Catholic Scripture Interpretation
by Eric Sammons
The purpose of manís existence in life, according to Catholic teaching, is to know, love and serve God. More than simply a duty that man must fulfill to obtain salvation, this divine design exists so that God can have an eternal relationship with each one of His children. From the creation of the first man, God has revealed Himself to the human race so that man may know Him more fully. The summit of this revelation occurred with the "new man" ó Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered completely into the condition of the human race. The purpose of the incarnation was to restore man to the communion with God that had been lost in the Fall. After Christís ascension into heaven, he left man with an institution to nourish this radically new relationship: the Church.
Within the Church, Godís revelation comes to man in His "deeds and words", in written and unwritten forms. The written manner of this communication to us is the Sacred Scriptures. The words of Scripture, written with "God as their author", truly are His words to man and therefore have a privileged place in the Church. However, since they also have human authors, using human forms of communication, the Scriptures, as any other written work, necessitate a proper interpretation to fully understand them. Suitable explanation demands certain "fundamentals".
In the past century the Catholic Church has developed more fully the proper fundamentals of interpretation for the modern exegete. Three documents: Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII; Divino Afflante Spiritu by Pope Pius XII; and especially Dei Verbum, a document of the Second Vatican Council, have all contributed greatly to the development of these principles. Also rising to prominence in the past century is another method of interpretation, which likewise claims to rest wholly on certain "fundamentals": Biblical Fundamentalism. While there are some superficial similarities between a true Catholic interpretation and a Fundamentalist one, the Churchís principles of exegesis in the final analysis resist and contradict the principles laid down by Fundamentalism.
Role of Sacred Scripture in the Church
Before seeing the place of Scripture within the Church and even within revelation itself, the question arises: what is Revelation? More than and before anything else, it is God choosing to reveal Himself to man. Dogmas and doctrines are only one part of Divine Revelation; they are not even the first or primary contents of this intimate disclosure of God. In order that man might enjoy the Beatific Vision forever in Heaven, God reveals His very Being to us on earth so that we might desire this future deep relationship. This revealing of God is done in a two-fold fashion: in both His words and deeds. In the words of the Vatican II fathers,
Then, at the fullness of time, the perfect God wished to perfect His revelation to man: thus, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Jesus Christ is the perfection of the relationship between God and man, as he is both "truly God and truly man". His words and deeds, accomplished in the land of Palestine for a period of under forty years, are the summit of God's Revelation. After his death and resurrection, this divine revelation was to be "handed on" until the end of the world. The instrument for this continuation of God's revealing is the Church He founded upon Peter and the apostles. As this handing on was to occur for and by men, it consisted of two forms: written and unwritten, Scripture and Tradition. The essence of this written method is exactly like Christ: both human and divine. It is human in that it was really written by men with human methods of communication. However, it is divine since it truly has as its author, God. As the two natures of Christ are a mystery that can be believed and explained but never fully understood, so also the two natures of the Sacred Scriptures are a paradox to be explored but never completely fathomed. God, in His desire to have communion with us, did not impose Himself as an author against the free will of the human writer. But the Scriptures, unlike the unwritten Sacred Tradition, are written in God's words, demanding a privileged place in the scheme of revelation in the Church.
On the one road of Godís revelation to men, there are two lanes and one guide.
However, it is impossible to simply put these three in a hierarchical structure to determine their order of authority, for they are intrinsically related. "Scripture" refers to the 73 books of the Bible that the Church recognizes as canonical. Catholic teaching is that since they were written by the Holy Spirit they are without error. Consisting of the teaching of Our Lord and his apostles that has been handed on orally, Sacred Tradition is a
Finally, the Magisterium is the official teaching office of the Catholic Church consisting of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops acting in concert with him. Although the Magisterium is not equivalent to Sacred Tradition, its authoritative decisions made today will become a part of Sacred Tradition for the future Church.
In this three-part structure, Sacred Scripture is the only "inspired" Word of God that the Church recognizes as truly being Godís words. The extent of this inspiration is complete, as Pope Leo XIII states:
Since this direct inspiration is not true of Tradition or the Magisterium, Scripture is placed in a unique position that no other means of revelation can claim. A certain primacy thus exits with Scripture, which should not lead to a sola scriptura attitude, but instead simply a reverence for Scripture as the Word of God in God's words.
