Originally my term paper for Catholic Distance University
God’s conversation with mankind through the Scriptures can only be fully realized when we read the Bible through the eyes of the Church. Taking into account the “living tradition of the whole Church” (DV 12), the Bible should be read not as “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word” (TT 7) of God. If we read the Scriptures as if they were a novel, or if we mistakenly ignore its various literary forms or “the historical character of biblical revelation” (VD 44), we rob ourselves of the great depth and beauty that is found in the Bible. Because the Scriptures are hard to understand and can be confused from their original meaning (2 Pet 3:15-16), St. Peter warned that the Scriptures are “not a matter for private interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20). This is why the Church is needed in order to offer a “faith-filled interpretation of sacred Scripture” (VD 44). As Pope Francis said, “The texts inspired by God were entrusted to the Community of believers…to nourish the faith; respect for this profound nature of Scripture conditions the very validity and effectiveness of biblical [interpretation]”1. Over the past 500 years there has been a great effort to rob the Church of her Scriptures, but we cannot divorce the Bible from the Catholic Church any more than we can divorce them from Christ, the Word of God made flesh, for the Church “carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God” (DV 12).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds Christians that God is the author of Scripture (105), that the Bible is the inspired and infallible word of God that teaches us the truth without error (107), that the Scriptures should be read and interpreted through the same Spirit that composed them (111), that they must be read within the living Tradition of the Church (113), and that one can distinguish between the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture (115). The Church Fathers demarked three subdivisions of the spiritual sense of Scripture - allegorical, moral, and anagogical: “The literal speaks of deeds, allegory to faith, the moral how to act, anagogy our destiny”2. All of this might seem like we’re overcomplicating things, but these senses exist within the Scriptures and that is why they must be properly interpreted (Acts 8:26-31) in light of the entirety of God’s revelation to mankind (DV 9-10). Otherwise, we’d confuse ourselves with the various idioms, literary genres, language uses, historical backgrounds, symbolism, foreshadowing (types), numbers, phenomenological language, hyperboles, patterns, poetry, etc. that are found throughout Scripture.
For instance, when Jesus tells us, “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Mat 5:30), either Jesus is telling us to amputate parts of our body in order to remain in a state of grace or there must be a deeper meaning to His preaching. The literalist (or fundamentalist) interpretation of Scripture take passages from the Bible at face-value; “That’s what it says, that’s what it means”. The fundamentalist way of reading the Bible “makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself” because “[i]t fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods” (VD 44). Without looking at the Scriptures within the fullness of the faith, the Bible can be easily misinterpreted from person-to-person, culture-to-culture, and generation-to-generation. “The...fundamentalist approach actually represents a betrayal of both the literal and the spiritual sense, and opens the way to various forms of manipulation” by promoting “subjective and arbitrary interpretations” (DV 44). Sadly, these misinterpretations of the Scriptures have helped to contribute to the many divisions currently found in Christianity.
Through the Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures, we can avoid the fundamentalism that pits science against faith; there is a harmony between faith and reason because God is the author of both (VD 36). Therefore, we should avoid using the Scriptures for reasons that they were never intended for. As St. Augustine explained, “One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: ‘I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon,’ for he willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians”.3
The literal (Catholic) interpretation of Scripture looks into the context and meaning that God intended to convey for our salvation through the Bible’s human authors.4 The literal sense of Scripture takes into account “what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” (DV 12). The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation explains:
For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another (DV 12).
“The allegorical sense of Scripture is one in which we try to discover a deeper, more profound meaning of Scripture, keeping in mind the revelation of Christ”.5 One example of this is when we read the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22:1-18); reading this in the allegorical sense, we can see a foreshadowing of Christ. Just as Isaac was Abraham’s only son, Jesus is God’s only son; as Isaac carried the wood of his sacrifice up the mountain, Christ carried the wood of the cross up the mountain, etc. Another example can be seen if we look allegorically at the Passover meal (Ex 12), which is a foreshadowing of the Holy Eucharist (Jn 6, Lk 22:14-23). As St. Augustine wrote, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New” (CCC 129).
