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Vol 38 No 4

God–Lover or Judge?

Leslee Sniatynskyj

Cormac Nagle OFM

Brian Lewis

Frank Fletcher MSC

Brendan Byrne SJ

Michael Trainor


Kevin Mark


Can the scriptural world still be our world?
Early Millennial Reflections of an Australian Biblical Scholar


MY TITLE CATCHES up the sustained critique of recent tendencies in Catholic biblical studies mounted by the American New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. I presume most of you are familiar with or at least aware of that critique, set out in a series of books and articles over the past decade, much of it gathered together in Johnson’s contribution to the work co-authored with William S. Kurz, The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation.1 I am particularly concerned with the chapter entitled, ‘Imagining the World That Scripture Imagines’, which first appeared in Modern Theology in 1998.2 Johnson is an engaging writer—particularly when writing polemically, as he is in his contribution to this work, the chief target being the historical critical method and the ‘location’ of the study of scripture in the now largely secularized academy, apart (in Johnson’s view) from intentional communities of faith. Johnson’s critique will give a certain edge to the review of Australian Catholic biblical scholarship which I am undertaking here and pose some useful questions.

My review is highly personal, reminiscent, impressionistic and perhaps provocative. It is not an historical study based upon careful review of the sources. For the period up to 1990, we have such a review in Rod Doyle’s excellent and painstaking survey, Biblical Studies in Australia: A Catholic Contribution.3 What I am offering is more in the nature of a reflection. It may stand in considerable need of correction.

With considerable indebtedness to Rod Doyle, I distinguish three epochs in the course of Catholic biblical studies in Australia. I see the first as beginning more or less with the foundation of the Catholic Biblical Association in the early 1960’s.4 Before that time there stretched what Rod has called ‘A Dark Era’, overshadowed by the restrictive atmosphere created by papal response to the Modernist crisis in the early 1900’s. One’s heart can only bleed for Catholic scripture teachers compelled to eschew theology, save in a highly apologetic sense, and restrict themselves to textual, linguistic and archaeological matters. The name that dominates this primeval era is that of William Leonard, lecturer in scripture at St Patrick’s College, Manly from 1924. The fact that Leonard’s doctoral thesis came down on the side of the Pauline authorship of Hebrews5 sums up the atmosphere of control prevailing at the time. Was he really free to read the evidence any other way?

Rod Doyle locates the beginning of what he calls the ‘Renaissance’ in 1943 with the publication of Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. With its cautious endorsement of the historical critical approach, the encyclical truly did mark a watershed in Catholic biblical studies. However, my sense would be that a good decade or more elapsed before its impact was felt in Australia. Its effects only really came to be widespread in the late 50’s and early 60’s in the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council. Hence while not locating the twenty years between 1943 and 1963 to the ‘Dark Era’, I would think of them as a time when the seed of biblical renewal was ripening in the soil—especially in the overseas graduate studies of those who were subsequently to bring it home to our shores and lead it.

