On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church

The eternal Word became incarnate at a precise period of history, within a clearly defined cultural and social environment. Anyone who desires to understand the word of God should humbly seek it out there where it has made itself visible and accept to this end the necessary help of human knowledge. Addressing men and women, from the beginnings of the Old Testament onward, God made use of all the possibilities of human language, while at the same time accepting that his word be subject to the constraints caused by the limitations of this language. Proper respect for inspired Scripture requires undertaking all the labors necessary to gain a thorough grasp of its meaning. Certainly, it is not possible that each Christian personally pursue all the kinds of research which make for a better understanding of the biblical text. This task is entrusted to exegetes, who have the responsibility in this matter to see that all profit from their labor.

– Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”

Following the Second Vatican Council, the Magisterum of the Church underwent various reorganizations. The Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC), originally established by Pope Leo XIII, was removed as an institution of the Church and reorganized as an unofficial body of consulting scholars; Pope John Paul II later incorporated the PBC into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith where it continued its work of aiding the Magisterium in ensuring the proper interpretation of Sacred Scripture.

In 1994 the PBC published “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” a comprehensive examination of various methodologies for the study and exegesis of Scripture in light of the Church’s understanding of Divine Revelation. The document begins with a preface by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who at the time served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In the preface Cardinal Ratzinger warns against uncritical use of “profane” methods of biblical interpretation, for while “everything that helps us better to understand the truth and to appropriate its representations is helpful and worthwhile for theology,” “it can result that only the human dimension of the word appears as real, while the genuine author, God, is removed from the reach of a method which was established for understanding human reality.” Ratzinger also expresses his belief (later echoed in his book Jesus of Nazareth) that the proper meaning of scripture is found when

the human word and God’s word work together in the singularity of historical events and the eternity of the everlasting Word, which is contemporary in every age. The biblical word comes from a real past. It comes not only from the past, however, but at the same time from the eternity of God and it leads us into God’s eternity, but again along the way through time, to which the past, the present and the future belong.

The preface is followed by an introduction in which the PBC outlines the general problem of interpreting Scripture. While the challenge of a proper methodology for biblical interpretation is quite old (and attested to in the Bible itself), the PBC notes that the problem is accentuated with the passage of time as the world moves further from the cultural, social and religious assumptions in which the Bible was written. While the Church for centuries held a negative view of various interpretive methods, in more recent times this view has changed (as attested to in Divino Afflante Spiritu, Dei Verbum and other teachings). This change in attitude has increased Catholic understanding of the Scriptures, especially in their relation to theology, and aided ecumenical dialog.

That is not to say that additional difficulties have not arisen. The PBC highlights increasing criticism directed at the historical-critical method, both from biblical scholars (who question some of its methodologies) and the faithful (who feel it has nothing to say to their Christian life). In effect, the historical-critical method makes of the Bible a “closed book,” an ancient document instead of a source of tension, meaning and dialog with modern readers, to say nothing of an encounter with the living Christ.

The purpose of “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” then, is to address some of these questions and their relation to the Church.

Part I of “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” examines the various methods of biblical study in use today, with an emphasis on the strengths and weaknesses of each. This is a lengthy section and can be only briefly outlined here. Sorting methods by type, the document comes to to these conclusions:

  • On the historical-critical method the Commission affirms its place as the “starting point” of biblical study. Comprised of several distinct but related methods (such as form criticism, redaction criticism, linguistic criticism, etc.), this method seeks to trace the historical development of the various biblical texts. In this way it helps to shed new light on the original authors and the historical situations in which they found themselves. Its primary weakness, however, is that it sees the biblical text purely as a historical item and does not take into account subsequent development in theology or doctrine.
  • Methods of literary analysis (such as rhetorical, narrative and semiotic approaches) highlight scripture’s links to the modes of expression common in the ancient world. Like the historical-critical method these approaches tend to isolate the biblical writings, failing to consider them as a unity in relation to one another.
  • Tradition-based methods of exegesis seek to situate Sripture within a broader context, such as interpreting Scripture in light of the whole of biblical literature (the canonical approach), within the Semitic tradition or within historical understandings of the books of the Bible.
  • The human sciences (sociology, anthropology, psychology) can also provide insights into the proper understanding of the biblical texts through an understanding of the human individual and human societies. Each of these sciences contains within them various and competing schools of thought, some of which may seek to undermine the faith (insofar as they deny the reality of sin and the supernatural realm).
  • Readers always bring their own point of view to their reading of scripture which color their interpretations. In modern times the liberationist approach, with its emphasis on oppression and salvation in various forms, and the feminist approach, which brings that emphasis to bear on the experience of women, have gained a large following. While these approaches have helped to uncover prejudicial interpretations of the biblical texts and their negative effects on groups of people, they must also be careful not to substitute the goal of political liberation for the radical transcendence of Christ’s return.
  • This section ends with a word on fundamentalist approaches to biblical interpretation. While rightly highlighting its divine nature, by insisting on a literalist reading of scripture these approaches fail to take into account the historical nature of the Bible (including the development of the Bible within the early Church); “historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical”; and confuses the final stage of the biblical tradition (the written page) for the initial (the original words and deeds).

