interpret the bible

How to Interpret the Bible as a Catholic

Sacred Scripture, often referred to as the Bible, is a wonderful gift given to us by God in order that we might know something of His heart. But it’s no secret that the Bible is a difficult book (or set of books) to understand. And you, a Catholic, want to understand it. So… how should Catholics interpret the Bible?

Great question. And there is a clear answer.

What (or Who) is the Word of God?

First, however, we must grasp what the Bible, or Sacred Scripture, is.

Yes, it is truly the Word of God. But what does that mean exactly?

Well, the Word of God is first and foremost a Person, not a book. The Word of God is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and He is the one and eternal Word of God the Father, the First Person of the Most Blessed Trinity.

And just as Jesus is the one and eternal Word of God made flesh in time and space, Sacred Scripture is the one and eternal Word of God made into human words.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church actually quotes Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, in reference to this teaching: 

Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men” (CCC 101). 

That being said, Sacred Scripture is truly God’s Word. But… how is it the one, eternal Word of God throughout these many books and words authored by numerous human authors?

In the words of St. Augustine, “You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God had no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time” (CCC 102).

RELATED: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition – Are Both Needed?

This is why as Catholics we believe that though the books of Sacred Scripture have many human authors, God is ultimately the author of Sacred Scripture. He “made full use of their human faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more” (CCC 106). 

How to interpret the Bible Correctly

If we want to interpret the Bible correctly as Catholics we must primarily be attentive to two things: (1) what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and (2) what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.

Since God truly made full use of the human authors’ faculties and powers it is key to discover what these human authors desired to affirm in their writing. And it is only possible for us to do so if we 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” (CCC 110). 

But we can’t focus on the historical analysis of the texts to the point of neglecting their divine authorship. And this is why the Catholic Church states that there is another key principle for interpreting Sacred Scripture correctly: “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (Dei Verbum 12).

The Church, at the Second Vatican Council, gave three criteria in Dei Verbum for “interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it” (CCC 111):

  1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”. 
  2. Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”.
  3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith.

#1 Attentiveness “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”

Sometimes this criteria is referred to as reading the Bible canonically. This means to read any passage or book in light of the entire canon of Scripture. 

By reading Scripture in this way one can more easily avoid common misinterpretations of a passage since it won’t allow for passages to ever directly contradict one another, even if they are written in two different books and by two different human authors in possibly two different periods of history. 

A direct contradiction between passages cannot occur because God is the same author of both passages, even if he inspired two different human beings to consign them to writing. Truth cannot contradict truth, and God is the Truth itself.

If it seems that two, or more, passages directly contradict one another it is because of our weakness and lack of understanding of the passage(s). This is a major reason why the Church promotes the reading of Scripture in the context of its original composition, giving particular attention to the genre. By deepening our understanding of the variety of writing styles and genres throughout the Scriptures, we are better able to see how they lack any true contradiction. If, in our pride, we assert that their is truly a contradiction in the texts we must realize that in doing so we are also denying their divine authorship. 

#2 Reading Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”

This criteria is one that can often separate our method of interpretation as Catholics from our Protestant brothers and sisters. 

Whenever we sit down to read Sacred Scripture and are required to interpret what we read, we never do it alone. We always seek to understand what we are reading in light of the entire living Tradition of the Church. 

First, we should be aware that due to the richness and multi-layered nature of Sacred Scripture the Magisterium of the Church never states that a passage can only be interpreted one way. However, the Magisterium does at times state authoritatively that a passage should not be interpreted a particular way. And the Church’s teaching authority does this not to restrict us in our reading of Sacred Scripture but to protect us from falling into a heresy that likely has already been condemned throughout the Tradition of the Church. 

RELATED: The Magisterium of the Catholic Church (& why it’s so important)

It’s like the boundaries of a basketball court. Without them, there’s no game. With them, we’re free to play. 

Second, we should remember that the Church is nearly two thousand years old and has had many amazing theologians and pastors throughout its history, most especially the early Church Fathers, who have already provided a foundation for our reading and interpretation of Sacred Scripture. If our personal interpretation is at odds with the consensus of the Church Fathers we can confidently assume that our interpretation is incorrect. When interpreting Sacred Scripture we should always err on the side of humility and trust the Tradition (that which has been handed down by those before us) before we trust ourselves. 

#3 Attentiveness to the analogy of faith

When we interpret the Bible we must always be attentive to the entirety of God’s revelation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the meaning of this well: “By ‘analogy of faith’ we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (CCC 114). 

In other words, our interpretation of Sacred Scripture should never contradict or be at odds with any truths of the faith, which are the contents of God’s self-revelation.

Just as every passage of the Bible should be read in light of the whole canon, every passage should also be read in light of “the whole plan of Revelation”. 

As Catholics we believe that the entire deposit of faith has its source in the one and eternal Triune God. And because of this, the contents of that deposit, whether expressed in Sacred Scripture or by the magisterial authority of the Church in its declaration of definitive teaching, should never contradict itself and instead always have a deep and unitive coherence. 

Want to Begin Reading the Bible Habitually?

OK, so now that you understand some of the basic principles for interpreting the Bible as a Catholic, it’s time for you to blow the dust off the Bible on your bookshelf and begin reading.

But where should you begin? What is the best way to start reading the Bible habitually so that you can regularly encounter God in His Word?

For more on this topic, I encourage you to check out this other post of mine, titled Read the Bible Daily

Excellent Books to Help You Read & Interpret the Bible as a Catholic

What do you find most challenging about reading Sacred Scripture?

Let me know below in the comment box!

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