The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 3 of 3)

In today’s post I’m going to treat briefly the third question of the PBC in its document on the parousia. Then I’ll offer an extended treatment of how one might explain this document’s apparent discrepancy with the view of respected exegetes today who are open to the possibility that the early Church expected the Second Coming of Christ to occur in the first century. This is a critical issue because here we have an important biblical teaching which on the surface appears to be wrong. That said, here’s the last question:

Question 3: “Whether, after considering [the phrase “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” of 1 Thess 4:15] we may reject as far-fetched and unfounded the explanation traditional in Catholic schools–which explains the words of St. Paul in 1 Thess 4:15-17 without in any way implying the affirmation of a Parousia so imminent that the apostle added himself and his readers to those of the faithful who would survive to meet Christ.”

Response 3: “Negative.”

This question makes a helpful contribution to our discussion of the early Church’s seeming expectation of a first-century parousia, for it explicitly addresses a biblical text that has been a stumbling block for exegetes. 1 Thess 4 numbers among the texts I provided in my first post on the problem of the parousia, which I recommended reading first before reading on if you have not done so already.

If I am reading it correctly, here the PBC document is not demanding that Catholic exegetes reject the possibility that Paul thought the parousia would occur in his lifetime. Rather, the question is phrased so as to teach that the traditional explanation (i.e. the view that Paul did not expect the Second Coming in his day) is not to be rejected as far-fetched and unfounded. There is quite a difference between these two, and I think the PBC was exercising due prudence in avoiding a blanket condemnation of the view that Paul expected Christ to return in his lifetime.

So much for my brief commentary on the three questions of this PBC document. By way of transition to a fuller answer to the problem at hand, I now wish to turn our attention to the place this PBC document and others like it occupy today in the Church. The reality is that a great number of Catholic exegetes today have come to different conclusions from those of the PBC in its early-20th century documents. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the practice of Catholic exegetes today often displays little regard for Pius X’s 1907 motu proprio stating that all Catholics “are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission.”

In addition to being visible in the documents of the PBC published over the last half-century, the Church’s new perspective is abundantly clear also in the way Joseph Ratzinger has long spoken of and practiced exegesis, continuing to do so even now as Pope Benedict XVI.

Indeed, in his press release of the CDF Instruction Concerning the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, this theologian spoke of the PBC’s past decrees as “anti-modernistic decisions at the beginning of this century.” He had in mind here statements made on the topics of historical narratives (1905), the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (1906), the authorship and historicity of the Gospel of John (1907), the character and authorship of the Book of Isaiah (1908), the historicity of the first three chapters of Genesis (1909), the authorship and time of composition of the Psalms (1910), Matthew (1911) Mark and Luke (1912), the Synoptic question (1912), Acts (1913), the Pastoral Epistles (1913), Hebrews (1914), and, among others, the parousia discussed here. The question taken up in these decrees deals with the extent to which Catholics could have recourse to the modern historical-critical approach for insight into the Scriptures, and the response given by the PBC was, in general, “very little.”

But if Catholics today do not consistently heed the pronouncements of the PBC concerning the appropriateness of modern exegesis, this begs the question: what was the main point of these decrees, and does their substance remain valid today? In the same document just mentioned, Benedict observes that, “as warning calls against rash and superficial accommodations, they remain perfectly legitimate,” since they “performed the great service of saving [the Church] from foundering in the bourgeois-liberal world.” For example, from our privileged vantage point a century later, we can see that the principal goal of the PBC’s decree on Matthew did not actually consist in its assertions concerning when and by whom the Gospel was composed. Rather, the substance of what the Magisterium intended to convey at the time and which remains true today is the need to safeguard the authority of the Scriptures, the historicity of Jesus, and the Church’s divine foundation in the wake of deconstructive intellectual currents which would undermine the faith.

Be that as it may, immediately following the words of Benedict cited above, he soberly acknowledges, “Nevertheless, with respect to particular aspects of their content, [the early 20th-century PBC decrees] were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time.” Here we find Benedict implicitly distinguishing the substance of the PBC’s teaching from its accidental features which were “superseded” over time, a reality observable in the way Benedict himself elsewhere speaks of the relationship of exegesis and the Magisterium.

Addressing the PBC as its president on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, Benedict wrote that this delicate issue was “one of the problems of my own autobiography.” While vigorously defending faith’s role in exegesis, he admits:

It remains correct that by making the judgments that we have mentioned, the Magisterium overextended the range of what faith can guarantee with certainty and that, as a result, the Magisterium’s credibility was injured and the freedom needed for exegetical research and interrogation was unduly narrowed.

It is striking to witness in this passage the humility and boldness of a Church official who recognizes that a frank appraisal of the limits of the Magisterium’s authority is a necessary step towards arriving at a deeper understanding of its nature and relationship to exegesis.

