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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