Magisterium, Scripture and Catholic Exegetes
by Thomas McGovern
It is just twenty-five years since Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine Revelation, was promulgated by Vatican II.  It is a document of great theological richness;
yet, as the present Holy Father has recently pointed out, its study has been "neglected
for the past twenty years."  This neglect of the conciliar text may not be unconnected with the fact that for some time
authoritative voices have spoken about a crisis of biblical exegesis due to a breaking of the bond between Scripture
and the Church. 
In this context it is of interest to review what Vatican II said about the relationship that should exist between
the Magisterium, Catholic exegetes and sacred Scripture. It will also be instructive to examine how, in the intervening
quarter century, the Magisterium has explicated this conciliar doctrine. There has, in fact, been a considerable
body of papal teaching in the interim on the role of the exegete, and the relationship between Scripture and the
Magisterium, which has also received scant attention from theologians and found little echo in the exegetical enterprise
during this period.
Paragraph no. 10 of Dei Verbum affirms, perhaps more explicitly than any other document of Church teaching, how Tradition,
sacred Scripture and the Magisterium are interrelated:
"It is clear, therefore, that in the
supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so
connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way
under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls." 
We are also reminded that
"this Magisterium is not superior
to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and
with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully."
The point is, however, clearly made that the task of giving an authentic interpretation
of Scripture has been entrusted "to the living Teaching office of
the Church alone," whose "authority in this matter is exercised
in the name of Jesus Christ."
Since the biblical text must be interpreted by the same Spirit who inspired it,  this necessarily means interpreting the written Word in the light of the full deposit of
Revelation entrusted to the Church. "By means of Tradition," we are told by Dei Verbum, "the holy Scriptures themselves are more
thoroughly understood and constantly actualized in the Church," This Tradition "transmits in its entirety the Word of God" which has
been entrusted to the Church, and consequently "the Church does not
draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone."
Indeed "sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture. . . are bound closely
together and communicate one with the other." Thus both of them, "flowing out of the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing,
and move towards the same goal." 
Considering then the function of the Magisterium in the transmission and development of Tradition, and, as we have
seen above, given the innate connection between Scripture and Tradition, it is logical that there would be an intrinsic
relationship between the Magisterium and the inspired text.
Since the council of Trent the documents of the Magisterium have very clearly affirmed
that the Magisterium alone has the function of giving an authentic interpretation of Scripture. In Trent  and in Vatican I,  we are told that it pertains to Holy Mother Church
to adjudicate on the true meaning and interpretation of the Bible. In Dei
Verbum no. 12 this same idea is asserted even more specifically:
"all that has been said about the
manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely
conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God."
Thus the Magisterium is not only a judge of what is or is not a correct interpretation,
but in addition it has the positive function of carrying out the actual, authentic interpretation of the inspired
The written word has limits
The Magisterium thus presents itself as the only entity charged with the authentic interpretation of Scripture.
It attributes to itself exclusivity in the definitive interpretation of the Bible, not only in an indirect way,
by judging other interpretations, but also in a positive manner, being itself an interpreter of the inspired text.
The Bible, like any other written text subject to the limitations of human language,
is open to a variety of interpretations, since the written word cannot encapsulate the whole of reality; this is
particularly the case when human language is used to articulate the unfathomable mysteries of the triune God. The
salvific truths of divine Revelation, culminating in the Person and life of Christ, constitute a reality which
surpasses the historical dimension of the redaction of the books of Scripture. Consequently, it is to be expected
that some aspects of the totality of Revelation would not be expressed clearly, with all their implications, in
the biblical text. Thus it is necessary to have recourse to the living and total reality of Revelation, of which
the Church is in possession by divine design, in order to clarify and explicate the deep riches of the written
Church and Scripture are bonded
The need to interpret Scripture in the context of the Church was cogently developed by Paul VI in an address to
the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1974:
"You are aware that Holy Scripture,
and in particular the New Testament, took shape within the community of the people of God, of the Church gathered
around the apostles. It was the latter who, formed in the school of Jesus and having become witnesses of his Resurrection,
transmitted his actions and his teachings, explaining the salvific meaning of the events they had witnessed. It
is right to say, therefore, that if it was the Word of God that summoned and brought forth the Church, it was the
Church, for its part, that was in a certain way, the womb of the Holy Scriptures, that Church which in those Scriptures
expressed and recognized, for all future generations, her faith, her hope, her rule of life in this world. The
studies of the last decades have contributed notably to highlighting the close relationship and bond that unite
the Scriptures with the Church indissolubly . . . Does not the hermeneutic function . . . invite the exegete to
go beyond the research for the 'pure original text' and remember that it is the Church, a living community, that
'actualizes' its message for contemporary man?"
After quoting Dei Verbum
no. 10 on "the sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is committed
to the Church," Paul VI goes on to say: "This essential connection between the Bible and the Church, or if you prefer, this reading of Holy
Scripture in medio Ecclesiae,
confers upon exegetes of Holy Scripture an important function in the service of the Word of God."
The history of the magisterial interpretation of Scripture has its roots in the attitude of Jesus Christ to the
inspired text. For him Scripture exercises a role of infallible authority in the understanding of divine Revelation
(cf. John 10:35), and that, as
such, it has a perennial value (cf. Matt. 5:17). Nevertheless, Jesus presents himself as an authority superior to that of Scripture, not to correct
it, but to give it its perfect fulfillment and completion (cf. Matt. 5:21-48). He interprets it with authority, in showing, for example, what is the first commandment
(cf. Mark 12:28-43 and par.).
He corrects the erroneous interpretation of the Pharisees on the matter of divorce (cf. Matt. 19:1-9 and par.).
Christ taught that Scripture was orientated towards himself and that it is of himself it speaks (cf. Luke 24:25-27). His authority to interpret the
written Word derives precisely from the fact that Scripture gives witness to his Person and his work (cf. John 5:39). 
The disciples fully understand the Scriptures only when they are explained to them
by the Risen Christ (cf. Luke 24:25-32),
Previously, although they were familiar with the texts, they were unable to interpret them in their true meaning
as referring to Christ. The paschal events are the key to the interpretation of Scripture and to the teachings
given by Christ during his public life (cf. John 2:22). St. John's Gospel explains why: The Holy Spirit, sent after the glorification of Christ,
leads the disciples into the fullness of truth (cf. John 14:26; 16:13-15).
Fidelity to the Word is key
These data from the Gospels are sufficient to show how, in the process of the definitive revelation of God through
Jesus Christ, Scripture  is
not the only witness to Christ, but so also is the very interpretation of it which Christ himself provides, or
which the disciples come to realize through the action of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the plenitude of Revelation,
although it is achieved in a particular Person and through specific events, is united to the perennial testimony
of particular writings and to their authorized, magisterial interpretation on the part of him who is the very Word
of God made flesh.
