Catholic theology begins from faith in God, whose revelation in Jesus abides in the belief and life of the Church.16 Only in the living Church is the fullness of revelation to be found. “Consequently,” Vatican II teaches, “it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed” (DV 9). This priority of the Church as the starting point for theology is peculiarly Catholic. As St. Augustine says: “Indeed, I would not believe in the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so” (FEF 1581).
Catholic theology proceeds from the Church’s living belief and teaching to study Scripture and other expressions and evidences of God’s revelation. These expressions—which I call “witnesses of faith”—must be carefully interpreted, so that the Church will have a rich and accurate sense of her own identity, based upon an abundant memory of her own continuous life. Moreover, Catholic theology seeks to understand revelation ever more fully by asking what light it sheds upon reality, and especially what implications it has for life. These theological studies constantly demand the work of interpretation. Interpretation is at present the subject of many studies and debates; it has become a large and complex question.17 A few clarifications are provided here.
“Interpretation” sometimes is used to refer to the acts of expressing and receiving involved in every communication, even the most simple and immediate. For example, it can be said that when one wants salt and says, “Please pass the salt,” one interprets one’s desire by means of the expression, and that when someone near the salt hears this request and responds to it, the one responding interprets “Please pass the salt.” However, such simple and immediate instances of communication—although, like everything else, they can be subjected to endless study—do not involve interpretation in the sense in which it is especially necessary and difficult in theology. Instances of simple and immediate communication must be presupposed by all complex and mediated communicating. The bulk of human communication is simple and immediate. Even in such communication misunderstandings can occur, but for the most part immediate communication is effortless and fully effective.
In a stricter sense, “interpretation” refers to an effort of mediation, an intervention into the flow of direct and simple communication to facilitate communication when it otherwise would be ineffective and to correct misunderstandings which have occurred. Someone asks in English for salt and is not understood by a table companion who speaks no English. Perhaps the request is interpreted by a gesture. People who think others have misunderstood their words or deeds often say “in other words” or “that was not meant to hurt you,” and try again to convey the intended proposition or soothe the hurt feelings.
As the examples show, interpretation can be helpful in all aspects of personal communication, not only in facilitating an accurate grasp of propositions expressed in language. A nonlinguistic communication such as a touch sometimes needs interpretation (“Excuse me”); actions often require many words to make their significance clear. Moreover, language itself not only expresses propositions, but also is a means for communicating requests (“Grant, we beseech you”), commitments (“I do believe”), images and feelings (much poetry), and so on. Efforts of interpretation appropriate to every possible aspect of personal communication are at times necessary in theological work, since God reveals himself to the whole of us fleshly persons.
In the case of language which expresses propositions, the fact that interpretation is possible and sometimes needed makes it clear that the propositions which are expressed and the language by which they are expressed are not the same. For example, someone can express the truth that snow is white in many languages and even in various ways in the same language. The proposition is a particular truth one can know about snow; it picks out and corresponds to the state of affairs of snow being white. No matter how many ways the proposition is expressed, it remains in itself what is meant by all the linguistic expressions. Thus a proposition is not part of language; it is a nonlinguistic entity. And one proposition can have many and varying expressions in language; for example, the proposition that snow is white is as much one as snow’s being white is one, although the same proposition is expressed in many languages.18
Words often have many meanings, and even long and complex linguistic expressions sometimes are ambiguous. Moreover, the same linguistic expression can have different meanings at different times and in different places. A word such as “person,” which is important in theology, has more than one meaning. Words such as “love” and “law” are ambiguous no matter where and when they are used; usually the context in which they occur helps to make clear what they mean. However, a linguistic context which suffices to eliminate ambiguities in a communication between two persons speaking to each other might not be sufficient if the discourse is recorded or transcribed and later heard or read by someone remote in time and place—that is, by someone whose knowledge of the language might be imperfect and who lives in a very different extralinguistic context.
Language only expresses propositions when a certain extralinguistic context is given. “God loves us” means one thing when said by a believer in a theological discourse, another when said by an atheist who has experienced some tragedy and is speaking ironically. Temporal and spatial references included in propositions descriptive of present events—“It’s raining” said by a person gazing out the window to someone in the same room—often are not expressed in language. In general, language is used to express only what cannot be assumed from the extralinguistic context. Thus this context must be taken into account.
Some who notice these characteristics of language think it follows that propositions vary as the language in which they are expressed varies, and that propositions true at one time and place will be false at other times and in other places. This conclusion does not follow. Propositions are not linguistic entities. The limitations of language, including its variability, cause obstacles to accurate and easy communication and require careful interpretation. But the very fact that an interpreter can know that expressions used at some remote time and place had a different meaning than they would have if used now shows that what the expressions originally meant has not changed. The interpreter tells us what the expressions meant, using other expressions.
Moreover, if the propositions signified by certain expressions were true, subsequent variations in the meaning of the expressions does not affect the truth of the propositions, but only the ability of the expressions to communicate truth without interpretation. The proposition that it is raining, expressed by the person gazing out the window, includes many unmentioned determinations. The proposition is that rain is falling at a certain place, at a certain time, and so forth. If this proposition is true, it will be true always and everywhere, for rain did fall at that place and time and so forth.
The preceding point is very important for theology, since some are misled by a confusion between propositions and their expressions to conclude that truths of faith are not more than their linguistic expressions. Hence, they think that received Christian teachings are open to diverse and incompatible interpretations to complete their meaning at different times and places, much as their linguistic expressions require different efforts at interpretation in diverse extralinguistic contexts.
The fact is that truths of faith need nothing added to them to be true, but always need further truths of faith added to them to develop God’s relationship to his people as he wishes it to develop. As explained previously, the Church always can bring such fresh truths from the riches of revelation. Since every such new truth is an aspect of the one truth revealed by God in the Lord Jesus, no authentic development of doctrine ever can contradict what the Church believed and taught in earlier times and other places.
Of course, since language is as variable as it is and since linguistic expression of truths of faith never can communicate these truths without an adequate extralinguistic context, anyone who tries to interpret old doctrinal expressions while ignoring the most important part of their extralinguistic context—the living Church handing on her whole self to all generations—is likely to misinterpret them. Within the Church, what was revealed by God in Jesus and handed on by the apostles is constantly communicated by the teaching, life, and worship of the whole People of God (see DV 8). For the most part, this communication is simple and immediate—for example, when children are brought up in a good Catholic family. Usually no interpreter is required to facilitate the genuine and fruitful reception of God’s message by such children.
Yet parents and others who communicate the faith in this simple and direct way must themselves be formed by preaching and assisted by other forms of teaching, ultimately under the guidance of the bishops united with the pope. At this level, at least, obstacles to communication and breakdowns in it must be dealt with in a methodical way. Interpretation becomes essential to resolve difficulties and correct mistakes which otherwise would impede the handing on of the faith or corrupt the message of God. But the necessary work of interpretation can only make its contribution if carried out with a clear awareness that the linguistic expressions to be interpreted are only partial expressions of the truths the Church believes, and that the truths which the Church believes are only part of the whole reality which she herself is—the whole reality of humankind’s relationship to God.
This awareness of the context of expressions to be interpreted is likely to be overlooked in the study of sacred Scripture, and so is not least urgent in this study. The Bible contains accounts of the signs by which God reveals himself. It also describes the hearing and reaction with which these revealing signs were received. Because of the personal character of divine revelation, much more than the expression and grasping of propositional truths is involved. The Bible richly reflects this whole communication in all its aspects. For this reason, Scripture contains prose and poetry of many kinds which permanently enshrine many aspects of God’s shaping of his people by his living word.
If one applies historical-critical methods to the study of the Bible on the assumption that it is no different from any other ancient set of writings, one is hardly likely to assist effectively in the work of handing on God’s revelation to which the sacred texts bear witness. One must take into account the ecclesial community to whose culture the Bible belongs. Since much of the text is for use in celebration and for shaping action, a sincere attempt to live out the biblical message and regular liturgical use of the text are as essential to understanding it as appropriate responses of infants to their parents are to their growing understanding of an adult world.19
These remarks are not intended to suggest that careful literary and historical study is unnecessary for the interpretation of Scripture. One must distinguish literary forms, learn about the extralinguistic context, and understand the language originally used and its limits. Since few but experts can do this, most of us must rely for guidance on the best available commentaries. In other words, we must trust experts for a correct understanding of God’s word, which is essential to our Christian life.
Catholics will trust fully only those experts who conform in their work to the guidance offered by the magisterium—the living teaching office of the Church made up of the pope and the bishops in communion with him. For, as Vatican II teaches: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (DV 10; cf. LG 25; DS 3020/1800, 3070/1836). As the pope and bishops are servants and not masters of God’s word, so Catholic Scripture scholars must be servants and not masters of this same word as it is received “whole and alive within the Church” through the service of the successors of the apostles (see DV 7).
The propositions which are asserted by the sacred writers are certainly true (see DV 11). But if one attempts to disengage these propositions asserted in Scripture, one must be on guard because of the many other aspects of the whole reality which is communicated. Moreover, to tell whether a proposition is asserted or not, historical and psychological information often is necessary, and sometimes it simply is not available.
