Skip to comments.Beginning Catholic: Understanding The Bible: A Catholic Guide To The Word of God [Ecumenical]
Posted on 08/20/2008 11:08:01 AM PDT by Salvation
Too many Catholics aren't comfortable reading and understanding the Bible.
Let's look at the most essential principles taught by the Catholic Church for reading and interpreting Scripture.
For a strong faith, it's important to know this!
The Holy Bible is unmatched in importance for learning about God, his plans for us, and how he has worked through human history for our salvation.
Pope John Paul II wrote:
It is true that the intensity and depth of the revelation varies [within the Bible], but there is not the least shadow of contradiction [between different parts of Scripture].
(Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Patres Ecclesiae,
January 2, 1980)
Since God inspired & confirmed the Bible, we had better know how to read it correctly!
These three points are essential to a basic understanding of the bible:
We need to look at each of these points in detail...
If there is only one thing you remember about understanding the Bible, let it be this point!
To get it just right, I'll quote from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
(Compendium of the Catechism, #18)
(The Compendium of the Catechism has a wonderful section on understanding the Bible within the part about Divine Revelation. You should read all of #6-24 to get a full understanding, but #18-24 are specifically about Scripture.)
God chose to reveal to us certain truths for the sake of our salvation. This message of salvation is the set of revealed truths which we call the "deposit of faith," or Divine Revelation. The Bible is primarily concerned with telling us these truths, which are without error. God himself made sure of that.
The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) said it well: "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit" (Dei Verbum, #11).
Good. That's the most essential point for reading & understanding the Bible. Now, remember that point as we look at some other details...
This is important: God did not "dictate" the Bible, word for word, to people who just wrote down his words. Instead, he did something...
He made use of specific people to write the various sacred books of the Bible. And although God gave each author special grace to aid him in this work, each author wrote in a way that was natural to him.
This is also really important for a true Catholic understanding of the Bible. We have to understand this point completely, or we risk a serious misunderstanding!
The Second Vatican Council put it this way:
(Vatican II, Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), 11)
These writers used the language of their time, and they used words and wrote in a style that reflected their own personalities and educations.
Some people get nervous when they start reading about this pointdon't be! This is important for a solid understanding of the Bible.
Let's summarize it this way:
John Paul II made this point when he addressed the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1979:
(Pope John Paul II, Address, April 26, 1979)
This is really quite astonishingGod was willing to work through people to tell us his saving truth. He revealed his divine truths via historical acts, using events and people of his choosing.
And he did so using...
God also used human language and knowledgewith all of its limitationsto tell us his eternal truths.
He conveyed things to people through words and actions that made use of the ways of speaking and thinking that were common at the time. God worked this way so it would be possible for humans to write down or pass on these eternal truths.
The people who experienced these events and received God's divine messages either wrote them down later, or would pass them on in a reliable oral tradition that was later written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, sometimes we have to work carefully to get past the imperfections of human language and knowledge in order to see what God wanted to tell us. This is an important step for understanding the Bible!
We can easily put these principles to practical use when reading Scripture.
First, learn to understand exactly what the inspired authors meant when they wrote their words. A good Catholic commentary will help explain any relevant language, concepts and cultural references. (I recommend the Navarre Bible commentary, which is outstanding in its explanations and its desire to help you see how the Church understands even the smallest details of the Bible.)
That's an essential first stepif you don't understand what the sacred author was saying to people in his own cultural context, in terms as they were used at the time, you won't be able to clearly see what God is saying through him.
But don't worry! It's really not hard to get this right for many passages. And once again, a good commentary will do the heavy lifting for you.
And once you understand the sacred author's actual message...
The whole point of reading and understanding the Bible is to encounter God, understand the revelation he has given us, and grow in faith.
So now that you've read a passage of Scripture and understand what the author is saying...
...take that next steplisten to God!
Scripture is a living thing, meant for people in all times & places. God speaks through it now just as much as he did when it was written.
To help our faith grow as we read Scripture, the Church gives us three important points for interpreting and understanding the Bible:
Some people feel intimidated when they start to read Scripture.
