreted in the context of the totality of the History of Salvation, the principal stages of which are: the events narrated in the Old Testament; the economy of the Incarnation of the Word recorded in the New Testament; and the epoch of the Church in which we live, in which the Holy Spirit is poured out personally to make present the economy of the Word Incarnate and the power of his resurrection. [20]

5. The fifth principle is the sense of mystery. The God who reveals himself is a hidden God. Revelation should not allow us forget the depths of the life of God, from which the faithful live, and which can never be exhausted. The oriental Church says that revelation is above all 'apophatic', that is, it lives in the Mystery before being verbalised in words; hence the richness of the lived Tradition. [21] One of the difficulties, Edelby continues, is that theology in recent centuries tried to entrap the Mystery in formulas. However, the fullness of the Mystery not only transcends theological formulas, but also the limits of the very words of the Scriptures. The Council, he advised, ought to affirm the need to read the Scriptures spiritually, that is in the Spirit, in so far as he realises progressively in the Church the work of the Risen Christ to whom the Scriptures give testimony. [22]

The doctrine contained in this discourse is, according to one commentator, more developed than any of the ancient Fathers, on their own, could have articulated it. [23] Edelby places all the exegetical task under the influence of the Spirit. His five principles enunciate aspects of the operation of the Spirit in the Church, and the way in which he gives life to the interpretation of Scripture. Interpretation does not consist primarily in the proposition of doctrines, but in the explication of the life of the Spirit which, as he points out in the fifth principle, before being verbalised is experienced as Christian life in the heart of the Church.

For some Western bishops listening to this discourse, it must have been heady stuff indeed. Perhaps they were unaware of the hermeneutical theology which grounded the exegesis of the ancient Church, but in the discourse of Archbishop Edelby they got a glimpse of its richness, which had been forgotten and, as a result, they set about recovering it for the future in the text of Dei Verbum.

Interpretation of Scripture in the Spirit in which it was written

As a consequence of the Edelby discourse, [24] an addition was made to the final draft of the text of paragraph 12. The first two sections of this paragraph, as we have already seen, relate to the application of human science to the biblical text. These criteria are followed in the third section by a statement of the three Catholic principles of biblical interpretation, but they are now linked by the new phrase (in italics):

Sed, cum Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit, ad recte sacrorum textuum sensum eruendum, non minus diligenter respiciendum est ad contentum et unitatem totius Scripturae, ratione habita vivae totius Ecclesiae Traditionis et analogiae fidei. [25]

A footnote was added to the new phrase containing two references - one to Spiritus Paraclitus, the biblical encyclical of Benedict XV, [26] and the other, as we have already seen, to Jerome's commentary on Galatians, In Gal. 5:19-21, the text of which reads as follows:

Quicumque igitur aliter Scripturam intelligit, quam sensus Spiritus Sancti flagitat, quo conscripta est, licet de Ecclesia non recesserit, tamen haereticus appellari potest. [27]

Does the adversarial conjunction Sed (But), linking the two elements of interpretation in paragraph 12, imply a certain opposition between the rational and theological principles of interpretation? That this is not the case is evident from the text of the previous paragraph, where it refers to the interpreter carefully searching out the meaning which the sacred writers had in mind, that is, the meaning God wished to manifest through the medium of their words. A comparison of the introductory clauses to both sets of criteria will help to illustrate the relationship between both:

a) Cum autem Deus in Sacra Scriptura per homines more hominum locutus sit.... [28]

b) Sed, cum Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit.... [29]

In both we have a general principle enunciated with a similar content but a different perspective. In the first case we see articulated the general hermeneutical principle of the human-divine unity of Scripture, which goes on to develop the principles derived from the fact of the human authorship of the inspired text. In the second case the principle is introduced which affirms the divine ambit in which Scripture was written and in which, as a consequence, it ought to be read and interpreted, that is, 'in the Spirit'. The sensus divinus has therefore to be sought in and through the sensus humanus itself. [30] It is not a question of introducing a series of theological principles of exegesis - from the beginning the interpretation is a theological one - but of underlining the perspective from which the interpretation of Scripture is carried out. This perspective cannot be other than the Holy Spirit in whom the Scriptures were written. [31]

Scripture has an historical meaning which is obtained by means of critical methodology. However, since it is an inspired book, it is necessary to present the theological reach of this meaning through the use of the theological norms. The Sed was introduced to emphasise the theological character of the discipline of biblical exegesis. It brings the level of discourse on to a different plane. [32] Cum sacra Scriptura... enunciates a general principle which, by appealing to the inspired character of the biblical text, expresses the theological nature of the hermeneutical enterprise.

