Bible Study

Freedom for Catholics to Interpret the Bible

by Steve Ray on March 20, 2019

The Freedom of the Catholic Biblical Exegete / Interpreter
DECEMBER 2, 2017 BY DAVE ARMSTRONG

Bible Passages that the Church has Definitively Interpreted

Contrary to the bogus claims of some anti-Catholic Protestant polemicists I have run across, Catholics are not at all obliged to read the New American Bible translation (nor the revised English Vulgate, such as the Ronald Knox translation). My own preferred translation is the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which has been approved in a Catholic edition with extremely few clarifications (I think it is only something like three passages that were deemed too biased to be acceptable to Catholics).

I read the whole Bible (twice) as a Protestant in the NASB and KJV. I enjoy Phillips, NEB, Williams, and Barclay for paraphrased versions, and the NKJV is pretty cool too (I like the old KJV style, but purged of archaisms). I edited my own “version” of the New Testament (technically, a “selection”), based on use of several existing translations (Victorian King James Bible).

Pulling out my (dusty) copy of the NAB with the revised 1986 NT (Nelson, 1987), with the imprimatur (which doesn’t, sadly, always mean that much, anymore), I cite the preliminary article, “The Purpose of the Bible” (p. xii):

When Pius XII issued his Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943, the door was opened for new Catholic translations that were not dependent on St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Because of the great increase in the knowledge of the ancient biblical languages, official translations directly from them were encouraged . . . The Revised Standard Version is the least interpretative of all . . . The Jerusalem Bible and the New English Bible strive for even more contemporary language . . . The New American Bible . . . is the first American Catholic translation to have been based on the original languages, or on the earliest existing form of the text, rather than on the Vulgate.

Ven. Pope Pius XII, in the above-mentioned 1943 papal encyclical, writes:

Nor is it forbidden by the decree of the Council of Trent to make translations into the vulgar tongue, even directly from the original texts themselves . . .

Being thoroughly prepared by the knowledge of the ancient languages and by the aids afforded by the art of criticism, let the Catholic exegete undertake the task, of all those imposed on him the greatest, that, namely of discovering and expounding the genuine meaning of the Sacred Books. In the performance of this task let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal. (sections 22, end, and 23, beginning)

Likewise, Vatican II, Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum):

Access to sacred Scripture ought to be wide open to the Christian faithful . . . the Church, with motherly concern, sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into various languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. If it should happen that . . . these translations are made in a joint effort with the separated brethren, they may be used by all Christians. (ch. 6, sec. 22)

So that takes care of use of different translations. Nor do Catholics have to interpret every verse of the Bible according to some dogmatic proclamation of the Church. This is another ridiculous (and highly annoying) myth that we hear all the time. Indeed, the orthodox, faithful Catholic must interpret doctrines he derives from Scripture in accordance with the Church and tradition, but so what?

Every Protestant does the same thing within their own denominational tradition. No five-point Calvinist can find a verse in the Bible which proves apostasy or falling away, or one that teaches God’s desire for universal, rather than limited atonement (and there are many such passages). He can’t deny total depravity in any text, or irresistible grace. We all have orthodox and dogmatic boundaries that we abide by. The Catholic exegete is bound by very little, and has virtually as much freedom of inquiry as the Protestant exegete. The online (1910) Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Biblical Exegesis” states:

(a) Defined Texts

The Catholic commentator is bound to adhere to the interpretation of texts which the Church has defined either expressly or implicitly. The number of these texts is small, so that the commentator can easily avoid any transgression of this principle.

Catholics are allowed to translate from the Greek, according to the latest textual and archaeological knowledge, to use different translations, and to even cooperate in ecumenical translation projects, such as the RSV and NEB. We can do all the stuff that Protestant biblical exegetes do. And I am allowed to freely interpret almost any text on its own, provided I don’t go against a dogma of the Church (I couldn’t, e.g., say that John 1:1 does not teach the deity and Godhood of Jesus).

Addendum:

[tract from Catholic Answers]

Scripture Passages Definitively Interpreted by the Church

Many people think the Church has an official “party line” about every sentence in the Bible. In fact, only a handful of passages have been definitively interpreted. The Church does interpret many passages in Scripture to guide her teaching. Other passages are used as the starting point and support of doctrine or moral teaching, but only these few have been “defined” in the strict sense of the word. Even in these few cases the Church is only defending traditional doctrine and morals.

It is important to realize that the parameters set by the definitions are all negative, that is, they point out what cannot be denied about the meaning of a passage but do not limit how much more the passage can be interpreted to say. In other words, the Church condemns denials of a specific interpretation of the text, without condemning meanings over and above but not contradictory to it.

