The Interpretation of Scripture


By Fr. Henry A. Brann, D. D.



The Holy Scriptures are the Word of God. But it is clear that if the Scriptures are wrongly interpreted, they become the word of man. As St. Jerome put it, in his comments on the Epistle to the Galatians (speaking against the Luciferians) "Let us be persuaded that the gospel consists not in the words but in the sense. A wrong explanation turns the Word of God into the word of man, and, what is worse, into the word of the devil ; for the devil himself could quote the text of Scripture ; " and he did so when he tempted our Lord in the desert. (Matt. 4. 6.)


Protestants should consider well this point, especially those who so confidently and plausibly boast that they stand by the Bible alone, and imagine that to stand by the Bible alone means that they rely not upon human authority, but upon the Word of God.


Certainly nothing can be better than to stand by the Word of God, but whether what they call standing by the Bible alone be to stand by the Word of God, we shall see.


Let us observe, 1st, that the Bible, though divinely inspired, is but a written document, and a written document often so obscure, that St. Augustine, though so great a scholar, and a doctor of the Church, confessed that there were more things in the Bible he did not understand than those he did.


Let us consider, 2d, that the Bible, because a written document, would remain always silent unless interpreted, that is, unless some meaning is affixed to the words, by some one. It is clear that the Bible cannot speak and interpret itself,—you must take the Book in your hand, open it, read it, compare passages, and attach a certain meaning to those words which fall under your eyes.


Therefore, when a Protestant says : " I stand by the Bible alone," he does not mean that he stands by the Bible uninterpreted, for in such case the Bible is mute. He does not mean that he stands by the Bible as interpreted by the Church, for that would not be the Protestant but the Catholic principle. Nor does he mean that he stands by the Bible as interpreted by somebody else ; as that would be, according to his notion, to give up his right of private interpretation. But he means that he stands by the Bible alone as interpreted by himself, and that the sense in which he himself understands it is the Word of God. And therefore a person who is guided by this principle comes to say this :


" The Bible, interpreted by the fathers, may or may not be the Word of God ; the Bible interpreted by the Church may or may not be the Word of God ; the Bible interpreted by any one besides myself may

or may not be the Word of God ; but the Bible interpreted by me, that is indeed the Word of God, my only teacher, my guide, my infallible authority."


To a Catholic who would rejoin : " What, my friend, if you were to understand some passage of Scripture in a wrong sense ?


" The person who would still stick to that principle would have to reply : " That would be a great pity, but still, not acknowledging any other authority but my own private judgment, I have a right to look upon that interpretation mine as the Word of God."


And if a Catholic were to add : " Is it not reasonable to suppose the interpretation of the Bible by the whole body of bishops of the Catholic Church, though disagreeing with your private interpretation, should be the right one, and therefore more likely the word of God " the Protestant would be reduced to answer: " I do not agree, because that interpretation would not be mine" If you argue so," the Catholic may justly reply, " I must say that with you, my friend, the me and the mine stand for all arguments."


Let him who has eyes see what spirit is at the root of this boastful saying, and how shallow is the principle of standing by the Bible alone.


The Bible in the original language, or when truthfully translated, indeed in itself the Word of God, and infallible ; but the Bible is not the Word of God, nor infallible, with regard to us, unless rightly interpreted, that is, interpreted with authority, certainty, and infallibility. For if the interpretation be wrong, the Bible ceases to be, with regard to the reader the Word of God ; and if the interpretation be unauthorized, doubtful fallible, the Bible becomes, with regard to 'the reader, unbinding, doubtful, fallible.


In the gospel, however, we are commanded, under pain of condemnation, to believe ; that is, to hold without a doubt as true what is taught as divinely revealed, therefore there must be somewhere the rightful interpreter, and the right interpretation.


