"The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church"

Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission
to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993
(as published in Origins, January 6, 1994)


Exegetes may have a distinctive role in the interpretation of the Bible but they do not exercise a monopoly. This activity within the church has aspects which go beyond the academic analysis of texts. The church, indeed, does not regard the Bible simply as a collection of historical documents dealing with its own origins; it receives the Bible as word of God, addressed both to itself and to the entire world at the present time. This conviction, stemming from the faith, leads in turn to the work of actualizing and inculturating the biblical message, as well as to various uses of the inspired text in liturgy, in "lectio divina," in pastoral ministry and in the ecumenical movement.

A. Actualization

Already within the Bible itself--as we noted in the previous chapter--one can point to instances of actualization: very early texts have been reread in the light of new circumstances and applied to the contemporary situation of the people of God. The same basic conviction necessarily stimulates believing communities of today to continue the process of actualization.

1. Principles

Actualization rests on the following basic principles:

Actualization is possible because the richness of meaning contained in the biblical text gives it a value for all time and all cultures (cf. Is. 40:8; 66:18-21; Mt. 28: 19-20). The biblical message can at the same time both relativize and enrich the value systems and norms of behavior of each generation.

Actualization is necessary because, although their message is of lasting value, the biblical texts have been composed with respect to circumstances of the past and in language conditioned by a variety of times and seasons. To reveal their significance for men and women of today, it is necessary to apply their message to contemporary circumstances and to express it in language adapted to the present time. This presupposes a hermeneutical endeavor, the aim of which is to go beyond the historical conditioning so as to determine the essential points of the message.

The work of actualization should always be conscious of the complex relationships that exist in the Christian Bible between the two testaments, since the New Testament presents itself, at one and the same time, as both the fulfillment and the surpassing of the Old. Actualization takes place in line with the dynamic unity thus established.

It is the living tradition of the community of faith that stimulates the task of actualization. This community places itself in explicit continuity with the communities which gave rise to Scripture and which preserved and handed it on. In the process of actualization, tradition plays a double role: On the one hand, it provides protection against deviant interpretations; on the other hand, it ensures the transmission of the original dynamism.

Actualization, therefore, cannot mean manipulation of the text. It is not a matter of projecting novel opinions or ideologies upon the biblical writings, but of sincerely seeking to discover what the text has to say at the present time. The text of the Bible has authority over the Christian church at all times, and, although centuries have passed since the time of its composition, the text retains its role of privileged guide not open to manipulation. The magisterium of the church "is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, by divine commission, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the church listens to the text with love, watches over it in holiness and explains it faithfully" (Dei Verbum, 10).

2. Methods

Based on these principles, various methods of actualization are available.

Actualization, already practiced within the Bible itself, was continued in the Jewish tradition through procedures found in the Targums and Midrashim: searching for parallel passages (gezerah shawah), modification in the reading of the text ('al tiqrey), appropriation of a second meaning (tartey mishma'), etc.

In their turn, the fathers of the church made use of typology and allegory in order to actualize the biblical text in a manner appropriate to the situation of Christians of their time.

Modern attempts at actualization should keep in mind both changes in ways of thinking and the progress made in interpretative method.

Actualization presupposes a correct exegesis of the text, part of which is the determining of its literal sense. Persons engaged in the work of actualization who do not themselves have training in exegetical procedures should have recourse to good introductions to Scripture, this will ensure that their interpretation proceeds in the right direction.

The most sure and promising method for arriving at a successful actualization is the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture, especially in the case of the texts of the Old Testament which have been reread in the Old Testament itself (e.g., the manna of Exodus 16 in Wisdom 16:20-29) and/or in the New Testament (Jn.6). The actualization of a biblical text in Christian life will proceed correctly only in relation to the mystery of Christ and of the church. It would be inappropriate, for example, to propose to Christians as models of a struggle for liberation episodes drawn solely from the Old Testament (Exodus, 1-2 Maccabees).

Based upon various forms of the philosophy of hermeneutics, the task of interpretation involves, accordingly, three steps: 1. to hear the word from within one's own concrete situation; 2. to identify the aspects of the present situation highlighted or put in question by the biblical text; 3. to draw from the fullness of meaning contained in the biblical text those elements capable of advancing the present situation in a way that is productive and consonant with the saving will of God in Christ.

