private interpretation of Scripture

The Church has repeatedly condemned using any private interpretation of Scripture to contradict an infallible teaching of the Magisterium. The Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, and all infallible magisterial teachings are required beliefs.

But in the case of open theological questions, there is no such prohibition. The faithful are encouraged by the Magisterium to learn directly from Scripture, to meditate on the meaning of the verses, and to seek a deeper understanding of the truths therein. Private interpretation is a necessity for such tasks.

The example of the Saints, which we should all imitate, shows that study and private interpretation of Scripture is a fruit of cooperation with the graces of God, not an offense against God, so long as magisterial teachings guide our private interpretation.

Then, too, good theology is always based on a search for a deeper understanding of Tradition and Scripture and the teachings of the Magisterium, not on magisterial documents alone. We must pursue an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures in order to understand the Faith ever better.

Pope Benedict XVI has often recommended prayerful meditation on the meaning of Scripture to the faithful:

The conciliar Constitution Dei Verbum emphasized appreciation for the Word of God, which developed into a profound renewal for the life of the Ecclesial Community, especially in preaching, catechesis, theology, spirituality and ecumenical relations. Indeed, it is the Word of God which guides believers, through the action of the Holy Spirit, towards all truth (cf. Jn 16: 13).

Among the many fruits of this biblical springtime I would like to mention the spread of the ancient practice of Lectio divina or “spiritual reading” of Sacred Scripture. It consists in pouring over a biblical text for some time, reading it and rereading it, as it were, “ruminating” on it as the Fathers say and squeezing from it, so to speak, all its “juice”, so that it may nourish meditation and contemplation and, like water, succeed in irrigating life itself.

One condition for Lectio divina is that the mind and heart be illumined by the Holy Spirit, that is, by the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and that they be approached with an attitude of “reverential hearing”.

Thanks, great post!

Another Church source for you:

The Spirit can guide any of us. It’s just that the average Christian does not have the guarantee of inerrant interpretation as a function of that Christian’s “lay office” so to speak.

The Spirit is, assuredly, also given to individual Christians, so that their hearts can “burn within them” (Lk. 24:32) as they pray and prayerfully study the Scripture within the context of their own personal lives. This is why the Second Vatican Council insisted that access to Scripture be facilitated in every possible way (<Dei Verbum,> 22; 25). This kind of reading, it should be noted, is never completely private, for the believer always reads and interprets Scripture within the faith of the church and then brings back to the community the fruit of that reading for the enrichment of the common faith. (Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1994)

In reality, everyone who reads the Bible is engaging in some sort of individual interpretation. There’s no way around it.

What SHOULD happen is that one continues a life-long study, which would include a rich diet of published Catholic authors.

I have a lot of ideas, about which I have and keep an open mind. It has taken me years and years of reading to find out – up or down – about my own ideas. And, I am glad when I get things cleared up.

Before we can graduate to the situation by Ron Conte in the original post, we have to 1) keep and open mind about what we or other people say about the Bible. We have to let people think through issues to train them to read scripture better. 2) we have to learn to be NICE to people when offering correction. Just SLAMMING them with something from the Magisterium isn’t nice. 3) The New Jerome Bible Commentary (now about 20 years in print) points out that there are really very few promulgated positions on scripture. NJBC points out that there’s many fewer hard positions than people realize.

  1. Notwithstanding the preceding, it may be interesting to note that in Judaism, and in its Talmud, there are a lot of discussions of issues from different points of view. This is EXACTLY because there is no OFFICIAL interpretation of any of the Hebrew scriptures in Judaism AND because they don’t have a magisterium comparable to the Catholic Church.

  2. I have finally gotten around to reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’m just about a hundred pages into it. I set a goal of reading 4 pages a day, and I easily beat this goal if I have the time, because the reading is must more interesting than I thought it would be, for a long time.

  3. Yeah, there’s a document issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission around 1993 entitled “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” Think about it. If there was a single-source explains-all book or set of books that explained the Bible, then the Church wouldn’t need such a document-- it would be silly to suggest how to interpret the Bible – it wouldn’t be needed.

But, interpretation and application of the Bible to human life is a never-ending job. Scripture will never be exhausted. There will never be a book that answers all the questions I have about the Bible.

  1. I think it’s in Scott Hahn’s book “A Father that Keeps His Promises” that he says something about not slamming everybody as being a fundamentalist, who take a more literal understanding of scripture. There’s a big difference; fundamentalism means (in MY interpretation) specifically ignoring the Catholic Church – which is something nobody should ever do. But, as in the previous paragraph, the Church simply doesn’t have an interpretation of everything – it’s impossible. That’s why we HAVE a magisterium, to deal with issues that come up from time to time.

One of my favorite ways to read Scripture is by using a commentary, especially from a great expositor or multiple expositors. I have done that for about as long as I have read the Bible. My preference is from traditional minded Catholic commentators from the Church Fathers and all the way up to Aquinas and even Cornelius a Lapide. Lately i have been sifting through Hugh of St. Cher, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Albert the Great and their commentaries on Revelation! Those three are dynamic Bible commentators!

As an example of a problematic interpretation of scripture, I encountered a woman who had been given “training” by a bishop in preaching (!) and had been told how to approach scripture – stick to your guns.

She read a passage where Jesus healed somebody and then told them not to tell anybody about it.

She took a firm, hard stance that the reason for Jesus saying this, was out of fear of Roman persecution.

