Guest Article: Catholics & Biblical Interpretation
[Editors Note: Today’s article is from guest author John Martignoni, Founder and President of the Bible Christian Society, and apologetics and evangelization apostolate in Birmingham, AL. He is also the Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Birmingham. If you would like to obtain any of John’s free written or audio materials, or sign up for his free apologetics e-newsletter, go to www.biblechristiansociety.com.]
I like to write about apologetics. It’s what I do. One could almost say…almost…that it’s what I live, breathe, eat, and sleep. As Kyle said about the Terminator’s penchant for killing folks, “That’s what it does! That’s ALL it does!” Now, I’m not quite that bad, as I do have a wife and four kids that occasionally get some of my attention, but apologetics and evangelization are on my mind constantly.
So, I thought I would present some of the questions that I’ve been asked about the faith here in this medium, provide the answers, and see if it is something that folks consider worth spending a few minutes of their time to read. So, let’s have at it…
Q: Do Catholics take the Bible literally?
A: Yes, we do. Now, I know I just sent a lot of “Spirit of Vatican II” folks into spasms by saying that, but they need not fear, as I’ll explain momentarily. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph #115, we read, “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses [more on those next time].”
Paragraph #116 of the Catechism gives us more on the literal sense of Scripture, “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.’”
Okay, what is being said here? Yes, Catholics take the Bible literally. What that means, though, as the Catechism states, is that we look for the meaning that the author of any given Scripture passage meant to convey, we don’t just look at the words on the page and take them at face value. An example: If I said that I went to a concert last night and there were a million people there, does that mean that I am trying to tell you that there were exactly one million people at the concert? No, of course not. Everyone in our particular culture would take that to mean that I went to a concert last night and it was absolutely overflowing with people. That could mean hundreds, or even thousands, depending on the size of the arena where the concert was held, but it definitely does not mean exactly one million people, even though I actually said there were a million people there.
This is what is known as an idiom of speech – using words that, taken at face value, actually mean one thing, to mean something else. Another example: Often, when watching the weather reports on the local news, you’ll hear the weather person say something along the lines of, “The sun came up at 5:33 this morning.” Everyone knows what that means. Yet, that word – sunrise – taken at just a surface meaning, actually implies that the weather guy or gal thinks the sun is revolving around the earth. The truth is, the sun does not rise in the morning. What actually happens is that the earth’s rotation causes people to be able to see the sun at a particular time each morning. But, instead of saying, “The earth’s rotation caused the sun to come into view at 5:33 this morning,” we just say “the sun rose at 5:33 this morning,” and everyone knows the meaning we are intending to convey.
Again, we often use language in a way that conveys meanings that are different from the surface meanings of the words we use. Every culture, every language, in every time, has had their own particular idioms of speech. Which is why reading the Bible and figuring out what this or that passage means, figuring out the “literal” interpretation of the passage, can sometimes be very difficult. The folks who wrote the Old Testament used idioms of speech. The folks who wrote the New Testament used idioms of speech. The problem is, that as English-speaking 21st century Americans, we don’t necessarily know what the idioms used by Hebrews and Greeks in the first century and earlier mean.
Think about it: Let’s say some archeologist, two thousand years in the future, whose native language is Japanese, was excavating the site of a 21st century American library and came across a book that had the phrase, “It was raining cats and dogs,” in it. What is he to make of that? Is the book speaking of some strange meteorological phenomenon where cats and dogs were falling from the sky like rain? How is he supposed to figure out what that phrase means?
Well, he has to do what we have to sometimes do today when trying to figure out exactly what this or that passage of the Bible means. He has to dig a bit deeper to find the author’s intent (CCC #110). He has to take into account the historical conditions of the time and the culture of the author. He has to take into account the type of literary genre the book was written in – is it historical narrative, poetry, or some other mode of literary expression? He needs to investigate 21st century English more deeply, and so on. Basically, he has to do his homework. We have to do the same when reading the Bible.
All of that is to say that, yes, Catholics take the Bible literally. As the Catechism says, the literal sense of Scripture is what all the other senses of Scripture are based on. So, if we don’t get the literal sense right, then we don’t get the spiritual sense right. But, we do not just look at the words on the page and necessarily take them at face value. If we were to do that, we might not properly understand what the author was trying to tell us. The literal meaning of a passage is the meaning the author of that passage intended to convey. It can sometimes be difficult to discern. That’s why we have to look to authentic Catholic Scripture scholarship for help, and, even more importantly, that’s why we have to look to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church for help, in understanding the Scriptures.