THE USE OF SACRED SCRIPTURE
Monsignor G. Van Noort. S.T.D.
1. The SENSES OF SCRIPTURE
I. Meaning and Division:
1. Literal and typical.
2. Consequent and accommodated.
II. The Multiple Literal Sense
III. Proof for the Existence of the Typical Sense:
1. From the New Testament.
2. From the fathers.
2. THE INTERPRETATION AND READING OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
a. Protestant and Catholic views on the clarity of Scripture.
b. The right of the Church to give authoritative interpretations.
c. Scope and characteristics of an authoritative interpretation.
I. Scripture Is Not So Crystal Clear that It Can Be the Proximate Rule of Faith for Each and Every One of the Faithful
Proof: 1. From Sacred Scripture.
2. From established facts.
II. The Authoritative Interpretation of Sacred Scripture Is Within the Competence of the Church’s Magisterium
Proof: 1. From the institution of a perpetual and infallible teaching office.
2. From the fathers.
Scholion. Dogmatic rules for the interpretation of Scripture.
III. Principles Governing the Private Reading of Sacred Scripture
3. The AUTHENTICITY OF THE VULGATE
I. The Work of St. Jerome
II. The Decrees of Trent
III. Detailed Study of These Decrees
IV. The Substantial Fidelity of the Vul gate to the Original
THE USE OF SACRED SCRIPTURE
This article will treat of the senses, interpretation, and reading of Sacred Scripture, and the authenticity of the Vubg ate.
1. The SENSES OF SCRIPTURE
I. Notion and Division of Various Senses of Scripture
The sense of Scripture is the meaning which the text expresses as intended by the Holy Spirit. We say “as intended by the Holy Spirit” because He alone is simply and without qualification the Author of Scripture. Furthermore, it follows from the relationship existing between the instrumental and principal authors that the sense which the hagiographer wished to express and did in fact express is always that intended by the Holy Spirit. But it does not follow that the human author always had an adequate comprehension of the whole sense intended either directly or, especially, indirectly by the Holy Spirit.1
1. It is customary to distinguish the literal sense and the typical sense.
The literal (historical) sense is that which the words themselves in this precise context directly express. It makes no difference whether the words be taken in their proper or non-proper (metaphorical) signification.
The figure [of speech] itself is not the literal sense, but that which is expressed by the figure. When Scripture speaks of God’s arm, the literal meaning is not that God has such a bodily member, but rather the idea suggested by this member, namely, the power to act.2
What is true of metaphors is equally true of parables, allegories, and the like, and so, to discover the true literal sense, it is not always enough to subject individual sentences to grammatical
analysis. Rather the whole context, immediate and remote, must be taken into account, as well as the literary form of the book.
The typical (mystical, spiritual) sense is that which the words express, not directly, but through the medium of the objects which they directly signify. Cod,
the Author of the universe, can use not only words to signify something, but can establish objects also as figures. Accordingly truth is expressed in Scripture in two ways. One way is that whereby words signify objects; this is the literal sense. The other way is that whereby objects are used as figures of other things; this is the spiritual sense.3
Note that the typical sense is grounded on the literal and necessarily supposes it. Hence there is no room for confusion, “since the senses are not multiplied as if one word signified many things. It is rather that the things signified by the words may be signs of other things.”4
2. It is usual to mention at this point the consequent sense and the accommodated sense.
The consequent sense is the truth which the words of Scripture, at least all by themselves, do not formally express, but which can he legitimately deduced from a scriptural statement by a process of reasoning.5 But if a conclusion of this sort should be so intimately and obviously included in the words of Scripture that, all things considered, the Holy Spirit clearly intended to suggest it to His readers, then that conclusion is a true sense of Scripture and is in fact included in the literal sense. On the other hand, if it be merely a conclusion based on the words of Scripture, true though it may be, it can be called only loosely a sense of Scripture.
