Can the bible stand up to scientific criticism? by Manuel Rivero, o.p.


The example of Father Lagrange, founder of Biblical School of Jerusalem
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For the beatification of Brother Lagrange o.p.

On placing the first stone of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem the 5th of June, 1891, Fr. Lagrange placed the foundation in the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. He also wrote on this stone his prayer to Our Lady of the Rosary, the Patron of the Ecole Biblique. The Order of Friars Preachers and the diocese of Frejus-Toulon are officially opening the cause for the beatification of Fr. Lagrange. During this Rosary Pilgrimage of 2005, it seems right to ask the sick, their care-givers and the pilgrims to join in the process.

It is a well known fact that Dominicans rarely engage in the cult of personality. At the death of St. Dominic himself, the brothers did not invest their efforts in the canonization of their founder but rather in the preaching of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why then are we attracting your attention to this particular beatification? Isn’t it more valuable to reinforce the living of a holy life today rather than remembering a holy life of yesterday? In his own time, Fr. Lagrange raised the difficult struggle for the scientific study of the Bible. The example of his spiritual adventures and of his exegetical work has proven to be fruitful for those who know doubts and trials.

Fr. Bernard Montagnes[1], of the Dominican convent of Toulouse, has worked for many years to offer us a critical biography which is cited in this brochure. Fr. Lagrange was greeted as a ‘new St. Jerome’, for the quality and quantity of his Biblical studies. The philosopher and academician Jean Guitton, a student of Fr. Lagrange in Jerusalem, invited by Paul VI to the Second Vatican Council, insisted on the necessity of placing on the altars the Founder of the Ecole Biblique who was known to have reconciled the Catholic Faith to the textual criticism of the Bible. What good does it serve to complain about the lack of faith of our contemporaries? Won’t faith come in listening to the Word of God taken seriously? Even today French agnostic philosophers who promote the teaching of religion turn toward the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem in order to study the history of the texts in their proper context. It isn’t only intellectuals who claim to be touched by the example of Fr. Lagrange. Families troubled with the grave illness of one of their members, couples experiencing difficulties in their relationships and parents worried about the atheism of their children witness to the graces they have received through the intercession of Fr. Lagrange.

At this time there is still no official recognition of a miracle needed to attain beatification. We invite you to reach out in prayer to the Servant of God, Fr. Lagrange, and to ask the Lord to glorify him.

Fr. Manuel Rivero OP,
Vice-postulator for the cause of the beatification of Fr. Lagrange.

Biography

Albert Lagrange was born in Bourg-en-Bresse, on March 7, 1855, the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas. After studying at the Petit Seminaire of Autun, he began legal studies, eventually completing his doctorate in law. His colleagues elected him secretary of the conference of lawyers of Paris. The young lawyer, however, sensed a call to the priesthood. He entered the seminary of St. Sulpice at Issy-les-Moulineaux. Attracted by the ideals of St. Dominic he took the Dominican habit as a member of the province of Toulouse on October 5, 1879 at St. Maximin, in Provence, at the hands of the prior provincial, Hyacinth-Marie Cormier.

In 1880, when religious were subjected to a decree of expulsion, Fr. Lagrange went into exile at the convent of Salamanca in Spain. He kept in his memory of those years in Castille the religious and contemplative life he had led and the devotion to St. Theresa of Avila, venerated at Alba de Tormes where he went on pilgrimage. The 22nd of December, 1883, he was ordained a priest in Zamora. In 1886, he had occasion to return to France to the city of Toulouse where he taught and preached the Gospel.