Epoch 1: 1960—c.1970--The Catholic Rediscovery of Scripture
In tandem with new movements in liturgy, especially, and catechetics, the men of this era (and they were, I think, all men) began to open up the Bible to seminarians, and religious sisters and brothers, all of whom existed in great numbers at that time. (Names such as Harry Davis, Bill Dalton, Jerome Crowe, Campion Murray, Bob Crotty, Angelo O’Hagan, Dennis Murphy, John Scullion and others spring readily to mind.) They had a wonderful, liberating message and, for the most part, audiences thirsting for what they had to offer.6 In many ways, I suspect, they could presume an audience reasonably familiar with the biblical record, even if refracted through earlier manuals such as Shuster’s Bible History,7 whose etched illustrations remain deeply imprinted, I suspect, in many a Catholic imagination, and, for the New Testament, precritical presentations of the life of Jesus, such as those of Fouard,8 Goodier9 and Ricciotti.10 True heirs of Divino Afflante Spiritu, though not without encountering opposition, these teachers could bring to their students the fruits of the historical critical approach which that encyclical had cautiously allowed into the Catholic sphere. Where previously the practice had been to plunder scripture for proof-texts to bolster the claims of orthodox Catholic theology, now the roles of theology and scripture were reversed: theology must build upon scripture and flow from it. Thus my studies in Christology in the late 1960’s began with a long study of the New Testament record as contained in Oscar Cullmann’s, The Christology of the New Testament,11 before becoming in any way speculative and systematic in the traditional sense. We studied each evangelist’s distinctive portrait of Jesus in its own right, with a firm concentration upon his humanity, culled from long-neglected Gospel of Mark. A decade or so before, Catholics had been liberated from such burdens to intelligence as Moses’ personal authorship of the Pentateuch and a literal understanding of what our first parents had been up to in the Garden of Eden—though the implications for the doctrine of Original Sin remained, as it still does, a neuralgic element in the interface between scriptural interpretation and the theological understanding guarded by the Magisterium. 12 Discussion raged over whether the Magi really did come on a star-led journey from their Eastern home and whether an angel did literally startle Mary with his momentous annunciation. No doubt exaggerated and rash claims were made, not so much in the classroom, as from the pulpit where some with only a little learning could hold forth. There was hurt and controversy but for most, I suspect, a deep sense of liberation. The theological riches of the new biblical world into which Catholics were being invited could more than compensate for any loss derived from non-historical understandings of such matters.

Underpinning that richness was the dynamic new understanding of revelation enshrined in the dogmatic constitution On Revelation (Dei Verbum) of Vatican II. Revelation was no longer understood as primarily the communication of theological propositions but as the dynamic personal communication to human beings of the Triune God. Along with Sacrament, the Word of scripture was the privileged place where believers experienced both individually and communally that divine outreach and address, with its message of healing and hope for the world. The record of Jesus’ life and ministry contained in the Gospels was not so much designed to impart accurate historical information concerning him, as to constitute privileged narrative places whether believers of all generations could come under the power of the risen and ever-living Lord. Many of the audiences of those days doubtless made their own the reflection of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us as he spoke to us on the way and opened up the scriptures to us’ (Luke 24:32).

Were we entering at that time a new world—the world of scripture? Yes, I think, we were. But the matter is perhaps more complex than that. There is no need to elaborate upon the fact that Catholics of that era still lived very much within the ‘Catholic world’, both socially and theologically. This was intensified, of course, for seminarians and members of religious orders but it was also true for the typically devout, practising families from which they mostly came. The Catholic world, with its weekly parish rituals of Sunday observance, its daily devotions in the home, its social and sporting extensions—with the sense of Church and indeed of God that all this communicated—was for many the primary world which they inhabited, the point of view from which all other aspects of life were assessed.

I do not think the scriptural renewal of this epoch took people away from that Catholic world into another. As I said before, I think it very much presupposed a large area of knowledge of scripture previously built up. It enlarged that world and brought new scriptural insights to challenge and modify a great deal of prior theological understanding. This occurred especially in respect to the person of Jesus Christ, involving a fresh appreciation of his humanity and new ways of conceiving his redemptive work beyond the well-worn ‘satisfaction’ model that still lingers in many an imagination. Accompanying this christology was a sense of the Church not so much as a ‘perfect society’ but as a community captured by the reality of the Kingdom but not yet in possession of it, a pilgrim people on the move, some straggling, some falling behind.

A notable aspect of that enlargement of the Catholic world, though not entirely due to the rediscovery of scripture, was the ecumenical opening that accompanied it. The way for this had been prepared by the participation of leading Catholic scholars of the time in such ecumenical learned societies as the Fellowship for Biblical Studies, which once flourished in Sydney, as it continues to do in Melbourne. This meant that the Catholic world and the Protestant worlds underwent a genuine ‘meshing’, reflected in common worship, shared spirituality and a host of other ways in which hitherto rigid denominational barriers came tumbling down. The way now appeared open for the scriptural world to enter the Catholic imagination in the fashion distinctive of the Protestant world since the Reformation. No doubt this has occurred to some degree, aided particularly by the vernacularisation of the liturgy that took place in association with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. But whether the scriptural world has entered Catholic ‘bones’ to anything like the same extent as in the Anglican and Protestant communions is a good point. Such sensibility may presuppose a far deeper cultural nurturing than can be established by liturgy and religious education, no matter how effective.

