Friday, March 30, 2012

Catholic Interpretation of Scripture

This is part of an on-going series discussing the fundamentals of Catholic doctrine of Scripture.  The topic for this post is interpretation.  Comments are welcome.

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Self-conscious reflection on the proper methods of interpretation of Scripture began already with the early Church Fathers. One of the most definitive patristic statements on interpretation is St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, “On Christian Doctrine.” While its title might lead the modern reader to expect a treatment of Church dogma in systematic form, De Doctrina is in fact a handbook for the interpretation of Scripture. This fact in itself is significant: for Augustine and the other fathers, Christian doctrine was the interpretation of Scripture. This truth continues to be affirmed by the Second Vatican Council: “the ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the very soul of theology” (DV §11), and by Pope Benedict XVI: “Dogma is by definition nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture” (Ratzinger 1983, 178).

Augustine’s De Doctrina represents a synthesis of patristic thinking on the interpretation of
Scripture, and it continued to be used as a handbook for exegesis throughout the medieval period. In the following discussion of the Catholic interpretation of Scripture, we follow St. Augustine’s basic framework, fleshed out with more recent teachings of the Church and developments within biblical studies.

None of the Church Fathers was so naïve as to believe that interpretation could be reduced to a certain method which would yield consistent results regardless of the character of the interpreter applying it. Augustine was no exception: therefore his discussion of the exegesis of Scripture falls essentially into two parts: the preparation of the interpreter, and the principles of interpretation

The Preparation of the Interpreter
The fathers were quite conscious of the fact that there is no purely objective mode of interpretation. The character and dispositions of the interpreter will invariably shape the interpretation; thus he needs both spiritual and intellectual formation.

The Spiritual Formation of the Interpreter
The good interpreter should have made some progress in growth in the theological virtues: faith, hope, and especially love. He must understand that God is to be loved above all things, and all created things—including the Scriptures—are to be used to attain to the love of God: “Whoever things that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build up the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all” (DDC 1:36). On the other hand, the one who has made progress in faith, hope, and love is ready to begin to contemplate Scripture: “Anyone who knows the end of the commandments to be charity ‘from a pure heart, and a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith’ and has related all of his understanding of the Divine Scriptures to these three, he may approach the treatment of these books with security” (DDC 1:40).

The interpreter needs to maintain communion with God through a life of prayer, seeking the grace of God without which no true understanding of Scriptures can be attained: “To understand and explain [the Scriptures] there is always required the "coming" of the same Holy Spirit; that is to say, His light and His grace; and these… are to be sought by humble prayer and guarded by holiness of life” (ProvD §5). There is a reciprocal relationship between the reading of Scripture and prayer which constitutes a kind of “hermeneutical circle” that brings the interpreter into contact with God’s word. As St. Jerome remarks, “Prayer should follow reading, and reading follow prayer,” so that we may learn to be detached from the world and “to love the divine books” (Epistula 107, 9, 12).

It should go without saying that the interpreter needs to participate in the life of the Church, which is the privileged hermeneutical context for the interpretation of Scripture. “The interpretation of sacred Scripture requires the full participation on the part of exegetes in the life and faith of the believing community of their own time,” since “the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church.” (Verbum Domini §29). The Church’s faith creates in the heart of the interpreter the necessary sympathy and affinity for the biblical texts that enables proper exegesis: “Access to a proper understanding of biblical texts is only granted to a person who has an affinity with what the text is saying on the basis of life experience” (Verbum Domini §44). Participation in the life of the Church also protects against the idiosyncratic interpretations that can arise when the autonomy of the individual interpreter is stressed over against communal and ecclesial interpretation: “When Scripture is disjoined from the living voice of the Church, it fall prey to the disputes of experts” (Benedict XVI, 2005)

Intellectual Formation
While acknowledging that the interpretation of Scripture is a spiritual and not merely intellectual endeavor, the Church has never held that piety substitutes for study and intellectual labor. The interpreter also requires intellectual formation.

First, he must have an adequate philosophical worldview to provide a framework within which to understand revelation. To this end, the Church has frequently proposed the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas as a sound basis from which to interpret Scripture as well as pursue other theological subdisciplines.

The interpreter should also be liberally educated: since the words of Scripture address such a wide range of realities, the interpreter should have at least familiarity with all the branches of learning, and competence in certain areas that are of particular relevance to the Scriptural text, such as the biblical languages with their unique literary and rhetorical features; literary criticism and hermeneutical theory; and the history, geography, and culture of the ancient Near East.

