In a recent exchange I had with Joseph Richardson (which can be found here ) I was surprised to learn that Joseph was unaware of the rules the Catholic Church maintains about the proper use of the Scriptures. My point to Joseph then was that he was using Scriptures like a Protestant. He was surprised by that comment and responded this way:
First: What makes you say, “Roman Catholics are not allowed to offer their own interpretations of Scripture”? Is being Catholic somehow a handicap to my powers of reasoning? What makes Protestants able to offer their own interpretations of Scripture, and Catholics unable? Because this is in fact my own interpretation, based in a careful study of the Greek, of the whole of Scripture, not just the passage you are drawing attention to, and of the teachings of the Fathers.
So to make the case clear how Catholics are bound to use the Scriptures and to answer Joseph’s questions I will explain the Catholic requirements for using the Scriptures. This explanation will come exclusively from Catholic sources and are noted for easy verification. I would like to point out at the beginning that all of the sources used in the post are “dogmatic” for Catholics. That means that the information we will explore is not “optional” for Catholics to believe; it is required.
The first thing we have to do is discover the Roman Catholic understanding of divine revelation. That is important because Rome takes a different view than the rest of Christianity and because Rome binds the consciences of her members to that view. That is to say, to be a Roman Catholic means that you affirm this view, without reservation. The second thing we have to do is understand the role of the Magisterium in the interpretation of the Scriptures for the Catholic faithful: what is its role and what are Catholics required to believe. Finally, we will outline how Catholics are, based on this information, supposed to interpret the Bible.
Roman Catholic Revelation – the three legged stool.
Roman Catholicism has a unique doctrine of divine revelation. And the Tradition of Roman Catholicism – dating at least back to the Council of Trent – is that divine revelation to a Catholic comes via three inextricably interconnected sources: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Revelation cannot be derived from the Scriptures alone (because that is a Protestant claim) or from Tradition alone, or from the Magisterium alone.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts the matter this way:
95 It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.[i]
All three elements must be in play when Catholics use the Scripture. None of the three parts – Tradition, Scripture or Magisterium – is sufficient to stand on its own. So Catholics are not free to use only Scripture to make whatever case they are attempting.
And the Catechism clarifies this even further:
82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.[ii]
Roman Catholics who use Scripture alone to make their case are not following the Catholic understanding of divine revelation. They are acting like Protestants.
The Magisterium – the sole, official interpreter of Scripture.
You may remember that Joseph asked me, “What makes you say, “Roman Catholics are not allowed to offer their own interpretations of Scripture”? And the answer is Rome.
The brief historical note is that offering one’s own interpretation of Scripture was the Roman Catholic caricature of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. At the time of the Reformation Rome spoke out vociferously against the idea of “private interpretation” even going so far as to place anyone so doing under legal sanction. As a response to their perception of this rampant “private interpretation” the Fathers at the Council of Trent declared thusly:
Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall … presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold…[iii]
So Joseph unwittingly has become, according to Trent, a “petulant spirit” because he has relied on his own study and not the “true sense” of the Scriptures as is required by Rome. Or, he has not shown that his interpretation lines up with Rome’s official interpretation.
How do we know that Rome has the “true sense” of the Scripture? Because she has the Magisterium and it is to the Magisterium – alone – to provide the authentic interpretation of Scripture.
100 The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.[iv]
Vatican II affirms in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum:
For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God[v].
In the context of Roman Catholicism, it is very clear that the Magisterium is entrusted “solely” with interpreting the Scriptures.
The Catholic Dogma Applied
We have seen so far that Roman Catholics must follow the dogmatic pronouncements of their denomination when interpreting the Scriptures. This means that they must do so in a manner that shows they are resting on all three “legs” of the Catholic paradigm. So when Joseph Richardson brings out a verse like Matthew 16:18 and, based on his own careful study, opines that this verse is a support for the papacy he is ignoring the other two-thirds of Catholic method.
What Joseph – and other Catholics must do – is show that his understanding of this verse comports with the “true sense” which the Magisterium holds today, and which the Tradition of the church has “always held”. Then – and only then – can Joseph proclaim publicly what Matthew 16:18 means. But simply proclaiming the verse without Magisterial approbation and without maintaining Tradition is decidedly un-Catholic. That is why I told Joseph he was using Scripture like a Protestant.
In response to the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the Roman Catholic Church dogmatically defined God’s revelation to His church as consisting of Tradition, the Magisterium and Sacred Scripture. This clearly delineated Rome from the Reformers who asserted the sufficiency of Scripture. A further response was to place the job of official Scriptural interpretation in the hands of the Magisterium whose task was to maintain consistency in its interpretations with the Tradition of the church.
Therefore any Roman Catholic must use the entire “three legged stool” in his argument. He cannot rely on Scripture alone without being accused of using Protestant methods. He must prove from Tradition, the Magisterium and the Scriptures that the understanding he is advancing is that “true sense” of Scripture that Rome says it “has held and holds”.
In other words, if Rome is going to construct a three-legged stool, the least they should do is sit on it.
Soli Deo Gloria
[iii] DECREE CONCERNING THE EDITION, AND THE USE, OF THE SACRED BOOKS; Trent IV
[v] (DEI VERBUM, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Second Vatican Council. CHAPTER III; Sacred Scripture, Its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation. http://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/v2revel.htm