The Interpretation of the Bible and the Magisterium
The Bible is not an easy book to read. Speaking of the Epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter said that in it there are "certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Pet 3:16). This is because the sacred writings have many difficult passages that require long and diligent study to interpret.
Then how should the Bible be read? The Catholic position is that the faithful need the guidance of the Church to interpret the Holy Scriptures properly. Many Protestants, on the contrary, insist that a believer will receive the assistance of the Holy Spirit when reading the Bible, so the guidance of the Church is not required. They say that the illumination of the Holy Spirit is enough, and they do not need the Church to interpret the Bible for them. This position leads to the practice of private interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.
Indeed, since the Holy Spirit was the Principal Author of the Holy Scriptures, then the correct interpretation of the sacred texts can only be done under His guidance. The problem is, the infallible assistance of the Holy Spirit was not promised to individual readers of the Bible, but to the Church Magisterium. Christ told His Apostles: "But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you [i.e., the Apostles] all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you" (John 14:26). (Bracketed phrase added.) Therefore, the infallible interpretation of the Holy Scriptures belongs to the Apostles and their successors, or the Church Magisterium alone.
The early Christians respected the Magisterium, or the Teaching Authority of the Church. This is how the Catholic Church has preserved the unity of faith handed down by the Apostles to each generation. This also explains how the Catholic Church has done a wonderful job in spreading the gospel to the whole world. Protestants, on the other hand, because of their sola scriptura principle, had splintered into various groups of different denominations, so that no Protestant denomination can claim that it has evangelized even one entire nation. In contrast the Catholic Church has evangelized and converted whole races: the Slavs, the Irish, the Gauls, the Saxons, the Nordics, the Japanese, the Indians of South America, the Africans, etc.
The Authority of the Church is also supported by Scripture. There are examples in the New Testament that show that disputes were resolved, not by having recourse to the Scripture, but by referring the matter to the Church.
Example 1: In Matthew 18:15-18 we see our Lord instructing His disciples that where moral disputes arise between two believers, and they cannot be settled even by calling two or three witnesses, then the matter must be referred to the Church for a decision.
Example 2: In Acts 15:1-21 we see how the early Christians, who had doctrinal differences regarding the circumcision of the Gentiles, went to the Apostles to resolve the issue. And Peter decided that the practice of circumcision, which was required by the Law of Moses for the Jews, was no longer required under the new Law, whereby both Jews and Gentiles are saved by the grace of Christ. Peter made this decision without recourse to Scripture, but acted solely in accordance with the authority granted Him by Christ as Head of the Church.
Since its foundation and all through the centuries, the Catholic Church has exercised its authority, through various councils and synods, to settle both doctrinal and pastoral disputes and controversies. Many Protestants are unaware that even their fundamental beliefs, – such as the Blessed Trinity, the Humanity and Divinity of Christ, the Virginity of Mary and her singular title as Mother of God – were defended against errors and heresies, and have been faithfully preserved and protected by Catholic Fathers and scholars, and by the Catholic Church at large since the beginning of the Christian era.
A Question of Circularity
It has sometimes been objected that the Church proves itself by the Bible, then proves the Bible by its authority, which is clearly a case of circular reasoning. But there is really no circularity here because the Bible is both a historical document and an inspired writing. The Church uses the Bible as a historical document to prove that it was founded by Christ. Then the Church uses her Christ-given authority to establish the Bible as inspired writing.
Also, the Catholic Church does not use its interpretation of the Bible to prove that it has the authority to interpret the Bible infallibly. Rather, the Catholic Church uses Holy Scripture as a historical document to support its claim that it has authority to interpret the Bible infallibly. The Catholic Church received this Teaching Authority from Christ long before the first word of New Testament Scripture was written. She received the mandate of Christ to teach all nations, and His promise that the Holy Spirit would preserve her from error.
Apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit the Catholic Church has no more authority and more infallibility than any other Christian denomination to read and interpret the Scriptures. But the Catholic Church does not claim to interpret the Scripture apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit. Rather, she claims that her authority to interpret Holy Scripture comes from the Authority of Christ Himself, who granted her that authority and who promised her the protection of the Holy Spirit.
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Catholics are not allowed to do a private interpretation of Holy Scripture. This does not mean that the individual catholic cannot do a personal reading and understanding of the Holy Scriptures. The individual is allowed and encouraged to read the Holy Scriptures, but with the mind of the Church. That means, each individual is permitted to interpret the Holy Scripture, but he is not permitted to understand the sacred writings differently from the Church's own understanding of it. In his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, particularly #14 - 20, Pope Leo XIII gave some guidelines for the proper interpretation of the sacred texts
Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903)
Pope Leo XIII was a great teacher of the Catholic Church
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In addition to Pope Leo XIII's encyclical cited above, the following church documents may also be consulted to see what the Church teaches regarding Bible studies and the interpretation of Holy Scripture:
Verbum Domini, by Pope Benedict XVI, 2010
The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1993
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 1, Section 1, Chapter 2 (or Nos. 51-141) - by Pope John Paul II, 1992
Dei Verbum, Vatican II, 1965
Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII, 1943
Spiritus Paraclitus, Pope Benedict XV, 1920
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gave concise principles for Biblical Interpretation:
1. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words (CCC #109). In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current (CCC #110). This is the field of hermeneutics, which should be distinguished from exegesis. Applied to the Bible, hermeneutics is the science and art of figuring out how to interpret and find the various senses of sacred texts. Exegesis is the actual exposition, interpretation or elucidation of the sacred text itself.
2. Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written (CCC #111). To accomplish this the CCC repeated the three criteria outlined by Vatican II (Dei Verbum, Ch. III, #12, third paragraph):
First, be especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture (CCC #112). That means, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, "all interpretation is foolish and false which either makes the sacred writers disagree one with another, or is opposed to the doctrine of the Church" (Providentissimus Deus #14). This is because the Principal Author of the Holy Scripture is the Holy Spirit, who cannot contradict Himself.
Second, read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church (CCC #113.2).
Third, be attentive to the analogy of faith, that means, "the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation" (CCC #114.3).
Hermeneutics is important, and is something that even non-Catholic scholars do. However, the second principle stated above is what every Catholic biblical scholar must also do in addition to the first.
The Senses of Holy Scripture
Biblical interpretation involves finding the senses of the sacred texts. Basically there are two senses in Holy Scripture, namely, the literal sense and the spiritual sense. However, the Fathers of the Church have distinguished three varieties of the spiritual sense, which will also be described below.
A. THE LITERAL SENSE
The literal sense of any statement in Holy Scripture is the obvious meaning of the statement intended by the speaker or writer. A statement consists of words, and words may be used properly or figuratively. Even when the words are used figuratively (or metaphorically), the literal sense of the statement still refers to the meaning intended by the speaker or writer, not the meaning based on the proper meaning of the words. Thus, when Christ told His Apostles, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matt 5:13), He was not saying that they were chemicals (Sodium Chloride). To think this way is to make a literalist interpretation, not a literal interpretation of the sacred text. Salt is what brings out the flavor in food. So, by telling the Apostles that they were the salt of the earth, He was telling them that they were the ones who would bring out whatever is good (spiritually) in our life on earth. That is the literal sense of Christ’s words. We are encouraged to make a literal interpretation, but not a literalist interpretation of Holy Scripture.
We are humans, and we use words in many creative ways. Sometimes we use them with simile, metaphor, hyperbole, or even with sarcasm or irony, as when we say, "Yeah, right," when the actual meaning intended is the exact opposite: "No, that's incorrect." In any case, the literal sense of the statement is not taken from the proper meaning of the words, but from the obvious meaning intended by the speaker or writer. All figures of speech, be it a simile, metaphor, etc., have a figurative meaning which is different from their meaning based on the proper meaning of the words. In this case their figurative meaning is their literal sense.
Parables are similar. A parable, such as the famous parable of the prodigal son or the parable of the good Samaritan, is a fictitious story (drawn from real life) that teaches a moral or doctrinal lesson. The literal sense of the parable is not the story, but the moral or doctrinal lesson that the giver of the parable wanted to convey.
Since the literal sense of the words of Holy Scripture represent the meaning intended by the writer, it is the most important of all the senses of Holy Scripture. It contains God's revelation because God is the Principal Author of the sacred text. The literal sense or meaning intended by the sacred writer is also intended by God Himself. This is why the stories described in Holy Scripture should be taken at their face value (or literal sense), no matter how fantastic they might seem to be, simply because they represent God's revelation. For example, the account where the water of the Red Sea was divided, which allowed the Israelites to flee from the Egyptians (Ex 14:21-31), did not involve any figure of speech or metaphor. It wasn't related as a parable or a fictional tale. Therefore, the literal sense of the Scripture requires us to believe that the parting of the water actually happened. Likewise, the story of Jonas, who stayed in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights (Jon 2:1), may appear astounding. However, nothing in the story indicates that it was related as a legend or a mythical epic. The literal sense of the account again requires us to believe that the event actually happened.
The Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist similarly rests on the literal sense of Christ's own statements that He was the living Bread that came down from Heaven:
"I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever. These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capharnaum" (John 6:51-59).
Many have attempted to give the above narrative a figurative or metaphorical interpretation. All such attempts failed because of the simplicity and clarity of the text and its obvious literal sense, that is, that we ought to eat Christ's Body and drink His Blood to have eternal life. If there is any metaphor in the above text, it is the fact that Christ called His Body "bread." But there was no metaphor in His insistence that His actual flesh and blood must be consumed as food for our souls. In fact, when the Jews struggled with His remark saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat," Christ did not correct them by saying, "Hey, you misunderstood me. I did not mean for you to eat my flesh." Rather, He reinforced His previous remark, saying "Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you." For this reason we Catholics believe that it is Christ's real Body and Blood that we receive during Holy Communion.
