Catholic Scripture Interpretation

Resting on Fundamentals, Resisting Fundamentalism

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Before seeing the place of Scripture within the Church and even within revelation itself, the question arises: what is Revelation? More than and before anything else, it is God choosing to reveal Himself to man(3). Dogmas and doctrines are only one part of Divine Revelation; they are not even the first or primary contents of this intimate disclosure of God. In order that man might enjoy the Beatific Vision forever in Heaven, God reveals His very Being to us on earth so that we might desire this future deep relationship. This revealing of God is done in a two-fold fashion: in both His words and deeds. In the words of the Vatican II fathers, "the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, awhile the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them"(4). Then, at the fullness of time, the perfect God wished to perfect His revelation to man: thus, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). Jesus Christ is the perfection of the relationship between God and man, as he is both "truly God and truly man". His words and deeds, accomplished in the land of Palestine for a period of under forty years, are the summit of God's Revelation(5). After his death and resurrection, this divine revelation was to be "handed on" until the end of the world. The instrument for this continuation of God's revealing is the Church He founded upon Peter and the apostles. As this handing on was to occur for and by men, it consisted of two forms: written and unwritten, Scripture and Tradition. The essence of this written method is exactly like Christ: both human and divine. It is human in that it was really written by men with human methods of communication. However, it is divine since it truly has as its author, God. As the two natures of Christ are a mystery that can be believed and explained but never fully understood, so also the two natures of the Sacred Scriptures are a paradox to be explored but never completely fathomed. God, in His desire to have communion with us, did not impose Himself as an author against the free will of the human writer(6). But the Scriptures, unlike the unwritten Sacred Tradition, are written in God's words, demanding a privileged place in the scheme of revelation in the Church.

On the one road of God’s revelation to men, there are two lanes and one guide. "Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition form one sacred deposit of the word of God"(7), and "the task of authentically interpreting the word of God,...has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [Magisterium] of the Church."(8) However, it is impossible to simply put these three in a hierarchical structure to determine their order of authority, for they are intrinsically related(9). "Scripture" refers to the 73 books of the Bible that the Church recognizes as canonical. Catholic teaching is that since they were written by the Holy Spirit they are without error(10). Consisting of the teaching of Our Lord and his apostles that has been handed on orally, Sacred Tradition is a "growth in the understanding of the realities and the words [of revelation] which have been handed down"(11). Finally, the Magisterium is the official teaching office of the Catholic Church consisting of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops acting in concert with him. Although the Magisterium is not equivalent to Sacred Tradition, its authoritative decisions made today will become a part of Sacred Tradition for the future Church.

In this three-part structure, Sacred Scripture is the only "inspired" Word of God that the Church recognizes as truly being God’s words. The extent of this inspiration is complete, as Pope Leo XIII states:

For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit...(12)

Since this direct inspiration is not true of Tradition or the Magisterium, Scripture is placed in a unique position that no other means of revelation can claim. A certain primacy thus exits with Scripture, which should not lead to a sola scriptura attitude, but instead simply a reverence for Scripture as the Word of God in God's words.





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