Loving Scripture

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Over at Disputations, I prevailed upon Tom's hospitality to compose an very long answer to a gentleman who objects to the Catholic Church's "interpretation of Scripture." In reading his comments I (perhaps erroneously) inferred that he seemed to think that the Church hands down a line-by-line interpretation of the Scripture. Here is my response to him;


You say the Rock is Peter. I say the Rock is the truth of acknowledging Christ as the Son of God and Lord of my life and a promise Christ gives to all Christians. Catholics then say, thatís why we have the authority to interpret all scripture because thatís how we interpreted this verse of scripture. [A quotation from my correspondent]

Need it be one or the other? Can the rock not be both? Is it not possible that Peter was chosen as the rock upon which the Church would be built because of his faith in Jesus Christ, and we each are expected to have that faith, and yet, just as at the Cross we are given a mother, in this moment we are given a shepherd.

I don't see the two as contradictory. I see them as mutually supportive. The Church teaches that this verse is what established the Church, but she does not limit the meaning to that.

What people outside the Church do not thoroughly understand is that there is remarkably little scripture that is authoritatively interpreted by the Church. And even when so, it is more often than not that the meaning is not circumscribed, merely elucidated. That is, the meaning that is important to central Church doctrine is enunciated without prejudice to other possible meanings.

The Church gives definitive guidance in how to read and how to interpret scripture, but only very rarely does she pronounce on THE meaning of a passage. She leaves the faithful to read and interpret within the guidelines she offers. And these guidelines, the fruit of centuries of work and experience, are such that they do not so much circumscribe meaning as they give meaningful help in guiding the conscience so that we do not get the multiple schism of the Protestant Church.

What you fail to acknowledge in all of this, is the sheer chaos that comes from unbounded personal interpretation of Scripture.

I've regaled a great many with the tale of how my Grandfather's fundamentalist Baptist Church split into two new Churches over the question of whether women should wear panty-hose or not.

Given my choice between the two systems, I would prefer to interpret scripture in accordance with Tradition and with the understanding that Scripture has held through the ages.

For example, presently, many would have us read the scriptures prohibiting homosexual congress to mean a very isolated instance of a specific problem that is more related to temple worship than to homosexuality. The Church definitively teaches that homosexual congress is a sin. There are few others who do so, and those that do, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention, has no authority to do so by their own understanding of the Scriptures. That is, if all personal interpretation is equally valid, then the "authority" of the Church has no right to a definitive interpretation. Believers must accept the guidance of the individual conscience and cannot conclusively state that the Bible prohibits homosexual congress.

There are those in the Catholic Church who would like this to be the way we operate. But we do not. The Magisterium definitively interprets the scriptures to say that homosexual congress is illicit, immoral, and sinful.

I have faithfully sat on both sides of this fence, and I can tell you that the freedom that comes from not having to know everything about the Bible and the languages in which it was written and what was meant by this phrase and that, is exhilarating.

My experience has always been that the self is a tyrant, and that tyranny is often forced on others, even when the Churches are hammering away at Sola Scriptura.

If, indeed, a Church truly operates on Sola Scriptura then one must grant that the only legitimate approach to scripture is the individual encountering the word, and therefore, tradition, authority, or other extrinsic factors count for nothing in the mix. You cannot have sola scriptura and yet expect others to read the same words and come to exactly the same understanding as you have.

When the Church interprets scripture, she does so in a limited sense to clarify and to assure the unity of the faithful. If you read through the Fathers and the Saints, you'll find dozens, hundreds, thousands of different interpretations even of key scriptures. Only in a rare event are these problematic, usually when they lead to a significant misunderstanding of the nature of God or of Jesus Christ.

The Church does not authoritatively offer a line by line understanding of the Bible. Rather, she provides guidance for the reading of Scripture AND clarification of those scriptures on which our Doctrine and Dogma defend. Without the Church we have no doctrine of the trinity (no where explicitly spelled out in the Bible) we have no "of the same substance" with reference to the Godhead, etc.

So I would respectfully submit that you may have some misconceptions about precisely how the Church handles and interprets scripture and what she demands of her children with respect to these interpretations and with respect to reading the Bible. You do not abandon freedom upon entering the Church--you are shown the true outlines of freedom. There is greater freedom in knowing the boundaries (and greater safety) than in wandering the fields dependent only upon ourselves (even with the assistance of the Holy Spirit) for not falling off a cliff. The multiplicity of Protestant faiths speak clearly of the dangers of a lack of central authority in understanding faith.

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2 Comments

I have a few problems with some of what you say here. I'm a Catholic who accepts the Church's teaching, but I think you miss a bit of what the Church teaches here.

Above all, you don't mention the role of the Holy Spirit: when the Church's magisterium makes a definitive pronouncement on the meaning of something in scripture (which happens quite rarely, as you say), it does so under the guidance of the same Spirit who guided the human authors in writing the sacred text in the first place. This isn't something that can be put in the form a logically compelling argument to prove the legitimacy of magisterial interpretation, because such an argument will be circular. In the end, we have to go back to basics: where does Christian faith come from? Is it based on the Bible (inspired by the Holy Spirit)? Or does it come from the Church (guided by the Holy Spirit in its interpretations of tradition and scripture)? In either case it comes from God, but for Catholics the Church is indispensable in passing the faith down through the ages in a faithful and infallible way.

I think you go too far in saying that Protestants believe all personal interpretations are equally valid. Obviously they don't believe that; it's why, for example, they tend to form new churches so often: the old church thought their own interpretation was the only valid one. It makes me very uncomfortable to see Catholics trumpeting their own ecclesial unity as proof of the validity of authoritative Catholic doctrine. After all, the authority of Church teaching exists only for those who accept the authority in the first place. Someone who doesn't accept that authority -- or the teaching it reinforces -- will just leave the Church; and such people do in fact leave the Church on a regular basis. Just like Protestants.

Moreover, many Protestant churches do have what might be called a "weak" doctrine of authority and tradition -- some weaker than others, of course. These churches certainly do not believe that all interpretations of scripture are equally valid. They believe the church is guided by the holy spirit, but that no member of the church is necessarily exempt from the possibility of error. I don't accept this approach, of course, but I can see its possible attractiveness. Catholics would do well to address this difficulty honestly, and refrain from caricatures of Protestant doctrine.

Please forgive me if my arguments here are either too blunt or too condensed. It's not my intention to offend or confuse; and I do genuinely appreciate your blog and much of what you've said in this discussion.

Dear Frank,

The best thing to say is that the post is very generalized, and you do well to correct its excesses. It was written quickly at another place to address a certain difficulty with one person and so suffers somewhat from that. I gladly acknowledge that you are correct in much of this and I apologize for the overgeneralization. When I reconsider it in the future, I will keep these comments in mind.

Thank you.

shalom,

Steven

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 3, 2005 8:03 AM.

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