Finally, the interpreter should have a solid knowledge of the content of the Scriptures themselves, together with their history of their interpretation within the Church —as recorded in the writings of the fathers, doctors, and saints, and perpetuated in the Liturgy—and the body of Church dogma, which is nothing other than authoritative interpretation of revelation.

In the next post in this series, we will discuss the process of interpretation.

17 comments:

st bosco said...

My friends, you came close to describe the person best fit to interpret scripture.Let me digress. Jesus said that the natural man cannot understand the things of the spirit. Being carnally minded his mind is carnal.When a man cries out to be saved(born again), a new spirit is placed in this man, a spirit from heaven, and this spirit knows Jesus personally.Befor this man was born again, he could read all the scripture he wants, over and over. But he doesnt understand one dog gonned word of it.The new man, with the new spirit from heaven, reads and understands. Its like reading about an old friend, you see the truth and recognize your friend.There is no interpreting of scripture. It means what it says. The unsaved think it needs interpreting because its greek to them. They are blind to it, so they call out for interpretation.Why not call out to the author of scripture? You religious people , having a form of godliness, deny the power thereof.You give all these qualifications of someone who can interpret scripture, but none of the qualifications include being born again.The spirit reveals the scripture to man. Man cannot reveal them to himself. Jesus promised to blind the eyes of the unsaved.Do you believe what Jesus says?I do. I see the blind trying to understand scripture every day.And they cant. I see the born again understanding scripture with no probs, because scripture is Christ and the saved know Christ. If you care,if you ask me what happened when i was saved , I will share my story. Thanks for your time
Wayne

ColdStanding said...

Wayne:
"It is all Greek to me" is an expression of ignorance of the speaker not of the incomprehensibility of Greek. Comprehension of Greek is readily obtainable. It strikes me that you test our Lord and Savior by doing all that you can NOT to be saved & force Him to perform an extraordinary miracle to redeem you by your rejecting of the means of salvation which He saw fit to institute/found/provide for that blessed end.

Indeed, what about those people that can not read? Are they damned because they are illiterate? What about those that can not read the original languages of the bible? Wouldn't they need someone to interpret for them? Do you think so little of the charity of our Lord and Savior? How can you even begin to suggest that He wouldn't have thought to provide shepherds for His flock? The bible you read from was interpreted into your language. You can just read the meaning because, in the first place, you were taught to interpret written English. You forget the acts of charity others performed for you! It is as if you were a child filled with pride and boasting of having your birthday in spring to other that have theirs in the winter. Do you think that what you now have is actually yours or that you earned it?

You are like the frog in the well lecturing the whale about the ocean. I know the seeing of which you speak, but it is only the first stage of a very long journey. But no, you are sitting self-satisfied at the one mile mark mocking all those that have their eye set on the the journey's end a thousand league hence.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Bible interpretation? Google First Scandal.

st bosco said...

Hi Coldstanding, thanks for taking time out to address me.You use the word interpret in places where the word read would do fine.I believe in a strong god. Jesus does all the work. We just stand and behold the salvation of the Lord. If a def dumb and blind person gets born again,the spirit shows its self to the person. He might not know the story of the lady by the well, but he is nonetheless saved.
You know, a personal relation with Jesus means you dont need an organization to tell you about Jesus.Anyway, Jesus kindom is not of this world. He doesnt run a bank and have a country and have cadres of costumed holymen and storehouses filled with gold.The saved are pilgrims in a strange hostile land. They have no headquarters, no flag, no TV commercials.Ill bet you sat next to one on a bus and never knew it.
I dont propose to lecture a whale about the ocean. Im telling anyone who will listen that i met the risen Lord, the creator of heaven and earth. I also warn anyone who will listen to get out of man made religions. Whereas religions give god lipservice,salvation is still between you and your maker.It is up to you to ask for it. religions throw things in the way of a relation with Jesus. Praying to dead people for help. Graven images, icons.Anyone who takes the bible at face value would know the uselessness of these things. But like i said, and Jesus said, the unsaved can read the bible(or hear the word) and it goes in one ear and out the other.Thats why you have major religions involved in unbiblical practices and justifying them with all manner of fancy words. Ill tell you what my friend, i wouldnt be caught dead bowing befor a statue.Does this help clarify my position? Thanks again for your time.

Michael Fraley said...