Fundamentals of Catholic Interpretation
Since Scripture is the written epitome of Godís revelation, there is no book which could be considered more important in the Churchís mission of revealing God to man than the Bible. However, proper interpretation is important for two reasons. First, with the infinite God as its author, the Scriptures reveal mysteries that take considerable prayer and work to begin to comprehend; and with men also as authors, it takes study, as any written work would, to understand the true intentions of the Sacred Writers. In order to facilitate this endeavor, the Church has developed certain "fundamentals" to guide in the work of interpretation.
Scripture cannot be read and studied without a grasping of its ultimate purpose. Since it is a part of divine revelation, it too exists for the development of manís personal and communal relationship with God. All of Scripture must be seen in the grand context of this saving plan and any interpretation that exists disregarding this ultimate goal would be an improper explanation of the texts. The central focus of the Scriptures, as with all of revelation, is the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his saving work. The purpose of revelation is for all men to share in the divine nature; therefore, Christ, who fully possesses this nature, should be the central reference of interpretation. The relationship of the human and divine in Christ orders the key principle in interpreting the Bible. This method finds its form in an analogy that Pope Pius XII first stated:
The Sacred Scripture, by its very nature as God's communication to us through human means, requires an incarnational interpretation. It is necessary to see the distinction, yet inseparability, of the human and divine aspects of Scripture. To ignore these would be equivalent to claiming that Jesus was in error (and therefore not divine) simply if he tripped while walking.
God's revelation, His revealing of Himself to man, that found its climax in the Incarnation, demands a reciprocal response of faith from us. As with any relationship, both parties must contribute: God initiates, man responds. This "obedience of faith" should order our interpretation of His revelation. Man's response, which necessarily affects his interpretation, should involve his entire being. The Vatican II fathers stated a threefold yielding of self:
As every exegete studies the Bible with a certain worldview, so the Catholic interpreter must incorporate into his study this trilateral surrender to God, who has given to man all that he is.
With the above principles permeating the mind of the interpreter, other, more specific fundamentals must be followed to obtain a truly Catholic interpretation. Sacred Scripture forms the whole of Revelation along with Sacred Tradition. Thus, for correct interpretation it is impossible to separate the two or to explain Scripture in such a way that it contradicts Tradition. For as God speaks but one Word, so Sacred Scripture and Tradition, as forms of that one Word, are completely united in one authentic reality. Any interpretation that would find contradiction would be illegitimate, denying the very Truth of God. To ensure this union, the Magisterium is the final authority on all legitimate interpretation. As Pope Leo XIII states,
Christ founded the Church and promised to guide her to all truth. A legitimate interpretation, therefore, is one that is in harmony with the Tradition and Magisterial teachings of the Church. The three stand together, irrevocably linked.
All of the prior fundamentals can be climaxed in the words coined by Pope Leo XIII that interpretation must be within the "analogy of faith". An authentic illumination of any Scriptural text must be performed by one who believes in God and His plan of revelation. Another way of looking at this is that the interpreter should examine the Sacred Scripture in the same spirit in which it is written, that is, the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit inspired the words of the Sacred Page, therefore, only the Holy Spirit can fully understand them. Thus, the scholar who will not listen to this Spirit is not listening to the author. This cannot, however, simply reduce the interpreter to "listening to the Spirit", without the visible guide of Mother Church, through whom the Spirit pours forth graces of wisdom and understanding to men.
Fundamentalistic Interpretation in Relation to the Catholic "Fundamentals"
Now quickly becoming one of the largest sects within Christianity, Biblical Fundamentalism originated almost 100 years ago at the American Biblical Congress in Niagara, N.Y. Convened in the same time period as the writing of Providentissimus Deus, this conference also sought to respond to the Enlightenment thinking that pervaded Biblical scholarship, as well as other theological areas, by declaring what it felt were the five "fundamentals" of Christianity. These five fundamentals were:
Just as the Catholic Church has been increasingly developing Her methods of interpretation, this sect has developed a very specific guide to explaining the Scriptures. Simplicity (implicit in possessing only five fundamentals) is one of the most endearing qualities of Fundamentalism to its believers. This austerity is present in its interpretation methods in the form of literalism.