Again, the gospels and the epistles contain severe censures on the sin of schism and heresy. It is clear that all schism and all heresy must be essentially in opposition to truth ; we must therefore necessarily know with certainty what is true, before we can know what is opposed to the truth : but by private interpretation, an undoubted belief or infallible knowledge of revealed truth is impossible, therefore no schism or heresy could be condemned contrary to Scripture and to all antiquity.. The words of Christ to the Pharisees, " Search the Scriptures, for you think in them to have life everlasting ; and the same are they that give testimony of me " (St. John v. 39), cannot be taken as the sole means of salvation recommended, much less recommended to all, as to those who cannot read, or who cannot possess a Bible ; much less still as a necessary means of salvation.


Nor can it be taken as though Christ thereby recommended private in disregard of authoritative interpretation of Scripture ; 1st, because that is not stated nor implied in that passage; 2nd, because He Himself, in that very place, interprets authoritatively the Scriptures, by saying : " They testify of me " 3rd, because in fact the Pharisees showed that their private interpretation wrongly led them to look upon Christ as a breaker of the Sabbath (St. John 5. 18), and consequently to reject Him as the Saviour ; 4th, because from what our Saviour then said, it cannot be gathered that the Pharisees thought that life was to be had from Scripture privately interpreted, to the exclusion of authoritative interpretation ; thus a person may piously read and interpret Scripture privately for his own learning and edification, and yet respect, accept, and prefer authoritative interpretation to his own, at least in those cases in which it can be had.


Thus, Catholics do think to have life in Holy Scriptures, but do not thereby exclude authoritative interpretation, but on the contrary take it for their guide.

But let us, for argument's sake, suppose that the Pharisees went by private interpretation of Scripture. Even in this supposition  it would not follow that Jesus Christ, by that saying, meant to approve their conduct ; for also Catholics do often say to Protestants who go by private interpretation :  " Search the Scriptures, for you will find that they bear testimony to the divinity of Jesus, to the institution of the seven sacraments, to the unfailing authority of the Catholic Church;" and no one ever dreamt to affirm that by so saying Catholics mean to approve the Protestant principle of private interpretation.


Again, if that passage were to be taken in the Protestant sense to establish the principle of private interpretation, two consequences, quite inadmissible, would follow, namely: 1st, that if the Pharisees had found by their private interpretation that the Old Testament (which was the onlypart of the written Word they had then) did not bear testimony to Christ, or that it bore testimony against Him, as many did imagine, they would have been justified in disbelieving Jesus Christ ; 2d, that not believing in Christ until moved by private interpretation of Scripture was better than simply believing in Christ on the word of Christ, or of His Church, without consulting the Scriptures, as the Apostles and thousands of Jewish and pagan converts did.


To avoid these two inadmissible consequences, it remains that the above cited and similar passages must be understood in the Catholic sense just mentioned. To the Apostles our Lord gave the charge to " teach all nations," and the faithful were commanded to hear and believe them. (Mark 16.) This commission was accompanied by a promise that He would be with them in this office of teaching to the end of time. (St. Matt, 18.19, 20.) From these expressions it is clear that their lawful successors were also included in the commission and promise given to the Apostles, It follows then that the authoritative interpretation of Scripture made by the lawful successors of the Apostles is the true one, and truly the Won of God ; a contradictory interpretation must therefore of necessity false, and is not the Word of God ; because a thing under the same aspect cannot be true and untrue at the same time, for truth in all things is one and the contradiction of it is error.


Hence St. Peter condemns private interpretation of Scripture, saying " No prophecy [or explanation] of Scripture is made by private interpretation." (2 St. Peter i. 20.)* Those who refuse to hear and to follow the legitimate interpretation, and the faith of the Church, often, instead of the Word of God, that is, what God really meant in Holy Scripture, have only their own inventions and errors, and these they mistake for the Word of God.


These persons consequently fall into a maze of perplexities, and often change their interpretation. They are, as St. Paul expresses it: ''tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine." (Ephesians 4. 14.) St. Peter warns us of this danger, when, referring especially to St. Paul's epistles, he says : " In which are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction." (2 St. Peter iii. 16.)


