Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How To Read The Bible, The Catholic Way

Middle last month, Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Klang, Selangor Parish Priest Fr Michael Chua gave a two-hour workshop on How to read the Bible, the Catholic way. He explained on the history, the scriptural background of the biblical records, the authenticity, the relevance, principles of Catholic biblical interpretation among others.

He advised the Catholic parishioners that reading and interpretating the Bible should take into consideration the following criteria:

-- The content and unity of the whole of the scripture

-- Read the scripture within the living tradition of the whole church

-- Be attentive to the analogy of faith. In reading the Bible, Fr Chua, also advised parishioners to pay attention to

-- the geographical, historical and cultural background of the times

-- the circumstance of the writing — the target audience, time, place and other factors and

-- interpret according to the purpose of the writer, the setting and in the light of the whole context of the biblical teachings.

Source: Herald Malaysia

How do we read Sacred Scripture? (CCC 101-141)

There are three main ways of answering this question; how we read the Bible from a spiritual perspective, from a practical perspective and from an intellectual perspective. There is, of course, some overlap between these three answers, but – in the main – this is a good way of looking at it.

As this is a course on apologetics, the answers are geared towards reading the Bible for the purpose of apologetics rather than any other purpose. However, the tips on how to read the Bible will enhance your understanding and appreciation of Sacred Scripture even if you never engage in any apologetics.

Spiritual tips for reading the Bible correctly

Although it is possible to read any book and learn something from it, it is always best to read a book in the way the author intended, and keeping in mind the message which he intended to imbue the text with. While there are literary critics who seem to delight in reading a text and finding meanings which the author never intended or envisaged, saying “Well, in light of modern scholarship . . .” or some such nonsense, this is clearly not the correct way to read any book (that is not to say that one should not read a literary work searching for a meaning that no-one else has found, but that one should not deliberately seek to find a meaning which is isolated from or in opposition to what the author intended.)

So, how can we read the Bible in this manner (i.e. in accord with what the author meant?) The best way would be to learn what the author meant – but this is difficult because (as the history of the Bible shows) the Bible does not have a single human author, and all of the human authors are long dead!

Fortunately, the Bible was not just written by human beings. It was written by human beings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the author of Sacred Scripture can be said to be the Holy Spirit – we should read the Sacred Scriptures in the way He wants them to be read. The CCC reminds us that “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written (CCC 111).

And it is this – the authorship of the Holy Spirit of the Sacred Scriptures – which is at the heart of all guidelines about how one should read the Bible.

The Bible should be read Prayerfully and Humbly

Because the Bible is the word of God, it is necessary that we pray before reading it. As techniques such as lectio divina show, it is possible to pray using the words of Sacred Scripture. If we do not approach the Bible mindful of the fact it is a sacred text then we run the risk of treating the Bible as nothing more than another historical document. The Bible is far more than this, and we should always read it with a concern for holiness.

We should also read the Bible humbly – the Bible is the word of God which has been passed down to us by Jesus Christ's Holy Catholic Church. When we read the Bible we are reading something that is much, much bigger than we are! We should remember that we are limited creatures reading the words of the limitless Creator. As is clear from the many different interpretations of the Bible in the world, a large number of passages of Scripture are difficult to understand (Saint Peter says this of the letters of Saint Paul in II Peter 3:16). We should have humility when reading the Scriptures, realizing that our intellects and minds may be insufficient to provide us with the correct interpretation. This is not to suggest that it is impossible for a human mind to correctly interpret the Scriptures, but rather that it is possible a human mind could make a mistake or not understand. As II Peter 1:20 tells us, no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of private interpretation – we should not be so proud as to say that we are capable of interpreting the Scriptures as private individuals, rather we should humbly interpret them in accordance with the public interpretation of the Church. We should never seek to impose our own views and doctrinal opinions on the Bible – we should read it, aware of the fact it is a Catholic Church document.

Perhaps the best example of this humility regarding Bible reading is Saint Augustine writing to Saint Jerome;

And if in these writings [the Scriptures] I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. (Letter LXXXII, 3)

The Bible should be read as a Unity

The Bible is not a single book – it is a collection of many different books. Each book is made up of many separate verses. But this does not mean that we should seek to read and interpret the Bible as anything other than a unified whole. To focus on only isolated passages or to take them out of context risks seriously distorting Scripture's meaning. We should read the Bible as a consistent whole (CCC 112) – this is why it was assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit into a single book, rather than being left as separate documents.

