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The Catholic Approach to Scripture

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 14, 2011

One of our users, who is in the process of converting from a Protestant background, asked me to comment on some things she was taught about Scripture in her RCIA class. In particular, she was concerned about statements that some parts of Scripture she had taken literally in the past were not necessarily to be taken literally, such as the Book of Genesis (Creation and the Flood) , the Book of Jonah, and the Book of Job. She also encountered warnings against “overzealous Fundamentalists” in an otherwise helpful book she had been reading to improve her understanding of Catholic doctrine.

This opened up a vast and complex topic, and there was no possibility of doing justice to it in an email message (or, indeed, in a single article). But I wanted to provide what I hoped would be a helpful overview, and by the time I had finished, it had grown a bit, and I thought perhaps it would be helpful to others. It also gives an indication of some of the work we do to help people behind the scenes.

The Fundamentalist and Catholic Views of Scripture

The Catholic approach to Scripture is quite different from that of most serious Protestants, especially Fundamentalists. To begin with, Protestants have neither Tradition nor Authority to enlighten their interpretations of Scripture. Since Scripture and Tradition are two forms of Revelation from the same God, and since the Petrine authority in the Church is established and protected by Christ, the Magisterium combines with Scripture and Tradition to give a complete and certain view of the truth. As the teachings of all three come from the same Holy Spirit, a right understanding of the Faith is possible only when all three are taken properly into account.

In addition, since Protestants believe that everything required for salvation is in Scripture, and only Scripture provides what is required (sola Scriptura), they have rather a vested interest in insisting (contrary to their own historical experience) that Scripture must be as plain as day. Fundamentalists in particular view Scripture as something clear and obvious, much like a 20th century newspaper account—something to be received more or less as a series of plain facts that anybody can understand.

But this is nothing like the original Christian understanding of Scripture, as held to this day by the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic understands that God, in attempting to communicate his infinite mysteries to finite human persons, had little choice but to introduce a significant element of difficulty into His inspired word. Many of the Fathers argued also that this difficulty serves to protect us from pride in the interpretation of Scripture, lest we think we can easily and perfectly expound all the mysteries of God.

Although the Catholic knows that he can read Scripture for personal encouragement and inspiration, he also knows that he must be humble, studious and cautious about asserting the ultimate meaning of the texts. This process of public interpretation is ultimately governed by Church authority, which alone can determine not only what each book teaches, but even which books are inspired in the first place.

Genres or Literary Forms

Second, the Catholic understands that a wide variety of literary forms are used in Scripture. Some are forms with which we are still reasonably familiar, such as poetry (e.g., the Psalms) and historical narrative. Another form (used in Esther and Ruth) is less familiar, appearing to be historical fiction, perhaps closest to the historical novel today. Thus we learn much about the period and some of its key themes and perceptions, but we do not insist that each element of the tale be strictly based on historical fact. Insofar as we are culturally familiar with a literary form we typically have less trouble arriving at plausible interpretations—but in unfamiliar territory, it is easier to make mistakes.

We also encounter allegory and, of course, parables in Scripture. Writings of this type have symbolic, spiritual or moral meanings, rather than literal and historical ones. They are less familiar to us but, with the parables at least, Our Lord sometimes provided the interpretation along with the story. We can easily see that when He told stories like that of the King who sent his stewards to collect the rent for his vineyard, He did not expect this to be taken as a description of a particular historical circumstance in a particular vineyard, or even to apply to real vineyards at all. But in another culture, less comfortable with the parable, it might have been taken that way.

Now the Bible also contains forms of literature with which we are not at all familiar today, but which were quite common in various parts of the ancient world. For example, there is the apocalyptic form, as in the Books of Daniel and Revelation, in which truths beyond human reason are conveyed in astonishing visions and devastating images. The Wisdom literature is also quite different from what we are used to today, and may employ a variety of creative techniques to inculcate a deeper outlook on life. (Even the epistolary form is rapidly fading from modern consciousness!)

This means we must be cautious in determining which books or parts of books are to be taken as literal doctrinal teaching or as factual historical accounts in the modern sense. We must study carefully the nature of each book and how it has been received and used in the Church’s tradition. And ultimately one must defer to the judgment of the Magisterium.

The Creation story in Genesis is a good example. There would appear to be no question that the sacred author wants to teach us that the one and only God is the Creator of all things, that man is at the apex of material creation, that man was formed in God’s image and likeness in a way that other created things were not, that our close friendship with God at the beginning has been ruptured by sin, and so on. The formal genre of Genesis seems to be narrative as well. But some of it narrates events that nobody could have witnessed. Is it to be taken literally as a story?

It seems certain simply from reading the text that it is not to be taken literally. After all, there is more than one account of creation in Genesis, and in terms of “factual” content, they are not the same. Moreover, certain features are clearly symbolic, such as the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for it ought to be self-evident that the knowledge of good and evil is not a material fruit that grows on a tree. Because of our inexperience with this form of ancient literature, it is difficult for us to separate the literal from the figurative.

Scripture Not Doubtful

But does this mean that everything in Scripture is up for grabs? No.

