How Do Catholics Interpret Scripture?

A number of years ago I was asked for a recommendation of a book that explained how Catholics interpret Scripture. Having read virtually nothing on the subject I had nothing to suggest. At the time I wasn’t even sure Catholics interpreted Scripture any differently than Protestants. I have read parts of commentaries by Catholics (e.g., Luke Timothy Johnson) and other books by prominent Catholics (A Marginal Jew by John P. Meier). I was also familiar with some of Joseph Fitzmeyer’s works. But by and large my reading was minimal. At the time I thought something like this: “Catholics have some different beliefs from Protestants but most of that probably stemed from their acceptance of some additional books in the Bible and from the tradition of the church but as far as I knew they interpreted the Scriptures pretty much as do Protestants. That is, they employ the historical-critical method” Was I right? Yes and no.

Eerdmans has a new series called the “Catholic Theological Formation Series.” The inaugural volume in that series is Verbum Domini and the Complentarity of Exegesis and Theology edited by Fr. Scott Carl. It is a discussion of Catholic hermeneutics with a particular focus on the Apostolic Exhortation given by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010: Verbum Domini. This post is not so much a review of the book as it is a sampling of some of what I learned. I discovered that Catholics are somewhat divided on the issue. Brant Pitre says,

“As anyone familiar with contemporary Catholic biblical studies knows, the historical-critical method is currently the subject of widespread and often heated debate.” (p. 26)

A “heated debate” is probably putting it mildly. Some Catholics have called the historical-critical method “bankrupt.” (p. 26) Others describe it as “methodologically atheistic.” (p. 70)

What’s the alternative? The authors argue for a recovery and greater appreciation for the ancient four-fold method of interpreting Scripture. This is sometimes seen as a two-fold manner: the literal and the spiritual with the latter broken down into three parts: allegorical, moral (or tropological), and anagogical. Pope Benedict was passionate in his plea to restore the practice of the time-honored hermeneutic. There was a very good reason for his plea: the practice has become virtually unknown in Catholic scholarship. Mary Healy writes: “Yet oddly enough, the spiritual sense is rarely taught today in Catholic colleges or even in seminaries preparing priests to preach on these very readings.” (p. 116)

Pitre concurs: “Strikingly, he [Pope Benedict] describes his exegetical project as ‘fundamentally’ being ‘a matter of finally putting into practice the methodological principles formulated for exegesis by the Second Vatican Council (in Dei Verbum 12), a task that unfortunately has scarcely been attempted thus far.’ . . . From Pope Benedict’s perspective, over forty years after the Second Vatican Council ended, its vision of exegesis has ‘scarcely been attempted,’ even by Catholic exegetes.” (33)

All of the authors of the book are acutely aware of the objections to interpreting Scripture in a “spiritual sense.” Healy says the practice “has come to be regarded as eisegesis, an arbitrary and subjective imposition of meaning on the texts.” (p. 117) Christian Washburn says “the fact that this sense was sometimes abused is hardly an argument against allegorical readings. . . It is, after all, a method used repeatedly by St. Paul in interpreting the Old Testament; in this he was followed by the Fathers.” (p. 77) The spiritual sense, however, must be firmly rooted in the literal sense. James Swetnam explains: “The first principle is that the meaning of Scripture cannot be divorced from the meaning intended by the human author, and that the discovery of this meaning requires awareness of all the purely human factors that went into the composition of the text.” (p. 103)

Washburn also observers that early objections “to an allegorical reading came from Jews and early heretics who insisted on sensus historicus.” (p. 77) A chief presupposition in the modern historical study of the Bible, according to Francis Martin, “is that there is no transcendent cause operative in history.” (p. 15) It is the recognition of a divine author that grants the primary warrant for seeing a justification in a spiritual sense. Washburn continues: “The Scriptures are primarily theological, and all other genres employed in the Bible are ultimately subordinate to the theological. The purpose of the Bible is to speak of God and of creatures in their relation to him. . . .The goal of Catholic exegesis is ‘to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us,’ and therefore the Catholic exegete ‘should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.’ (pp. 69-70)

Mary Healy offers a beautiful example of this hermeneutic based on Numbers 13-14. (pp. 119-21) To even summarize her discussion would make this post far too long. I do highly recommend her discussion as I do this entire book. Protestants who want to see how Catholics are wrestling with this issue today cannot afford to ignore this book. Catholics will gain a new appreciation for the four-fold meaning of Scripture and see how it can be responsibly employed in understanding what God wants to say through his holy Scripture.

Verbum Domini and the Complementarity of Exegesis and Theology is a paperback with 176 pages and sells for $25.00. The contributors include:

  • Kelly Anderson
  • Scott Carl
  • Denis Farkasfalvy, O.Cist.
  • Pablo Gadenz
  • Mary Healy
  • Michael Magee
  • Francis Martin
  • Brant Pitre
  • Stephen Ryan, O.P.
  • James Swetnam, S.J.
  • Christian D. Washburn
  • Peter S. Williamson

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to How Do Catholics Interpret Scripture?

  1. johntjeffery says:

    Anyone who thinks that they have the definitive answer to this question may find reason to reconsider in the following works:

    Thomas J. Deidun, New Covenant Morality in Paul (Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1981, 2006)

    Edward Malatesta, Interiority and Covenant: A Study of “einai en” and “menein en” in the First Letter of Saint John (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978)

    Severino Pancaro, The Law in the Fourth Gospel: The Torah and the Gospel, Moses and Jesus, Judaism and Christianity, According to John,
    Vol. XLII in Supplements to Novum Testamentum, ed. W.C. Van Unnik, et al. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975)


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