Article 17; Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
The Interpretation of Scripture
When I think of the Holy Spirit, my thoughts gravitate to the words of the Nicene Creed that we profess at holy Mass: “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”
When considering the theme, “the Holy Spirit, Interpreter of Scripture,” in the Catechism, I immediately reflect on the truth that it is the Holy Spirit who “breaths life,” and transforms the written words of Sacred Scripture into the living Word of God. It was the Holy Spirit who inspired the human authors to write each of the 73 books comprising the Old and New Testaments. It is the same Holy Spirit (Giver of life) who helps the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church), cooperate in its interpretation of the sacred texts.
These 10 articles or paragraphs (ccc 109-119) offer several important principles to keep in mind when reading the Sacred Scriptures. The Church advises that we “be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us” (ccc 109). Why? Because the original text of the Bible was inspired, down to its actual wording, by the Holy Spirit. The original texts, however, are lost. What we have are copies and translations made from manuscripts produced by copyists over the course of 3,000 years and more. Therefore, “Literary Criticism” or principles of interpretation are necessary to determine exactly what the inspired writer had in mind when the texts were first written.
Literary Criticism takes into account the “conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current” (ccc 110). As well, since Sacred Scripture is “inspired,” another important principle of “correct interpretation” is to read and interpret it “in light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (ccc. 111).
The Catechism identifies three criteria for interpretation:
1. Be attentive to the content and unity of the entire Bible (ccc. 112).
2. Read Sacred Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church (ccc. 113).
3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith (ccc114).
The senses of Scripture are likewise identified, including the literal and the spiritual sense, with three subcategories: allegorical, moral and anagogical senses.
Sometimes these “senses” of Sacred Scripture are identified as the literal sense, the allegorical or spiritual sense and the accommodation sense. Still, others speak of typical, moral, anagogical, mystical, figurative and various other senses, but they can all be reduced to these three. Some writers, by means of a questionable extension of the accommodation sense, limit themselves to distinguishing between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. The debate between those who emphasize the literal sense and those who prefer the spiritual sense has been going on for centuries.
The Book of Numbers in the Old Testament provides a clear example of what is understood by the three senses of the Bible. The passage (Numbers 21:9) reads: “Moses made a brazen serpent and set it up on a post, and if anyone was bitten he looked at the serpent and was saved.” In the literal sense, this means that the events really happened historically. However, in the 4th gospel (3:14-15), the evangelist St. John tells us that the serpent represents Christ raised up on the cross. Thus, St. John gives a spiritual or allegorical sense to this passage. Meanwhile, Philo of Alexandria, using “the accommodation sense,” writes that the serpent is “Eve’s serpent” representing pleasure, and that the soul, bitten by it, must turn its eyes to the serpent of Moses to recover health and life.
Some of these “senses of Scripture” can easily cause confusion for the neophyte or causal reader of Sacred Scripture. In fact, it is not unusual to discover that parish Bible study groups fall into confusion by overemphasizing the spiritual sense. That is why the Church gives Catholics excellent advice by asking that we first and foremost seek a full and clear understanding of the literal sense of Bible passages. “Let interpreters bear in mind,” says Pope Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, “… that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal” (DAS, 23).
We know that the spiritual sense can furnish rich and abundant fruit but there is a condition. It can never be the case that someone in a Bible study group declares that the Holy Spirit has spoken to their heart and “this is what such and such a passage actually means!”
Pope Pius XII’s illuminating encyclical explains: “just as we must search out and expound the literal meaning of the words … so also we must do likewise for the spiritual sense, provided it is clearly intended by God. For God alone could have known the spiritual meaning and have revealed to us” (DAS, 26).
If not for the Holy Spirit, the words of Sacred Scripture would become dead words as the passage of time leaves the “circumstances and conditions of life” behind. With the vibrant help of the Holy Spirit, Sacred Scripture perpetually remains relevant as the Holy Spirit does what the Holy Spirit does best. As “Lord and Giver of life,” the Holy Spirit breathes new life into the Sacred Scriptures in every generation.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop and the bishop’s liaison to persons with disabilities.