By virtue of actualization, the Bible can shed light upon many current issues: for example, the question of various forms of ministry, the sense of the church as communion, the preferential option for the poor, liberation theology, the situation of women. Actualization can also attend to values of which the modern world is more and more conscious, such as the rights of the human person, the protection of human life, the preservation of nature, the longing for world peace.

3. Limits

So as to remain in agreement with the saving truth expressed in the Bible, the process of actualization should keep within certain limits and be careful not to take wrong directions.

While every reading of the Bible is necessarily selective, care should be taken to avoid tendentious interpretations, that is, readings which, instead of being docile to the text make use of it only for their own narrow purposes (as is the case in the actualization practiced by certain sects, for example Jehovah's Witnesses).

Actualization loses all validity if it is grounded in theoretical principles which are at variance with the fundamental orientations of the biblical text, as, for example, a rationalism which is opposed to faith or an atheistic materialism.

Clearly to be rejected also is every attempt at actualization set in a direction contrary to evangelical justice and charity, such as, for example, the use of the Bible to justify racial segregation, anti-Semitism or sexism whether on the part of men or of women. Particular attention is necessary, according to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (Nostra Aetate, 4), to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people. The tragic events of the past must, on the contrary, impel all to keep unceasingly in mind that, according to the New Testament, the Jews remain "beloved" of God, "since the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:28-29).

False paths will be avoided if actualization of the biblical message begins with a correct interpretation of the text and continues within the stream of the living tradition, under the guidance of the church's magisterium.

In any case, the risk of error does not constitute a valid objection against performing what is a necessary task: that of bringing the message of the Bible to the ears and hearts of people of our own time.

B. Inculturation

While actualization allows the Bible to remain fruitful at different periods, inculturation in a corresponding way looks to the diversity of place: It ensures that the biblical message takes root in a great variety of terrains. This diversity is, to be sure, never total. Every authentic culture is, in fact, in its own way the bearer of universal values established by God.

The theological foundation of inculturation is the conviction of faith that the word of God transcends the cultures in which it has found expression and has the capability of being spread in other cultures, in such a way as to be able to reach all human beings in the cultural context in which they live. This conviction springs from the Bible itself, which, right from the book of Genesis, adopts a universalist stance (Gn. 1:27-28), maintains it subsequently in the blessing promised to all peoples through Abraham and his offspring (Gn. 12:3; 18:18) and confirms it definitively in extending to "all nations" the proclamation of the Christian Gospel (Mt. 28:18-20; Rom. 4:16-17; Eph. 3:6).

The first stage of inculturation consists in translating the inspired Scripture into another language. This step was taken already in the Old Testament period, when the Hebrew text of the Bible was translated orally into Aramaic (Neh. 8:8,12) and later in written form into Greek. A translation, of course, is always more than a simple transcription of the original text. The passage from one language to another necessarily involves a change of cultural context: Concepts are not identical and symbols have a different meaning, for they come up against other traditions of thought and other ways of life.

Written in Greek, the New Testament is characterized in its entirety by a dynamic of inculturation. In its transposition of the Palestinian message of Jesus into Judeo-Hellenistic culture it displays its intention to transcend the limits of a single cultural world.

While it may constitute the basic step, the translation of biblical texts cannot, however, ensure by itself a thorough inculturation. Translation has to be followed by interpretation, which should set the biblical message in more explicit relationship with the ways of feeling, thinking, living and self-expression which are proper to the local culture. From interpretation, one passes then to other stages of inculturation, which lead to the formation of a local Christian culture, extending to all aspects of life (prayer, work, social life, customs, legislation, arts and sciences, philosophical and theological reflection). The word of God is, in effect, a seed, which extracts from the earth in which it is planted the elements which are useful for its growth and fruitfulness (cf. Ad Gentes, 22). As a consequence, Christians must try to discern "what riches God, in his generosity, has bestowed on the nations; at the same time they should try to shed the light of the Gospel on these treasures, to set them free and bring them under the dominion of God the Savior" (Ad Gentes, 11).

