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
Paul Bassett said:
Reblogged this on Reformation500.
John Bugay said:
Awesome Paul, thanks 🙂
Joseph Richardson said:
Again, Paul, I’m going to suggest, as respectfully as possible, that you do not understand the teachings of the Catholic Church — either that, or you are willfully misconstruing and distorting them above. By cherry-picking a few bits of doctrine and giving your own biased interpretation of them, you can make them appear to say whatever you want them to say. There is no “three-legged stool”: there is only the Revelation of God, given through Scripture and Traditon, and the Magisterium, the servant of that Revelation, which is given the role and authority by Christ to read and teach it to the faithful. Catholics are obligated to listen to and heed the teachings of the Magisterium, yes; but those teachings are there to guide and equip, not control and restrict as you seem to think. The Magisterium has actually made pronouncements about a relatively little fraction of Scripture — we are talking about only the councils of the Church and certain pronouncements of the popes. For the rest of Scripture on which the Magisterium has not spoken, the Catholic faithful are encouraged to read, study, and apply the Scriptures freely, in a spirit of obedience to and in concert with Catholic doctrine. Your insistence that Catholics are not free to offer their own interpretations and exegesis of Scripture is frankly absurd, objectively false, and easily disprovable. A quick google or search on Amazon reveals hundreds of books on Scripture and scriptural exegesis written by faithful Catholics, both clergy and laymen, with the official approval of the Catholic Church given through the imprimatur.
Now, you have thus far, and you continue to, condescend to me and imply that I am ignorant of the teachings of my own Church. I don’t appreciate that. I have immersed myself in these teachings, and am quite capable of understanding them; while you, a “former” Catholic, have clearly rejected your former faith and are operating under your own biases and apparently limited knowledge and understanding. I wonder if you have even read these documents you are citing in full. The arguments you give above are old and tired, but your persistence in them and your attitude to me indicate that you are closed to any reasoning on the matter but your own, and I don’t see much point in continuing to argue with you.
Paul Bassett said:
I appreciate your admonition and take it in the spirit in which I’m sure it is intended. And, as you know, in a blog only limited information can be presented. But I assure you, I am not cherry-picking.
What I have done is show how the Roman Catholic Church has consistently and unwaveringly proclaimed those things I describe through three ecumenical councils and a dogmatic creed to which all Catholics must subscribe. That is the Tradition of the Church of Rome – on this topic at least.
And I am surprised that you are unfamiliar with the term “three legged stool”. It is a common euphemism for Catholic revelation. Let me offer this (http://socrates58.blogspot.com/2006/11/three-legged-stool-of-catholic.html) from another Roman Catholic blogger who had gained some notoriety a few years back. Catholic Answers also uses it, for example here (http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=698532) . You can see from this and your other research that this is a term in common usage in Catholic apologetics.
As to Catholics being “encouraged to read, study, and apply the Scriptures freely” you must surely realize that that cannot be the free-for-all that at first glance it seems. If Catholics had that freedom, Joseph, what would differentiate them from Protestants?
Forget not 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.”
As to the imprimatur it must be remembered that this is a negative declaration, not a positive one. So when one sees the imprimatur, with the required nihil obstat, what they are seeing is a statement that there is “nothing damaging to faith and morals” contained therein. The imprimatur is NOT a Magiesterial pronouncement about the official nature of any of the teaching contained in the work that carries it.
Please don’t accuse me of being condescending, Joseph. I certainly am not. And I would ask you to refrain from the ad hominem that you are so fond of. Your assumption of my “biases” is without any basis you have provided and you should really stop that. I have read these documents and have in my library the “dogmatic” sources that refer to them. I have scrupulously cited them for your use. It is now up to you to refute them without engaging in any name calling (i.e. old and tired).
But you can certainly settle this matter without input from me. Just go to your local bishop. Ask him if the canons of Trent are still binding. Ask him if the Creed of Pope St. Pius IV is still binding. Ask him if the canons of Vatican I and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican II is still binding. Of course he will tell you that they are. Then you will have to understand them because of your commitment to the Catholic hierarchy.
I hope you won’t continue to take this personally, Joseph. And in the future I hope you can deal with the substance of what your church requires of you and not what you may think are the deficiencies in my scholarship.
I continue to wish you every blessing .
Joseph Richardson said:
I apologize if you thought my charge that your argument was “old and tired” was an ad hominem against you. I don’t know you and don’t know if you’re old and tired or not.