One implication of this opening to the scriptural world shared with the heirs of the Reformation was doubtless a blurring of the sharp lines of Catholic identity and a gradual diminution in certain characteristic but non-scriptural practices, which had been distinctive of that identity and nourished it. The clearly unscriptural ritual of Benediction, for example, gave way to ‘Services of the Word’, though whether the latter have truly caught on in Catholic practice and imagination is a further moot point.

Epoch 2: 1970’s—early 1990’s--The Golden Age of the Consortia
The scripture teachers of what I have termed Epoch 1 taught for the most part in seminaries of their diocesan or religious communities. They met professionally but largely carried on their teaching individually to the large classes of seminarians that in that era were arrayed before them. Towards the close of the 60’s, however, we have the beginning in Victoria and NSW of the theological conglomerates and amalgamations. These involved a kind of in-house Catholic ecumenism as various religious orders combined and consolidated their resources, achieving a common core curriculum taught with a good supply of well qualified teachers across the various fields, scripture being notably represented. At the same time, the ecumenical aspect was enhanced as such Catholic consortia sought and found inclusion within hitherto solely non-Catholic degree-granting bodies such as the Melbourne College of Divinity and the other ecumenical colleges of Divinity that followed in other states (Perth; Adelaide; Sydney and the Brisbane College of Theology). Catholic involvement in such larger ecumenical bodies, teaching to Government regulated standards on a par with universities and requiring central overview of assessment, would hardly have been possible had not Catholic scriptural studies undergone the shift towards the historical critical approach permitted by Divino Afflante Spiritu.

As is well known, those structures were originally set in place to consolidate the philosophical and theological formation of candidates for ordained ministry. When I began teaching in the late 70’s, already a steady trickle of non-ministerial students had begun to enrol. First, a good number of religious sisters and then an ever-increasing number of lay-people, until now—a phenomenon common to all denominations—the pendulum has swung so notably that candidates for ordination make up a distinct minority of the overall student body. Such lay or private students are not constrained to choose their courses according to ordination requirements. Nonetheless, it is remarkable how, within this shift towards lay-people, scripture has maintained its strong position, with many students still taking a biblical major. The Catholic thirst for scripture, albeit in close association with spirituality, remains clear.

Another outstanding feature of this period has been the increase in women students, who would probably now represent the majority. At the same time, beginning in the 80’s women teachers of scripture, originally all religious sisters, began to appear. When Frank Moloney and I returned from our graduate studies in the late 70’s and joined what was then called the Catholic Biblical Association of Australia, our first meeting consisted of around a dozen male clerics, seated congenially in armchairs in the faculty meeting room at CTC, Clayton. Soon we were joined—with what courage I can only imagine—by Veronica Lawson, who had begun her long contribution to biblical education at Ballarat. Two other notable women educators in scripture who joined us about the same time were Sheila Byrne and Barbara Stead, both now sadly departed from us. Feminist biblical criticism, led especially by Elaine Wainwright with her pioneering work on Matthew,13 soon came to present a challenge to male hegemony both at biblical conferences and in the classroom. Other liberationist approaches, such as that of liberation theology, also made their voice heard.

This meant that the hitherto unchallenged historical critical paradigm began to make room on its perch for other methods and approaches. I first experienced the new literary approach in a paper read by the late Michael Fitzpatrick, OFM. Soon, of course, Frank Moloney was to become a world-renowned exponent of the narrative critical approach to the Gospel of John, while Mark Coleridge applied his literary gifts to a similar orientation upon Luke.