B. THE SPIRITUAL SENSES
We use words to signify things or events (which is their literal meaning). However, since the Principal Author of Holy Scripture is God, the sacred texts may have other meanings than the literal meaning intended by their human authors. This is because God is not limited to signify things exclusively by words as we humans do. God is also able to use the things themselves, which are denoted by the words, to signify other things. In Holy Scripture we notice that there are many things and events described in the Old Testament that signify (or foreshadow) things and events in the New Testament. For instance, Isaac's act of carrying the wood for the holocaust is a foreshadowing of Christ's act of carrying the cross to Golgotha. Likewise, the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert foreshadowed the Eucharist that feeds our souls. Examples like these abound in Holy Scripture.
The question is, how were the sacred writers (the human authors) able to do that? How were they able to write of things and events that presage or foreshadow future things and events? The short answer is, they didn't. If there are things and events in the Old Testament that signify things and events in the New Testament, it is because the Principal Author of Holy Scripture is God, whose knowledge is not restricted by time or place. God is the Lord of History, and is able to arrange current events to presage things to come. Usually, the human authors themselves do not know the future significance of the things and events that they write about. God, who knows and controls everything, is behind what the sacred writers write.
The various signification of things and events described in Holy Scripture are called the spiritual senses of Holy Scripture. Unlike the literal sense, which is based solely on the meaning of words intended by the sacred writer, the spiritual senses are not the significance of words, but the significance of real things and events that are described in Holy Scripture. Unlike the literal sense, the spiritual senses may not be intended by the human authors, but are in the mind of the Lord of History.
There are three different spiritual senses in Holy Scripture recognized by the Fathers: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.
The Allegorical Sense. When a thing or event in the past, such as one described in the Old Testament, signifies or points to a thing or event in the future, such as one described in the New Testament, then the future thing or event is the allegorical sense of the past. For example, Jonas' being in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights (Jon 2:1) foreshadows Christ's being in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights (Matt 12:40). Christ's experience is the allegorical sense of Jonas'. Note that things and events described in the New Testament can also have an allegorical sense, if it can be shown that they signified a thing or event in the future history of the Church. For example, the betrayal of the Church by unfaithful bishops is foreshadowed by the betrayal of our Lord by Judas Iscariot, His friend (Matt 26:50).
The Moral Sense. When a thing or event experienced by Christ, Mary, or by one of the Apostles signifies a standard, pattern or model of what we ought to do, then it is called the moral sense of the said thing or event. For example, Mary's humble acceptance of God's will to be the Mother of God (Luke 1:38) sets a model or pattern of obedience and humility for us to emulate. This is the moral sense of Mary's submission. Likewise, Christ's carrying of the cross with patience and endurance shows how we, too, ought to carry our daily cross in life. In their sermons and homilies many of the Church Fathers exhort us to live a life of virtue by bringing up the moral sense or the moral significance of the acts of Christ, Mary and the Apostles.
Christ Carrying the Cross
A painting by El Greco, 1580
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The Anagogical Sense. When a thing or event in Holy Scripture signifies something related to our eternal glory, then this signification is called the anagogical sense of the said thing or event. For example, the characteristics of Christ's Body during the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-8) and after His resurrection signify the characteristics of our future glorified bodies. Likewise, the city of Jerusalem is often seen as a sign of the future heavenly city where God dwells in the company of the saints. Indeed, St. John the Evangelist calls the heavenly city "the new Jerusalem" (Apoc 21:2).
Literal versus Spiritual Senses
Between the literal and the spiritual senses, the literal sense is the more important, and is, in fact the basis of the spiritual senses. In interpreting Holy Scripture, therefore, we must try to get at the literal sense first, and not deviate from it. The reason for this, as St. Thomas teaches, is that theological arguments must be based on the literal sense of Holy Scripture, and not solely on the spiritual senses derived from it. See Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Q.1, Art. 10 Reply to Obj.1.
However, the spiritual senses are important, too, as they give us a richer understanding of the content of God's revelation. Many Church Fathers, instead of being focused exclusively on discerning the literal sense by a historical-critical analysis of the words of Holy Scripture, had been champions in discovering the spiritual senses of the Holy Scripture - much to our profit. In contrast, many contemporary biblical scholars focus only on getting the literal sense of the sacred texts. They avoid making spiritual interpretations for fear of reading into the sacred texts meanings that are alien to the message of Holy Scripture itself. However, it isn't true that spiritual interpretations would allow anyone to introduce just any meaning he or she wants. There are also safeguards against making wild and incongruous interpretations. To be valid, a spiritual interpretation must comply with the three criteria given by Vatican II; namely, the interpretation must be consistent with the whole of Holy Scripture, the Traditions of the Church, and the truths of our Catholic Faith.