Paul VI developed this point in a passage of striking theological richness:
"Christ is the first 'exegesis' of
the Father; he is his 'Word,' the one who manifests him. All other words on God and Christ are based on that prime
revelation of the Father. The Word - Verbum
- was manifested historically in the flesh, and consequently in the assumption of human language. His words, those
of the first witnesses and servants of the word, whom the Spirit moved to give authentic expression to the mystery
of his appearance among men, will therefore always remain the fundamental norm for everything that will be said
about Christ down to the end of time. The incarnation of the Word, his lowering of himself by assuming a temporal form in a certain historical period and
within a certain culture, is a fact which has repercussions for all subsequent cultures, and obliges them to turn
continually and loyally to that privileged moment and let it work in them as the indispensable formative principle.
But fidelity to the Incarnate Word demands, by virtue of the dynamics of the Incarnation, that the message shall
be made present whole and entire, not just to man in general but to man of today, to whom the message is announced
now. Christ made himself the contemporary of some men and spoke their language. Fidelity to him demands that such
contemporaneity should continue. This is the Church's whole task, with its Tradition, the Magisterium and preaching."
After Pentecost we see the Apostles, in preaching the Gospel, also act as authorized interpreters of the Old Testament;
there is, for example, striking evidence for this in the discourses of St. Peter  and in the letters of St. Paul. This interpretation is a fundamental clement in the exposition of the message of salvation:
everything has happened "in accordance with the Scriptures" (cf.1 Cor. 15:3-4),
The apostolic preaching has to continue until the end of time. With this in view, the apostles appointed bishops
as their successors. They gave them "their own position of teaching
authority,"  which also included everything related to the authentic interpretation of Scripture, since
this was an essential aspect of apostolic preaching. It was part of the divine plan that, together with the oral
preaching of the gospel, the apostles themselves and other men of apostolic times would, under the inspiration
of the Holy Spirit, put the message of salvation into writings  which would subsequently be received into the canon of Scripture. It thus came within the
ambit of all subsequent interpretation by the Magisterium, which in turn became part of the living Tradition of
The Church recognized the books of the New Testament as having the same authority as the writings of the Old Testament,
and perceived that in them the Word of God manifests itself praecellenti
modo ("in a most wonderful
way").  Or as the conciliar text points out: "In accordance
with the wise design of God these writings firmly establish those matters which concern Christ the Lord, formulate
more and more precisely his authentic teaching, preach the saving power of Christ's divine work and foretell its
The bond has been broken
To fulfill its mission, the Church was hierarchically constituted and endowed with a teaching authority; in the
proclamation and interpretation of the Scriptures of the New Testament this Magisterium has a specific function:
to conserve, defend and transmit the deposit of Revelation. The Magisterium cannot prescind from the writings of
the New Testament, nor do these writings substitute the Magisterium.
If for the authentic interpretation of the Old Testament the Magisterium can count
on the interpretation of Christ and the Apostles, for the interpretation of the New Testament it relies on the
living Tradition of the Church, in which the understanding of the mystery of Christ is always increasing.
Yet in spite of this clear teaching that a Catholic hermeneutic of Scripture can only be achieved within the context
of the Church,  authoritative
voices speak of a crisis of biblical exegesis at the present time because of a widespread sola Scriptura mentality and the resulting cleavage between
the Bible and the Church. Perhaps the most significant critique of biblical exegesis as it has developed since
Vatican II is to be found in the writings of the current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One of the most compelling statements of
this situation is to be found in The Ratzinger Report; it deserves to be quoted in full because of its clarity and precision, penetrating, as
it does, to the very roots of the problem:
"The bond between the Bible and the
Church has been broken... The historico-critical interpretation has certainly opened many and momentous possibilities
for a better understanding of the biblical text. But, by its very nature, it can illumine it only in the historical
dimension and not explain it in its present-day claim on us. Where it forgets this limit it becomes illogical and
therefore also unscientific. But then one also forgets that the Bible as present and future can be understood only
in vital association with the Church. The upshot is that one no longer reads it from the tradition of the Church
as a point of departure, and with the Church, but, instead, one starts from the newest method that presents itself
as 'scientific.' With some scholars this independence has become an outright opposition - so much so that for many
the traditional faith of the Church no longer seems justified by critical exegesis but appears only as an obstacle
to the authentic 'modern' understanding of Christianity. . . The separation of Church and Scripture tends to erode
both from within. In fact, a church without a credible biblical foundation is only a chance historical product,
one organization among others . . . But the Bible without the Church is also no longer the powerfully effective
Word of God, but an assemblage of various historical sources, a collection of heterogeneous books from which one
tries to draw, from the perspective of the present moment, whatever one considers useful. An exegesis in which
the Bible no longer lives and is understood within the living organism of the Church becomes archeology: the dead
bury their dead. in any case, the last word about the Word of God as Word of God does not in this conception belong
to the legitimate pastors, the Magisterium, but to the expert, the professor with his ever-provisional results
always subject to revisions."
The Bible is, in fact, a document which has been entrusted by God to the Church, and thus it cannot be interpreted
outside the living Tradition of the Church, which is its natural context and environment. While the Catholic exegete
will avail himself of all that the human sciences can offer him to achieve a deeper understanding of the inspired
text, he can never forget that his primary task is the theological and pastoral one - "the building up of the Body of Christ" (Eph. 4:12).
Exegesis serves evangelization
In an address to the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Paul VI describes the task of the exegete as
"Your work is not limited . . . to
explaining old texts, reporting facts in a critical way or going back to the early and original form of a text
or a sacred page. It is the prime duty of the exegete to present to the people of God the message of salvation,
to set forth the meaning of the Word of God in itself and in relation to men today, to give access to the Word,
beyond the envelope of semantic signs and cultural syntheses, sometimes far removed from the culture and problems
of our time."
John Paul II insisted on much the same ideas in a recent address to the same Commission:
"In the Church all methods of exegesis
must be, directly or indirectly, at the service of evangelization. In recent times we have heard many Christians
complain that exegesis has become a scholarly art, with no relationship to the life of the People of God."
While this may not be true in many cases, nevertheless there is cause, the Pope
says, for taking this complaint seriously:
"Fidelity to the task of interpretation demands that the exegete is not
content merely to study the secondary aspects of biblical texts, but that he emphasizes the main message, which
is a religious one, a call to conversion and the good news of salvation, capable of transforming every person and
the whole of human society, introducing it into the divine communion."