Most of us who have been exposed to these new developments have rejoiced in the freedom to move from what had perhaps become a rather constricting commitment to the historical critical paradigm, with its relentless pursuit of sources and the historical reality ‘behind’ the text. While not neglecting historical critical concerns, the new synchronic approaches have allowed us to expand upon the world ‘in front of the text’, the world that the text generates in the imagination of the reader and invites one to enter. It is no secret that our students who had listened for hours to rigorous historical critical exposition found it difficult to relate much of that to present human experience in homilies and other pastoral situations. How often one shudders as a teacher, on entering the study of a former student, now long in ministry, to see prominent on the shelves good old Barclay rather than the commentaries one strongly recommended.

Epoch 3: Early 1990’s—Present--The Expansion to the Universities
I would reckon with a third epoch beginning with the opening of two specifically Catholic universities in the early 1990’s: the Australian Catholic University within the unified system and Notre Dame University in Fremantle as a private tertiary provider. Meanwhile, some of the colleges of divinity formed associations with existing public universities in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, in some cases constituting the theology faculty of those universities.

It is no secret that the rise of university-provided theology caused no small alarm to the institutions making up the colleges of divinity in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. With the shrinking of numbers of ordination candidates and increasing reliance upon private students for continuing viability of operation, the theological colleges perceived strong new competition emerging in the theological pool where numbers of fish were not large and where private students could find the prospect of government financial assistance irresistible.

What the universities have provided, of course, is an employment track for outstanding lay graduates in theology, for whom the colleges of divinity could hold out little prospect of appropriately salaried academic employment. Whatever the initial concerns that teachers in those colleges may have had and perhaps continue to have regarding competition, it has surely been a great source of satisfaction to see their best lay students find this possibility. The theology faculties in the universities continue to have significant numbers of clergy and religious amongst their staff. As, however, their numbers decline, it is inevitable that more and more the responsibility for the teaching of theology and of scripture in particular will become a lay enterprise. Even in the colleges of divinity themselves a glance at the list of regular and visiting teachers reveals a not dissimilar plurality.

Courses in theology and religious studies had indeed long been provided in some of the longer established universities. However, there is no doubt that a significant repositioning in the location of theological studies took place in the 1990’s. Moreover, while the colleges of divinity do attract some younger students, a situation which the coming provision of Fee-help may assist, there is no doubt that the provision of Catholic theology to young Australians will increasingly fall to the lot of those teaching within the university ambit.

Having sketched these developments and the situation in which we now find ourselves I should like to reflect upon them in the light of Johnson’s critique. I hasten to add that I do so as a teacher of scripture and as one who has taught solely within the college, rather than the university environment, albeit from the ecumenical platform of the United Faculty of Theology.

For Johnson the pursuit of the historical critical method has gone hand in hand with a shift of the location of scriptural interpretation away from the Church, its natural setting, to the academy. Current biblical scholarship is more responsive to the context of the academy than to the Catholic community of faith. Lauding the pre-modern, indeed patristic interpreters, especially Origen and Augustine, Johnson calls for a return of scriptural interpretation to its natural home and sees the possibility for this in the ‘end of Christendom’, the established role of the churches in Western society and the rise of small intentional communities of discernment gathered around the Word.14

In more hermeneutical vein, Johnson speaks of scripture as a collection of texts that contain (and create) an imaginative ‘world’:15 not ‘a source of propositions, still less a cluster of historical sources, but as a vast collection of interconnected and internally coherent images’.16 He writes:
The world constructed by Scripture…provides enlarged perceptions of the here and now, and provides options for disposing of this and that in ways not otherwise imaginable. By imagining the world as essentially and always related to a God who creates, sustains, judges, saves and sanctifies, Scripture at the same time reveals that world and reveals this God.17

Because Scripture imagines the world in which we live and move as having its source and meaning in the Other who enables us to move and live, we are able to perceive the world this way and decide to live according to this premise. So perceiving and so acting, we incrementally transform the world imagined by Scripture into the physical world in which we live and move.18