All of the following passages were definitively interpreted by the Church at the Council of Trent, for each has to do with justification or the sacraments, issues that divided Catholics and Protestants.

1. John 3:5 “Unless a man is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”

The Church condemned the denial that the words of Jesus mean that real (natural) water must be used for a valid baptism. At the time, the Anabaptists contended that water baptism was unnecessary because the mention of water was merely a metaphor. Other symbolic meanings in addition to the literal sense of real water can be found in the text, perhaps, but none are acceptable that deny the need for real water at baptism.

2. Luke 22:19 and
3. I Corinthians 11:24— “Taking the bread, he gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying ‘This is my body given for you: do this in remembrance of me.”

The Church condemned the interpretation of these passages that denied that Jesus, in commanding his apostles to “Do this in memory of me” after instituting the Eucharist, conferred priestly ordination on them and their successors enabling them to offer His body and blood. More could be understood by the command to do this in remembrance, but that much could not be denied or contradicted by other interpretations.

4. John 20:22-23— “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you do not forgive, they are not forgiven,” and
5. Matthew 18:18— “Whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

The Church condemned the denial that in these two passages Jesus conferred a power exclusively on the apostles authorizing them and their successors in the priestly office to forgive sins in God’s name, and condemned the proposal that everyone could forgive sins in this sense.

6. Romans 5:12— “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…”

The Church condemned the denial of original sin to which all mankind is subject and which baptism remits, citing this passage to be understood in that sense.

7. James 6:14— “Is anyone of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.”

Definitively interpreting these passages, the Church condemned the denial that the sacrament of the anointing of the sick was instituted by Christ and promulgated by the apostles against those who deemed it a human invention of the later Church.

In addition, the decree of Vatican I about Christ establishing Peter as head of the Church — which cites Mt 16:16 and John 1:42 — is a defined doctrine, even though the phrasing about the use and interpretation of the scripture cited is more implicit than explicit, by comparison with the above Scripture passages.

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Bible Study: Playground or Minefield?

by Steve Ray on January 10, 2019

Imagine children running and tussling unsupervised in a playground. Now imagine the playground surrounded by deadly dangers: a sharp cliff dropping down a thousand feet to one side, a field of land mines, poisonous snakes in the sand, and a bog of quicksand on the other sides.

With anguish you watch the children decimated as they fall prey to the dangers around them. They plunge from the cliff to the rocks below, are screaming from the bite of vipers and are gasping for air as they sink in the quicksand.

playground-service-play-structures-2013Now imagine the same children playing in the same playground, but now they are carefully supervised and the area is surrounded by a chain-link fence. To be in danger now a child would have to disregard all the rules, disobey the supervisors and climb over the fence. You relax, a sigh of relief passes your lips, and you begin to chuckle at the children’s antics.

This is an analogy of Bible study. Two recent misconceptions have plagued Catholics. Ask around and find out for yourself. The average Catholic in the average parish frequently accepts two unhappy fallacies. First, that Catholics aren’t supposed to read the Bible since it is not important or they fear they will invariably misinterpret it and end up confused. Second, they may associate Bible study with Protestantism.

Well, isn’t the Bible hard to understand? Aren’t Catholics forbidden to read the Bible? Shouldn’t we leave Scripture study to priests and religious? If laymen study the Bible, don’t they interpret it incorrectly and go off the deep end?

I had just written the above paragraph and mentioned “Bible Study” when a parish priest visiting our home lamented, “Oh, if I could only get my parishioners over the deep-seated fear that if they study the Bible they will somehow become Fundamentalist Protestants!”

This sounds strange to us ex-Fundamentalists because it was the love and study of the Bible that brought us into the Catholic Church. Yet, this subtle fear prevents many Catholics from dusting off the family Bible and making a go at personal study.

Our imagined playground, fraught with dangers, illustrates the situation nicely. Are there real dangers associated with studying the Bible? Do pitfalls lie to the left and right? Yes, of course. The fear is not without foundation. Survey the landscape of Christian history and you will see well-meaning individuals and groups strewn in every direction. The carnage and division brought about by the “Bible-only” theology is apparent for everyone to see.

Yet we also see many who have loved the Bible deeply, studied it studiously, and have done so without casualties. They have reached the dizzying heights of biblical study and through it have grown to love Jesus and the Catholic Church with ever deepening ardor. What differentiates the two? Why do some stumble and fall by the wayside, while others “play” with a joyful, utter abandon—almost carefree in their study of Scriptures—and, seemingly, with no fear of falling?

The fence and the supervision make all the difference. They provide a barrier between the children and destruction. They allow the child to frolic with carefree abandon. What do the fence and the supervision represent in our illustration?

