What to make of Paul?

What are we to make of some of St. Paul’s notions that don’t really match current Catholic understanding? i.e., his desire that more people would get up and prophesy in church (try that at your parish next Sunday), or his admonition that women shouldn’t speak in church? These are both in 1 Corinthians 14. I raise the questions not to be quarrelsome, but rather to ask how we, as Bible readers, are to discern the essential from the nonessential. I like being a Catholic–though I’m a pretty poor example of one–but reading the Bible ALWAYS creates more problems for me than solutions, for just such reasons. Any ideas?

…as Bible readers, [how are we] to discern the essential from the nonessential.

The good news is that we don’t have lean on our own understanding to interpret the Scriptures. God has given us the Church to help us. Only the Catholic Church–the same Church that Christ founded, and that wrote the Scriptures and decided what books would be in the Bible–has the authority to interpret them. Jesus’ promise is that he would be with her til the end of time (Matthew 28:20) and that he would lead her to all truth (John 16:13) . We can see that this promise does not apply to individual believers who can and do twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16), but to the Church in her role as teacher and preserver of the faith once handed down to the saints (Jude 1:3).

Thanks, Fidelis. I agree that the Church is the interpreter of scripture. But that fact only bumps my question up a level. What does the Church (which, after all, is us, right?) make of St. Paul’s notions? And, more generallly, where are Catholics (who are encouraged to read their Bibles) to go when specific questions like this arise? I’ve got a hundred of 'em.

[quote=redactorab]Thanks, Fidelis. I agree that the Church is the interpreter of scripture. But that fact only bumps my question up a level. What does the Church (which, after all, is us, right?) make of St. Paul’s notions? And, more generallly, where are Catholics (who are encouraged to read their Bibles) to go when specific questions like this arise? I’ve got a hundred of 'em.
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While we are in a real sense “the Church” not all of us are tasked with being official interpreters of the Bible. We can read the Scriptures for our edification and application to our life, but when we run into difficulties and doctrinal issues, we can turn to the teaching authority of the Church for answers. The examples from 1 Cor. 14 that you raised in your original post fall into the category of “difficulties” because there is no doctrinal issue at stake there. In these cases it was a matter of local custom and propriety at stake.

So how do we know the difference? In truth, the Church has placed official interpretations on only a handful of verses in the Bible so not everything we find there has the same “weight.” A good place to begin is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. If you have the full size edition, you can look in the back at the scriptural index. If there is a reference for the verse in question, look it up and see if there is any interpretation tied to it. If there isn’t, it probably isn’t an issue.

It is also helpful to look at Church approved Bible commentary as this is very helpful in parsing what is doctrine (essential) to what is not. A couple of the most helpful are the Navarre and the Ignatius Study Bibles, both of which have a volume on 1 Corinthians. For more information, I recommend you visit my website linked below.

Thanks, Fidelis. I guess I’ll need to look into those longer Biblical commentaries. The Catechism doesn’t really address the questions I raised about the Corinthians passages. This sort of thing really has presented an ongoing stumbling block for me. Every time I make a concerted effort to spend more time reading the Bible, I get balled up in particular questions and seeming contradictions. Often, when I pursue them through the kinds of resources you’re recommending, it comes to a dead end. Just one example: I’ve had difficulties with Mark 4:10-12 for years. I’ve chased that question down in the commentaries, but have yet to find an explanation that makes sense to me.

I’m an editor by trade, and my instinct is to read for clarity, logic, and understanding. I know the Bible is more than simple history, that its main purpose is to convey spiritual truths. But I find it impossible to read it in a sort of “holistic” way–letting the spiritual truths seep into my consciousness while ignoring the hundred-and-one niggling questions of fact that peck away at me. I suppose the best course, given my turn of mind, would be to pursue each of the troubling questions through the kinds of resources you recommend until I reach a satisfactory answer. But that would take forever, and if, as you say, the Church hasn’t ruled on most of those sorts of issues, it would be bound to end in frustration anyway.

And even if I could pursue every question to an answer that would somehow satisfy me, that kind of “nailing down” effort smacks of a sad, desperate legalism that, to me, seems almost antithetical to the real point of religion.

Contradictory, I know–I crave hard answers, but I don’t think religion should depend on them. Welcome to my world.

Thanks for the discussion.

When it comes to behavior while assembled together for corporate worship, the Church has the right and the duty to decide what will and won’t be done. This is what is called a disciplinary matter, which is not a matter of doctrine. Paul was giving a disciplinary direction, not teaching a doctrine, therefore the Church can change it.

