Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

How To Interpret The Sacred Scriptures

Dear Father Shane,
I was recently in Arkansas visiting friends, and they posed a question which I could not answer. How do we (Catholics) know that Jesus was speaking literally about His Body and Blood in John 6 but not literally in the Scripture referring to plucking one’s eyes out or chopping off one’s hand (I’m did not look up the citation for this verse, but I figured you would know which one I am talking about). I told my friend I would do my best to find the answer to his question. Would you help me?
K. Miller
Edmond, OK

The key to proper interpretation of the Scripture lies in three simple words: context, context, context. A fundamentalist approach to the Sacred Scripture tends to encourage reading particular verses out of context. This tendency became more widespread with the introduction of chapters and verses into the text in the 15th and 16th centuries. Before this, Christians knew the Scriptures by the context in which they were found.
We can look at this context in three levels. The first level of context comes from the unity of the Sacred Scripture (CCC #112). Since God is the primary author of the Sacred Scripture, there will be an inherent continuity of the content of the Sacred Scripture (CCC #105). Therefore, when we look to understand the Scripture, a particular passage must be read in light of what comes before it and what comes after it. The New Testament sheds light on the Old Testament; the Old Testament gives roots to the New Testament.
The second level of context involves the role of Tradition (CCC #113). For most non-Catholics, the word “tradition” gives them the willies. Tradition means what St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians “handing on what I myself have received...(cf. I Corinthians 11:23, 15:3).” The New Testament is the product of the Catholic Christians of the first century. The Church, through her teaching office, complied the texts of the Sacred Scripture, discerning which ones were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a proper interpretation is going to be in line with Tradition handed on (cf. II Peter 1:19-21) . This explains why all of our personal interpretations of Sacred Scripture must be submitted to the authority of the Church. The Magisterium serves the Sacred Scripture to insure that proper interpretation is always available (CCC #85-86).
The third level of context concerns the overall act of Revelation (CCC #114). Christianity is not a Religion of the Book. It is a religion of the Word, Jesus Christ, who revels to us the heart of the Godhead (CCC #108). When we interpret the Sacred Scripture, if our interpretation fails to conform to either the plan of revelation or to the truths of the faith, then we have to reject that interpretation.
In addition to these three levels, there are two other consideration to take up. First, while God is the primary author, God inspired human authors to compose the actual texts. They bring their own idioms and genres of writing to the task (CCC #106,109-110). When we read the Sacred Scripture, we must try to hear it in their words if the texts are to be understood correctly. Second, ultimately, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, leads us all to proper understanding of the Scriptures (CCC #111). We should pray to the Holy Spirit, in particular, before we read or study the Sacred Scriptures that we might be lead into all truth.


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