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Reading Scripture during Lent: A Catholic Understanding of the Bible

Consider embarking upon your Lenten journey with a commitment to delve more deeply into the Sacred Scriptures.

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As we get closer and closer to the onset of Lent, more easily noted in the observance of the pre-Lenten season, it is a good idea to think seriously now about the types of penances you will perform. In other words, don’t wait until Shrove Tuesday or, worse yet, Ash Wednesday. With that in mind, I would like to urge you to consider embarking upon your Lenten journey with a commitment to delve more deeply into the Sacred Scriptures. Let three homilies I shall be offering this week provide you with a convincing rationale for picking up that practice.

A Catholic Understanding of the Bible

One of the most persistent and pernicious images of the Church’s relationship with the Scriptures is that of the Bible chained to a desk in a medieval library. The image is correct, but the interpretation is not. For critics of the Church, this picture says it all: The Church “chains down” the Word of God, both literally and figuratively, placing herself above the Scriptures and at the same time restricting access to the Word. In point of fact, the image admits of another interpretation— the correct one, I would say, and it is this: The Bible chained to a lectern shows forth the Church’s esteem for the Scriptures, as well as her guardianship of them, so that they might be available to the faithful from age to age. But available for what purpose and in what sense? Just how do Catholics regard the Scriptures?

Liberal Protestants, Fundamentalists, and Catholics all speak of the Scriptures as the Word of God (CCC 105–108), but each community means something quite different both in theory and in practice. Perhaps the best guide for discovering the “Catholic” understanding of the Bible is the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Vatican II, Dei Verbum). The Constitution opens with a careful explanation of the basic notions undergirding the process of Divine Revelation, grounding it in the life and ministry of Jesus, who “completed and perfected revelation and confirmed it with divine guarantees” (n. 4). Clearly teaching the divine inspiration of the sacred authors and, therefore, the inerrant quality of their writings, the Constitution affirms “that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be confided to the sacred Scriptures” (n. 11; CCC 107).

That passage serves as a response to a rationalism that would deny the inerrancy of Scripture. For Fundamentalists or biblical literalists, Dei Verbum notes that the interpreter must “carefully search out the meaning that the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of words” (n. 12; CCC 109). This determination of meaning will come about through an analysis of “literary forms, for the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression” (n. 12).

In carefully nuanced language, the Council Fathers remind exegetes that correct interpretation involves giving due attention to the historical and cultural milieu in which a particular passage was written (CCC 110). Scripture does not speak for itself, then, but needs both a scientific approach (the work of biblical scholars, along with experts in linguistics, history, archeology, and other allied fields) and a final and authoritative voice. Thus, we read: “For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church, which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God” (n. 12; CCC 85ff).

While few Catholics are ever tempted to fall into the trap of biblical literalism, not a few have fallen victim to a version of rationalism that would seek to deny the historical truth of the Gospels or the possibility of miracles (even the virginal conception and bodily Resurrection of Jesus). The correct response to such an approach is not a reactionary swing to Fundamentalism (which is equally incompatible with nineteen centuries of Catholic exegesis) but the “middle road” sketched out by Dei Verbum, giving appropriate weight to scientific examination of the Scriptures but done from the perspective of faith and from within the context of the Church’s Tradition (CCC 113).

If the Scriptures are inspired by Almighty God and free from error (CCC 105–7), then they should be read. Catholics have always been encouraged to do just that, especially in reference to the Gospels. At the same time, however, the Church has also been concerned that private reading can lead some people to erroneous conclusions. This problem is faced squarely in the Acts of the Apostles when Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch if he understands the Scriptures he is reading. Unashamed, the man says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:27–39). In other words, the Bible is not self-explanatory, and the concerns of the Church are not unfounded. The solution is not to avoid private reading but to engage in such reading with prudence and caution, making use of good commentaries and guides, including one’s parish priest. Of course, the most beneficial reading of Scripture ideally occurs in the liturgical assembly (CCC 132) as the Church comes together to hear God’s Word proclaimed and explained.