The accommodated sense is a sense not intended by the author of Scripture, but rather one given a scriptural expression by someone else because the situation described or the words themselves seem currently applicable to a similar situation. It is, therefore, not a sense of Scripture at all, but merely the application or accommodation of a scriptural passage to something quite foreign thereto.6
II. Can the Literal Sense Be Multiple?
With regard to the literal sense, which is present in every pas
sage of Scripture, authors have often discussed the possibility of its being multiple. There is no question here of an uncertain sense which leaves room for various probable explanations, nor of the implicit or consequent sense, nor of the fact that prophecies have been at times so worded as to be only imperfectly applicable to the type but perfectly to the antitype.7 The point at issue here is whether the hagiographer, or at least the Holy Spirit, intended to convey several distinct meanings by one and the same word. St. Augustine is the only one of the fathers to give an affirmative answer:
When someone says, “He [the author of the Pentateuch] meant what 1 think he meant,” and another, “No, it is rather my interpretation which catches his meaning,” I think I can say with all reverence, “Why cannot you both be right, if the meanings you propose are true?” And if someone should propose a third or a fourth meaning, or even if someone should find an altogether different truth in these words, why may he not be believed to have discerned all of these meanings, he through whom one and the same Cod accommodated the sacred words to the understanding of many, who would find therein true, albeit divergent meanings?8
St. Thomas once followed this opinion:
It does not surpass belief that Moses and other authors of Sacred Scripture were favored by Cod with the ability to understand and to express in one phrase different truths accessible to human understanding, and in such a way that any one of these truths would be the author’s meaning. Hence even if scriptural exegetes see in an expression truths which the author did not understand, doubtless those truths were understood by the Holy Spirit, who is the principal Author of Sacred Scripture. Any truth, then, which can be ascribed to Sacred Scripture in a given context is its meaning.9
But in the Summa, the holy Doctor clearly leans to the other opinion and adds just this one brief remark, that plurality of meaning is not unfitting, since Cod comprehends all things by one simple act of His intellect."
By far the more common opinion, and surely the correct one,
holds that there is only one literal sense in any one passage of Scripture.11 In any event, the controversy is of no great importance, since the passages where the context would allow several different senses are few indeed.12
III. Proof for Existence of the Typical Sense of Scripture
The following remarks will help to explain the typical sense. It is altogether clear that Cod, in inspiring a writer, could have at times intended, in addition to the literal sense, a spiritual sense as well. For Cod to have had this intention, it is enough that He inspired the description of something ordained by Him in advance as the figure or type of something else. Since the typical sense, when it turns up, is contained directly not in the words of Scripture but in the objects which they signify, it need not have been known to the hagiographer, nor can one expect to discover it simply by reading the sacred text.
Although the Church has given no explicit definition on this matter, there is no doubt that some passages of Scripture contain a typical sense. The following arguments may be adduced as proof of this.
1. The New Testament (a) clearly considers many things in the Old Testament to have been types or figures of things to come;13 (b) it often asserts that statements of the Old Testament have been fulfilled in events of the New, statements which, in their literal sense, had no reference to such events;14 (c) at times it even affirms explicitly that such and such a thing happened “that Scripture might be fulfilled” when the passage referred to literally signifies something else, e.g.:
When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead. So they did not break his legs, . . . In fact, these incidents took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not a bone of his shall be broken.”15
Now to try to explain all these instances, or nearly all, as mere accommodations or literary applications would be to do open violence to the sacred text, and to offend against the analogy of faith in the bargain.* Clearly the understanding of the Church,
* The “analogy of faith” may he defined as the harmony of any given doctrine with other revealed truths. See M. Nicolau, Sacrae Theologiae Summa, op. cit., p. 1086.
which no one can just blithely deny, considers that the Old Law as a whole was by the will of God a figure and a prophecy of the New. This truth cannot be maintained if everything which the New Testament, taken in its obvious and natural meaning, explains as a type, is stripped of all the characteristics of a real type (i.e., of a figure predetermined by God). It may be granted that the apostles and other New Testament authors could at times use Scripture in the merely accommodated sense, and it is quite true that in some instances it is difficult to determine precisely whether they are using accommodation or the strictly typical sense. But it would be an unwarranted extreme to toss out all genuine typology.
In no sense, however, is New Testament typology to be equated with the procedure of rabbinic authors of those days and later, who forced upon the words of Scripture completely foreign and painfully twisted meanings, practicing a truly “creative exegesis.” Considering the procedure of the apostles, it seems thoroughly admissible that the Jews who were their contemporaries were well aware of the typical relationship of the Old Testament to the Messianic Kingdom. But while the secular authors just mentioned fell into all sorts of weird subtleties by applying soundly solid principles immoderately and even ineptly, the hagiographers, thanks to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, were able to stay within reasonable bounds.