Scripture: The soul of theology
Thus, if he is to be true to his ecclesial task, in his investigation of the inspired text the exegete will try
to find answers to questions like the following: what is the meaning of the text in question in the context of
the whole of Revelation? How has it been interpreted by the Church in its teaching and pastoral practice? How does
the particular text reflect the life of the Church which preceded its redaction and its canonical acceptance? How
does it fit into the Christian world-view? How ought it be applied to the life of the Christian? If the exegete,
depending on the circumstances, doesn't ask himself these or similar questions, he could hardly describe himself
as a Catholic exegete.
This fundamental requirement, that biblical exegesis have a theological and pastoral objective, was further developed
by Paul VI. He points out that
"interpretation has not fulfilled
its task until it has demonstrated how the meaning of Scripture may be
referred to the present salvific moment, that is, until it has brought
out the application to the present circumstances of the Church and the world. Without taking anything away from
the value of philological, archeological and historical interpretation of the text - always necessary - we have
to lay emphasis on the continuity between exegesis and preaching."
He goes on to point out that it is impossible for the exegete to adopt a stance
of cold objectivity in relation to the biblical text. On the contrary:
"in every interpretive process, and
with greater reason when it is a matter of God's Word, the person of the
interpreter is not outside of the process itself, but is involved in it,
brought into question, with all his being."
This means that the exegete should apply to the hermeneutical task all the resources
of his faith in terms of doctrine, light and grace so as to penetrate beneath the surface of the text and grasp
the veritas salutaris encapsulated in the inspired words.
Biblical exegesis is nor just a merely historical science, but is, essentially, a theological one, in which the
exegete as believer takes precedence over any critical techniques; the rational hermeneutic of Scripture is at
the service of the faith and not vice versa. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in an address to the Facultés
Catholiques de Lyon in 1986:
"Today as yesterday, exegesis must
lead to theology and theology must take its point of departure from a continual and updated return to the Scriptures
read in the Church."
If exegetes take cognizance of these principles they will be all the more effective
in making the contribution which Vatican II expects of them:
"to work...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
and will bring about a greatly desired objective of the Council: that sacred Scripture
would once again become "the very soul of sacred Theology" 
Some of the essential dispositions which the Magisterium expects of Catholic exegetes were outlined by Paul VI
in an address to biblical scholars in 1968. After stating that Vatican II placed the biblical movement in the front
line of sound renewal of the Church, he went on to say:
"Your renewal also ought to consist
not only in the use of new methods of scientific inquiry and in advancement of research, with all the means that
modern progress in biblical studies has put at your disposal, but also and above all in an ever more enlightened
and conscious fidelity to your task as Catholic exegetes who trust with sincerity in the vigilance of the sacred
Magisterium which holds in high esteem the precious contribution of the exegetes to the deepest understanding of
the Word of God to the advantage of the Church (cf. Dei Verbum, no.21), and exhorts them to continue with renewed energy their work 'according to the
sense of the Church (Secundum sensum Ecclesiae)'" (ibid.). 
After pointing out that the application of the criteria of Dei Verbum will direct the work of the exegete along
the right path, he discourses on some of the moral virtues which ought to distinguish the exegete from the point
of view of the subjective demands of biblical studies:
"We believe and hope that you attend
to your biblical study and teaching with that ascetic attitude, with that heartfelt and pious veneration, with
the eagerness to discover through the most accurate philological and textual analysis that spiritual sense, that
truth, that revealing presence which are proper to the Word of God."
In addition the exegete needs humility to accept the guidance of the Magisterium, and faith to be convinced that the Church
in every age is able to offer Scripture correctly understood to the People of God.
Faithfulness is obedience
In Pope John Paul II's address to the Lateran University (1980), we can find a very striking statement of what
should be the attitude of the theologian and, by extension, of the Catholic exegete to the Magisterium in relation
to his teaching and research:
"The first criterion is faithfulness, to be understood not in a generic
sense, far less in the reductive sense of only just keeping within the limits of orthodoxy, avoiding deviations
and positions in conflict with the statements of the Apostles' Creed, the Ecumenical Councils, and the ordinary
and extraordinary Magisterium. Not in that way! Faithfulness means, must be, a resolute and stable orientation,
which inspires research and follows it closely: it means putting the Word of God, which the Church 'listens to
religiously' (cf. Dei Verbum no.1),
at the very origin of the theological process and referring to it all the acquired knowledge and conclusions gradually
reached; it implies careful and permanent confrontation with what the Church believes and professes."
Then he goes on to explain what faithfulness does not mean: shirking responsibility,
adopting a falsely prudent attitude, causing one to renounce deep study and reflection. On the contrary, properly
"stimulates to investigating, illustrating,
defining - as far as possible - the truth in all the riches with which God endowed it, concerned about its most
suitable and plausible presentation. Faithfulness is the exercise of obedience: it is a reflection of that 'obedience
of faith,' of which St. Paul writes (Rom 1:5;
16:26; cf. 10:16)."
This is no merely theoretical statement of Church doctrine. We can detect clearly behind these words of the Roman
Pontiff the voice of the theologian and writer, the insights gained over years as professor at the Catholic University
of Lublin, and the distillation of theological wisdom arrived at through decades of concentrated intellectual effort,
always intimately related to a demanding pastoral commitment of quite exceptional variety and initiative.
In assessing present-day approaches to the biblical text, and in the light of what has already been said, the following
point needs to be clearly made. The historico-critical methods of exegesis are very useful, although secondary,
aids in the exegetical enterprise. However, they do not, and cannot, change or modify the faith in any substantial
way. Neither do they provide a new, indispensable basis for it, because our faith is grounded on the living Tradition
of the Church in which Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium complement each other mutually. Again, these methods do not, and cannot,
discover anything substantially new about the faith which we do not know already. To suggest otherwise is to ask
the historico-critical sciences to deliver something which ontologically they are incapable of doing. What they
can do, in keeping with their scope and methodology, is to help reconstruct the prehistory of the Gospel writings,
or the other books of the Old and New Testaments, by means of the study of literary forms, the precanonical sources,
the redactional techniques of the hagiographers, and the Sitz im Leben in which they took on successive literary configurations. But in fact none of these procedures
can substantially change the witness of the faith as recorded in the definitive canonical writings.
Rationalism invades exegesis
The limitations of these critical techniques were pointed out during Vatican II, in an instruction of the Pontifical
Biblical Commission on the historicity of the Gospels, published in 1964. The instruction gives a very guarded recommendation of Form-Critical methods of exegesis
for understanding the Gospels, but it warns the exegete to be wary
"because scarcely admissible philosophical
and theological principles have often come to be mixed with this method, which not uncommonly have vitiated the
method itself as well as the conclusions in the literary area. For some proponents of this method have been led
astray by the prejudiced views of rationalism."
