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)

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