Catholic theologians since at least St Augustine have understood the complexity of Sacred Scripture, and reiterated that to insist on a literal reading of the text is both unhistorical and bad theology. But in part because of the reaction against Modernism in the early 20th century, even Catholics began to tend towards a too literal reading of certain Old Testament narratives, based on a misunderstanding of papal statements which taught the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
Did this mean that the Old Testament had to be accepted as a historical account in the same sense as an academic history text published today? In the US, many Evangelicals and, curiously, many atheists assume that any other approach to the Bible constitutes a fatal compromise with Christian faith. But if we reject such a view as naive, is there any principle we can invoke that will allow us to preserve the Church’s insistence that all of Scripture is inspired and inerrant, and at the same time avoid the crudities of Protestant fundamentalism?
It was in part to answer this question that in 1943 Pius XII issued his encyclical on biblical studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu. Pius offered the solution to the false dilemma of regarding Scripture either as having a merely symbolic truth or of holding to a naive literalism. He did this by pointing out that the literary form of each book of the Bible is crucial to understanding it.
Frequently the literal sense is not so obvious in the words and writings of ancient oriental authors as it is with the writers of today. What they intended to signify by their words is determined not only by the laws of grammar or philology, nor merely by the context. It is necessary for the interpreter to go back in spirit to those remote centuries of the East, and make proper use of the aids afforded by history, archaeology, ethnology and other sciences, in order to discover what literary forms the writers of that early age intended to use (no. 39).
To treat, say, the books of Joshua or Tobias in the same manner as the synoptic Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles is to ignore the profound differences between the intentions of the authors and their very different historical milieux.
Many of the Old Testament writers employed “certain arts of exposition and narrative, certain idioms … and certain hyperbolical and even paradoxical expressions”, while the New Testament was written in an era that knew well how to write straightforward accounts intended simply to convey historical facts.
In this way Pope Pius brilliantly avoided the false dichotomy so attractive to both Protestant literalists and their atheist critics, and gave the Church a sure methodology for her approach to understanding the sacred text.