Hi Wayne. Catholics believe that a relationship with Jesus - a real, living relationship - is absolutely necessary for salvation. We also believe that we need each other - that a relationship with each other is just as important. In Matthew 25, Jesus rejects people who say that they love Him and who don't care about each other. That's got to mean something. Jesus called His organization the Church. In Scripture, He gave it apostles, bishops, elders (we Catholics use the word "priest" for our elders) and deacons. He taught us in the gospels how to discipline Christians in the Church who won't repent. He taught His Church not to just be a preaching Church, but to be a teaching Church, and by His Spirit a teaching Church has to interpret. Paul showed us in Scripture to pray for the dead. In Revelation, we're shown angels and saints in Heaven bringing our prayers before the throne of God like incense. And you might not bow to a plaster saint, but chances are pretty good that you've kissed a picture of your mother or that special someone you love with all of your heart. Love shows itself in ways others probably won't understand. I hope you can some day, our brother.

Dozer D said...

Hello Wayne,

You say that my religion is man made.

You do not bow to graven images? Tell me, do you have a picture of your wife or child in your wallet? If a soldier out on the battlefield wanted to kiss an image of his wife before he went into a fire-fight, is this man a sinner, caught in a man made religion? And any soldier knows that the image is just the likeness of his wife, and not his wife in the flesh.

Does not keeping images of your wife and kids contradict your interpretation of Deuteronomy 5:8-9? Or are you not aware that God commanded Moses to craft a bronze serpent, so that those who were bitten with the deadly poison would be healed upon seeing the image? Numbers 21:8-9. Have you not read that God commanded Moses to build the Ark of the Covenant with images of golden cherubim? Exodus 25:18-20. Now Wayne, if God, who engraved the commandments upon tablets of stone, said that, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything", does that same God contradict Himself? No. Rather, it is your man made interpretation of scripture which contradicts itself. And I know that the doctrines which you preach are from a well intentioned but man made religious tradition.

I want the best for you. I mean you no ill will. The Lord has received me into His Church, taking me from man made religions. I am Lutheran/Calvinist/Non-Denominational no more, and thank you Jesus! And once I spoke as you did, and I was throwing spiritual stones at Catholics.

Please educate yourself in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and at least some biblical interpretations from her 2000 year history before you say things like, "You religious people , having a form of godliness, deny the power thereof." You quote Jesus condemnation of the Pharisees against Holy Mother Church, and by doing so, you condemn me personally. I pray that there may be peace and respect between us. The HS speaking through James 3:17-18 says, "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."

st bosco said...

Thank you Dozer and Michael, this must get boring, hraring the same speech from non catholics. This is about interpretation. The bible means what it says.Ive seen preachers take a story or verse and relate it to circumstances and human ills, and then say...this is what this means...be nice to your neighbor.But thats not what it said.The early deacon were the guys who got the food ready and set out the chairs and kept the place of gathering nice.They were servants. Now, religions have them as more holy than thou.And yes, religions are man made.If they werent they would be all the same.The cherubs on the Ark...tell me, did the people all get to file by it and bow to it? The Tablets;god said not to make images of things, men, animals fish, etc.The tablets are words, like we have in our bibles. So there goes that reason. A pic of Mom? Come now, you know vey well that god meant images for worship purposes, just like he said call no man Father, not dad, but religious leaders. You forgot to mention the bronze serpent god made in contradiction to his commands. Later, the people began to VENERATE this item, the called it Nehustan. God had Hezikiah get rid of it because god does not want his people to venerate objects. God says do not kill, but he killed lots of people. Its his perogative being the creator. But he tells us not to bow to images, that means dont bow in front of images. The Snake, he said,...yes, god hath said not to eat this fruit, But, its OK because blah blah blah. Now its..god hath said not to bow to graven images, but , its OK because of this reason and that reason blah blah. This is man made religion. God had no part in this practice. Thanks for putting up with me. I have to run

Wonderer said...

Dear Wayne,

I really do find it interesting that you take a book (the Bible) compiled and vetted by 'a man-made religion' for its own use, you now come to that 'man-made religion' and tell it that you understand the book more perfectly that its compiler. I would believe that only if you were God who is the ultimate author which even you would deny. But you can't tell me that God sent his Son to mankind only to leave mankind to its own whims and caprices, in other words, without a guide and teacher. And don't tell me that it is the Bible because Jesus did not leave a Bible behind at his ascension and Paul and the Apostles did not write anything before the first 25 years. Even then it was this 'man-made religion' that preserved and 400 years later pronounced them inspired and worthy to be placed in a collection of what is termed scripture, the Bible. If you really want to live the scriptures as you so seem to desire learn about its origin first, it sure didn't drop out of the sky.

IronDonkey said...

"The new [saved] man, with the new spirit from heaven, reads and understands. Its like reading about an old friend, you see the truth and recognize your friend.There is no interpreting of scripture. It means what it says."

Rather than argue against the principals you use to arrive at this conclusion (which could be and has been done), I will simply point out that it doesn't work.

