Since the Bible is more than a how-to manual on being Catholic or a group of stories to derive moral applications to our life, it takes a certain level of understanding to receive the Word of God as He intended. Reading the Bible takes grace, dedication to study, and most of all humility. It would most likely be detrimental to a new reader to open the Bible randomly and begin reading without any aid or guidance. The Bible is riddled with complexities and seeming contradictions, and many have fallen into the pitfalls of confusion, revulsion and errant personal interpretations. Yet, the Catholic Church has given us an excellent framework in which to interpret scripture that allows us to freely come to know the Word.
It was never the intention of the Church to make scripture interpretation a completely isolated event. Like our Jewish ancestors in faith, scriptures were handed down orally in the home and in worship by the early Christians. Those lucky enough to be literate and have academic studies on the Bible during the early Church into the middle ages would always have an instructor to guide and correct interpretation errors. Even the monks who transcribed Bibles for new generations took meticulous care to transcribe every word exactly as received, and would collaborate with other monks to make sure this happened.
Within the Church there are three sources of authority: Sacred Scripture (the Bible), Sacred Tradition (the living transmission of the Catholic faith), and The Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church handed on through Apostolic Succession). These three authorities work together in unity to transmit one deposit of faith to introduce the world to God. Learning from all of these authorities, we can understand the gift of the Bible and enter into a relationship with the Word of God.
We must first recognize that God, through the Holy Spirit, is the author of sacred scripture. Dei Verbum 11 (document on sacred scripture from the Second Vatican Council) tells us: “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.” Using the words of scripture, God descends lovingly to His children to convey His love for them in a communication they understand. Thus scripture must be interpreted in the Spirit that it was written. If God is the author of scripture, we must ask for the gift of understanding from the Holy Spirit to understand His Truth.
We also must be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”(CCC112):
All of Scripture is pointing to the coming of the Messiah so it must be read with the Messiah as the center. God has beautifully hidden the New Testament in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New. Using Typology (classification according to general types), we discover hidden meanings and foreshadowings that span across both Testaments.
We should read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church” (CCC 113):
The Bible shows us the heart of God who is eternal. It is not just a history book. We must allow God’s word to speak to our hearts continuously, not at one time or from one time. The Word of God is continually unfolding throughout history, making all things new (Revelation 21:5)
We must be attentive to the analogy of faith (CCC 114):
By “analogy of faith” we mean that God has passed to us in Divine Revelation. Our interpretations of the Bible cannot contradict what has been handed to the Church. In our humility, we may struggle and wrestle with teachings and interpretations, but never outright deny Church teachings. Also, our struggle must be aimed towards finding Truth.
These are guidelines for understanding the Bible as a whole. Yet, the Church also assists us in each individual encounter with Scripture. In scriptural exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text), we identify two senses of scripture: the Literal sense and the Spiritual sense.
The Literal Sense of Sacred Scripture:
The meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation. Simply put, the literal sense is exactly what the words are saying, taking into account the time period and the intention of the author. As the Catechism tells us “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”
The Spiritual Sense of scripture is split into three different categories:
We understand events that tell us how to act according to the will of God in our own lives. Whether this interpretation is literally receiving the words of the text and applying them to our lives, or learning from the example of a biblical figure, we take what we read and allow our lives to be changed by God’s word.
We understand biblical events as they relate to Jesus Christ. Prophesies, typological figures, prayers and psalms all point to the coming of Jesus. This sense reinforces the teaching of Divine authorship and Jesus as the Word of God.
We understand biblical events as they reveal to us truths about eternity. Our lives are ultimately aimed toward eternal union with our Creator in Heaven. The Word of God reveals to us the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit, and His plan to be with us forever. The Bible is full of illusions of our eternal home.
While this may seem overwhelming at first, much of the framework has been taught to us when we learned how to read critically. Coupling this with someone who is striving to humbly walk daily with God, the framework becomes barely visible. Like riding a bike without training wheels, once we have enough practice reading the Bible, the framework becomes second nature to us and actually increases our freedom of finding Truth. Within the guidelines of the Church, there is a unique beauty to how God speaks to us individually in our own lives, and the adventures are endless for those who submit to His Word.