2. The Fathers unanimously acknowledged the typical sense of Scripture, and from earliest times displayed a great fondness for it.
The question of whether a given passage of Scripture has a typical sense can be answered with complete certitude only on the basis of divine testimony. Such testimony is at hand, however, as often as it can be definitely established that Christ, the apostles, or the sacred writers of the New Testament really explained an Old Testament text in the genuinely typical sense. But given the typical character of the Old Testament as a whole, the mere comparison of Old Testament events, etc., with those of the New can give sufficient grounds for establishing some typical meanings with more or less convincing probability. It seems likely that even the apostles and other sacred writers of the New Law did not always learn of the typical senses which they used through a revelation in the strict sense, but rather by means of a comparison such as the one just mentioned. But since they were guided by the light of inspiration
in making this comparison or at least in passing final judgment on it, they were safe from error. The fathers, on the other hand, did not enjoy such guidance, and so were liable to error in their personal explanations. Note: “in their personal explanations;” for whenever they are morally unanimous in suggesting the typical sense for a specific passage, even though that sense was not indicated in the New Testament, they should rather be considered as witnesses to divine tradition on the point. For the rest, what has been said above about the hagiographers of the New Law holds good also for the fathers and the liturgy of the Church: it is quite often difficult to decide whether they are giving a real typical meaning to a passage or are using accommodation only.
2. The INTERPRETATION AND READING OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
Ever since the days of Luther, Protestants have extolled the transparent clarity of Scripture. They acknowledge, of course, that there are very many things in the Bible which are unintelligible without the help of scientific exegesis; they admit that not every single passage of doctrinal or moral import is clear just as it stands. But they insist that the faithful who read through the whole Bible with serious concentration and attention find so easily therein the path of salvation, i.e., the doctrines necessary for salvation, that there is not the slightest need for the teaching of the Church or of its priests. They attribute this ease of understanding above all to the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the heart of each of the faithful and whose unction all have received.16 Consequently they not only urge with insensitive insistence that all indiscriminately read the whole Bible, but teach besides that every private individual is free to hold his own personal interpretation of Scripture in preference to the judgment and preaching of the Church.17
Catholics do not deny that certain basic teachings can be found in Scripture with little difficulty, especially by those who, with a thorough grounding in the principles of the Christian religion, follow the analogy of faith. They hold, however, (a) that the authoritative determination of the meaning of Scripture in matters of faith and morals belongs, according to the arrangement of Christ Himself, to the teaching office of His Church and that, consequently, no one is ever free to depart from the meaning which the Church has always held; and (b) that the suitableness of this arrangement, in fact its relative necessity, rests on the fact that not
even in matters of faith and morals is Scripture so crystal clear that it can serve as the proximate rule of faith for each and every one of the faithful.’8 They add, finally, (c) that while the private reading of Sacred Scripture is in itself most helpful indeed, it is not necessary, and can be controlled by the Church as the circumstances of the times or of certain locales demand.
The Vatican Council:
Repeating the same decree [of Trent], We declare that this was its intention: that in matters of faith and morals which play a part in the development of Christian doctrine, that must be accepted as the true sense of Sacred Scripture which Holy Mother Church held and holds; for it is her right to judge concerning the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Writ and, therefore, no one may give Sacred Scripture a meaning which would run counter to this meaning or even to the unanimous agreement of the fathers.—DB 1788.19
That this decree is not merely disciplinary but dogmatic as well is clear from its subject matter and from the position it holds in the decrees of the Council.
An authoritative or dogmatic interpretation is one which is its own guarantee of credibility because issued by the divinely established teaching office of the Church. It can be merely authoritative,20 or it can be infallible. The latter alone binds absolutely and, in the present discussion, has the chief claim to our attention. To an authoritative interpretation is opposed a private or scientific one, which is based exclusively on hermeneutical rules and personal erudition, and can be relinquished without any injury to the duty of religious obedience.
An authoritative interpretation is limited by its very nature to “questions of faith and morals, questions which play a part in the structure of Christian doctrine.” Merely profane matters do not come within the province of the teaching authority of the Church.21 The Councils of Trent and of the Vatican make this limitation sufficiently clear.
