5 Principles for Interpreting Scripture Catholic-ly (and what literal interpretation really means)

For everyone who has read or tried to read the Bible, it’s not always easy. Often times, the word of God is an enigma and we can end up more confused than before beginning. Sometimes things don’t seem to fit together.

Fortunately, the Second Vatican Council outlined a few principles to help us out in interpreting the Scriptures.

These are 1) that Scripture must be read as whole, in light of both the Old and New Testaments; 2) that Scripture should be read in light of the Church’s constant Tradition; and 3) the Scripture should be read with a mind to the analogy of Faith, which is the coherence of the Catholic Faith as a whole.

1)  Reading Scripture as a whole means reading it with a mind to the unity of the testaments. For instance, when we read the Levitical laws about sacrifices in the temple, the Catholic should understand that we are no longer under the old law. Jesus instituted the new covenant which supersedes it. St. Paul goes to pains the letter to the Galatians to explain that we are under the new law. He writes “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’’” (Gal. 5:14). We still read the Old Testament with respect and we see the Old Law with an eye to how God was preparing his people for reception of His Son and the New Law, but we understand that we are not required to offer physical, animal sacrifices in the temple anymore. Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is the sacrifice to end all others, and now we follow Him and His new covenant as the definitive revelation of God.

2)   Second, Scripture is to be read in light of the Church’s constant tradition. That means that when the Church has authoritatively explained a passage or made a teaching about an aspect of the faith, we are to follow that. For instance, in Matthew when a follower of Jesus calls him “good teacher” and Jesus responds that only God is good, we do not take this to mean that Jesus is not God. We have the Council of Nicaea and the definitive teachings on the Trinity and the Incarnation to take into account. Rather, we interpret the passage to mean that Jesus is teaching the questioner a lesson in some way about God’s ultimate goodness. Perhaps that God alone is goodness itself.

     3)  Third, we must read Scripture with an eye to the analogy of faith, which refers to the inner consistency of our Catholic beliefs. Thus when the Gospels mention the “brothers” of Jesus, we remember that we believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Therefore, the Gospel writer must be speaking of cousins or relatives or friends in a more general sense. It makes sense since there are even uses in modern English of “brothers” in a similar fashion.

These three hermeneutics helps us read Scripture with the mind of the Church, the people of God through out history.

Additionally, there are guides for interpreting individual passages and discerning the senses of Scripture: both literal and spiritual.

4)    The literal sense of Scripture, according to St. Thomas, is that sense on which all others are based. It is the intended meaning of the scriptural author. This is not the “literal” as in out-of-context meaning in American English. Ie, the Bread of Life discourses in John 6 that we must eat Jesus’s body and drink his blood to have eternal life do not equate to cannibalism, as certain atheists today would like to claim. The teachings about substance and accidents in transubstantiation aside, the John did not mean to tell us that we must eat the physical body of the living man Jesus. Rather, we must eat the Eucharist with his true & real, but spiritual presence under the species of bread and wine.

5)   Lastly, there three spiritual senses of Scripture, which can then be interpreted after the literal sense is discerned. They are the moral sense, the meaning the verse has to instruct us in how to live a holy life; the allegorical sense, which links the Old and New Testaments showing how the Old Testament is revealed in the New and the New Testament is hidden in the Old (for instance, the flood of Noah’s time is type of Baptism, which washes away sins); and lastly, the anagogical sense which points man to his destiny and shows us how all things will ultimately be fulfilled in Christ. The spiritual sense of Scripture are based on the literal and cannot contradict it.

Using these interpretive tools, we can read and understand Scripture consistently with our Faith and the Church’s teaching authority, which allows us to understand the words of God authentically.

Why do this? Why read with the mind of the Church? Because really smart Christians have been pondering the Scriptures and its mysteries for the 2000 years of the Church’s existence, and we only benefit by standing on their shoulders. Re-inventing the wheel isn’t necessary when we notice difficulties in our readings, and because we are limited individuals, it often leads to a lot of errors just trying to make it up as we go.

The guidance of the Church’s teachers, her fathers and her bishops is a gift to be treasured, not a chain to be broken. That’s exactly why God put the Church here, to keep speaking in His name and helping His people follow the true faith.


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