Genesis 1-3 and Pontifical Biblical Commission

I am needing help making sense out of the 8 questions and answers from the Pontifical Biblical Commission about the translation of the first three chapters from Genesis published June 30, 1909. Below are the eight questions they answered and I’d really appreciate someone translating them into lay man’s terms so I can make sure I’m understanding them properly. I think I’m getting the gist of most of them but I would appreciate a little help.

Questions:

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.

Question IV: Whether in interpreting those passages of these chapters, which the Fathers and Doctors have understood differently, but concerning which they have not taught anything certain and definite, it is permitted, while preserving the judgment of the Church and keeping the analogy of faith, to follow and defend that opinion which everyone has wisely approved? – Reply: In the affirmative.

Question V: Whether all and everything, namely, words and phrases which occur in the aforementioned chapters, are always and necessarily to be accepted in a special sense, so that there may be no deviation from this, even when the expressions themselves manifestly appear to have been taken improperly, or metaphorically or anthropomorphically, and either reason prohibits holding the proper sense, or necessity forces its abandonment? – Reply: In the negative.

Question VI: Whether, presupposing the literal and historical sense, the allegorical and prophetical interpretation of some passages of the same chapters, with the example of the Holy Fathers and the Church herself showing the way, can be wisely and profitably applied? – Reply: In the affirmative.

Question VII: Whether, since in writing the first chapter of Genesis it was not the mind of the sacred author to teach in a scientific manner the detailed constitution of visible things and the complete order of creation, but rather to give his people a popular notion, according as the common speech of the times went, accommodated to the understanding and capacity of men, the propriety of scientific language is to be investigated exactly and always in the interpretation of these? – Reply: In the negative.

Question VIII: Whether in that designation and distinction of six days, with which the account of the first chapter of Genesis deals, the word (dies) can be assumed either in its proper sense as a natural day, or in the improper sense of a certain space of time; and whether with regard to such a question there can be free disagreement among exegetes? – Reply: In the affirmative.

Hi Raider,

When you quote the PBC, you should look carefully at the date of the pronouncement and compare it to subsequent ones. In the paragraphs you quote, the PBC was making its decisions based on developmments at the time. In subsequent answers, some decisions were changed, based on new developments.

In order to understand all this, you should read Cardinal Ratzinger’s speech on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Commission ;

vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/pcb_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030510_ratzinger-comm-bible_en.html

Verbum

Ratzinger points out the insight of Unsicherheitsrelation, which unravels the whole meaning. (Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle, that an observer is always prejudiced when making an observation – to put it one way.)

Although he doesn’t use the term, there has been an evolution, growth, or development in the Church’s expression of exegetical methods, anchored on faith – as he says, “faith is a way of knowing.”

So, the Church has “matured” beyond the exclusionary comments in the early period of the Pont. Bibl. Commission.

Elsewhere (can’t give you the exact reference at this moment) Ratzinger has stated the often quoted maxim that the bible is not a science book. A corollary would be that it is not strictly a historical book, either. Yet both science and history can contributed both directly and indirectly to our understanding of Gen 1-3, for example. So can a literary analysis of those chapters.

In various posts since the first of this year (2010), I have made mention of Jewish literary interpretations of Genesis which show that Gen 1, for example, was never meant to imply a literal seven-day creation. A few moments of searching my posts will be well-rewarded.

The distinction is as critical as between what are the words of scripture and what does it say?

Raider Red

I think I understand your OP.

If I do, I agree that it would be most helpful if the translations were much, much, much clearer.

I pray for clearer translations.

Did I understand you correctly?

Thanks!

Yes, I just don’t think I’m understanding the questions and answers completely and I think it’s partly because of the manner and language used. I was just hoping someone that was more familiar with it would be able to break it down a little bit for me.

I think I understand what you’re looking for – clarification of exactly what is being asked and how to understand the answer in relation to the question. So I’ll just do a couple of them. I bolded the core questions and if you read through just the bolded part you’ll get the basic framework of the question.

Question 1: Are the the various exegetical systems which exclude the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis…sustained by a solid foundation?

Reply: In the negative

Reply to Question 1: No, they are not sustained by a solid foundation

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? –

Like reading some of Paul’s epistles, right? :slight_smile:

Question II, first part (bolded, not underlined): Can it be taught that the first three chapters of Genesis contain stories of events that did not really happen?
Question II, second part (bolded and underlined): Can it be taught that they are rather fables, allegories and symbols, or legends…

Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Reply to first part: No, it cannot be taught that the events did not really happen.
Reply to second part: No, it cannot be taught that the events are just fables, …

Hope that helps.
If my response is what you were after and you’d like help with any of the other questions, just say. What is helpful is to sort thru all the verbiage and pick out the basic sentence – eg. the parts I bolded. (Easier to do if you had some good English grammar instruction in school.)

Yes, this is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you for taking the time to show me this. I think I should be able to take it from here but will let you know if I have some trouble sorting through the verbiage.

There is always value in studying the teaching of the Church, but those PBC docs get misused so often that I think it’s important to remind you in your studies that the Church has re-addressed the issues addressed there several times in the century since, at least twice in more authoritative documents.

As Ludwig Ott summarized it in the introduction to Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:

With regard to the doctrinal teaching of the Church it must be well noted that not all the assertions of the Teaching Authority of the Church on questions of Faith and morals are infallible and consequently irrevocable. Only those are infallible which emanate from General Councils representing the whole episcopate, and the Papal Decisions Ex Cathedra (cf. D 1839). The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible. Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible. Nevertheless normally they are to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See (assensus internus supernaturalis, assensus religiosus).

So the teaching of the PBC is not infallible and, in the case of the discussion you are studying, has been largely supplanted by later teachings of Popes and Council.

This is helpful and helped me with two things. So, I have two questions for you to help me out a little more.

1.) Something is only considered infallible if it is a product of a General Council (i.e. Trent, Vatican I &II, ect.) or by a pope when pronounced ex-cathedra like the previous two Marian dogmas? Nothing else is considered infallible even though we should assent to the teachings when coming from our local bishop or from the holy see (i.e. the PBC, The Catechism of the CAtholic Church, encyclicals, ect.)

2.) What are some of the documents or reports that have supplanted this PBC document from 1909 so I can check them out. What council documents or papal encyclicals should I consult.

Thank you so much for taking the time to add to this as the few things you said were a big help.

Effectively yes. As the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, the “ordinary magesterium” (the body of bishops world-wide) can teach ex cathedra but the likelihood is very slim of that diverse group coming to a unanimous position on any controversial issue (and non-controversial issues never get debated, do they?)

2.) What are some of the documents or reports that have supplanted this PBC document from 1909 so I can check them out. What council documents or papal encyclicals should I consult.

Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, is normative and essential for anyone who wants to get an understanding of the Church’s teaching. There is an official English translation on the Vatican’s website.

Pope Benedict has given a number of talks and some writing about Dei Verbum which would also be interesting reading.

I would also encourage you to look at Pius XII’s encyclicalsDivino Afflante Spiritu and Humani Generis

If you want to go really in-depth on the history of this topic, there is a website that has links to lots and lots of documents. You could work your way through them in chronological order and see how the doctrine has developed in response to challenges and changes in Biblical studies (not to mention the development of wide-spread literacy!)

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