Catholic Scripture Interpretation

Resting on Fundamentals, Resisting Fundamentalism

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Since Scripture is the written epitome of God’s revelation, there is no book which could be considered more important in the Church’s 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 man’s 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: "For as the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, 'except sin', so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error."(13) 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: "‘man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God’...and freely assenting to the truth..."(14). 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, "[Holy Mother Church] is to judge...the true sense and interpretation of the Scriptures; and therefore,.. it is permitted to no one to interpret Holy Scripture against such sense or also against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers."(15) Christ founded the Church and promised to guide her to all truth(16). 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"(17). 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(18). 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.





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