Bible in the Church


The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, DV) and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (PBC 1993) are two documents that have many things in common as well as some noticeable differences. It must be noted clearly from the onset that PBC 1993 is an expansion of Dei Verbum 12. An exegesis of both documents shows that PBC 1993 is founded on the principles set forth in Dei Verbum 12 as in the entire document as well. In what follows an attempt shall be made to understanding this relationship in terms of similarities and differences.

Dei Verbum 12

Dei Verbum 12 stands at the middle of chapter three of the entire document and forms the center and crux of the chapter. It harmonizes numbers 11 and 13 into an independent unit within the entire document. Dei Verbum Chapter Three titled: Divine Inspiration and Interpretation could be summarized as follows: that those chosen wrote down words inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit revealed what God desired to be written. None of the Scripture writers were robbed of human intelligence or knowledge, but in a special way their human characteristics, including their limitations, were used to deliver God’s message faithfully without error. Scripture is without error in the sense that it is for our salvation, not in the sense of scientific or historical accuracy. Interpretation of Scripture comes from the Holy Spirit, too. Interpretation requires insight into historical analysis, literary analysis, understanding tradition, human sciences, and comprehending the purpose the text served to its initial audience. Interpretation must be about faithfulness to true revelation if it is to bear the proper fruit. The Bible is a text inspired by God which is entrusted to the Church for the nurturing of faith and guiding one’s life.

PBC 1993 III

It must be noted that PBC as whole is part of the reception of Vatican II. It generally amplifies the teachings of Dei Verbum especially with respect to nn11- 13 which deals with interpretation of Bible in the Church. William M. Bright makes this point clear in his contribution to Reception of Vatican II edited by Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering (2017).[1]

He writes: “In 1993, the PBC issued the document: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. While not a document of the Magisterium, this text of the PBC sets forth an interpretative program of both critical exegesis and theological application, which goes beyond DV by intensifying the place of the historical-critical exegesis with respect to other modes of interpretation and Catholic life.”[2]

The PBC 1993 text has four major sections of unequal lengths:

The first (the lengthiest) section, “Methods and Approaches for Interpretation” reviews about a dozen different interpretative methods and approaches (which the document defines as being categorically different) and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each. Within this survey, the historical-critical methods which the PBC defines as the combination of text, source, form and redaction criticisms, has the unparalleled pride of place. The body of the PBC 1993 text opens with these statements: “The historical-critical Method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts,” and given that the Scripture was composed by historically conditioned human beings, the Scripture´s “proper understanding not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.”

The second section of the PBC 1993 text, “Hermeneutical Questions” takes up two sets of concerns: first, the contributions and challenges posed by general hermeneutics, notably the philosophical work of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur; second, the multiple meanings in Scripture, such as in classic accounts of the senses of Scripture.

The Third section of the document, “Characteristics of Catholic Interpretation,” deals with a wide range of topics such as the dynamics of inner-biblical exegesis, the interpretation of the Bible within the Church´s tradition, and the present work of biblical exegesis on its own and in relation to other theological fields. There are 28 references of DV in PBC 1993 text, and 20 of those 28 references appear in section 3. This section draws from all but one chapter of DV, and the greatest number of references comes from chapter 6, “Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church.” The concentrated use of DV in section 3 of the PBC 1993 text speaks to a concern to integrate modern biblical criticism (especially the historical Critical Method) into a Catholic vision of the Scripture and Church Life.

The fourth section, “Interpretation of the Bible in the Life of the Church,” addresses the role that the Bible should presently play in the Church´s liturgy, spirituality, work of inculturation, pastoral ministry, and ecumenical endeavours. Especially important in this section is the notion of “actualization” which refers to the bringing of the literal sense to bear in a present set of lived circumstances.