Reading verses in isolation can cause what appear to be contradictions; John 3:16 says that we need faith to be saved. This is perfectly true, but if that were the only verse we read it would sound as if all we needed was faith (sola fides) – but it says in James 2:24 that we are saved by works and not by faith alone. As shown by other verses we are required to keep God's commandments (Matthew 19:17) and to have charity (I Corinthians 13:1-13) in order to be saved – if we only read one of these verses, we might think that all we needed was to obey, or to be charitable.

In order to stand a chance of understanding the whole picture of salvation (or, indeed, of any aspect of Christianity) we need to read the Bible as a unified whole. (The fact we need to read the whole of Scripture in order to get a complete understanding of Christianity does not mean that Scripture is solely sufficient, without anything else, to determine doctrine. What it means is that – if we use the Scriptures – we must use them as a whole.)

The Bible should be read within the living Tradition of the Church

No-one who reads any verse the Bible today is the first person to read and try to understand that verse; there is a living Tradition of almost 2000 years of Biblical scholarship and understanding. Most of the men who have been responsible for this scholarship have not only been exemplary scholars, but also saints of the Church – men who were exceptionally holy and humble during their lives. Many of them were blessed with having known the Apostles personally, or had mystical experiences or other events which afforded them a greater understanding of the truth of the Scriptures.

Modern scholarship cannot compete with the Tradition of the Church in this regard. Although modern technological, archaeological and linguistic analysis can provide us with additional understanding of such things as the history of the Bible, the techniques used and stylistic connections to other works of antiquity, they can never provide us with a newer and better theological understanding. To suggest that there might be some vital truth in Scripture which was not revealed to the Apostles and passed onto the Catholic Church flies in the face of the simple statement that Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to teach the Apostles “all truth”.

For modern scholars to say that they are able to get to further theological truths and to “what the authors really meant” ignores the historical origins of the Bible. The Bible is the Catholic Church's document, and while it is possible to interpret it in a thousand different ways, only those interpretations which are in accord with the living Tradition of the Church are correct (CCC 113).

The Bible should be read according to the Analogy of Faith

Because there can be no contradiction in God, and Jesus has established His Church personally and sent the Holy Spirit to teach her all Truth, all revealed truths must be consistent with each other. This Holy Spirit guides and protects both the Scriptures and the Church from error. Because the Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself, any interpretation of the Bible must be consistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

We know that the Magisterium of the Church is without error and that we are fallible human beings who do not have the right and authority to interpret Scripture ourselves (II Peter 1:20). Scripture does not interpret itself – it is always interpreted by an authority. Scripture is without error, but interpretations are not. Therefore, if we read the Bible in a correctly humble state of mind, we should realize that our interpretations must agree with those of the Church in order to be accurate.

Does this limit us, or place restrictions on our intellectual freedom? The answer is clearly yes – but it does so in a way which is beneficial to us. The restrictions placed on us by our interpretations having to agree with the Church's teaching can be likened to a highway through the desert – if we stick to the highway we will get where we should be going, without risking dehydration, attacks by scorpions or sunburn. This is what the analogy of faith is – a highway which allows us to benefit from the wisdom and understanding of previous Christians and the Church as a whole.

The ideal form of intellectual freedom is not freedom to make an error, but freedom from error. Reading the Bible according to the analogy of faith gives us this freedom – it allows us to increase our knowledge of Scripture by learning correct truths about it. There is no value in knowing things which are false or which are spiritually dangerous. The confidence inspired by knowing that, by interpreting the Bible in union with the teachings of the Church, we cannot err is a wonderful gift which allows us to grow in holiness.

Practical tips for reading the Bible correctly

Bible versions & extra-Biblical study aids

It seems as if there are hundreds of Bible versions, different translations, paraphrases and so forth, with different footnotes and introductions. It can be very confusing trying to work out which Bible one should read.

Fortunately, most translations are accurate enough to ensure that no major doctrines are under threat from the words of translation itself (there are some obvious exceptions, such as Bibles produced by the Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons which have been inaccurately translated). It is a good idea to avoid Bibles which are merely paraphrases rather than translations, as they can obscure the meaning.

While the adage “The best Bible is the Bible you will read”, one should exercise caution. Firstly, one should read a Catholic Bible – that is one which contains all 73 books (46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament). Protestant Bibles are missing seven whole books and portions of two more; these were removed by Martin Luther because they supported Catholic doctrines which he did not agree with. Obviously, therefore, in order to read the Bible in union with the Church's understanding of Scripture, we need those seven books!