Here, of course, Johnson would seem to owe much to Hans Frei’s classic observation concerning the (for him) unfortunate separation between meaning and reference that occurred in Protestant scripture scholarship in the 18th and 19th centuries, with its implication that the latter (historical reference) became the measure of the former. Moreover, where previously the non-biblical human world had been fitted into the great biblical story created by the unitary canon of scripture, what took place at that time was a notable reversal. The non-biblical historical world was the real world. The biblical stories had to fit into this world and whatever truth they contained had to be measured against it.19 My sense is that, overall, Johnson is calling for a reversal of that previous reversal: a restoration of the primacy of imagining the world that Scripture imagines as an alternative reality to the world we otherwise inhabit.

Johnson’s critique, of which I have provided only the briefest and most inadequate sketch, itself raises a host of questions on several levels. These concern especially:

1. the relationship between the world created by the unitary scriptural story and the day to day world which we habitually inhabit;
2. the dismissal of history and what appears to be a return to a pre-critical historical naivety that is, post-Enlightenment simply impossible (Once you’ve detected the parental hand at work, can you go back to believing in Father Christmas?);
3. the risk that a resumption of pre-modern interpretive practice will be vulnerable to fundamentalism;20 and so forth.

Moreover, though Johnson lays claim to be operating within a post-modern perspective, his apparent ringing endorsement of an overarching scriptural grand narrative would seem to sit in some tension with the post-modern temper in general. On a more practical level, the theological and faith-nourishing poverty he attributes to the practice of the historical critical method is hardly fair to its best Catholic representatives: one has only to consider the contribution of the late Raymond Brown, to take just one example. Moreover, if we think of our own experience as teachers over the three epochs I have noted, in which the historical critical paradigm was for many years the dominant paradigm and remains prominent today, it is hardly true that what we have imparted has eroded rather than built faith: a faith that seeks understanding and strives to bring back that understanding to the Church community in ministry and celebration.

Nonetheless, I think there may be a certain usefulness at this moment in considering what Johnson has to say regarding the scriptural ‘worlds’ we inhabit and seek to foster. As I said earlier on, what I think happened in the 1st epoch was the inclusion of a new scriptural world within the rather strictly defined Catholic ‘world’ of the time. The expansion which this entailed eroded much of the fixed contours of that previous world. In no small degree owing to the teachers of the past fifty years, there are out there a great many scripturally literate Catholics who inhabit and enact a Catholic world enriched and expanded by their scriptural formation. At the same time, and not without strong reinforcement from ecclesiastical authorities, we see at present a strong nostalgia for and attempt to recapture that old pre-Vatican II Catholic world, with its comfortable certainties, clear lines of demarcation and not-very-scriptural rituals and practices. One might almost say the latter is gaining an upper-hand; it certainly seems to hold the purse-strings.

Between these two movements lies the vast mass of young Catholics who barely inhabit either world, at least in regular practice, if not also in basic belief. In an increasingly secularized Australian society, with powerful appeals of so many other social forces and the discrediting that the churches have undergone through the recent abuse scandals, it is not surprising that the still small voice of scripture struggles to be heard. The gulf between the scriptural world, with its heavy dose, at least as regards the New Testament of the eschatological patterns and programmes of first-century Jewish apocalyptic, and the present globalized culture of internet and mobile phone, seems to be ever-widening. At the same time, the Tolkien, the Harry Potter and more recently the Spiderman phenomenon show the capacity for contemporary audiences on a mass scale to enter other imaginative worlds in a not purely escapist way.

As I am sure the university-located teachers are particularly conscious, one simply cannot presume even the most basic scriptural literacy amongst those taking the introductory courses. That may not be true, of course, of those who have come from well-taught religious education programmes, especially when rounded off at the higher levels by Texts and Traditions subjects and the like. But, though open to correction from those with more immediate experience, I suspect that whatever scriptural formation has been received has long since been pushed into the background of consciousness by the claims of far louder and more insistent social forces.