Part II of the PBC’s document focuses on fundamental questions of interpretation. Examining the thoughts of Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, the Commission arrives at the question of the meaning of the inspired text. Against the historical-critical method, which seeks to determine the “one” meaning of a text, the Church affirms that scripture has a multiplicity of meanings.

The “literal” sense, affirmed in previous teachings such as Divino Afflante Spiritu, attempts to determine the original intent of the author:

The literal sense is not to be confused with the “literalist” sense to which fundamentalists are attached. It is not sufficient to translate a text word for word in order to obtain its literal sense. One must understand the text according to the literary conventions of the time. When a text is metaphorical, its literal sense is not that which flows immediately from a word-to-word translation (e.g. “Let your loins be girt”: Lk. 12:35), but that which corresponds to the metaphorical use of these terms (“Be ready for action”). When it is a question of a story, the literal sense does not necessarily imply belief that the facts recounted actually took place, for a story need not belong to the genre of history but be instead a work of imaginative fiction.

Even within the literal sense there may be multiple meanings, as in the case of biblical poetry and many of the psalms.

The “spiritual” sense of scripture speaks to a texts meaning in relation to the paschal mystery guided by the Holy Spirit. This is most evident when reading the promises of God and the prophets in the Old Testament; these texts take on new meaning when interpreted in light of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Care must be taken not to allow the “spiritual” sense to devolve into subjective interpretation; this sense does not contradict the “literal” sense, but enhances it and, in places, compliments it.

The “fuller” sense gives the meaning “intended by God but not clearly expressed by the human author”; this meaning is illuminated by the text’s use in other biblical contexts or in subsequent theological development.

Part III of “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” lays out the traits of a Catholic interpretation of the Bible. Broadly speaking, an authentically Catholic understanding of Scripture is characterized by

  • its place within the living tradition of the Church, with a primary concern for fidelity to biblical revelation;
  • an emphasis on the re-reading of earlier writings in light of newer;
  • and an understanding of the New Testament’s profound reliance on the Old Testament.

These characteristics have been employed by the Church throughout her history, as seen in the formation of the canon of Scripture, patristic exegesis and in the proper roles given to the laity, priests and bishops in their study of the Bible. This is especially true for the role of biblical scholars, who are called to study the Bible in light of its historical character and in relation to Christ and the Church. In their teaching and research exegetes illumine the divine nature of the Scriptures and share the fruits of their labor through publication (both academic and popular) and show Scripture’s connections to the other branches of theology.

Finally, Part IV explores the impact of biblical interpretation in the life of the Church. Exegetes do not have a monopoly on biblical study, for all the faithful are called to familiarize themselves with Scripture. The PBC outlines six general uses of scripture in the Church: actualization (applying the Sacred Writings to modern questions and problems); inculturation (translating and interpreting Scripture in new languages and cultures); liturgical uses; Lectio Divina, or meditation on Scripture; within pastoral ministry; and in ecumenical dialogue, as in the shared study and interpretation of biblical texts.

The PBC ends its study of biblical interpretation with a general conclusion regarding its findings, stating that the study of Sacred Scripture is an indispensable part of the Church’s work that must make prudent use of the various forms of exegesis while maintaining its distinctively theological character:

In the organization of the exegetical task as a whole, the orientation toward the principal goal should remain paramount and thereby serve to obviate any waste of energy… Its task is to fulfill, in the church and in the world, a vital function, that of contributing to an ever more authentic transmission of the content of the inspired Scriptures.

Posts in this Series:

  1. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (October 13, 2008)
  2. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Dei Verbum (October 7, 2008)
  3. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu (September 30, 2008)