If the new man understands, why do so many new men disagree? There is one Truth. Your proposition says that all the "saved" will find it. But the "saved" find different things, hence most of them are not finding the truth. Ergo, your proposition is wrong.

st bosco said...

My friend IronDonkey asks the tough questions. Some things cant be answered, at least by me.I will attempt to answer. There are lots of people who claim to be saved(born again).These pretenders will disagree.Cause they arent born of the spirit.All these televangelists, only one can i vouch for that i hear Jesus voice in, and thats Gene Scott, but hes gone to be with the lord now.Jesus did leave us with someone who will guide and teach us. Hes called the Comforter. The holy ghost.I hear the claim that Jesus founded this church that only has the right to "interpret" scripture. Let me see if i got this right...By what they say about themselves ye shall know them. Is that the quote?
Jesus had the bible, the people had the bible at that time. Its called the Holy Scriptures, we call it the old testament.The main points and happening in the new testamen are in the old testament.You say that the people who compiled the book we call the bible, old and new, know more about it than me.Im glad you used the word compiled.Ive seen some catholics use the word"wrote". Wheres the bragging rights? They didnt have anything to do with what is says, they just stacked the books on top of each other and taped them togeather.God used these good men to compile a book for us. Thats it. God uses even me for things.He used a donkey to talk sense to Balim.You insinuate your church org has exclusive rights on proper interpretation of scripture.Why are its members on their knees befor graven images?You forgot to mention that after this magnanimous church gave us the bible, it forbid anyone to own one under pain of death, which it carried out ruthlessly for centuries.The bible was on the CCs list of banned books until about 60 yrs ago.Even now, the CCs official word on the subject is..."only the majesterium can interpret scripture". A thinly veiled attempt to keep the faithful from opening the bible.
Oh, i remember the quote, its says..." by their fruits ye shall know them". My point, ..the bible was written for humanity by a loving creator. No one can claim to have exclusive rights to its meaning.Crack the book open and read it. You dont need men in funny costumes to tell you what i means, its gods love letter to you and me.Thanks for your time

luis said...

Hmmm. Wayne, you call other pretenders and use the phrase "man-made religion", yet you have created your own man-made religion.

You make it sound as if compiling the sacred books of the Bible is not an important matter. You imply that it is simple to do. Interesting. You seem to think that the Holy Spirit teaches that the Bible is the only source we have to know Christian doctrine. Where in God's love letter does it say which books belong in the Bible? Does your Bible have 73 or 66 books? If 66, can you please cite the biblical verse that tells you so? If not, can you please cite the source used by the Holy Spirit?

Christ calls us to be His disciples. He does not call us to practice religious fanaticism. Unfortunately, you have chosen to practice the latter.

Ask the Holy Spirit for docility, humility, and wisdom.

Your brother in Christ,
Luis Angel

st bosco said...

Hi Luis. I did say that the religious have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof. The holy spirit gave me a book to read, OK, so he used some guys to compile it.Great, may they rest in peace.The King James seems to have it all. I believe he gave us a complete work, needing nothing. Ive heard the religious say that the bible needs more. This is prime example of denying the power.Even evangelical protestants write books and push them off on the flock.So, why would god give us a book that only a select few can understand? He didnt. That false claim is another attempt by the Snake to keep men separated from his maker.Open the King James to any page , any verse, read it and then tell me you dont understand it. True, the unsaved are blind to the things of the spirit, but you can understand the stories, like the woman at the well, Noahs ark, Joseph in Egypt.Dont let some group claim exclusive rights to god and his word.Thats arrogance. And its not true.Heaven is his throne and the earth is his footstool.Thanks for your time, as always

st bosco said...

PS Luis, i forgot to address a couple of your points.
Cite a verse that says 66 books in bible.
Bible is a group of letters never intended by the authors to be grouped togeather, except for the old testament.
Second, would you believe it just because its in the bible? I take it that you are catholic. I wont presume to know what you do personally, but im aware that the CC teaches its flock to ignore many bible verses. While some say..." show me it in the bible"...Its just rhetoric, to sound good.If they believe the bible is true, they wouldnt belong to a religion that routinely breaks the commandments as part of that religion.If you break one commandment, youve broken them all. That means ive broken them all, and so has everyone.I cant point a finger at anyone, seeing as how im guilty of sin. Now, after reading the old test, one sees how god dealt with his people for idolatry, making and bowing to idols made by hands. He took them out of their land, the ones that were left alive after the slaughter.So why would anyone belong to a religion that bows to graven images as part of the practice? Jesus died for my sins, im covered, so why make him jealous by bowing to images? You know how much he hates that.

