Interpreting the Scriptures

Many people like to say that “fundamentalists” or Evangelicals read the Bible literally and Catholics do not. It is not really that simple though. There are many passages that Evangelicals do not read literally. For example, when Jesus says, “This is my Body” they do not interpret these words literally but, rather, conclude that the Jesus should be understood to be speaking symbolically. And we Catholics, who are not usually said to read the Bible literally, do interpret these words quite literally. Another example, When Jesus says that he will build his Church upon Peter whom he declares to be rock, Catholics take these words quite literally to mean that Peter is in fact the Rock upon which Jesus will build his Church. Evangelicals however interpret the rock here to be faith and so the text, which plainly says Peter is the Rock, is interpreted by them to mean that the rock is symbolic for faith. And so on….

So, a simple declaration that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists read the text literally and Catholics do not is simplistic. However, it remains true that Catholics and Evangelicals do have a different interpretive keys. Catholic theology and Tradition has a rather nuanced position in regard to Scriptural interpretation that gives great emphasis to the genre and context of a passage. Some texts which are plain doctrinal statements or historical narrative are interpreted rather literally. However, there are other texts in Scripture which are clearly in the genre of poetry or allegory and hence these should be interpreted that way. Scripture is not merely one book, it is a collection of books written in many different styles. This will affect the interepretation of such books. To a world that wants a simple “slogan approach” to understanding Biblical interpretation¬†a nuanced approach is difficult to stomach. And yet the Catholic approach, though nuanced, is wise since it respects it respects genre, style, and context.

Here are a couple of videos that make rather plain the Catholic approach to Biblical interpretation. The first video is from John Martignoni and is a very brief description of the Literal vs. Literalist interpretation. The second vido 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.