But not you!
Now you have a solid foundation for understanding the Bible. The basic principles contained in this article will help you overcome many uncertainties people have with Scripture.
So start reading!
When I said, in 16, that non-theological part are “not a part of the revelation” I immediately explained that the error, if any, is in our perception of what is revealed, and gave a very clear, I think, example of color dots on a photograph.
The purported rephrase “non-theological matter in the Bible is not inerrant” suggests that, for example, the historical narratives are not inerrant, because history is not theology. That is what is inaccurate in the rephrase.
You keep complaining that arguments get re-hashed. This is like complaining that 2+2=4 is a rehashed argument. No matter how many times you differently misrepresent my views, you will get the same clarifications from me.
On the other hand, why do you apologize? I enjoy talking about these things with you; I also think that your criticism of liberal Catholics, — they do exist — is constructive and I welcome it.
I'm not talking about individual Catholics, I'm talking about Church teaching. Because, as I'm sure you realize, a great many Protestants and Jews ALSO subscribe to Darwinism and dismiss the literal truth of Scripture.
Forgot to react to that. You are not: the Protestant error is certain false doctrines that deny the salvific character of good works, the role of the Church, her tradition and her sacraments, veneration of saints, etc. No one has ever been anathemized for taking the Bible as literally as he wants. In fact, the Church teaches that while anagogical or allegorical passages exist, one should always give precedence to the literal interpretation.
I agree, annalex.
ZC, you know I try to give you credit for a good argument whenever you make one--and you make them quite often--but I really do think that your critique of annalex here is off. He's repeatedly asserted that the error is in the interpretation and not in the text.
How's this: they've been really badly taught. :)
I may subscribe to "error" in your view, but it is not Protestant.
I also reject sola scriptura, sola fide, etc., only I do so from a far more consistent position than do you, since Catholicism's rejection of the validity of Torah observance in favor of "chr*stian faith" (not to mention its rejection of Oral Torah as "the doctrines and commandments of men") is the ultimate source of Protestantism.
Still, your assertion is difficult to believe considering all the Catholic "big guns" that are brought out to attack literalism. Maybe if abortion were attacked with the same single-minded fervency it would be defeated.
Protestants and Jews don't have a pope or a vatican.
"Attack" is an aerodynamic word. "Literalism" is another aerodynamic word. Let's get specific, please.
First, we need to see what exactly is being attacked. Do they attack literalism as a Fundamentalist Christian understands it, with all the Sola Scriptura accretions; do they attack Catholics who believe that the 6 literal day creation is the only acceptable reading of the book of Genesis; do they attack Judaizing elements in the Christendom who insist on obeying the law of Moses? Or do they simply argue without accusation of heresy? These are all different things.
Second, no one disputes that there are Catholics in good standing who believe, for example, in theistic evolution. As well as there are Catholics who believe as far as the Creation goes, the same thing you believe. Each side would naturally attack the other, and good for them, so long as the "attack" is intellectual and not by force. These are not, however, anathemas: neither side proclaims the other excommunicated, which can be construed (inaccurately, but let's skip that over) as "going to hell".
My assertion is that one who believes in literal interpretation of the Creation is not excommunicated. It is an acceptable belief in Catholicism, but so is a belief in theistic evolution. Both can claim correctly understood literalism as their cognitive tool.
Now wait a second. There was very clearly a school of thought in the Oral Torah (and there still is) that the Messiah would propound a new law and a new covenant. If the Messianic claim of the Christians was true, they were certainly well within the confines of oral tradition to believe that the Messiah could and would set over them a new Law. And as the Sanhedrin never ruled on those Messianic claims one way or the other until it was destroyed, the Apostles were under no official sanction save for strong personal disapproval.
The Church's tradition never suggests anywhere that its own magisterial teaching would be abolished on earth, and it *did* rule officially on the doctrines of the Reformation. So I don't think your comparison is at all apt.