Mr. Edwards said...

I want to comment on the idea that Christians can read the Bible without interpreting the Bible. The reality is, there is no such thing as language without interpretation. There are ideas, language used to communicate those ideas, and then an interpretation of that language back to ideas on the other end. There is no one to one correlation between words and ideas. Language is inherently and necessarily interpretable. Interpretation is the only way to get ideas from language. That's what reading is. For example (and this is an apt example considering the original biblical languages didn't typically have punctuation) "When are we going to eat, Grandma?" and "When are we going to eat Grandma?" are the same words, with two very different interpretations. Reading the Bible without interpreting the Bible is impossible.
Regarding graven images, it seems that Jesus was keen on the early Christians using bread as some sort of idol (as the ancient prayer says "made by human hands") in their worship. He did say "do this in memory of me" in reference to a ritual involving man-made bread that was supposed to be, essentially, worshiped.

st bosco said...

Hi Edwards, the bread was broken to remember Jesus broken body. Nowhere is the bread to be worshiped. This religious mindset that has people worshiping objects,its quite interesting.
Ok, ive asked this question many times to catholics; The CC has been interpreting scripture for nearly 2000 yrs. Wheres the book that has all the stuff in it. Lets see it. Dont keep us in suspense.

Nick said...

@ St. Bosco...first I find it insulting you would use the name of a Catholic saint as a handle on a forum, especially when that saint would reject everything you say. Second, if the Bible is so easy to understand and interpret, then I challenge you to find any person of the street and ask them to read the bible and after 30 days (that should be enough time), have them explain the theology of three persons in one God (The Holy Trinity) and the dual nature of Christ (100% true man/100% true God). I'll tell you, they won't be able to, it took centuries to fully understand these basic Christian concepts that you probably take for granted. YOU NEED A CENTRAL TEACHING AUTHORITY, otherwise we would all be Arianists..believing Christ was only partially divine and being subordinate to God, that God created Him rather than begetting Him.

MarkV said...

Wayne,
I think it important to deal with a couple of the inherent questions that Nick (above) is indirectly asking:
1) Do you believe in the Trinity? 3 persons in one God? The Trinity is nowhere stated in the Bible.
2) Do you believe that Jesus was one person but had both the nature of God and Man? This is nowhere stated in the Bible.
3) Do you believe that the Holy Spirit is also God? This is also nowhere stated in the Bible.
All these are basic Christian beliefs. All are alluded to in the Bible, but nowhere explicitly stated. All three core Christian beliefs. And if you believe any of the three, you are trusting the Catholic interpretation of the Bible. And you are trusting a belief that was generated before the Bible was ever assembled! Nick is correct in stating that these principals took years of discussion to figure out. As a matter of fact, the Bible was assembled by the Catholic Church in 393 AD. The Bible does not tell you that it is the "inspired Word of God" -- the Church said it and you believed it! To even use the Bible as the basis of discussion is to use the Catholic textbook.

4) Do you believe that salvation is by "faith alone"? This is explicitly discussed in the Bible. The only place in which those two words appear together, they are immediately preceded by the words "NOT BY".[Jas 2:24]
5) Do you believe "born again" is by "profession of faith"? The Bible tells us that demons both knew Jesus and professed Jesus as the "Son of God"[Mk 1:23-26, Mk 3:11, Mk 5:1-20, Mt 8:28-34, Lk 8:26-33] so that can't be true! But the Bible does tells us that "born again" is of both "water and spirit" [Jn 3:5] -- baptism! (And to those that quote Rm10:9, they forget that Paul already assumes his audience baptized in Rm6:3-4!)
6) In Hebrews 5:4 references the Book of Enoch and Jude 1:14 quotes it. Does your Bible have the Book of Enoch? No, of course not. Because the Church did not think it was inspired. So even when an Apostle of Jesus quotes a book, it does not make it inspired. Says who?! The Catholic Church who assembled the Bible.

The answer to your last question of "Wheres the book that has all the stuff in it." The answer is there is no book with everything in it. And the Bible even tells us that everything cannot be found there![Jn 20:30,21:25] Jesus did not write a single line of text (except in the sand). Jesus told his Apostles to "preach, teach, and baptize", not "write, quote, and bastardize".[Mt 28:16-20] And when disputes of faith arise, Jesus explicitly told us to bring the matter "to the Church" and let them decide.[Mt 18:17]

Wayne, if Christ is expecting a Church to settle disputes, not the Bible, then our charge is to find this Church! This Church founded by Him, given His authority, and which is foretold by Him to exist for all time. It is for us to find this Church!

I wish you the best of luck in this search.