However, one cannot reduce the function of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture to the simple implementation of the three exegetical criteria mentioned, as understood in their objective and material sense. These were already part of the penultimate schema, but they were not prefaced by the pneumatological principle taken from St Jerome. This principle was added specifically to provide the application of these exegetical principles with a new, more general significance. In the penultimate draft they were only general recommendations, and were seen basically as an extension of the historical and rational hermeneutical principles of the previous paragraphs - they did not aim at discovering the spiritual meaning of Scripture. It was for this reason that Archbishop Edelby deplored the "theological timidity" of the text, and called for a return to the totality of the mystery of Christ and, thus, for a reference to the mission of the Holy Spirit. Let us now consider how the Holy Spirit influences or works through these three principles.

The Content and the Unity of the whole of Scripture

In spite of the long and complex process involved in the composition of the Scriptures, and allowing for the great diversity of authors and perspectives, the constant actualization [33] of basic themes and events (exodus, covenant, salvation-liberation, etc), in response to different historical circumstances, gives testimony to a certain superior unity of Scripture beyond the materiality of the different books. Although they are writing from very different cultural and historical perspectives, the authors of the Bible are immersed in a cultural and religious tradition with many points in common. By itself, however, that consideration is insufficient to explain or to overcome the tensions and divergencies which are encountered in the Bible. Consequently it is necessary to have recourse to a higher principle of unity - the action of the Holy Spirit. If the Scriptures in their entirety have been written 'in the Spirit' and under his influence, it is only natural to deduce that the Bible must have a basic unity. Otherwise, an adequate hermeneutical approach to Scripture is not possible.

The content and unity of Scripture, as a manifestation of the Spirit, is not then a literary criterion. It does not refer to the books of Scripture themselves, but to the reality to which these books give testimony. Here we find the very ancient hermeneutical principle that, for the Fathers, all of Scripture is one book, because it is the work of the one Spirit who carries out the one, unique economy of salvation, and the fact that the content of Scripture is one, a unity, because it gives witness to the Gospel of Christ. [34]

Christ himself used this principle for the instruction of his disciples. Let us recall his encounter with the two disillusioned disciples on the road to Emmaus. When they told him their sad story he responded: 'O foolish men and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself' (Lk 24:27). Jesus does not get involved in details about the empty tomb, or the credibility of the women as witnesses, points which the two disciples had referred to in the earlier part of their conversation with the Master. He shows them that it is only by reflecting on sacred Scripture as a whole that they will be in a position to begin to understand what took place in Jerusalem at first light on that momentous day. The reaction of the disciples speaks for itself: 'Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?' (Lk 24:32). Their minds were now enlightened to recognise the real meaning of what had happened, to grasp the mystery of the risen Lord.

Consequently, reading and interpreting any biblical text from the perspective of the unity and content of Scripture is, in the first place, a dynamic operation. Not all the texts have the same significance although all are inspired; they illuminate one another when they are seen in their historical-salvific dynamic, not just by mere juxtaposition. When examined by the interpreter who is guided by the Spirit, all of Scripture speaks of Christ and, in the final analysis, all interpretation proclaims the Gospel, since it makes reference to the one economy of salvation to which the Scriptures bear testimony. This interpretation is also an ecclesial operation, since it is only in the Church that one has the guarantee of participating in the same Spirit who is the originator of the Scriptures. [35]What we have developed above is effectively what Edelby outlined in his fourth principle to the Council Fathers - Scripture has to be interpreted in the context of the totality of Salvation History.

In summary we can say that attention to the content and unity of Scripture as a hermeneutical principle implies not just a mere juxtaposition of texts, but the effort to discover how different books and texts dynamically express the different stages and perspectives of the one, unique history of salvation and, consequently, how they are all orientated towards its fulness, the revelation of Christ. [36]

The Spirit and the living Tradition of the whole Church

To read Scripture 'in the Spirit' also implies taking account of the living tradition of the whole Church. We are referring here to Tradition with a capital 'T', not to the different ecclesiastical traditions accumulated over time.