In any effort to disengage from sacred Scripture the truths of faith asserted there, one must bear in mind the Church’s solemn teaching: “. . . in matters of faith and morals affecting the structure of Christian doctrine, that sense of sacred Scripture is to be considered as true which holy Mother Church has held and now holds; for it is her office to judge about the true sense and interpretation of sacred Scripture; and, therefore, no one is allowed to interpret sacred Scripture contrary to this sense nor contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers” (DS 3007/1788; cf. 1507/786). It is important to understand what this basic rule does not mean and what it does mean.
Sometimes in the liturgy and even in the teaching of the Church, phrases and longer passages from Scripture are used with a sense which no one supposes is that of the text in its actual context. This practice is called “accommodation.” Even nonbelievers quote Scripture in this fashion; for instance, they often use “the truth will make you free” (Jn 8.32) to proclaim a secular humanist faith in merely human science and technology. The Church’s accommodated use of Scripture should not be considered her holding of its true sense.
Again, because Catholic theology begins from the present teaching of the Church and examines Scripture and other witnesses to revelation in the light of living faith, one is easily led to find in Scripture propositions which are not there—for example, to find in the Gospels the truth that Jesus is a divine person existing according to both divine and human natures. But this truth of faith is articulated fully only in the fifth century by the Council of Chalcedon (see DS 301–2/148). It is compatible with the truths about Jesus asserted in the Gospels, but the teaching of Chalcedon adds to earlier formulations of faith and makes Christian knowledge of our Lord more complete and more precise. Thus, the Church’s developed doctrine, formulated in concepts not available to the biblical writers, is not to be taken as the true sense of Scripture.
At the same time, it is a mistake to think that the Church holds a certain interpretation of Scripture to be a true meaning of it only if a proposition asserting that interpretation is defined. The Church teaches much more than it proposes in solemn definitions (see 35‑D).
The Church holds an interpretation to be correct when this interpretation is presented in her constant and universal teaching as one which the faithful should accept. For example, the use which the Church makes of Romans 1.20 in her teaching on the possibility of knowing God by the natural light of reason makes clear what the Church holds to be the true meaning of this statement of Paul’s.
Often scholars say the literal meaning of the text is what the original author intended to communicate or what the initial audience would have understood. But the Church does not consistently use this principle in her own interpretation of Scripture. There are several reasons for not doing so.
In the first place, in some cases virtually nothing is known about the original author and audience; in these cases, the ideal is impractical. Moreover, even under these conditions, a text does carry some meaning.20 This, of course, is not to say that available information should be ignored, since it can supply relevant aspects of the extralinguistic context.
What is even more important, speakers and writers often communicate more than they intend. An author writes a sentence, rereads it, and comes to understand “what I meant to say”—a proposition not previously articulated. Thus the connotations and implications of any limited linguistic expression carry a true, fuller meaning (sensus plenior) which can be discovered only by considering the expression in the widest linguistic and extralinguistic context in which it is being used.21 Since the Church reads Scripture as a witness of divine revelation, which lives and works through the long course of the history of salvation, each passage is understood in the context of the whole of Scripture and tradition, the whole history and life of the Church. Correct interpretation of Scripture finds its true sense in harmony with all the truths of faith which the Church believes and teaches (see DV 12).
Not only Scripture but all the other witnesses to the faith of the Church require careful interpretation. In general, the difficulties and principles of sound interpretation are similar, whether one is dealing with Scripture, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, conciliar or papal documents, or other expressions of revelation.
For instance, accurate interpretation of the documents of a Council such as Trent requires that one take into account what concepts were available to the Church at that time, what challenges it confronted and dealt with, what range of views existing among Catholics it wished to respect, and what meanings the technical expressions of theology had for Catholic thinkers who had been formed in the various schools faithful to the Church.
Still, it is far easier to disengage propositions asserted in conciliar teaching than those asserted in Scripture. The canons and decrees of Trent were intended to express either true propositions or suitable precepts. The Council does not attempt to convey in its decrees the extrapropositional dimensions of divine revelation as Scripture does in its varied forms of discourse.
As in reading Scripture, so in reading Trent, one must begin from the living faith of the Church. One cannot assume that the decrees of Trent never say more than the Fathers meant to say, because their expressions are part of the whole tradition of Catholic teaching. The extrapropositional dimensions of revelation always remain a source for the development of doctrine. But legitimate development will be stifled if existing expressions of the truths of faith are interpreted in a way which rigidly excludes finding in them a true, fuller meaning. Of course, this fuller meaning must be compatible with and even somehow implicit in the truth of faith articulated and expressed in the existing formulation.