Interpretation of Sacred Scripture: How Do Catholics Understand the Holy Bible?
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
August 15, 2009
The interpretation of Scripture has been a seriously divisive issue among Christians since the Reformation, when Martin Luther and other reformers discarded the divinely instituted authority of the Catholic Church in favor of sola scriptura. Today, many argue that the Holy Spirit guides Christians individually into the true meaning of Scripture. Yet that obviously cannot be the case, since well-meaning and sincere Christians from various faith backgrounds frequently disagree on the meaning of Scripture. For instance, there is little doctrinal continuity to be found in Protestantism, which is self-evident in the tens-of-thousands of distinct denominations in the U.S. alone.
What is the solution to this disunity? While it is a complex problem with many facets, the solution is actually quite simple, although it does not seem to be so for the millions of Christians spread over the world. The answer lies in the fact that Scripture cannot interpret itself; therefore an authoritative interpreter is necessary. It is obvious that only God could appoint such an interpreter, since we are, after all, talking about interpreting his own word. Just as the U.S. Constitution requires a definitive interpreter (the Supreme Court) so too does Scripture. And that is precisely what Christ gave Christians when he founded his Catholic Church twenty centuries ago (see Mt. 16:17-19; 18:15-19). The Church is a divinely instituted, infallible interpreter of the word of God. In fact, the New Testament is a Catholic document, since it was written by the members of the Church Christ founded, the same Church that, two-thousand years later, is headed by the successor of St. Peter, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI.
Further, it is only by the authority of the Church that we have the Bible at all, since she formally defined the canons of Scripture in various councils beginning in the fourth century, with the most recent being the Council of Trent. It was the Church who discerned in the first place what writing was truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. If not for the Church, the Bible would indeed look very different, if we had it at all. The very institution who is itself responsible for the extant Bible certainly has the power to interpret it.
Let’s briefly look at some of what the Church teaches concerning the interpretation of Scripture. To begin, there are two main senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual.
The spiritual sense: realities and events of which Scripture speaks can be signs (see CCC 117). For example, the Israelites are saved by water as they cross through the Red Sea, which is a sign of Baptism.
The spiritual sense can be further divided into the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.
The Literal sense: The literal sense is what the words mean, and is based on what the sacred authors intended to convey.¹ To be taken into account are literary forms, figures of speech, and the authors’ culture. We can derive spiritual meaning and signs from the literal. However, “All other senses of Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116).
The spiritual sense is further subdivided:
a) The Allegorical sense:
Allegory speaks to faith. The significance of many events in Scripture is found in Christ. As an example, Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, delivering them from slavery. This event, in the allegorical sense, is a sign which foreshadows Christ the Redeemer and Savior from the bondage of sin.
b) The Moral sense:
Scripture is filled with moral lessons, and teaches us to live moral lives and to strive after virtue. The moral sense speaks as to how to act in relation to God and to others.
c) The Anagogical sense:
Anagogy speaks to destiny. Matthew 24:13 tells us those who persevere to the end will be saved. This speaks to our eternal end, to destiny.
“All senses of Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116)
Keep in mind the Bible contains figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, approximate language, phenomenological language, personification and hyperbole. These are all familiar and recognizable to anyone who uses language. In interpreting the Bible, we always begin with the literal intended meaning, which is the meaning the sacred authors intended to communicate for the purposes of salvation. However, that is not to say a literalistic approach to interpretation should be taken. We should interpret the Bible literally unless one of the following conditions are met:²
a) The words of scripture themselves say they are not literal: Jesus “told them another parable” (Matt 13:33). A parable is a story which reveals truths about our faith, but is not necessarily a factual, literal event. When Christ told the parable that likened heaven to a buried treasure, he certainly didn’t mean heaven was literally a small box buried in the earth which contains gems!
b) The literal interpretation would be contrary to clear common sense or against reason. Take care, however, not to fall into thinking that because a passage is beyond reason one should not interpret it literally. Moses noticed “the fire flaming out of a bush,” and, as “he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed” (Ex 3:2). An event such as a burning bush which is “not consumed” by fire is beyond reason. Yet this passage should be taken literally, for there is no indication it should be interpreted otherwise. Note that a bush burning which is not consumed is beyond reason but not against it. Those who have faith in an all-powerful God have no problem with the burning bush.
