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A Catholic Understanding of Scripture Interpretation

Author: Fr Pat Collins CM

A Catholic Understanding of Scripture Interpretation

Sad to say, there are still practicing Catholics who rarely if ever read and pray the scriptures. Only two days ago I heard one of them say that they consider it a Protestant practice in spite of the fact that for many years now the Church has encouraged its members to foster a Bible centred spirituality. In par. 133 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read, “The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the scriptures.” Pope Benedict said in par. 86 of his Apostolic Declaration on the Word of God, “The word of God is at the basis of all authentic Christian spirituality . . . Let Catholics remember that prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture.”

Avoiding fundamentalism

When we read the Bible, we should avoid a literal, fundamentalist interpretation. Pope Benedict XVI said in par. 44 of The Word of God, “The literalism championed by the fundamentalist approach actually represents a betrayal of both the literal and the spiritual sense.” For example, in Matthew’s Gospel we are told that, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod” (Mt 2:1). We know from history that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. at the age of seventy. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that Jesus was born at the time when “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk 2:1-2). We know from the writings of Jewish historian Josephus, that this census took place between 6 and 7 A.D. In other words, there is a discrepancy of ten years in the accounts of the two evangelists as regards the date of Jesus’ birth. The only way to understand this anomaly is to say that Matthew and Luke were writing about the nativity of Jesus from a theological rather than a strictly historical perspective.

The historical critical approach

Contemporary scripture scholars rely a good deal on what is referred to as the historical critical approach to biblical texts. This method, which is widely used in the Church, is a form of biblical study and interpretation which seeks to better understand the historical and cultural context in which the various books of the Bible were written, In the introduction to his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict said, “The historical-critical method is an indispensable tool, given the structure of the Christian faith.” But he warned that the historical-critical method needs to be used within the wider context of the whole Bible. He refers to this methodology as “canonical exegesis.” It is an holistic approach that sees individual passages not only in the context of their historical situation, but also in the context of the entire bible which has a Christ centred dimension from beginning to end. It also takes account of Church Tradition, i.e., the tried and tested interpretations of the Church Fathers, which both reflect and form the faith of the people of God.

The Traditional Senses of Scripture

When it came to the interpretation of scripture the saints had a good deal of valuable guidance to offer. St Bede wrote in the 8thcentury: “The sacred scriptures are interpreted in a fourfold way.” Speaking about this, pars 115-118 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church say, “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses.”

1] THE LITERAL SENSE

is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by the historical-critical method which follows rules of sound interpretation. For example, archaeology has discovered a lot about the Jewish temple which was built by ten thousand men during the reign of King Herod the Great just before Jesus was born. Not many of us, however, are trained scripture scholars. But all of us can make use of reliable scripture books such as The Collegeville Bible Commentary, in order to discover the literal meaning of the text.

2] THE SPIRITUAL SENSE

Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be symbolic. For example, Jesus referred to his body in a metaphorical way as a temple. He said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn 2:19).

A] THE ALLEGORICAL SENSE.

We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their Christian significance.For instance, the temple in Jerusalem can be seen as a symbol of the human body. St Paul said: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17).

B] THE MORAL SENSE.

The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. With this in mind St Paul says: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:18-19).

C] THE ANAGOGICAL SENSE

looks at realities and events in terms of their eternal significance. For instance in Rev 11:19 the temple becomes a symbol of God’s eternal dwelling: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.”

Problematic passages in the Bible

Anyone who reads the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is well aware that it contains very off-putting material to do with wanton violence and immorality. For example in Ps 137:8 we read these vengeful words, “blessed the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock.” How should we interpret off-putting verses like this? In par. 42 of the Word of God, Pope Benedict says, “it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things.” In other words, there is an evolution of moral and religious consciousness evident in the Old Testament. Whereas in the earliest passages there is a tendency to project human characteristics on to God, such as anger, retribution, and jealousy, in the later writings anthropomorphic tendencies are less in evidence. For example, whereas King David was a violent man, his descendent Jesus was opposed to violence.

It seems to me that two extremes have to be avoided when reading and praying the scriptures. On the one hand, we have to avoid fundamentalism. On the other hand, we have to avoid putting too much emphasis on a rationalistic, un-supernatural approach to the Biblical texts. It could be said that piety without scholarship can lead to naïve forms of subjectivism; while scholarship without piety can lead to lifeless head knowledge; but scholarship informed by heartfelt piety leads to a transformation of one’s Christian understanding and way of acting.

Fr Pat Collins C.M. is a speaker, retreat leader and author of many books on spirituality. He is based in Dublin.

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