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.

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)

No comments: