Saturday, October 08, 2005

Catholic Church no longer Bible-believing?

I really didn't do justice to the week I had with my previous post.

A friend sent me an email recently, raising the alarm over this article, which claimed that the Catholic Church no longer swore by the Bible. After reading through it, however, I'm convinced that while there is some cause for concern, the article is really more media spin than any actual serious deviation from historic Christian orthodoxy on the part of the Catholics. After some thought, I've decided to make public my initial reply to my friend, with some refinements.

I would first of all, though, affirm that I bear no malice or animosity to Ms. Ruth Gledhill, the writer of the said article, and who I'm sure certainly couldn't have been helped by her overzealous editors who slapped a rather sensationalist title on her piece. I just want to show that her article does not anywhere near conclusively prove her conclusion.

One main problem throughout her article, I think, is a problem of definition. She often uses terms in ways that might differ from the bishops' meaning, and also, evangelical Christians, without being sufficiently aware of the nuances involved. The way she uses the word "literal(ly)", I think, is extremely important, because I think what she often means by that is actually "literalistic(ally)". So I'll like to define those two terms upfront.

A literalistic view of the Bible is generally a wooden way of interpreting the Bible. A literalistic reading doesn't take into account literary devices such as metaphor, hyperbole, parallelism and so on, as well as not sufficiently recognising that the many genres of the Bible (letter, poetry, narrative, prophecy etc.) affect the way we read. It is an anti-intellectual view of reading the Bible, and those who read the Bible in such a way end up advocating views that are never actually supported by the Bible, such as a complete ban on alcohol whatever the circumstances.

A literal view, on the other hand, recognises the Bible as fundamentally true, historic, and as the word of God, which makes it unlike any other book we have, but also recognises that the Bible is, among other things, literature, and we need to read it like we do any other book, with the help of the Spirit. You wouldn't read a love poem the same way you read your Science buku rujukan/reference book, would you?



Now let's get into the article itself. Original sentences from the article are in red, any comments will be in black.

THE hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has published a teaching document instructing the faithful that some parts of the Bible are not actually true.

The writer immediately lays out the conclusion of her article, and our job as readers is to find out whether the rest of her article backs up this conclusion, which I contend, it doesn't.

[The Catholic bishops:] “We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision,” they say in The Gift of Scripture. And later on in the article ...“We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters.”

Now I would be really interested to know in what context those statements were made. The way Gledhill writes it of course makes evangelicals reach for the alarm bell (and liberals rejoice). But in truth, those statements could be perfectly sound. Scripture does not depict everything in a scientific manner, because its main interest is theological (ie. matters of soteriology, Christology etc. or in layman's language, about salvation history, the person of Christ etc.). so it isn't "scientifically accurate" in the sense that its interest does not lie in how the world works from a scientific viewpoint, although by no means does that mean that it is scientifically unsound. (see The Agora's notes on whether a conflict between science and religion exist.)

Nor does it record every single moment of history precisely, but only that which God is interested in bringing to our attention. So for eg., I think King Jeroboam (or one of the Israelite kings, I can't remember which) is mentioned quite extensively in quite a few historical records outside the Bible for his exploits, but in the Bible, he is only mentioned as "doing evil in the sight of the Lord". The Bible is only interested in that aspect of Jeroboam. Again, it's hard to tell because we don't have the actual documents to see the what context these assertions were made, but I would add that we should choose to withhold judgment at this stage, simply because we haven't seen the document itself yet. The spin found in the rest of the article is an additional reason for us not to jump to conclusions too quickly.

The document is timely, coming as it does amid the rise of the religious Right, in particular in the US.

A little more media spin here, with the statement "the document is timely". This implicitly passes a value judgment. If this was an opinion piece, then that would be fine. However, it isn't. Now, I actually largely agree with the postmodern critique that pure neutrality is a myth, and that all human beings bring their presuppositions with them to the table. Nevertheless, the right thing to do is to acknowledge those presuppositions when we recognise them, so it would have been probably better to write "To some/To those on the left/To those who have been pushing for a progressive agenda in the Church/something along those lines, the document is timely".