These prejudices include the denial of a supernatural order, of the possibility
of miracles, the incompatibility of faith and history, and the denial a
priori of the historical nature of the documents of revelation. Other
prejudices, which are particularly associated with the Bultmannian school of exegesis, include the affirmation
of a radical discontinuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and the extolling of the creative
activity of the primative Christian community as the source of the Gospel "myths." The PBC instruction
emphatically rejects these approaches:
"After Jesus rose from the dead and
his divinity was clearly perceived, faith, far from destroying the memory of what had transpired, rather confirmed
it, because their faith rested on the things which Jesus did and taught. Nor was he changed into a 'mythical' person
and his teaching deformed in consequence of the worship which the disciples from that time on paid Jesus as the
Lord and Son of God. On the other hand, there is no reason to deny that the apostles passed on to their listeners
what was really said and done by the Lord with that fuller understanding which they enjoyed, having been instructed
by the glorious events of the Christ and taught by the light of the Spirit of Truth."
A few months after the publication of this document, Paul VI referred to it in
an address to biblical scholars,
and went on to encourage them to take "great care to travel along
the good road which is the one marked out by the Church." He warned
them against the temptation of trying
"to take the immense and mysterious
field of biblical truth and confine it within the perimeter of human and personal theory, to the point of depriving
it of its sacred character and of its transcendent values."
The result of this approach to the inspired text is, the Holy Father continued,
to nullify the reality and the power of Sacred Scripture, and thus give unintentional witness to "the need for a living magisterium to safeguard and clarify the genuine meaning of the divine
Book." This approach of the Magisterium does not inhibit the study
of the exegete; on the contrary, it permits
"the faithful exegete to know everything
and lose nothing - to know whatever the old and the new sciences can reasonably offer us in the field of Scripture,
and lose nothing that the wisdom of the faith sees as contained therein."
It is from the perspective of the faith that the exegete decides what aspects of
the human sciences will be of use to him in the hermeneutical task. The same point was made in the recent Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian:
"It is important to emphasize that
when theology employs the elements and conceptual tools of philosophy and other disciplines, discernment is needed.
The ultimate normative principle for such discernment is revealed doctrine which itself must furnish the criteria
for the evaluation of these elements and conceptual tools and not vice
In 1974 Paul VI again felt it necessary to draw the attention of the members of
the Pontifical Biblical Commission to "the wrong tracks on which exegesis
may often go astray." He referred to the work of the great biblical
scholar. Fr. M.J. Lagrange, who in 1918 drew up a balance sheet of the various schools of liberal exegesis, and
reduced their failure to doctrinal opportunism, the one-sided character of their research and the rationalist narrowness
of their method, and the deliberate intention not to accept the supernatural. The Holy Father then went on to say
that Lagrange's conclusions have an urgent and topical character today, and invites exegetes
"not to exaggerate or transgress the
possibilities of the exegetical method adopted, not to make it an absolute method as if it alone provided access
"Scientism" sees no limits
Paul VI is clearly referring here to the excesses of some exegetes in the manner in which they have applied the
historico-critical sciences in the interpretation of the Bible. As recently as 1989, John Paul II alerted the Pontifical
Biblical Commission to the same danger of absolutizing a particular exegetical method:
"Every method has its limitations;
it is necessary to recognize them. This is part of the scientific spirit, which is distinguished from 'scientism.'
If they truly have a scientific spirit, the believing exegetes will be aware of the relative value of the results
of their studies, and their modesty, far from harming the influence of their work, will guarantee its authenticity."
A little more of this modesty would certainly not go amiss in the claims of some
of our present-day exegetes!
Over the past few decades there has been an enormous literary output by way of exegetical commentaries, philological
studies, etc. in the field of scripture studies. The overall impression, however, is one of great diffusiveness,
with a resulting atomisation of the biblical text. The enterprise seems to lack a clear objective, or any real
guiding principles. One of
the reasons for this situation would seem to be that the supernatural dimension of Scripture is gradually being
lost sight of. Biblical hermeneutics is being treated as just a particular case of a general hermeneutical phi-
losophy, and the theological principles of scriptural exegesis are effectively being ignored. Many exegetes seem
to have lost sight of the fact that the Bible has to be read and interpreted in
medio Ecclesiae if this interpretation is to be an authentic one.
The logic of such an approach is that a revision of the traditional concept of
theology is deemed necessary, requiring a reinterpretation of the doctrine taught by the Magisterium as a homogenous
body of truths down through the centuries. Paul VI expressed his concern in this regard, cogently and clearly,
in his Credo of the People of God, in June of 1968. A few months later he returned to the same theme in more specific terms:
"And let us also say that difficulties
arise too from the philological, exegetical and historical studies applied to the prime source of revealed truth,
Holy Scripture. Deprived of its complement found in Tradition and the authoritative assistance of the ecclesial
Magisterium, the study of the Bible on its own is full of doubts and problems which are more discouraging than
helpful to faith; and left to individual judgment it generates such a plurality of opinions as to threaten faith
in its subjective certainty, and to deprive it of its social authoritativeness. Such a faith thus produces obstacles
to the unity of believers, whereas faith should be the basis of ideal and spiritual agreement: there is one faith
We have already seen some examples of how papal magisterium exercises its function
in relation to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. The theological foundation for the pre-eminence of this
authority is to be found in Sacred Scripture and in the Fathers of the Church, in a special way in the writings of St. Irenaeus.
To conclude this article I would like briefly to present the witness of three outstanding theologians and scripture
scholars to this Magisterium at different times during the past seven hundred years - that of St. Thomas Aquinas,
St. John Fisher, and Cardinal John H. Newman. For all of them the Magisterium was a source of light and a guarantee
of truth, which they adhered to faithfully throughout their lives, John Fisher paying the ultimate price for that
loyalty. They never considered the teaching authority of the Church to be a restriction of intellectual freedom,
as is evidenced by the originality of their thought and their prodigious literary output.
Church has greatest authority
St. Thomas affirms that in matters biblica1,
"we must rather abide by the Pope's
judgment than by the opinion of any of the theologians, however well versed he may be in divine Scriptures."
More imprtantly, St. Thomas lived this principle with great fidelity, in his own
approach to the study of the inspired text.
In a quite outstanding address to commemorate the centenary of the encyclical Aeterni Patris, at the Angelicum Univerty in
Rome, John Paul II offered St. Thomas as a model for theologians because of
"his sincere, total and life-long
acceptance of the Teaching Office of the Church, to whose judgment he submitted all his works both during his life
and at the point of death,"
and also because
"his writings make it clear that this
reverential assent was not confined only to the solemn and infallible teaching of the Councils and of the Supreme
At the end of that centenary year, during which the Pope spoke on several occasions
about different aspects of the authority of St. Thomas both as philosopher and theologian, he again returned to
the theme of Aquinas' exemplary relationship with the Magisteriurn in an address to the International Thomist Congress.