This is not, as is clear, a one-way process; it involves "mutual enrichment." On the one hand, the treasures contained in diverse cultures allow the word of God to produce new fruits and on the other hand, the light of the word allows for a certain selectivity with respect to what cultures have to offer: Harmful elements can be left aside and the development of valuable ones encouraged. Total fidelity to the person of Christ, to the dynamic of his paschal mystery and to his love for the church make it possible to avoid two false solutions: a superficial "adaptation" of the message, on the one hand, and a syncretistic confusion, on the other (Ad Gentes, 22).

Inculturation of the Bible has been carried out from the first centuries, both in the Christian East and in the Christian West, and it has proved very fruitful. However, one can never consider it a task achieved. It must be taken up again and again, in relationship to the way in which cultures continue to evolve. In countries of more recent evangelization, the problem arises in somewhat different terms. Missionaries, in fact, cannot help bring the word of God in the form in which it has been inculturated in their own country of origin. New local churches have to make every effort to convert this foreign form of biblical inculturation into another form more closely corresponding to the culture of their own land.

C. Use of the Bible

1. In the Liturgy

From the earliest days of the church, the reading of Scripture has been an integral part of the Christian liturgy, an inheritance to some extent from the liturgy of the synagogue. Today, too, it is above all through the liturgy that Christians come into contact with Scripture, particularly during the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.

In principle, the liturgy, and especially the sacramental liturgy, the high point of which is the eucharistic celebration, brings about the most perfect actualization of the biblical texts, for the liturgy places the proclamation in the midst of the community of believers, gathered around Christ so as to draw near to God. Christ is then "present in his word, because it is he himself who speaks when sacred Scripture is read in the church" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). Written text thus becomes living word.

The liturgical reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council sought to provide Catholics with rich sustenance from the Bible. The triple cycle of Sunday readings gives a privileged place to the Gospels, in such a way as to shed light on the mystery of Christ as principle of our salvation. By regularly associating a text of the Old Testament with the text of the Gospel, the cycle often suggests a Scriptural interpretation moving in the direction of typology. But, of course, such is not the only kind of interpretation possible.

The homily, which seeks to actualize more explicitly the word of God, is an integral part of the liturgy. We will speak of it later when we treat of the pastoral ministry.

The lectionary, issued at the direction of the council (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 35) is meant to allow for a reading of sacred Scripture that is "more abundant, more varied and more suitable." In its present state, it only partially fulfills this goal. Nevertheless even as it stands it has had positive ecumenical results. In certain countries it also has served to indicate the lack of familiarity with Scripture on the part of many Catholics.

The Liturgy of the Word is a crucial element in the celebration of each of the sacraments of the church; it does not consist simply in a series of readings one after the other; it ought to involve as well periods of silence and of prayer. This liturgy, in particular the Liturgy of the Hours, makes selections from the book of Psalms to help the Christian community pray. Hymns and prayers are all filled with the language of the Bible and the symbolism it contains. How necessary it is, therefore, that participation in the liturgy be prepared for and accompanied by the practice of reading Scripture.

If in the readings "God addresses the word to his people" (Roman Missal, n. 33), the Liturgy of the Word requires that great care be taken both in the proclamation of the readings and in their interpretation. It is therefore desirable that the formation of those who are to preside at the assembly and of those who serve with them take full account of what is required for a liturgy of the word of God that is fully renewed. Thus, through a combined effort, the church will carry on the mission entrusted to it, "to take the bread of life from the table both of the word of God and of the body of Christ and offer it to the faithful" (Dei Verbum, 21).

2. Lectio Divina

Lectio divina is a reading, on an individual or communal level, of a more or less lengthy passage of Scripture, received as the word of God and leading, at the prompting of the Spirit, to meditation, prayer and contemplation.

Concern for regular, even daily reading of Scripture reflects early church custom. As a group practice, it is attested in the third century, at the time of Origen; he used to give homilies based on a text of Scripture read continuously throughout a week. At that time there were daily gatherings devoted to the reading and explanation of Scripture. But the practice did not always meet with great success among Christians (Origen, Hom. Gen., X.1) and was eventually abandoned.

