Basis of Catholic interpretation of Bible differs from Protestants’

Published: January 12, 2002

By Abbot Jerome Kodell

Catholics are often criticized for not knowing the Bible as well as their Protestant brothers and sisters. Many Protestants are able to quote texts and to answer questions about their beliefs with a line from the Bible, while Catholics are not so quick on the draw.

The biblical knowledge of the average Catholic has increased dramatically during the past 30 years, thanks to the Church’s encouragement of Bible study programs, as well as the introduction of a three-year cycle of Sunday readings and the preaching based on those many new texts.

But even Catholics with an extensive knowledge of the Bible — and there are many now —have not always found it easier to discuss the Bible with Protestants or to state the biblical basis for Catholic beliefs.

The main reason for this is because Catholics and many Protestants have different starting points for interpreting the Bible. I will refer here to three of these differences: concern about the literary form of a passage, the use of the Old Testament, and the context of Church tradition.

Many Protestants are fundamentalists, meaning in practice that they interpret each word or phrase in the Bible at face value, without reference to differences in culture from ancient to modern times, and without attention to the particular literary form of a passage.

Catholics are taught that the first step in interpretation of the Bible is the same as for other literature, to identify the literary form in the original context. In the newspaper that means: is it a report or an editorial, a straight commentary or a satire? For the Bible it might mean: is it a history or a parable, a Gospel or a psalm, is it spiritual or biological (which affects, for example, the interpretation of “born again”)? This applies also to phrases: are they literal or metaphorical (“She laughed her head off”)?

Catholics consider the whole Bible divinely inspired, but give a different weight to the Old Testament and the New in matters of doctrine and spiritual guidance. The Catholic principle here is that revelation is progressive up to Christ. In other words, as the people of God moved through history, God worked with us according to our understanding, preparing us gradually for the full revelation in Jesus Christ.

Some Old Testament norms are not final and have to be read in light of the New Testament. An example would be Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5: “You have heard ... but I tell you ...”.

The most important norm in Catholic interpretation is the authentic tradition of the Church. The Bible was given to the believing community of Jesus’ disciples, not to individuals, and only the community, acting under the Spirit’s guidance through its appointed leaders, is empowered to define its teaching. The contemporary Church reads the Bible in the context of the tradition of interpretation through the centuries in order to locate the constants.

In John 13, for example, Jesus issued a strong mandate: if you consider me your teacher and Lord, you must imitate me in washing one another’s feet. There is nothing in the Bible to indicate that this may be taken metaphorically, as meaning loving service. Only Church tradition has the authority to warrant such an interpretation.

Difficulties in discussing the Bible experienced by Catholics and Protestants may arise not from lack of Bible knowledge but from different approaches to biblical interpretation.

Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, is the abbot of Subiaco Abbey.