Some Christians want a literal interpretation of the story of creation, as told in Genesis, taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools, believing “intelligent design” to be an equally plausible theory of how the world began.

But the first 11 chapters of Genesis, in which two different and at times conflicting stories of creation are told, are among those that this country’s Catholic bishops insist cannot be “historical”. At most, they say, they may contain “historical traces”.


The first paragraph, I'm sure, is factual. But the spin on it comes from the impression created by the earlier paragraphs, that in doing so, these Christians are going against "scientific accuracy". Now those who hold to a literalistic view might do so, but certainly not those who hold to a literal view. (For a good example, see this letter to the Guardian from Nigel NcQuoid, director of schools at Emmanuel Schools Foundation.)

Also, it should be noted that not all Intelligent Design advocates are Christians. ID is not just a 'pet project' of a few Christians, it is a wider movement than that. Some advocate ID on purely scientific grounds as they believe the scientific evidence points towards an intelligent Designer. Heck, Antony Flew, who until a few months ago was the Western world's most influential atheist, has now changed tack at the age of 81 and accepted ID as plausible! Here the article presents it as if only gullible, naive Christians believe in intelligent design.

I am concerned though, about the second paragraph above. I agree that Genesis is literary, but it is also historical. Again, it's tough to judge without the proper context. If the Bishops mean it in the sense that it's not necessary to be literal 6-day creationists, then that's ok. But if they don't, then yes, we have a bone to pick with them.

The document shows how far the Catholic Church has come since the 17th century, when Galileo was condemned as a heretic for flouting a near-universal belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible by advocating the Copernican view of the solar system.

There is more media spin at work here. The first sentence implicitly applauds this move by linking it with progress, and all of its connotations. The bigger beef I have with this sentence though, is the citing of what is known as 'the Galileo myth'. It has become commonplace and very popular to show that the Catholic Church of the time was backward and anti-science in general by quoting this example. Nevertheless, historians have shown that in fact, the church was an enormous contributor to the science of astronomy at that time, and that Galileo's ideas were actually popular with some of the infuential churchmen of the time. Where the church erred was in giving in to pressure from fellow academicians who were very uneasy with Galileo's unorthodox ideas and who might even have been a little jealous. So the caricature of science vs. religion often sketched by the use of this example is unfounded. The church should, by all means, lead the way when it comes to admitting their mistakes, but this isn't one of them. The article is determined to infer a science vs. religion conflict when it doesn't actually exist.

In the document, the bishops acknowledge their debt to biblical scholars. They say the Bible must be approached in the knowledge that it is “God’s word expressed in human language” and that proper acknowledgement should be given both to the word of God and its human dimensions.

Nothing controversial here. All Christians agree with this (I hope!).

They say the Church must offer the gospel in ways “appropriate to changing times, intelligible and attractive to our contemporaries”.

This isn't actually an observation directly related to the article, but I hope that Christians recognise that although there is absolutely nothing wrong with the statement made here, we have to guard against a tendency to be so concerned with "relevance" that we become "irrelevant" in the end. God is unchanging, and we can trust Him to be eternally relevant.

The Bible is true in passages relating to human salvation, they say, but continue: “We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters.”

Now here is cause for concern. So on what criteria did the bishops decide what is true and what isn't? And if God is the God of the entire life, then surely a fundamental mistake has been made in having a two-tiered approach to life, "secular" and "sacred", as if both must be separated from the other.

They go on to condemn fundamentalism for its “intransigent intolerance” and to warn of “significant dangers” involved in a fundamentalist approach.

“Such an approach is dangerous, for example, when people of one nation or group see in the Bible a mandate for their own superiority, and even consider themselves permitted by the Bible to use violence against others.”


Problem here is one of definition. In the early 20th century, when the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate was in full swing, we could justifiably use evangelicalism and fundamentalism interchangeably, since they would have more or less meant the same thing. But now it's not so simple. I myself would not describe myself as fundamentalist, although in a sense, all evangelicals are because we hold to the "fundamentals". But fundamentalism can also mean in a narrower sense, those who hold to a more literalistic view of the Bible. These sometimes might manifest itself in rather anti-intellectual, extra-biblical forms such as KJV-Onlyism (a belief that only the King James Bible is the "real" Bible). Jerry Falwell might, I think, be accurately described as a fundamentalist. However, the media in general, and not just this article, tend to lump fundamentalists and evangelicals together as one, broadbrushing them. Thus you often see someone like Pat Robertson and not say, Charles Colson dominating the news. Therefore, seen in this light, the bishops' forceful critique is right on the mark.