This passage is meant for you:
64. Small wonder, then, if in his devout meditations he applied everything in the Bible to Christ: When I read the Gospel and find there testimonies from the Law and from the Prophets, I see only Christ; I so see Moses and the Prophets and I understand them of Christ. Then when I come to the splendor of Christ Himself, and when I gaze at that glorious sunlight, I care not to look at the lamplight. For what light can a lamp give when lit in the daytime? If the sun shines out, the lamplight does not show. So, too, when Christ is present the Law and the Prophets do not show. Not that I would detract from the Law and the Prophets; rather do I praise them in that they show forth Christ. But I so read the Law and the Prophets as not to abide in them but from them to pass to Christ.
124. Id., Tract. in Marc., 9:1-7.
There is nothing in the Encyclical that made me change my views. In fact, the interplay between the literal form and the meaning is well illustrated in the quote with which I started my post, as well as, for example, here:
[St. Jerome] does not say that when giving us an account of events the writer was ignorant of the truth and simply adopted the false views then current; he merely says that in giving names to persons or things he followed general custom. Thus the Evangelist calls St. Joseph the father of Jesus, but what he meant by the title "father" here is abundantly clear from the whole context. For St. Jerome "the true norm of history" is this: when it is question of such appellatives (as "father," etc), and when there is no danger or error, then a writer must adopt the ordinary forms of speech simply because such forms of speech are in ordinary use.
This is as good an example as my photographic dots. To read the words "Joseph his father" from the scripture and conclude that Joseph was Christ's biological father is false literalism; the mistake is with the reader, not the writer.
A "new covenent" in a series of covenants with the Jewish People, yes (G-d after all made covenants with the three Patriarchs, the Generation of Sinai, the Generation that entered the Promised Land, and the Generation of 'Ezra' HaSofer. A new law? Absolutely not.
The Torah is not a stop gap against the "fall" until the messiah comes. It isn't even primarily about the messiah. In fact, it isn't a reaction to Adam's sin. It is the reason the universe was created. It is not merely the foundation, but the pinnacle, of all Divine Revelation ("progressive revelation," upon which all non-Jewish religions depend, is inherently unworkable). It may very well be that in the World to Come the human yetzer ra` (evil inclination) will be so sublimated and integrated into the personality that all mankind will never again sin but spontaneously and freely obey G-d at all times (as do the angels and heavenly bodies), and thus in that time many commandments may very well fall into permanent disuse (laws of repentence, laws of sin offerings, etc.), but the laws themselves are eternal. Even when the elevated human personality no longer needs to be commanded by G-d (and thus "commandments" will disappear), the Halakhah will still be eternally valid.
CHaZa"L tell us that "Ezra gave the Law a second time." Mashiach HaMelekh's restoration may by such that it will be said that he gave the Law a third time, but it will be the exact same Torah that was given at Sinai, which was written before the Creation of the World, for which the Creation exists.
Unfortunately, for all the "dialoguing" between liberal chr*stians and liberal Jews, no chr*stian really understands what Judaism is really about. It's about THE TORAH, not something "greater" (Heaven forbid!) towards which it is pointing. The same Torah given to Moses and Israel is studied by the angels in Heaven and by G-d Himself, on a much higher level than any human being can do. But it is the same Torah.
Protestant sola scriptura and antinomian salvationism is merely the Pauline notion taken to its logical conclusion. All chr*stians who are not totally antinomian (and probably universalist) are hypocritical to some degree, but the anti-Protestant polemics of the ancient liturgical churches is the epitome of hypocrisy.
If Luther was wrong to reject church tradition, then Paul was wrong to reject Sinaitic Tradition which was given by the very Mouth of G-d.
I am not unaware of the rabbinic teachings of pre-existence of the Torah and it being God's first and most perfect revelation, etc. And as you have plenty of experience with Christianity I am sure you yourself are not unaware that that kind of language screams "In Principio Erat Verbum" to a Christian. Torah to us is not an it. Torah is a He, and He is its complete expression--like you said, at a higher level than you or I can comprehend.
