Catholic Exegesis: A Streamlined Overview

This is part of a continued series of posts on fundamental issues in Catholic doctrine of Scripture. Building on previous discussions of Catholic inspiration and interpretation, we propose here a six-step streamlined overview of the process of Catholic exegesis.  Comments are welcome below.


The points made above about the interpretation of the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture may be integrated into a six-step process representing an idealized picture of the method of Catholic exegesis: the interpreter, with proper spiritual and intellectual formation, should analyze the text from historical, grammatical, rhetorical, canonical, liturgical, and magisterial perspectives in order to arrive at a comprehensive view of the literal and spiritual senses of a given textual unit of Scripture.

At the historical stage of analysis, the interpreter seeks to learn as much as possible about the history, geography, literature, customs, and culture of the time and place in which the text was composed, so far as this may be determined, in order better to understand the realia referred to by the words of the text. The results of archeology are incorporated at this stage of analysis.

The grammatical stage of the textual analysis looks at the lower-level dynamics of language, such as the meaning of words and phrases (semantics) and their arrangement (syntax).

The rhetorical stage analyzes higher-level dynamics of language, such as the use of literary or rhetorical devices, the genre(s) of the whole textual unit (form criticism), and its structure (if significant). It may also consider how the textual unit has been intentionally edited, thus including the disciplines of source and redaction criticism.

Although all stages of analysis may be relevant to both the literal and spiritual senses, these first three analytical stages—historical, grammatical, and rhetorical—intend primarily to establish the literal sense, while the next three—canonical, liturgical, and magisterial—intend primarily to establish the spiritual senses.

The canonical stage of analysis considers the role of the textual unit within the canon as a whole, beginning with its role in the immediate textual context (the units preceding and succeeding), then its role within the larger section of the book of which it is a part, then its role within the book as a whole, and finally its function within the entire canon of Scripture. Canonical analysis aims to fulfill the exhortation of Vatican II to consider each text within the content and unity of Scripture. This often involves the study of biblical intertextuality, the web of various forms of textual reference (quotation, allusion, re-use, etc.) that typically link documents in the biblical tradition together. For example, consider the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2:

Is. 61:1

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor …

We immediately note, on the one hand, an allusion (through the reuse of keywords) to an earlier Scripture: Leviticus 25:10, the legislation of the sacred Jubilee Year:

Lev. 25:10

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you …

The speaker of Isaiah 61:1-2 seems to be identifying himself as one who comes to fulfill the expectations of the ancient law of the year of liberation.

On the other hand, Isaiah 61:1-2 is itself quoted by later Scripture, namely in Luke 4:16-21:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” … And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Thus, Jesus identifies himself as the mysterious voice of Isaiah 61:1-2: he is the one come to inaugurate the eschatological Jubilee Year.

Proper Catholic exegesis of Isaiah 61:1-2, therefore, must be aware both of the reference within Isaiah 61:1-2 to earlier Scripture (Lev 25:10) and its subsequent re-use in Luke 4:16-21, in order to situation Isaiah 61:1-2 within the content and unity of the canon, and to grasp its significance within salvation history.

Canonical analysis is succeeded by liturgical analysis, which examines how the text is used within the Church’s liturgical tradition. This is justified on the premise that the liturgy is the primary vehicle for the transmission of the Church’s living tradition, which the Council urges us to take into account when interpreting the text. Therefore, one examines the use of the subject passage in the Lectionary, where the juxtaposition of texts often suggests a spiritual interpretation of the First Reading and the Psalm. One also examines the use of the text in the various liturgical prayers, and in the liturgy of the hours, again always attentive to the other readings and prayers that accompany the text and what they suggest about the way the mind of the Church has received and understood the text.

Finally, one considers the textual unit from the perspective of magisterial teaching, looking first for any conciliar or pontifical definitions of the interpretation of the text. However, since the interpretation of relatively few texts has been defined by magisterial authority, one also looks at non-infallible yet authoritative sources of the Church’s tradition, such as the fathers, doctors, saints, and papal writings. Thus, this stage of analysis aims to consider the text both within the living tradition and the analogy of faith.

Our proposed system of six stages of exegesis in the Catholic tradition intends to enable to interpreter to determine the literal and spiritual senses of the text, in light of the Vatican Council’s three criteria of (1) content and unity, (2) the living tradition, and (3) the analogy of faith. While idealized, it may nonetheless serve as a useful paradigm for exegetical exercises for students of theology and biblical studies in the Catholic tradition.