Of the notorious anti-Jewish curse in Matthew 27:25, “His blood be on us and on our children”, a passage used to justify centuries of anti-Semitism, the bishops say these and other words must never be used again as a pretext to treat Jewish people with contempt. Describing this passage as an example of dramatic exaggeration, the bishops say they have had “tragic consequences” in encouraging hatred and persecution. “The attitudes and language of first-century quarrels between Jews and Jewish Christians should never again be emulated in relations between Jews and Christians.”

Agreed. I'm puzzled by the article's use of the phrase "dramatic exaggeration". If the bishops simply meant that Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was emphasizing the reaction of the crowd as part of his eyewitness account of the scene (ie. as any good journalist/writer knows: you can't report every single thing that happen, so you choose the most noteworthy moments to record, and Matthew decides that the reaction of the crowd is worth highlighting, for various reasons.), then the writer or editor has again subtly spun this paragraph so that it seems as if the bishops are condemning the words of the Bible itself rather than a particular interpretation of the passage.

As examples of passages not to be taken literally, the bishops cite the early chapters of Genesis, comparing them with early creation legends from other cultures, especially from the ancient East. The bishops say it is clear that the primary purpose of these chapters was to provide religious teaching and that they could not be described as historical writing.

Now this is a very cleverly spun paragraph. Therefore, we need to go through this carefully. Firstly, she says that the bishops give "examples of passages not to be taken literally". As we established above, what the bishops could really be saying is not to take the passages "literalistically". One doesn't have to slavishly hold to a literal six-day account, as some Christians insist on. (Sometimes some of these Christians question your Christianity if you don't agree with them on this!) It is just one of a few possible interpretations.

My own opinion is that Genesis 1-3 uses quite literary, symbolic language, so it is possible that the earth might not have been formed in six literal days (although of course God could possibly have done so!). Hear what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that Genesis 1-3 is not true. NOR am I saying that Genesis 1-3 is not historic. I'm just saying that Christians have divergent views on this issue, with some being old-earth creationists and others young-earth creationists. I think the main point of Genesis 1 here is simply to show that God is ultimately the Creator, and that all source of life springs from him. The scientific details are a matter of conscience for the Christian to explore for himself and to decide. So, actually, if the bishops mean what I just described, then they're right: the primary point of these chapters "was to provide religious teaching", or to put it better, to prove a theological point.

Secondly, the article says that the bishops "[compare Genesis] with early creation legends from other cultures, especially from the ancient East." What she doesn't say is HOW they compare them. The way it's written, there is an inference that the bishops find that Genesis is similar to many of the creation legends of the time, thus leading the bishops to the conclusion that their primary purpose is to provide religious teaching. The truth is, the bishops could easily have found Genesis NOT similar to the creation legends of the time and reached the same conclusion.

You see, the creation legends of the time often have these characteristics:
1. Describing how a nation's gods came into being.
2. Explain how a particular culture's society functioned, and to give credibility to the people who were important in that culture, by explaining where their power came from.
Those are historical concerns, isn't it? Meanwhile, Genesis:
1. simply assumes God is there from the beginning.
2. does not start with any direct references to the nation of Israel, Jerusalem or the temple.

So actually, the bishops could have:
1. said that the Bible should not be taken literalistically
2. meaning that one musn't take the literal 6-day interpretation as the only legitimate interpretation
3. cited egs. whereby they compared Genesis 1-3 to other creation legends
4. recognising that Genesis uses the same genre/generic conventions as these creation legends (thus eschewing a literalistic interpretation)
5. but, noticed their differences as well.
6. thus saying that actually,
a) whereas other creation legends were preoccupied with the origins of their cultures and gods (historical writing)
b) Christianity simply assumed God was there in the beginning, and that He was the Creator and Ruler of the whole world! (religious or theological teaching)

But of course, reading this article, you wouldn't get that impression, do you? Now, I concede that the bishops might not have meant it in the way I listed above, but consdering the spin on the article so far, I say we approach it with a pinch of skepticism.

