By Paul Fahey Thursday, October 10
“For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” – Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) 13.
Muslims are People of the Book – they believe that the Quran is the literal word of God unadulterated by culture, history, context, or even language. If the Quran is translated from Arabic to a different language it is no longer the Word of God, the Quran is only the Quran if it is in Arabic. Christians, however, are not People of the Book – rather, we are People of the Word. Just as we believe that the Word of God, Jesus, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), Christian also believe that the Word of God, Scripture, was given to us through human writers, within human history, and influenced by culture and context. To discover what exactly this means, first we should understand what it doesn’t mean.
First, it does not mean that Scripture is not the God’s infallible revelation. The Vatican II document Dei Verbum (the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) says, “Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (11). Sacred Scripture is “God breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), infallibly authored by the Holy Spirit, yet written down by sinful and fallible men.
Second, unlike the Quran, the Bible is not a dead, stagnant text. Sacred Scripture is a living Word, not only relevant to all generations, but also to the heart of every individual. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Notice that it is not the individual person that gives meaning to Scripture, rather it is Scripture that gives meaning to the person. Thus the individual must make themselves docile to God’s Word, not trying to affirm their own agenda, but rather opening themselves up to whatever God speaks to them.
There are two different “senses” in which Scripture can be read, the literal the spiritual – which is divided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical (CCC 115). The literal sense does not mean the American Fundamentalist Literal (which is more similar to the way Muslims view the Quran than most American Fundamentalists would like to admit). Rather, to properly read Scripture literally, one must first acknowledge that “God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion.” therefore, the reader must “carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” (Dei Verbum 12). To do this one must investigate the human writer’s historical context, culture, and literary genre (CCC 110). Dei Verbum says,
“For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture” (12).
The second sense of Scripture is the spiritual sense, divided into allegorical, moral and anagogical. The allegorical sense provides the reader of Scripture with a more robust understanding of specific characters and events (CCC 117). For example, if Christ is the Passover Lamb, then that provides not only a richer understanding of the Exodus but also of the Last Supper. St. Paul, by the way, read Scripture in a allegorical way (see 1 Cor. 10:1-4). The next sense of Scripture is the moral sense. The Catechism says, “the events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly” (CCC 117) .That is, to act in right order with God, others, ourselves, and the whole of creation. The greatest examples of this can be found in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. The final sense of Scripture is the anagogical, that is, reading the Bible as an eternal narrative that concludes with this kingdom falling away and the Kingdom of God coming to full fruition (CCC 117, also see Rev. 21:1 and Rev. 22:5).
However, when one reads and interprets Scripture, they must not be doing so by their own power. For, “Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written” (Dei Verbum 12). Thus, as Catholics, we believe that the same Spirit that inspired sinful and fallible men to write infallible Scripture, also inspired sinful and fallible men to infallibly interpret Scripture. The men commissioned by God to correctly interpret God’s own Word are the Apostles and their successors – i.e. the teaching authority of the Church (Dei Verbum 12). This gives the faithful a sturdy anchor of Truth in a ocean of over 30,000 different Christian denominations each with their own interpretation of Scripture.
So take another look at those difficult passages of Scripture. You know, the ones that make you cringe when you hear them at Mass, the ones that embarrass you in front of your more sophisticated friends. Read them with a docile heart, then look them up in the Catechism or study Bible and open your mind to what God wants to speak to you here and now, at this particular moment of your life.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology with minors in History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology.