Tiffany Davis, Archbishop's Office of Evangelisation
Hosted by the Archbishop’s Office for Evangelisation Melbourne, this four-week lecture series is aimed at providing ongoing faith formation for those serving in local parish ministry and leadership positions.
Over four Wednesday nights in May, some of Australia’s leading biblical scholars will explore a range of topics from the creation story and the development of scientific and religious thought to the prophetic movement, the Lukan narrative, and key figures in the formation and identity of the early church—all of which offer much wisdom and insight for the (Catholic) Christian disciples and communities we seek to become.
Week 1: “God and Creation”
Opening the series on Wednesday night was Dr Mary Coloe pbvm, Associate Professor in New Testament at Yarra Theological Union. Mary taught for over 20 years at ACU, as well as Boston College in Berkeley and at Ecce Homo in Jerusalem.
Speaking on “God and Creation”, Mary brought together current science—which speaks of an evolutionary and expanding universe—and the way the Bible reflects on the meaning of this universe.
Although the desire for ongoing scripture study and faith formation is often expressed by people of all ages, she opined that most Catholics now in their 60s or70s grew up without much knowledge of the bible.
‘We knew the bible stories by hearing about them, or from seeing pictures, or stained glass windows. We understood these stories as real historical events—in other words, we took them to be literally true. … In secondary school I was drawn to sciences… and it was as if my brain was split in half—my religious sense was literal, but my science sense already knew that the world was far more complex and more ancient than Schuster’s [illustrated] bible history.’
Mary acknowledged the relationship between science and religion and that both offered different ways of looking at the world from different perspectives.
‘Both are human ways of responding to mystery. The big mysteries like, “why am I here? Where did I come from? What’s death? What’s beyond death?” With human ingenuity, human insight, wonder and imagination, we move through life. It’s my belief and experience that God reaches out to us in these faculties, of thinking and wondering. Whether I did science or theology, God and I were in dialogue.’
Developments in the fields of astronomy, geology, and biology in the late Middle Ages challenged the way people were interpreting the Bible. Archaeological finds in the Middle East during the 1800s significantly impacted biblical scholarship and introduced new critical methods of study—i.e. the Historical Critical Method presented by German scholars—which unfortunately the Catholic Church was slow to accept. Ancient literature was also being rediscovered, with some stories bearing striking similarities with those in the Bible.
‘It made people realise that the biblical authors took from the cultures around them—the images, the motifs, the stories—and worked them into their own theology. And their theology emphasised the God of Moses who had led them from slavery and who had entered into a special relationship with them. And they described the why of that using these other stories from around them. Stories about flood, building a tower, humans made from clay—they’re all there—long before the Genesis stories were written.’
She went on to discuss three major Catholic documents that significantly shifted biblical scholarship to a more critical method, and away from its earlier literal interpretations. One of these documents, Providentissimus Deus, was written in 1893 by Pope Leo XIII.
‘He must’ve been an extraordinary man. He’s the one who wrote Rerum Novarum, the great encyclical on social justice and this great encyclical (Providentissimus Deus) on biblical scholarship. He also set up the pontifical commission on biblical scholarship and recognised the value of these new tools discovered by Protestants. He encouraged the use of the Latin translation (Vulgate), but at the same time encouraged scholars to go back and look at the original Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, so there was the beginning of real scholarship starting. … And we begin to see that the sacred writers did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language—symbolic stories.’
Then, fifty years later in 1943 Pope Pius XII wrote his encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, which instructed Catholic biblical scholars to make use of scientific approach methods that were hitherto forbidden. He wrote ‘that the interpreter endeavour to find the age in which the writer lived, the sources, the form of expression that was being used: was it poetry or a legal text?’
Finally, through the Second Vatican Council, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) affirmed that '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 studying the creation story and the whole of the bible, both a religious and scientific (historical) sensibility is needed. As Mary says,
‘It’s always helpful when trying to make sense of a biblical passage to ask, “What was going on in the life of the people at that time? What were the issues they faced? People who were in exile in Babylon, and had been there for 50 years might have been wondering, “Is our God powerful? Can our God save us? Can God bring us back to life as a people?” And then in the Yahwist writing, the question is, “We know God is a great fighter, God helps us escape from Egypt. And now here we are over in this land and we’re meant to be farmers. What do we know about farming? What does God know about farming?” And then come the questions of “Why is life the way it is? Why is there sin?” It is those questions that Genesis 2 and 3 tries to address. They are theological questions.’
Next week, participants will hear from Associate Professor Mark O’Brien OP who will speak on the Prophetic Movement. In week three, Dr Chris Monaghan will speak on the Lukan narrative and how the gospel offers a roadmap for what discipleship looks like in today’s age. In the fourth and final week, Dr Rosemary Canavan will explore the clothing imagery employed by St Paul to construct a new sense of Christ-centred identity in the early church.