Review: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church


Uninspiring cover.

Uninspiring cover.

This book is the product of the Pontifical Bible Commission. It is a small booklet, only about 144 pages long. It does not really deal with particular Bible verses (though it makes many references to what the Bible says about itself.) It draws largely from three sources; Dei Verbum, the session at Vatican II that dealt with the interpretation of Scripture; and two papal encyclicals, Providentissimus Deus (Leo XIII, 1893) and Divino Afflante Spiritu (Pius XII, 1943). There is a preface written by (at this point future) Pope Benedict XVI and an introduction originally delivered orally by Pope John Paul II.


In a sense, this book is less a ‘how to’ and more a sketch of some general outlines. It seems to have two general ‘evils’ in mind: fundamentalist interpretations that ignore the literary and historical context of Scripture, and self proclaimed ‘historical’ interpretations of Scripture that miss the forest for the historical trees. An incredible array of approaches to interpreting Scripture are covered, including the Feminist and Liberationist approaches. From there, the relationship of Scripture to various other things – Tradition, theology and so on – is explored. This forms the bulk of the text (unsurprisingly.)

It is the last section (starting on page 117) that was actually most interesting to me ‘Interpretation of the Bible in the Life of the Church.’ For those who are not going to become heavyweight theologians, this is probably the most relevant section. A well written section on ‘Actualization’ sketches the outlines of communal use of Scripture; the ability of the Bible to speak into new situations, the ways in which we can approach Scripture (“The most sure and promising method for arriving at a successful actualization, is the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture.” (119)) and the ways in which this process can be manipulated. (Jehovah’s Witnesses get a shout out here.)

The document goes on to speak about the importance of ‘inculturation’; the process of taking the Bible and helping it to “take root in a variety of terrain.” (121) The foundation for this movement is the conviction “that the Word of God transcends the cultures in which it has found expression and has the capability of being spread in other cultures.” (122)

Finally, it lays out the ways in which we use the Bible. This booklet sees four principle uses; in the liturgy, lectio divina, in pastoral ministry and in ecumenicism.  Scripture composes the bulk of the material for the Mass, and a cycle of readings in the Liturgy of the Word work through all four Gospels (alongside many other readings) every three years. Even beyond that, a ‘Liturgy of Hours’ provides additional Psalms, Scripture readings, and readings from the Church Fathers throughout the day. Lectio divina is the process of personally or communally reading Scripture repeatedly, reflecting, meditating and praying in response to it. Pastoral ministry here seems to be focused on teaching or catechizing and getting the Bible out there via new social media technologies. Here, “there is reason to rejoice in seeing the Bible in the hands of people of lowly condition and of the poor” rather than just trained theologians. (130)

Lastly, the document notes that the Bible serves a special ecumenical purpose because “the Bible is the common basis of the rule of faith” and so “it is necessary to make the acquiring of a Bible something within the reach of as many Christians as possible” as well as to encourage Christians of all types to pray together, read together and to be “authentic and living witnesses” to achieve unity within our diversity.


This was an interesting read in part brought on by a question from a friend about whether or not Catholics had standards by which they interpreted the Bible. Certainly, I think most of it is straightforward and impossible to object to (unless of course you are a Jehovah’s Witness or belong to certain radical sects of Christianity.) I’m not sure if there is a way to make this exciting for ‘non-technical’ readers; while the booklet is perfectly accessible, the bland cover and even my technically proficient but bland ‘review’ are not going to sell you on it. If you are already interested in the topic (Biblical interpretation) and you are curious about an authoritative Catholic view of the subject, this is the book to read. If that topic doesn’t get you excited, this booklet won’t change your mind!


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