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 interpretationClick here to read the previous post.

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.