In interpreting Jesus, I think one should have an open mind about all the possible reasons that Jesus might have had, and sifting to find those that are most plausible and possibly have scriptural support (if possible) or reliable interpretations. In researching the scripture we were discussing, I came across the explanation that Jesus did not want to be mobbed by people simply seeking cures and not listening to his message. Specifically, it was not fear of the Romans.

Even magisterial teaching has a purpose and it may not be to exhaustively interpret a verse.

If there were an obvious and easy-to-obtain magisterial reference, then I think Catholic Study Bibles would have been written with those references next to the text to help us understand them. But, I’ve never seen anything like that. The Ignatius Study Bible is a pretty good stab at doing something like that, but it is certainly not exhaustive on that score.

Dei Verbum (from Vatican II) says that ultimately anybody interpreting scripture should refer to everything the Church has written. Lots of luck with that. there are two million books in the Vatican library. Now, really, how many people can say that they have read all of that? Even the library curator says he doesn’t know what is in the library. They make discoveries all the time.

Appealing to “magisterial teaching” is irrelevant in let’s say, a parish level bible study. The Pont Bibl Commission (in the document I referenced in the previous post) says the layman should just read the Bible alongside a commentary book. That’s what THEY say, I agree with it, It’s the people who write commentaries, for example, that may need to check magisterial level teaching.

It is uncommon for the Magisterium to have a particular definitive interpretation of a particular verse. But it is common that magisterial doctrine sheds light on the meaning of Scripture in a general way. Scripture needs to be interpreted in the light of Tradition and Magisterium. Many magisterial teachings affect the interpretation of Scripture in a subtle or implicit way.

I think it would be helpful to illustrate this with an example. I gave an example above in my previous post.

Maybe you’d like to give us your take on a different question. Did God create death? Does death come from God? Please support your answer with scripture and magisterial interpretation. Does this fall under private interpretation or not?

Yes…but it is extremely common to find a protestant with the definitive interpretation of what virtually every verse in the bible means. :smiley:


On a more serious note…I posted this earlier today in another thread–seems to apply pretty well here, too:

The Church Fathers on the dangers of private scriptural interpretation (apart from the Church, that is):

Private Exegesis apart from Tradition and Church

“True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]; …”
Irenaeus,Against Heresies,4,33:8 (inter A.D. 180-199),in ANF,I:508

"But if there be any (heresies) which are bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, that they may thereby seem to have been handed down by the apostles, because they existed in the time of the apostles, we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men, �a man, moreover, who continued stedfast with the apostles. For this is the manner in which the apostolic churches transmit their registers: as the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter. In exactly the same way the other churches likewise exhibit (their several worthies), whom, as having been appointed to their episcopal places by apostles, they regard as transmitters of the apostolic seed. Let the heretics contrive something of the same kind. …
Tertullian,On Prescription against the Heretics,32 (c.A.D. 200),in ANF,III:258

“For those are slothful who, having it in their power to provide themselves with proper proofs for the divine Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, select only what contributes to their own pleasures. And those have a craving for glory who voluntarily evade, by arguments of a diverse sort, the things delivered by the blessed apostles and teachers, which are wedded to inspired words; opposing the divine tradition by human teachings, in order to establish the heresy.”
Clement of Alexandria,Stromata,7:16 (post A.D. 202),in ANF,II:553-554

“When heretics show us the canonical Scriptures, in which every Christian believes and trusts, they seem to be saying: 'Lo, he is in the inner rooms [ie., the word of truth] ’ (Matt 24.6). But we must not believe them, nor leave the original tradition of the Church, nor believe otherwise than we have been taught by the succession in the Church of God.”
Origen,Homilies on Matthew,Homily 46,PG 13:1667 (ante A.D. 254),in CON,392


Catholics do have latitude within the parameters of the Magisterium to do their own private interpretation. That is, to form their own private opinions. And the key word is OPINION. Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. But unlike some Protestants, Catholics cannot insist that their opinions are the right ones, and unlike some Protestants, cannot insist that if you do not agree with my opinion, you are not saved.

Only the Church as the perogative to decide upon a definitive interpretation of scripture, when a defintion is needed.

Here is some more info to round out the discussion (from a Bible study that I put together years ago) . . .
We As Catholics CAN Interpret Scripture But With Constraints And Conditions**

Yes there are constraints as to how we may or may not interpret Scripture.

You would expect constraints with truth being protected from doctrinal falsehood. The Council of Trent back in the 1500s AD put this teaching in the following manner . . .

COUNCIL OF TRENT Session IV “Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, it decrees that no one, relying on his own skill, shall, – in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy Mother Church – to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures – hath held and doth hold; or even **contrary ** (emphasis mine) to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. . . .
– Council of Trent, Session IV, April 8 1546 (From page 11 Tan Edition Dogmatic Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent).

The laity do in fact have some authority to spread God’s teachings when used in the proper context.

CCC 900a Since, like all the faithful, lay Christians are entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth. . . .

Where do you get your sources from?

My website called the Aquinas Study Bible is where I have many commentaries in English

Here is the commentaries on John McEvilly

For the commentaries on Revelation by St. Thomas and Hugh of St. Cher, they are found here

For the commentary by St. Albert the Great it is found here

For all of Cornelius a Lapide in Latin is here

The Glossa Ordinaria here

Thanks Copland! :slight_smile:

No problem! By the way, I am translating large portions of the commentaries on Revelation by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, and Hugh of St. Cher and adding them as large commentary footnotes for the Aquinas Study Bible. Those commentaries have not been translated into English yet, only very small portions.

I am about to start to read the bible and hope i can learn and understand gods words in a true and devout way.

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