After having pursued his studies in Eastern Studies at the University of Vienna, Fr. Lagrange was sent to Jerusalem with the mission of founding a school of Sacred Scripture. He consecrated his entire life to the study of Middle Eastern languages (Assyrian, Egyptian, Arabic, Talmudic Hebrew), and to the teaching of exegesis and Biblical research. His works, (The Historical Method, The Gospel of Jesus Christ) as well as the Biblical Review he founded which is still published today, have known a wide circulation. They form a part of the cultural heritage of both priests and laity. It must be said that Fr. Lagrange stood up to a great challenge: the rationalist and modernist critique of the Bible. The observations of rationalists such as Renan and Loisy caused many Christians to lose a sense of equilibrium. It was necessary to take the bull by the horns. Fr. Lagrange undertook the study of textual and literary criticism, archeology, Palestinian geography, and topography etc… He used both a practical and experiential pedagogy. He also situated himself on the land where the People of God lived the great events of the History of Salvation. A great disciple of St. Thomas Aquinas, he didn’t fear any scientific discoveries, knowing that “the truth will set you free.” (John 8, 32). In spite of his erudition Fr. Lagrange’s approach to study was never dry or off-putting. While always insisting on “the humble literal sense” of the Scriptures, compared with fantastic interpretations, his Biblical studies were characterized by their freshness and light. His research blossomed into knowledge of God which was personal and life-giving.

It was on March 10th, 1938 that he passed from this world to the Father at St. Maximin (Var). His remains were placed in the convent’s cemetery. In November 1967 they were transported and buried in the basilica of St. Stephen of Jerusalem where they remain today.

Marian Spirituality

 

Fr. Lagrange was a fervent man, that is to say, a man for whom prayer was fire. He entrusted all of his works to the prayer of the Virgin Mary who was his spiritual mother. It is therefore not astonishing to found cited in the introduction of his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John this beautiful text of Origen: “We dare to say, the Gospels are the most favored part, no one can acquire their spirit if they have not rested on the breast of Jesus and if they have not received Mary as their mother, from Jesus. The very name of Mary inspires confidence. It is through her that we implore the supernatural light necessary for our understanding, such as it is, of this book so filled with the sense of the divine.”

In speaking of the influence of Mary on the education of the child Jesus, he wrote: “If it is possible to analyze his human development, one would say that there was in Jesus, like in others, some of the influence of his Mother. His grace, his exquisite finesse, and his indulgent kindness didn’t only belong to him. It is often by these qualities that one can distinguish those whose hearts have been fashioned by maternal tenderness, their spirit refined by the conversations of the venerated and tenderly loved woman who was pleased to initiate them into the subtle nuances of life.”

Father Lagrange insisted also that the Virgin Mary participated in the salvation accomplished by her son. “Our piety toward Mary sees also, in her attitude at the foot of the cross, an indication of the place she occupies in our redemption. She felt the sufferings of her Son, she feels our pain, she suffered with Him, without adding anything to his infinite merits, but joined hers to His, in associating herself with the work of the One that she had given to the world as its Savior, participating no less in the work of his death than of his birth.”

Influenced from his birth by the Marian devotion of his mother, who died a Dominican tertiary, he wrote in his spiritual journal: “I was born on March 7th, the day of St. Thomas; I was baptized the 12th, feast of St. Gregory and following the custom I was without doubt consecrated to Mary at the altar of the Black Virgin. I found myself therefore from the beginning, under the protection of St. Joseph. For three years my mother placed me under a vow, making me wear blue and white in honor of Mary. What a sweet thought, and isn’t that the origin of her tenderness toward me! My parents brought me on a pilgrimage to Ars; the holy Curé blessed me, and perhaps cured an intestinal malady.” “At nine and a half I entered the seminary at Autun. In good time I was placed in catechism for my First Communion. I loved to recite the Office of the Blessed Virgin. My mother, who couldn’t attend my First Communion, sent me a touching letter to teach me about sacrifice. So great was my contrition that my classmates pretended to have understood my accusations. In the evening we consecrated ourselves to Mary, next to the pool, at the foot of the statue which has now been removed. I was sincere in giving myself to her, but she has been more faithful than I.”

