A Guide for the Study of Sacred Scripture
Mankind is always changing; God's truth stands
forever. And he has many ways of speaking to us, regardless of the human
instruments he uses. Often enough, our reading of Holy Scripture is distracted
by mere curiosity; we want to seize upon a point and argue about it, when we
ought to be quietly passing on. You will get most out of it if you read it
with humility, and simplicity, and faith, not concerned to make a name for
yourself as a scholar. By all means ask questions but listen to what holy
writers have to tell you; do not find fault with the hard sayings of
antiquity "their authors had good reason for writing as they did.
Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ: On the Reading of Holy Scripture, 1.5.2
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In Principles of Catholic Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: Properly speaking, God himself must be the subject of theology. Therefore, Scripture alone is theology in the fullest sense of the word because it truly has God as its subject; it does not just speak of him but is his own speech (page 321). It is in the pages of the Bible that God comes lovingly to speak to His children. It is in the study of the Bible that His children seek to understand His message of love and concern. The Vatican II document Dei Verbum defines the study of Sacred Scripture as the means by which one can seek an intimate knowledge of God and that the study of the sacred page' should be the very soul of sacred theology ("God-knowledge") Dei Verbum 24. To seek intimate knowledge of God through the study of Sacred Scripture can be compared to a journey, and like any journey it is important to have a roadmap to guide the traveler along the right path. It is the goal of Agape Bible Study to provide a trustworthy roadmap for your journey through the pages of Sacred Scripture and to aid you in coming to a more intimate understanding of the everlasting faithful love of God for you and for all His children.
Catholic Teaching on Sacred Scripture is Drawn from
Five Authoritative Sources
Agape Bible Study Follows the Guidelines for Biblical
Studies Set Forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church
In observing the
guidelines of the universal Catechism, Agape Bible Study seeks to discern the
sacred writer's original meaning and intent by taking into account:
The Literal versus the Literalist Interpretation of Scripture
The "literal" interpretation of any text is the meaning the writer intends to convey to the reader and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words (Dei Verbum, 12). In the Biblical text Catholics seek the literal meaning of a passage as it was intended to be revealed by the Holy Spirit to the inspired writer and through the inspired writer to the reader. This is not to be confused with the "literalist" interpretation of a text in which only the meaning of the individual words are considered and not the intent of the writer in conveying the meaning of the passage as a whole. For example, In the Gospel of John 6:32-71, known as "The Bread of Life Discourse" Jesus literally tells the crowd [and us] that in order to have eternal life one must literally eat His Body and drink His Blood. In accepting Jesus' words as literal, the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus is present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist! However, in Matthew 5:30 Jesus' tells the crowd, And if your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away... The literalist interpretation of these words would suggest if one did not like one's right hand it should be surgically removed, but this is not the meaning Jesus intended to convey. He is using hyperbole in Matthew 5:27-30 to drive home the concept that nothing worldly is worth compromising our eternal salvation and that one must fight to remain focused on staying on course toward our final goal of heaven without making any concessions and by being ready to sacrifice anything which could put one in the path of offending God and risking the gift of salvation. In searching for what the inspired writer meant to convey, it is necessary to be aware of the different senses of Sacred Scripture.
Pope Leo XIII, in the
encyclical on the study of Sacred Scripture, Providentissimus Deus, set
forth several important principles of Biblical interpretation:
The Literal and Spiritual Sense of Scripture
In Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's famous Erasmus lecture of January 27, 1988 he shared his conclusions concerning the interpretation, the careful exegesis, of Sacred Scripture. His reflections in that teaching are an important guide for the study of sacred Scripture: "Finally, the exegete must realize that he does not stand in some neutral area, above or outside history and the Church. Such a presumed immediacy regarding the purely historical can only lead to dead ends. The first presupposition of all exegesis is that it accepts the Bible as a book. In so doing, it has already chosen a place for itself which does not simply follow from the study of literature. It has identified this particular literature as the product of a coherent history, and this history as the proper space for coming to understanding. If it wishes to be theology, it must take a further step. It must recognize that the faith of the Church is that form of "sympathia" without which the Bible remains a closed book. It must come to acknowledge this faith as a hermeneutic, the space for understanding, which does not do dogmatic violence to the Bible, but precisely allows the solitary possibility for the Bible to be itself." [Joseph Ratzinger is our beloved Pope Benedict XVI].
In agreement with Providentissimus Deus, Pope Benedict affirmed in the Erasmus lecture that the proper interpretation of Sacred Scripture must not "do violence" to the Biblical text by putting into the text what isn't there. Instead, proper interpretation lets the Biblical message be simply told for what it is. To arrive at a correct interpretation one must be aware, however, of the different senses of Scripture and apply those senses to passage to receive the most complete message of the text.
The Letter [literal] speaks of deeds; allegory to faith; the moral how to act; anagogy our destiny. This Medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses of Scripture as defined by the Church Fathers.
