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Scripture Alone: What Does the Bible Say?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 30, 2005

A number of visitors have emailed us recently to correct “Catholic errors” by explaining what “the Bible says”. Some of these messages seem to have been triggered by our posting of the official prayer for the intercession of John Paul II. For example, we’ve been told that the Bible says there is only one intercessor between man and God and that the Bible says we must not communicate with the dead. Personally, I’m not so sure what these things mean. The Bible is a tough book.

How Do We Know What the Bible Says?

In the Protestant tradition, the Bible is read most often as if it were a contemporary newspaper written with the required ninth grade vocabulary and reviewed for consistency of editorial style. Especially among Fundamentalists, the nuances of Biblical interpretation are dominated by this question: “Can’t you understand plain English?” Never mind the subtleties of context and genre: even problems of translation are ignored. Unfortunately, Sacred Scripture itself opposes such an approach. For example, in 2 Peter 3:16, Peter comments on Paul’s letters: “There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”

Moreover, it is easy to find isolated texts which appear to contradict each other. Consider these two which relate to the debate over the ordination of women: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). And, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says” (1 Cor 14:33-34). Even with problems of context and genre set aside, it is not always so easy to know what “the Bible says.” There may be a significant number of difficult or apparently contradictory texts to consider.

For this reason, proper interpretation demands that we know and use all the texts—that we haven’t overlooked any, and that we haven’t played favorites. Few have studied Scripture so exhaustively as to be sure they have every relevant passage in mind, and the temptation to hang one’s argument on a text one knows and likes is very strong. It would seem, then, that at least a minimal level of scholarship is essential to the proper understanding of Scripture. This becomes even more evident when we return to context and genre, which cannot be ignored.

Context and Genre

Context is critical to the interpretation of all human communication. If I say to my teenage son, “You cannot take the car”, I might mean that he may not use the car for a specific purpose, that he may not use it at a particular time, that he may not drive at all until further notice, that he may not steal the car (which should, I hope, be obvious), or even that the car has broken down. The meaning will depend on the context. Indeed, most of us have had people draw exactly the wrong conclusion about our meaning by taking our remarks out of context on no few occasions.

One might think that context is always obvious, but it isn’t. When we overhear only part of a discussion, for example, we may misconstrue the context. And when we have a deficient knowledge of a subject, we will miss important contextual clues as to the meaning of what is being said. The various Biblical books have contexts rooted in historical circumstances, customs, situations, and even attitudes that most of us know very little about. Some books can even depend on contexts established in others.

The case is similar but even more complex with genre. For example, when we read an historical novel, we know that the author intends what he writes to be true to the setting in a general sense, but we don’t expect every action of every character to be factually correct, and we don’t expect the dialogue to be a series of actual quotes from real historical documents. We don’t question the honesty of the author because some of the material is invented. The culture we’ve been formed in enables us to understand what the historical novel intends to communicate almost instinctively, without giving it much thought.

In the same way, ancient peoples had their own genres which they understood. They knew how to extract the intended truth from a given text based on its genre, whether it was poetic song (as in Psalms), apocalyptic (which uses dramatic images and symbols, as in Daniel or Revelation), or any other form. We may not easily understand or even recognize some of these genres today.

Why Should We Care What the Bible Says?

As if all this is not bad enough, after we’ve settled what “the Bible says”, we are faced with an even deeper problem: Why should we care? A book cannot testify to its own truth, or we’d all be Mormons. The Fundamentalist may take Scripture for granted as the Word of God, but he doesn’t know how he knows this. Indeed, how could he know it? Without evidence, it is merely part of his cultural conditioning or an option to which he prefers to cling. What basis can he find for his faith?

The Old Testament comes down to us through Jewish tradition, but even the Jews disagreed on which of their sacred books were divinely inspired. The Palestinian Jews accepted a shorter list than did the Alexandrian Jews. The list of books accepted by both groups eventually came to be known as protocanonical, and the remaining books came to be called deuterocanonical. Catholics accept both as canonical today, but Protestants generally reject the deuterocanonical books. In any case, it is at best difficult to see why Christians should take any Jewish tradition as the sole determinant of their own canonical books.

With the New Testament, of course, there was no such tradition. What about the Shepherd of Hermas, a book of visions written in the second century which was highly regarded by many early Christians and included on some early canonical lists? What about the Infancy Gospel of James, also written in the second century? Or the Epistle of Clement, the third successor of Peter, written while St. John was still alive, and widely regarded as inspired for a time? These books are now called pseudepigraphical by Protestants and apocryphal by Catholics. How do we know that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are inspired, but the gospel of James is not? Indeed, how do we know God was involved in any of these books at all?

Order out of Chaos

It is not my intention to cast doubt on the inspiration of Scripture, but only to show how thin is the ice under the feet of those who would claim to tell the Catholic Church what “the Bible says”. By their own lights, how do they know, and why should we care? Let it suffice for now to raise these issues and reflect on what they mean. But don’t give up. In next week’s sequel, I’ll show how Scripture works—in the heart of the Church.

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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