Note that an authoritative interpretation is limited to “questions of faith and morals,” but not to passages or texts which touch upon such questions. Inspired texts as such are matters of faith and morals by a twofold title. The first is their subject matter and the second is the fact of their inspiration. With regard to the latter,
some passages are frequently called “accidentally” inspired texts in that they are classed as matters of faith and morals simply because they are inspired, and consequently fall within the province of the Church’s teaching power only insofar as the fact of their inspiration must be defended along with its necessary sequel, inerrancy.22
Note, finally, the following phrase: “questions which play a part in the structure of Christian doctrine.” It is, of course, clear that the structure of Christian doctrine is built not of doctrine alone (theoretical and practical) in the strict sense, but also of many historical facts without which Christian doctrine would lack foundation, defense, backing. Therefore texts wherein facts of this sort are recorded are subject to the interpretation of the Church not only by reason of their being inspired but also because of their very subject matter. But if at times it is doubtful whether or not such and such a matter contributes to the building up of Christian doctrine, then, in the final analysis, one must accept the decision of the Church, which certainly can determine infallibly the scope of its jurisdiction.23
I. Scripture Is Not So Crystal Clear that It Can Be the Proximate Rule of Faith far Each and Every One of the Faithful
1. From Sacred Scripture. St. Peter says of the Pauline epistles:
In his letters there are some passages hard to understand. The unlearned and unsteady twist the meaning of these to their own destruction, as they do also the other Scriptures—2 Pet. 3:16.
These last words show that there is question here of an understanding so erroneous as to constitute an obstacle to salvation. The apostles themselves needed the interpretation of our Lord on many points:
He then gave them the key to the understanding of the Scriptures.— Ibid.24
As a proof to the contrary one may not appeal to Ps. 18:8—9; 118:105 and 130; Prov. 6:23. These passages do not refer directly
to Scripture, much less to the whole Bible, but to divine doctrine and precepts in general.25
2. From established facts. Vincent Lerins wrote that the “authority of the mind of the Church” was necessary
because, due to the profundity of Scripture, not all understand it in exactly the same sense, but the same words are interpreted m one way by one and in another way by another, with the apparent result that almost as many meanings can be wrested from it as there are men. Novatian interprets it one way, Sabellius another way, Donatus another, Anus another, Nestorius another.26
And were not the errors of Sabellius, Anus and Nestorius obstacles to salvation? Then there are the well-known words of the Reformed theologian Samuel Werenfels (d. 1740) concerning Scripture: “This is the book in which everyone seeks his own dogmas and in which everyone finds his own dogmas.”27 Finally, more recently, Dr. Bavinek could write: “The doctrine of the clarity of Scripture undoubtedly carries with it serious dangers. Because of it Protestantism has been split up to the point of desperation.”28
Consider, furthermore, the history of the controversies that have engaged both Catholics and Protestants, controversies over the true meaning of Scripture carried on vigorously by men who were, most of the time, very sincere and quite concerned about their salvation. In the light of this, it is easy to see that the text of 1 John 2:20, 27, where we read that the faithful have been anointed by the Holy One and know all things, so that they need no one to teach them, has been sadly misunderstood by Protestants, as if each individual Christian were promised the Holy Spirit so that he could correctly understand Sacred Scripture with no help from the Church.29 Would it be correct to conclude that all those who fell into error through infidelity or folly had not received the Holy Spirit? Could one sustain the thesis that all the disputes, especially among Protestants, were concerned with matters not necessary for salvation? And how many dogmas are there which in fact all Protestants agree can be found in Scripture?
The obscurity of Scripture finds easy explanation in the fact that it contains mysteries and very profound truths, and in the further fact that it was written many centuries ago by men who differed greatly from one another and especially from us, who are
so far removed from them in genius and disposition, men who used oriental languages and forms of speech and made frequent reference to circumstances about which we have only a hazy notion or even no notion at all.
From another point of view, this obscurity is not without its advantages:
God so disposing, as the holy Fathers commonly teach, in order that men may investigate them [the Scriptures] with greater ardor and earnestness, and that what is attained with difficulty may sink more deeply into the mind and heart, and most of all, that they may understand that God has delivered the Holy Scripture to the Church, and that in reading and making use of His Word, they must follow the Church as their guide and their teacher.30
Even if Scripture were much more clear and evident than it actually is, it would still be morally necessary to have an interpreter or at least a defender of its authentic meaning. It would be morally impossible to compose any book about religious and moral subjects with such unmistakable clarity as to leave no room for questions and disputes, at least after a lapse of time.