Also, the majority of Bibles contain footnotes which provide interpretation and commentary – care must be taken to ensure that the footnotes are not advancing a theological agenda contrary to the truth of the Catholic Church. Most Protestant Bibles, for example, will have footnotes for Matthew 16:18 which deny the plain, literal truth of the verse.

In addition to the actual text of the Bible, there are many study aids and other resources which can be useful when reading Sacred Scripture. Many of these are provided within the Bible itself (such as footnotes or cross-references) but some of them (such as concordances) are usually available in separate books.

Introductions are often included at the beginning of each book, or set of books (for example, the Pentateuch or the Gospels) and offer information and insights into the history, structure and main points of this section of the Bible. Care must be taken that the introductions do not advance heretical or incorrect theological notions – remember, nothing in the Bible but the text itself is inspired.

Footnotes and endnotes are found either at the bottom of the page or at the end of the chapter or book. These can explain difficult verses – by providing typologies, glosses for uncommon words, and even variant readings found in different manuscripts. Many complex books of the Bible are very hard to understand without footnotes. Because you do not have to turn the pages and flip back and forth to read footnotes, but you do with endnotes, footnotes are generally easier to use.

Cross-references are very useful too. They provide the reader with information about passages where similar themes are discussed, or where Jesus or an Apostle quotes from an Old Testament work. Reading with cross-references can increase your understanding for the Bible as a unified whole.

A Doctrinal or Topical Index is a feature found in a number of Bibles, although they do exist as separate publications. This lists the various verses which address a particular topic or doctrine, allowing you to locate the Bible verses which support that doctrine or discuss that subject.

A concordance is a special type of dictionary which give the verses where any particular word appears in the Bible. Some concordances are called exhaustive and they list all the occurrences of all the words – such books are very large! Concordances can be very helpful in finding a specific verse or in doing word studies.

A number of Bibles include a commentary running alongside the text, providing an explanation of what the passages mean. Commentaries can provide a great deal of additional understanding and enhance your appreciation of Sacred Scripture. Conversely, a bad commentary which is contrary to the Church's teaching can cause spiritual harm.

So, which Bible versions are recommended? The NAB (New American Bible) and the RSV:CE (Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition) are both excellent texts with generally good footnotes. Hyperlinked verses in these articles link to the NAB (although any Catholic translation you choose to use will be perfectly fine). If a Bible with a commentary is desired, then the Navarre Bible is recommended.

Mechanical aids & tips on annotation and memorization

You will want to read your Bible often and make notes in it. Selecting a good Bible is about more than taking care over the translation and footnotes; you need a book which will stand up to the rigors of extensive reading!

Choose a Bible which is sturdy and has pages that are not easily torn and which stop ink bleeding through from one side to the other. A Bible which is bound in such a way that the pages can lie flat when you place it on a table is a good investment as well.

Your Bible should be large enough so that the print size can easily be read and there is enough room to make notes in the margins, but not so large you cannot carry it easily on the plane, subway or to Adoration Chapel.

A Bible which has the text of Scripture laid out in columns and with subheadings is to be recommended, as this is often easier to read and certainly easier to find verses in. Many Bibles have cut-outs or tabs (these can also be bought separately) which make locating particular books easier. A bookmark or two – either a ribbon attached to the spine, or separate ones (even just a few Holy cards!) can also be extremely useful.

Do not be afraid to make notes in, highlight or otherwise mark your Bible – this is a Bible, not the spotless garment you will need to present at the feast of the Lamb! Highlight verses or footnotes, and make clear notes.

When memorizing, do not attempt to memorize word for word, and is it often not necessary to remember chapter and verse. If you have highlighted and made notes well, you will be able to find the relevant verse simply by checking your highlighting and notes.

Intellectual tips for reading the Bible correctly

The Four Senses of Scripture

The words of Sacred Scripture can be read in a number of different ways, but there are four main ways of reading and understanding them. We call these ways senses.

Scripture can (and should be) read in a literal sense. Although the word can mean without figures of speech, idiom or metaphor, it is used in this context to refer to what the author intends. For example, the phrase “I was frightened to death” does not mean that the writer literally died, but rather that he was very scared. It is very important to first read Scripture in the literal sense of what is being said, taking into account the metaphor and idiom of the time and place when Scripture was written, before proceeding to any other understanding. As the Catechism says, “All other senses of Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116).