To understand more clearly what this concept of the 'living Tradition' implies, we need to examine the constitution Dei Verbum in more detail. This Tradition was initially handed on by the apostles and 'comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith' (DV 8a). 'It makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit' (DV 8b) in different ways, through a growth in insight into the realities and words which are passed on. The 'life-giving presence of this Tradition' is also witnessed to by the writings of the Fathers (DV 8c). It includes the sensus fidei of the People of God, understood in the sense that 'the whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the Holy One (cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief' (LG, 12a). It is by means of this same Tradition that 'the full canon of the sacred books is known to the Church and the holy Scriptures themselves are more thoroughly understood and constantly actualized in the Church' (DV 8c). The preservation of this 'full and living Gospel' also depends on the exercise of the teaching authority of the apostles' successors (DV 7b).

Patristic tradition from the time of Irenaeus links the living Tradition of the Church with the Holy Spirit. If Tradition has an objective and empirical aspect in the form of doctrine, its authentic substance is in fact to be found at a deeper and more vital level, which consists in the spiritual life, the life of the Spirit which comes from Christ and is transmitted in the Church. [37] Thus Irenaeus can conclude with his classic affirmation: 'wherever the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and wherever the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace'. [38] And the guarantee of being in possession of the Spirit is that one listens to those who have apostolic authority in the Church. [39 ]Jerome adopts a similar approach. He affirms that only those who live the life of the Spirit can interpret Scripture properly. But what is to guarantee that they are living this life? For Jerome the test is that they confess the faith of the Church. [40]

It is in the same perspective that we have to situate the comments of Archbishop Edelby during his intervention at the Council. For him the 'living Tradition of the Church' expressed in categories of the Eastern Church, is the 'Epiclesis of salvation history, or the theophany of the Spirit, without which the history of the world is incomprehensible, and sacred Scripture remains a dead letter'. [41] From this it follows that 'Tradition, that is the Church, is essentially liturgy in transmitting the outpouring of the economy of the Word'. [42] In other words, in the same way that the Church invokes the Spirit (epiclesis) in the Eucharistic celebration to bring about the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, so the Church invokes the Spirit and receives his help in its ongoing tradition so that Scripture becomes the living and effective Word of God, at every period in the Church. Thus the action of the Holy Spirit, which manifests itself in the life of the Church with all its charisms and ministries, is the living Tradition we have been discussing. [43]

The Magisterium of the Church is also included in this living Tradition. Since, as Edelby affirms, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Body of Christ, Tradition, therefore, must be contemplated and lived, principally in light of the sacrament of apostolicity, that is, of the episcopate. This liturgical and prophetic sign is also an epiclesis of the unity of the infallible faith of the People of God. [44] In other words, the action of the Spirit is also present in the Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops, and these are visible signs of the infallibility which the Spirit of God communicates to the faithful of the Church in the expression of the faith, which is the faith professed by apostolic tradition.

The relationship of the Magisterium to Scripture and Tradition is spelled out clearly in Dei Verbum, a relationship which the exegete must also bear in mind if he is to be guided in his task by the hermeneutical criteria of the faith:

'The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form, or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ'.


'this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it',[45]

and with the help of the Holy Spirit exercises the divinely conferred commission of giving an authentic interpretation of this Word. [46]

In the context of current hermeneutical philosophy, the proposal to apply the concept of the living Tradition of the Church as a necessary criterion for the interpretation of Scripture fits well with the rediscovery of the importance of tradition as an interpretative key, as affirmed for example in the work of Gadamer. [47]Ancient texts acquire an enriched significance due to subsequent historical events, and thus the deeper understanding of a text requires the fusion of the intellectual horizons of the historical text with that of the interpreter. In the case of the Scripture, however, the enrichment of the text is the result not only of subsequent historical events, but of the action of the Spirit who operates in history; and the fusion of horizons is achieved when Scripture 'is read in the same Spirit in which it was written'. What is required is to reconnect history to faith by means of what de la Potterie calls 'the vital movement of tradition, by the living and collective conscience of the whole Church'. [48]

The living Tradition of the whole Church, as a work of the Spirit, is, then, the spiritual life and the doctrine of the faith, transmitted and nourished in the heart of the Church. The exegete in considering the Tradition of the whole Church as a hermeneutical criterion has to deal with two aspects. Objectively the interpretation of Scripture is the exposition of the doctrine of the faith of the Church. The testimony of the Fathers and the liturgies are the privileged loci in which the faith of the Church is expressed. The Church, instructed by the Spirit, as we are reminded by Dei Verbum, tries 'to arrive at a deeper understanding of Scriptures. For this reason she fosters the study of the Fathers, both Eastern and Western, and of the sacred liturgies'. [49]