LI. The Authoritative Interpretation of Sacred Scripture Is Within the Competence of the Church’s Magisterium
This is a dogma of faith from the Vatican Council, as quoted above.
1. From the institution of a perpetual and infallible teaching office, which has been proven elsewhere. Clearly, if Christ instituted a living and perpetual teaching office to preserve His teaching whole and entire and to preach it authoritatively, He certainly did not intend to leave the interpretation of Scripture in matters of faith and morals to the whim of everyone and anyone. This conclusion would follow with even more urgency if there were any truth to the Protestant claim that Scripture is the sole source of revelation. For then, with Scripture removed from its competence, there would he nothing left for the magisterium of the Church to teach. Again, if Christ endowed the Church’s teaching office with the gift of infallibility, so that all might safely learn of their faith
from it, He certainly did not promise the Holy Spirit to each individual believer in the sense that anyone at all could interpret Scripture for himself independently of and even in opposition to that magisterium.
2. From the fathers. St. Irenaeus: “Where the charisms of the Lord are, there it is that one must learn the truth, from those among whom is found the apostolic succession. For they explain Scripture for us without the slightest risk [of error].”” Tertullian:
“Where the truth of Christian discipline and belief clearly appears [i.e., where the true Church clearly appears], there the truth of scriptural exegesis and of all Christian tradition will be.”” Vincent Lerins: “It is gravely necessary that the interpretation of the prophets and apostles follow the direction set for it by ecclesiastical and Catholic understanding of them.””
Protestants object that the Catholic teaching on scriptural interpretation (a) sets the Church, i.e., mere men, above the word of Cod; (b) stifles freedom of conscience and of exegesis; (c) handcuffs biblical studies.
a. In its belief and in its preaching the Church is guided by the word of Cod and thus is subject to that word. But it is superior to the personal, fallible interpretation of individuals, and this is true not because it is a society made up of men, but because, thanks to the help of the Holy Spirit, it is kept from error in understanding and preaching Christian doctrine.
b. Granted the divine institution and infallibility of the Church’s magisterium, an authoritative interpretation no more hinders the legitimate exercise of freedom than does revelation itself. If the rights of men are not impugned by the duty of accepting a doctrine revealed in Scripture or elsewhere, how would those rights be injured by the duty of accepting a divinely true explanation of that same doctrine? Is freedom of conscience or of theological knowledge lessened by the exclusion of error?
c. The Catholic doctrine does not at all handcuff biblical science. Far from it!
A wide field is still left open to the private student, in which his hermeneutical skill may display itself with signal effect and to the advantage of the Church. On the one hand, in those passages of Holy Scripture, which have not as yet received a certain and definite interpretation, such labors may, in the be-
nignant providence of Cod, prepare for and bring to maturity the judgment of the Church; on the other, in passages already defined the private student may do work equally valuable, either by setting them forth more clearly to the flock and more skillfully to scholars, or by defending them more powerfully from hostile attack.*
If biblical studies among Catholics sometimes lagged rather badly, the blame lay with the unfavorable conditions of the times or with the indolence of men. One often hears the complaint that a feeling of security about having the essential truths well in hand can encourage natural laziness. But there is certainly no necessary connection between the two conditions. When all is said and done, to display a lack of brilliance and enthusiasm in scriptural studies is a lesser evil than to black out with the smoke of incessant
* Providentissimus Deus, RSS, p. 15. See E. F. Siegman, loc. cit.; I. Cop-pens, op. cit., p. 139 if.; after discussing in detail the various ecclesiastical directives affecting exegesis, especially the decrees of the Biblical Commission, Fr. Coppens concludes:
Hence we are in a position to reply to the difficulties proposed by independent exegetes. It cannot be denied that the Church has placed restrictions on scientific exegetical research. Nevertheless this strict regulation has worked out to the advantage of scholars. It put them on their guard against the fascinations of a system whose weaknesses the investigations of Protestant and independent savants have since disclosed. Catholic workers were accordingly spared the heavy penance which so-called liberal exegesis has had to perform in burning what it once adored, and in returning to positions which it should never have abandoned. While time is decanting the too rich wine of criticism, the Church is adapting her positions to meet what many consider the no longer debatable results of progressive scholarship. If the development thus nursed along can continue prudently and without that rash enthusiasm which vitiates all causes, even good ones, Catholic exegesis will soon have drawn profit from the positive results of historical criticism, the results which have withstood the wear and tear of time and the process of checking and rechecking. Thereafter nothing will prevent it from feeling perfectly at ease in scientific circles.
