Apologetic Tracks The Bible: Many Interpretations?

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The Bible: Many interpretations?

 As Catholics we believe that the Bible is the Revealed Word of God. We believe that God chose human authors to convey his revealed word, first by word of mouth then in writing.  These human authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, conveyed the revelation of God in human terms, using stories, parables, images, and literary styles that would best convey the revealed message.  What the reader must do is identify the human expressions which may or may not be true and the revealed word of God which is always true.

To begin, we must realize that Jesus established the Church first on Pentecost Sunday, before the revealed Word of God was complete.  To this body of believers he promised and sent the Holy Spirit who would reveal the truth of the Word of God.

Jesus said to the Apostles at the Last Supper: “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.  For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you….  I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.  But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.  He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.  He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (Jn 16:7, 12-15)

It is this Church which continued every first day of the week to read the Word of God from the Law and the Prophets as well as proclaimed in word the Gospel of Jesus and write letters, providing teachings.  In time the verbal Gospel was written down.

Since there were many alleged writings claiming to be the Word of God, the Church decided under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern and determine what was the authentic Word of God and what were pious writings.  Thus the Bible, as we know it today, came into being from the compilation of the many scrolls, letters and books circulating among the various Christian communities.  This index of books was ratified by the Pope and the Bishops of the Church, the authority established by Christ.

Now the next question deals with the interpretation of  the revealed Word of God.  One of the criticisms leveled against the Catholic Church by some is that the Church at one time forbade people from reading the Bible.  The reality was that many people could not read and therefore only those instructed were the ones who read and interpreted the Scriptures. Then when this was no longer a problem, another issue became evident, namely, private interpretation of the Word of God from texts that were not accurate and themselves translated and interpreted with a bias.

Maybe the best way to approach this problem of interpretation is to briefly talk about the three levels of interpretation: a) the literal sense, b) the fuller sense, c) the typical sense.

The literal sense is the most basic.  It is the intended meaning which the human author directly wished to convey through his words.  In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.’”(CCC 116)

This is different from a fundamentalist or interpretation which looks only at the word and not its context, independently from what the author may have intended. What did the author mean when he wrote under inspiration?  For example, when Jesus spoke about the Bread from Heaven in the sixth chapter of John, what did he mean when he said he would give us his body to eat and his blood to drink?  Was he talking symbolically or literally?  When some of his disciples found this hard to believe, did Jesus try to explain what he meant or was his statement clear as is? At the Last Supper when Jesus said: “Take and eat. This is my Body…Take and drink, this is my Blood”, did he explain what he meant?  Or were they to take it literally?  Is this in conformity with the rest of the Scriptures?

The second level of interpretation is the fuller sense, namely, the deeper meaning intended by God over and beyond what the human author may have intended.

In the Old Testament, the prophets revealed that God would send a Messiah to deliver the Chosen People from their bondage. This future person, who would be a descendant of David, would restore the Kingdom to its former glory.  All these prophesies were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate as the Son of Man.  The fuller sense of the prophesies was what God, as author, intended, even though at the time the prophets and those who heard and read them had a limited understanding.

It is the Church, reflecting on the Word of God, which brings to light the fuller meaning of those prophesies, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, there is the third form of interpretation, namely, the typical sense. Paul refers to this in the fifth chapter of Romans, among other places. “But death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come. (Rom 5:14) Adam is a type or foreshadowing of Jesus, the second Adam.  Going back to what Jesus said about the gift of his Body and Blood to eat and drink.  He began the dialogue between himself and those who had experienced the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish by challenging the people to the greater sign to come: “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  For on him the Father, God, has set his seal”…(They responded).”Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” (Jn 6: 27,31-35)

Jesus was saying that the Manna in the desert was a type of the true food God will give, namely, the Body and Blood of Jesus, which Jesus promised here and fulfilled at the Last Supper.

Likewise, the Passover meal was a type of the true Passover sacrifice and meal Jesus offered and established at the Last Supper and on the cross.

The problem with the interpretation of Scripture is who has ultimate authority to give the ultimate and final understanding of the Word of God?  Without such an authority, there is a risk that the Word of God could be misinterpreted, as has occurred over the centuries. (How else can we explain the multiplication of various Christian Churches professing Jesus, but disagreeing on other fundamental beliefs?)

Though a person may privately interpret the Scriptures, it must be submitted to the authority of the Church, who alone has been guaranteed by Christ to speak with authority. “He who hears you, hears me.”

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
(Mt 16:18-19)

 
If there is no higher authority than the individual, then we will experience contradictory interpretations of the same passage according to the individual’s personal bias, as in fact has occurred. Yet, each one claims that the Spirit of God inspired the interpretation.  But if the Spirit is the Spirit of Truth how can the Spirit contradict himself?  Paul says: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”(1 Cor 14:32)

God in his infinite wisdom foresaw this and provided for it through the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church.

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