But in all candor we must ask: How free are Catholics not only to read the Bible but to interpret it? At the risk of sounding flippant, I would say – as free as any non-Catholic Christian. Martin Luther began as an advocate of private scriptural interpretation, reasoning that if the Pope can interpret the Bible, why not he or any other Christian? Luther’s speeches and letters show that later in life he backed off from this position after seeing the disastrous results of having unprepared and unqualified people give personal reactions to the Bible, allegedly of equal value to the contributions of scholars.

Furthermore, most Protestant denominations have very defined explanations of critical passages, not allowing much leeway for their members’ private judgment, whether the issues might be the significance of water baptism, faith and works, divorce and remarriage, or the Eucharist. That said, one should note that Catholics are really quite uninhibited in this process. They are instructed to read a given passage according to the manifest intent of the sacred author (CCC 109), which intention usually becomes clear from the context of the entire book. If that fails to yield conclusive results, a Catholic consults the accumulated wisdom of the Church. Vatican II put it this way:

The task of an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith (Dei Verbum, n. 10; CCC 95).

A skeptic may pounce on this as proof that the Church suppresses personal reflection, but history attests to the contrary. Fr. Raymond Brown, writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, categorically asserts that “the Church has the power to determine infallibly the meaning of Scripture in matters of faith and morals”; however, he immediately goes on to note that this never involves technicalities such as authorship or dating of a book. In point of fact, the Church exercises great restraint in offering authoritative interpretations of individual pericopes (texts); fewer than a dozen such instances can be pointed to in her two-thousand-year history, most of them at the Council of Trent.

For example, the Church has declared that Calvin was wrong in seeing John 3:5 as a mere metaphor. Equally condemned are those who would deny any link between John 20:23 and the Sacrament of Penance. You will note that both instances do not give definitive, positive interpretations but simply call into question an interpretation that has been advocated. From a positive vantage point, the Church has declared Matthew 16:17f. and John 21:15 as germane to the doctrine of Petrine primacy, and James 5:14 as tied in to the Sacrament of the Sick. Likewise, the Church has indicated that the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Eucharist are to be understood literally. So few examples can hardly be perceived as a heavy-handed attempt to stifle private interpretation. It is also worth noting that whenever a rare, definitive interpretation is given, it is done only after consultation with the best exegetes of the day, as well as allowing for the divine guidance promised by Jesus to His Church (see Jn 14:26; 16:13).

To push for one’s own interpretation counter to twenty centuries of authentic and authoritative understanding of a particular passage would appear to be spiritual pride and arrogance of the worst sort. Just as the books of the Bible were collected into one by the Church, so too ought one to read that Bible as a member of that same Church (CCC 113). To put it in the simplest terms possible, Catholics see the Bible as a work to be read, studied, prayed over and with, using both their heads and their hearts to gain the deepest knowledge of the Lord, who offers His Word as a means of sharing His life.


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 135 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you , for also thus adding incentive to The Church’s offering of even granting indulgence for doing same .

    http://www.sacredbible.org/challoner/OT-17_Tobit.htm#top

    Having come upon the above passage , at random, this morning , was surprised and glad that there is such an explicit mention in Scripture about the holiness expected in marriage , as mentioned by Angel Rafael to Tobias – ‘ for those who give themselves to matrimony , shutting God out, like the horse and the mule ..over them , the devil has power .’ – words omitted in some other versions , and read on line , good enough reasons for the various versions –
    https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=4300

    Yet , would it be too that the debts of having removed the related books be what is afflicting the Germans esp. , with all the confusions in these related areas !