We can, it therefore appears, give an adequate answer to those who persist in throwing up to us as objectionable the ecclesiastical directives on scientific exegesis. They have no right to picture these decrees as so many petrified texts, destined to collectivize and standardize exegetical research once and for all. The pronouncements made no pretense to infallibility and their prime purpose was to regulate instruction. Promulgated in strict dependence on the scientific movement, they cannot and must not pretend to be independent of it. On the contrary, living interpretation, of course under the control of the Church, must be applied to clear up and adapt their meaning. In the period of crisis, as we have seen, such interpretation was restricted; it can be allowed more freedom now that we live in a time of peace and harmonious development.
wrangling religious truth dealing with matters of even the greatest moment.
Scholion. Dogmatic rules far the interpretation of Scripture
The doctrine just explained furnishes a clear basis for some rules to be followed in the private interpretation of Holy Scripture. They are called dogmatic rules in contradistinction to the merely scientific rules of hermeneutics.
1. In passages inspired for their own sake, that meaning must always be maintained which the Church by solemn decision or by its ordinary and universal magisterium has declared to be the true one. Leo XIII:
Wherefore the first and dearest object of the Catholic commentator should be to interpret those passages which have received an authentic interpretation either from the sacred writers themselves, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (as in many places of the New Testament), or from the Church, under the assistance of the same Holy Spirit, whether by her solemn judgment or her ordinary and universal magisterium— to interpret these passages in that identical sense, . .
Strictly speaking, it is superfluous to restrict this rule to “passages inspired for their own sake,” since a definition of the Church, solemn or not, is not given for the meaning of other passages. The limitation was included, however, in order to make the following distinction clear: it is one thing for the Church to make a specific declaration about the meaning of a passage in its ordinary and universal teaching and to insist in the same way that that meaning be maintained; and quite another for it to accept just incidentally the obvious meaning of a passage on the basis of a universally admitted scientific opinion.
It would not be out of place to mention here that only a defined interpretation must be accorded absolutely firm assent, but that even a merely authoritative interpretation must be accepted with due reverence.”
2. In passages inspired for their own sake that meaning must always be maintained which the fathers declared with moral unanimity to be the true one. The reason behind this is that the unanimous agreement of the fathers is a sure indication of the
Church’s tradition, as will be explained in the next chapter of this treatise.’6 Leo XIII:
The holy Fathers . . . are of supreme authority, whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith.37
Again it must be remarked that only the morally unanimous agreement of the fathers binds one absolutely. However, an interpretation backed up by the authority of even quite a few of the fathers is not to be brushed aside lightly.38
On the other hand, when there is question of a merely secular matter, the fathers’ understanding of it, even though they may be unanimous on the point, does not bind a Catholic exegete. Leo XIII:
Hence, in their interpretations, we must carefully note what they lay down as belonging to faith, or as intimately connected with faith—what they are unanimous in. For “in those things which do not come under the obligation of faith, the saints were at liberty to hold divergent opinions, just as we ourselves are,” according to the saying of St. Thomas. *
Loc. cit., pp. 22—23. Fr. Coppens has a very lucid statement of this matter:
The difficulties which arise from the authority of the Church and of the Fathers over the Holy Scriptures are normally the result of misunderstanding. The Protestant or independent thinker whom we have in mind does not know, or does not sufficiently consider, the Catholic doctrine in the matter. The authority of the Fathers is rigorously circumscribed by the principles of fundamental theology. It is invoked only in cases, less numerous than our opponents imagine, where there is question of the Deposit of Faith and where the Fathers speak unanimously as witnesses of the Faith, proposing an interpretation in the name of the Church and formally on the plane of divine faith. If, by way of exception, the authority of one or several of the Fathers is sufficient, it must be clearly proved that they were directly commissioned by the Church, or that they manifestly represent the mind of the Church in matters of divine faith. As for the Magisterium, the supreme ecclesiastical teaching authority, when it claims its right and authority to give a definitive interpretation of the sense of the Holy Scriptures, here too, according to the terms of the Vatican Council, it does so on the plane of faith and in the provinces of morals and Christian dogma.—Op. cit., pp. 142—43.
