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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Maurice Gilbert, S.J., The Pontifical Biblical Institute: A Century of History (1909–2009)

Paul J. Achtemeier

How does one review critically a book that is exhaustively researched, cogently organized, and clearly written? I guess one begins by reporting that this centennial history of the Pontifical Biblical Institute by Father Maurice Gilbert, S.J., who has intimate personal familiarity with a good portion of the material covered, is exhaustively researched, cogently organized, and clearly written!

In a larger sense, I am not competent to review this report, which is both a historical report and itself a historical document, given its wealth of archival materials, since I do not have the author’s familiarity with the events reported. That is especially true of the report in the last one-third of the book dealing with the history of the PBI in Jerusalem. Unlike Father Gilbert, who has intimate and personal acquaintance with many of the developments he reports, I have no personal acquaintance either with the location or the personnel. The account certainly shares all the positive qualities that make the report of the history of the PBI in Rome so commendable, but I shall leave it to others to report on that portion of the book.

What I shall do, therefore, is highlight those parts of the history of the PBI that strike me, as a Protestant biblical exegete, as interesting and relevant for the fifty and more years I shared, as a scholar, with the existence of the Institute. As a result, the order in which I report materials will be topical rather than chronological.

First, it is interesting, particularly in light of its later history, that the PBI was founded as a bastion of antimodernism under Father Fonck. (I can only wonder at the reaction Father Fonck would have had to this panel and the subject matter of this conference!) I find in my own background as a member of the Reformed tradition a similar kind of horror at critical historical scholarship within the same general time frame. In this instance, an Old Testament scholar at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Charles Augustus Briggs, had the effrontery to adopt, among others things, the Documentary Hypothesis concerning the origin of the Pentateuch. He was accused of heresy in 1891 by the Presbytery of New York but acquitted. Two years later, however, in 1893, he was suspended, because of modernism, from his teaching position by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Among other charges, Professor Briggs was accused of teaching that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, that Isaiah is not the author of the whole text of the book bearing his name, and that there are historical errors present in the Old Testament narrative.

As a result, Union Seminary withdrew its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church and became an independent theological institution, as it has remained to this day. Thus the dragon of modernism had reared its ugly head among Protestants traditions as well!

It was finally under Pope Pius XI that the PBI was granted full autonomy, under the realization that the antimodernist attitude, no longer prevalent in the Institute but still alive in other elements of the Catholic leadership, was impeding real scholarly work. But the problem was not yet resolved.

In chapter 3 of his book, Father Gilbert reports on later attacks on the kind of scholarly work done at the Institute. In the mid-1950s (1954–1958) new attacks were leveled at the PBI for its supposedly following what was termed “liberal Protestant exegesis.” The attack was particularly directed at the historico-critical exegesis of the Old Testament and the Gospels. These attacks, resumed in 1954, became virulent with the knowledge of Pope John XXIII’s desire for a second ecumenical Council, and the Council’s first session. Father Gilbert notes that Father Vogt, rector of the PBI from 1949 to 1963, defended the Institute as vigorously and effectively against these potentially fatal threats, as Father Bea had done during his rectorate.

These attacks reached the point where, in 1963, Professors Lyonnet and Zerwick—scholars with whose work I was by then familiar—were banned from teaching exegesis at the PBI, a ban lifted in 1964 under the rectorship of R. A. F. MacKenzie, S.J., another scholar well known and respected among—you will pardon the phrase—“liberal Protestant exegetes.”

On the whole, at the beginning of the Council, there was criticism expressed against the kind of exegesis practiced at the PBI, and a number of charges were leveled. The attacks were finally silenced with the appearance of Vatican II’s constitution Dei Verbum, a constitution contributed to by Lyonnet, Alonso Schökel, de la Potterie, and Zerwick. Father Gilbert notes that the Institute was able to surmount the attacks leveled against it “thanks to the unfailing trust on the part of the Holy See, the authorities of the Society of Jesus, and, during the Council, the majority of the Bishops” (199). Nevertheless, Father Gilbert notes that no PBI professor functioned as “expert” at the Doctrinal Commission of the Second Vatican Council.

Of particular interest to me is the discussion of the increasing ecumenicity of biblical studies, also reported in chapter 3. As early as 1935, both Catholic and Protestant scholars participated in an Old Testament Congress in Göttingen. Perhaps most significant in this whole development was the issuing of Divina afflante Spiritu by Pope Pius XII in 1943. Father Gilbert notes that Father Bea, at that time rector of the PBI, had a hand in the formulation of this document and was a key person in the continuing development of the PBI. On a personal note, I can attest to the increasing ecumenicity of biblical exegesis during the past forty years or so. As a participant in the Roman Catholic/World Reformed Alliance Bilateral Discussions, World Level, from 1975 to 1981, I attended a number of sessions, both in Rome and in Geneva and found great collegiality among the representatives both Catholic and Reformed.

That collegiality and ecumenism were also borne out for me as an invited non-Lutheran participant in the discussions sponsored by the Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue in the United States that produced the two volumes Peter in the New Testament (1973) and Mary in the New Testament (1978). Participants included people known to the PBI, among them Father Miles Burke, Professor R. E. Brown, Professor Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Karl Donfried. These discussions between Catholics and Protestants, the first on so significant a theological issue since the Reformation, were at the time considered somewhat adventuresome, not to say daring.

In preparing the report, later published as the book, we followed a time-honored procedure, voting on the final results after the discussion of each relevant passage. The thing that impressed me the most during these discussions, along with the true collegiality—we were all friends before the discussions began—was the fact that at no point in those votes were all Catholics found on one side, all Protestants on the other. When one considers the neuralgic nature of the understanding of Peter and Mary in both Catholic and Protestant circles over some centuries, I found that quite remarkable.

At that point, I concluded that the ecumenical problem involving Catholic/Protestant New Testament exegesis in the United States had been resolved, a conclusion regularly reinforced during my long participation in the Catholic Biblical Association of America, as well as the ecumenical nature of the membership of the Society of Biblical Literature. Our present meeting adds further confirmation!

Let me conclude by citing two passages from Father Gilbert’s book that resonated particularly strongly with me. The first: “But the Biblical Institute above all takes the intervention of the Word of God in our history seriously; people of flesh and blood like us wrote it and passed it on to us. It is up to us to hear it in all its purity. This conviction is also an act of faith and therefore the message of the Bible … remains the key to theology, pastoral activity, and the spiritual life of every believer” (310). And the second: “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit who caused it to be written” (470). I believe both statements would resonate with similar strength among many Protestant biblical exegetes and give confirmation to the observation that in biblical studies the ecumenical problem has gone a long way toward its resolution.


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