In response to your comment: The posts you linked to don’t support what you think they support. Dave Armstrong’s post about the “three-legged stool” is in response to questions from a Protestant, who posed the analogy. The post by an inquirer on the Catholic Answers Forum (not by the staff of Catholic Answers) is a question about the origin of the phrase. It originates with Anglican theologian Richard Hooker and didn’t originally apply to the Catholic concept of revelation at all. I am not surprised that more Catholics don’t use it — because it’s really a very poor analogy (as I will explain).
With regard to interpreting Scripture, there is much less difference than you think. Protestants have rejected the magisterial authority of the Catholic Church — which really does result in a “free for all.” The difference, I would say, is that Evangelical Protestant exegesis is entirely unrestrained and based on no more authority than the individual’s conscience. Catholic interpreters of Scripture must submit to the teaching authority of the Church — the authority of Christ Himself which He invested in the Church. But that authority allows much more freedom than you argue. I will say again, the Magisterium is a teacher (that’s what the word means), not a dictator. She teaches her students by the accumulated knowledge of all the ages of the Church, and then sends them out to further that knowledge. The Magisterium only steps forward to restrain or chastise when an interpreter transgresses against some element of the revealed truth.
No, of course it’s not; and yes, of course it’s only a negative declaration — which is precisely my point. By “official approval,” I mean only that the Church approves (doesn’t reject) the material in the work. If your thesis were correct, the Church would have to give a positive approval to every teaching before it could be printed. Every single teaching would have to align with the teachings of the Magisterium. The fact that only a negative one is required proves my point: As long as there is nothing in the work that contradicts the teachings of the Church, it is okay to go. On matters regarding which the Magisterium has made no pronouncement, the author is entitled to his own interpretation and opinion.
Everybody has a bias. Quite naturally, I have a bias in favor of the Catholic Church, and you have a bias against it. There is no sense in denying that we have them. Your bias leads you to take a negative and critical view of the Church. That is only a problem if you allow it to obscure the truth and cloud your reasoning (and likewise for me).
Oh, I have no doubt that all of those canons and creeds are still in place — in fact, I count on it. If my Church has been anything, it has been consistent. One of the first things I did when I began my Catholic studies was go back to the canons of the councils, especially Trent, but eventually many older ones, to verify that Catholic orthodoxy is in fact the same teaching that has existed since the beginning of Christianity. The summary reason for my decision to become Catholic, if I had to sum it up, is this: No matter what historical and doctrinal challenges critics have raised to me, after consulting the documents, the Church has always been proven right.
I was working on a full response to your argument in the post, but I got carried away and ended up writing a full treatise of the Catholic view of divine revelation, and I don’t think either you would appreciate that or it would be a very pithy response to your charges above. It’s late tonight, but I’ll try to pare it down into something more appropriate tomorrow.
Paul Bassett said:
The “three legged stool” is an cliché used widely by Catholics. The two sites I sent you two were only indicative of its use. I have heard many Catholic priests use the same idiom. Be sure, you will come across it eventually.
With regard to the official Catholic teaching on Scripture, I’ve just put up another post with more information for you. As for Rome not being a “dictator” I would refer you to the work of Pope Leo XII and the five popes following him and their support of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. If you are unwilling to see them as “dictators” with regard to Scriptural interpretation then there is no point going further. That is simply a matter of fact.
I’m afraid you’re hopelessly lost on the issue of the imprimatur. To say that there is nothing in a work that is “damaging to faith and morals” is not the same thing as endorsing a work. The imprimatur might just as easily be put on a cookbook since nothing therein would damage “faith and morals”. But that would hardly make the cookbook a dogmatic source. I hope you will grasp that more fully.
And as to bias, I should like to point out that I have a bias for the truth. If the Catholic Church were the true church, then I would certainly be biased for her.
OK, if you’ve studied Trent, as you say, why won’t you interact with its Decrees and Canons? I’ve quoted them almost ad nauseam at this point and all I hear from you is a critique of my biases, or how my scholarship is somehow deficient. Please, if you are so studied in Trent, tell me how you, as a Catholic, can so freely deviate from Trent’s requirement that all Catholics adhere to the “true sense” of Scripture? What have you to say to that, Joseph? I am very anxious to engage you on the topic and not these side issues.
Please take a look at my latest post – focus on the issues. Then we can correspond more.
Blessings to you.
Paul Bassett said:
Here’s a better “three legged stool” example: http://christianityinview.com/catholic/church.html
This is from a page entitled, “Introduction to Catholicism.
Kim Albertini said:
Sorry but your perspective is skewered.Catholicism holds that the Church Is the people Of God & it plays a role in its doctrines(including scripture Interpretation).Let^s take a look at history.
