Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sentire Cum Ecclesia: Principles for the Interpretation of Scripture (Part 3)

Principle #3: The Bible Is An Ancient Book

When those tasked with the role of correctly exegeting Scripture set out to undertake it, or when the laity seeks to understand the Word in the deepest manner possible, it must be remembered that the Bible is an ancient book. As stated in the introduction, the oldest portions were written likely 3500 years ago, and the most recent portions still are 1900 years old. They were written in cultures quite removed from ours, and in ancient dialects of foreign languages. All these factors influence how well we are able to understand even a modern translation of the text. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that the text of the Bible is itself comprised of 73 different volumes composed by over 50 authors in a variety of literary genres. Thus, when interpreting Scripture, the exegete must pay close attention to the genre and its conventions, according to the time and culture of the writer and how that genre was employed in his contemporary situation, in order to establish, as much as possible, what that author meant when he originally wrote the text.

A variety of tools and methods are available to the scholar of Scripture in his task of exegesis. Primary among them is the historical-critical method, which seeks to approach the biblical text as a literary document, placing it within its cultural context and examining the history and the language of the text in order to ascertain the meaning. This method has been useful for drawing out nuances in the text that are subtle and often overlooked by readers millennia removed from the authors. As such, it has been indispensable for understanding the literal meaning of the text.8

Nevertheless, some cautions are in order when utilising the historical-critical method. First, it must be used without philosophical presuppositions which contradict the Christian faith.9 Second, exegetes must be aware of the limits of this method, as well as understand and give allowance to the fact that the biblical text's meaning does develop over time, through God's own providential guidance.

Along with the historical-critical method, other methods of scriptural exegesis should be used, such as those literary methods based on particular contemporary context, the social sciences, and Tradition, which can all yield various insights into the meaning of the biblical text.10 The role of Apostolic Tradition, treated in Principle #2 of this paper as being another facet of God's Word, serves also as a link to the historical context of the Scriptures, and, if embraced, can both aid and inform the historical-critical method, as well as providing a clear, retraceable path to the meaning intended by at least the New Testament authors, as that meaning itself was passed down to their successors. The guidance of Tradition also indicates how the biblical meaning can and has developed over the centuries in an organic fashion, and will help the exegete discern whether his interpretation of the text flows in an organic fashion in the line of development, or if it represents a break with the text's meaning, introducing a novel and aberrant doctrine.11 In the end, interpretations arrived at through the practice of these scientific exegetical methods are valuable to the degree which they coincide with the Catholic Faith as guarded and taught by the Magisterium, who, as said, have the final authority in matters of doctrine and interpretation.

Principle #4: The Bible Is One Book

The final interpretive principle of the interpretation of Scripture, is to recognise that the Bible represents a unified whole. Even though it is a collection of 73 different books from various times and authors, written in various genres, to various audiences, nevertheless, the One Spirit who guided the inspiration of the Scriptures, and who continues to guide its interpretation, has woven throughout the Scriptures a single, integral meaning.12 That is, all of Scripture points to and teaches about Christ and His redemptive work.

This single purpose and meaning of Scripture is conveyed to the reader in both letter and spirit. That is, there is a literal meaning to the text, as discerned through methods such as the historical-critical method, but there is also a spiritual meaning in Scripture. These two senses of Scripture are complementary, and together flesh out the unity of the whole of God's revelation. The Spiritual Sense of Scripture is divided further into three senses—the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense, each focussing on a different aspect of Faith. The allegorical sense shows forth Christ and His saving work throughout each passage of Scripture. The moral sense draws forth our response, instructing us how to live justly according to Christ's saving work. Finally, the anagogical sense points us to our ultimate destiny in Christ.13 Each passage of Scripture contains both the literal sense and the spiritual sense, weaving the whole together into a multi-layered tapestry of theological truth.