The PBC 1993 can be read as a sustained methodological effort to integrate historical biblical criticism with Catholic theology and tradition (the PBC 1993 text, however, never references the theological-ecclesial principles in DV 12). But it tries to achieve this integration on grounds dictated by a construal of the historical-critical method. The PBC 1993 text unambiguously privileges the historical-critical method as “indispensable”, and the “proper understanding [of Scripture] … actually requires it.” The privileging of the historical-critical method is accompanied by the notion that the object of interpretation is the human author´s ideas communicated through the text.[3] The PBC 1993 text uses a number of phrases to articulate the object of interpretation on this model: for instance, “meaning expressed by the biblical authors”; “the intention of the authors”; “a message communicated by the author to his contemporaries.” The task of the historical-critical method is to ascertain this meaning or message, which is in turn identified with the literal sense of Scripture: “that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors.” The PBC 1993 text holds that the literal sense is basically singular – the authors generally communicated a single idea or message in a text. But the line of author´s thinking expressed in the literal sense also contains the potential for new, organically related meanings in later contexts via the notion of “dynamic aspect.”

This notion of “dynamic aspect” is how the PBC 93 text links the literal sense and the more-than-literal meanings. For instance, the document defines the spiritual sense as the meaning of texts: it is “the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life which flows from it.” Since the literal sense is the historically-conditioned expression of the author´s ideas, the spiritual sense is the extension or development of the original authors´ thinking within the context of Jesus´ death and resurrection.

DV 12 and PBC 1993 III

By means of the table below I will like to draw a line of comparisons by first of detecting some similarities and then some differences by means of words and constructs that is found in both documents as follows:

Table 1: Comparisons

Dei Verbum

“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”

(Second Vatican Council – November 18, 1965)

Interpretation of the Bible in the Church


(Pontifical Biblical Commission, April 15, 1993)

Structure: Six Chapters Four sections: I, II, III, & IV

I. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion,(6) the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.

In devoting themselves to their task, Catholic exegetes have to pay due account to the <historical character> of biblical revelation. For the two testaments express in human words bearing the stamp of their time the historical revelation communicated by God in various ways concerning himself and his plan of salvation[4]

II. To search out the intention of the sacred writersattention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.



The primary task of the exegete is to determine as accurately as possible the meaning of biblical texts in their own proper context, that is, first of all, in their particular literary and historical context and then in the context of the wider canon of Scripture. (PBC 93 III D n.4 paragraph 2)
III. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.


In particular, the discovery of the literal sense of Scripture, upon which there is now so much insistence, requires the combined efforts of those who have expertise in the fields of ancient languages, of history and culture, of textual criticism and the analysis of literary forms, and who know how to make good use of the methods of scientific criticism.


IV. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another Consequently Catholic exegesis freely makes use of the scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their linguistic, literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts, while explaining them as well through studying their sources and attending to the personality of each author.
 V. But,[5] since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written,(9) no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The church, as the people of God, is aware that it is helped by the Holy Spirit in its understanding and interpretation of Scripture.

Although each book of the Bible was written with its own particular end in view and has its own specific meaning, it takes on a deeper meaning when it becomes part of the canon as a whole. The exegetical task includes therefore bringing out the truth of Augustine’s dictum: “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, et in Novo Vetus patet” (“The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old becomes clear in the New”) (cf. “Quaest. in Hept.,” 2, 73: Collected Works of Latin Church Writers, 28, III, 3, p. 141).[6]


VI. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. What characterizes Catholic exegesis is that it deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the church, whose first concern is fidelity to the revelation attested by the Bible[7]
VII. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. Inasmuch as it is the word of God set in writing, the Bible has a richness of meaning that no one systematic theology can ever completely capture or confine. One of the principal functions of the Bible is to mount serious challenges to theological systems and to draw attention constantly to the existence of important aspects of divine revelation and human reality which have at times been forgotten or neglected in efforts at systematic reflection. The renewal that has taken place in exegetical methodology can make its own contribution to awareness in these areas.[8]
VIII. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God If, as noted above, the Scriptures belong to the entire church and are part of “the heritage of the faith,” which all, pastors and faithful, “preserve, profess and put into practice in a communal effort,” it nevertheless remains true that “responsibility for authentically interpreting the word of God, as transmitted by Scripture and tradition, has been entrusted solely to the living magisterium of the church, which exercises its authority in the name of Jesus Christ” (“Dei Verbum,” 10).

