Posted November 12, 2009
Let us consider the assertion that no mediumship or mediation is needed to interpret God’s word. For most of Scripture, that is true. That’s another way of saying that the Church permits freedom of interpretation of Scripture for most of the biblical passages. In fact, the Catholic Church probably grants more freedom of interpretation than most Protestant denominations do, for they have very strictly defined explanations of critical passages, not allowing for much leeway for the private judgment of their members on such issues as water baptism, infant baptism, divorce and remarriage, faith related to works, the doctrine of the Eucharist, Peter’s primacy, the role of tradition in revelation, etc.
Protestantism began with Luther advocating private interpretation of Scripture, reasoning that if the Pope could interpret the Bible, why couldn’t anyone else? But his sermons and writings later in life indicated that he retreated from that position after seeing the disastrous results of having unqualified persons equating their knowledge to that of Scripture scholars.
” ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked the eunuch. ‘How can I,’ he said ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ ” (Acts 8:30-31). God expects us to make use of human guidance in spiritual matters as well as in non-spiritual education. Otherwise all seminaries, Bible schools and Sunday school classes would be obliged to shut down.
Peter wrote that Paul’s epistles “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction… be on your guard that you may not be carried away by the error… “(2Pet.3:16-17).
Clearly, the Bible points up the need for religious leaders as “overeers” (1 Pet. 5:2), preachers (4:11), teachers (Rom. 12:7), leaders (vs.8), and also the obligation to respect and obey them (1 Thess. 5: 12; 1 Tim. 5: 17; Heb. 13: 17). Even a casual reading of Scripture will show that God designed that the Kingdom should be built by guidance and instruction of God, directed through human instruments (Mt. 28: 19-20; Rom. 12: 16). To arrogantly ignore those divinely appointed instruments is to defy the design of God himself, and truth sought in that manner will have only “the appearance of wisdom” with “self-imposed worship” and “false humility” (Col. 2:23).
Countless examples in the New Testament attest to the fact that preaching, administration of sacraments, and also interpretation of Scripture itself are performed by a sacred minister between an individual believer and Christ. Of course these acts of mediation are in no way obstacles to union with God, but are facilitators of that union.
A Catholic who truly understands the Church’s role in scriptural interpretation is very uninhibited in reading the Bible. Catholics are instructed to read a given passage according to the intent of the sacred author, which is usually clear from the context of the passage itself or of the entire book. If that fails to yield a clear understanding, the Catholic consults the accumulated wisdom of the Church.
The Vatican II document on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) puts it this way: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (no. 10).
As Father Raymond Brown points out in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, the Church exercises great restraint in offering authoritative interpretations of individual verses; fewer than a dozen such instances can be pointed to in her two-thousand-year history, most of them at the Council of Trent, and never in matters such as authorship or dating of a book. Hence the Church certainly doesn’t use a heavy hand to stifle private interpretation, but presents official interpretations of such things as Petrine (papal) primacy in Matthew 16:17-19 and John 21:15-19, or James 5:14 as related to the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, and the literal interpretation of the accounts in John 6, attesting to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
To insist on one’s own interpretation on points contrary to twenty centuries of authentic, authoritative, and scholarly understanding of a particular passage would be an inexcusable form of sheer arrogance.
“Glad You Asked” by Fr. John Hampsch, cmf