Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Interpreting Scripture


Candy has put forth her principle for scripture interpretation:
The general principle adhered to throughout is that of literalizing instead of spiritualizing. Statements of fact and historical accounts are accepted as such. THE RULE OBSERVED IS: Take the Bible literally wherein it is at all possible; if symbolic, figurative or typical language is used, then look for the literal truth it intends to convey.

The Catholic Church places great importance on the literal sense of Scripture. Let us look to the Catholic Catechism:

115 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.

116 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."
117 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.

1. 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.
2. 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".
3. 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.

While giving the literal sense the greatest importance, we would miss out on the "richness to the living reading of Scripture" if we limited ourselves to the literal meaning.

After giving us her principle, Candy then gives an example:
Some cults like to take John 2:5, which says - "His mother saith unto the servants, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." and try to turn that literal sentence into figures. They'll say things such as "we are the servants, and Mary is telling this to us. We must always listen to Mary." Is this a correct interpretation? Certainly not, as there are no cue words, or anything in the context to suggest that anything other that a literal interpretation is warranted. Mary simply told the servants at the wedding feast in Cana to do what Jesus told them to. That's it.

Certainly, Catholics would agree that the clearest meaning is that Mary told the servant to listen to Jesus. However, that doesn't rule out additional meanings which can be drawn from the text by reading it in ways other than the literal. Surely, there is nothing objectionable in remembering that we should always do whatever Jesus tells us.

I doubt if Candy would take such a strict interpretation to other verses. Take, for example, Matthew 28:19, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

Jesus spoke to his disciples. There are no cue words, or anything in the context to suggest that anything other than a literal interpretation is warranted. Why should we conclude that if Jesus told his disciples to do something, that anyone other than his disciples should do it? Because it enriches our lives, and all of Christianity when we do so.

Scripture is not one-dimensional. Using Scripture as our cue to interpretation makes this clear. Jesus speaks in parables. Song of Songs is poetry. All Christians interpret it in such a way as to apply it to their own lives. Candy's principle is oversimplification.

Additional readings on Catholic Scriptural interpretation:

Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.
Jimmy Akin's The Limits of Scripture Interpretation
Biblical Exegesis from The Catholic Encyclopedia

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