In passages inspired for their own sake, should there be no authoritative interpretation and no unanimity on the part of the fathers, then one must always look to the analogy of the Catholic faith. Leo XIII:
In the other passages the analogy of faith should be followed, and Catholic doctrine, as authoritatively proposed by the Church, should be held as the supreme law; ... Hence it follows that all interpretation is foolish and false which either makes the sacred writers disagree one with another, or is opposed to the doctrine of the Church.39
The analogy of faith renders negative service to the exegete, by keeping him from giving an interpretation which would be incompatible with the Catholic faith. In addition, it sometimes gives him positive help, by showing him the way to discover more easily the true meaning of a passage.40 Thus, for example, the Catholic teaching on oaths smooths the way for an explanation of our Lord’s words in Matt. 5:33—37.
Even in those passages which were only “accidentally” inspired, one may never admit an interpretation which would run counter to the Catholic teaching on the inspiration and inerrancy of all Scripture. The very reverend secretary of the Deputatio fldei appointed to draw up the decrees of the Vatican Council wrote:
As to interpretations dealing with truths of history, I say that such interpretations either do not contravene the dogma of the inspiration of Scripture and of all its parts or do contravene this dogma. In the former case, these interpretations are of course open to free discussion; in the latter case, if such an interpretation of a historical truth runs counter to the dogma of inspiration, it then involves a matter of faith and so the Church surely has the right to pass judgment on it.41
For the rest, one can readily agree with Cranderath, who holds that an exegete is blameworthy who, even in matters of this sort, would lightly. i.e., without a really probable reason, depart from the obvious meaning and the common view held by the. fathers, or would part company with them in such a way as to be, without a justifying reason, the cause of scandal to Christian people. Such an interpretation—even granting that it might be correct—would
certainly tend to lessen the reverence due to Scripture and could therefore be censured as “offensive to pious ears.”42
III. Principles Governing the Private Reading of Sacred Scriptures
1. The reading of Sacred Scripture is not necessary for the individual faithful—certainly not by necessity of means, since they can obtain outside of Scripture not only an adequate but even an abundant knowledge of doctrines about faith and morals. Nor is it necessary by divine command, for certainly no such command can be proved to exist. The appeal to the following words of our Lord is of no avail:
“You have the Scriptures at your finger ends (ereunate), since you think you have in them a source of eternal life; and, in fact, they are my standing witnesses”—John 5:39.
For (a) the context seems to call for taking the verb ereunate as the indicative rather than the imperative: (b) even granting that it is the imperative, the text still proves nothing. From the fact that Christ directs the Jews, in this case the Scribes and Pharisees, to the writings of the Old Testament that they may learn therein of His divine mission, it does not at all follow that He wished to bind all men to the reading of Sacred Scripture. St. Augustine’s words are worthy of note:
The man who is solidly grounded in faith, hope, and love, and remains unshakably rooted therein, needs the Scriptures only for the instruction of others. And in fact many people live by these three virtues out in the desert, far from access to the sacred books.43
2. The reading of Scripture is in itself most advantageous, for
All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, far reproving, for correcting, for instructing in holiness—2 Tim.
But in view of the obscurity of Scripture, a certain amount of risk is always mixed in with the advantages. There is always the chance that the unlearned will misunderstand it and so be sidetracked into
error. That is why the Church, to which Christ entrusted the control of spiritual goods, should be praised rather than blamed when it takes steps to neutralize whatever danger may be lurking in the shadows. One such step would be to prescribe that those of the faithful who want to read the Scriptures must use a version with good explanatory footnotes. For the rest, anyone who is familiar with the Bible knows full well that not all the books offer equal advantages or the same chances of error.44
3. It may happen that the aforesaid danger, which in itself is not so very great for adults sincerely devoted to the Church and well instructed in Christian principles, may, however, as a result of special circumstances of time and place, grow so imminent that the indiscriminate reading of Scripture might have to be considered harmful rather than helpful. When this happens, the Church acts according to its rights and very prudently in the bargain if it forbids the ordinary faithful to read the Scriptures and reserves the privilege to those alone for whom it would be really profitable.45
4. The foregoing observations explain why the Church’s discipline in permitting or urging the reading of Sacred Scripture has not always been the same.
Before the thirteenth century there was no prohibition or restriction;46 in fact many of the fathers heartily recommended the reading of the Bible. There were, it is true, many sects which misused Scripture, but this misuse was generally limited to just a few passages.
