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Interpreting the Bible:
The Right and the Responsibility

by Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M.

Prior to Vatican II most Catholics had little firsthand contact with the Bible. Indeed, they were not encouraged to read the Bible lest such reading lead to "private interpretation," which might well be erroneous or even heretical.

This fear of private interpretation originated in the 16th-century controversies between the emerging Protestant churches, which claimed that the Bible alone was the norm of faith and that its plain meaning was accessible to any believing reader, and the Catholic Church, which insisted that divine revelation came through two sources, the Bible and Church tradition, both of which could only be authoritatively interpreted by the hierarchy. Consequently, most Catholics encountered the Scriptures in English only on Sundays by means of brief passages, usually read out of context, and preached on only occasionally.

The theological controversies over Scripture between Protestants and Catholics are largely a thing of the past. In the first part of the 20th century the Vatican severely restricted Catholic scholars from participating in the rapidly developing field of biblical scholarship. In 1943, however, in a landmark encyclical entitled Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII encouraged Catholic scholars to undertake serious study of the Bible using all appropriate modern critical methods. Today, responsible Catholic and Protestant scholars share the same methods of study, cooperate in new translations of the Bible and produce joint commentaries.

Shared scholarship and ecumenical dialogue since Vatican II have helped Protestants to reappropriate the importance of ecclesial tradition for Christian interpretation of Scripture and have helped Catholics to realize that Church authority is the servant, not the master, of the word of God, and that the Bible is God—s gift to the whole People of God. All believers have the right and the responsibility to read and pray the Scriptures and to share them among themselves and with others. Vatican II teaches that the Bible is "the pure and perennial source of the spiritual life" and that the People of God must be offered a rich diet of the word as well as of the Eucharist at the table of the Lord (see Dei Verbum VI:21-22).

Renewed Enthusiasm for the Bible

In the wake of the Council many Catholics took up the Bible with enthusiasm and fell in love with this beautiful story of God—s engagement with humanity: the creation, formation and liberation of a Chosen People, recounted in the Old Testament, and the coming of God among us in Jesus and the spread of the Gospel throughout the ancient world recounted in the New Testament.

Catholics flocked to lectures and summer courses on the Bible, made biblical retreats, formed Bible study groups and prayed fervently with the biblical text. The lectionary was revised so that large portions of the Scriptures were read, sequentially when possible, in the liturgy. Younger clergy were formed in contemporary biblical methods and trained to preach on the lectionary readings.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon of Catholic biblical enthusiasm was short-lived. Readers soon encountered the problems of serious engagement with the biblical text. The Bible is not only linguistically and culturally strange to the modern reader; it also contains both scientific and historical errors and morally problematic material such as the biblical promotion of war and colonialism, endorsement of slavery and anti-Judaism, patriarchy and sexism, and attitudes of domination toward nonhuman creation.

All of these problems raised in a new way the question of interpretation: How can one read and understand texts which, on the one hand, are held sacred by one—s tradition and, on the other hand, are strange, opaque, difficult and sometimes morally offensive?

Many Catholics in their enthusiasm for Scripture were attracted by the fundamentalist approach of some charismatic Protestant groups. We cannot trace here the history and development of fundamentalism. But it can be described briefly as a position that claims that the Bible is the literal word of God, virtually dictated by God to the sacred authors and therefore to be taken literally as completely free of error of any kind (historical, scientific, theological, moral, social, etc.) and absolutely authoritative for the reader.

Other Catholics, often of a more academic bent, were attracted by the radical liberalism of secularist scholars at the other end of the hermeneutical spectrum. These scholars reduce the Bible to the status of a book similar in every respect to any other book and to be studied accordingly. Faith and Church tradition are essentially irrelevant to such study. The Bible, in such a context, ceases to mediate an encounter with God and becomes primarily a source of historical knowledge about ancient Israel and the first Christian communities.

In effect, fundamentalism so overemphasizes the divinity of the biblical text that it denies the text—s real human character. Radical liberalism so overemphasizes the human character of the biblical text that it empties it of all revelatory capacity. By contrast, the theological position of the Church on the character of the Bible parallels its position on the identity of Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. Just as we believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, so the human character and the revelatory character of Scripture must be held together.

The Bible, although a witness to divine revelation, is a human text, not an oracle. God did not dictate the Bible any more than God literally created the universe out of nothing in seven calendar days.

In fact, most of the Old Testament texts were composed gradually, often over centuries, by generations of people who committed to writing, and repeatedly revised, material they first encountered as oral or liturgical traditions. These traditions, which expressed the people—s interpretation of God—s action among them, were taken up again and again as new circumstances required their retelling and reformulation.

Although the New Testament texts were composed over a much shorter period of time they also began as oral traditions about Jesus told and retold in the first Christian communities. These traditions were gradually committed to writing in diverse circumstances that determined what was included, emphasized or reshaped in the telling.

