Fr. Robert Barron is famous for the insight that the Bible is not a Book, it is a library of many books from different periods and using different genres. Christians sometimes get asked, “Do you read the Bible literally?” But this is like asking, “Do you read the Library literally?” Well, of course that would depend on what section I was in. If I were in the science section I might read rather literally and technically. But if I were in the poetry section I would read rather differently with an openness to allegory, hyperbole, and the like. Other interpretive modes would be operative in the history section, the computer and technical manual section, the science fiction section, philosophy, religion and so forth. When walking into a library we have enough sophistication to make distinctions as to the genre of a book, its historical period, its purpose and so forth.
In reading Scripture we need a similar sophistication. Some of the Bible is straight forward history. But other sections are poetry, saga, Biography or exhortation. Still other sections use literary techniques such as parables, analogy, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, and expressions of the day.
In order to understand and sort all this out, some knowledge of the period when the text was written is helpful. Knowing something of the people involved and their circumstances is also essential. This is the kind of sophistication we bring to any other ancient writing we might encounter.
But one of the problems many bring to scripture is the tendency to read it in a crudely literalistic and mechanistic manner that does not respect the genre and purpose of a particular part of the Bible. To be sure there are passages we do read and understand in a literalistic manner. For example, “this is my Body.” Further we accept that the Scriptures record the things that Jesus actually said and did. But where many get lost is by taking literally what are figures of speech. Now we use figures of speech all the time. For example, We might say “It’s raining cats and dogs.” or “The world is turned upside-down.” Now we know what these expressions mean and that we do not mean them in a literalistic way. And so, we need some sophistication when we read in scripture that we are to gouge our our eye, or cut off our hand. When we are told not to cast our pearls before swine, nor give what is holy to dogs. When we are told by Jesus that we must love him and hate our father and mother, son and daughter, even our very self. These were expressions of the day which have a true meaning but which require a little sophistication to properly understand.
Again, the Bible is a library, not a book and we need to take heed of what “section” we are in. That said, The Scriptures have within them an internal unity where all the many individual books announce God’s plan and sets forth the ultimate destiny of man which is caught up in God’s redeeming love.
The Catechism gives some rules when it comes to interpreting Scripture:
- Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”. Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover. (CCC # 112) It is for this reason that we read the Old Testament in light of the New. For ultimately, everything there points to Christ, and to the life of Grace he would bring forth.
- Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture. (CCC # 113). Scripture emerges from and is a part of the living Tradition of the Church. Hence it must be understood within that context.
- Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By “analogy of faith” we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation. (CCC # 114). For the truths of faith must be held in a balance. When we allow one truth to eclipse others this is heresy. Further, one text of the Scripture does not the whole bible make. Texts have to be understood with the balance of the whole, and of the faith in general. There is a danger in “proof-texting” because it often removes a certain passage from the whole of Scripture which can help to balance and nuance it. Further, proof-texting may also take a text out of the wider context of the faith as a whole which may also help to balance and nuance it.
- According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church. (CCC # 115)
- 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) Be careful here, “literal does not mean “literalistic” but, rather, what is the literary meaning of a text. That is, “What is the text actually saying.”
- The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs. (CCC # 117) Scripture is always more than historical occurrences. It is also about you spiritual journey and mine. Scripture is not spectator sport. You and I are in the story. I am Peter, Mary, Pilate, Joseph and so forth. The events and words of scripture transcend time and have spiritual meaning now as well. The crossing of the Red Sea was more than an historical event. It is baptism, it is salvation. And so forth.
- The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism. The word allegory comes from the Greek allēgoría, meaning to speak so as to imply something other. In other words, the events and deeds of the Bible point beyond themselves to something greater and other.
- The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.
- The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem. Another example might be that the journey of the Jewish people for forty years in the desert is a sign of our pilgrimage trough the desert of this life to the Promised Land of Heaven.
- A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses: The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.
Here are a couple of very good videos that make rather plain the Catholic approach to Biblical interpretation. The first video is from Fr. Robert Barron and details two key Catholic interpretive principles: the importance of Genre and that Jesus Christ is the interpretive key to to understanding the whole Bible.The second video is from John Martignoni and is a very brief description of the Literal vs. Literalist interpretation.