Prior to Vatican II most Catholics had little firsthand
contact with the Bible. Indeed, they were not encouraged to
read the Bible lest such reading lead to "private interpretation,"
which might well be erroneous or even heretical.
This fear of private interpretation originated in
the 16th-century controversies between the emerging Protestant
churches, which claimed that the Bible alone was the norm of
faith and that its plain meaning was accessible to any believing
reader, and the Catholic Church, which insisted that divine
revelation came through two sources, the Bible and Church tradition,
both of which could only be authoritatively interpreted by the
hierarchy. Consequently, most Catholics encountered the Scriptures
in English only on Sundays by means of brief passages, usually
read out of context, and preached on only occasionally.
The theological controversies over Scripture between
Protestants and Catholics are largely a thing of the past. In
the first part of the 20th century the Vatican severely restricted
Catholic scholars from participating in the rapidly developing
field of biblical scholarship. In 1943, however, in a landmark
encyclical entitled Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius
XII encouraged Catholic scholars to undertake serious study
of the Bible using all appropriate modern critical methods.
Today, responsible Catholic and Protestant scholars share the
same methods of study, cooperate in new translations of the
Bible and produce joint commentaries.
Shared scholarship and ecumenical dialogue since
Vatican II have helped Protestants to reappropriate the importance
of ecclesial tradition for Christian interpretation of Scripture
and have helped Catholics to realize that Church authority is
the servant, not the master, of the word of God, and that the
Bible is God—s gift to the whole People of God. All believers
have the right and the responsibility to read and pray the Scriptures
and to share them among themselves and with others. Vatican
II teaches that the Bible is "the pure and perennial source
of the spiritual life" and that the People of God must be offered
a rich diet of the word as well as of the Eucharist at the table
of the Lord (see Dei Verbum VI:21-22).
Renewed Enthusiasm for the Bible
In the wake of the Council many Catholics took
up the Bible with enthusiasm and fell in love with this beautiful
story of God—s engagement with humanity: the creation, formation
and liberation of a Chosen People, recounted in the Old Testament,
and the coming of God among us in Jesus and the spread of the
Gospel throughout the ancient world recounted in the New Testament.
Catholics flocked to lectures and summer courses
on the Bible, made biblical retreats, formed Bible study groups
and prayed fervently with the biblical text. The lectionary
was revised so that large portions of the Scriptures were read,
sequentially when possible, in the liturgy. Younger clergy were
formed in contemporary biblical methods and trained to preach
on the lectionary readings.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon of Catholic biblical
enthusiasm was short-lived. Readers soon encountered the problems
of serious engagement with the biblical text. The Bible is not
only linguistically and culturally strange to the modern reader;
it also contains both scientific and historical errors and morally
problematic material such as the biblical promotion of war and
colonialism, endorsement of slavery and anti-Judaism, patriarchy
and sexism, and attitudes of domination toward nonhuman creation.
All of these problems raised in a new way the
question of interpretation: How can one read and understand
texts which, on the one hand, are held sacred by one—s tradition
and, on the other hand, are strange, opaque, difficult and sometimes
Many Catholics in their enthusiasm for Scripture
were attracted by the fundamentalist approach of some charismatic
Protestant groups. We cannot trace here the history and development
of fundamentalism. But it can be described briefly as a position
that claims that the Bible is the literal word of God, virtually
dictated by God to the sacred authors and therefore to be taken
literally as completely free of error of any kind (historical,
scientific, theological, moral, social, etc.) and absolutely
authoritative for the reader.
Other Catholics, often of a more academic bent,
were attracted by the radical liberalism of secularist scholars
at the other end of the hermeneutical spectrum. These scholars
reduce the Bible to the status of a book similar in every respect
to any other book and to be studied accordingly. Faith and Church
tradition are essentially irrelevant to such study. The Bible,
in such a context, ceases to mediate an encounter with God and
becomes primarily a source of historical knowledge about ancient
Israel and the first Christian communities.
In effect, fundamentalism so overemphasizes the
divinity of the biblical text that it denies the text—s real
human character. Radical liberalism so overemphasizes the human
character of the biblical text that it empties it of all revelatory
capacity. By contrast, the theological position of the Church
on the character of the Bible parallels its position on the
identity of Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. Just as
we believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, so the
human character and the revelatory character of Scripture must
be held together.
The Bible, although a witness to divine revelation,
is a human text, not an oracle. God did not dictate the Bible
any more than God literally created the universe out of nothing
in seven calendar days.
In fact, most of the Old Testament texts were
composed gradually, often over centuries, by generations of
people who committed to writing, and repeatedly revised, material
they first encountered as oral or liturgical traditions. These
traditions, which expressed the people—s interpretation of God—s
action among them, were taken up again and again as new circumstances
required their retelling and reformulation.
Although the New Testament texts were composed
over a much shorter period of time they also began as oral traditions
about Jesus told and retold in the first Christian communities.