But the concept of Tradition also has a subjective element: the interpreter ought to possess the Spirit in order to know the meaning of the Spirit in the Scriptures. Jerome says that he who lives in Christ transmits the Gospel. Clement, Origen, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, even Erasmus, make life in the Spirit an indispensable precondition for understanding the meaning of Scripture. We can affirm with Irenaeus that, if it is possible to speak of Tradition objectively as the transmission of the same doctrine, the foundation of this transmission is the Spirit acting in the interior of each believer. [50] The work of the Spirit, in the interior of the interpreter, signifies, from a hermeneutical point of view, the creation, through a religious experience, of a horizon of understanding which allows the disclosure of the meaning of the Spirit in the text. At several points in Dei Verbum this work of the Spirit in arriving at a deeper level of understanding of revelation is pointed out. [51] Practically all refer to the process of interiorization of Tradition and the formation of the spiritual life of the interpreter.

The Spirit and the Analogy of Faith

This third exegetical principle can be seen as deriving from the two previous ones. It has a Pauline origin. In speaking about the gift of prophecy, Paul says that this charism must be secundum rationem fidei (Rom 12:6), that is, in accordance with a received interpretation, and in harmony with the whole Christian faith.

The analogy of faith is a criterion from dogmatic theology, which refers to 'the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and with the whole plan of Revelation'. [52] Thus no text of Scripture can be interpreted in a manner contrary to the doctrine of the same Scripture or in opposition to the truths of the faith. [53] This principle is referred to in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, where exegetes are encouraged to use it for those passages of Scripture whose meaning has not been defined by the Church. [54] It is also referred to in Divino Afflante Spiritu [55] and Humani Generis. [56] In virtue of the internal unity of revelation and the knowledge which the Church has of it, the analogy of faith allows light to be thrown on a particular dogmatic biblical text. Thus the exegete acquires a deeper knowledge of its meaning as he contemplates it within the totality of revelation.

It is a principle used by the Fathers of the Church. Thus St Augustine: 'In the doubtful passages of Scripture... consult the rule of faith which comes from the clearest passages of the same Scripture and from the authority of the Church'. [57] St Vincent of Lerins recommended the same approach. [58]

This principle would also seem to be echoed in the Edelby discourse where, as we have noted, he says that the interpretation of Scripture should always take account of the sense of 'mystery' - revelation lives in the Mystery of the Trinitarian God before being formalised in words, which are incapable of expressing it adequately. Rather than being simply a matter of the analogy of faith, Edelby affirms that it is a question of the meaning of the totality of the risen Christ, whose testimony and parousia the Holy Spirit realizes progressively in the Church. [59] Thus the interpretation of Scripture 'in the Spirit' requires that the totality of the mystery of God as revealed in Christ be taken into account in such a reading, and that the result of it be coherent with this mystery.


As outlined in this study, the concept of reading and interpreting Scripture 'in the Spirit' opens wide horizons at the hermeneutical and theological levels. It is not a novel approach, but a restatement of a fundamental principle of patristic exegesis which the Fathers of Vatican II wanted to recover for the ongoing exegetical enterprise. It is, at the same time, a corrective to the over-emphasis on critical exegesis of the past decades, the results of which, in terms both of a real contribution to theology and to personal spirituality, have been increasingly called into question. [60]

At a time when the ecumenical dimension of theology has acquired a greater significance, the recovery of the common exegetical inheritance of East and West has clearly a particular importance for relations with the Orthodox churches of the East. This was implied in the general thrust of Archbishop Edelby's discourse.

John Paul II reaffirms Edelby's insistence on the need for a deep personal commitment to 'life in the Spirit' as a necessary precondition for an authentic exegesis of Scripture. In his address on the occasion of the publication of The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, he advised that

'to arrive at a completely valid interpretation of words inspired by the Holy Spirit, one must first be guided by the Holy Spirit and it is necessary to pray for that, to pray much, to ask in prayer for the interior light of the Spirit and docilely accept that light, to ask for the love that alone enables one to understand the language of God who "is love" (1 Jn 4:8,16)'. [61]

He also reminds us that docility to the Holy Spirit produces and reinforces another attitude needed for the correct orientation of exegesis: fidelity to the Church. But this is not a restriction on the freedom of the exegete. Rather, the validity of interpreting biblical texts within the context of the community of believers, while at the same time being attentive to the contributions of patristic exegesis, is, John Paul II asserts, confirmed by the findings of recent hermeneutical philosophy.[62]


1. A. Flannery, ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, 12a, 12b, 1981 edition, p. 757.

2. Dei Verbum, 12c. I give my own translation of the phrase 'eodem Spiritu quo scripta est', as the Flannery version - 'with its divine authorship in mind' - does not convey the full significance of this important theological point.