After analyzing how St. Thomas attains to truth in philosophy by "listening
to the voice of things," he goes on to develop how he penetrated so
deeply into theological truth by his "faithfulness to the voice of
the Word of God transmitted by the Church." Aquinas' whole approach
can be summed up in his own words: "The authority of the Church has
greater standing than that of any Doctor" (Magis standum est auctoritati Ecclesiae. . . quam cuiuscumque Doctoris). Thus, the
Holy Father continues,
"truth, suggested by the authority
of the Church assisted by the Holy Spirit, is therefore the measure of truth as expressed by all theologians and
doctors - past, present and future. . . St. Thomas therefore prefers not the voice of the Doctors or his own voice,
but that of the Universal Church, almost anticipating what Vatican II says."
No one can add to the Faith
Bishop John Fisher, the cardinal protomartyr, articulated with exceptional clarity the petrine prerogative in this
matter, in his writings against Luther. He was one of the most respected theologians of his day and his doctrine
had undoubted influence on the deliberations of the Council of Trent. For him the Church, and pre-eminently the successor of Peter, held the key to the interpretation
of Scripture. The task of the Church was to clarify, define, and transmit the truth contained in divine Revelation.
Nevertheless, in anticipation of what Vatican II would later say more explicitly about the role of the Magisterium
in this context, Fisher stressed
that neither popes nor councils could add anything to the faith; what they could do was make explicit what was
already part of the faith.
He argued that disputes about Scripture could be settled only by the authority of the Church; that the indefectibility
of the Church was guaranteed by Christ's promise of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. At the deepest level, as has
been pointed out,
"the difference between Fisher and
Luther over Scripture was that, whereas the latter saw it as essentially self-explanatory and accessible, Fisher
saw it as frequently obscure and indeed counter-intuitive."
Hence the need for an authoritative guide for the interpretation of the inspired
text. And so it was that Fisher devoted much of his pastoral energies into providing his flock with well-trained
preachers who would explain the spiritual riches of Scripture to them.
Anyone familiar with the writings of John Henry Newman, especially his published sermons, will quickly be convinced
of the English cardinal's great love for Scripture. He knew large sections of it by heart. Yet for him Scripture
did not in itself constitute the message of Christianity. On the contrary, for Newman history reveals the existence,
from Apostolic times, of that one coherent, visible system of faith and worship (the Church) of which Scripture
Following such examples as Naaman the Syrian, the treasurer of Candace, etc., Newman reminds us that our quest
must be, not simply for doctrine, but rather for the "teacher of doctrine,"
who must necessarily be outside Scripture itself. He shows it to be a historical fact that "an authoritative and formal interpretation of the written word" was furnished from the very beginning. The deposit of truth, which was entrusted to the Apostles,
was passed on from generation to generation, and so on, thus constituting "an
ecclesiastical Tradition . . . illuminating Scripture and protecting it." At the same time he consistently reminds
us that Scripture can never be separated from the Church; the Church is the appointed "keeper" of Scripture, but she is also its "interpreter."
Exegesis: An intraeccesial task
Scripture, for Newman, is also an invaluable and treasured point of reference for the Church in her teaching. In
fact, he sees
"the mystical interpretation of Holy
Scripture . . . as one of the characteristic conditions or principles on which the teaching of the Church has ever
As to the Church's exclusive claim as interpreter of the inspired text, he makes
the rather striking comment
"that the religion which forbids private
judgment in matters of Revelation, is historically more tolerant than the religions which uphold it."
Her reservation of the right to interpret scripture has been accompanied by a constant
attitude of humanity, equity and forbearance. For Newman it is a remarkble fact that the Church, as the unique,
divinely-appointed teacher of the faith, has never exceeded the limits of her mandate in her commentary on Sacred
It has been pointed out, as a measure of Newman's faithfulness and docility to the Church (faithfulness after the
manner defined by John Paul II), that at no time during his life did he ever wish to teach any doctrine which would
be in opposion to the Magisterium. Indeed he is on record as teaching that
"in revealed matters we may fall into
serious error, if we argue and deduce except under the Magterium of the Church."
It is surely not without significance that many of Newman's ideas on Scripture
are clearly reflected in the teachings of Dei Verbum, particularly in the Chapter on the "Transmission of Divine Revelation."
We have seen in the course of this article how the role of the Magisterium in relation
to the Catholic exegete is one of constant encouragement as well as that of authoritative guide. Because its point
of departure is fides quaerens intellectum, the exegesis of the Bible is essentially a theogical science and is thus an intraecclesial task.
If the exegete is faithful to the methodology of his particular science, he has all the freedom he requires. It
is precisely by faithfulness to the Magisterium, defined by John Paul II in all its rich connotations, that the
horizons for an authentic hermeneutic of Scripture are constantly being widened.
If, on the other hand, we find that modern exegesis frequently casts doubts on such fundamental truths of the faith
as Mary's virginal conception, Jesus' awareness of his own divinity, the physical reality of the Resurrection,
the historicity of the Gospels, etc., it is clear that the Magisterium of the Church has little real influence
on the positions of these authors. In much of modern exegetical discourse, it is no accident that the gradual erosion
of the authentic sense of divine inspiration of Scripture, as an essential constitutive element of the inspired
text, goes hand-in-hand with that "scientism" referred to by John Paul II, and the effective exclusion of the criteria of the Magisterium
in the exegetical enterprise. This has resulted in a considerable impoverishment of the massive intellectual effort
invested in scripture studies over the past few decades. It is evident that, among other factors, only by a recovery
of the essential role of the Magisterium in the exegesis of the Bible, will sacred Scripture once more become "the soul of theology," bringing about the
authentic theological renewal the Council Fathers so earnestly desired.
1. Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970-1980, Vol IV, pars VI. pp. 596 and 687.
2. Address 8 April 1986, in L'Osservatore
Romano (English language edition), 21 April 1986 (all subsequent references
are to this edition). This neglect of Dei Verbum was also highlighted in the Final Report of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops held in
1985: cf. B.1 in "Synod Report," CTS, London 1986, p. 12.
3. Cf. Ratzinger, J., 'Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis" in
Origins, 11 February 1988,
vol. 17, no. 35, pp.594-602; de la Potterie, I., "Reading Holy Scripture 'in the Spirit': Is the Patristic
way of reading the Bible still possible today?" in Communio, no. 4, 1986, pp. 308-325.
4. The English translation of the Vatican II documents used in this paper is taken
from: Flannery, A., (Ed). Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar
Document, Dublin 1988. Cf ibid., no.10.c, p. 756.