Lectio divina, especially on the part of the individual, is attested in the monastic life in its golden age. In modern times, an instruction of the biblical commission, approved by Pope Pius XII, recommended this lectio to all clerics, secular and religious (De Scriptura Sacra, 1950: Ench. Bibl., 592). Insistence on lectio divina in both its forms, individual and communal, has therefore become a reality once more. The end in view is to create and nourish "an efficacious and constant love" of sacred Scripture, source of the interior life and of apostolic fruitfulness (Ench. Bibl., 591 and 567), also to promote a better understanding of the liturgy and to assure the Bible a more important place in theological studies and in prayer.

The conciliar constitution Dei Verbum (No. 25) is equally insistent on an assiduous reading of Scripture for priests and religious. Moreover--and this is something new--it also invites,"all the faithful of Christ" to acquire "through frequent reading of the divine Scripture 'the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus' (Phil. 3:8)." Different methods are proposed. Alongside private reading, there is the suggestion of reading in a group. The conciliar text stresses that prayer should accompany the reading of Scripture, for prayer is the response to the word of God encountered in Scripture under the inspiration of the Spirit. Many initiatives for communal reading have been launched among Christians, and one can only encourage this desire to derive from Scripture a better knowledge of God and of his plan of salvation in Jesus Christ.

3. In Pastoral Ministry

The frequent recourse to the Bible in pastoral ministry, as recommended by Dei Verbum (No. 24), takes on various forms depending on the kind of interpretation that is useful to pastors and helpful for the understanding of the faithful. Three principal situations can be distinguished: catechesis, preaching and the biblical apostolate. Many factors are involved relating to the general level of Christian life.

The explanation of the word of God in catechesis (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 35, General Catechetical Directory, 1971,16) has sacred Scripture as first source. Explained in the context of the tradition Scripture provides the starting point, foundation and norm of catechetical teaching. One of the goals of catechesis should be to initiate a person in a correct understanding and fruitful reading of the Bible. This will bring about the discovery of the divine truth it contains and evoke as generous a response as is possible to the message God addresses through his word to the whole human race.

Catechesis should proceed from the historical context of divine revelation so as to present persons and events of the Old and New Testaments in the light of God's overall plan.

To move from the biblical text to its salvific meaning for the present time various hermeneutic procedures are employed. These will give rise to different kinds of commentary. The effectiveness of the catechesis depends on the value of the hermeneutic employed. There is the danger of resting content with a superficial commentary, one which remains simply a chronological presentation of the sequence of persons and events in the Bible.

Clearly, catechesis can avail itself of only a small part of the full range of biblical texts. Generally speaking, it will make particular use of stories, both those of the New Testament and those of the Old. It will single out the Decalogue. It should also see that it makes use of the prophetic oracles, the wisdom teaching and the great discourses in the Gospels such as the Sermon on the Mount.

The presentation of the Gospels should be done in such a way as to elicit an encounter with Christ, who provides the key to the whole biblical revelation and communicates the call of God that summons each one to respond. The word of the prophets and that of the "ministers of the word" (Lk. 1:2) ought to appear as something addressed to Christians now.

Analogous remarks apply to the ministry of preaching, which should draw from the ancient texts spiritual sustenance adapted to the present needs of the Christian community.

Today this ministry is exercised especially at the close of the first part of the eucharistic celebration, through the homily which follows the proclamation of the word of God.

The explanation of the biblical texts given in the course of the homily cannot enter into great detail. It is, accordingly, fitting to explain the central contribution of texts, that which is most enlightening for faith and most stimulating for the progress of the Christian life, both on the community and individual level. Presenting this central contribution means striving to achieve its actualization and inculturation, in accordance with what has been said above. Good hermeneutical principles are necessary to attain this end. Want of preparation in this area leads to the temptation to avoid plumbing the depths of the biblical readings and to being content simply to moralize or to speak of contemporary issues in a way that fails to shed upon them the light of God's word.

In some countries exegetes have helped produce publications designed to assist pastors in their responsibility to interpret correctly the biblical texts of the liturgy and make them properly meaningful for today. It is desirable that such efforts be repeated on a wider scale.

Preachers should certainly avoid insisting in a one-sided way on the obligations incumbent upon believers. The biblical message must preserve its principal characteristic of being the good news of salvation freely offered by God. Preaching will perform a task more useful and more conformed to the Bible if it helps the faithful above all to "know the gift of God" (Jn. 4: 10) as it has been revealed in Scripture; they will then understand in a positive light the obligations that flow from it.

