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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 5: How to Interpret Inspired Scripture"


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We saw from our sketch of how to find which books are inspired that it is the Church alone that can tell us. We commented too that we really would expect that a messenger sent from God, with such a mission and such powers as He displayed, would arrange to protect the teachings of those He sent out. He did it, e.g. ,"He who hears you hears me."

Some today are claiming that in order to find the truth, they must be free of any outside authority - including the Church. What impossible folly! They discard the very prime means of gaining the most absolute certitude of the truth, including the meaning of Scripture. They also claim "Academic Freedom." Really, it belongs only to a properly qualified professor teaching in his own field. Now among the things needed to be properly qualified is, of course, that the professor know and use the method that is correct in his field, as called for by the very nature of the material. Theology starts with the sources of revelation - Scripture and Tradition - but when something appears in them that is not obvious in meaning: How does he decide? If he is Catholic, the final word comes from the teachings of the divinely protected Church. Vatican II, in spite of misrepresentations of its teachings, did say in DV #10: "The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on [Scripture or Tradition], has been entrusted exclusively [underline added] to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." We notice the Council appeals to precisely the same thing as we did in our sketch of apologetics, namely the authority given by the Divine Messenger, Jesus Christ.

Therefore, any professor who would not use the proper Catholic method is not a Catholic theologian and as such, has no claim at all to academic freedom. Imagine a professor of natural science who wanted to go back to the poor medieval methods of science. He would be laughed off the campus, not protected by academic freedom. He would be called a quack, and deserve it.

That same Magisterium has given us excellent guidelines, especially in DV ## 11-12. We already saw the chief material from DV #11.

Now for #12, which opens saying: "Since however in Sacred Scripture, God has spoken through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, to see what He intended to communicate with us, must investigate attentively what the sacred writer really intended to convey, and what it pleased God to manifest by their words." We underlined the word and because of its special importance. Some have argued that since two things are mentioned, namely, what the human writer meant to convey, and what it pleased God to manifest, therefore the text indicates that God might intend to say more than what the human writer saw. (This is the theory of the "fuller sense", sensus plenior). The Theological Commission at Vatican II (cf. Grillmeier, p. 220) reported that if the text had used the connector -que instead of et, the Council would have settled the question in the affirmative, meaning: Yes, there is a fuller sense. (The connector -que is much closer than et. Both mean and).

Even though the Council at that point did not see fit to explicitly affirm the fuller sense, yet the Council itself, in LG # 55 actually used it: "These primeval documents [thinking chiefly of Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14], as they are read in the Church, and are understood in the light of later and full revelation, gradually bring before us the figure of the woman, the Mother of the Redeemer. She, in this light, is already prophetically foreshadowed in the promise, given to our first parents when they had fallen into sin, of victory over the serpent (cf. Gen 3, 25). Similarly, she is the Virgin who will conceive who will conceive and bear a Son whose name will be called Emmanuel (cf. Is 7, 14)."

It is clear that the Council did not want to say flatly that the human writer of Genesis and Isaiah saw all that the Church now, after fuller light, gradually has come to see. Hence, at the request of some Bishops, the two instances of cf were added, and hence we underlined them. So it was making use of the idea that the Holy Spirit could intend more than what the human writer saw - really, not a surprising thing.

DV #12 continues: "To discover the intention of the sacred writers, among other things, one must look to the literary genres. For truth is proposed and expressed different ways in texts that are in different ways historical, or prophetical, or poetical, or other types of speaking. So it is necessary that the interpreter seek out the senses which the sacred writers wanted to express and did express in determined adjuncts, in accordance with the conditions of his time and culture, and by means of the literary genres used at that time. To rightly understand what the sacred writers meant to assert [underline added] in writing, one must pay due attention both to the usual native ways of thinking, speaking, and narrating, which were in use at the time of the sacred writer, and to those which in his age were commonly used in people's dealings with one another."

