A Catholic View of Holy Scripture
What Does the Church teach about bible access and reading?
In trying to determine how the Church views Holy Scripture we can begin by looking to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (a book put out by the Church to explain its beliefs). In Section 131 of the Catechism we find this statement:
“And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life.” “Hence access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.”
It goes on to make this Statement in section 133:
The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,’ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’
So there is your short answer, we love it. But wait there’s more….The Catholic Church compiled and protected the Bible!!
It is important to realize that the Bible did not just drop from the sky leather bound with the words King James written on it. The Catholic Church over the course of several centuries compiled it from hundreds of books and letters. The Catholic Church finally chose which books to include in the Bible in the Synod’s of Hippo (393 AD) and confirmed it at Carthage (397 AD).
The reason that the Church began to collect the books of the Bible together in the first place goes back to the second century when a bishops son named Marcion (c 150AD) put together the first collection of New Testament books. His “canon” consisted of Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s epistles which he referred as Gospel and Apostle. However, he went a little nuts and changed many of the books to suit his own belief. He declared that God of the Old Testament was a different God from the One of whom Jesus spoke. For this reason he rejected all Old Testament books. For his belief system the Church formally excommunicated him in 144 AD.
Prior to the 1455 printing of the Gutenberg Bible the Bible was copied by hand for Centuries by monks in Monasteries. It would take each monk a lifetime to copy one Bible. The Church was so concerned with the Bible that it protected the Bible over the centuries during wars, famines, plagues, the fall of Rome, fires exec.
But what about how the Bible is understood?
Interpretation of scripture
Catholics and Evangelicals agree that the Bible is the unerring word of God. Where we differ is where the burden of interpretation lies. Evangelicals follow a belief that was first thought about by the reformer Martin Luther that an individual can interpret the Bible perfectly if they pray first. It’s important to remember that Catholics agree that the Holy Spirit guides our Bible reading and illuminates our understanding; the difference comes in that as Catholics we believe that Christ entrusted the Church with the authority to help us understand the scripture. This protects the scriptures from people who try to bend them to their own causes.
This makes sense if we look at the number of conflicting interpretations of Scripture there are among faithful Evangelical denominations. It is fair to deduce that many prayerful people come up with different interpretations of Scripture. Martin Luther himself can be used as an example. He believed that if we pray for the Holy Spirits’ guidance then we can interpret the Bible. However, after praying and reading the Bible, he decided that the Book of James was problematic to his theology of grace and that it wasn’t really all that important. Here is one of the most important theologians in Christian history, and he blows his own theory because here he is respectfully reading the Bible, and he decides that part of it doesn’t belong, yet he said the Bible was the unerring word of God. This isn’t meant to demean Luther or any Protestant theologian but to show what I feel is the fundamental flaw in his doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
It is important to realize that no one can get away from someone else’s interpretation of the Bible. Every Bible we read reflects a biblical point of view other than our own. Every translation is interpreted based on many historical factors, language usage of the time etc. So when we read a Bible in English we are reading the translators interpretation of those factors. This means that the Bibles we read should come from a source that we feel that we can trust. We are also affected in our interpretation of scripture in a number of direct ways. From the moment we enter a Church and hear a Priest’s or Deacons homily we are listening to someone else’s interpretation. Even this discussion of scripture study influences the way you read the Bible (sorry). This is true of our Evangelical brothers and sisters who go to a Bible study and are influenced by someone else’s interpretation of Scripture. Every student in an Evangelical Bible College is being influenced in the same way Catholics are guided by the Church. We need to admit to ourselves that we are all affected by many different influences when interpreting Scripture.
So whose interpretation do we trust?
If the Bible is suppose to help us to learn “the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,” as the catechism tells it does how do we use it? Does it make sense that the God who is guiding us would want individual conflicting interpretations of his scriptures to cause disunity amongst his people, when the Bible itself calls us to unity (Jn 17.21)? We can see in the Bible that the Church was empowered to make decisions that were not specifically taught by Christ (Acts 15). Why would the Church be allowed to make decisions there and then lose that ability as soon as the Bible was completed (which wouldn’t be for another couple hundred years).
Does this mean the Church doesn’t want us to have private interpretation on the Bible? Absolutely not! Many of our doctrines were defined through the gifts of people like Saint Thomas Aquinas whose private revelations on scripture would eventually come to compose some of the Church’s dogma. We just need to make sure to check our understanding against the Churches teaching to make sure we are on the right path. If our new insights are profound enough to draw attention to them, and the Church discerns them to be sound Christian doctrines then it’s very possible that you or I could be the next Thomas Aquinas or Thérése de Liseux.
I realize this next statement may floor some people but here we go. The Catholic Church does not claim to fully understand all Scripture. Some parts of the Bible are still considered mysteries, and the Church (that means us) is on a pilgrimage through time together. Revelations about certain passages may come to light over time. As certain messages are discerned to be true they can then become set as a Dogma.
Isn’t an evolving understanding of scripture really relativism?
The Catholic Church often comes under fire from Evangelical Christians who have a problem with the Catholic Church’s “evolving” understanding of Scripture. It is seen by them as relativistic. Evangelicals feel the Bible was written once and God has said everything he has to say about faith in his Holy Word. They argue that scripture says exactly what God means and it is not open to interpretation. Here we have to ask ourselves: is one institution (of which we are a part) evolving an understanding of the mystery of God really less relativistic than if each of us claims that our own personal interpretation is true? Probably not, beside if we go back to the image of the Church on a spiritual pilgrimage then we see our faith as a living thing that is constantly maturing and evolving as we grow in faith and understanding. If we try to make Scripture something that is static and frozen in time then it ceases to be a vital part of our lives as Christians. If our understanding leads us to new revelations about scripture, then it too becomes a living part of the faith and allows us to carry on the Christian journey.