Interpretation vs. Application

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The way we can be sure of our knowledge of Him
is to keep his commandments
1 John 2

I was talking to a friend recently who suggested that one of the reasons her group does not read scripture more often is that they are afraid of the implications of private interpretation of scripture. As we all know, the Catholic Church differs from the protestant churches in this as well as other matters. The error of private interpretation looms so large that they fear the scriptures, and yet they need not.

What does this mean? The Church does not forbid studying the Bible privately, in fact, she actively encourages it. (I had one friend who told me that prior to Vatican II she had a priest who explicitly told the congregation NOT to read scripture for fear of what it might do to their faith. I once believed this to be the norm; however, I have come to understand that this was really an exceptional circumstance in the Church.) If we read the Bible privately and study it, we HAVE to interpret it. As the interpretations for single verses of scripture are, with rare exceptions, not explicitly defined in Church doctrine, how does one avoid the error of private interpretation?

It seems to me that there are two ways that are really branches of one way. The first is to interpret scripture and before you make any public revelation of your conclusions to test your understanding against the understanding that the Church has from her other teachings. That is, contra Luther and other protestant reformers, the Bible cannot be interpreted outside of the understandings of the Church Fathers. So, if in reading the Bible you come to the conclusion that the only basis for understanding scripture is scripture alone, not only are you being ascriptural, but you are flying in the face of 2000 years of received tradition. You can be pretty certain that no matter how bright you are, when your conclusions oppose two-thousand years of understanding and discernment through the Holy Spirit, you are the one who is wrong. Under those circumstances, you abandon your privately received revelation and read the Bible according to the Church's understanding. Thus, while the Church defines the meaning of very few individual scriptures, the traditions of the Church preserve intact the meaning of the whole of scripture. When one of your thoughts about a verse varies from this and you trust in the Holy Spirit for discernment, you will readily see it. Formation as a Catholic in the Tradition and doctrine of the Church, and the invocation of the Holy Spirit before reading scripture will preserve you from this form of error.

Another way to have private interpretation be in line with Catholic Church doctrine is private application. That is, the interpretation you have arrived at is meant for a specific application in you own life without being shared with the entire world as a doctrinal surety. For example, my reading of the scripture suggests to me that violent aggression against others is forbidden ME. The Church clearly teaches that there are occasions and instances when violence may be used in the preservation of some larger good. Thus, I cannot say that pacifism is a Catholic Doctrine--that is clearly false; however, I can, in good conscience say that I may be a pacifist--that there are no instances for me, as an individual, in which use of violent force would not be a sin. Were I to expand this to say that Christ demands it of the Church as a whole, I would be in error.

But even in private application, the whole must NOT be in conflict with Church teaching. That is that the Church teaches that violent force MAY be justifiably used, but she does not teach that it must absolutely be used. If my private interpretation of scripture led me to the conclusion that Jesus Christ were married and had children (a la ˇThe DaVinci Code", I would, of necessity, have to reject the conclusion because that is not the understanding of the Church. I encounter this difficulty every time I read a scripture about Jesusí "brothers and sisters." I know how I want to understand that scripture, but I also know that it stands in direct contradiction of Church Teaching. I bring myself back into line reminding myself of the perpetual virginity of Our Blessed Mother.

In most cases, private application of scripture will not be so broad as to entail such errors. For example, you may read of the rich man who approached Jesus and was told to "sell everything you have and give to the poor." You may decide that the meaning for you, at this time, is to sell part of your stock portfolio and give to a local crisis pregnancy center. You should probably take such a conclusion to a spiritual director or companion and share in the discernment of the decision (although this is not strictly necessary, it acts as a good safeguard). But this application in no way contradicts Church teaching. Similarly, one could read Jesusí words about faith the size of a mustard seed and conclude that they are encouragement to undertake some task that is before us in faith.

As I said before, for any large judgments it is probably best to seek a discernment partner to assure that you are not just following your own lead. But for most scripture studies, you'll find that the applications are very small, very personal, and very doable. For example, the scriptures may serve to convict you of certain wrongs in your life, and you conclude to add that thing to you next confession list and to pray for help in not returning to it. The Bible may serve to encourage you. "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, Rejoice!" You may conclude from this that you should be more mindful of God in your everyday life.

The important point is that whenever your "application" flies in the face of received tradition, you should assume that you are incorrect in your understanding. With discernment (either individually over time or with a partner or group) and prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance and understanding you can rest assured that you will be preserved from wandering in error.

Pride is the chief sin that leads us into private interpretation. Humility and obedience are the specifics against the pride that would destroy faith. Just stop and consider, "How can I know here and now what has not been known in two thousand years of thinking about God?" Stop and consider, is your mind the caliber of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, or even John Paul the Great? If not, then one would do well to listen to them and to those concurring opinions than to assume that the Holy Spirit is going to plant on you some revelation that flies in the face of 2000 years of history and tradition. Simply recall who you are before God and in the communion of Saints, and you will quickly return to the proper understanding of scripture--the understanding promulgated by the Church. But whatever you do, do not let fear of private interpretation keep you from reading, listening, and understanding what God has to say to you in His Word.


