Interpreting the Holy Bible

How the "Senses" of Scripture Provide the Foundation for a Proper Interpretive Stance

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What is the relationship among these various senses of Scripture? This important question must be answered before an attempt to interpret the Sacred Page can be made. The first rule of proper exegesis is adherence to the normative function of the Literal sense. The Literal sense must be "the indispensable foundation" of the Spiritual sense(10). The meaning intended by the human author, which is discerned through the valuable historical-critical method, must not be violated in searching for meanings beyond it. Language, although it is dynamic and fluid, does also create limits that cannot be crossed without destroying the integrity of the original meaning. To use the example of the Frost poem mentioned previously, one cannot correctly interpret the passage to mean that Frost was condemning all who take the more traveled path. This explanation of the text would be beyond the limits of the words used. These limits of language must be respected when interpreting a passage.

In addition to the necessity for the Spiritual sense of the Scriptures to be faithful to the Literal meaning of a text, it must also cohere with the Living Tradition of the Church, which includes the Magisterium, the liturgy, and the Patristics as well as other aspects. This is since "both of them [Scripture and Tradition], flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end."(11) The Holy Spirit, Who inspired the Scriptures and now guides the Church, is the source of any Spiritual meaning ascribed to a text. An interpretation of the Bible that contradicts the Faith of the Church is illegitimate since it attempts to separate the inseparable: the one Word of God. "Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church."(12) As this deposit is entrusted to the Church, only she possesses the norm against which all possible meanings must be tested.

Once the senses of Scripture are discovered and their relationship understood, the exegete is prepared for the process of interpretation. This operation consists of two interrelated items. First, one must explain the Literal sense of a passage. The other part of interpretation is the process of understanding. This latter part is interpretation proper, and while it must use the Literal sense, it concerns itself greatly with the Spiritual sense of Scripture. And, whereas these two steps are truly distinct, they cannot be separated in a chronological or other fashion. The interpreter takes with him the initial explanation of the text as he begins to search for an explicitation of it. While exploring this understanding he is constantly testing it against the original explication, thereby gaining a deeper knowledge of both.

The explanation of a text is the attempt, through scientific disciplines, to understand what was the intended meaning of the human author. As Francis Martin describes it, "[Explanation] is the application of the historical and philological disciplines in striving to understand the utterance of the text."(13) The procedures that have been developed in the past 100 years, called collectively the historical-critical method, have been invaluable in determining more precisely the meaning of Scripture at this level. The exegete during the explication phase of interpretation would ask certain types of questions. Who is the author? To whom is the author writing? What is the historical situation in which the writing is developed? and so forth. This step in the process is invaluable as it serves as a norming guide in the later stages of the interpretive endeavor.

The process of interpretation is not nearly complete after the initial explanation phase. If the Bible only contained one meaning, the Literal, then explication would be sufficient; however, in order for the text to be truly engaged on all levels, another step is necessary. This stage called understanding is guided by three standards, each of which is a level of reality in interpretation. The Pontifical Biblical Commission recognizes these guides when it writes, "One then holds together three levels of reality: the biblical text, the Paschal mystery, and the present circumstances of life in the Spirit."(14) In order to understand, and therefore interpret, any passage of Scripture, all three of these realities must be present with the exegete as both a norm and a "light". The importance and necessity of the first of these, the text, has already been seen above. However, the other two, life in the Spirit and the Paschal mystery, are both vital for a proper explicitation of the text as well.

Interpreting in the life of the Spirit consists of participating in the Faith of the Church, in her worship, her beliefs, and her prayers. It involves being formed by the teachings of the Church. Pope Leo XIII encouraged Catholic exegetes to participate in the Spirit while interpreting when he exhorted them that "the analogy of faith should be followed"(15). Faith, that comes from and is directed to the Spirit, should act as a standard and as a light in the interpretive process. As already stated, exegesis that is guided by faith has the Church and her teachings as a norm. Any interpretation that contradicts the previous doctrines of the Church is invalid. However, this "analogy of faith" is more than a simple norming presence: " functions as a light, as a directive principle within the mind."(16) By participating in the life and faith of the Church, the interpreter is directed toward the real meanings of the text. The Second Vatican Council Fathers recognized this when they admonished, "...Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written."(17) As the inspired writers of the Bible participated in the Spirit and let themselves be guided by Him, so also the exegete must participate in that same Spirit and thereby be guided toward true and deeper understandings of the text.

There is both an objective and a subjective aspect of the final guide for the interpreter in the process of understanding the Biblical text: the (objective) event of the Paschal Mystery and the exegete’s (subjective) encounter with it. Objectively, the Paschal Mystery, as the only truly new event in human history, reconfigures everything else around itself. Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, effects all of salvation history and orders it around himself. The Old Testament account of a people striving and failing to follow the Will of God, and hoping beyond hope that He will send His promised One to save them is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. All of the actions that involve the people of Israel take on a new meaning in light of the coming of the Messiah. Further, all of history after the Paschal Event is affected by its work. The People of God is now a redeemed race attempting to extend His salvation to the entire world. As Christ is the center of salvation history, so the exegete must center his interpretation around the Lord when analyzing the Scriptures, which recount this salvation history. To do this, he must have his own, subjective, encounter with the objective event of the Paschal mystery. Only then will he really know what it is that the text is saying. An analogy to this knowledge would be the knowledge a devoted husband has of his wife. He can tell another person many things about her- her hair color, her height, her hobbies, etc.- and this information will allow the listener to "know" the man’s wife. However, all the information possible about this woman will not permit him to know the wife as the husband does. In the same fashion, the center of the Scriptures, Jesus Christ, must first be personally known by the interpreter in order for him to understand what it is that Biblical passages relate.

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