The 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission Statement on Genesis

Some days ago I quoted, without discussion, this 1909 statement from the Pontifical Biblical Commission:

Question I: Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation? — Reply: In the negative.

Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls? — Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer? — Reply: In the negative.

This supports a literal historical interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, and is opposed to the interpretation I supported in that post. I consider the decision to publish this statement to have been a foolish decision on the part of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, even in 1909. However, the Catholic Church has a long history and tends to be fairly careful even in its apparently foolish behavior. We can notice some signs of care in this statement:

The first response says that “the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis” are not “sustained by a solid foundation.” Notice that in principle this could be true even if the first chapters of Genesis are not actually intended in a literal historical sense. It could also be true about the systems of the time, even if it is possible to build a solid foundation for an interpretation excluding such a literal historical sense.

The second response denies that the non-historical interpretations “can be taught.” It is strictly speaking a disciplinary decision, and is thus logically consistent with the opinion that such a non-historical interpretation is true, even if the decision only makes sense in view of the Commission’s opinion that such interpretations are reasonably likely to be false.

The third response denies that “the literal and historical sense can be called into question.” It too is a disciplinary decision, and does not exclude the possibility the text is not actually intended in a literal and historical way.

To someone unfamiliar with magisterial statements, these interpretations might seem to be nitpicking, but in fact this is simply the correct and careful way to read these statements. We can see a similar sort of care in the statement of Pope Pius XII on polygenism in Humani Generis:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

Pius XII is careful not to say that polygenism is false. Instead he says that “the faithful cannot embrace that opinion,” and explains that “it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled” with the teaching of the Church. This deliberately leaves open the possibility that it may become apparent later, and that likewise Catholics may be allowed to accept the opinion. Similarly, he adds “on this earth” to “true men” because if “true man” means a rational animal, then any rational aliens will be true men who are not descended from Adam. Since he does not wish to make any statement about aliens, he adds this qualifier to his statement.

In 1948 the Pontifical Biblical Commission sent a letter containing this paragraph to the Archbishop of Paris:

The question of the literary forms of the eleven first chapters of Genesis is more obscure and more complicated. These literary forms do not correspond exactly with any classical category, and are not to be judged according to Greco-Latin or modern literary forms. Hence the historicity of these chapters can neither be denied nor affirmed simply, without undue application to them of the norms of a literary form under which they cannot be classed. If, then, it is admitted that in these chapters history in the classic and modern sense is not found, it must also be confessed that modern science does not yet offer a positive solution to all the problems of these chapters. . . . If anyone should contend a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the word, he would easily insinuate that these are in no sense of the word historical, although in fact they relate in simple and figurative words, which correspond to the capacity of men who are less erudite, fundamental truths with reference to the economy of health [salvation], and also describe in popular manner the origin of humankind and of an elect people.

One might say that the Pontifical Biblical Commission here is asserting that the first chapters of Genesis have an “invisible genre” which does not correspond to any other that is known. Consequently, Fr. Brian Harrison, rejecting this invisible genre, is rejecting this claim of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

In any case, although they imply that these chapters are in some “sense of the word historical,” this seems only to mean that the text should be taken to assert “fundamental truths with reference to the economy of salvation.” This is actually consistent with the genre I suggested, although I would not personally describe it as a historical genre. A story of this kind is generally intended to say or imply something about the world. In particular, as we saw, Genesis seems to say that the world once existed in some kind of perfect state, and that we fell from that state due to a human fault.

The interpretation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is consistent with the same reading:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This assertion is also consistent with a much more historical reading of Genesis 3. However, it is clear enough that such a more historical reading is not what the authors of the Catechism have in mind, as for example from this text:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”

This text is not speaking of discoveries made by people from Answers in Genesis. As is evident from “development of life-forms and the appearance of man,” it is speaking of biological evolution, both of animals and of human beings. While this is not a specific statement about the events of Genesis 3, this acceptance of the theory of evolution implies a fairly generic reading of the chapter. This seems to imply a reading of Genesis very close to the one we have suggested.

Note that none of this prevents the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement from being evidence for a literal historical reading. The evidence does not change sides. But it seems evident overall that it is more reasonable to accept a more generic, “mythical” reading as being the true sense of Genesis 2-3, whether or not you give any weight to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Nor is this deduced by the syllogism discussed by Fr. Brian Harrison. This is the most reasonable reading even if you think that Scripture is false.

Fr. Harrison also adduces the evidence that most Christians throughout history have preferred a literal reading of the text. But this is another story for another time.

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3 thoughts on “The 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission Statement on Genesis

  1. […] Second, the condemnation does not say which labels apply to which propositions, and some of the labels do not absolutely imply that a statement is false. A statement could be scandalous, offensive to pious ears, and seductive of simple minds, but still be true. In such a case the prohibition would be for the sake of practical motives, much as we suggested was mostly the case of the early opinions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. […]

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