3. This is footnote no. 9, which is attached to paragraph 12. The reference to St Jerome - PL 26, 417a - is to the first edition of Migne.

4. Cf. Acta Synodalia, I, 3, pp 25-26. The reference here (first draft) to Jerome's Commentary on Galatians - PL 26, 445 - is to the second edition of Migne, which will be recovered in the definitive text as PL 26, 417a (first edition). Acta Synodalia will subsequently read 'AS' in this paper.

5. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 789.

6. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 90.

7. Cf. AS, IV, 1, p. 356.

8. Cf. AS, IV, 6, p. 603.

9. What is the precise grammatical significance of the words eodem Spiritu quo scripta est? De la Potterie has examined this in some detail and states that it is not an instrumental ablative (otherwise it would be a quo scripta est), but 'an ablative of manner, with a nuance of cause'. This means 'that a true causality of the Spirit is exercised on the sacred writer, the reader and interpreter of the Scriptures, and this causality determines the manner in which they perform their respective actions'. Cf. Ignace de la Potterie, 'Interpretation of the Holy Scripture in the Spirit in Which it was written' (Dei Verbum 12c), p. 241, in Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives Twenty Five Years After (1962-1987), ed. René Latourelle, New York, 1988.

10. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 306.

11. Cf. AS, III, 3, pp 306, 308.

12. Ibid.

13. In the Eastern tradition the activity of Christ and the Holy Spirit are complementary and reciprocal - Christ's work of redemption cannot be considered apart from the Holy Spirit's work of sanctification. The Word took flesh, says Athanasius, so that we might receive the Spirit (Cf. On the Incarnation and against the Arians [PG 26, 996c]). While Ignatius of Antioch said 'where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church', Irenaeus wrote with equal truth, 'where the Church is, there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is the Church' (Adversus haereses, 3, 24, 1). See Nicholas Zernov, Eastern Christendom, London, 1961, pp 227-237; Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, London, 1993, passim.

14. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 306. The specific texts from Luke, chapter 24, are as follows: 'And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself' (v.27); 'Then he said to them, "These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things"' (vv. 44-48).

15. Cf. AS, III, 3, pp 306-7.

16. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 307.

17. Cf. A. M. Artola, and J. M. Sánchez Caro, Biblia y Palabra de Dios, Estella (Spain), 1995, p. 335.

18. Thus, for example, St John Damascene: 'By the power of the Holy Spirit the transformation of the bread into the Body of Christ takes place' (De fide orthodoxa, 13: PG 94, 1139).

19. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 307. The development of this style of exegesis in the Tradition has been well documented by de Lubac - cf. Henri de Lubac, The Sources of Revelation, New York, 1968, which gathers together passages of his Histoire et Esprit and Exégèse Médiévale.

20. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 307.

21. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 308.

22. Cf. AS, III, 3, pp 308-9.

23. Cf. Mario A. Molina, La Interpretación de la Escritura en El Espiritu, Burgos (Spain), 1987, pp 204-6.

24. The actual sequence of events leading to the incorporation of the Edelby doctrine in Dei Verbum was a little more circuitous than might appear at first sight. His intervention was given during the third session of the Council, on 5 October 1964, in General Congregation 94. In the interval between the third and fourth sessions, at the beginning of 1965, the Biblical Institute in Rome presented four modi on Chapter III of Dei Verbum to various conferences of bishops and individual bishops. One of these amendments related to our topic. A number of bishops accepted this amendment and proposed it in their written recommendation to the doctrinal commission (cf. AS, IV, 2, pp 983, 996).

25. 'But, since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in whom it was written, no less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking into account the living Tradition of the entire Church, and the analogy of faith, if we are to derive their true meaning from the sacred texts'.

26. The encyclical, dated 15 September 1920, was written to commemorate the fifteenth centenary of the death of St Jerome The specific reference is to EB 469, which in fact quotes Jerome's In Gal. 5:19-21.

27 'Whoever understands Scripture in a manner other than that demanded by the meaning of the Holy Spirit in which it was written, even though he doesn?t separate himself from the Church, can nevertheless be called a heretic' (In Gal. 5: 19-21 [PL 26, 417a]). This reference, given by the Council, is, as we have already pointed out, to the first edition of Migne.

28. 'Seeing that, in sacred Scripture, God speaks through men in human fashion...' (no. 12a of Dei Verbum).

