Wednesday, September 06, 2017

‘Held in Honor’: The Roman Catholic View of Textual Criticism

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While doing some reading tonight on Roman Catholic theology, I rediscovered my copy of Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu on the promotion of Biblical studies. There is much of interest in this document, especially in its robust defense of Scripture’s inerrancy and its explanations on the role of the Latin Vulgate in Catholic theology. 

What most caught my attention, however, was the material on textual criticism. Near the very the beginning, the document turns to Augustine to set the stage. In clarifying the nature of inerrancy, the encyclical quotes Augustine as follows:
Nor is the sacred writer to be taxed with error, if “copyists have made mistakes in the text of the Bible,” or, “if the real meaning of a passage remains ambiguous.”
This qualification about scribal errors is, of course, stock-in-trade for Evangelicals and Augustine is often who we turn to for early support for it. Then later, the document becomes more explicit on the importance of textual criticism for the proper study of the Bible when it says this:
17. The great importance which should be attached to this kind of criticism was aptly pointed out by Augustine, when, among the precepts to be recommended to the student of the Sacred Books, he put in the first place the care to possess a corrected text. “The correction of the codices” – so says this most distinguished Doctor of the Church – “should first of all engage the attention of those who wish to know the Divine Scripture so that the uncorrected may give place to the corrected.” In the present day indeed this art, which is called textual criticism and which is used with great and praiseworthy results in the editions of profane writings, is also quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books, because of that very reverence which is due to the Divine Oracles. For its very purpose is to insure that the sacred text be restored, as perfectly as possible, be purified from the corruptions due to the carelessness of the copyists and be freed, as far as may be done, from glosses and omissions, from the interchange and repetition of words and from all other kinds of mistakes, which are wont to make their way gradually into writings handed down through many centuries.

18. It is scarcely necessary to observe that this criticism, which some fifty years ago not a few made use of quite arbitrarily and often in such wise that one would say they did so to introduce into the sacred text their own preconceived ideas, today has rules so firmly established and secure, that it has become a most valuable aid to the purer and more accurate editing of the sacred text and that any abuse can easily be discovered. Nor is it necessary here to call to mind – since it is doubtless familiar and evident to all students of Sacred Scripture – to what extent namely the Church has held in honor these studies in textual criticism from the earliest centuries down even to the present day.

19. Today therefore, since this branch of science has attained to such high perfection, it is the honorable, though not always easy, task of students of the Bible to procure by every means that as soon as possible may be duly published by Catholics editions of the Sacred Books and of ancient versions, brought out in accordance with these standards, which, that is to say, unite the greatest reverence for the sacred text with an exact observance of all the rules of criticism. And let all know that this prolonged labor is not only necessary for the right understanding of the divinely-given writings, but also is urgently demanded by that piety by which it behooves us to be grateful to the God of all providence, Who from the throne of His majesty has sent these books as so many paternal letters to His own children.
I haven’t read any further than this encyclical to know whether this view has changed since the momentous Vatican II council. But I thought it interesting, not least because of how it overlaps with Evangelical views of the importance of textual criticism.

7 comments :

  1. Hi.
    In the Document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" (April 23, 1993) in # I.A.3: appears:
    «Textual criticism, as practiced for a very long time, begins the series of scholarly operations. Basing itself on the testimony of the oldest and best manuscripts, as well as of papyri, certain ancient versions and patristic texts, textual-criticism seeks to establish, according to fixed rules, a biblical text as close as possible to the original».
    http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp.htm

    Here you can find several Catholic Church Documents related to Biblical Studies
    http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/

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  2. Pius XII: "This criticism, which some fifty years ago not a few made use of quite arbitrarily and often in such wise that one would say they did so to introduce into the sacred text their own preconceived ideas."

    Given that this would have meant 1893 or thereabouts, one legitimately might wonder which "not a few" textual critics were considered by the RC church to have been arbitrary and/or biased in their reconstruction of the NT text.

    Would he have meant Westcott-Hort and their supporters? Burgon/Scrivener and their supporters? Or anyone who at that time departed from the "official" Latin Vulgate? Seems to be an interesting topic for further exploration.

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    1. Indeed. It might well have included any of the editions behind Nestle's edition. But who knows.

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  3. I have read that within the Roman Catholic use of the terminology, the term "inerrant" is reserved for Scripture, while the term "infallible" is reserved for the Church.

    However, when Dei Verbum (from Vatican II) says that Scripture does not err, it specifies that this is in teaching "that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation." I believe that this allows for a range of opinion that would include conservatives holding to a verbal plenary inerrancy, and others holding to a partial inerrancy that would not agree with what evangelicals usually mean when they use that term.

    Given RC theology, the distinction between inerrant Scripture and infallible Church makes sense to me, since "inerrant" merely indicates that it does not have errors, whereas infallible means that it is not capable of having them. And what Scripture says has already been said, but the Church may yet issue authoritative statements that have not yet been said, so it's not enough just to say that the Church hasn't erred so far, but also that it can't be susceptible to erring (of course this too would not be meant as an exhaustive claim about all the Church does, but limited to its authoritative proclamations in its role as magisterium).

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    1. Yeah, I understand there is some debate among Catholics about whether the inerrancy clause in Dei Verbum is qualified. Brant Pietre gives a strong defense of a verbal plenary view of it in his essay in The Sacred Text (Gorgias Press) edited by Mike Bird. His argument was convincing to me, but, then again, his essay is my only real encounter with the debate.

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  4. Paolo Trovato9/06/2017 8:46 pm

    It would be no less interesting to know which are the models of perfection in textual criticism (" this branch of science has attained to such high perfection", "this art, which is called textual criticism and which is used with great and praiseworthy results in the editions of profane writings, is also quite rightly employed in the case of the Sacred Books [...].. For its very purpose is to insure that the sacred text be restored, as perfectly as possible, be purified from the corruptions due to the carelessness of the copyists". There is no room for Bédier 1929, who wasn't a developer of "rules so firmly established and secure, that it has become a most valuable aid to the purer and more accurate editing of the sacred text ". But who was the model? Dom Quentin (1926), with his readings, or Paul Maas (1927), with his indicative errors?

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  5. The modern Church has had its moments like the American bishops' decision to use "virgin" for 7:14 in defiance of their own translation committee. Like Frank said in the classic "Scarface", "Of course not everyone always follows the rules."

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