From the thirteenth century to the Reformation there were some partial and local prohibitions. 47
At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers began to use Sacred Scripture, “crystal clear and sufficient by itself alone,” as their chief weapon in the battle to overthrow the tradition and the hierarchy of the Church. Pius IV countered in 1564 by approving and promulgating the fourth rule of the Index, which forbade anyone to read the Bible in the vernacular except those who, on the advice of their pastor or confessor, obtained written permission from the bishop or the inquisitor. The reason for the prohibition was expressed as follows: “Since experience has made it clear that, if Bibles in the vernacular are allowed to circulate out of control, more harm is caused than good, and this because of the rashness of certain people, etc.” Sixtus V and Clement VIII reserved the granting of the permission just mentioned to the Holy See and the
Sacred Congregation of the Index. When the danger died down, this law was toned down considerably by the decree of Benedict XIV (apparently) and by gradually changing custom, and was finally restated as follows by Leo XIII.
Present-day legislation on private 48
a. Editions of the original text, of the ancient Catholic versions and of other versions in languages other than the vernacular which are published by non-Catholics may be read only by those who are engaged in theological or biblical studies, provided, however, that doctrines of the Catholic faith are not attacked in the introduction or notes. All may use the same versions if they are published by Catholics.
b. No translation in the vernacular, even though done by Catholics, may be used unless approved by the Holy See or edited under the watchful eye of the bishops and furnished with notes taken from the fathers of the Church and from learned Catholic authors.49
c. Translations in any vernacular whatsoever which have been made by non-Catholics may be used only by those who are engaged in theological or biblical studies, with the proviso mentioned above under (a).
St. Pius X praised and granted indulgences to the Italian Society of St. Jerome, which strives to promote the reading of the Gospels in Christian homes by making the historical books of the New Testament available at a very low price. In fact, the pontiff remarked: The Gospel “is, of all books, the one from which humble souls can obtain instructions which are useful and, at the same time, attractive.”50 And the words of our late Holy Father, Pius XII, are most eloquent:
If these things which We have said, Venerable Brethren and beloved sons, are necessary in every age, much more urgently are they needed in our sorrowful times, when almost all peoples and nations are plunged in a sea of calamities, when a cruel war heaps ruins upon ruins and slaughter upon slaughter, when, owing to the most bitter hatred stirred up among the nations, We perceive with greatest sorrow that in not a few has been extinguished the sense not only of Christian moderation and charity, but also of humanity itself. Who can heal these mortal wounds of the human family if not He, to whom the Prince of the Apostles, full of confidence and love, addresses these words:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”
To this Our most merciful Redeemer we must therefore bring all back by every means in our power; for He is the divine consoler of the afflicted; He it is who teaches all, whether they be invested with public authority or are bound in duty to obey and submit, true honesty, absolute justice and generous charity; it is He in fine, and He alone, Who can be the firm foundation and support of peace and tranquility: “For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: which is Christ Jesus.” This the author of salvation, Christ, will men more fully know, more ardently love and more faithfully imitate in proportion as they are more assiduously urged to know and meditate the Sacred Letters, especially the New Testament, for, as St. Jerome the Doctor of Stridon says: “To ignore the Scripture is to ignore Christ”; and again: “If there is anything in this life which sustains a wise man and induces him to maintain his serenity amidst the tribulations and adversities of the world, it is in the first place, I consider, the meditation and knowledge of the Scriptures.”
There those who are wearied and oppressed by adversities and afflictions will find true consolation and divine strength to suffer and bear with patience; there—that is in the Holy Gospels— Christ, the highest and greatest example of justice, charity and mercy, is present to all; and to the lacerated and trembling human race are laid open the fountains of that divine grace without which both peoples and their rulers can never arrive at, never establish, peace in the state and unity of heart; there in fine will all learn Christ, “Who is the head of all principality and power” and “Who of God is made unto us wisdom and justice and sanctification and redemption.”51
The rich stream of biblical literature aimed at encouraging and helping the faithful in their reading of the Bible bears abundant testimony to the Church’s attitude in this regard.52 Eloquent witness, too, is borne by the constant efforts being made to render the sacred text itself intelligible and enlightening by making it available in readable, scientifically solid, modern translation. Not to mention the outstanding European works of this kind, we might recall those of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, of Monsignor Knox, and of Fathers Kleist and Lilly.53