In discerning the spiritual sense of the text, however, one does not simply take off on flights of fancy. Often throughout the history of the Church, this has been the case—especially in the early centuries. However, fathers of the Church such as St. Jerome and St. Augustine brought about a corrective teaching, which theologians such as Hugh of St. Victor and St. Thomas Aquinas further elaborated on in the Middle Ages.14 They taught that all spiritual interpretations of the Scripture must be based, first and foremost, upon the literal sense, as its foundation.15 Thus, the spiritual sense illuminates the overarching plan of God throughout history that may, when viewed solely in a literal way, appear disparate, disjointed, and disorienting. The spiritual sense highlights that God writes history the way people write books, infusing everything with meaning in order to convey His truth and love.16


In the end, the faithful reader of Sacred Scripture must approach the Bible with a reverence for it befitting God's revelation. In interpreting the text, he or she must attempt to discern the meaning that God Himself intended, relying on His Holy Spirit. By using literary science and historical-critical methods, one is able to approach the literal meaning of the words of the text, and yet, behind those words, and with that literal meaning as its foundation, there is a spiritual sense that gives unity and a fullness of truth to the Sacred Scripture. Above all, the reader of Sacred Scripture must approach the Bible in the context of the Community of Faith, recognising in humility that it is not his task to interpret the Bible so as to develop his theology, but that this approach is precisely backwards, and reinvents the wheel, so to speak. Rather, in submission to the Sacred Tradition handed down from the Apostles, the reader of Scripture must recognise that ultimately the task to authoritatively interpret Scripture falls to the Magisterial body of the Bishops of the Church, to whom Christ Himself gives that sacred duty. These principles of interpretation are the safeguard by which our reading of Scripture will lead us to a greater understanding of the Truth of Christ, and prevent us from novel, heretical ideas and by these, further rending the unity of Christianity. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us,

Saint Jerome recalls that we can never read Scripture simply on our own. We come up against too many closed doors and we slip too easily into error. The Bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God can we truly enter as a "we" into the heart of the truth that God himself wishes to convey to us. Jerome, for whom "ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ", states that the ecclesial dimension of biblical interpretation is not a requirement imposed from without: the Book is the very voice of the pilgrim People of God, and only within the faith of this People are we, so to speak, attuned to understand sacred Scripture. An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church. He thus wrote to a priest: "Remain firmly attached to the traditional doctrine that you have been taught, so that you may exhort according to sound doctrine and confound those who contradict it".17

8. Williamson, Peter S. Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute Press, 2001), accessed November 28, 2012, V, 15.

9. Williamson, Peter S. Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture. V, 15.

10. Williamson, Peter S. Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture. V, 16.

11. Compare, for example, Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (accessible online at

12. Hahn, Dr. Scott, Scripture Matters: Essays on the Bible from the Heart of the Church. (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2003), p. 7.

13. Hahn, Dr. Scott, Scripture Matters. Pp. 5-6.

14. Hahn, Dr. Scott, Scripture Matters. Pp. 14-15.

15. Hahn, Dr. Scott, Scripture Matters. Pp. 17-18.

16. Hahn, Dr. Scott, Scripture Matters. P. 2.

17. Benedict XVI. Verbum Domini, 1, 30.


Benedict XVI, Pope. Verbum Domini. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2010.

Hahn, Dr. Scott. Scripture Matters: Essays on Reading the Bible from the Heart of the Church. Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2003.

Newman, Bl. John Henry, Cardinal, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. Public Domain.

Paul VI, Pope, Dei Verbum. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965).

Wansbrough, Henry, gen. ed. The New Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1999.

Williamson, Peter S. Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute Press, 2001.

(Category: The Scriptures: Scriptural Authority)

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Sentire Cum Ecclesia: Principles for the Interpretation of Scripture (Part 2)

Principle #2: The Bible Is The Church's Book

Flowing out of the hermeneutic of faith, that recognises that Scripture is, indeed, God's own revelation, one must hold that revelation and interpret it within its proper context. That is, the Bible is, first and foremost, a religious and liturgical text. Pope Benedict summed this up in his Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini:

