- Pierre Benoit’s “Ecclesial Inspiration”: A Thomistic Notion at the Heart of Twentieth-Century Debates on Biblical Inspiration
THE EDITORS OF THE 2005 volume Aquinas on Scripture identify well the starting point for much of the recent scholarly interest in the scriptural commentaries of Thomas Aquinas, citing the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (no. 24): “the study of the sacred page . . . is the soul of sacred theology.”1 This crystallization found in Dei Verbum has its own history whose roots lie partially in the Magisterium2 and partially in [End Page 521] preconciliar discussions surrounding revelation, tradition, theological method, and biblical studies. In all these discussions, the issue of biblical inspiration was nodal.3
The contribution of the French priest-theologian Pierre Benoit, O.P., to the mid-century discussions around biblical inspiration and, in particular, his notion of “ecclesial inspiration” will be shown here to offer a fruitful avenue for appropriating elements of these knotty preconciliar discussions. Known more widely for his biblical scholarship,4 Benoit came to relocate the term “inspiration” principally in the mystery of the Church through careful attention to (1) Thomas Aquinas’s thinking on prophecy and (2) the mid-century problematic surrounding biblical inspiration. In a recent study, Juan Jesús García Morales has highlighted how preconciliar discussions surrounding theories of inspiration can be read in the light of “convergences” towards Dei Verbum.5 Benoit’s theology, he argues, [End Page 522] represents one such convergence, evidenced in the way his preconciliar analyses of inspiration were refashioned into something called a “charism of Tradition.” Morales’s key method-logical term, “convergences” (in juxtaposition—but not categorically opposed—to individual “necessary arguments”), reflects his interest in integrating conciliar and postconciliar theological discussions surrounding biblical inspiration and the theology of tradition, rather than in isolating separate strands, whether theoretical or historical. This essay aims partially to extend Morales’s method of integration by asking whether—and if so, in what way—Benoit’s notion of “ecclesial inspiration” emerged over the course of his engagement with Thomas Aquinas’s texts and thought.
Among his contemporary specialists in the field of the theology of biblical inspiration, Benoit’s use of “ecclesial inspiration” trod a fine line. On the one hand, he was challenging the terminological supremacy of “biblical inspiration” defended by biblicists like Luis Alonso Schökel, who, while sympathetic to Benoit’s intuitions, was uneasy about the application of “inspiration” outside of scriptural and literary contexts;6 on the other hand, “ecclesial inspiration” boldly brought other important—but often contentious—loci of the theology of biblical inspiration such as the “fuller sense” (sensus plenior) into closer relationship with the histories of the biblical canon and of doctrinal development in the Church. Pierre Grelot thought Benoit’s extension of the sensus plenior to the Church in history downplayed too much the pre-eminence of the “inspired” biblical author(s) and compromised a coherent theory of the sensus plenior by confusing it with later [End Page 523] developments in theology.7 Grelot preferred to speak of the Church’s “charism,” an expression to which Benoit was not opposed, but one which he thought failed to integrate adequately enough the Bible and the subsequent life and history of the Church. During these mid-century debates, Benoit appealed especially to a historical source in the Church’s life—the theology of Thomas Aquinas—and proposed a Thomistic take on “analogies of inspiration” to soften terminological rigidity; he also defended (but without proving a priori) a deep confidence in the spiritual continuity shared by the biblical authors and future generations in the Church’s tradition.
Benoit eventually argued that it was necessary to shift the traditional and almost exclusive association of “inspiration” with “biblical inspiration” towards a broader theology of tradition, where tradition was reconceived as the entire work of the apostolic Church, which established the deposit of revelation, including the biblical canon—a work that was so inspired by the Holy Spirit that even in subsequent periods of the Church revelation was allowed to unfold, develop, and be understood more deeply, especially as a function of continued and progressive attentiveness to...