Here the Council strongly insisted that it is not just legitimate, but necessary, to check the literary genre. This needs to be done not just for each book of Scripture, but for each part of each book. For example, we already saw that in the Book of Daniel, we have both apocalyptic and edifying narrative genres.

We note with pleasure that the Council stressed the matter of what the writer mean to assert.

The Council indicated what Pius XII brought out still more clearly (EB 558): Real research is needed into what genres were actually in use at the time of writing. It would be very wrong to just use our imaginations, and suppose we know. This is what the Biblical Commission also insisted on, as we saw before (in EB 161).

It said we must pay attention to everything in the culture and conditions of the writer. So the interpreter really should know well the ancient languages, chiefly Greek and Hebrew, and the history and the culture.

Failure to know Hebrew could lead to horrid consequences, e.g., St. Paul who knew Hebrew, in Romans 9:13 quoted Malachi 1:2 in which God said: "I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau." But poor St. Augustine thought this meant God really hated Esau! and destined him to hell without even looking to see how he would live (Ad Simplicianum 1. 14). But at the bottom is a Hebrew way of speaking. Hebrew and Aramaic both lack the degrees of comparison, such as: good, better, best, or, clear, clearer, clearest. Not having such forms, when they have such ideas, they are forced to use other devices. One of them is to speak of hate vs. love. In our language we would say: I love one more than the other. In Luke 14:26 Jesus says we must hate our parents. But that is the same Semitic pattern. Matthew 10:37 softened it, using the western way of speaking, and said: "He who loves father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me." We recall that we saw earlier some striking texts from Isaiah 13:9-0 and 34:4 as well as Ezekiel 32:7-8 in which the apocalyptic way of speaking could be very misleading if one did not recognize the genre.

Another feature of the Hebrew way is this: they regularly attribute to the direct action of God things He only permits. Thus in 1 Samuel 4:3 (literal version of the Hebrew) after a defeat by the Philistines, the Hebrews said: "Why did the Lord strike us today before the face of the Philistines?" They knew of course it was the swords of the Philistines that did it. Again, in the account of the ten plagues in Egypt, at times we read that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. But we also read, and often, that God hardened his heart.

A study of the Targums and Rabbinic writings can contribute much. The Targums are ancient Aramaic versions of the Old Testament. We have them for nearly all the Old Testament, and in the Pentateuch, have more than one. They are mostly free versions with fill-ins, which show how they understood the text of Scripture. Unfortunately, many scholars today ignore the Targums - the NJBC has a rather good essay on them in the back part of the volume, but fails to use them at all in explaining the Messianic prophecies one by one.

The plea is that we do not know the date of composition. But we do know that they were made without hindsight - without seeing them fulfilled in Christ. For they hated Christ when He came. Hence they surely reflect ancient Jewish understanding of the Messianic prophecies. Further, Jacob Neusner of Brown University, one of the greatest of Jewish scholars today, in his Messiah in Context (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1984) made an exhaustive study of all Jewish literature after the fall of Jerusalem up to and including the Babylonian Talmud (completed 500 to 600 A. D. ). He found that before the Talmud there was no interest in the Messiah. Within the Talmud, interest revives, but they take up only one of the classic prophecies: He will come of the line of David. Now the Targums see messianic prophecies in so many places. (For a fine study, cf. Samson Levey, The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, 1974), it is inconceivable that the parts on the Messianic prophecies could have been written in the centuries in which there was no interest in the Messiah. So the Targums must have been composed (at least orally) before the fall of Jerusalem. Some scholars think they go back to the time of Ezra.