The Plenary Sense of Scripture
The word "plenary" is from the Latin word plenus and means "full; entire; complete." Bible scholars have included an additional sense of Scripture known as the plenary sense of Scripture to define the interpretation given to certain passages of the Old Testament in which the understanding of those passages have been expanded by the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
It is God's plan that the words written by His inspired writers prior to the Incarnation of the Son were to be opened to reveal a more profound truth as salvation history unfolded. Scholars call this sense of expanded and unfolding meaning the plenary sense of Sacred Scripture. God the divine author of Scripture can introduce a certain part of the truth of divine revelation at a point in salvation history only to reveal that truth more fully at a date perhaps centuries later and through another inspired writer, thereby illuminating the earlier truth in greater depth and detail. According to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture given by the Catholic Church to certain passages of the Old Testament, the plenary sense of Scripture must be a teaching consistent with and grounded in the revelation of God's plan as revealed in Sacred Scripture itself and must be consistent with the unaltered doctrine of the Church as given to her by her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church #s 53; 69; 107; 108).
Since the Old Testament revelations of God's plan were not complete but were revealed slowly over time, the inspired writers of the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah probably did not recognize the extent of the prophecy they were given. For example Scripture identifies Moses as the inspired writer of the first 5 books of the Old Testament. Moses could not have foreseen through Genesis 3:15 that the prophecy of the "seed of the woman" would be fulfilled in the Incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth, nor could the prophet Isaiah, writing in the 8th century BC, have understood the prophecy given to him that a virgin would give birth to a son in Isaiah 7:14 would result in the birth of the Messiah circa 3/2BC. It was only in the Incarnation of the Christ that the full impact of these century old prophecies upon salvation history and the future of mankind were revealed.
Jesus revealed the plenary sense of Scripture in the sacred writings of the prophets by applying their inspired writings to Himself. Some examples include:
The inspired writers of the Gospels, Acts, and St. Paul all expanded our understanding of Scripture by applying Old Testament passages to Christ. For example it was St. Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who claimed Isaiah's prophecy in 7:14 was intended for Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew 1:23: Now all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: "Look! The virgin is with child and will give birth to a son whom they will call Immanuel", a name which means God-is-with-us'. Then too, in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians he expanded our understanding of the Exodus miracle at the Red Sea as a promise of Christian baptism and expanded our understanding of the life giving power of the Eucharist when he identified Jesus as the miraculous Rock in the wilderness who gave life giving water to the children of Israel on their journey when he wrote: I want you to be quite certain, brothers, that our ancestors all had the cloud over them and all passes through the sea. In the cloud and in the sea they were all baptized into Moses; all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, since they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ [1 Corinthians 10:1-5]. St. Paul taught that the events that occurred in Sacred Scripture were meant to be an example for us in our walk of faith and to expand our understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ when he added, Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were described in writing to be a lesson for us, to whom it has fallen to live in the Last Days of the ages [1 Corinthians 10:11].
It is God's plan that the words written by His inspired writers prior to the Incarnation of the Son were to be opened to reveal a more profound truth as salvation history unfolded. Through the expanded and unfolding meaning of the plenary sense of Scripture, God the divine author of Sacred Scripture can introduce a certain part of the truth of divine revelation at a point in salvation history only to reveal that truth more fully at a date perhaps centuries later and through another inspired writer, thereby illuminating the earlier truth in greater depth and detail. According to the interpretation of Sacred Scripture given by the Catholic Church to certain passages of the Old Testament, the plenary sense of Scripture must be a teaching consistent with and grounded in the revelation of God's plan as revealed in Sacred Scripture itself and must be consistent with the unaltered doctrine of the Church as given to her by her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, citation #s 53; 69; 107; 108).
Symbolism and the Use of "Types" in Scripture
Symbols are frequently used in Scripture: These symbols are far richer in meaning than any combination of words could describe them and are not necessarily meant to be interpreted as literal events, or actions, or even numbers. "Types" in the literal sense of Scripture refer to people, things, or events described in the Bible which stand for other people, things, or events and at the same time have their own meaning.
CCC# 130: Typology indicates the dynamic movement toward the fulfillment of the divine plan when "God [will] be everything to everyone." Nor do the calling of the patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt, for example, lose their own value in God's plan, from the mere fact that they were intermediate stages.
The Use of Hyperbole in Scripture
The writers of Sacred Scripture sometimes use hyperbole to make a point. In such cases the passage is not to be understood literally but figuratively:
The Use of Irony in Scripture
Look for the use of irony in Scripture, which is meant to compare and contrast people and events. For example in John 18:38, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate pronounced his judgment on Jesus of Nazareth, the man the Jews have brought to him for execution: I find no case against him. In Jesus' public trial, this pagan Roman has judged Jesus to be without fault. Pilate judged Jesus and three times, using the same words, found Him innocent of the charges leveled against Him (John 18:38; 19:4, 7). The irony is that any animal offered to Yahweh in sacrifice had to be judged as perfect and without flaw. Caiaphas, the High Priest, had chosen Jesus as the sacrificial victim (John 11:49-53), proclaiming that Jesus must die three times (John 11:50, 52; 18:14), but ironically Pilate, a heathen Gentile, has three times judged the intended sacrifice as without fault!
