The Pope on the Bible

I discovered the following quote from an interview on Pub Philospher (what a great name for a Blog). It comes from an interview given by Father Joseph Fessio, a friend of Pope Benedict’s. In the interview, Father Fessio remembered a conversation with the Pope concerning Islam’s ability to adapt to modern culture. The Pope gives a very clear picture of the different approach of Islam and Christianity to our founding Scriptures.

Well, the thesis that was proposed by this scholar was that Islam can enter into the modern world if the Koran is reinterpreted by taking the specific legislation, and going back to the principles, and then adapting it to our times, especially with the dignity that we ascribe to women, which has come through Christianity, of course. And immediately, the Holy Father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said well, there’s a fundamental problem with that, because he said in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through His creatures. And so, it is not just the word of God, it’s the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He’s used His human creatures, and inspired them to speak His word to the world, and therefore by establishing a Church in which he gives authority to His followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there’s an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations. I was…I mean, Hugh, I wish I could say it as clearly and as beautifully as he did, but that’s why he’s Pope and I’m not, okay?

I guess that some might be uneasy with his use of ‘adapted’, but the concept of a living communication from God which can be translated and interpreted in different cultural situations is central to the ministry of Bible translation. It’s nice to get confirmation from unexpected sources!

By the way, I’m neither endorsing nor refuting the political conclusions that Pub Philospher draws from this interview – I’ll leave that stuff to other blogs.

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3 replies on “The Pope on the Bible”

This is an interesting quotation. But the Pope’s words also leave me a little uneasy. If the Christ’s followers in the Church can adapt and apply the Bible to new situations, what is to stop them adapting away its more uncomfortable teachings? That is, how does this differ from complete cultural relativism? I am sure that this Pope, who claims to embody personally this right of the Church to interpret the Bible, will not adapt and reapply the Bible in this way, but what is to stop his successors doing so? If the answer is that such reapplications are restricted by tradition, after 2000 years there is little room left for changes which do not go against tradition, and the result is that the Church is locked into a 19th and early 20th century position which is no more flexible than the Islamic tradition which the Pope criticises. It may not be quite so old-fashioned, but it is almost as unacceptable to women and to other groups who feel rejected or marginalised by the Church’s teaching. So I don’t think the Pope has really found an answer to what must be the fundamental question: how far can we reapply the Bible to different cultural situations?

Well, I’m not about to go on a limb to defend the Pope, I’m sure he can do quite well without me. The thing which really interests me here is the different approach to inspiration and translation between the two major religions. You have far more experience than I in this area and I’d appreciate more of your thoughts if you have time.

Well, on the matter of the different approaches of the different religions, I wonder if the difference is overstated. Mainstream Islam interprets the Qur’an very literally, but this is more or less the way the Bible was interpreted by most Christians until the 19th century, and still by a significant number now. Indeed this kind of fundamentalism seems to be on the ascendant in both religions at the moment. The difference is that a much higher proportion of educated Christians than of educated Muslims have a less literalist interpretation of the their holy book. But this is a matter of degree, and perhaps of time, rather than of fundamental difference. While we certainly can’t be sure that the Qur’an will eventually be interpreted less literally, in a way which allows Islam to adapt to the contemporary world, I don’t see any reason why this is impossible.

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