The biblical texts, then, bear all the marks of human composition: historical conditioning, prejudice, factual error and moral limitation, as well as deep theological and religious insight into the mystery of God—s relationship with humanity. It is this twofold character of the biblical text, its mysterious divine depths expressed in humanly fallible language, which makes interpretation necessary.

Learning to Read Anew

As we know, all meaningful human expression must be interpreted to be understood. This is true of a film or novel, of a cartoon or a racing form, of a letter from a friend or a facial expression.

There is no such thing as reading a text "at face value," that is, without interpretation. To refuse to interpret is one way of interpreting, namely, literalism. It does not deliver the "real unvarnished meaning" but condemns the reader to a superficial (at best) or erroneous reading.

Given that interpretation is necessary for genuine encounter with the word of God through Sacred Scripture, how is such interpretation to be done?

A full answer to this question would involve us in a course of study in the field of hermeneutics and is plainly beyond the scope of this article.

It is possible, however, to indicate briefly some foundational convictions with which to approach biblical study or reading and a few practical techniques or methods to aid such study.

First, we must be convinced that God does indeed desire to communicate with us and that the Bible is a privileged form of that communication.

Second, however, we must realize that the Bible is not a crystal ball. It is a text, and like all great texts it grows in meaning as our life experience expands. But texts are themselves also products of the times, places, cultures and circumstances in which they were written. Consequently, interpretation involves the encounter between two complex sets of factors: ourselves with all our personal and communal experiential baggage (both positive and negative) and the text in all its challenging historical, cultural, religious and linguistic strangeness. Therefore, we can expect that biblical interpretation will be a complex process.

Third, we readers are limited human beings. If we require preparation and effort to read the stock market report, we must expect interpretation of the biblical text to require effort: study, prayer, discussion.

Practical Techniques

Here are a few suggestions to help the nonprofessional biblical reader in this arduous and exciting enterprise.

1) Just as we try to gather all the clues we can (facial expression, tone of voice, context and so on) to interpret ordinary communication, so we need as much information as we can gather about the biblical text we are trying to interpret. It is helpful, therefore, to read a nontechnical but academically sound commentary on the book or passage one is studying in order to have an overall sense of its meaning and its special problems.

2) We should try to keep a balance between respect for the enormous cultural, historical and linguistic distance separating us as modern readers from the ancient world of these texts and basic confidence in the capacity of the humanity we share with these ancient peoples to help bridge that distance. Just as someone who is not a specialist in 16th-century English literature can enjoy a Shakespeare play, so a nonspecialist in biblical matters can understand much of the biblical text if she or he is willing to make the necessary effort.

3) We should read the biblical text as holistically as possible. Before returning to meditate on a single verse that has captured our attention, we should read the whole text in which it appears, that is, the whole parable, narrative or discourse. Details have fuller meaning and are less likely to be misinterpreted if read in context.

4) Since the Bible is the product of a community experience and is meant to nourish and guide the community of believers, it is helpful to share biblical study and prayer with others. Because every great text has multiple meanings and layers of significance, different dimensions of meaning will be discovered by different readers. Furthermore, sharing interpretation minimizes the chances of totally erroneous or idiosyncratic reading.

5) It is important to pay special attention to those texts that make us uncomfortable. God—s ways are not our ways. Revelation often breaks through precisely where our personal biases and social prejudices are called into question and not just where we are comforted or confirmed in what we already think.

6) We should try to discern the "trajectory" or direction in which a problematic text is leading its readers, even if the text did not get to a fully satisfactory position. Paul, for example, did not get to the point of condemning slavery outright but he set out in that direction when he told slaves that their servitude was not really to their human masters but to Christ, and when he challenged Philemon to accept his escaped slave Onesimus as a brother in the faith.

7) Finally, we need to read the Bible prayerfully. The ultimate purpose of reading Scripture is not to find out the answers to our questions or to obtain theological information. It is to gradually put on the mind of Christ so that we will be able to find answers for our time and world that reflect God—s creative and saving will for all people.

Interpretation of Scripture is the work of the whole Church, which must make use of the best scholarship of its professionals, the committed preaching of its pastors and the prayerful meditation of every believer.

We must be responsible in our use of new knowledge about the biblical text, but we must not be paralyzed by the extent and complexity of this knowledge. As Vatican II said, in Scripture God comes lovingly to meet us and converse with us. It is a serious and arduous conversation whose purpose is encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit who inspired these sacred texts as well as those who study and pray them.

Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M., is on the faculty of the Jesuit School of Theology and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

Next: What Really Happened in the Garden: A Look at Genesis 2
(by Dianne Bergant, O.S.A.)



Praying With Scripture

Read Luke 15:1-10, in which God is pictured in two different but parallel images as the One who seeks the lost. What effect on your image of God does praying with both of these biblical images have?



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