While searching for his vocation, the Virgin Mary also touched his heart. “During vacation I went to Ars with my mother, and I was really touched. I asked of St. Philomena to die in the Order of St. Dominic, (perhaps as a martyr) and I asked for a visible sign for my priestly vocation: if Paul confessed before leaving for Algeria, where we had to go see my brother to say our good-byes to the world. At Aix, where I went to find him, he stalled. We left for Marseille: I believed everything to be useless, when he drew me to himself in the church of the Dominicans. This sign was so clear for me, that I stayed, shaken, in the base of the church, until he came to take me from this prayer. Sometime before, at Paray-le-Monial, Our Lord lavished upon me all the sweetness of his love.” (Spiritual Journal)

From the beginning of the Ecole Biblique, he chose December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as the feast of the school: “Mass of the Immaculate Conception. Abandon the Ecole without reserve into the hands of Mary Immaculate: it is dedicated to her, it is her work. The month of the Rosary was always favorable for us.” (Fr. Lagrange, September 27, 1898.)

The Rosary

 

In an address to the Dominican laity in 1936, Fr. Lagrange taught: “The rosary is a summary of the Gospel, orienting us toward the end inspired in us by the Incarnation and the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Does the rosary replace the reading of Scripture and make it useless? Rather we would say that it makes us desire the Scriptures even more and makes them necessary if we really wish to have before our eyes the mysteries which we contemplate.”

Dominican Vocation 

In discovering the call to the Dominican life he exalted with joy; “It is like walking in pure light, as if God showed me the path in the form of a bright flame.” (Personal memories)
Ever since I read the Conferences of Notre Dame and the life of St. Dominic, the Dominican ideal has dominated my thoughts. I gave myself to St. Dominic not so much because of reading the works of Fr. Lacordaire, but rather after having been seduced by the radiant image of the Saint taken from the Coronation of the Virgin by Blessed Angelico de Fiesole. I never doubted the accuracy of the portrait: it was a good depiction of how one would imagine the loving vision of a pure soul. Long before I entered his Order I was his son, I prayed to him everyday.” (Personals memories)

I said my First Mass on Sunday the 23rd at the altar of the Holy Rosary, and with an overwhelming joy I gave Communion to my mother and to my sister Therese.” (Personals memories)

Because of the circumstances, I had to go to Zamora for my ordination, and I was so exhausted by the trip, and a little by the emotions of it all, that I was almost unconscious. But when I arrived at night at the convent of Salamanca and I saw the door of my cell garlanded with leaves-they do this for everyone-nevertheless I was so touched by this fraternal charity that finally I wept softly.”

The Rosary is a summary of the Gospel

The Study of the Bible

I believe I have given proof of a true passion for study, but I claim that I don’t understand study, within our Order, without the music of a good part of the Office, as rest and light! […] The study of Sacred Scripture can be perilous without a great spirit of faith, which has been proved by numerous apostasies, and I for my part wouldn’t want my work to cause myself or others to reach that result.” (Letter of Fr. Lagrange to Fr. Paul Meunier, superior of the house, St. Etienne in Jerusalem)

That which I most admire about Catholic doctrine is that it is at the same time both unchanging and progressive. The Spirit is not a boundary; it is a rule. The Spirit imposes itself upon doctrine while soliciting its activity. Great minds can give themselves over to their great passion, that of progressing in the light. Revealed truth can’t transform itself but it can grow. It is progress because new acquisitions don’t ever overthrow the treasures of the past. The history of exegesis is the most beautiful of all of literary history.”

It would be difficult to not recognize that there is a Biblical question for men of the Church just as there is a social question for men of the State […] This Biblical question includes a scientific solution […] but one must ask of science the response for questions raised by science.”

I am too passionately attached to the Roman Church to not hope that we will lift ourselves out of this state of intellectual inferiority where we are now on certain points.”

We wouldn’t want any souls to be lost for refusing to adhere to that which the Church doesn’t ask them to believe.” (Conclusion of Fr. Lagrange from an article about the story of the fall in Genesis written in 1897.)
One of the most urgent needs at this time […] is to form exegetes who are well versed in theology and at the same time in all of the other related disciplines which can aid in understanding Sacred Scripture as both a divine and human work. The General Chapter of Avila in 1895, approved the foundation in Jerusalem, by our predecessor, of a Biblical school which also included the study of St. Thomas. The real reason why one reads so little of the Scriptures is that in reality it is difficult to understand.”