To your assertion of "Absolutely not" at the idea that a new law would be promulgated:
Whereas the Babylonian schools took it for granted that the Mosaic law, and particularly the sacrificial and priestly laws, will be fully observed in the Messianic time (Yoma 5b et al.), the view that a new Law of God will be proclaimed by the Messiah is occasionally expressed (Eccl. R. ii. 1; Lev. R. xiii., according to Jer. xxxi. 32)"the thirty commandments" which comprise the Law of humanity (Gen. R. xcviii.). "Ye will receive a new Law from the Elect One of the righteous" (Targ. to Isa. xii. 3). The Holy One will expound the new Law to be given by the Messiah (Yalḳ. ii. 296, to Isa. xxvi.); according to Pes. xii. 107a, He will only infuse new ideas ("ḥiddush debarim"); or the Messiah will take upon himself the kingdom of the Law and make many zealous followers thereof (Targ. to Isa. ix. 5 et seq., and Iiii. 11-12). "There will be a new covenant which shall not be broken" (Sifra, Beḥuḳḳotai, ii., after Jer. xxxi. 32). The dietary and purity laws will no longer be in force (Lev. R. xxii.; Midr. Teh. cxlvii., ed. Buber, note; R. Joseph said: "All ceremonial laws will be abrogated in the future" [Nid. 61b]; this, however, refers to the time of the Resurrection).I haven't made a formal study, but I would wager that every single example you could cite of Pauline/Christian "antinomianism" had nothing whatever to do with the eternal Law binding on all men which was in force from Adam until now, but only the ceremonial and dietary and purity laws and sacrifices that came from Sinai--which, I repeat, were believed at least by some as temporary until the days of King Messiah.
Thanks much for the ping. After reading the article I have to say that I liked a lot of it. I really liked the section about how the Bible came to be. It was very God-focused.
Under the "Unlocking the original meaning" section I would have liked to have seen some mention of consulting other scripture, but maybe that was beyond the scope of the summary. Overall, though, it was better than I probably would have thought. :)
This is my point. Catholics (and other ancient liturgical chr*stians) limit their "antinomianism" to the Laws of G-d given on Mt. Sinai and then express surprise when Luther and his followers take that logic to its natural conclusion. If Biblical law is abrogated, what need is there of post-Biblical law???
Of course the Torah is the logos. That is my point. It is the genetic code of the created universe and preceded it as the blueprint precedes the building. As to what Mashiach will do when he comes (and it must be remembered that Torah Halakhah sits in judgment on all messianic claims), he has not come yet or the Beit HaMiqdash would be standing, all Israel would be engathered in The Land, and the nations would all be worshiping HaShem and at peace with one another. This of course depends on a literal interpretation of the messianic prophecies, whereas chr*stianity has always interpreted these prophecies non-literally ("spiritually")--the engathering of Israel referring "mystically" to the conversion of the nations to the chr*stian church.
Indeed, there will be no need for post-Biblical law....in the World to Come.
Covenants are made and Laws are given on God’s schedule, not man’s. So just as it would have been wrong for a reforming Jew to improperly anticipate the Messianic Age and reject the Law, so too it is wrong for an Augustinian monk to improperly anticipate the Final Judgment and reject the Church. All in its due time.
I’d like to return to what you said about the Oral Torah and early Christianity—I was rereading Acts in that light and found it interesting that in both Peter’s as well as Paul’s trials before the Sanhedrin, it is actually the Oral-Torah-rejecting Sadducees that are most strenously opposing Christianity and the Oral-Torah-accepting Pharisees that are most willing to grant at least the possibility that the Apostles’ claims were inspired by God.
And FYI, the ingathering of Israel certainly has a mystical interpretation in the Church but that does not at all exclude a literal reuniting of Israel proper at the Second Coming. I certainly believe in it, for one.
I am very glad you liked it.