The fence is the Sacred Tradition preserved in the Church and the supervision is the magisterium of the Catholic Church. These two things—readily available to any who desire them—are what makes the difference. The dangers are real, but the protections and guidance provided by Jesus in his Church are just as real. Those who stay within the fence and yield to the supervision will study the Scriptures with great benefit, and I may add, with deep joy and pleasure.

The Catholic Church has provided the most wonderful resource to combine the fence and the supervision. It is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Read the Bible with an open Catechism which is a wealth of wisdom and a compilation of the Church’s tradition, the teaching of the Popes and Fathers and councils. It is also an excellent summary of the teaching of the Church’s magisterium—which simply means “office of teacher.”

It is high time that Catholics wake up and discover the riches that have been deposited in their account. The Bible is a gift from God. The treasure is ready for withdrawal! Dust off the Bibles, cast aside paralyzing fears, learn the basic rules of biblical interpretation, observe the protective parameters of Church teaching, and frolic to your heart’s content!

St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is an ignorance of Christ.”

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For Self Study to Investigate Further:

What does the Church teach about personal Bible study (CCC 133)? What kind of access or restriction should be placed on Catholics regarding the Bible (CCC 131)? How does the Bible speak of itself and its use by God’s people (Rom 15:4; 2 Tim 3:14–17)? Read Psalm 119. What is the Psalmist’s theme and passion? What value does the Psalmist place on the Scriptures in Psalm 19:7–11? Is the Bible the only source of God’s revelation (1 Thes 2:13; 2 Thes 2:15; CCC 80–82)?

Even though the Sadducees studied the Scriptures assiduously, what did Jesus say of them (Mk 12:24)? Do the Scriptures always have a plain meaning and are they always easy to understand (2 Pet 3:15–17; Acts 8:29–31)? Based on these verses, is everyone’s understanding of Scripture equally valid? Does everyone have the same ability to understand the Scriptures (Heb 5:11)?

Should individuals research the Scriptures for themselves (Acts 17:11)? Is the interpretation of the Bible ultimately left up to each individual and what place does “private interpretation” have in the interpretation of Scripture (2 Pet 1:20)? Where does authoritative interpretation of Scripture have its source (CCC 84, 85, 95)? Who has the ultimate right to protect and interpret the Bible (CCC 119; Acts 20:27–31; Titus 1:9)? What is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:14–15)? Who or what has judicial authority over a believer (Mt 18:17)? How are the faithful to respond to the protective teaching authority of the Church (CCC 87, 88).

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QUOTES FROM SAINTS, POPES AND COUNCILS

St. John Chrysostom

” ‘I am not,’ you will say, ‘one of the monks, but I have both a wife and children, and the care of a household.’ Why, this is what hath ruined all, your supposing that the reading of the divine Scriptures appertains to those only, when ye need it much more than they. For they that dwell in the world, and each day receive wounds, these have most need of medicines. So that it is far worse than not reading, to account the thing even ‘superfluous:’ for these are the words of diabolical invention. Hear ye not Paul saying, ‘that all these things are written for our admonition’?”

Pope Gregory I

“The Emperor of Heaven, the Lord of men and angels, has sent thee his epistles for thy life’s behoof; and yet, glorious son, thou neglectest to read these epistles ardently. Study then, I beseech thee, and daily meditate on the words of thy Creator. Learn the heart of God in the words of God, that thou mayest sigh more ardently for the things that are eternal, that your soul may be kindled with greater longings for heavenly joys.”

Second Vatican Council

“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord….Easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful…Since the Word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with the maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 113)

“Read the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church.’ According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (‘…according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church’).”

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Jewish JesusSince we are at the Western Wall today, where the Temple stood in Jesus’ day, it is appropriate to discuss this. Jesus loved the Jewish Temple and called it his Father’s house.

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Jesus was a Jew. This fact may escape the casual reader of the New Testament, but it is crucial to understanding Jesus and the book written about him—the Bible. Unhappily, in 21st century America we are far removed from the land of Israel and the ancient culture of Jesus and his Jewish ancestors.

Let me ask you a few questions. Were you born and raised in Israel? Did you study the Torah with the rabbis from an early age? Have you traversed the rocky hills and dusty paths to celebrate the mandatory feasts in Jerusalem? Do you speak Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic? I havn’t found anyone in my Catholic parish who has these credentials.

Without this background, we are at a great disadvantage when studying the Bible and its central character. 

Jesus in SynagogueWhen we open the pages of our English Bible, we find a Jewish book! The setting revolves around Israel and the worship of Yahweh.

With one exception, the more than forty biblical writers were all Jews, and the exception was most likely a Jewish proselyte. (Do you know who the only non-Jewish author in the Bible is? I’ll give you a few hints: he was a physician, one of St. Paul’s co-workers, and he wrote the first history of the Church.)   