The Council of Nicae in 325 taught Jesus is God,however,after the council most bishops & Pope liberius followed Arianism,a belief Jesus is a creation of God.What stopped this heresy ?
As historical records show & proven by Cardinal Newman,the Laity resisted facing persecution,excommunication & isolation.The resistance of the laity was so great eventually the hierarchy listened.
The Laity assured the correct interpretation of the scriptures by receiving & protecting the belief Jesus was true God & true man
Usury–condemned by Councils on account of scripture
22:12 Council of arles 1314
Vienne 1311(this hailed it as herest)
Pope urban VIII states in 1745 mentioning Luke 6:35 that anyone who is in opposition to the charging on interest on loans goes against scripture & judgement of the Church.
Well as economics changed people realized that a little interest charging can be beneficial to the economy & both lender & receiver.Eventually people ignored the church.
In the late 1800s the holy office issued a statement that those who charge moderate interest are to be left alone.the Vatican bank today charges interest.Reception or lack of helps interpret scripture.
Slavery is another issue defended by church in the name of scripture—-now its thrown out the window as people in the west realized its immoral & worked toward its abolishment.
Catholicism evolves & changes,its pointless to speak of some teachings from 200 or 500 years ago. The final say would come down to the magisterium on scripture interpretation but that’s rare.Emphasis is placed on the living Magisterium because the older one can be wrong at times
Paul Bassett said:
Since a perspective is an immaterial thing, I’m not exactly how one could “skewer” it. I suspect you mean that my perspective is “askew” so we’ll go with that. But how so? I merely quoted the Catechism and Vatican II. Do you think that they are askew as well?
I don’t believe the laity had any involvement in the Council of Nicea.
As for the Catholic position on usury, you do realize that the Vatican is one of the largest, interest-charging banks in the world, don’t you?
In Catholic terms, it’s not at all “pointless” to talk about “some teachings from 200 or 500 years ago.” That’s the very idea of Tradition, isn’t it? Do you think it is “pointless” for Catholics today to talk about Augustine or Aquinas because their teaching is so old?
Further on to this discussion is the historical fact that many popes forbade Catholics to read the Bible. It is therefore not at all clear how they could then have had any interpretation of texts to which they had no access.
But if you think that the Catechism is wrong where I’ve cited it – or that Vatican II is wrong in its pronouncements, please let me know.
Thank you for stopping by and I wish God’s richest blessings on you!
Kim Albertini said:
They were not involved in Nicae but were involved in its aftermath.Most Bishops,the emperor & eventually Pope Liberius embraced the anti-Nicean belief that Jesus is Not God but a creation of God. It was the people who resisted this belief despite persecution. As Vatican II reminds us infallibilty belongs to the whole church
” The body of faithful as a whole,anointed as they are by the holy one
cannot err in matters of belief”
“thanks to this supernatural sense of faith which categorizes the people as a whole,it manifests from the Bishops down to the last member of the laity,it shows universal agreement on faith & morals” Vatican II
Yes popes have taught crap whether slavery is moral,sex in marriage a necessary evil,
democracy to be condemned….but as the people don^t receive the teaching,it gets changed.Thats why as Vatican II teaches the church is always in need of reform.
The catechism exhorts catholics to read scripture,a final judgement is rare
Paul Bassett said:
You have a remarkable Protestant view of Catholicism.
As I noted here as late as the beginning of the 20th century, the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church has been that the Roman Church has different classes which have different influence. So, if you are correct that the laity had any influence, it would only be in the case that they were in agreement with the Magisterium.
Don’t forget, too, that Arius, Pelagius and the others also had “laity” following them. (Pelagius had a strong “lay” congregation in Rome!)
But, please don’t misunderstand. I approve of you belief in the “priesthood of all believers”; an idea that is Apostolic and was resurrected by the Reformers!
Kim Albertini said:
At the Beginning of the 20th century of the Catholic Church,guess what was in the traditional theological models —“the consensus of the faithful is a sure criterion of the Tradition & faith of the church”. Popes like Honorius were condemned for heresy by the 3rd Council of Constantinople,Pope Vigilius was excommunicated by a African synod of bishops for heresy.The Church changes & evolves.Pius the 9nth condemned democracy but Paul VI approved it in the Vatican II document church in the modern world.One reason as I told u that popes/church changes or modifies.When the church at large(the laity) aren’t following thru on a particular teaching,that teaching changes
Paul Bassett said:
So, since more than 60% of Catholics don’t follow the Church’s teaching on birth control or abortion, do you think that will change?