BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (20) – Can anyone just interpret Scripture?

– Rev José Mario O Mandía

Can anyone just interpret the Bible? Saint Peter provides a clear answer in his Second Letter (II Peter 1:20-21): “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

This is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no 109) teaches us: “In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to (1) what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and (2) to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words (cf Dei Verbum 12).”

HUMAN AUTHORS. How can we know what the sacred writers wanted to tell us? Let us quote CCC no 110: “In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. ‘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’ (DV 12).”

GOD. How does one know what GOD is saying? The CCC (no 111) says: “But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. ‘Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written’ (DV 12).”

The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it (cf DV 12). We can find these criteria in the CCC. These three criteria are related to (1) Scripture itself; (2) Sacred Tradition; and (3) the teaching of the Church or Magisterium.

SCRIPTURE ITSELF. No 112 of the CCC urges us to “[b]e especially attentive ‘to the CONTENT AND UNITY of the whole Scripture.’ Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.” We have seen earlier that one of the properties of Scripture is unity of content. Apparent contradictions can be resolved by comparing the conflicting passages with other passages. For instance, Exodus 20:12 says “Honor your father and your mother.” But Luke 14:26 reports that Jesus declared: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” How do we reconcile these statements?

An overwhelming number of passages in the Old Testament confirm the fourth commandment (cf Exodus 21:15-17; Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Proverbs 1:8-9, 6:20, 13:1, 20:20, 23:22, 30,17). Jesus not only talks about it (cf Matthew 15:4, 19:19; Mark 7:8-13, 10:19) but carries it out himself (cf Luke 2:51). Saint Paul speaks about it (cf Colossians 3:20; Ephesians 6:1-3).

Saint Matthew offers a solution: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37).

SACRED TRADITION. CCC 113 tells us to “[r]ead the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church.’ According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture.”

CHURCH MAGISTERIUM. CCC 114: “Be attentive to the ANALOGY OF FAITH [cf Rom 12:6] By ‘analogy of faith’ we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.” It is the Church’s teaching authority (Magisterium) that shows us this coherence. More on this later.

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