Fundamentalists begin their interpretation, like Catholics, focusing on a personalistic relationship with God. However, the apparent similarity branches into radically different models of interpretation. For Fundamentalists, this personal communion is oversimplified and overemphasized so that sole importance is placed upon the relationship between the individual and God ó there is no salvific purpose to a structured community. Thus, unlike the Catholic approach that welcomes the authority of the interpreting community, individualism pervades the Fundamentalist interpretation.
Next, the incarnational interpretation is rejected by Fundamentalists. For them, God is the sole author of the Scriptures and therefore, it would be blasphemous to claim that anything directly written by God could in any way be in error (of course, this assumes that the interpretation is not what is in error). Unlike Catholic interpretation, however, this inerrancy affects all areas of the Bible:
One illustration of this occurs in reading and explaining the Gospel narratives. Catholics read the contradictions that occur between the Gospels with the understanding that each evangelist intended to present the story of Jesus to a specific community for a specific purpose. Fundamentalists attempt to harmonize the contradictions, believing the Gospels were written as purely historical documents and therefore cannot conflict in any way:
Both Catholics and Fundamentalists give a response of faith to the revelation of God. Yet while a Catholic places his faith in God through the Church He founded, a Fundamentalist rests his faith solely in the words of the Bible. The books of the Bible were not written with the intention of being a simple "training manual" for Christians, so this attitude is inadequate. In addition, the object of a Fundamentalistís faith, in practice, often ends up being his specific pastorís interpretation of the Scriptures. Thus, while Catholics have faith in the Magisterium for a proper explanation of the Bible, Fundamentalistsí "obedience of faith" is in whichever pastor seems to explain the Scriptures the best. This is not the "assenting to the truth" that Dei Verbum extols.
Another consequence of the Fundamentalistís belief in sola scriptura is that, since the Bible is the only direct communication of God to men, it must be the only authority that man can follow. Any institution that claims authority is necessarily taking it from God, which would be absurd.
One result of the absence of an interpreting church is that there is no acknowledged tradition for Fundamentalists to follow. Taking Matthew 15:1-9 as their cue, they reject any tradition as being evil, and desire to get "back to the Bible". It is without a doubt in practice impossible to reject tradition completely, for Fundamentalists follow the interpretations of their own "fathers" ó previous pastors and well-known Fundamentalists. Catholics realize the importance of retaining the insights of past believers, for it would be arrogance to believe that our age could obtain the secrets of the Bible on its own.
Finally, whereas Fundamentalists also believe that the Scriptures can be only correctly read in the light of faith, Catholics still resist their concept of this fundamental. The "analogy of faith" does not mean that any believer , if "faithful", will properly understand the Scriptures without the appropriate guidance. Believing in the truths of the faith is necessary, but not exclusively necessary, to properly understand the meaning of the Bible. Fundamentalists would reduce every believer to a mini-Magisterium. In practice, it has already been proven that this is impossible, as is shown by the thousands of different institutional interpretations that exists between "believers". This is related to the idea of reading the Scriptures in the same Spirit in which they were written. The Holy Spirit has established a proper method for understanding the Scriptures. Resisting and defying this method, as the Fundamentalist does by rejecting the Church, makes it virtually impossible to correctly and fully interpret the Bible. Reading in the Spirit involves prayer, hard work, and belief in the institution which He established on earth to guide man.
As the inspired Word of God, the Scriptures possess a unique position within the plan of revelation and in the Church. In order for man to obtain the relationship with God that He desires, it is imperative to understand what God is revealing to His children through these written words. Also, with the rise in various, and often contradictory, methods of interpreting the Bible in the past 100 years, including Biblical Fundamentalism, the Catholic Church has sought to explain more fully what she believes are the proper fundamentals of interpretation. The true Catholic interpretation takes into account the entirety of Scripture: its purpose, the process of its creation, its development, the intention of its writers, the translation of its books into todayís languages, and the literary and cultural differences between its writers and todayís society. Without the Catholic fundamentals of interpretation to accomplish this, Godís desire to be revealed to man is hindered. The holistic approach to the Bible of the Catholic Church resists and contradicts the simplistic and literalistic interpretation that Fundamentalists are apt to employ. The Catholic Church desires that the Scriptures be understood so that the Lord might be revealed to man, and man, due to this revelation, in return might fulfill his reason for existence: to know, love, and serve God in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next.
21. NCCB, A Pastoral Statement for Catholics on Biblical Fundamentalism, p.2.
Feel free to email Eric Sammons at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments, questions, or criticisms.
This Version: 1st September 2008