When Christ said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves” (Matt 7:15), he did not mean that false prophets are hungry, four-legged beasts who howl in the forest at night! This is another example of how a literal interpretation would be against reason. Jesus, in this case, was using personification and simile to better make his point. The intended literal meaning, though, is obvious: false prophets are dangerous men who disguise their true intent.
c) The literal interpretation is contrary to known and certain fact. The difference between known scientific fact and some of the descriptive language used in Scripture offers an example of what some claim to be “errors” in the Bible. Remember, the Bible is not a manual of science, nor is it a scientific textbook. None of the inspired authors intended their books to establish scientific facts. If we find what appears to be a contradiction between science and Scripture, then we have either misread Scripture or misunderstood science.
Other principles to bear in mind:
“Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (CCC 111).
The Holy Spirit is the interpreter of Scripture; therefore, unless we are people of prayer who strive for holiness we will hear and learn little of Scripture. The prideful and arrogant self-limit themselves from access to the divine promptings of the Holy Spirit. The Bible should be read in a spirit of humility, with a desire to become holy and to learn the truths of God and his goodness. When we meditate upon the scriptures we ought to do so as children, docile and with loving hearts, in pureness, entreating our compassionate God to favor us with a greater knowledge of himself and his providence in order that we may understand his will and carry it out. Indeed, we should read from the Scriptures with fervor and love: a sweet, humble love which is joyfully filled with adoration for our God.
This paragraph from the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers fruitful advice:
The sixth beatitude proclaims, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). “Pure in heart” refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. (2518)
In order to attain a proper disposition in the reading of Scripture, our will should to be aligned with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Stubborn disobedience and dissent are not fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Second, we should read and learn from the Bible as a whole, mindful of the context. Many a verse taken out of context has been the cause of significant error in the past as well as in the present. Many Protestants, for example, believe in “saved by faith alone” (sola fide). John 3:16 tells us we will be saved if we believe in God, and seems to support sola fide. Yet, on further study, we find other verses teach something more in regards salvation: Christ warns we must keep the commandments to be saved (Matt 19:17); St. James insists we are saved “by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). Context is critical for grasping the proper meaning of Scripture.
Third, as previously mentioned, we must read from Scripture in unity with the Catholic Church. Those who read the Bible and insist on their own personal, supposedly infallible ability to interpret Scripture apart from the Catholic Church open themselves to self-deception.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church advises us to “Read the scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church’ . . . and ‘according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church'” (113). This simply means that those who take Scripture outside of the context of the living tradition of the Church and her Magisterium (teaching office), exclude themselves from the totality of divine revelation and the fullness of truth. If we want to hear the whole Gospel, we need to listen to the threefold oneness of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium.
The Council of the Vatican declares “that in matters of faith and morals, appertaining to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true sense of Holy Scripture which our holy Mother Church hath held and holds, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scripture: and, therefore, that it is permitted to no one to interpret the Sacred Scripture contrary to this sense or likewise contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, II).
Fourth, we must keep in mind the analogy of faith, which means revealed truths are consistent with one another. Catholics know the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13; 14:26; Lk 10:16; Mt 28:20), and that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15). Therefore, since the Holy Spirit cannot err, neither can the Church err in her definitive teaching. Truth cannot contradict truth. What we read in the Bible cannot oppose what the Church teaches. If we have come to an understanding of the scriptures which is in conflict with the teaching of the Catholic Church, it is, then, we who err, not the Church. The Church does not first search Scripture and then build her doctrine. Both the living Tradition of the Church and Scripture coexist as an organic whole that consists of the original deposit of faith transmitted to the Church by Christ and the Holy Spirit through the apostles.
Dear Friends: Please help support Joy In Truth by sharing posts and articles on your social media accounts. The share buttons make doing so fast and easy. Thank’s for your support!
Photo Credit: Pixabay
¹ For more on the literal sense and interpreting sacred scripture, see Chacon, Frank, and Jim Burnham, Beginning Apologetics: How to Read the Bible, A Catholic Introduction to Interpreting and Defending Sacred Scripture.
² Ibid. Referenced for paragraphs a through c.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.