Catholic Scripture Interpretation

Resting on Fundamentals, Resisting Fundamentalism

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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(19). 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:

the verbal inerrancy of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, his virginal birth, the doctrine of vicarious expiation and the bodily resurrection at the time of the second coming of Christ.(20)

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. "Biblical Fundamentalism...tends to interpret the Bible as being always...literally true..."(21)

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 - 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: "For Biblical Fundamentalists, inerrancy extends even to scientific and historical matters."(22) 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.(23) Fundamentalists attempt to harmonize the contradictions, believing the Gospels were written as purely historical documents and therefore cannot conflict in any way: "‘The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics [a Fundamentalist organization] maintains that the Biblical record of the events of Jesus’ life...though presented in a variety of literary forms, corresponds exactly to historical fact."(24)

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 Fundamentalist’s faith, in practice, often ends up being his specific pastor’s interpretation of the Scriptures(25). Thus, while Catholics have faith in the Magisterium for a proper explanation of the Bible, Fundamentalists’ "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 Fundamentalist’s 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. "The basic characteristic of Biblical Fundamentalism is that it eliminates from Christianity the Church as the Lord Jesus founded it."(26) 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" - 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.





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