Disciplines can be changed according to the circumstances in which the Church finds itself. Doctrines and dogmas cannot be changed. So, when reading the Scriptures we should understand that the Magisterium is fully aware of what verses must be interpreted as supporting doctrine or dogma and which are merely matters of discipline or devotion.

Hi Della.

That distinction makes sense, thanks. But I guess the next question is Where are the dividing lines between discipline, doctrine, and dogma? Paul’s exhortations about prophesying in Church seem pretty serious–“I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy”–and he goes on at some length. It certainly seems like something that he feels should be happening in Church, call it what you will.

I do trust the Church to lead us to the essentials; I guess my point is that reading the Bible–even with good research tools–can be a confusing and frustrating experience for a critical reader.

[quote=redactorab]Hi Della.

That distinction makes sense, thanks. But I guess the next question is Where are the dividing lines between discipline, doctrine, and dogma? Paul’s exhortations about prophesying in Church seem pretty serious–“I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy”–and he goes on at some length. It certainly seems like something that he feels should be happening in Church, call it what you will.

Well, the GIRM (General Instruction to the Roman Missal) is several pages long, but it’s disciplinary too. :smiley: At some point in history the Magisterium of the Church decided that the form of the Mass ought not to include such extemporaneous expressions as Paul discusses in this passage. It’s one thing to have things like that in house churches of a few dozen people as opposed to Sunday Masses with perhaps hundreds in attendance. Just because Paul talked at length about it doesn’t mean that the Church must do what he directed the people to do under a very different set of circumstances.

The Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church decides what verses are doctrinal or dogmatic matters and what are merely disciplinary or devotional. Only they have that authority: The Magisterium

I do trust the Church to lead us to the essentials; I guess my point is that reading the Bible–even with good research tools–can be a confusing and frustrating experience for a critical reader.

I know what you mean. I am a writer and so want to apply English rules of writing to a Greek text translated into English. When we read Scripture we have to keep firmly in mind that we are not reading the kind of writing we would if we were reading letters or essays or poetry, etc. written in modern English for a modern readership. We have to defer to the Church, whose writings they are and who were there at the time they were written, to tell us what they mean for the whole Church as well as for individual members.
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Don’t listen to him…he couldn’t get it right …ever

Thanks, Della. Those are some helpful ways to think about the issue. As I said, I really have no problem deferring to the Church in matters of Biblical interpretation, but the Church has issued definitive teachings on only a relative handful of particular scriptural passages. And tracking down those interpretations is no picnic; I mean, it’s not as though those “official meanings” are listed anywhere–so that when you hit a troubling passage you can easily go look up what the Magisterium makes of it. It doesn’t work that way. And beyond those few passages that the Church has interpreted, we’re left with, what?, speculation and our own interpretative powers, lame as they are. I mean, if we are meant to be Bible readers, and we are, then we’re supposed (I suppose) to be able to make sense of what we read and profit from it. With the scarcity of definitive interpretation from the Church, and the frequent difficulty of confusing, mysterious, or downright contradictory passages, I still say it’s a darned frustrating experience for a thinking Catholic to read the Bible.

[quote=Fidelis]The good news is that we don’t have lean on our own understanding to interpret the Scriptures. God has given us the Church to help us. Only the Catholic Church–the same Church that Christ founded, and that wrote the Scriptures and decided what books would be in the Bible–has the authority to interpret them. Jesus’ promise is that he would be with her til the end of time (Matthew 28:20) and that he would lead her to all truth (John 16:13) . We can see that this promise does not apply to individual believers who can and do twist the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16), but to the Church in her role as teacher and preserver of the faith once handed down to the saints (Jude 1:3).
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while i agree with what you are saying i also must point out that we are to search the scriptures to make sure what we are being taught is true. luke himself encourages this in the book of acts. acts 17:11 says:
“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians for they received the word of God readily and examined the scriptures daily to see if what Paul was telling them was so.”

so we are to make sure what we are being taught is true. no catholic doctrine will contradict scripture. but a priests opinions (or even a bishop’s or a group of bishops) could be wrong in what they are teaching.

[quote=bengal_fan]we are to search the scriptures to make sure what we are being taught is true. luke himself encourages this in the book of acts…
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Well… if we’re to do that because Luke encourages it in Acts, then why aren’t we to get up and prophesy in church, since Paul encourages it in 1 Corinthians? :slight_smile:
You see the difficulty, I assume.