5. Ibid., no. 10.b.
6. Ibid., p. 755. At this point in the conciliar text reference is made to Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis, which draws attention to some
of the exegetical errors current at the time, and points to the Magisterium as the final arbiter where the interpretation
of the divine Revelation is involved:
"They judge the doctrine of the Fathers
and of the teaching Church by the norm of Holy Scriplure interpreted by the purely human reason of exegetes, instead
of explaining Holy Scripture according to the mind of the Church which Christ our Lord has appointed guardian and
interpreter of the whole deposit of divinely revealed truth" (AAS
42 (1950) 568-569).
In fact the Pope affirms explicitly, on no less than seven occasions in Humani Generis, that Jesus Christ entrusted
the task of authentically interpreting sacred Scripture to the Church: cf. also AAS 42(1950)563, 567, 576.
7. Pope John Paul II, in an address to the bishops of the USA (Region II), during their Ad limina visit in 1988, commented on this very text
of Dei Verbum no.10 to define
more clearly the scope of this Magisterium: "This Magisterium is not
above the divine word but serves it with a specific carisma veritatis certum (ibid.,
no.8), which includes the charism of infallibility, present not only in the solemn definitions of the Roman Pontiff
and of Ecumenical Councils, but also in the universal ordinary Magisterium (L.G. no.25), which can truly be considered as the usual expression of the Church's infallibility" (italics added) (Address, 15 October 1988, (no.4), in L'Osservatore Romano, 24 October 1988). This authoritative
interpretation of the teaching of L.G. no.25 on the universal ordinary Magisterium has considerable implications
for theology, moral and dogmatic, as well as for scriptural exegesis.
8. Cf. Dei Verbum, no.12.c,
in Flannery ibid., p. 758.
no.8.c, p. 755.
10. Ibid., no.9.
11. Cf. DS 1507.
12. CF. DS 3007.
13. Cf. Flannery, ibid., p. 758,
14. The phrase used in Dei Verbum no.12.c to articulate the function of the Masgisterium in relation to the interpretation
of sacred Scripture is borrowed from Humani Generis (EB 612).
In the recent Instruction on the Eccelesial Vocation of the Theologian, the function of the Magisterium is articulated with great clarity. Among other things
"It is the mission of the Magisterium
to affirm the definitive character of the Covenant established by God through Christ with his People in a way which
is consistent with the 'eschatological' nature of the event of Jesus Christ. It must protect God's People from
the danger of deviations and confusion, guaranteeing them the objective possibility of professing the authentic
faith free from error, at all times and in diverse situations. It follows that the sense and the weight of the
Magisterium's authority are only intelligibte in relation to the truth of Christian doctrine and the preaching
of the true Word. The function of the Magisterium is not, then, something extrinsic to Christian truth nor is it
set above the faith. It arises directly from the economy of the faith itself, inasmuch as the Magisterium is, in
its service to the Word of God, an institution positively willed by Christ as a constitutive element of His Church.
The service to Christian truth which the Magisterium renders is thus for the benefit of the whole People of God
called to enter the liberty of the truth revealed by God in Christ" (no.14,
Instruction, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 24 May 1990, in L'Osservatore
Romano , 2 July 1990).
15. If we focus on the content of the inspired books, we see their complementary character more clearly. This is because
they arose in response to specific needs and did not presume to deal systematically with all the revealed truths.
The opinion of St. John Chrysostom in this regard is instructive:
"Perspicuum est quod non omnia Apostoli
per Epistolas tradiderunt, sed multa etiam sine scriptis; aeque vero haec et illa sunt fide digna; ergo et Traditionem
Ecclesiae censeamus fide dignam: Traditio est, nihil ultra queras"
Hom. 4 in 2 Thess no.2, PG 62, 488.
16. Address 14 March 1974, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 18 April 1974.
17.Cf. Aranda, G., "Magisterio de la Iglesia e lnterpretación de a Escritura" in Biblia y Hermeneutica, Pamplona 1986, pp. 529-542.
18. I am referring here to the Old Testament.
19. Address 25 September 1970, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 8 October 1970 (italics in the original).
20. Cf. Acts 2:14-36; 3:11-26, etc. reflecting the primitive kerygma.
21. Cf. Gal 4:21-31, etc.
22. Cf. Dei Verbum no.7.b, in Flannery, ibid., p. 754.
23. Ibid., no.7.a, p. 753
24. Cf. Dei Verbum no.17, ibid.,
25. Cf. ibid., no.20.a, p. 761.
26. Cf. ibid., no.8.b, p. 754
27. The Fathers affirm that all heresies which have upset the peace of the Church
have resulted from personal interpretation of Scripture contrary to the sensus
Ecclesiae. Thus St. Augustine:
"Neque enim natae sunt haereses, et
quaedam dogmata perversitatis, illaquentia animas et in profundum praecipitantia, nisi dum Scripturae bonae intelliguntur
non bene, et quod in eis non bene intelligitur, etiam temere et audacter asseritur"
(Tract. XVIII in Io, no.1, PL 34, 1536).
28. Cf. "The Church and Scientific Theology," in Communio, no.4, 1980, pp. 332-342; "Sources and
Transmission of the Faith," ibid.,
no.1, 1983, pp. 20-25, 27-29; "Problems in Catechesis Today: An interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger,"
ibid., no.2, 1984, pp. 151-154;
"Foundations and Approaches to Biblical Exegesis," cf. note 3 above; The
Ratzinger Report (Interview on the State of the Church: Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger with V. Messori), I.ondon 1985, pp. 46-49, 74-76, 89, 118, 143-144, 156-160, 164-165, 177-182. Cf. also
his address to the Synod of Bishops, 1 October 1990. "The Nature of Priesthood," "Preface: Current
issues," and "1. Basis of New Testament Ministry," in L'Osservatore
Romano, 29 October 1990, p. 6.
29. The Ratzinger Report, ibid.,
30. Address 14 March 1974, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 18 April 1974.
31. Address, 7 April 1989, in L'Osservatore
Romano', 17 April 1989.
32. Cf. Casciaro, J.M., Exegesis Biblica,
Hermeneutica y Teologia, Pamplona 1983, p. 271.
33. Address, 25 September 1970, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 8 October 1970 (italics in original).
34. Ibid. (italics in original). Four years later Paul VI came back to this theme again in an address to
the Pontifical Biblical Commission, emphasizing the essentially supernatural dimension of the exegetical enterprise:
"To express the message means above
all, therefore, to gather all the meanings of a text and make them converge towards the unity of the Mystery, which
is unique, transcendent, inexhaustible, and which we can consequently approach from multiple standpoints . . .
