A Look At The Rules For How to interpret Sacred Scripture


            By Fr. Raymond Taouk


Since the Bible is the work of God transmitted in human language, it will be interpreted by following two types of rules, those common to all human work (rational hermeneutics), and those proper to the divine work (Christian hermeneutics).


I. rules of rational interpretation


1)           It is necessary to reconstitute as exactly as possible the primitive text.

·      that is the purpose of the textual critique, which supplies for the disappearance of the originals and the errors of copyists.

·      together w. the ancient MSS, the textual critique uses the citations from the Fathers, with all the nuances and difficulties involved in their use.[1]  When all the Fathers are favorable to one given lesson, their unanimity favours its authenticity, and rejecting it would be imprudent.

·      Method : 1) to collate the opposite readings;  2) to discuss the value of the variant readings by using the genealogical method, i.e. grouping the MSS into families and their corresponding value is examined separately. This method is based on the principle that : all the documents which substantially represent the same text must depend on each other and come from a common ancestor or archetype.

·      A reaction is found among moderns who correct the genealogical method with the individual examination, based on the following principles :

a) ‘id verius quod prius’ is true only of the originals, applied to copies is true only if they conform with the originals.

b) a lesson receiving the moral unanimity of the witnesses must be accepted, its contrary being improbable.

c) give preference to the lesson which has the most numerous and varied witnesses.

d) the shorter lesson must be generally preferred to the longer one (glosses), unless there was a copyist distraction.

e) the more difficult lesson is to be preferred to the clearer since copyists tend to clarify the difficulties.

f) choose the lesson which seems to be the origin of others.

g) preserve the lesson most in conformity with the tendencies of the author (style, vocabulary, aim, temperament)

·      Result : The more profound divergences represent only 1/1000 of the text, and are found only sporadically in the sum of MSS. Moreover the doctrinal teaching suffers in no way since the doctrine of the disputed passages is found in other places of the Sacred Scripture


2)           Determine the exact sense of the words which compose the text. The divine Word has taken human form in everything but error, and thus we need to use the ordinary forms of human lgg.

3)           Place the passage in its grammatical, logical and psychological context.[2]

4)           Determine through the literary critique what style the passage belongs to. One thing is the interpretation of a poem, another a parable or a historical narration. This is a delicate work in which a Catholic can easily be misled, and in this he must follow the CC directives.

5)           Take into account the diverse circumstances of composition of the book.[3] It is important to know exactly the old history of the Middle East in order to study the historical books of O.T.

6)           Have recourse to parallel passages (Kings and Paralipomena). Origen already recommends to comment the SS by the SS. Such a rule can be used with facility with the concordances and the synoptics

7)           Use the ancient versions and commentary, since the ancients possessed better than us the Hebrew and Greek used at the time.

8)           Use the resources of compared philology.


ii. catholic hermeneutics (Catholic Principles for Interpreting Sacred Scripture)


            Here the rules of interpretations differ, between the Catholics and the Protestants and rationalists. There are 5 rules, the 2 first being a corollary of the treatise on inspiration.

1)           Read the Bible with humility, piety and spirit of faith. The SS is not an ordinary book and we must bring the sn. dispositions in harmony with its origin, cf. proposition cdd : “the exegete, if he wishes to study usefully the Bible, must firstly depose the preconceived opinion about the supernatural origin of the SS, and must not interpret it otherwise than any human document”.


2)           Discard any interpretation which would suppose an error in the Bible  (coroll. of inerrancy).


3)           Adopt always the sense determined by the CC in all questions relative to, or even only connected with, faith and morals.

·      Legitimacy

·      The Sacred Scripture can receive the interpretation either authentic (that given by the author) or exegetic (given by a third person, subject to error as Prot. variances prove). The author of the Bible is the H. Ghost, and OL designated the CC as the infallible guardian and expositor of the deposit of revelation. By its divine mission, the CC and it alone can give the authentic interpretation of a controversial passage of the Bible.

·      this rule, always practiced in the CC, has been promulgated by the decree Insuper of CT : “no one... shall presume to interpret SS contrary to the sense which Holy Mother the Church held and holds, to whom it belongs to judge the true sense and interpretation of H. Scripture.”  This prescription was renewed by Vat I, Providentissimus[4], and Lamentabili which condemned the following : “the interpretation of the CC regarding the HB must not be despised; but it falls under the more accurate judgement and correction of the exegets”; “the Magisterium of the CC cannot determine the genuine sense of SS by dogmatic definitions.”

·      the character of the decree ‘Insuper’  is as such disciplinary, yet it has a doctrinal fondation, the right given to the CC re. the deposit of revelation. Thus it demands the interior and exterior submission of judgement. The same passage in Dei Filius (Vat I) seems to have a strictly dogmatic character. Vat I extends the right of the CC in SS interpretation to any part.[5]

·      Where can we find the sense determined by the CC?  It is given us by the extraordinary and the ordinary Magisterium, both infallible. It is given also by the ord. magisterium of the Pope, including the decisions of the R. Congregations (in forma communi ex sola R Cong, or in forma specifica quasi ex  R Pontifice).

·      the interventions of the extr. mag. in SS are rare.