[quote=redactorab]Well… if we’re to do that because Luke encourages it in Acts, then why aren’t we to get up and prophesy in church, since Paul encourages it in 1 Corinthians? :slight_smile:
You see the difficulty, I assume.
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people with the gift of prophecy are supposed to prophesy. paul, though, instructs in corinthians that spiritual gifts are to be done in an orderly manner, so to just stand up and prophesy in church would be more of a distraction from what is going on than it would be edifying at that moment. if you feel you have the gift of prophecy, talk to your priest. if he ignores you, go higher. write down what you feel God is telling you. act upon it (if it falls within the boundaries of scripture and church teaching) and test it to see if it is truly from God. so, no i don’t see the difficulty. :slight_smile:

Hi bengal_fan:

The difficulty I was referring to was that posed by my original post, which was what to make of some of Paul’s notions–some of which seem at odds with current Church practice. But the wider question is what are we to make of other troubling or seemingly contradictory passages in the Bible? Some here have made the point, and I agree in theory, that the Church is the final interpreter of scripture–but it’s nearly impossible to track down definitive Church readings of particular passages (beyond a very few). I agree that standing up to prophesy in Church would be a distraction, but apparently it was quite the thing in Paul’s day, and he was all for it–except for the women, of course, who should remain silent.

One of the things I noted earlier in this thread was the difficulty I have in simply reading the Bible and not stumbling–in almost every chapter–over a problem of some sort or other. Paul will say something seemingly at odds with our current understanding, or Jesus will say something that seemingly contradicts our ideas of what he’s all about (see Mark 4:10-12 for just one example). These sorts of things make Bible-reading, for me, a frustrating experience. I’ve chased some of these questions into various reference books that supposedly address these issues, but while some issues get resolved, just as many seem to hit a dead end–i.e., you’re left with a contradictory, difficult passage and there you are.

In my reaction to your original post, about Luke, I was simply pointing out this difficulty: How are we to know which of the Bible’s passages to take literally, which to take figuratively, and which to ignore altogether? Some are easy: “Women shouldn’t speak in Church.” Most are not that obvious. And saying “the Church is the final arbiter” doesn’t solve the issue. There’s no standard reference to consult in which you can find the Church’s “official” word on difficult scriptural passages. If there is, I’d be very happy to know about it. The Catechism is not that resource.

And your post, with its indication that we are ultimately responsible ourselves for deciding what’s true in the Bible, just adds to the confusion. What if I decide, on careful reading of Paul, that women really shouldn’t be speaking in Church? Or that I (and everyone else), based on Matthew 5, should start lopping off offending body parts?

Now maybe you see the difficulty?:slight_smile:

In our day, it would be out of place to prophecy in the liturgical gathering of the Church, as a matter of propriety, as defined by the General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM).

However, the opposite is true almost anyplace else in the Church, i.e. not the building, but the body of believers. At the right time and place, it is always good to share the Word that the Father has given to us.

To steal a thought from the late Fr.Raymond A Brown, a noted student of the Bible, part of the question may hinge on whether you take such a statement of Paul as being a blueprint for all time, or, as some might say, an admonition to a specific group at a certain time in the history of the Church.

Brown uses that distinction in a book of lectures called Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church (c.1975) and applies it to the question about ordaining women as priests.

In regard to that specific question, the late pope, His Holiness John Paul II issued a statement c.1994 on the matter, coming down on the side of the “blueprint” interpretation of scripture, as it applies to ordaining men only.

That illustrates not only a couple ways of viewing scripture, but it illustrates a particular application of it.

I am not a Bible scholar, but, perhaps like you, I am a seeker.

Consider the verse in John 21:25 There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written. (NAB)

Do you take this to be figurative or literal? Is it simply hyperbole (exaggeration) ?

After much thought, I have concluded that it is more literal than figurative. If what Jesus has done in your life, my life, and the life of each person, both for salvation or condemnation, was written down, then as far as my finite mind can conceive, that might fill the world. Is that what the writer intended? I don’t know.

What I think when I read the Bible and find something that “supposedly” goes against the current teachings or practices of the Church is that the Church is the final interpreter of Scripture-what the Pope binds and looses and bound and loosed. Therefore, there can’t be an issue with Bible vs. Church.

The Church has been the protector and interpreter of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the past 2,000 some years-there couldn’t possibly be any “proof text” that proves us wrong or that we are doing something wrong. Church theologians and Doctors have been over and over the Scriptures, I’m sure that we will not pick up on something that legions of men for hundreds of years didn’t already!