Also revelatory of Benedict’s stance towards modern exegesis is the evocative portrait this document, entitled Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church, paints of his intellectual predecessors, who yearned, “like Moses on Mount Nebo, to gaze upon the Promised Land of an exegesis liberated from every shackle of magisterial surveillance.” He tells the story of Friedrich Wilhelm Maier, whose flowering academic career was dealt a sharp blow by the Magisterium. The latter decreed that the commentary into which Maier had been pouring all his energy had to be “altogether expunged from the education of the clergy” since it defended the so-called two-source theory, which Benedict countenances by telling us that today it is “almost universally accepted” as an account of the Synoptic problem. In light of this situation, he therefore sympathetically states, “It is perfectly understandable that, in the days when the decisions of the then Pontifical Biblical Commission prevented them from a clean application of the historical-critical method, Catholic theologians should cast envious glances at their Protestant colleagues.”

How, then, are we to explain the about-face in the Church’s attitude toward the modern historical-critical method today? Benedict offers a vivid comparison to make his case:

The process of intellectual struggle over these issues had become a necessary task can in a certain sense be compared with the similar process triggered by the Galileo affair. Until Galileo, it had seemed that the geocentric world picture was inextricably bound up with the revealed message of the Bible, and that champions of the heliocentric world picture were destroying the core of Revelation. It became necessary fully to reconceive the relationship between the outward form of presentation and the real message of the whole, and it required a gradual process before the criteria could be elaborated. Something analogous can be said with respect to history. At first it seemed as if the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses or of the Gospels to the four individuals whom tradition names as their authors were indispensable conditions of the trustworthiness of Scripture and, therefore, of the faith founded upon it. Here, too, it was necessary for the territories to be re-surveyed, as it were; the basic relationship between faith and history needed to be re-thought. This sort of clarification could not be achieved overnight.

In this passage, Benedict sheds insight into the reason certain features of the PBC decrees in question stood in need of correction: those who crafted the statements were under the (false) assumption that the trustworthiness of Scripture–and thereby the faith itself–would be undermined if the Church entertained findings of historical-criticism that contradicted ancient traditions concerning such matters as the authorship and dating of biblical books. Over time the Church came to see that this premise was incorrect, but Benedict regrets that in the meantime the research of many scholars like Friedrich Maier was halted in its tracks and “much real wheat was lost along with the chaff.” He incisively indicates that this problem was symptomatic of an “anti-Modernistic neurosis which had again and again crippled the Church since the turn of the century,” an attitude which led to “an almost neurotic denial of all that was new.”

Despite his frank criticisms of certain aspects of past magisterial pronouncements, Benedict’s approach is worlds apart from an attitude that would conclude from such observations that the Magisterium has erred in an essential matter and thereby abdicated its authority to teach Christians today. For, while he does not shy away from facing the most alarming challenges to the Magisterium’s teaching authority, he writes in work Theological Highlights of Vatican II, “Yet, neither do we lightly condemn the past, even if we see it as a necessary part of a process of knowing.”

To be sure certain accidental elements of magisterial teaching have been superseded over the centuries, but we saw above that Benedict offers a framework within which to ascertain the substance of the decrees which was and remains sound doctrine today despite the ostensible change in the Church’s attitude towards “modernism.” At their core, these early statements of the PBC were warning cries against an indiscriminate application of the historical-critical method which would undermine the authority of Scripture. They are necessary to counter what he describes in his essay Biblical Interpretation in Conflict as the Kantian “ready-made philosophy” that would use historical criticism to draw false and destructive conclusions from the premise that God cannot intervene in history and reveal himself to man. Benedict tells us that such a being “is not the God of the Bible,” and proceeds to offer some examples of teachings which, in contrast with the subjects treated by the PBC, could never be altered as the result of historical-critical findings: the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.

Concerning this last point, Benedict tells us that Jesus’ bodily resurrection “is the meaning of the empty tomb,” as if to preempt any objectors who would claim that the essence of the empty tomb lay in a spiritual experience of the apostles and not a direct encounter with the Son of God in his glorified flesh. In short, Benedict emphasizes that the Christian faith requires us to profess “that Jesus–in all that is essential–was effectively who the Gospels reveal him to be.”

Wrapping up this post, I want to say a word about why I spent so much time on the PBC when our main discussion is supposed to be the parousia.

First, the PBC’s statements on the topic are one of the few (if not only) documents to address the particular problem at hand.

Second, it is a big problem if the magisterium today seems to contradict the magisterium of yesterday, so I believe that a compelling answer needed to be offered.

Finally, as we will see in blog posts beginning next week, Pope Benedict makes statements which seem to contradict the teaching of the PBC discussed in the last few posts. I therefore want to provide a justification for the development of doctrine that has taken place within the Catholic Church on this subject.

With that said, thanks for reading. I welcome comments and suggestions. For a fuller treatment of today’s topic, you can download my talk The Substance of Catholic Doctrine I: The Church & Exegesis.




Matthew Ramage



Related Posts