    Interesting how Tobias gets frightened by that (mysterious ) fish, which might have been sent in answer to the prayer of the Angel and he is asked to ‘ take it by the gill ‘ – gills , related to breathing , such as related to The Breath of Holy Spirit
    and the endearing mention of the dog that goes along – the dog that would have most gotten a share of that fish ..
    Gospel of today , the confidant Cannanite woman , teased by The Lord , probably with a little smile on His Face , from having already anticipated what the answer of the woman would be , in being called a little puppy dog – that mention could be also as a glimpse into the circumstance of the demonic affliction of the daughter , in relation to what the Angel reveals to Tobias about purity in marriage .
    The ‘ fear ‘ of The Word , like that of Tobias towards the fish , esp. from reading the ‘imprecatory psalms ‘ possibly an area that many deal with ,to be dealt with under the power of The Spirit , with ongoing cleansing , forgiveness and such , in own lives , to help grow in deeper trust in The Lord , to persevere in asking for mercy on all .
    King David had asked for his son Solomon , to take vengeance on an old enemy
    ( ? enough to have given a foothold for the enemy , in the heart of Solomon,for his later foolish choices in idolatry )
    our Lord on The Cross – ‘ Father , forgive them..’ , how we too are often like the ‘puppy dogs ‘..
    May The Spirit of the Father pour forth upon us all , in power , in all the richness offered us all in The Church , swallowing up the flood waters of the dragon, filling up our thirst and hunger for holiness , in the preaching and hearing and keeping of The Word in the fullness of fidelity .

    • That dog that went with Tobias and likely ate the part of the fish that was dried and not salted , also could have served the function of helping to mask the true identity of Angel Rafael , by eating the portion that the Angel was thought to have been eating , but given to the dog , ‘under the table ‘ since the angel could only give the appearance of eating , thus protecting Tobias from becoming fearful .

      Our Lord, in contrast , in true human nature, takes up the fish and eats it with His disciples after The Resurrection , reassuring them that His human nature was still worthy to be kept for the hereafter as well , a human nature , like a Bride , able to receive the strength in the will,from The Spirit of God , to act in accordance with the will of God and that capacity being present , even in our mustard seed beginnings till it gets rebellious under the influence of the agents of same .
      May the holy angels help us all, to be set free , to do His will as given in His
      Word and not deprive esp. the little ones of the truly captivating accounts such as the Book of Tobit . 🙂

  2. Thank you, Fr Stravinskas, Your article gives me so good things to advise my non-catholic friends when they make their OWN interpretation of what a passage means and their contention that Catholic don’t read the Scriptures.

  3. For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert. And when one turns to authority, he finds that less than a dozen passages of Scripture have been authoritatively defined. So for most passages of Scripture, we are left to our own private judgment, right or wrong, concerning the meaning. This is simply unavoidable, and has nothing to do with “spiritual pride”. It’s just that relying on experts and authorities doesn’t get us anywhere. Experts disagree, and authority is mostly silent. So just do the best you can, and be ready to change your mind if the evidence warrants it.

    • Well said G. Poulin! Any person who has given their life to Jesus Christ and has been anointed by God’s Holy Spirit to love and obey the Apostolic Witness, will find God actually dwells with them (see John 14:23; etc.). For these people, The New Testament comes alive every day and transforms their lives. They will humbly and perseveringly witness to the Apostolic instructions, wherever they are. As with Jesus and His apostles, that witness will sometimes need to be to the Church: to other Catholics including clergy. And, as with Jesus and the apostles, they will often be opposed and abused. Aware of the error of Luther and Calvin, they will not schism but remain in the Church no matter what is thrown at them (Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop is a great role-model for this). The Catechism of the Catholic Church is built on more than 3,500 citations from The New Testament. As Fr Stravinskas shows us, at its heart, Catholicism is a thoroughly New Testament faith.

  4. In the picture at the beginning of the article, the Bible is opened to the Book of Psalms, in particular Psalms 119-121 LXX (120-122). Those Psalms are part of the 18th Kathisma (Psalms 119-133 LXX) which are part of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts during the Great Fast in the Byzantine Tradition (Catholic and non-Catholic).

    Thank you, Father! <3

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