We could go on arguing forever of course, but Paul's arguments against Torah observance are identical to Protestantism's arguments against the merits of church law and ritual. Luther simply took them to their logical conclusion (at least theoretically; I believe only fundamentalist universalists--and there are such people--really take it to its logical conclusion). Let's just say that if you grew up as a Fundamentalist Protestant who was absolutely convinced that some form of Fundamentalist Protestantism were the true religion and that the "works" of Catholicism were "self-evidently" a counterfeit gospel and a snare of Satan, and you eventually came to see that you were wrong and to accept Roman Catholicism . . . you would really have no grounds on which not to grant Judaism a hearing and come to acknowledge the eternal validity of Torah observance just as you had come to acknowledge the validity of "all that Catholic stuff." And especially if you had read an Eastern Orthodox apologetic booklet raving against Augustine's "arch-heresy" of "original sin" (allegedly of "pagan Greek origin") and admitting that "the true doctrine of human nature is contained in the Talmud."
Granting a hearing to Catholicism simply makes it very hard not to grant a hearing to Eastern Orthodoxy, and as Orthodoxy is to Catholicism what Catholicism is to Protestantism . . . it's all very obvious where this is all heading. Do you understand?
And FYI, the ingathering of Israel certainly has a mystical interpretation in the Church but that does not at all exclude a literal reuniting of Israel proper at the Second Coming. I certainly believe in it, for one.
I am glad you do, and I wish more conservative Catholics felt the same way. Unfortunately, the Catholics with whom I most agree on Biblical issues are more often than not raving anti-Semites who attribute every evil in the world (including evolutionism and Biblical criticism) to a "Jewish/Masonic conspiracy." There's even an article online at some Feeneyite site entitled "The Chosen People is Now the Accursed Race." You can imagine how I felt when Robert Sungenis, with whom I had enjoyed an amicable correspondence, went stark-raving crazy.
At any rate, exile from the Land is a punishment, not for "rejecting the messiah," but for abandoning Torah, and the condition of ending that exile is obedience to Torah. This is very far indeed from the traditional chr*stian understanding that Torah observance is now an impediment to Israel's obedience of G-d.
Yes, I understand. But that’s no skin off our nose. Any position can be attacked on that score. Suppose I’m one of the sons of Korah: Who is this Moses that alleges to have come down from Sinai saying he holds the Law of God? Why Mosaic Law and not Abrahamic religion?
You just don’t have anyone out there making that case (as far as I know). Give it time though, I’m sure someone will. :)
Three quick points: 1)remember that all Israel, not just Moses, heard G-d speak at Sinai on the first Shavu`ot. It was afterwards that Moses went up on Sinai for forty days and nights and came back with the Shenei-Luchot-HaBerit (Two Tablets of the Covenent). It was because all Israel was chosen and heard G-d's voice that day that Qorach felt free to challenge Moses on the special status of 'Aharon's family.
2)Unlike with chr*stianity, there is no surviving genuine pre-Mosaic religion which Judaism claims to have "fulfilled." The closest you can come to a comparison with the chr*stian claims vis a vis Judaism are the Kuttim (the Samaritans), and that is not analogous, as they claim to be the Mosaic religion, not the remnant of a pre-Mosaic religion which Judaism claims to have fulfilled.
3)As I progressed on my personal religious journey one theme became apparent: the further back you go, the less "faith" and the more "works" are lauded. Catholics ask Protestants "where did you get the idea that human works don't count?" (they got it from Paul). Eastern Orthodox ask Catholics "where did you get this idiotic notions about human nature being nothing without G-d's grace and the arch heresy of "original sin?" Judaism/Noachism is simply the final result of the logical progression of this entire process. We're not that messed up? Works count? Then the Torah wasn't broke and didn't need fixin', and no new religion was necessary.
Have a good weekend.
Well, but the criteria you seem to be setting forth is one of logical progression—i.e. I’ve gone this far, why not farther?
In that case, what does it matter than no pre-Mosaic Jews survived the centuries? See what I’m saying? The logic trumps the history. You yourself laid out this dynamic that the farther back one goes, the more works are emphasized: well, then, why would you let the exigencies of history stop you? I’m wary of this whole logical progression idea...it seems a little too Enlightenment for my taste.