Similarly, they refute the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, in which the writer describes the work of the risen Jesus, the death of the Beast and the wedding feast of Christ the Lamb.

The bishops say: “Such symbolic language must be respected for what it is, and is not to be interpreted literally. We should not expect to discover in this book details about the end of the world, about how many will be saved and about when the end will come.”


Again, if you take the word literal here to mean literalistically, then the bishops are perfectly justified in what they say. Notice what the article does here.

1. In the first paragraph, the article claims that the bishops refutes the apocalyptic prophecies of Revelation.
2. The writer/editor states a fact: Revelation "describes the work of the risen Jesus, the death of the Beast and the wedding feast of Christ the Lamb".
3. Then the quote from the bishops comes immediately after. In the readers' mind, we immediately think that the bishops are saying that the work of the risen Jesus, death of the Beast etc. is symbolic and not true, because we instinctively make the causal link.
4. But look at the wording of the actual quote. "...we should not expect to discover in this book details about the end of the world, about how many will be saved and about when the end will come.”
5. Nowhere in the quote do we find that the bishops actually refute the apocalyptic prophecies.
6. All they say, rightly, is that we don't know certain things, such as the timing of the end of the world (even Jesus doesn't know this!), or how many will be saved (that's right, we don't, unless we're Jehovah's Witnesses!)

Revelation is a very difficult book, but I think many, in trying to figure out who the Antichrist is or whatever, miss the main message of the book, i.e. the Lamb wins! We might not know everything, but God gives us everything we need to know. And we know that we're on the winning side.

I noticed that Cardinal Cormac O'Connor gives the foreword, and I admit that I have a hard time believing that he would go this far. Therefore, it seems to me that the article has not conclusively proved that the Catholic Church no longer swears by the authority of the Bible. Rather, it seems to be the slant of the article that gives off that impression.

However, I hope that this hasn't proven merely to be cutting down an article to size merely for the sake of it. I immediately apologise if there is an ungracious tone throughout, as I certainly don't mean to demean the writer of the article, merely to expose the spin placed on the article itself. So I think it fitting to end with this little sentence near the end of the article and leave us to ponder on it:

They say people today are searching for what is worthwhile, what has real value, what can be trusted and what is really true.

P/S Traditionally, the Catholic Church does not have as strong a view of the Bible as Protestants, because they hold that official teaching of the church is on par with Scripture. So even if they would no longer swear by the Bible (which I doubt), and we would be saddened, nevertheless it would not be such a huge deviation to them as to Protestants, who hold the authority of Scripture above all else. (Please, no flame wars on that topic here!)


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Anonymous Wynn said...

Hi BK, I read that article on the BBC website when it was first published. The headline caught my attention, but after reading it, I didn't learn anything new to be honest. All my views were consistent with what they claimed were "historical" or "not historical", though I wouldn't use those words. The article made it sound as if Christians now have to swallow their own words and start reading the Bible afresh, when in fact, all it does it affirm the way evangelical Christians have been reading the Bible for centuries on end. At the end of the day, it's all just spin.

12:56 pm  
Blogger BK said...

Haven't read the BBC version, so I can't comment on that. I guess my main aim in writing this was two-fold, firstly to counter any over-reaction on the part of some Christians by showing, as you said, most of the article was just spin and doesn't really say anything new. At the same time, I hoped to show those not familiar with the Christian scriptures that a lot of the conjecture involved in articles such as these aren't actually true, and hopefully, they might want to explore the Bible for themselves to see what it actually says.

Whether I succeeded in doing so, you be the judge. :-)

11:54 pm  
Blogger SK said...

I concur with the intention of your response to that article. It is absolutely necessary.

I have deep respect for the scholastic and spiritual disciplines of the Roman Catholic tradition. And this inclination was heightened throughout my stay in the Vatican. We have much to learn.

5:48 am  

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