Here we can point to a fundamental criterion of biblical hermeneutics: the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church. This is not to uphold the ecclesial context as an extrinsic rule to which exegetes must submit, but rather is something demanded by the very nature of the Scriptures and the way they gradually came into being. "Faith traditions formed the living context for the literary activity of the authors of sacred Scripture. Their insertion into this context also involved a sharing in both the liturgical and external life of the communities, in their intellectual world, in their culture and in the ups and downs of their shared history. In like manner, the interpretation of sacred Scripture requires full participation on the part of exegetes in the life and faith of the believing community of their own time."3
As such, the Scriptures cannot be divorced from the ecclesiastical context that is their proper home. It is this divorce that is the fundamental problem with the hermeneutical process of those who believe in and practice the Protestant tenet of Sola Scriptura. Rather than allowing the ecclesiastical context to inform one's reading of Sacred Scripture, adherents to this doctrine reverse the process, and judge the Bible's proper context—the Church and its teachings—by their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. Yet, once one rejects the Church's role in authentic interpretation of the Scripture, one is left with no sure footing upon which to base one's interpretation, save his or her own cleverness and the uncertain hope that the Holy Spirit is indeed guiding his or her interpretation correctly. Hoping for divine guidance, however, once one has divorced the Bible from the Church, His bride, is at best presumptuous, for here as elsewhere, God hates divorce (cf. Malachi 2:16).

That the Magisterium, that is, the authoritative teaching office of the Church (composed of the Bishops), itself has the authority to interpret the Scripture, as opposed to any and every individual person, should be self-evident. After all, it was the Apostles who were given the authority of Christ Himself to preach the Gospel. It was they who appropriated and incorporated the Old Testament into the message, showing how it foretold Christ, and how He fulfilled the Old Testament. It was the Apostles (and their close companions) who composed the New Testament. It was their successors, the Bishops, the inheritors of their Apostolic ministry, who preserved and passed on their teaching and compiled the Scriptures into the Canon that we today call the Bible.

Let us note here, though, that the teachings of the Apostles, passed on to the Bishops, were not limited to what would be canonised as the Bible. Sacred Scripture is one facet of the Word of God, and while central and integral, is incomplete without the rest of the Sacred Tradition. In fact,
there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.4
Scripture itself bears witness to this fact when, for example, St. Paul refers to the traditions he received, and which he passes on. Note specifically his words in 2 Thessalonians 2:15: "Stand firm, then, brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter" (emphasis mine). In his previous letter to the Thessalonians, Paul goes so far as to equate this word-of-mouth preaching with God's Word (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13). Whether or not the Apostles wrote down their preaching in eventually-canonised Epistles or Gospels, their words were God's Word, which authority Jesus promised to them (cf. Luke 10:16). That is not to say that the Bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, have the ability to put forth any new revelation from God—His public revelation was complete in Jesus, and ended with the Apostles. But it is the Bishops who have the authority to draw upon that deposit of faith and interpret it in each generation's particular circumstances.

This being the case, on what grounds does one come to the conclusion that those who preached, passed on, and compiled the Faith of the Apostles are not thereby the rightful interpreters of that Faith as contained in the Scriptures? As Pope Benedict again says:
Moreover, it is the faith of the Church that recognizes in the Bible the word of God; as Saint Augustine memorably put it: "I would not believe the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church led me to do so". The Holy Spirit, who gives life to the Church, enables us to interpret the Scriptures authoritatively. The Bible is the Church's book, and its essential place in the Church's life gives rise to its genuine interpretation.5
As such, the Catholic understanding of God's Word, and its preservation and proclamation, is more stable and trustworthy, based as it is in historical continuity from the time of the Apostles, and having for its foundation the promises of Christ. Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterial Authority of the Church comprise the "threefold cord" which "is not quickly broken" (cf. Eccles. 4:9-12).

In fact, not only are the Bishops as a college (in union with the Bishop of Rome) the rightful interpreters of the Scripture, they are the only authoritative interpreters. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, it is stated:
[T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.6
This is not to say that the Christian reading the Scriptures has no role in interpreting them. Everyone reading any text automatically must engage in interpretation. However, the responsible, faithful Christian must be willing to submit his or her understanding of the Scripture to the teaching of the Church. And the Church herself allows significant leeway. Each passage of Scripture has not been dogmatically defined, and truths are readily mined from those glorious pages. But the ideas drawn forth must never contradict the Deposit of Faith, as was once and for all handed down (cf. Jude 3). The Second Vatican Council, in fact, encourages the laity to study the Scriptures, in the same document that reserves the right to interpret them for the Magisterium:
The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the "excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:8). "For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere. And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for "we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying."7

3. Benedict XVI. Verbum Domini, 1, 29 (himself quoting Pontifical biblical commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (15 April 1993), III, A, 3: Enchiridion Vaticanum 13, No. 3035). (Emphasis in original)

4. Paul VI, Pope, Dei Verbum. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965), accessed November 28, 2012,, II, 9.