An allegorical reading of Scripture is the second sense. This is a form of typology. In an allegory, one event represents another through certain important similarities. As an example, the crossing of the Red Sea is an allegory of Christian baptism (in both events the believers are saved by water). It is important to understand that allegorical readings rely on the literal sense – both events are to be read as literally happening; an allegory is not the same as a parable.

The moral sense of Scripture is also an essential aspect of it. The literal events we read about should inspire us to read good and moral lives. They were “written down for our instruction” (I Corinthians 10:11). The miracle accounts in the Gospels are literal truth, but each contains a moral message – most often that we must have faith in Jesus Christ as the center of our universe and the one to whom we must always look for guidance and protection.

The final sense is the anagogical – this refers to passages in Scripture which can be read as a foreshadowing of what Heaven will be like. This sense is similar to, but distinct from, the allegorical.

Every single verse in the Bible has – at the very least – the literal intended meaning (although see below for details on determining if the passage is literal in the technical sense or the ordinary sense). But most passages have some form of spiritual meaning as well – a good example is the story of God feeding the Israelites with manna during their wanderings (Exodus 16). This refers to a literal event where the Jews were literally fed by God, but allegorically the manna foreshadows the Eucharist where Jesus feeds us spiritually with His real flesh and real blood. In moral terms, this miracle encourages us to humbly trust in God's provision. Anagogically, this story reminds us that just as the manna ceased when the Jews reached the promised land, so will the Eucharist end when we enter Heaven and see God face to face.

Ordinary and Technical Use of the Term Literal

The ordinary meaning of the term “literal” is that the words should be read without taking into account any figures of speech, idiom, metaphor, exaggeration and so forth. Thus, if someone were to say, “Abortion makes me sick” the ordinary literal interpretation would be that the person feels physically ill or vomits because of abortion.

However, the technical meaning of the term literal takes into account these figures of speech and other literary techniques, and realizes that the meaning is the one intended by the author. So, when someone says “Abortion makes me sick” the technical literal interpretation would be that the person is shocked and horrified by abortion, and that he might not feel physically sick at all.

We should always begin by attempting to interpret the Bible as literal in the ordinary sense of the word before proceeding to the technical definition. Of course, that does not mean we should stick to an ordinarily literal definition when that would be foolish – it means that we should not immediately assume that Scripture is speaking figuratively. There are four conditions which apply to the figurative sense of Scripture; at least one of them must be met in order for the passage to be reasonably interpreted in a figurative way.

The Bible itself makes it clear that it is figurative. For example, if the phrase “Jesus told them a parable” is used, or if the words “like” or “as” are used. This does not change the truthful nature of what is said, but means that we must read the words as a figure of speech or metaphor.

The literal interpretation is contrary to common sense. For example, when Jesus calls Herod a fox (Luke 13:32) is it only reasonable to assume that Jesus means he is sneaky, deceitful, rapacious or other characteristics which foxes are purported to have. To suggest that the King was a small carnivorous mammal would not only be silly, but is also not supported anywhere else in Scripture or secular history.

The literal interpretation challenges known facts. For example, Joshua 10:13-14 describes the sun as orbiting the earth, but modern science has proven this to be incorrect. Joshua is using phenomenological language (that is, describing things the way they appear). When we say “I went up north” or “down south” we are doing the same thing. This figurative language does not invalidate the literal truth of Scripture, but merely shows that we must read it correctly. It is very important, however, to ensure that we do not read passages as phenomenological or figurative because of unproven “facts”. It would be a gross error to read Jesus' Resurrection as figurative because someone has “proven” that His death was merely a swoon, and it simply appeared that He died. This is against the Catholic faith, and is also completely unproven. We must always be very careful to weigh so-called facts against the unfailing teaching of the Church.

The literal interpretation would cause God to contradict Himself. Most of these examples are an example of hyperbole, exaggeration or over-simplification. For example, when we are told that “all men sin” this does not mean that Mary ever sinned – this is an example of hyperbole. When Jesus tells us to “call no man father” (Matthew 23:) but earlier has referred to Abraham as our “father” (Matthew 3:9) we know that we cannot take Him completely literally. A more reasonable assumption, which is in accord with the teaching of the Church, is that Jesus was using exaggeration and hyperbole to illustrate His point.