Another example of the need of Hebrew is the way the translations deal with Hebrew hesed. It means the bond between those who have made a covenant, such that each has rights and duties, and should act as kinsmen toward each other. (We can see an implication for the sprinkling of the blood in Exodus 24:8. It meant the people were becoming kinsmen of God). Unfortunately, Greek had no word for hesed. So they usually translated by eleos, which means mercy. There is partial truth in that translation. For if we ask why God gives good things under the covenant, the answer comes on two levels. On the most basic level, He made a covenant and gives things under it out of unmerited, unmeritable generosity. No creature by its own power can establish a claim on Him. All is basically mercy. Yet on the secondary level, given the fact that He did make a covenant, if the people do what He prescribed, He owes it to Himself to give favor (or punishment for disobedience). Incidentally, this twofold sense explains the difficult text of Romans 2;6 where Paul says God will repay each one according to his works. That is part of a quote from Psalm 62:12 which says, in the full text: "You, O God, have hesed, for you will repay each one according to his works." Many English versions unfortunately render it to say: "You O Lord have mercy, for you will repay...." Mercy and repayment do not go together.

In a similar way, the beautiful little Psalm 117 (which used to be used at the end of Benediction) is hardly understood in the usual translations. It should be: "For His hesed [observance of His covenant] towards us is great, and the fidelity of the Lord [to His covenant] is forever."

Hebrew berith means only covenant, but the Greek version was diatheke, which had two meanings: covenant, or testament. A study of the ancient Hittite treaties reveals that they required the subordinate king to "love" his overlord. In context, it means obey. We see from John 14:15 & 21 that in practice, love towards God means obedience. For love towards all others besides God means willing good to them for their sake. We cannot wish that God have any good, He is infinite goodness. But yet Scripture pictures Him as pleased when we obey, displeased when we do not. It is not that He gains anything from our obedience. No, but for two reasons He wants us to obey: 1)He loves everything that is right and good. It is right that creatures should obey their Creator, children their Father. 2)He wants to give us good things - it is in vain if we are not open to receive. His commandments tell us how to be open. They also steer us away from the penalties for sin that lie in the very nature of things (cf. St. Augustine, Confessions 1. 2: "Every disordered soul is its own punishment"). Cf. also 2 John 6: "this is love, that we walk according to His commandments."

A study of Jewish literature of all periods - Old Testament, Intertestamental Literature, New Testament, and Rabbinic texts helps us understand the thought world of Scripture. St. Paul of course was trained as a Rabbi. Now an important concept in those writings is that sin is a debt, which the Holiness of God wants repaid. (Cf. Wm. G. Most, Our Father's Plan, chapter 4). Simeon ben Eleazar (Tosefta, Kiddushin 1. 14), writing about 170 AD., claiming to quote Rabbi Meir from early in the same century, said: "He [anyone] has committed a transgression. Woe to him. He has tipped the scale to the side of debt for himself and for the world." Pope Paul VI in the doctrinal introduction to his Indulgentiarum doctrina (Jan 9, 1967) affirmed the same truth. We need to think of this when we read that Christ has "bought" us, and of the "price" of redemption (cf. 1 Cor 6:20 and 7:23).

Often too, when we read a Greek word in St. Paul, we need to ask what is the Hebrew word in his mind. For example, know often reflects Hebrew yada, which is much broader than the English know, and takes in both mind and will. Justice reflects Hebrew sedaqah, which is the virtue inclining one to do all that morality requires.

Still another feature of that culture was approximation and hyperbole, as Pius XII (Divino afflante spiritu, EB 559) points out. St. Paul in Galatians chapters 1-2 tells of his conversion and subsequent activities. He speaks of three years, and fourteen years, without making clear the point at which the periods begin to run. In 1 Cor 10:8, St. Paul says that 23, 000 fell in the incident described in Numbers 15:1-9. Numbers says 24, 000 fell. Approximation would not mind that difference.

The heart of the section is the following: "But since Sacred Scripture is to be read and interpreted by the same Spirit by which it was written, to rightly determine the sense of the sacred texts, one must look not less diligently to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking into account the living Tradition of the whole Church, and the analogy of faith."