Thus, in the last resort it is the magisterium which has the responsibility of guaranteeing the authenticity of interpretation and, should the occasion arise, of pointing out instances where any particular interpretation is incompatible with the authentic Gospel. It discharges this function within the< koinonia> of the body, expressing officially the faith of the church, as a service to the church; to this end it consults theologians, exegetes and other experts, whose legitimate liberty it recognizes and with whom it remains united by reciprocal relationship in the common goal of “preserving the people of God in the truth which sets them free” (CDF, “Instruction Concerning the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” 21).[9]


The critical study of the Bible cannot isolate itself from theological research, nor from spiritual experience and the discernment of the church. Exegesis produces its best results when it is carried out in the context of the living faith of the Christian community, which is directed toward the salvation of the entire world. (Last paragraph and last statement of PBC 1993 III)


In a lecture delivered by Gerald O’Collins S.J. to the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain on 17th November 1990 at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham (London),[10] he brings out three crucial sub-division of DV 12:

Table 2: Division of Dei Verbum 12

Dei Verbum 12: I, II, III, and IV Historical- critical exegesis
Dei Verbum 12: V, VI Pneumatological exegesis
Dei Verbum 12: VII, VIII Relationship between the Exegete and the Magisterium


Historical-Critical Exegesis: Dei Verbum 12: I, II, III and IV firmly endorses the methods of historical-critical exegesis which aims to reach conclusions at three levels. At the final or third stage it tries to establish, as far as possible, the meaning and message of the original authors. Using this or that literary form, what did the biblical authors intend to say to the audience they wrote for? In the contexts in which they wrote and using the resources of their culture, what did the sacred writers have in mind? Historical-critical exegesis tries to understand the intention of the original author. The interpretation of the Scriptures, following these methods, aims to establish what the biblical authors intended to express. But that is only one side of the same coin.

Pneumatological-exegesis: “cum Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit.” These are further rules that should guide the work of exegetes in understanding and explaining the meaning of Scripture. It is the principle of reading and interpreting the Scriptures with the help of the same Spirit through whom they were written. This entails three rules: 1) attention to the content and unity of the entire Bible; 2) attention to the living tradition of the whole Church; and 3) concern for the analogy of faith.

The Third sub-division, Dei Verbum 12 VII and VIII: Establishes a relationship between the exegete and the Magisterium. The work of the exegete is a work of service to the Church. The final interpretation of the Scripture as the Word of God is the proper divinely assigned ministry of the Magisterium.

Now, these themes are taken up and expanded in PBC 1993. However, because of the PBC 1993 preference for the historical-critical method, the document treats that in Section I which is the lengthiest in the document. Thus PBC 1993 III now treats what Gerald O´Collins calls “Pneumatological Exegesis.” After a foundational introduction that sets to define the basic pre-suppositions for Catholic Biblical Interpretation, PBC 93 III unfolds in four major sections namely:

Table 3: Sub-division of PBC 1993 III

Section A Interpretation in the Biblical Tradition
Section B Interpretation in the Tradition of the Church
Section C The task of the Exegetes
Section D Relationship with other Theological disciplines


The tables 1, 2 and 3 above show that there are both points of similarities and points of tension between DV 12 and PBC 1993 III. Over and above all, the latter is an expansion of the former. By setting the basic principles for Catholic Biblical interpretation in its quadruple sections: A: Interpretation in the Biblical Tradition; B: Interpretation in the Tradition of the Church; C: The task of the Exegetes and D: Relationship with other Theological disciplines, PBC 1993 III locates Catholic Biblical Interpretation within the wider context of Hermeneutics. This justifies the critique made by Vincent Balaguer on PBC 1993. “The document is not structurally ordered” says the Professor of New Testament: “the correct order should rather be “II, III, I and IV.” The first treats of general hermeneutical questions, the second, the Principles of Catholic Biblical Interpretation, the third, Methods and Approaches and the fourth, the Bible in the life of the Church.[11]

PBC 1993 III is a concentration on the second part of exegesis that which considers the Unity of the Scriptures, the living tradition of the Church and the analogy of faith (Section A and B). PBC 1993 III expands more the role of the exegetes (Section C). PBC 1993 III adds a crucial point that was either missed or passively mentioned in DV 12 (VI) which is the relationship between exegesis and other theological disciplines (section D).