“The moral sense of Scripture enables us to see the result of sin due to God’s infinite holiness and justice”.6 We see throughout the Scriptures the consequences of separating ourselves from God through our sin: the great flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, the Babylonian exile, the division of the kingdom of Israel, the destruction of the Temple. We also see the many examples of God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness for those who do His will. The Scriptures offer us a way to live good, moral lives through things like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. As we are reminded of the consequences of living a sinful life, we’re also given hope that God will bring us to His kingdom if we follow His commandments: “[N]o eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
“The anagogical sense of Scripture (also known as the eschatological sense) is looking at Scripture in light of their significance to the final judgment, the end of time”.7 We can see one example of this sense in Matthew 24; although in the literal sense Jesus starts by talking about the destruction of the Jewish Temple, He is also discussing the events at the end of time before His second coming. The anagogical sense of Scripture teaches about the four last things – death, judgment, heaven, hell – but it must be interpreted correctly in order to avoid the same mistakes found in fundamentalist eschatology, such as trying to use the Scriptures to “predict” the end of the world. “Most errors in eschatology proceed from a lack of balance and a failure to appreciate that the final age in which we live is steeped in mysteries and meanings known fully only by God”.8
Since “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, the Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” (CCC 133). With how difficult it can be to navigate through the various senses and elements contained within Scripture, the Church’s Magisterium “is charged with giving an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition” (VD 33). Therefore, the Church advises that only approved translations of the Scriptures are to be used for prayers, Bible study - and most importantly - the liturgy,9 which is the ultimate way that Catholics use Scripture:
Sacred Scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from Scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the Scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. (SC 24)
Since faith comes through hearing (Rom 10:17), the ultimate way to ‘read’ Scriptures is through the liturgy of the Church because the primary use of the Scriptures has always been liturgical.10 “The Sacred Scriptures contain the Word of God and, because they are inspired, they are truly the Word of God” (DV 24) who is alive and present with us particularly in the sacred liturgy.
The Bible is a single collection of 73 books written over several thousand years, covering the salvation history of mankind. “All divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ” (CCC 134). Properly interpreted, the Scriptures offer us nourishment and strength for our pilgrimage on earth through this conversation with the Word of God: “In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them” (CCC 104). When read faithfully through the eyes of the Church, we can be brought to the truth that “the center of our faith is not only a book, but a history of salvation and especially a Person, Jesus Christ”.11 Exploring this mystery of salvation history revealed to us in the Scriptures can at first seem like a daunting task, but if we read the Bible through the eyes of the Church, we can learn to fully appreciate the depth and beauty of what God is saying to us through the Sacred Scriptures.
1. Vatican Radio, “The Unbreakable Unity Between Scripture and Tradition” (12 April 2013, accessed 4 May 2013); available from http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-the-unbreakable-unity-between-scripture-and-t
2. Over, Michal, “How to Read the Bible” (n.d., accessed 4 May 2013); available from http://www.mycatholiccds.com/how-to-read-the-bible.php
3. Catholic Answers, “The Galileo Controversy” (2004, accessed 10 May 2013); available from http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-galileo-controversy
4. Martinoni, John, “Literal vs Literalistic Interpretation” (n.d., accessed 5 May 2013); available from http://www.biblechristiansociety.com/apologetics/two_minute#7
5. Over, Michal, “How to Read the Bible” (n.d., accessed 5 May 2013); available from http://www.mycatholiccds.com/how-to-read-the-bible.php
8. Pope, Msg Charles, “When Will Christ Come? Some Basics of Catholic Eschatology” (27 Mar 2013, accessed 9 May 2013); available from http://blog.adw.org/2012/03/when-will-christ-come-some-basics-of-catholic-eschatology/
9. USCCB, “Approved Translations of the Sacred Scriptures for Private Use and Study by Catholics” (n.d., accessed 9 May 2013); available from http://www.usccb.org/bible/approved-translations/
10. Hysell, Michael, “The Bible in the Liturgy” (Dec 2006, accessed 10 May 2013); available from http://www.cuf.org/2006/11/the-bible-in-the-liturgy/
11. Vatican Radio, “The Unbreakable Unity Between Scripture and Tradition” (12 April 2013, accessed 10 May 2013); available from http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-the-unbreakable-unity-between-scripture-and-t
Benedict XVI (2010). Verbum Domini. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini_en.html
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM
Catholic Answers. (2004). The Galileo Controversy. Retrieved from http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-galileo-controversy
Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1966).
Hysell, M. (2006). The Bible in the Liturgy. Retrieved from http://www.cuf.org/2006/11/the-bible-in-the-liturgy/
Levada, W. (2011). Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_cti_doc_20111129_teologia-oggi_en.html
Martinoni, J. (n.d.). Literal vs Literalistic Interpretation. Retrieved from http://www.biblechristiansociety.com/apologetics/two_minute#7
Over, M. (n.d.). How to Read the Bible. Retrieved from http://www.mycatholiccds.com/how-to-read-the-bible.php
Pope, Msg. Charles (2012). When Will Christ Come? Some Basics of Catholic Eschatology. Retrieved from http://blog.adw.org/2012/03/when-will-christ-come-some-basics-of-catholic-eschatology/
Second Vatican Council (1963). Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium). Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html
Second Vatican Council. (1965). Dogmatic Constitution of Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (n.d.). Approved Translations of the Sacred Scriptures for Private Use and Study by Catholics. Retrieved from http://www.usccb.org/bible/approved-translations/
Vatican Radio. (2013). The Unbreakable Unity Between Scripture and Tradition. Retrieved from http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-the-unbreakable-unity-between-scripture-and-t