[quote=ComradeAndrei]What I think when I read the Bible and find something that “supposedly” goes against the current teachings or practices of the Church is that the Church is the final interpreter of Scripture-what the Pope binds and looses and bound and loosed. Therefore, there can’t be an issue with Bible vs. Church.
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Sounds good. Where can I go to read the Church’s interpretations of Scripture? Or are you saying that when you hit a troublesome passage, you just ignore it–happy in the confidence that the Church has checked it all out and you don’t really need to understand or think too hard about the details of what you’re reading? That doesn’t work for me.

[quote=redactorab]Sounds good. Where can I go to read the Church’s interpretations of Scripture? Or are you saying that when you hit a troublesome passage, you just ignore it–happy in the confidence that the Church has checked it all out and you don’t really need to understand or think too hard about the details of what you’re reading? That doesn’t work for me.
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redactorab,

A good place to start would be the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It may not answer all your Bible questions, but it will explain everything the Catholic Church believes and teaches. Also, many Catholic Bibles have study notes that explain the text in great detail. On the other hand, when you come across a troublesome passage, the Church may not have checked it out specifically. She may have never declared one way or the other on a particular subject, in which case you are free to use your private judgment in the matter. I know, how can I say to use “private judgment?” That’s one of the greatnesses of the Catholic faith. Mother Church sets the boundaries, and we’re free to move about in them, as long as we don’t overstep our bounds. However, we are not free to disbelieve a thing the Church has declared to be true. Keep reading Scripture, pray for wisdom and understanding, and if you find something that just doesn’t sit right with you, talk to your priest, or call or write to a Catholic Answers apologist.

JU

Redactorab, I, too, went around in circles trying to understand some portions of scripture, especially Paul. I am not a biblical scholar and am speaking only as an uneducated laymen, so take it for what it’s worth. I found it helpful to read several books by scholars which dealt with society at the time of Paul, the historical significance of his writings, and the literary conventions that he and other biblical authors used.

Paul usually wrote to specific churches in order to address specific problems in those churches. Since he was addressing specific problems, we might misinterpret his writings if we try to generalize and apply them too broadly. Without looking up the first passage you cited, my guess is that he sensed a lack of all the fruits of the Spirit in that church, not just prophecy, and that he was exhorting them to get with the program.

Paul was a product of his times and was obviously influenced by his Jewish upbringing, the society in which he lived, and his perception of his own shortcomings, whatever they were. His writings about women, I think, reflected all of these things, especially society, and I would be hesitant to try to bring some of them forward to the present day since our current society is very different from his.

I spent four years in a non-Catholic bible study group. We bounced around and studied a little from here and a little from there until I was thoroughly confused. Suddenly, the light came on and I started putting things in perspective. Trying to build a theology from snippets of the bible just wasn’t getting it. Starting with God’s expectations of us (the two great commandments) and seeing how scripture fits in with those expectations made a lot more sense to me. When I would run into a seeming contradiction or something I did not understand, I would back off and try to develop a mental overview of what message the author was trying to impart in the chapter or even the whole epistle, then try to fit the troublesome passage into that overview rather than attempt to understand it as a stand-alone item. That approach worked for me most of the time although I frequently had to refer to the writings of others to develop that overview.

This discussion brings to mind a very devout Baptist Sunday school teacher I know. She considers the bible totally inerrant, even verse by verse. One Sunday, she got into one of Paul’s letters that incorporated sarcasm into one of its chapters (sorry, I don’t remember the epistle, chapter or verses). Not realizing that he was saying the opposite of what he meant, she kept backing herself into corners until she finally gave up and moved on to the lesson for the following week.

I hope this will be of some little help to you and I will keep you in my prayers.

the answers section on this site would be a good place to ask some of these questions, I read where they encourage you to do a search first to make sure it hasn’t already been answered. also ewtn. www.ewtn.com (do a search there first too)the vatican web site www.vatican.va and your own pastor. other than that, it is never open to “private interpretation” so read some of what the saints wrote, a lot of that information is also available here and on the other sites I mentioned also. Plus, wasn’t John the Baptist the last Prophet? I believe I read that back in St. Paul’s time they still needed Prophet’s, we don’t now. It’s all been revealed, seems to me we just need more people to listen to the Pope and good, holy priests like those on ewtn and people like Scott Hahn, and of course the good people that are on this site too. (too numerous to mention) and I haven’t memorized all of their names yet. :banghead:

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