The strict relationship uniting the inspired biblical texts with the mystery of the incarnation was expressed by the Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in the following terms: Just as the substantial Word of God became like men in every respect except sin, so too the words of God, expressed in human languages, became like human language in every respect except error" (EB, n. 559). Repeated almost literally by the conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum (n. 13), this statement sheds light on a parallelism rich in meaning.
It is true that putting God's words into writing, through the charism of scriptural inspiration, was the first step toward the incarnation of the Word of God. These written words, in fact, were an abiding means of communication and communion between the chosen people and their one Lord. On the other hand, it is because of the prophetic aspect of these words that it was possible to recognize the fulfillment of God's plan when "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (cf Jn 1:14).
After the heavenly glorification of the humanity of the Word made flesh, it is again due to written words that His stay among us is attested to in an abiding way. Joined to the inspired writings of the first covenant, the inspired writings of the new covenant are a verifiable means of communication and communion between the believing people and God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means certainly can never be separated from the stream of spiritual life that flows from the heart of Jesus crucified and which spreads through the Church's sacraments. It has nevertheless its own consistency precisely as a written text which verifies it.
Consequently, the two encyclicals require that Catholic exegetes remain in full harmony with the mystery of the Incarnation, a mystery of the union of the divine and the human in a determinate historical life. The earthly life of Jesus is not defined only by the places and dates at the beginning of the 1st century in Judea and Galilee, but also by His deep roots in the long history of a small nation of the ancient Near East, with its weaknesses and its greatness, with its men and women of God and its sinners, with its slow cultural evolution and its political misadventures, with its defeats and its victories, with its longing for peace and the kingdom of God.
The Church of Christ takes the realism of the incarnation seriously, and this is why she attaches great importance to the "Historico-critical" study of the Bible. Far from condemning it, as those who support "mystical" exegesis would want, my predecessors vigorously approved. "Artis criticae disciplinam," Leo XIII wrote, "quippe percipiendae penitus hagiographorum sententiae perutilem, Nobis vehementer probantibus, nostri (exegetae, scilicet, catholici) excolant" (Apostolic Letter Vigilantiae, establishing the Biblical Commission, October 30, 1902: EB, n. 142). The same "vehemence" in the approval and the same adverb ("vehementer") are found in Divino Afflante Spiritu regarding research in textual criticism (cf EB, n. 548).
Divino Afflante Spiritu, we know, particularly recommended that exegetes study the literary genres used in the Sacred Books, going so far as to say that Catholic exegesis must "be convinced that this part of its task cannot be neglected without serious harm to Catholic exegesis" (EB, n. 560). This recommendation starts from the concern to understand the meaning of the texts with all the accuracy and precision possible and, thus, in their historical, cultural context.
A false idea of God and the incarnation presses a certain number of Christians to take the opposite approach. They tend to believe that, since God is the absolute Being, each of His words has an absolute value, independent of all the conditions of human language. Thus, according to them, there is no room for studying these conditions in order to make distinctions that would relativize the significance of the words. However, that is where the illusion occurs and the mysteries of scriptural inspiration and the incarnation are really rejected, by clinging to a false notion of the Absolute.
The God of the Bible is not an absolute Being who, crushing everything He touches, would suppress all differences and all nuances. On the contrary, He is God the Creator, who created the astonishing variety of beings "each according to its kind," as the Genesis account says repeatedly (cf Gn 1). Far from destroying differences, God respects them and makes use of them (cf 1 Cor 12:18, 24, 28). Although He expresses Himself in human language, God does not give each expression a uniform value, but uses its possible nuances with extreme flexibility and likewise accepts its limitations.
That is what makes the task of exegetes so complex, so necessary and so fascinating! None of the human aspects of language can be neglected. The recent progress in linguistic, literary and hermeneutical research have led biblical exegesis to add many other points of view (rhetorical, narrative, structuralist) to the study of literary genres; other human sciences, such as psychology and sociology, have likewise been employed. To all this one can apply the charge which Leo XIII gave the members of the Biblical Commission:
"Let them consider nothing that the diligent research of modern scholars will have newly found as foreign to their realm; quite the contrary, let them be alert to adopt without delay anything useful that each period brings to biblical exegesis" (Vigilantiae: EB n. 140).
Studying the human circumstances of the word of God should be pursued with ever renewed interest. Nevertheless, this study is not enough. In order to respect the coherence of the Church's faith and of scriptural inspiration, Catholic exegesis must be careful not to limit itself to the human aspects of the biblical texts. First and foremost, it must help the Christian people more dearly perceive the word of God in these texts so that they can better accept them in order to live in full communion with God. To this end it is obviously necessary that the exegete himself perceive the divine word in the texts. He can do this only if his intellectual work is sustained by a vigorous spiritual life.
Without this support, exegetical research remains incomplete; it loses sight of its main purpose and is confined to secondary tasks. It can even become a sort of escape. Scientific study of the merely human aspects of the texts can make the exegete forget that the word of God invites each person to come out of himself to live in faith and love.
On this point the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus recalls the special nature of the Sacred Books and their consequent need for interpretation: "The Sacred Books," he said, "cannot be likened to ordinary writings, but, since they have been dictated by the Holy Spirit Himself and have extremely serious contents, mysterious and difficult in many respects, we always need, in order to understand and explain them, the coming of the same Holy Spirit, that is, His light and grace, which must certainly be sought in humble prayer and preserved by a life of holiness" (EB, n. 89). In a shorter formula, borrowed from St Augustine, Divino Afflante Spiritu expressed the same requirement: "Orent ut intelligant!" (EB, n. 569).
Indeed, to arrive at a completely valid interpretation of words inspired by the Holy Spirit, one must first be guided by the Holy Spirit and it is necessary to pray for that, to pray much, to ask in prayer for the interior light of the Spirit and docilely accept that light, to ask for the love that alone enables one to understand the language of God, who "is love" (cf 1 Jn 4:8, 16). While engaged in the very work of interpretation, one must remain in the presence of God as much as possible.
(Excerpt from Address of Pope John Paull II to Pontifical Biblical Commission (April 23, 1993)