The expression in the first part which says Scripture must be interpreted "by (or: "in") the same Spirit by which it is to be written is open to more than one interpretation. It is certain that the Holy Spirit in giving faith, gives the context in which Scripture is to be read. We think too of the words of St. Paul in 1 Cor 2. 10-16 where he explains that just as only the spirit or soul of a person knows his depths, so only the Spirit knows the depths of God. And he adds: the merely natural man - the one who has not received the Spirit dwelling in him by grace - does not understand the things of the Spirit. But the spiritual man does. So one who does not have the Spirit dwelling in his soul by faith will fail to understand many things even though the words are there, and their sense, objectively, is at hand to be seen. It is true, further, that the farther one advances in the spiritual life and follows the lead of the Holy Spirit more fully, the greater is his understanding of spiritual things, by what we might even call a sort of connaturality.

In fact, sometimes even intelligent people fail to understand things which they could even recite. There may be a positive obstacle, a subconscious block within them, in that they perceive at last subconsciously that if they accept the faith, it will entail consequences for their living which they would not want to accept, e.g., in avoiding contraception and divorce. Then they will not accept, without knowing fully consciously why they are not accepting.

It is also certain that the words of Scripture seem to have a special kind of power, which ordinary explanations alone do not have.

Next the text of DV # 12 tells us we must take into account the unity of all of Scripture. Since it all has the same chief Author, the Holy Spirit, there can be no contradictions. Some today, in noticing that one Evangelist, for example, may have a different scope and slant than another, have gone so far as to say that one contradicts another. For example, they will say that Mark 3. 21-35 paints Our Lady as not believing in Jesus, while the annunciation scene in Luke shows her as wonderfully believing. So such a contradiction is to be ruled out. Again, some love to say that Job 14. 13-22 raises the possibility of a survival after death, but then denies it. This of course contradicts so many things in Scripture, and so cannot be true (we will see details on these two passages later on).

Still further, we must consider the living Tradition of the whole Church. Again, the Church praises Our Lady for her faith, and would shrink in horror from a statement from a prominent scholar that at the annunciation she boldly opposed her human will to the will of God. So the statement that she did such a thing is terribly false. The Church follows, always has followed the words of Elizabeth at the visitation (Lk 1:45): "Blessed are you who have believed!"

In regard to following the "analogy of faith," the sense is similar. Pius XII in Divino afflante Spiritu had said (EB 565) that there are few texts whose meaning the Church has declared, and similarly, few for which we have unanimous teaching of the Fathers. This is obviously true. But the same Pope also explained (EB 551) that we must follow the analogy of faith. That is, any interpretation that we might consider accepting must be checked with the whole body of the truths of faith, with the teachings of the Church. If it would clash even by implication, it is to be dropped. So even though there are few explicit teachings on the sense of individual texts, yet indirectly, by means of this analogy of faith, we know exceedingly many things about the meanings of parts of Scripture. For example, the teachings of the Council of Trent against Luther's errors settle the sense of many things in St. Paul.

Some today have gone so far as to say, contrary to Pius XII that there are no texts whose meaning the Church has defined. They claim that where it seems we do have a definition, the text of Scripture is cited only to illustrate. But this is not realistic, if we examine individual texts of the Magisterium. For example, the Council of Trent gave us the following definition in Canon 2 on the Mass (DS 1752): "If anyone shall say that by those words, 'Do this in commemoration of me' Christ did not establish the Apostles as priests, or did not ordain them so that they and other priests might offer His flesh and blood, let him be anathema." It takes some strange mental contortions to say that the Council cited "Do this in commemoration of me" only to "illustrate." Not at all, it says that when Jesus said those words, He really did ordain the Apostles.

