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The Limits of Scripture Interpretation

At Catholic Answers, we get questions all the time like, “What is the Catholic position on this Scripture passage?” Many people seem to have the idea that the Catholic Church has an official interpretation of every passage of Scripture. It isn’t true.

The Church has no official commentary on Scripture. The pope could write one if he wanted, but he hasn’t. And with good reason: Scripture study is an ongoing, developing field. To create an official commentary on Scripture would impede the development of this field.

It’s one thing to create an official textbook for a field that has been fairly well worked out. That’s the case with catechetics, which is why the Church can produce a text like The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Catechetics can be viewed as the applied science of giving instruction in the faith, and the faith is something we’ve known well for a long time. Not only was it “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) back in the first century, we have had twenty centuries of practice to show us which ways of explicating the faith tend to lead to misunderstandings. All that gives us a good handle on what would need to go into an official catechetical text commenting on all the major points of the faith.

But the field of Scripture study does not allow for anything like that. One reason is that the Bible is so much larger in scope. One could provide an adequate summary of the basics of the faith in a few hundred well-crafted propositions. But Scripture contains tens of thousands of individual propositions, and to comment on the authentic meaning of each of them would swell the needed number of propositions into the hundreds of thousands or millions. And that is before one takes into account two complicating factors:

First, Scripture has more than one level of meaning. The two basic levels are the literal and the spiritual senses, the latter of which may contain up to three different kinds of meanings, depending on whether it foreshadows something in the New Testament, something at the end of time, or what moral lesson it may teach. Since the literal sense and the subdivisions of the spiritual sense can each be ambiguous (that is, they can carry more than one meaning by the author’s design), the multiplicity of meanings would guarantee that a commentary on the meaning of Scripture would run into the millions of propositions.

Second, while the Holy Spirit has always maintained in the Church a consensus on the individual points of the faith, he did not choose to do so for the individual propositions of Scripture. As a result, there is widespread debate over the correct interpretations of particular texts. In preparing an official commentary on Scripture, the Church would either have to catalogue each permissible interpretation—further multiplying the size of the work—or settle hundreds of thousands of individual debates.

All of this serves to show why the Church has never undertaken the composition of an official Bible commentary. The project would involve a massive expenditure of the Church’s resources when there is simply no pressing need to do so.

It is much simpler to adopt the approach that the Church has in fact pursued—that is, to allow Scripture scholars liberty to interpret any Bible passage in whatever way they feel the evidence best supports provided certain minimal boundaries are not crossed.

What are those boundaries? They have changed somewhat over time.

For example, earlier this century the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) was a body capable of issuing authoritative rulings on what could and could not be taught regarding Scripture. As biblical higher criticism gained ground, the PBC initially issued rulings that held the ideas of the new study in significant disdain, and in some cases forbade the teaching of certain ideas that had been derived using this methodology.

Eventually the nature and mandate of the PBC changed, and its rulings ceased to have force. We may view that either as a bad thing or a good thing, but it’s a fact. (Personally, I would say that this is a “mixed” thing. Some higher critical ideas are reasonable, while others clearly are not, and to drop the PBC’s authoritative role in allowing or prohibiting higher critical ideas effectively allows both the good and the bad ones to enter circulation.)

Though today the PBC’s disciplinary rulings are no longer in force, the boundaries that mark off impermissible interpretations of Scripture are still known. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that Vatican II enumerated three criteria (CCC 111; cf. Dei Verbum 12), each of which has a long history in biblical interpretation.

The first of these was that “serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out” (DV 12). This means that no properly understood assertion of Scripture will ever contradict another. If it does so, it must be a false interpretation.

The second criteria was that “the living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account” when interpreting Scripture (ibid.). This states in a general way a limit that was more concretely expressed at Vatican I:

“In matters of faith and morals, affecting the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true sense of holy Scripture which holy mother the Church has held and holds, to whom it belongs to judge the true sense and interpretation of holy Scriptures. Therefore no one is allowed to interpret the same sacred Scripture contrary to this sense or contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers” (De Filius 2).

The “living tradition of the whole Church” referred to by Vatican II includes both of the items mentioned by Vatican II—the judgment of Church and that of the Fathers regarding the interpretation of Scripture. Both of these elements must not be violated when seeking to establish the meaning of Scripture.

In the first regard, the judgment of the Church’s magisterium must not be violated. As when evaluating ecclesiastical statements in general, the strength with which the Church’s judgment has been proposed must be taken into account. The highest form of Church approbation regarding the interpretation of a verse would be for the magisterium to infallibly define the sense of the verse—or a part of its sense. This has been done in a small number of cases.

As far as I have been able to document, only seven passages of Scripture have had their senses partially (not fully) defined by the extraordinary magisterium. These definitions were made by the Council of Trent:

(1) The reference being “born of water and the Spirit” in John 3:5 does include the idea of baptism.

(2–3) In telling the apostles “Do this [the Eucharist] in memory of me” in Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24, Jesus appointed the apostles priests.

(4–5) In Matthew 18:18 and John 20:22–23, Jesus did confer a power on the apostles to forgive sins, and not everyone shares this power.

(6) Romans 5:12 refers to the reality of original sin.

(7) The presbyters referred to in James 5:14 are ordained and not simply elder members of the Christian community.

In the second regard—that the judgment of the Church Fathers must not be violated—again the standard set for violation is rather narrow. Only when the Fathers speak with “unanimous consent” is their interpretation mandated. When they do not speak with unanimity—as is the case in the great majority of verses—then there is liberty of interpretation.

Finally, the third limiting criterion named by Vatican II was that the exegete must also take into account “the harmony which exists between elements of the faith” (DV 12), which the Catechism expresses by stating that the exegete must “be attentive to the analogy of faith. . . . [i.e.,] the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of revelation” (CCC 114). This means that Scripture cannot be interpreted in a way that contradicts what is theologically certain.

In addition to these definite boundaries to permissible biblical interpretations, there are also influences that should apply to the process of interpreting Scripture. If other books of Scripture probably—though not certainly—teach something, then that should influence the way a given book is read. If the magisterium leans toward but has not infallibly proposed a particular interpretation, that should have an influence. The same goes for the Church Fathers when they speak with something approaching but not yet at unanimity.

The liberty of the Scripture interpreter remains extensive. Taking due consideration of the factors that influence proper exegesis, the Catholic Bible interpreter has the liberty to adopt any interpretation of a passage that is not excluded with certainty by other passages of Scripture, by the judgment of the magisterium, by the Church Fathers, or by the analogy of faith. That is a great deal of liberty, as only a few interpretations will be excluded with certainty by any of the four factors circumscribing the interpreter’s liberty

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