These traditions were gradually committed to writing in diverse
circumstances that determined what was included, emphasized
or reshaped in the telling.
The biblical texts, then, bear all the marks of
human composition: historical conditioning, prejudice, factual
error and moral limitation, as well as deep theological and
religious insight into the mystery of God—s relationship with
humanity. It is this twofold character of the biblical text,
its mysterious divine depths expressed in humanly fallible language,
which makes interpretation necessary.
Learning to Read Anew
As we know, all meaningful human expression must
be interpreted to be understood. This is true of a film or novel,
of a cartoon or a racing form, of a letter from a friend or
a facial expression.
There is no such thing as reading a text "at face
value," that is, without interpretation. To refuse to interpret
is one way of interpreting, namely, literalism. It does not
deliver the "real unvarnished meaning" but condemns the reader
to a superficial (at best) or erroneous reading.
Given that interpretation is necessary for genuine
encounter with the word of God through Sacred Scripture, how
is such interpretation to be done?
A full answer to this question would involve us
in a course of study in the field of hermeneutics and is plainly
beyond the scope of this article.
It is possible, however, to indicate briefly some
foundational convictions with which to approach biblical study
or reading and a few practical techniques or methods to aid
First, we must be convinced that God does indeed
desire to communicate with us and that the Bible is a privileged
form of that communication.
Second, however, we must realize that the Bible
is not a crystal ball. It is a text, and like all great texts
it grows in meaning as our life experience expands. But texts
are themselves also products of the times, places, cultures
and circumstances in which they were written. Consequently,
interpretation involves the encounter between two complex sets
of factors: ourselves with all our personal and communal experiential
baggage (both positive and negative) and the text in all its
challenging historical, cultural, religious and linguistic strangeness.
Therefore, we can expect that biblical interpretation will be
a complex process.
Third, we readers are limited human beings. If
we require preparation and effort to read the stock market report,
we must expect interpretation of the biblical text to require
effort: study, prayer, discussion.
Here are a few suggestions to help the nonprofessional
biblical reader in this arduous and exciting enterprise.
1) Just as we try to gather all the clues we can
(facial expression, tone of voice, context and so on) to interpret
ordinary communication, so we need as much information as we
can gather about the biblical text we are trying to interpret.
It is helpful, therefore, to read a nontechnical but academically
sound commentary on the book or passage one is studying in order
to have an overall sense of its meaning and its special problems.
2) We should try to keep a balance between respect
for the enormous cultural, historical and linguistic distance
separating us as modern readers from the ancient world of these
texts and basic confidence in the capacity of the humanity we
share with these ancient peoples to help bridge that distance.
Just as someone who is not a specialist in 16th-century English
literature can enjoy a Shakespeare play, so a nonspecialist
in biblical matters can understand much of the biblical text
if she or he is willing to make the necessary effort.
3) We should read the biblical text as holistically
as possible. Before returning to meditate on a single verse
that has captured our attention, we should read the whole text
in which it appears, that is, the whole parable, narrative or
discourse. Details have fuller meaning and are less likely to
be misinterpreted if read in context.
4) Since the Bible is the product of a community
experience and is meant to nourish and guide the community of
believers, it is helpful to share biblical study and prayer
with others. Because every great text has multiple meanings
and layers of significance, different dimensions of meaning
will be discovered by different readers. Furthermore, sharing
interpretation minimizes the chances of totally erroneous or
5) It is important to pay special attention to
those texts that make us uncomfortable. God—s ways are not our
ways. Revelation often breaks through precisely where our personal
biases and social prejudices are called into question and not
just where we are comforted or confirmed in what we already
6) We should try to discern the "trajectory" or
direction in which a problematic text is leading its readers,
even if the text did not get to a fully satisfactory position.
Paul, for example, did not get to the point of condemning slavery
outright but he set out in that direction when he told slaves
that their servitude was not really to their human masters but
to Christ, and when he challenged Philemon to accept his escaped
slave Onesimus as a brother in the faith.
7) Finally, we need to read the Bible prayerfully.
The ultimate purpose of reading Scripture is not to find out
the answers to our questions or to obtain theological information.
It is to gradually put on the mind of Christ so that we will
be able to find answers for our time and world that reflect
God—s creative and saving will for all people.
Interpretation of Scripture is the work of the
whole Church, which must make use of the best scholarship of
its professionals, the committed preaching of its pastors and
the prayerful meditation of every believer.
We must be responsible in our use of new knowledge
about the biblical text, but we must not be paralyzed by the
extent and complexity of this knowledge. As Vatican II said,
in Scripture God comes lovingly to meet us and converse with
us. It is a serious and arduous conversation whose purpose is
encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit who inspired
these sacred texts as well as those who study and pray them.
Next: What Really Happened in the Garden: A Look
at Genesis 2
Dianne Bergant, O.S.A.)