This is from a response to a post in comments. I thought it important enough to ally it with the main body of the post in the vain hope that when I wanted to revise this (if ever) I'd find all of the pieces together in one place.

But that is another problem I didn't mention. Scripture should be interpreted in the context of all of scripture. No single piece should be isolated from the fabric and then have it said, "This is about X." It would be like cutting a black square out of a checkerboard and then explaining what the pattern is. All of scripture needs to be addressed when we interpret any piece of it. Interpretations out of line with the plain meaning of the entirety are also suspect. I should have mentioned that up top.

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One of my difficulties in reading the Old Testament is how hard some of the passages sound to the ear. Harsh in how God is portrayed. This morning I was reading 1 Samuel and Yahweh was said to put evil thoughts in Saul's head, as if Saul had no free will. I know that's just the way they viewed things in the OT, but one can understand where Calvin got his double predestination idea.

Dear Steven, what an interesting post!! On many issues in Scripture, I can see how your ideas of interpretation would be helpful to me.

However, it intrigues me that you chose Augustine, Aquinas and John Paul as your examples: without any pride whatsoever, I can say that I know more about women, sex, reproduction and marriage than any of these three ever communicated. So does my mother, my daughters, etc.

The Bible was interpreted by Church *Fathers*. When it came to women and marriage and sex, they had a cultural bias, and perhaps even an agenda, that may have blinded them from seeing the Truth revealed in Scripture.

Church Fathers like Aquinas ("woman is defective and misbegotten") and Augustine ("if the means could be given them of having children without intercourse with their wives, would they not with joy unspeakable embrace so great a blessing?") are not men whose opinions are likely to influence me (unless they are to influence me right out of the Church). Were these really the words of the Holy Spirit? I don't think so. The reason I don't think so is that I can find Scripture to contradict these statements.

I often wonder if women don't stay in the Church simply because of the Scriptures: we know the truth about women is in there, because we've read it, and we pray that one day the scales will fall from the "Church Fathers'" eyes and they will see it too.

The Holy Spirit does speak to women, Steven. We make up the majority of the human population and we do hear the Spirit's voice. Unfortunately, Rome has chosen for over 2000 years to not listen to the Spirit when it speaks through women. Interpreting Scripture contra to the Church's interpretation gives us hope, and reminds us that although the Church is human and male, God is neither.


Dear Talmida,

I think perhaps you took what I intended somewhat out of context. My only concern in the post was to say to people who fear reading scriptures BECAUSE they fear private interpretation, that this is an unnecessary fear and should not inhibit the reading of scripture. I was not speaking to the question of whether or not some private interpretations are valid. If we choose to think that they are not, this post is to encourage you to read scripture anyway, without fear of falling into error. If we choose to think that some private interpretations are, then of course, we wouldn't be fearing scripture anyway.

But, Talmida, you must also understand that whatever errors in understanding have occurred in the history of the Church, a great many of them have occurred through private interpretations. Sola scriptura, Sola fides, and all the other solas--Pelagianism, gnosticism, etc. These are all errors of private interpretation. Thus, there are pitfalls.

As to the teachings you mention--and this may just be me--they do not have doctrinal status--that is, they are taught by the theologians of the Church, but theologians can be mistaken in a great many things. (St. Thomas Aquinas's natural history is a product of the understanding of his time and heavily influenced by inccrrect understandings of Aristotle.) It would come as no surprise to me, that, influenced as they were by their time and their society, they should come to these conclusions. (And the ones you site are not even the most repugnant ones.) So, we also need to draw the line between what the Church teaches and what the theologians teach. The reason for choosing Augustine, Aquinas, etc. was more for their undeniable great intelligence than for any views they held. (I'm not really keen on Augustine's overwrought sense of original sin, for example.) They were not chosen for positions on individual issues, but on their contribution in general and the general acknowledgment of what they have done.

But do keep in mind the stated purpose. I am not out to dissuade thinking, I am out to encourage those afraid of "private interpretation" creeping into their readings. I hope this serves as sufficient clarification and I apologize if you were provoked by what I had written.



Dear Steven, I was not at all provoked by what *you* wrote -- I think I just got carried away by my own hobby horse!

I do tend to see red when confronted with the misogynist fathers.

Put it down to Monday-ness.


Dear Talmida,

I can understand that entirely. And I need to be more sensitive and aware when I make posts like these. Thank you for your kindness in writing the original note, and I will endeavor to be more sensitive to these issues as I write in the future.