29. 'But since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in whom it was written...' (ibid., no. 12c).

30. Cf. de la Potterie, ibid., p. 234, and note 62 with the reference to A. Grillmeier's 1967 commentary on Chapter III of Dei Verbum.

31. Cf. Artola and Sánchez Caro, ibid., pp 333-4.

32. Cf. Molina, ibid., p. 217.

33. The concept of actualization is dealt with in some detail in the 1993 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV, A.

34. Cf. de Lubac, The Sources of Revelation, New York, 1968, passim; Molina, ibid., pp 39-136.

35. Cf. Artola and Sánchez Caro, ibid., pp 339-41.

36. Cardinal Bea points out that no document of the Magisterium prior to Dei Verbum speaks explicitly of the content and unity of Scripture as an exegetical principle - cf. Augustine Bea, The Word of God and Mankind, London, 1967, p. 205. He is of the opinion that, rather than three interconnected principles, Dei Verbum affirms just one principle, the content and unity of Scripture, but adds that, in using this criterion, we must take into consideration also the living Tradition and the analogy of faith - cf. ibid., p. 207.

37. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1099) affirms: 'The Holy Spirit is the Church's living memory (cf. Jn 14:26)'.

38. Adversus haereses, III, 24, 1 (Ubi enim Ecclesia, ibi et Spiritus Dei; et ubi Spiritus Dei, illic Ecclesia et omnis gratia).

39. Cf. ibid., IV, 33, 7-8.

40. Cf. In Gal. 1: 11-12 (PL 26, 347a); cf. Molina, ibid, p. 102.

41. AS, III, 3, p. 307.

42. Ibid.

43. Cf. Artola and Sánchez Caro, ibid., pp 343-45.

44. AS, III, 3, p. 307.

45. Dei Verbum, 10.

46. Cf. ibid., 12c.

47. H. G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, London, 1985, in particular pp 246-53, 261-73.

48. De la Potterie, 'Reading Holy Scripture "in the Spirit": Is the patristic way of reading the Bible still possible today?', Communio 4 (Winter, 1986), p. 323.

49. Dei Verbum, 23; see also ibid., no. 8.

50. Cf. Molina, ibid, p. 220.

51. Cf., for example, nos. 5 and 8.

52. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 114. The paragraph to which it is cross-referenced (no.90) adds that 'in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or "hierarchy" of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith'. Here then is proposed a view of exegesis and theology by means of which 'biblical truth' and 'theological truth' ought to coexist and become integrated in the wider context of 'revealed truth'. Specifically, from the perspective of a Catholic hermeneutic, the fruits of biblical exegesis are sterile if they are not in accord with the fundamental ideas of Revelation which the Church confesses at the level of the faith. See also Vatican I (DS 3016).

53. Cf. EB 109, 143, 551.

54. Cf. EB 109.

55. Cf. EB 551.

56. Cf. EB 612.

57. De Doctrina christiana, 3, 2: PL 34, 65.

58. Cf. Commonitorium, 1, 27: PL 50, 674.

59. Cf. AS, III, 3, p. 309.

60. Recently, in a wide-ranging interview, the following question was put to the Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: There is a widespread perception that contemporary Scripture scholarship has become an exclusively historical or literary discipline, with little concern for the meaning of the Bible for believers today. Is this a real problem or only a mistaken perception? Fr Vanhoye replied: 'It is a real problem, not a mistaken perception. In the legitimate desire to be scientific there is a tendency among scholars to study the Bible without paying attention to its religious message, seeking only to clarify, for instance, the historical context or the stages of the formation of a text. But the Bible is a collection of religious writings. If one does not explain the religious meaning of a biblical writing, one has not explained the text adequately' (Peter Williamson, 'Catholicism and the Bible: An Interview with Albert Vanhoye', First Things, June/July 1997, p.36). See also Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 'Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis', in Origins, 11 February 1988, Vol 17, no. 35, pp 596, 600; Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism, San Francisco, 1997, pp 65, 68; de la Potterie, 'Interpretation of Holy Scripture...', p.255; 'Reading Holy Scripture "in the Spirit"', ibid., pp 315-25.

61. Address, 23 April 1993, no. 9, published in the L'Osservatore Romano, English language edition, 28 April 1993.

62. Cf. ibid., no. 10.

First published in Irish Theological Quarterly, Autumn 1999, Vol 64, no. 3 pp 245-259.

Section Contents Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 1998-2000

This version: 17th January 2003

Home Page Fr McGovern