When reading Scripture, we must always assume that the story is literally true unless one of the above conditions is present. A good example would be the story of Jonah and the great fish. We are not told anything more about the fish other than it is very large and capable of swallowing a man. Even though it is described as a “fish” and whales are mammals, it seems more reasonable to assume that the creature is a large whale (which were described as fish during the time the Scripture was written) as only very large whales are capable of swallowing a man whole. This is an example of figurative phenomenological language – a whale lives in the sea and looks a lot like a fish.

But we cannot suggest that the story of Jonah being swallowed is figurative (that is, a parable or something similar) – the story is incredible and hard to believe, but that does not mean it did not happen. The Virgin Birth, Resurrection and Ascension are very hard to believe – but that does not mean they are not true. In the absence of solid evidence, we should always read the Bible as if the stories contained in it are literally true.

Understanding Miracles in Scripture

There are two main reasons that God performs miracles (or uses a human being or other created object to perform miracles) – firstly, to protect His people (in order that He can bring forth the Messiah from Israel, or protect His Church) and secondly to illustrate an important theological and spiritual point. It is possible for a single miracle to be performed for both of these reasons (such as the parting of the Red Sea).

The practical protection miracles require little explanation – they are necessary if God's people are to survive and His word is to be spread in the manner He wants it spread! But, the miracles will illustrate an important point are ones which reward a greater understanding and more in-depth study.

Miracles are performed to establish God's divinity and power, and to prove it to those who see the miracle. Most of Jesus' miracles fall into this category (although they may fall into other categories too). Many miracles carried out by the disciples and Apostles are of this form as well – people believe in the Gospel message because those who are preaching it perform signs and wonders.

Some miracles are also performed in order to show the compassion and mercy of God; many of the healing miracles fall into this category. God cares for us, both body and soul, and He desires us to be happy.

A number of miracles are a form of supernatural metaphor or allegory which illustrates a deeper spiritual truth. When Jesus raises Lazarus form the dead, He is foreshadowing the Resurrection. The turning of water into wine is an allegory for the wellspring of grace available under the New Covenant.

It is very important to realize that no miracle story in the Bible should be read as figurative; all of the miracle stories should be read as historical events which actually happened. Modern scholarship has sought to discredit many of the miracle accounts, saying that they did not happen or have a mundane, scientific explanation. While having an understanding of how the universe works (the laws of the physical world) is to be encouraged, if it leads to a denial of a revealed truth of the Catholic faith it can never be a good thing.

As an example, some modern scientists have discovered that – at certain times – the Red Sea can suddenly “run dry” within a few hours, and then – equally quickly – flood again. This scientific knowledge is good and even laudable; to understand God's creation is a wonderful thing. However, if one says that the Israelites were therefore not saved by God and that it was pure chance, one is denying the Israelites' role as the chosen people and the fact that they were saved by God. This leads to a lack of belief in God's power and providence, and is spiritually dangerous.

A better way of looking at the revealed truth of the faith and the scientific evidence would be to say that God, who has control of all things in the universe, caused the Red Sea to part by creating the very special circumstances which are required to make this event happen. This does not detract from God's power and sovereignty, and perhaps even allows us a greater understanding of how He effects the world.

Reading Parables Correctly

Parables are a form of analogy – they are short stories, the characters and situations of which represent elements in our spiritual lives. Their plots and denouements allow us to understand a profound truth in an easily accessible manner, illustrating supernatural realities through natural events.

It is Jesus who makes the greatest use of parables in His teaching. In Matthew 13:3 we are told that “He told them many things in parables”. The Gospels record over 30 parables told by Christ.

Parables can be read on a number of levels, and most of them do not have a single interpretation. Not all interpretations are correct, and when dealing with parables we should be mindful of the fact we need to be guided to interpret the Bible in light of the teaching of the Church.

For example, we might read the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32) and conclude that the Kingdom of God can be “cut down” like a tree and thus destroyed. But this is clearly contrary to the teaching that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church – this simple example illustrates the dangers of personal interpretation and not reading the Bible as a unified whole.

Parables can also be hard to understand – they are puzzles in many ways, which require specialized skills to decipher and interpret. Jesus says that He teaches in parables so that people will not understand, and He also explains may parables in private. We have not only many of the private interpretations of the parables from Jesus in the Gospels, but also the teaching authority of the Church. We have no excuse not to interpret a parable correctly – although that does not mean we should not read them in order to increase our holiness.

Source: Catholic Basic Training

Please post your comments.



Amy Seet said...

I this a good article. I learnt a few tips from this. I now will approach my reading the bible the Catholic way.

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