The biblical apostolate has as its objective to make known the Bible as the word of God and source of life. First of all, it promotes the translation of the Bible into every kind of language and seeks to spread these translations as widely as possible. It creates and supports numerous initiatives: the formation of groups devoted to the study of the Bible, conferences on the Bible, biblical weeks, the publication of journals and books, etc.

An important contribution is made by church associations and movements which place a high premium upon the reading of the Bible within the perspective of faith and Christian action. Many "basic Christian communities" focus their gatherings upon the Bible and set themselves a threefold objective: to know the Bible, to create community and to serve the people. Here also exegetes can render useful assistance in avoiding actualizations of the biblical message that are not well grounded in the text. But there is reason to rejoice in seeing the Bible in the hands of people of lowly condition and of the poor; they can bring to its interpretation and to its actualization a light more penetrating, from the spiritual and existential point of view, than that which comes from a learning that relies upon its own resources alone (cf. Mt. 11:25).

The ever increasing importance of the instruments of mass communication ("mass media")--the press, radio, television--requires that proclamation of the word of God and knowledge of the Bible be propagated by these means. Their very distinctive features and, on the other hand, their capacity to influence a vast public require a particular training in their use. This will help to avoid paltry improvisations, along with striking effects that are actually in poor taste.

Whatever be the context--catechetics, preaching or the biblical apostolate--the text of the Bible should always be presented with the respect it deserves.

4. In Ecumenism

If the ecumenical movement as a distinct and organized phenomenon is relatively recent, the idea of the unity of God's people, which this movement seeks to restore, is profoundly based in Scripture. Such an objective was the constant concern of the Lord (Jn. 10:16; 17:11, 20-23). It looks to the union of Christians in faith, hope and love (Eph. 4:2-5), in mutual respect (Phil. 2: 1-5) and solidarity (1 Cor. 12:14-27; Rom. 12:45), but also and above all an organic union in Christ, after the manner of vine and branches (Jn. 15:4-5), head and members (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:12- 16). This union should be perfect, in the likeness of the union of the Father and the Son (Jn. 17:11, 22). Scripture provides its theological foundation (Eph. 4:4-6; Gal. 3:27-28), the first apostolic community its concrete, living model (Acts 2:44; 4:32).

Most of the issues which ecumenical dialogue has to confront are related in some way to the interpretation of biblical texts. Some of the issues are theological: eschatology, the structure of the church, primacy and collegiality, marriage and divorce, the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood and so forth. Others are of a canonical and juridical nature: They concern the administration of the universal church and of local churches. There are others, finally, that are strictly biblical: the list of the canonical books, certain hemmeneutical questions, etc.

Although it cannot claim to resolve all these issues by itself, biblical exegesis is called upon to make an important contribution in the ecumenical area. A remarkable degree of progress has already been achieved. Through the adoption of the same methods and analogous hermeneutical points of view, exegetes of various Christian confessions have arrived at a remarkable level of agreement in the interpretation of Scripture, as is shown by the text and notes of a number of ecumenical translations of the Bible, as well as by other publications.

Indeed, it is clear that on some points differences in the interpretation of Scripture are often stimulating and can be shown to be complementary and enriching. Such is the case when these differences express values belonging to the particular tradition of various Christian communities and so convey a sense of the manifold aspects of the mystery of Christ.

Since the Bible is the common basis of the rule of faith, the ecumenical imperative urgently summons all Christians to a rereading of the inspired text, in docility to the Holy Spirit, in charity, sincerity and humility; it calls upon all to meditate on these texts and to live them in such a way as to achieve conversion of heart and sanctity of life. These two qualities, when united with prayer for the unity of Christians, constitute the soul of the entire ecumenical movement (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, No. 8). To achieve this goal, it is necessary to make the acquiring of a Bible something within the reach of as many Christians as possible, to encourage ecumenical translations--since having a common text greatly assists reading and understanding together--and also ecumenical prayer groups, in order to contribute, by an authentic and living witness, to the achievement of unity within diversity (cf. Rom. 12:4-5).
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