This will make it possible to grasp on each page the universal and unchangeable meaning of the message, and to
propose it to the Church, for a real understanding of faith in the modern context and a salutary application to
the serious problems that are tormenting thoughtful minds at the present time. It falls to you exegetes to actualize
Holy Scripture, according to the meaning of the living Church, so that it will not just be a moment of the past
but will be transformed into a source of light, life and action. Only in this way will the fruits of exegesis be
able to serve the kerygmatic function of the Church and her dialogue, offer itself to the reflection of systematic
theology and moral teaching, and be of use to the apostolate in the modern world"
(Address, 14 March 1974, in L'Osservatore Romano, 18 April 1974).
This was, among other things, a very clear pointer as to how Scripture could once
again become "the soul of theology"
(cf. Dei Verbum, no.24).
35. Cf. Dei Verbum, no. 11, Flannery, ibid., p.757.
36. Address 7 October 1986, AAS 79 (1987) 337-338. Very recently, in an address
to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Pope John Paul II reminded its members, 'We
must not forget that Christian exegesis is a theological discipline, a deepening of the faith' (Address, 11 April 1991, in L'Osservatore Romano, 22 April 1991).
37. Dei Verbum, no. 12.ce, Flannery, ibid., p. 758.
38. Ibid., no.24, p.764. In this context the relationship between the Magisteriurn and the theologian (and,
by implication, the Catholic exegete), as described in the recent Instruction on "The Ecclesial Vocation of
the theologian" is of particular relevance:
"The living Magisterium of the Church
and theology, while having different gifts and functions, ultimately have the same goal: preserving the People
of God in the truth which sets free and thereby making them 'a light to the nations.' This service to the ecclesial
community brings the theologian and the Magisterium into a reciprocal relationship. The latter authentically teaches
the doctrine of the Apostles. And, benefitting from the work of theologians, it refutes objections to and distortions
of the faith and promotes, with the authority received from Jesus Christ, new and deeper comprehension, clarification,
and application of revealed doctrine. Theology, for its part, gains, by way of reflection, an even deeper understanding
of the Word of God found in the Scripture and handed on faithfully by the Church's living Tradition under the guidance
of the Magisterium. Theology strives to clarify the teaching of Revelation with regard to reason and gives it finally
an organic and systematic form" (no.21, Instruction, Sacred Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, 24 May 1990, in L'Osservatore Romano, 2 July 1990).
39. Address 27 September 1968, in L'Osservatore Romano, 10 October 1968.
41."Your service to the Word of God, then, should be. . . animated
and supported by devotion and humility which, besides, is the distinctive virtue of the true sage. The humility
that accepts the guidance of the sacred Magisterium, that does not rely on merely human strength in an undertaking
concerning the Mystery of God and of his Revelation. . . "(ibid.).
John Paul II also emphasized the capital need for this virtue to do useful theological
research. Addressing the faculty of the Gregorian University in Rome, he reminded his audience:
"it is necessary that you have an
interior balance, strength of mind and spirit, and, above all, a profound humility of heart which will make you
disciples attentive to the truth and docile hearers of God's Word which is authentically interpreted by the Magisterium.
St. Thomas warns us that the proud 'cannot stomach the excellence of truth but delight in their own excellence'
(S. Th. II-II, q.162, a.3, ad I)" (Address, 15 December 1979, (no.9),
in L'Osservatore Romano,
21 January 1980).
42. "Faith in the Word of God and
in its mysterious superhuman efficacy should be joined to a profound conviction that the Church, whose sons are
generated 'by means of the living and everlasting Word of God' (1 Pet. 1:23) is able in every age to offer it in
its exact meaning" (Address, 27 September 1968, in L'Osservatore Romano, 1 October 1968).
43. Address, 16 February 1980, (no.4), in L'Osservatore
Romano, 15 March 1980.
44. Cf. Dei Verbum no.l0.c, ibid.,
45.Cf. Casciaro, ibid., p.287.
46.Cf. Sancta Mater Ecclesia: AAS 56 (1964) 712-718.
47. The translation of the Instruction Sancta
Mater Ecclesia used in this paper is that published as an Appendix
to Bea, A., The Study of the Synoptic Gospels, London 1965, pp.79-89. Cf. ibid., p.82.
48. Ibid., p.83.
49. Address 26 September 1964; the translation is taken from The Pope Speaks (circa date of talk) pp.19-22.
50. Ibid., p.21. In an address to the Gregorian University in Rome, Pope John Paul II made some very relevant
comments in this regard:
"Theology ought to choose its 'allies'
according to the criteria supplied by its own methodology. There are currents of thought which, either because
of their foundations or because of the developments made of them by their promoters, do not offer the requisites
necessary for a useful collaboration with theological research . . . There are scientific systems so poor or so
closed as to render any translation and interpretation of the Word of God impossible"
(Address, 15 December 1979, (no.5), in L'Osservatore Romano, 21 January 1980).
51. Cf. Instruction, Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 24 May
1990, no.10, in L'Osservatore Romano,
2 July 1990.
52. Address 14 March 1974, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 18 April 1974.
53. Address 7 April 1989, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 17 April 1989.
54. The increased productivity of specialized knowledge in biblical studies has
come at a price:
"The analysis of texts is limited
to the historical, linguistic, social, contextual meaning. For the sake of exactitude the historical method excludes
seeking the meaning of the text for our contemporary situation or for our faith. As critical, this method seeks
to investigate in a historicist fashion what the text meant in its original context by excluding consideration
of any ecclesial or confessional tradition...The specific application of the historical-critical method to the
texts has fostered a type of exegetical knowledge that leads to an increased distance between the expert cultures
and the broader public. The split is not simply the result of increased specialization and professionalization
whereby even other experts within theology, for example, historical, systematic, pastoral theologians, often are
not able to keep abreast. It is the reduction of the study of Scripture to a particular rationality that cuts it
off from everyday life.
"Such a specialized focus has gone
hand in hand with a transformed understanding of the literal meaning of the text. This transformation has led to
an emphasis on the singularity of the literal meaning that contrasts with the classic understanding of the plurality
of the scriptural senses. The allegorical, anagogical, and tropological senses were such that they represented
the transcendent spiritual meaning of the scriptural text. For Augustine, the central hermeneutical problem was
precisely to grasp that transcendent meaning": Cf. Schussler-Fiorenza,
E, "The Crisis of Scriptural Authority," in Interpretation, October 1990, pp.356-357.