The life of Fr. Lagrange was unified through his faith. “I love to listen to the Gospel sung by the deacon at the ambo, in the midst of clouds of incense: the words penetrate my soul more profoundly than when I encounter them in a scholarly discussion.”

As a Dominican, Fr. Lagrange saw his teaching as preaching in view of the salvation of souls. “I am convinced that there is a campaign to continue, where there will be much boredom to endure, prejudices to overcome, and attacks to patiently suffer. Why then not just stay calmly on the paths already made straight? Because I am passionately in love with the honor of the Church and it seems to me that that leads to the good of souls.”

It is not enough to make the critic responsible for every wrong. Only the critic can wrestle with another critic.”

The Foundation of the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem

 

It is under the protection of St. Stephen, who summarized in his magnificent speech all of the Old Testament, and whose prayer achieved the conversion of St. Paul, and under the protection of St. Thomas Aquinas that the new school of Sacred Scripture will we founded.”

The Trials

 

Fr. Lagrange confronted both mistrust and condemnation. His discoveries aroused fears in certain members of the Roman hierarchy. He was not at any time on the margins. He always provided proof of his obedience regarding “Holy Mother, the Church” as he liked to say. His attachment to the Church wasn’t without suffering. He also once declared: “The person who has never suffered for the Church doesn’t know what it is to love the Church.”
Long experience has already convinced me that it is never good to have one’s orthodoxy or honesty placed under suspicion. Most often, there is a place to respond in defense of one’s honor and loyalty as a Christian.”

I am a little surprised that it would occur to you that I would be capable of printing my Genesis without your permission. Thanks be to God that thought is far from me. I sadly feel our inferiority in critical studies, but I know well that nothing is remedied in the Church outside of obedience.” (Marie-Joseph Lagrange to the Master of the Order, Andre Fruhwirth, February 6, 1899.)

I have read with great attention the beautiful letter of Fr. Lagrange and you will have the goodness to respond to him that I am well assured of his sentiments and that I congratulate him for his full submission.” (Pope Pius X, in a letter to the Master of the Order, H.M. Cormier, August 16, 1912.)

During his good-byes to the Ecole Biblique of Jerusalem, on the 3rd of September, 1912: “No bitterness and no defiance! No soldier worthy of the name would dispute the Order which placed him in combat; much less would he waver or desert. You know my prayer and my heart, but don’t rely on my help knowing well enough yourselves that I couldn’t do so without being disloyal, even indirectly. If God wants this work to live, it is He who will make it live as in the past; but you will not deserve his assistance unless you remain courageous, enthusiastic, and especially true religious and sons in the spirit and heart of the Order and of the Church.

Pope Benedict XV was sympathetic toward him:

“My Reverend Father,
In response to your letter of the 6th, I propose to you that you send Fr. Lagrange to me today at 4 o’clock: I remember having met him before, but I will be happy to receive him today.
Thank you for the magnificent photographs of the Angelicum College, through the intercession of St. Dominic, may the Lord fill us all with his graces.
January 8th, 1915. Benedictus P.P. XV”
Letter of Benedict XV to Fr. Hyancinthe-Marie Cormier. Vatican, January 8, 1915.)

His Humility

I must recognize within myself this fault of old people, irascibility. They think themselves to be intelligent, and this tendency has remained with me all my life rooting me in self contentment. I had unquestionably learned much from experience. So I judge with harshness: it’s stupid, what a cretin! This is not such a grave fault in the young, their presumptions are less obstinate. One must struggle to show one’s gentle side, and especially to be so. On the other hand, life, effectively, teaches indulgence, especially a life like mine. What would I have become, O my Jesus, if you had not taken care to humble me!”