And to some extent I agree. I don't know that I'd attribute the misogyny to the Fathers themselves so much as to the society in which they lived. Nevertheless, it must be extremely difficult as a woman to have to deal with some of the nonsense that is continued in writings that tend to be respected by a lot of people. I think it is extremely important to recognize the great contributions of these thinkers, but equally to point out where their understandings are flawed-either through their own thinking or through the inculcation of their societal standards. I know that I make a point of showing where their understandings of natural history are wrong (through no fault of their own) because I think these erroneous understandings can and do (occasionally) lead to misunderstandings of more critical points.

Anyway, I do go on. The main purpose is to thank you for the course correction, and be assured, any such are welcome. As I said, I will attempt to avoid these kinds of things in the future.



...well, now getting back to TSO and Saul -- I agree, it is disconcerting that scripture reads, "an evil spirit sent from the Lord tormented him". Of course, an obvious explanation is that Saul was disobedient and God withdrew from him, but that doesn't satisfy the problem of God "sending" an evil spirit. Being raised Presbyterian, predestination was always troubling to me, too, but I don't know what "double predestination" means. In another vein, Saul has always fascinated me. I wonder if anyone else would agree that he would be diagnosed in today's world as bi-polar with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, based on his behavior.

Dear Psalm41--

You know that predestination is. Double predestination refers to the idea that God not only foreordains what will happen but that he foreordains some to go to Hell and some to enjoy heaven. Predestination as I understand it refers to the fact that God has predestined all for glory; however, through our own foolish choices and actions we can choose to reject that ultimate destination. In double predestination, if you're going to Hell, you're going there from the moment of birth so it doesn't matter what you do--God has decided you simply are moved about in ways that have justified this judgment.

On the other front--God "sending" an evil spirit; we are told that God allowed Satan to tempt Job. It may be that the protecting Holy Spirit withdrew and that amounted to permission to attack, or it may mean something else. But that is another problem I didn't mention. Scripture should be interpreted in the context of all of scripture. No single piece should be isolated from the fabric and then have it said, "This is about X." It would be like cutting a black square out of a checkerboard and then explaining what the pattern is. All of scripture needs to be addressed when we interpret any piece of it. Interpretations out of line with the plain meaning of the entirety are also suspect. I should have mentioned that up top.



Dear Steven,

An excellent post! The only thing I'd add is my fervent recommendation of a book by Archbishop Mariano Magrassi, OSB, Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina. Five stars, two thumbs up, etc. Lectio divina: it's not just for Benedictines anymore :-)

Cheers and thanks -


As always, thank you for your kind spirit of generosity in answering questions.

Thanks psalm 41 for giving the exact line! I didn't even tell you the chapter (I believe it's 1 Sam 9).

Talmida has a fair point about Augustine and Aquinas but why single out Church Fathers and not Scripture also? There are some hair-raising passages where Yahweh asks everybody be killed, women and children included. And there are St. Paul's admonition that women not be pastors and that they wear veils in church and be submissive to their husbands. It seems unfair to hold church theologians to a standard we don't even hold Scripture to.

TSO, I think you'll also find it in 1 Sam 16:14. Thanks to you, I have been duly educated in the meaning of "double predestination."

TSO, I like the Old Testament. The Hebrew is far less offensive than the English, and I find it easy to put things in their historical context. Also, there are enough really positive strong statements about women in the OT to balance the negative. But Paul? I'm sorry, but I think Paul had serious personal problems -- either badly hurt by women, or maybe a closeted homosexual, or maybe just guilt for having turned his back on Judaism. Where did he get the whole celibacy thing? That has nothing to do with Jesus' message at all! But then, that is my own interpretation.


Paul did have a serious personal problem, "a messenger from Satan to torment him" and begged God three times to take it from him to which the Lord replied, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." As Paul learned, when we can rest upon the cross in perfect peace, or, when we are weak, then we are strong.

Where did he get the whole celibacy thing?

It was not an unknown. No less than John the Baptist was an Essene and a celibate.

Talmida has a fair point about Augustine and Aquinas....

I don't think she does, on the whole. For starters, St. Thomas did not teach that "women are misbegotten" in any sense intelligible apart from a largely unintelligible Aristotelian natural philosophy.

But even granting the outrageous anachronism and supposing he and St. Augustine were misogynists, to dismiss their contributions on this basis is a form of intellectual Donatism the Church -- whose teachings are received from and by fallen human beings -- can ill afford.

Actually, Tom, I feel that dismissing their contributions is up there with building my house on rock. At the moment, the Church is built on sand- on the works of these men, and on anachronistic ideas. It is a thick, wobbly, unstable layer between the bedrock of the Gospel and the people of God.

Imagine reading a female author of a classic work who started out by saying that males were of lesser intelligence and more disposed to sin. Then she continued to talk about how women could come to a better relationship with God. (oh, and of course you are told that the word woman includes man, except when it doesn't. Who decides when it doesn't? The entirely female hierarchy.)

These are male ideas, Tom. Not Gospel ideas.

TSO, really? I'd like to know more about that. Who's your source? I've been reading conflicting things about the Essenes.



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