The point is, how can we understand the Bible and the teaching surrounding our Lord Jesus and salvation without understanding his people, his culture, and his Jewish identity?

To read the whole article, click here.

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Ready to Start Studying the Bible in 2019? It’s Time to Prepare Now!

December 23, 2018

Since I was 17 years old, studying the Bible has been my passion. Now as a Catholic it has increased 100%. Back in my youth, I could never have anticipated the wealth of materials for study that I now have at my fingertips. I recommend two great Catholic resources: FIRST, Catholic Scripture Study International. I […]

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Catholic Church: “Don’t Read the Bible!”

December 1, 2018

We often hear that the Catholic Church has forbidden the reading of the Bible! Have you heard this? Yeah, me too! But, this is another one of those big myths which has worked its way into the popular dialog but one that has not been proved from Church teaching and documents. There are two good […]

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The Bible out of Context: “Saved by Faith Alone”?

November 13, 2018

When reading the Bible devoid of its historical and textual context, there is no context except the context which any person might supply for it. or put otherwise, A text without a context is a pretext. I always get frustrated when self-proclaimed Bible students or teachers start pontificating about the meaning of the Bible and […]

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Can Peter Walk on Water? Can Sinful Men be Infallible?

June 21, 2018

Is it possible for a sinful, fallible man to give an infallible interpretation of Scripture or an infallible definition of doctrine? If he is fallible and sinful, doesn’t that preclude his ability to be infallible when it comes to things of God? No. In fact while many Protestants would say the Pope cannot be infallible […]

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Bias in Bible Translations

May 22, 2018

Translating Holy Scripture is a necessary process by which the sacred text is provided in various languages, usually rendered from the original languages. Not all translations are created equal. Some result from one scholar’s work, others the work of a committee of scholars. Some are literal while others tend toward paraphrase. Translation resembles a sliding […]

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The Technology of Scripture Study: The Middle Ages (and a hilarious video at the end)

April 16, 2018

“I am an ecclesiastical historian by training and a Bible software guy by trade. Which, I think, puts me in the unique position to write about the history of the intersection of technology and Scripture study in a series of posts.” Written by my friend Andrew Jones PhD: “We might start with a description of […]

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Should Catholics Attend Non-denominational or Ecumenical Bible Studies?

April 10, 2018

Every day, Catholics are invited by coworkers, neighbors, and even family members to “ecumenical” Bible studies. Should they go? Certainly all of us would benefit from more study of Scripture, but as someone who has been a part of a number of Protestant Bible studies—I’ve even taught them—I discourage Catholics from attending them because of […]

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Which Translation of the Bible Should I Use?

April 7, 2018

No translation is perfect. Translating ancient and foreign languages into English is not as easy as it would seem. There are ambiguities and linguistic hurtles. Picture a sliding scale from left to right. Every translation fits somewhere along that scale. At one end of the scale are literal translations and on the other extreme are […]

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“Ecumenical” Bible Studies

April 4, 2018

Without a teaching authority or the tradition of the historic Church, this cartoon shows what many Bible studies are really like. I remember Bible Studies that started out with “What does this passage mean to you?”  To keep from arguing or fighting, many just avoid difficult passages. There are many studies that exclude Catholic ideas […]

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Sherlock Holmes: Is this a Real Bible Study?

April 3, 2018

The Case for you – Sherlock Holmes: Stan filled the fireplace and lit the oak logs to make the living room cozy for the arriving guests. The Bible Study had been announced at Mass, and now suddenly it was here. Stan and Suzie had been Catholics all their lives, but they had never really studied […]

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Dangerous Playground or Safe Bible Study?

March 29, 2018

Imagine children running and tussling unsupervised in a playground. Now imagine the playground surrounded by deadly dangers: a sharp cliff dropping down a thousand feet to one side, a field of land mines, poisonous snakes in the sand, and a bog of quicksand on the other sides. With anguish you watch the children decimated as […]

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Great New Didache Bible from Ignatius Press

February 12, 2018

The Didache Bible Is Here, By Dr. Jeff Mirus [Steve’s Comment]: I posted this a while ago, but want to make sure new readers are aware of this excellent new Bible with the right footnotes, maps, etc. This is my choice. [Miras’ article]: This Bible uses the Second Edition of the Catholic Edition of the […]

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Differences Between Catholic and Protestant Approaches to the Bible

February 8, 2018

“Bible Christians” (a misnomer, since Catholics are the real and original Bible Christians), based on their recently devised “Reformation” principle of sola Scriptura, study the Bible with the following premises: 1. There is no binding authority but the Bible alone; 2. There is no official binding interpretation or interpreter; each person ultimately is their own […]

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