The Use of Patterns and Repetition in Scripture
The Importance and Significance of Numbers in Scripture
Numbers are sometimes literal representations of items, days, or events, but more often a number has greater symbolic meaning beyond its literal numerical value. The number 7, for example, is used repeatedly in the Book of Revelation. Please refer to the "List of Sevens in Revelation" in the Chart section. Also please read The Significance of Numbers in Scripture document in the Documents section. This document will help you understand the important role numerical symbolism plays in the Bible.
It is also useful to know that in Biblical times people did not count sequences as we count today. They did not have the concept of 0 as a place value; therefore, any sequence of numbers started count from the first number in the sequence and ended with the last. For example:
How to Stay on Track
Remain faithful to the system of doctrine taught in the sacred texts of the Bible which must be studied in the living Tradition of the Catholic Church (CCC # 113). It is necessary that the study of Sacred Scripture be done in union with a study of the Sacred Tradition within the context of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The special place that the Church holds for Sacred Scripture in Christian theology is not compatible with the false doctrine of sola Scriptura, "Scripture alone." Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single deposit of the Word of God (Dei Verbum 10). Instructing the Christians of Thessalonica St. Paul wrote: Stand firm, then, brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. And in the same letter he wrote: In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we urge you brothers, to keep away from any of the brothers who lives an undisciplined life, not in accordance with the tradition you received from us (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6; also see 1 Corinthians 11:2).
God's written word is supported by and grew out of Catholic Oral Tradition. The interpretation of Biblical passages must compliment and conform to Catholic doctrine as passed on to us orally from Jesus to the Apostles, to their disciples the first Bishops of the Church and down through the past 2,000 years to the Magisterium of the Universal Church (Acts 1:3; John 20:30). In Spiritus Paraclitus IV, 3, Pope Benedict XV declared if an individual desires to comprehend Sacred Scripture he must understand its relation to Tradition and the Magisterium. He cites the writings of Church Fathers as the specific aspect of Tradition in Scripture study. If an interpretation contradicts the sacred Tradition of doctrine passed down through the ages as taught by the Church, then that interpretation is in error. This union between Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church is called "the three-legged stool principle" in that one cannot stand without the other two: It is clear, therefore, that Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls (Vatican II, Dei Verbum 10).
The Bible is one whole and complete book which contains the word of God written down by His Holy Spirit inspired writers in order to reveal God's comprehensive plan for the salvation of humanity. Be aware that symbols in the Bible are not isolated but are part of a system of symbolism that fit together; for example, the Book of Revelation cannot be interpreted without an understanding of the symbolism and visions in the books of the Prophets Ezekiel and Daniel. The Bible is above all consistent: the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New (St. Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum 2,73: PL 34, 623; Dei Verbum 16). Therefore, in order to be correctly interpreted, the Old Testament must be read in the light of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ our crucified and resurrected Lord (CCC# 129; 134).
Be mindful that the interpretation of Sacred Scripture is not the prerogative of every individual Christian. The universal Catechism states: The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him (CCC# 100). This is a teaching affirmed by St. Peter in 2 Peter 1:20-21: At the same time, we must recognize that the interpretation of Scriptural prophecy is never a matter for the individual. For no prophecy ever came from human initiative. When people spoke for God it was the Holy Spirit that moved them. By "prophecy" Peter does not mean foretelling future events; he is referring to those people who were divinely inspired to write down the words of God "all the words of God are prophecy. Jesus gave sole authority to the Church which He established as the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, and this authority includes the interpretation of the words of God written down for our instruction (Matthew 16:16-20; 18:18; John 20:22-23).
Finally, try to read your Bible daily. It is a good practice to begin each day with the Biblical passages of the daily readings of the Mass. When you attend Mass pay close attention to the Biblical passages and try to follow the advice of the great 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople. St. John Chrysostom's advice to Christians: "I want to ask one favor of all of you before I turn to the words of the Gospel. Do not refuse my request, for I ask nothing difficult or burdensome of you; nor do I ask that which, if granted, will be advantageous to me alone who receive. Rather, it will be advantageous to you also, who grant it, and perhaps even more so to you than to me. What then do I ask of you? That each of you take in hand that part of the Gospels which is to be read in your presence on the first day of the week or even on the Sabbath; and before that day comes, sit down at home and read it through; consider often and carefully its content, and examine all its parts well, noting what is clear, what is confusing, what seems to assist the position of the adversaries but really does not. And, in a word, when you have sounded every point, then go to hear it read. From such zeal as this there will be no small benefit both to you and to me." St. John Chrysostom [c. 344/54-407], Bishop of Constantinople, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 11.1 circa 391AD
Michal Elizabeth Hunt, Copyright © Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved. 2000; revised 2007 on the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity