An Interview with Brant Pitre
Catholic Biblical Theology for the 21st Century
Dr. Brant Pitre is Research Professor of Scripture at the Augustine Institute. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame, where he specialized in the study of the New Testament and ancient Judaism. He is the author of several books, including Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.
Why has the Church insisted that Catholics know the Bible?
That’s a great question. In order to answer it, I’d first like to point out just how emphatic the Church is about our need to know the Bible well.
Over fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council declared that the Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful… to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” (Dei Verbum 24). That’s a pretty striking exhortation. For one thing, it is not just for priests, or consecrated religious, but for everyone—laity included. Notice here that Vatican II specifically calls us not just to occasionalreading of Scripture, but to “frequent” reading of the Bible. This, I think, is very much still a challenge that needs to be met among Catholics today.
In the very next line, the Second Vatican Council gave the reason we all need to read the Bible frequently: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” (Dei Verbum 24). With these famous words, taken from the writings of St. Jerome, the Church made crystal clear just how necessary it is for all Christians to know the Bible. If you say that you believe in Jesus, but you are ignorant of the Scriptures, then you don’t actually know the person in whom you claim to have faith. As human experience teaches us, you cannot love someone that you do not know. Put positively, this means that if you want to really know and love Christ, then the study of Scripture isn’t ‘optional’. It’s necessary. Because the Bible is the Word of God, when we read it, we do not simply gain ‘information’. When we read Scripture, we encounter a person—the person of Christ, who is “the Word made flesh” (cf. John 1:14).
Do Christians study the bible in a way different from secular academics?
Yes. I’ve already mentioned one of the biggest differences: Catholics believe that when we read the Scripture, we are not just reading a ‘dead letter’. We are encountering the living person of Jesus Christ.
By contrast, from a secular academic perspective, the Bible is simply a vast library of ancient human writings. To be sure, these writings are historically significant because of the central role they have played in human history and Western culture in particular. But that is all they are—human writings. The books of Scripture are no different than any other ancient texts, except that they eventually were gathered together and “canonized” by the Jewish and Christian religious communities.
From a Catholic point of view, this secular approach to Scripture is right in what it affirms but wrong in what it denies. Yes, the books of Scripture are fully human documents. This is precisely why the Second Vatican Council encouraged Catholic biblical scholars (commonly known as ‘exegetes’) to utilize the insights from history, language, literature, and culture—all the tools of literary and historical study—in order to ascertain what the human authors of Scripture really intended to say in their writings (Dei Verbum 12). At the same time, as Catholics we believe that the Scriptures are morethan merely human documents. We believe that they are “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16)—since they have “God as their author” (Dei Verbum 11). This means that we do not treat them as merely human documents. We must also seek to discover what God wishes to reveal through the human words of Scripture.
Do Catholics study the bible in a way different than Protestants do?
Absolutely. On the one hand, like traditional Protestantism, Catholics believe that all of Scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16) and therefore any given text of Scripture should be interpreted in light of the whole canon of Scripture. On the other hand, Protestant interpretation has also traditionally insisted on the principle of “Scripture alone” (Latin Sola Scriptura). According to this dictum, the Bible must be interpreted without any reference to later tradition or doctrines.
By contrast, Vatican II made it very clear that Catholic Scriptural interpretation does not restrict itself to the Bible alone. In fact, the Church insists that Catholic interpretation always involve “three criteria” of interpreting the Bible in accordance with the Holy Spirit who authored it. Catholic interpreters must be attentive to (1) “the content and unity of the whole Scripture”; (2) “the living Tradition of the whole church”; and (3) “the truths of faith… within the whole plan of salvation” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 112-114). Notice here that the Catechism uses the expression “the whole” three times. What this means is that Catholic interpretation has an express concern to never take any biblical text out of context. Instead, Catholics interpret every single passage of the Bible in light of the whole: the whole Scripture, the whole Tradition, and the whole plan of salvation.
In fact, that’s what the word “catholic” (katholikos) actually means: “according to” (kata) the “whole” (holos)! In short, Scriptural interpretation should always look at every passage of the Bible in light of, well, everything. That’s what’s distinctive about Catholic exegesis.
Why is it appropriate that an Institute under the patronage of St. Augustine should have such a focus on the Bible?
Because Augustine of Hippo was quite simply one of the greatest interpreters of Scripture in the entire history of the Church. I will never forget the first time I read Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God. The entire second half of this massive work is basically a biblical theology of the history of salvation, in which Augustine begins with Genesis and takes you all the way through to the book of Revelation and the end of time. Like most people, I was familiar with Augustine primarily from the first half of his largely autobiographical Confessions. However, when I opened up the pages of The City of God, I was blown away by just how biblical a theologian Augustine really was. Over and over and over again, he quotes the Scriptures. For Augustine, the Bible was very much the soulof his theology.
Augustine’s status as a giant of biblical theology became even more apparent to me when I read his somewhat less famous work, On Christian Doctrine. Although at first glance the title might sound like it should be about dogma rather than Scripture, Augustine’s work is primarily focused on the methodology of biblical interpretation and its role in Christian theology. For this reason, On Christian Doctrine is arguably the first great work of biblical hermeneutics—that is, the principles of interpretation by which we draw “meaning” (Greek hermeneia) out of the sacred text. In the 20thcentury, biblical hermeneutics became a major field of study in its own right. By focusing an entire work on this subject in the early 5th century, Augustine was literally centuries ahead of his time.
What are the projects that you would like to see the Augustine Institute undertake over the next decade and more to promote the study and love of the bible?
First, I think that the most pressing need today is to develop biblical literacy among Catholic faithful. Secular Western culture is dramatically ignorant of Scripture, and it’s getting worse—fast. Such widespread ignorance of the Bible has a direct impact on our intellectual formation at every level. We can no longer presuppose that people know the Bible; we must proposethe Scriptures. If Vatican II was right and ignorance of Scripture is truly ignorance of Christ, then it is no exaggeration to say that the New Evangelization will stand or fall on how deeply rooted it is in Scripture. In this vein, I’m delighted that the Augustine Institute is already producing high quality Bible studies for use by all the faithful, such as the Lectioseries.
Second, I also think in addition to specifically biblical study materials, allCatholic catechetical resources need to be scripturally based. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said that Catholic catechesis “must be permeated by the mindset, the spirit and the outlook of the Bible and the Gospels through assiduous contact with the texts themselves” (Verbum Domini 74). Perhaps I’m wrong, but in my experience, it is not yet the norm for Catholic catechesis to “permeated” by “assiduous contact” with the Bible! On the other hand, I’m excited to say that the Augustine Institute has already been producing catechetical materials—such as Symbolon—that are deeply scriptural in their approach to teaching Christian doctrine.
Last, but certainly not least, I would love to see the Augustine Institute produce more works of advanced biblical theology—books that are written for priests, theologians, and students of Scripture who want to put out into ‘the deep’. If you look at the Protestant Christian world of publishing, it is amazing just how many in-depth yet readable works of biblical study are constantly being written. I think that it’s important for Catholic theologians as well to write such works of scriptural study, so that the words of Vatican II might truly be fulfilled, in which the study of Scripture is “the very soul of sacred theology” (Dei Verbum 24). That is one reason why I’m both honored and excited to be a new member of the Augustine Institute. I want to help make the scriptural vision of Vatican II become a reality in the life and mission of the Church in our time.