DV 12 section I already established the possibility of a more-than literal sense. Here Dei Verbum affirms the inspiration of the literal sense, which is the intention of the author as far as is available in the text. But the placing of “and” instead of “which is” to introduce the second phrase leaves open the possibility of meanings beyond the literal, which God may have had in mind.”[12] PBC III takes on and expands on how one can arrive at this other sense of the scriptures

[1] Wright, W., “Dei Verbum” in Lamb, M & Levering, M (eds), The Reception of Vatican II, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017

[2] Ibid.

[3] This is a very crucial point of connection between DV 12 and PBC. DV 12 mentions the author’s intention in various ways in four occasions:  (a) “…should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended”,  (b) “To search out the intention of the sacred writersattention should be given…”, (c) “The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express…”,  (d) “For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert…” The first task of interpretation and that of the exegete is to get hold of the author’s intention.

[4] This statement is the basic guideline for the Exegete in PBC 1993 III as it was the foundational statement in DV 12. Here lies some key statements of purpose for the exegetes in both PBC III and DV 12. Although DV started with “the interpreter” and concludes with “exegetes” PBC III tactically avoids the term “interpreter” in preference for “exegete”. Here lies some point of subtle (technical) difference in both documents.

[5] The “BUT” here introduces a caveat. It qualifies and justifies the second phrase in the opening texts of DV 12: “the interpreter … should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” Thus, it is already clear in DV 12 the two senses of the scripture: the literal and the spiritual. The interpreter should not only be soaked in the attempt to recover the intention of the author, he should as well seek out “what God wanted to manifest” by means of the sacred writers. In this regard, the Unity of the Scripture, the Tradition of the Church and the Analogy of faith must be taken into consideration as well. In other words, the interpreter must aim at the fuller sense of the scripture.

[6] This issue of the canon and unity of the whole scripture is treated extensively in PBC 1993 III section B, where it talks about “Interpretation in the Tradition of the Church.” Which as already noted is the distinctive element in Catholic Biblical exegesis.

[7] Second paragraph of PBC 1993 III. Unlike DV that rounds off the entire instruction and guide for the interpreter (exegete) with a consideration of the Living Tradition of the Church, PBC 1993 begins its section III by defining what is distinctive of Catholic Biblical Interpretation namely: The Living Tradition of the Church. This reference to the Living tradition of the Tradition of Church by PBC 1993 nullifies the argument against the document by some scholars for instance William Wright who says that an over-concentration on the Historical Critical Method made PBC 1993 to forget this very crucial aspect of Catholic exegesis.

[8] Expanding the indications given by DV 12, PBC 1993 III advocates for a collaborative work between the exegetes and theologians so that together there can be an achievement of a better understanding of the Scriptures as the Word of God.

[9] In PBC 1993 III section B no 3, which treats the “Roles of various Members of the Church in Interpretation,” the indispensable role of the Magisterium as the final arbiter in Biblical Interpretation is restated with greater emphasis but with a much better clarification. That clarification became very important because of the growing tension between exegetes, theologians and the Magisterium. All of these render their service to the community of the faith, but the third moderates the work of exegetes and theologians by divine ordinance but respects their professionalism.

[10] Gerald O’Collins, “Dei Verbum and Biblical Scholarship” in Scripture Bulletin, Vol. XXI, No. 1, January 1991, of the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain.

[11] Balaguer, V., “Unpublished lectures on Biblical Hermeneutics”, University of Navarra, Pamplona, 2018.

[12] Montague, G., Understanding the Bible: A basic Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2007, p.221

©Valentine Anthony Umoh 2018

Universidad de Navarra
Facultad de Teología
Teología Bíblica
E-31080 Pamplona