55. Cf. Casciaro, ibid., p.288.
56. Cf. Introduction to Solemn Profession of Faith, 30 June 1968, in L'Osservatore Romano, 11 July 1968.
57. Address 30 October 1968, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 7 November 1968.
58. The classical texts which relate to Christ's institution of a teaching authority
in the Church are Mt 28:18-20, Mk 16:16, Mt 16:18-19, in 2l:l5. This authority, in virtue of its divine institution,
inheres in the College of Bishops united to their visible head, the Roman Pontiff, who is the successor of Peter,
to whom Christ entrusted the plenitude of power over his flock. By divine design it is a living, infallible, and
perpetual Magisterium. It is infallible because of Christ's promise: "I
am with you always to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20), and because
of the guaranteed assistance of the Holy Spirit who will lead the Church into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13). Cf. also
59. The Fathers of the Church, with great humility, recognized the difficulties inherent in the interpretation
of Scripture and, consequently, affirmed the need for a central Magisterium to give an authentic interpretation
of the inspired text. St. Clement of Alexandria writes: "Scriptura
est in multis locis obscura" (Stromata 1,5). St. Jerome, who had such
an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures could write to St. Augustine: "Scripturae
vel obscurissimae sunt" (Ep. 105, PL 22, 836) or to Algasia: "Omnis Epistola ad Romanos nimiis obscuritatibus obvoluta est"
49, PL 22, 592).
St Vincent of Lerins asks: if Scripture is perfect in itself, why the need for an authoritative interpretation
by the Church? The reason, he answers, is, because of its depth of meaning, not everybody understands Scripture
in the same way. And so we have different interpretations by Arius, Apollinaris, Priscillian, Pelagius, Nestorius,
etc. Consequently St. Vincent concludes that there is a very great need, because of so many different interpretations,
that the interpretation of the prophets and the apostolic writers would follow that meaning given by the Church
(". . . multum necesse est propter tantos tam varii erroris anfractus,
ut profeticae et apostolicae interpretationis linea secundum ecclesiastici et catholici norman dirigatur": Common. no.2, PL 50, 639). (The source of the above references is Vidal Cruanas,
A., "El Magisterio de la Iglesia y la Escritura," in Acta de
la XII Semana Biblica, Madrid 1952, p.39 and p.43).
The Fathers constantly teach that the true faith is not to be found in the free interpretation of Scripture, but
in the "tradition" (St.
Irenaeus, Ad Haer. 3, 4, 1. PG 7, 855), in "the doctrine of the Apostles" (ibid.,
4, 33, 8. PG 7, 1077), in the "apostolic succession" (Tertullian, De Praescr. 32 PL 2, 44), in the "ecclesiastical
preaching" (Origen, De Princip. 1, 2. PG 11, 116), in "the authority of the Catholic Church" (St.
Augustine, Contra Ep. Manich, 5,6. PL 42, 175). Cf. Vidal Cruanas, ibid., pp. 46-47.
60. Mgr. Philippe Delhaye, former Secretary General of the International Theological
Commission, assesses the contemporary importance of St. Irenaeus in an outstanding article in L'Osservatore Romano, 9 February 1987. It is
in fact a commentary article on an address given by Pope John Paul II to the Facultés Catholiques de Lyon,
on 7 October 1986 on the same topic. St. Irenaeus is quoted fourteen times in the Vatican II documents and, with
the exception of St. Augustine, this is the greatest frequency with which a Father of the Church is cited. Mgr.
Delhaye tells us
"that which the Pope and the Second Vatican Council have asked first of
all of St. Irenaeus is a witness to the 'great Tradition' which embraces both the Scriptures and the authentic
teachings of the Magisterium (Dei Verbum
no.9). . . St. Irenaeus was without doubt the first theologian to construct a system where the harmonization of
the inspired written texts and the tradition of the Magisterium was explicitly and continually affirmed. For the
Bishop of Lyon, it is the preaching of Christ which holds first place" (no.2).
He goes on to say that
"the evangelical-theological synthesis found one of its most beautiful
realizations in St. Irenaeus . . . The point of departure of authentic theology is the History of Salvation (creation,
sin, incarnation, redemption, divinization) such as it is presented by the Apostolic Tradition, which is expressed
in the authentic Magistenium progressively unveiling the sacred writings in communion with all the faithful who
follow Christ. The point of arrival is the meaning of the divine plan of the Covenant. This synthesis gathers together
all the given elements scattered through the sacred books and the acts of the Magisterium in order to 'emphasize
God's liberty, the liberty of his superabundant love.' What Irenaeus did in 'a new and sound synthesis,' ought
to be continued by exegetes and theologians today thanks to a better knowledge of the texts and documents of Tradition
and keeping in mind the needs of their contemporaries" (no.4).
61. Quodlib. IX, q.8, C.
62 Address, 17 November 1979, (no.4), in L'Osservatore
Romano 17 December 1979.
63. Summa Theologiae, II-II, q.10, a.12.
64 Address, 13 September 1980, (no.4), in L'Osservatore
Romano, 20 October 1980. At this point the Holy Father quotes from
Lumen Gentium no. 12 referring
to the authority of the sensus fidelium, and no.25 referring to the authority of the Roman Pontiff. Consequently, it is not surprising that
Paul VI would say of St. Thomas, in this context, that for us he is
"one of the most authoritative and
convincing witnesses to the providential existence of that Magisterium entrusted by Christ to his Church, a Magistenium
that does not block up the roads of knowledge but rather opens them up, straightens them and defends them" (Address, 14 September 1974, in L'Osservatore
Romano, 26 September 1974).
65.Cf. Surtz, E., The Works and Days
of John Fisher, (Cambridge, Mass., 1967) p.396.
66 "Yet this Magisterium is not superior
to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. . . All that it proposes
for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith"
(Dei Verbum, no.10.b, Flannery,
67. Rex, R., "The Polemical Theologian," in Bradshaw and Duffy (eds.),
Humanism, Reform and the Reformation,
Cambridge, 1989, pp.118-122.
68. Ibid., p.118.
70. I am indebted to Rev. Dr. Philip Griffin's "Newman's Thought on Church
and Scripture," published in the Irish Theological Quarterly, 56 (1990), pp.287-306 for the references to Newman's works quoted here.
71. Essays Critical and Historical, Vol. II, London 1913, p.353.
72. Ibid., Vol. 1, p.121.
73. An Essay on the Development of Christian
Doctrine, London 1845, p.338.
74. Present Position of the Catholics
in England, London 1913, p.222.
75. The Idea of a University, Oxford 1976, p.377.
76. Select Treatises of St Athanasius, Vol. II, London 1920, p.92.
77.Cf. Dei Verbum, nos. 7-10, Flannery, ibid., pp.754-755.
78. Not only is the recovery of the role of the Magisterium a necessity, but so
also is the restoration of the perennial values of the exegesis of the Fathers and the great Doctors of the Church,
if the progress made at the level of a rational hermeneutic of Scripture is to reach the full potential of its
development in medio Ecclesiae.
First published in Homiletic
& Pastoral Review, July 1991, pp 11-17 and August-September
1991, pp 24-32,71.
Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 1991, 2003.
This version: 17th January 2003