The Scriptures - Who gets to say what they mean?

There is much to be read and contemplated before understanding what the Scriptures are, where they come from, and how they are to be interpreted. There are various related entries on the Scriptures on this website. None of them pretends to be definitive. As with every entry on this website, all that is being attempted is to offer the reader a few thoughts for their consideration. As a simple introduction to the Bible as understood by the Catholic Church, it is recommended the reader source a text like “As It Was Written: An Introduction to the Bible” by Justin Taylor (Paulist Press, 2007).

Understanding the role of the Church in interpreting Scripture is central to understanding the Catholic perspective on Scripture. The Church’s view on this is not arbitrary. It is grounded in its profound awareness of the origins of Scripture. They did not descend from the heavens intact. They were written, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by people like you and me. The Scriptural authors are our spiritual ancestors. Like you and me they belong to the community of believers. As we shall see: this means that the community of believers has a legitimate role in interpreting the Scripture.

This is not to deny that the Scriptures are divinely inspired. The Scriptures are the Word of God and deservedly hold a prominent place in the life, ritual and spirituality of our Church. And yet they are also our words – the words of the body of Christ as it seeks to express its faith and recall the stories that brought the People of God into being. The Scriptures are our words, divinely inspired and, as such, belong to us. They do not exist independently of us.

Recognising that the Scriptures belong to us, and have been written by us, inevitably changes the way we relate to them. Instead of being ‘up there’ and viewed as an unchanging authority in their own right, they have a context. That context is the teaching of the Church. For if the Church is the body that wrote the Scriptures, it also has the authority to interpret them. In much the same way as you and your family can take your family photo album and tell the story behind each of the pictures to be found there, the family of the Church has the authority to explain and reveal what the various stories and teachings found in its album (the Bible) might mean.

Catholics are not fundamentalists

Because the Holy Spirit is still present and active, the Word of God remains a living document (see Hebrews 4:12). For this reason, it is reasonable to contend that to be Catholic excludes the possibility of being fundamentalist. This is because the truly Catholic response to the Scriptures is to relate to them as a living text and, as such, they are open to fresh and deeper levels of interpretation.

If we take seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in writing the Scriptures in the first place, we must also take seriously his role in interpreting them. If we take seriously that the Body of Christ (the Church) is what it is because the Holy Spirit breathes his life into it, we must take seriously the Church’s ongoing role in unveiling the meaning of the Scriptures. If we acknowledge that God exists outside time (a point we have discussed elsewhere) then, in faith, we can say that the Scriptures are being written even now as you read them. Paul (for example) might have thought he was writing to the Corinthians. The Holy Spirit has you and me in mind.

In light of this, we can say that Catholic faith breathes with two lungs: the Scripture on the one hand and the interpretation and application of Scriptural teaching (often called ‘Tradition’) on the other. The Church has the authority to interpret Scripture because the Holy Spirit, given to the Church to inspire the writing of the Scripture in the first place, has not abandoned us (see John 14:15 and following).

Acknowledgements
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Photo of Hands on Bible by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

NIHIL OBSTAT
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019

IMPRIMATUR
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019

Reviewed
30 October 2019