His Spiritual Testament

Hail Mary! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
[…] I declare before God that my intention is to die within the holy Catholic Church, in which I have always belonged, body and soul since my baptism, and to die faithful to my vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, within the Order of St. Dominic. I entrust myself for that to my dear Savior Jesus, and also to his very Holy Mother, who has always been so good to me.
[…] I also declare in the most expressive way, that I submit to the judgment of the Apostolic See all that I have written.
[…] I wish to state once again that I am a son of Mary: Tuus sum ego, salvum me fac!
(Jerusalem, convent of St. Etienne, first martyr, December 14, 1914)

The death of Father Lagrange

A letter from an unidentified Dominican to Fr. Buzy, Superior General of the Fathers of Betharram. St. Maximin, March 17, 1938.
“Very Reverend Father:
We have been deeply touched by the condolences which you have offered to us on the occasion of the death of Fr. Lagrange. I willingly offer you some of the details of his last days, and I ask pardon for not having sent them earlier, having been busy with my studies until now.
Here it is: Fr.Lagrange came back to Montpellier on the evening of Mardi Gras, March 1st, after a little over a week of rest, when he found, nonetheless, the means to give five conferences. On his return he was sick with a cold, a bit tired, but there was nothing which would have warned us of his rapid decline. Friday the 4th, he gave us his class on St. John as was his custom. Father wanted to give us, since our return in October, two regular weekly classes, one on Wednesday on Genesis, and the other on Friday on St. John. We were looking at the treatment of the passion according to St. John and the synoptics. On Saturday the 5th, Father didn’t get up to celebrate his daily 6am Mass in Fr. Lacordaire’s cell. It was from that day on that the fever appeared and that he was no longer able to get up. He succumbed to a flu which developed into pulmonary congestion.
In addition to the good example of a hard working and active life to the end, his last illness was, for us, edifying: the docility he showed in carrying out the least orders of the doctor, the piety which he never ceased to display; at night from the early hours of the morning, he asked for Holy Communion, and one of the brothers who was caring for him heard him say: “I will no longer be able to say Mass… Jesus is the Master.” On Wednesday evening, after confessing, while his confessor was speaking of the Blessed Virgin, his face lit up with a smile. After receiving Extreme Unction, as the doctor was asking him how he felt, Fr. Lagrange, alluding to the Extreme Unction he had just received before the whole community gathered around him said: “They have all come as though I were going to pass away.” Perhaps at that moment he was making another illusion to the imminence of the end, but when the doctor stated again that we were all very worried, casting a glance toward the doctor, and very aware of the gravity of the hour, he said these words with a great calm: “I abandon myself to God.” He breathed his last on Thursday morning, after the Salve Regina, just as we had all gathered around him for “le transitus animae” the passage of his soul.”

John Paul II Praises Fr. Lagrange

In addressing the members of Pontifical Academy of Science, on October 31, 1992, Pope Jean-Paul II compared the crisis provoked by the condemnation of Galileo to that which was occasioned by the rejection of Fr. Lagrange:
“In virtue of its own mission, the Church must be attentive to the pastoral implications of its word. What must be made clear, above all, is that the word must correspond to the truth. But it must work at understanding how to take into consideration a new scientific finding which appears to contradict the truths of the faith. The pastoral judgment demanded by the Copernican theory was difficult to support in the measure that geocentrism appeared to be part of the very teaching of Scripture. It was necessary to overcome the ways of thinking and to come up with a pedagogy capable of enlightening the People of God. That is to say, in a general way, that the pastor has to show himself ready to be authentically forthright, avoiding the double pitfall of a timorous attitude and a preconceived judgment, either of which could cause a great deal of harm.
An analogous crisis to the one of which we are speaking can be evoked. In the last century and the beginning of our present one, the progress of historical studies made it possible to acquire new understandings of the Bible and of related biblical fields. The rationalist context in which these findings were often presented, seemed to be capable of ruining Christian faith. Certain individuals, with the desire to defend the faith thought it best to reject these historical conclusions, which had been seriously established. That turned out to be a bad and hasty decision. The work of a pioneer like Fr. Lagrange would have been capable of operating with the necessary discernment on the basis of assured criteria.”

(Translated from French by Brother Brian Bricker O.P.)


Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Bernard Montagnes, Marie-Joseph Lagrange. Une biographie critique, Paris, Ed. du Cerf, 2004.

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