First, the guarantee of the truth of Scripture applies (obviously) to what the Holy Spirit, through the sacred authors, intends to teach. To take a perfectly parallel case, if Christ teaches through a parable, his reliability is not undermined because the details of the parable never happened. The parable is merely a tool used to convey a particular truth. So too with the Holy Spirit and all of Scripture. Properly understood, what the Holy Spirit intends to teach is certainly and completely true.

Second, some books are historical, and have been affirmed by the Church as such. The Gospels are the preeminent instance of this, but some of the Old Testament books are clearly historical as well, at least in their main outlines, even if everything might not be word for word. Again, the Tradition and the authority of the Church are critical in making these determinations, along with a study of the text.

Third, we must remember that for every Fundamentalist who has oversimplified the supernatural elements in Scripture, there has been a modern commentator, influenced by secularism and modernism, who has been eager to reduce or eliminate the apparent supernatural character of the text, throwing everything into doubt. These tendencies need correction too. Again, the Magisterium of the Church is the key to getting things right.

Finally, some books are hotly debated in terms of their historicity. How far does historicity extend? How much is it filled in with stories that make a point? Sometimes the Church herself can be certain of the point of a book without being able to affirm its strict historicity. It is possible, for example, that Jonah really was swallowed by a great fish. The story is not beyond God’s power. But it is also possible that this was a tale designed to teach something about God’s persistence with us, and how we are to respond to God’s call. In any case, by Christ’s time, it was part of the consciousness of the Jewish people, and Our Lord could make reference to it, either way, without fear that they would miss the point.

Teaching, Learning, and Walking the Catholic Line

Before we close, it is important to recognize two things about RCIA programs and books on the Faith that we might read when we are still in the early stages of learning. First, any given author or RCIA teacher can make a mistake. We’re all learning as we go, and that extends throughout our entire lives. Second, any given teacher or program could even have an unfortunate bias, sometimes to the point of heresy. In the period of upheaval in the Church following the 1960’s, many RCIA programs picked up a secular modernist slant, reflecting a cultural crisis of Faith which still afflicts a significant portion of our “Catholic intelligentsia”.

Things appear to be getting better now, and many programs have improved significantly. Horror stories are thinner on the ground each year. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has played a large role in this since its initial publication in 1994. Most teachers are happy to follow the Catechism, and for many questions you can check the Catechism fairly easily. If what you hear is inconsistent with what the Catechism says, then very likely the presenter is confused. He or she may really need to be “theologically updated”, as the Modernists used to say when they encountered people who took Church doctrine too seriously (as if that were possible when teaching the Faith).

In the end, there is a line between Fundamentalism and Modernism that we must walk, and that line is the same as has been walked by Catholics for two thousand years. Its straightness is guaranteed by the Magisterium of the Church Christ founded. But note that we do not choose this line because we are trying to split the difference, so to speak, or to achieve some sort of golden mean. No, the line came first. But others generally make mistakes in one of two different directions from the truth. One group oversimplifies the Faith, failing to give reason its due, and errs by insisting on some isolated aspect of the Faith to the point of distortion. The other group undervalues the supernatural, distrusting anything but reason, and errs when a darkened reason spins out of control.

As one way of avoiding these and other errors in the interpretation of Scripture and the expression of our Faith, I’d like to call attention to a most useful book which is also a spiritual classic: St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine). This book discusses the use of language and the interpretation of Scripture. It explains why and how we can freely use the sacred text for our own spiritual nourishment even while we remain reticent and obedient to the Church with respect to its definitive meaning. It is not a long or a difficult work, and Augustine, who was a master of rhetoric, is always engaging and warm.

Let me conclude with this: True religion undertakes the daunting task of proposing a unitary mystery through the careful blending of many propositions. We are finite creatures, and so we can grasp the infinite only under one aspect at a time. Paradoxically this makes Catholicism at once an astonishing balancing act and the most secure of all doctrinal systems. But it must be taken seriously and learned carefully. May it please God that we possess a simple Faith—but not a simple doctrine.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: aakog2612 - Mar. 16, 2011 7:42 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately it's not that easy to find out what the Magisterium teaches about any given book in the Bible. I wish there was a more definitive list that we could confidently refer to guide us in our reading of God's Holy Word.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Mar. 16, 2011 5:29 PM ET USA

    I had a few good folks teach when I went through RCIA but I largely had to learn on my own by reading the Baltimore Catechism, Ott's "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" and reading the works of various Saints and Doctors of the church. In general RCIA was a sort of "how do you feel about it?" chat session with little to no substance and nothing to suggest that Catholicism was any different than Protestantism, Hindusim or secular humanism only we had a Pope in Rome and said the Hail Mary at times.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 16, 2011 12:38 PM ET USA

    You're always a good read, Dr. Jeff. Might be helpful to let non-Catholics know that RCIA stands for Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults. I think I got that right.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 16, 2011 7:16 AM ET USA

    Thank you for your well written article. As I was reading it , Saint Augustine's (in "The Confessions") discussion on the opening words of Genesis, came to mind. Augustine prayed that his discussion would reinforce whatever truth the reader was able to grasp rather than "express a single idea so unambiguously as to exclude others, provided these did not offend me by their falsehood." As, always, Augustine is a wonderful example to the rest of us.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Mar. 15, 2011 3:54 PM ET USA

    Very good summary. Great final paragraph.