Holy Spirit Interactive
Monday, February 20, 2017
Inside Holy Spirit Interactive

Scripturally Speaking
Holy Spirit Interactive:: Fr. Fio Mascarenhas: Biblical Interpretation

Biblical Interpretation

by Fr. Fio Mascarenhas

The Church teaches that a sound Biblical Interpretation rests on three main principles:

  1. That Scripture is indeed God's word, expressed in limited human words. Hence, we must try to discover the intention of the human author by paying attention to the literary form of whatever biblical text we want to interpret.

    "The words of God expressed in human words are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like us" (DV, 13).

    The Scriptures are writings that are both inspired and human, hence the Truth is to be found in what the authors assert as true. The human author did not need to be well-informed about everything in order to receive a religious insight inspired by God, or to be able to give expression to that insight. As Fr. Michael Fallon, MSC puts it, inspiration is compatible with all kinds of error, except in the precise area of inspiration.

    "The books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred scriptures" (DV, 11).

    The authors were people of their time, and their writings express many of the limited viewpoints of their contemporaries, many of their false assumptions, many of their mistakes and errors (in the areas of science, biology, geography, etc. - e.g. that 'the earth is flat and is the center of the universe'). However, we must look for their inspired insights that disclose something of the mystery of God. The author has used literary forms like drama or poetry, parable or historical narrative, depending on his judgment about how best to communicate the truth that he has been inspired to share for the sake of our salvation. For our part,

    "Seeing that in sacred Scripture God speaks through people in human fashion, it follows that the interpreter of Scripture, if he is to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of the words" (DV, 12).

    A good example is chapters 1-11 of the Book of Genesis, called pre-history. The section contains stories from folklore (Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc), reshaped by centuries of oral tradition and theological reflection by Israel in the light of their own experience of the Exodus, etc. Inspired by the Spirit, the sacred authors then wrote down these things in symbolic language, using the form of parables, and never intending to give scientific explanations. Modern folk can be misled in this matter by their failure to understand that the language of religion is the language of parable and poetry, that ultimate truth (about God and man's relationship to God - which none of the sciences deal with) can be expressed only in symbols and parables, not by the exact prose of journalism. Hence, the stories of Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, etc., are parables through which the author seeks to convey the deepest truths of human existence; and Adam and Eve, the Serpent, etc., belong to the poetry of religious symbolism and not to history and geography (e.g. the sacred author knew as well as we do that snakes do not talk, and he is not trying to teach us that they crawl on the ground because an ancestor of theirs spoke ill-advisedly in the Garden of Eden)! Jesus later chose the same literary medium of parables to teach about God and God's kingdom.

  2. That we must read each passage within the context of the whole Bible. We may not take a verse out of context and use it to justify our actions/beliefs. For instance, "(Believers) will lay their hands on the sick and they will recover" (Mk.16:18). Parents of a baby dying from dehydration may not use this text to justify their relying on prayer alone for the healing of their child, and refusing to call a doctor! Scripture itself points out the need for a sound interpretation of Scripture:

    "Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him - there are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and the unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the disobedient and lose your own stability" (2Pt.3:15-17).

  3. That Scripture does not really contradict itself. Hence, the unicity of the whole Bible is to be kept in mind when interpreting a difficult text. For example, about curses and blessings in the OT: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of their parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exod.20:5,6; Dt.5:9,10). On the other hand, Dt.7:10 plainly declares: "Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God … who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him." The great prophets too teach about individual retribution, that the sins of the parents are not visited upon the children but that each will pay for his/her own sins (Jer.31:29,30; Ezek.18:20). Jesus, when questioned whether a man was born blind because of his parents' sin declared definitively: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (Jn.9:3).

    Dt.30:19 sums it all up thus: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live…" God desires his People to be in a personal, loving relationship with him. This is the greatest blessing human beings can receive. The corollary of this is that the greatest curse human beings can suffer is to be apart from God; the one who is disobedient brings this curse of separation from God on him/herself. "I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live!" (Ezek.28:32).

To conclude, Christians must read the Bible with deep faith, believing that it is one of the greatest treasures the Church has, but they must also do so intelligently, within the living Tradition of the Church, since the same Holy Spirit who moved the sacred writers to put in writing the message of salvation likewise provides the Church with continual assistance for the interpretation of its inspired writings. By following the above three principles of sound interpretation, we will find that the Bible is indeed a tremendous source of power for daily living!

Fr. Fio Mascarenhas

E-mail this article to a friend