Providentissimus Deus, "On the Study of Holy Scripture", was an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on 18 November 1893. In it, he reviewed the history of Bible study from the time of the Church Fathers to the present, spoke against the errors of the Rationalists and "higher critics", and outlined principles of scripture study and guidelines for how scripture was to be taught in seminaries. He also addressed the issues of apparent contradictions between the Bible and physical science, or between one part of scripture and another, and how such apparent contradictions can be resolved.
Providentissimus Deus followed earlier efforts on the part of Pope Leo to promote Catholic education. In 1878, he had encouraged the study of history and archaeology. The 1879 encyclilcal Aeterni Patris promoted the study of scholastic philosophy. In 1892 Leo auhorized the École Biblique in Jerusalem, the first Catholic school specifically dedicated to the critical study of the bible. With Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo gave the first formal authorization for the use of critical methods in biblical scholarship. In 1902, Pope Leo XIII instituted the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was to adapt Roman Catholic Biblical studies to modern scholarship and to protect Scripture against attacks.
The encyclopedia contains both a polemic against rationalism, and a defense of divine authorship, inspiration, and inerrancy. Providentissimus Deus responded to two challenges to biblical authority, both of which arose during the 19th century.
The historical-critical method of analyzing scripture questioned the reliability of the Bible. Leo acknowledged the possibility of errors introduced by scribes but forbade the interpretation that only some of scripture is inerrant, while other elements are fallible. Leo condemned that use that certain scholars made of new evidence, clearly referring to Alfred Firmin Loisy and Maurice d'Hulst, although not by name.
Leo argued that as science and theology are separate disciplines they do not contradict each other, provided that scholars keep to their respective areas of expertise. The scientist should not view the biblical writers as explaining the visible world, as that was not their intent. Biblical scholars should be aware that the writers may have used figurative language or descriptions from appearances.
At first, both conservatives and liberals found elements in the encyclical to which to appeal. Over the next decade, however, Modernism spread and Providentissimus Deus was increasingly interpreted in a conservative sense. This encyclical was part of an ongoing conflict between Modernists and conservatives.
On September 30, 1943, Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical on “The Most Opportune Way to Promote Biblical Studies,” Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Divine Spirit”), in commemoration of Providentissimus Deus.
- Prior, Joseph G., The Historical Critical Method in Catholic Exegesis, Gregorian Biblical BookShop, 1999, ISBN 9788876528255
- "Biblical Commission." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
- "Provdentissimus Deus." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
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- Text of Providentissimus Deus