Hence it appears how rash and dangerous is the principle of private interpretation, which emboldens every individual to prefer his own private view of any passage of Scripture to the solemn interpretation and decision of the whole body of Catholic bishops of past and present time united to the see of Peter. Persons actuated by such pride cannot expect to be led by God unto truth.


Objectors say that to submit to the teaching of the Church is to give up our reason. But if it could not be called a surrender of reason for the early Christians to submit to the teaching of the Apostles, because it was a submission to the messengers of Christ, to the witnesses and authorized expounders of revelation as long as the Apostles lived, surely it cannot be considered a surrender of reason, but a high exercise of reason and a most reasonable act for other Christians to conform themselves to the teaching of the Catholic Church, that is, to the body of the Catholic bishops with the Roman pontiff at their head, who are the lawful messengers of God, the legitimate successors of the Apostles, the witnesses and authorized expounders of revelation ; for they, in an uninterrupted succession, keep up that apostolic office, which, according to Christ's declaration, and through the promised special assistance of the Holy Spirit, was to last to the end of time. Not a few Protestants think themselves authorized by St. Paul to follow their private interpretation of Scripture by those words, " Prove all things," which occur in the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, chap. 5. 21.


1st, It is hard to have to include in the words "all things" the Holy Scripture, as there is no allusion to it in that chapter ; and, if admitted, it would prove too much : namely, not only the sense of a certain text, but whether the text "prove all things" is itself to be admitted or not. 2d, It would be absurd to suppose, that that direction was authorizing each Thessalonian in particular to follow his own private interpretation of Scripture ; for, in that case, the dissensions, instead of decreasing, would have been increased, and the whole congregation turned into a little Babel. It is plain that that direction was given to the whole congregation as a body with their pastors, to whom in that very letter the lay people were recommended to pay deference (verse 12), were the principal part of it. Surely if the whole congregation of a town agrees with their legitimate pastors about admitting or not admitting a certain doctrine, and they both follow the Tradition, that is; the doctrine of the Apostles kept alive among them, as recommended to them by St. Paul himself (2Thess. ii. 15), they would be sure to go right ; but that would not be by the Protestant but by the Catholic system of interpretation.


Objectors also say that every one has the assistance of the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible rightly. But if this were so, people would agree and would not contradict each other in their interpretation of Scripture ; for no passage of the inspired Word of God, in its right meaning, can really contradict another passage in matters of faith, of morals, and of fact.


But numerous Protestant denominations often differ one from another and often contradict each other in vital points, and each assumes to prove his particular doctrine from Holy Scripture. I say vital, for, on account of these very points, they have thought themselves in duty bound to separate from some other community. This plainly shows that they are not inspired by the Holy Spirit, who being the spirit of unity and truth, cannot create discord, teach error, cannot suggest a false meaning, and cannot contradict Himself.


This principle of private interpretation of Holy Scripture, during the three centuries since Luther's time, has given rise to hundreds of sects among Protestants, and this in spite of the efforts of several of the civil governments to prevent such subdivisions. Had this principle been adopted in the beginning of Christianity, and gone on working throughout the Christian world for eighteen centuries unrestrained by the civil power, the sects would probably by this time have enormously increased.


The Bible without an authorized, that is, divinely given, interprets could not condemn any heresy, nor could any of the Christian sects adjudge any individual or any other sect as guilty of heresy, without abdicating its own principle of private interpretation for all. Even Tertullian, a father of the second century, could say :


" Wherefore the Scriptures cannot be the test [speaking of controversy] nor can they decide the conflict since, with regard to them, the victory must remain in suspense." (Tertul.Book on Prescription, chapter xix.).


In all centuries those persons who maintained and taught their own private interpretation in opposition to that of the Church, have been regarded by all the fathers, saints, and doctors of the Church as heretics, and were condemned as such by the Church.


Catholics do well to read and study the Holy Scriptures for their greater instruction and edification, but always in a spirit of submission to the Catholic Church, so as never to prefer their own private view to the interpretation and teaching of " the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth." (1 St. Timothy 3. 15.)