We have been speaking of definitions by the Church of the sense of parts of Scripture. We must not forget that there are other levels of teaching in addition to the solemn definition. There is a second level, of which Vatican II taught (LG # 25): "Although the individual bishops do not have the gift of infallibility, they can still teach Christ's doctrine infallibly, even when they are scattered around the world, provided that, while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with the successor of Peter, they agree on a teaching as the one which must be held definitively." If they can do this even when scattered, of course they can also do the same when gathered in a Council with the Pope, even if they do not put things in the form of a definition. The key word is definitively. Whatever mode of teaching may be used, if the Magisterium makes clear it is presenting something as definitive, that is infallible.

There is also a third level of teaching, of which Pius XII wrote in Humani generis in 1950 (DS 3885): "Nor must it be thought that the things contained in encyclical letters do not of themselves require assent of the mind on the plea that in them the pontiffs do not exercise the supreme power of their magisterium. These things are taught with the ordinary magisterium, about which it is also true to say, 'He who hears you, hears me. '(Lk 10:16)". This really means that the Pope alone, in as much as he speaks for the whole Church, can do alone what a Council can do, as described in the second level. He can bring something under the promise "He who hears you, hears me." Of course that promise of Christ cannot fail. So the teaching is infallible.

This does not mean that everything in an encyclical is infallible. No, Pius XII went on to specify the conditions in which this will come true: "If the supreme pontiffs in their acta expressly pass judgment on a matter debated until then, it is obvious to all that the matter, according to the mind and will of the same pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a matter open for discussion among theologians." For the Pope has shown he is making a definitive decision on something currently being debated. A special case of this came in the Encyclical on the Mystical Body by Pius XII. The modern discussion and tendency to claim ignorance in the human mind of Jesus began with P. Galtier in his book, L'unite de Christ in 1939. Precisely in that context, Pius XII taught, in that Encyclical of 1943, that the human soul of Jesus, from the first instant of conception, had the vision of God, in which all knowledge is available. As we recall his words in Humani generis, cited above, it is clear he intended to close the debate. But it did not close, so he complained about that in Sempiternus Rex of Sept 8, 1951 (DS 3905). Again, in Haurietis aquas of May 15, 1956 (DS 3924) he explicitly restated the teaching about that vision. Still further, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on July 14, 1966, with the approval of Paul VI, again complained of theologians in error in this point. Even the first text of 1943, as we said, showed the intention to settle the debate. And the repeated teachings by two Popes shows the repetition which by itself makes a teaching infallible.

We said that in that vision all knowledge is "available." The reason is this: the human soul of Jesus, being created, cannot as it were contain infinite knowledge. But it did know, as St. Thomas Aquinas said (III. 10. 2. c): "All things that in any way are, or will, or were done or said or thought by anyone, at any time. And so it is to be said that the soul of Christ knew all things in the Word."

There is also a fourth level of teachings of the Magisterium that are not definitive, but still provide moral certitude. Canon 752 of the New Code makes this aspect clear: "Not indeed an assent of faith, but yet a religious submission of mind and will must be given to the teaching which either the supreme pontiff, or the college of bishops [with him] pronounces on faith and morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by a definitive act." Vatican II in LG # 25 had said the same thing: "Religious submission of mind and of will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking." [emphasis added]. We must, in other words, look to see if a thing is presented as definitive or not.

How can we believe something which is not infallible? In daily life we do it. Routine opening of a can will not detect Botulism, a deadly food poisoning. Yet we do not send each can to a lab to be checked. We know there is a remote chance, but take it. Life would be unworkable without doing so. The chances of an error on this level by the Church is even more remote. Only the Galileo case, in 2000 years, comes close. Even there, the Pope himself, Urban VIII, stated in 1624 as to the theory that the earth went around the sun, that "the Holy Church had never, and would never, condemn it as heretical, but only as rash."

Some scholars today dare to assert that the Church has very little ability to tell us what a text of Scripture meant originally - it can usually just tell us what it means to people today. To know the original sense, we must depend on scholars! This is a clear contradiction of DV #10, cited above, which says that the task of interpreting belongs exclusively to the Magisterium.

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