·      CC fixes directly and positively the sense of a text. Ro v 12 speaks of original sin (Dz 791); Jn iii 5 proves the absolute ncssty of bapt. for salvation (Dz 858); Mt xxvi 26 on the institution of the H. Eucharist and its parallel places must be understood literally (Dz 874); In “hoc facite in meam commemorationem” Lc xxii 19, OL instituted the Cath priesthood (Dz 949); Mt xvi 18; Jn xxi 15 must be understood of the pontifical primacy (Dz 1822).

·      CC fixes the sense directly and negatively. Jn xx 22 ‘accipite Spiritum Sanctum’ CC condemns the interpretation in a figured sense, and that of the Prot. saying it meant the power of preaching the gospel (Dz 894, 913). Isenbiehl was condemned for not admitting the messianic sense of the prophecy of Emmanuel (Is vii 14).

·      CC fixes indirectly the sense of a biblical text used as proof of a defined doctrine. The definition and infall. bear on the dogma as such, and not on the argumentation. We need to find out whether the scriptural passage is invoked as only basis of the truth to the point of being identified w. it, or not.

·      The Biblical Commission, assimilated practically to the R. Congregations, gives more frequent decisions.

·      Its decisions receive the same value as those of  R.Cgt and thus “those who would combat such decisions, viva voce or in writing, would not avoid the note of disobedience and temerity, nor be exempt from a grave fault” (St. Pius X). Thus the normal attitude of the exeget must be, not only the respectful silence, but also the exterior and even interior adhesion. Such decrees however are neither infallible nor irreformable and thus, the submission required is not irrevocable.[6]

·      Here is the matter of decisions of the BC : implicit citation in SS, narrations historical in appearance only, the mosaic historicity of the Pentateuch, the authenticity and historicity of the 4th gospel, the character and author of the book of Isaias, the historical character of the 3 first chapters of Genesis, authors of the Psalter, author and historicity of the first gospel, of the 2d and 3d gospels, the synoptic question, the author and hist. of the Acts of Apostles, the pastoral ep. of St Paul, the ep. to the Heb, parousia in St Paul, the sense to give to cert. passages of SS.


4)           Follow the unanimous consent of the Fathers re dogmatic, moral or connected questions.


·      this rule is the prolongation of the preceding rule since, the unanimous consent of the Frs. is one of the forms of ordinary magisterium. C/f. CT “may no one... dare interpret the SS against the unanimous consent of the Frs.” (Dz 786).

·      What must we understand by the “unanimous consent of the Frs”? 

·      not mathematical and absolute consent, but the moral unanimity in time and space.

·      this unanimity can be explained only by the apostolic tradition from where it springs since, naturally, people of different temperaments, separated in space and time, could never all agree on the same things.

·      What qualities must it revest? 

·      it must deal with a text re. faith and morals.

·      the Frs. must express their sentiment in a categorical way, not as a mere conjecture,

·      they must establish a direct connection betw. the scriptural interpretation which they propose and a doctrinal affirmation.

·      De facto, it is very limited since few texts find the unanimity of the patristic tradition : the virginal conception of X (Is vii 14), his Passion (Is liii); the existence of purgatory (II Mac xii 43), the eucharisitic sacrifice (Mal I 11); consubstantiality of the Father and the Son (Jn 1 1); the indefectibility of the CC (Mt xvi 18).


5)           Respect the analogy of faith


·      this means the intimate harmony between the dogmas, by which they explain each other. To respect the analogy of faith is to accept as supreme rule the interpretation of Cath. doctrine as fixed by the CC. This rule is justified by the elementary dogmatic postulate, i.e. that since revelation is the work of the God of truth, it must bear in itself the supreme mark of truth, that is the logical unity of its constitutive elements.

·      Its application will be more negative than positive, and will have us reject as false any statement involving a contradiction between the SS and the dogma of the Church. Thus ‘Pater maior me est’ (Jn xiv 28) cannot contradict “Ego et Pater unum sumus” (Jn 10:30).


[1] not always literal translations; too many amalgamations; often posteriorily corrected by editors to conform them to the received text of their period.

[2] “Quid mihi et tibi?” Jn ii 4 can be translated differently as ‘what have we in common?’, ‘what do we have to do together?’, yet they go against the context in which Mary does not feel rebuked. It could be better translated ‘What importance does that have for you and me?’

[3]In Ep. to the Romans, St. Paul wants to prove the uselessness of salvation through the works prescribed by the Mosaic Law; which theme allows us to understand the meaning of the words : lex, opera.

[4]Dz 1788; CT Dz 786; Dz 1942.

[5]ST distinguishes 2 categories touching on faith : res fidei per se, res fidei per accidens (entire content of the SS). It is not proved that the CC may have the positive power to interpret all the passages of the SS since she received this power only as guardian of the deposit of faith; but indirectly she can pass a negative judgement i.e. condemn the interpretations of scriptural passages which do not belong directly to the deposit of the faith if they would lead to deny revealed truths or put in doubt the inspiration of the Bible, which is a dogma of our faith. DTC t.VII, col.2308. Cf Lamentabili prop.5; cf. the interventions of the Biblical Commission which go in the same sense (historicity of the 3 first chap. of Genesis).

[6] To the decisions of the BC, we can apply what the Cong. of H. Office said of its earlier decree 1897 re. I Jn v 7 : “this decree did not wish to prevent Cath. writers from investigating more fully the matter and, having accurately weighed the arguments, and they may incline towards the opposite sentence with the moderation and temperance required by the gravity of the matter, provided they profess to accept the judgment of the CC” (2 June 1927).