A few days ago our newspapers carried a report, along with photographs, of our Treasurer, perhaps the second most powerful person in Australia, at Sydney’s vast Telstra stadium, thoroughly endorsing the Christian story along very traditional and Pentecostal lines, before an enthusiastic audience of 30,000, mainly young people. From one point of view, that was an example of a most successful ‘entrance’ of a great number of our contemporaries into the biblical story. The report in the Age, however, concluded with the Treasurer’s brother, Tim Costello, expressing serious reservations about the faithfulness of that particular biblical world to the social implications of the Gospel, particularly in regard to the meaning of wealth and its unequal distribution in our broader society. I suspect that most of us here this evening, though we might envy the ability of such movements as Hillsong to pull in the young, would share Tim Costello’s reservations.

Where, then, does all this leave us in regard to both the journey we have travelled since the foundation of ACBA, the plurality of approaches that we practice in addition to the historical critical, the extension of our teaching to the university context, the multitude of rival powerful ‘worlds’ that impinge upon those to whom we strive to impart knowledge and appreciation of the Bible?

These constitute the bundle of questions I am asking myself at this stage of my own journey as a Catholic exegete and teacher in Australia. I refer to them as a bundle because I do not think I have yet got them arranged in a proper order or configuration. I throw them out to you this evening in this very unfinished way in the hope that some, if not all of you, may identify with them and offer some response.

Let me conclude, at any rate, on a far higher literary note than anything I have said so far. It’s not totally applicable to the biblical story but it is a passage that has become a favourite of mine ever since I heard my friend and erstwhile Doktorbruder Frank Moloney quote it some years back:

The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic. (Arundathi Roy, The God of Small Things.21)

The question I am asking is, How do we continue to help people enter our ‘Great Story’?

Brendan Byrne, S.J., teaches New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, within the Melbourne College of Divinity.His most recent book is Lifting the Bur-den: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (Strathfield, St Pauls Publications).


1 Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002.
2 Modern Theology 14 (1998) 165-80.
3 Melbourne: David Lovell Publishing, 1990.
4 Unless some has come to hand since Doyle wrote his survey, documentation indicating the precise moment of foundation is lacking. However, there are records showing that the constitution was formally voted upon in 1964 and presumably that is why the 40th anniversary is being celebrated this current year; see Doyle, Biblical Studies 9.
5 Cf. J Cambier, in A Robert and A Feuillet, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Desclee, 1965) 527n.
6 On this era see Doyle, Biblical Studies 6-10.
7 Ignatius Schuster, The Illustrated Bible History of the Old and New Testaments (20th ed.; London: 1935).
8 Constant Fouard, The Christ the Son of God; a life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (French orig. 1886; English translation from 5th ed.; London & New York: Longmans Green, 1945).
9 Alban Goodier, The Public Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ; an Interpretation (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1930); The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1933).
10 Giuseppe Ricciotti, The Life of Christ (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1947).
11 The Christology of the New Testament (2nd ed.; London: SCM, 1963).
12 See The Catechism of the Catholic Church (ET: Homebush, NSW: St. Pauls, 1994) §§396-406 (pp. 100-103); also Gabriel Daly, ‘Original Sin’ (Paragraphs 385-421) in M J Walsh, (ed.) Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1994) 97-109.
13 Elaine M Wainwright, Towards a Feminist Critical Reading of the Gospel according to Matthew (BZNW 60: Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991).
14 See Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture and Discernment (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996).
15 ‘Imagining the World That Scripture Imagines’ 131.
16 ‘Imagining the World That Scripture Imagines’ 132-33.
17 ‘Imagining the World That Scripture Imagines’ 121.
18 ‘Imagining the World That Scripture Imagines’ 121-22.
19 H Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 4-10.
20 See the review by R D Witherup, Interpretation 58/1 (January 2004) 94.
21 (London: Flamingo, 1997) 229.

Address given on 8 July, 2004, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association. The address was dedicated to the memory of William Dalton, SJ., who died on 10 May, 2004. Brendan Byrne was a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1990-96 and is the author of eight books, the most recent being Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today (see our review in this issue).