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Reading And Interpreting Scripture

January 3, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By DON FIER

We ended last week’s installment by launching into a discussion on a question of critical importance: “How is Sacred Scripture to be read and interpreted?” The significance and the relevance of this question become apparent if one examines findings outlined in the 2012 “Status of Global Mission” report, a publication of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research which has been issued annually for the past 28 years. The report tells us that by mid-2012 there will be approximately 2.3 billion Christians in the world, comprising about one-third of the global population. Of these, approximately 1.2 billion profess to be Roman Catholic. What about the remaining 1.1 billion Christians? A telling statistic in the report is the number of denominations among which they are divided — it is listed at 43,000.
How does this statistic pertain to the reading and interpretation of Scripture? A primary reason why so many non-Catholic Christian denominations exist is that most follow the principle of sola scriptura, or “by Scripture alone.” This principle, according to Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary, “declares that all of Divine Revelation is contained exclusively in the Bible. It therefore denies that there is any revealed Tradition.” Although a detailed analysis of the principle of sola scriptura is outside the scope of this catechetical series, Raymond de Souza will cover the topic in future “Live Your Faith” installments.
Suffice it to say, adherence to sola scriptura represents a fundamental rift with Catholic doctrine. Furthermore, each denomination holding to the principle interprets Sacred Scripture differently, to a greater or lesser extent, and believes its interpretation is the correct one. And so, though many would argue that the number 43,000 is greatly inflated, the fact remains that denial of the legitimacy of Sacred Tradition coupled with differing interpretations of Sacred Scripture has contributed significantly to a plethora of non-Catholic Christian denominations. Certainly this is not part of the salvific plan of a God who desires unity among all mankind — that all may be one in Christ (cf. John 17:21).
As has been highlighted and emphasized repeatedly thus far in this series, Catholic teaching holds that “Tradition and Sacred Scripture…together make up one sacred Deposit of Faith [and] Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church” (Compendium of the CCC, nn. 14, 19). Furthermore, as introduced in our previous installment, three criteria were defined by Vatican Council II for reading and interpreting Sacred Scripture: “1) it must be read with attention to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture; 2) it must be read with attention to the living Tradition of the Church; 3) it must be read with attention to the analogy of faith, that is the inner harmony which exists among the truths of the Faith themselves” (Compendium, n. 19).
Having discussed the first criterion last week, we turn now to “reading Scripture with attention to the living Tradition of the Church.” The first age of Christianity, the apostolic age, provides in itself an indisputable argument for the Church’s living Tradition: “The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 83). In other words, it was not until several years after Christ’s death and Resurrection that His spoken word was put into writing. As such, Tradition preceded the New Testament and was, in fact, the very source of that portion of Sacred Scripture.
Furthermore, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux so powerfully expresses, Sacred Scripture records “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living” (CCC, n. 108). The Catechism goes on to tell us that “Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation [as opposed to the literal interpretation] of the Scripture” (CCC, n. 114). And as Dei Verbum (DV) clearly explains, it is “the Holy Spirit, through Whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church” (DV, n. 8).
Now what about the third criterion, the analogy of faith? Its origin is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans which speaks of prophecy: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith” (Romans 12:6). This norm refers to “the mutual connections between dogmas, and their coherence…found in the whole of the Revelation of the mystery of Christ” (CCC, n. 90). In other words, there is a unity in the truths or dogmas of the faith not only among themselves, but also within the overall context of divine Revelation. Interpretation of difficult passages must be in accord with defined doctrine and never in opposition to truths of the faith. In De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christian Doctrine”), St. Augustine counsels as follows: “In the doubtful passages of Scripture . . . consult the rule of faith which comes from the clearest passages of the same Scripture and from the authority of the Church.”
Before proceeding to discuss the two basic classifications of the senses of Scripture, literal and spiritual, it would be good to introduce some terms that are commonly used in the field of biblical interpretation: hermeneutics and exegesis. In his Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. Hardon defines hermeneutics as “the art and science of interpreting the Sacred Scriptures and of inquiring into their true meaning. It defines the laws that exegetes are to follow in order to determine and explain the sense of the revealed word of God.” Similarly, he defines exegesis as “the art and science of interpreting and expressing the true sense of Sacred Scripture. Its function is to find out what exactly a given passage of the Bible says. Its rules are governed by the science of hermeneutics, whose practical application is the concern of exegesis.”
The stage is now set to begin a more in-depth discussion of the senses, or levels of meaning, of the text of Sacred Scripture. The Catechism tells us that according to ancient tradition, “one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses” (CCC, n. 115). It goes on to say that “the literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation” (CCC, n. 116).
The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its 1994 document entitled The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (IBC), states that the literal sense is that “which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal Author. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical context” (IBC, II.B.1). And St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologiae (STh), affirms the underlying importance of the literal sense by stating that “all other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (STh I, q. 1, a. 10, ad 1).
Finally, in his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (DAS), Pope Pius XII emphasized that biblical interpreters need “bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal” (DAS, n. 23).
Next week, we’ll conclude our examination of the literal sense of Sacred Scripture and follow with an explanation of the three spiritual senses.

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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