5. Benedict XVI. Verbum Domini, 1, 29.

6. Paul VI, Dei Verbum. II, 10.

7. Paul VI, Dei Verbum. VI, 25.

(Category: The Scriptures: Scriptural Authority)

Friday, February 08, 2013

Sentire Cum Ecclesia: Principles for the Interpretation of Scripture (Part 1)

So we have confirmation of the words of the prophets; and you will be right to pay attention to it as a lamp for lighting a way through the dark, until the dawn comes and the morning star rises in your minds. At the same time, we must recognise that the interpretation of scriptural prophecy is never a matter for the individual. For no prophecy ever came from human initiative. When people spoke for God it was the Holy Spirit that moved them (2 Peter 1:19-21, NJB).1

-Principle #1: The Bible Is God's Book

-Principle #2: The Bible Is The Church's Book

-Principle #3: The Bible Is An Ancient Book

-Principle #4: The Bible Is One Book



Written between 3500 and 1900 years ago, by over 50 different authors from all walks of life, from the richest of kings to the poorest of peasants, recounting fantastical and miraculous stories in ancient languages according to the customs and traditions of ancient cultures, ultimately compiled about 300 years after the last portion had been written, the Bible nevertheless holds a universal appeal to scholars and laypersons alike. It is, of course, the religious text for the more than two billion Christians throughout the world (as well as the first part being the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews, and the entirety being revered as sacred by the world's Muslims as well as other pseudo-Christian religions). The Bible's enduring popularity as a work of devotional literature as well as a literary text to be studied academically is understandable in light of this. For those who hold the Bible to be a sacred religious text, this study of the Scriptures seeks to understand God's own self-revelation to humanity, so that humanity may then respond to Him in order to know, love, and serve Him as He desires.

This desire to know God, and to understand His revelation to humanity, necessitates that the Scriptures be studied with the intent of ascertaining what they truly mean. If the Bible is God's self-revelation, what, exactly, was He revealing about Himself? This task of understanding is further complicated by the reality of the languages, the cultures, and the times in which the Bible was written, and how distant those languages, cultures, and times are from contemporary North American society. One cannot, in light of this, easily pick up the Scriptures and expect to fully comprehend everything correctly or immediately. Various principles must be practised in order to effectively discern from the text of Scripture the true revelation of God. In order to derive the greatest fruit from the study of Sacred Scripture, one must a) recognise its ultimately divine authorship and seek God's own help in reading and understanding, b) read the Scriptures in union with the context of Sacred Tradition, c) seek to understand the text based on literary principles, and d) interpret each part in connection with the whole of the revelation.

Principle #1: The Bible Is God's Book

For the believing community, the Church, the Bible is recognised as divinely inspired. Scripture itself attests to this in 2 Timothy 3:16, which says, "All scripture is inspired by God and useful for refuting error, for guiding people's lives and teaching them to be upright." While it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a suitable apologetic for the inspiration of Scripture, briefly it can be summed up thus: that Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, founded His Church and gave it the gifts of His authority, indefectibility, and infallibility. As an exercise of His divine authority, that same Church compiled the documents that became the Canon of Scripture, declaring that these had been written under the direction of the Holy Spirit by the prophets and the Apostles. As such, those who read and study the Scriptures must approach them as divine writings (albeit in human language), or they will fall short of the full and correct interpretation of the text. The first principle of Biblical Interpretation, then, is to approach Scripture with a "hermeneutic of faith",2 that is, prayerfully and with full and active participation in the community of faith.


1. All Scripture quotations are taken from The New Jerusalem Bible, Henry Wansbrough, gen. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

2. Benedict XVI, Pope. Verbum Domini. (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2010), accessed November 28, 2012,, 1, 31.

(Category: The Scriptures: Scriptural Authority)