Interpreting Scripture

By James M. Rochford

For more resources on this subject, see our earlier article “Catholicism.”

Do we need an interpreting authority (or “teaching magisterium”) to understand and interpret the Bible? The Catholic Church states that we do. Vatican II explains,

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverenceSacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the ChurchBut 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 in accord with a 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. It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.[1]

More recently, the Catholic Catechism (1994) states,

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical, or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.[2]

Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.[3]

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.[4]

There are two views of this relationship between Scripture and Tradition in Roman Catholic circles:

VIEW #1: Partim-Partim View

This view holds that part (Latin partim) of God’s revelation is found in Scripture, and part is found in Tradition.[5] If one could prove that the early church was unaware of a modern Catholic doctrine, then this view would fail. Moreover, if one could demonstrate the Sola Scriptura was true, this view would also fail.

VIEW #2: Material Sufficiency View

This holds that new doctrines are at least implicitly found in Scripture.[6] White explains,

Tradition becomes a framework, a system of interpretation, rather than concrete revelational material that can be examined and found in historical sources. The tradition can be as solid as apostolic interpretations of the Bible or as nebulous as a general concept of the understanding of the Church over time.[7]

Cardinal John Henry Newman would be an interpreter who holds to this view. White explains, “Newman… gladly admitted that many Roman Catholic doctrines (including the Papacy) were not present in their full form in the early history of the Church. Instead, these doctrines were present as a seed is present in the soil, so that through the process of time they can be seen growing and developing into their modern forms.”[8]

Two Views of Scripture and Tradition[9]

Partim-Partim Viewpoint

Material Sufficiency Viewpoint

Oral tradition is a separate and different revelation

Oral tradition does not contain other revelation

Oral tradition is necessary, inspired revelation

Oral tradition is necessary for proper interpretation

The Bible is materially insufficient

The Bible is materially sufficient

Catholic apologists typically offer a number of arguments for the necessity of a teaching magisterium:

ARGUMENT #1: We will have countless misinterpretations of Scripture without a teaching magisterium.

Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft writes, “Let five hundred people interpret the bible without Church authority and there will soon be five hundred denominations.”[10] A number of arguments can be made against this view:

First, the teaching magisterium doesn’t really help the problem of diverse interpretations of Scripture. Hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation) is an important issue for believers today. However, we don’t believe that the teaching magisterium is the proper solution to having multiple different interpretations of Scripture. For instance, think about this: Even with a teaching magisterium, heretics will still disagree with the truth. Adding a divine authority to Scripture doesn’t help avoid this problem at all. This medicine is really worse than the disease. They can disagree with the teaching magisterium, as well as with the Bible. By contrast, we hold that the solution to diversity of interpretation can be countered by sound rules of hermeneutics and public debate. This is the best way to counter false teaching in the church. This is what we see for example at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

Second, the Catholic Church is theologically diverse—even with a teaching magisterium. Catholics usually complain that there are thousands of Protestant denominations, but the Catholic Church is theologically diverse, too. There are Progressive Catholics, Liberal Catholics, Feminist Catholics, Vatican II Catholics, Anti-Vatican II Catholics, etc.

Third, the teaching magisterium is often harder to interpret than the Bible itself. Put another way, we might ask: How is an infallible interpretation any better than an infallible revelation? Honestly, we need to interpret both a revelation and an interpretation. But if God could speak infallibly, why didn’t he just do so in the Bible? The Bible contains clear teachings that are much easier to understand than the long affirmations of church councils.

Fourth, the Bible is perspicuous in regards to its main message of salvation. While some teachings of Scripture are difficult to understand (2 Pet. 3:15-16), the core doctrines are clear. For instance, Isaiah writes, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5). How difficult is it to interpret this straightforward passage of Scripture?

When we open our Bibles, we quickly see that it was written for lay people to read and understand. We do not believe that God wrote the Bible as an enigma that is impossible to decode. We find it difficult to believe that people today can interpret the newspaper, science textbooks, and philosophy books, and yet, they are unable to interpret God’s word. Consider a number of passages that support this view:

(Jn. 20:30-31) Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. [Here John writes that his gospel was written so that we could come to faith in Christ and have eternal life. If a non-believer could interpret and believe the Bible, then how much more can a believer?]

(Col. 3:16) Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [Paul believed that the lay person could use Scripture to counsel and teach “one another.” This was not written to a clergyman—but to a lay person; cf. Rom. 15:14.]

(Phil. 1:1) Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. [Paul wrote this letter primarily to the lay people—not the leaders of the church. The public reading of Scripture is the norm in the church; cf. 1 Tim. 4:13; Col. 4:16]

Fifth, God’s SPECIFIC revelation is easier to interpret than his GENERAL revelation. Specific revelation is that which is found in the Word (i.e. Scripture), and general revelation is that which is found in the World (i.e. Nature). However, if even God’s general revelation is “evident” and “able to be understood” (Rom. 1:19-20), then how much more is his specific revelation, found in words?

Sixth, Protestant denominations don’t differ much in their core theology. While Protestants disagree on peripheral issues (e.g. infant baptism, eternal security, etc.), the Catholic claim that they are wildly diverse is exaggerated. For instance, if Protestant denominations are really so diverse, then why is it that they can all agree on the Apostle’s Creed? Moreover, Protestant interpreters have arguably done much better without a magisterium to guide them—not creating extrabiblical doctrines like the immaculate conception, bodily assumption of Mary, purgatory, and indulgences.

Seventh, the authority of the teaching magisterium is guilty of circular reasoning. This is because the Catholic Church appeals to itself as the authority to interpret Scripture, but then it uses Scripture to back its authority. White writes, “Roman Catholicism claims the final say in interpreting the Bible, yet it also points to Bible passages as the basis of its authority.”[11] We find this to be a fallacious way of supporting our view.

Eighth, even with an infallible teaching magisterium, we still cannot be certain of the truth of God, because our decision to trust the teaching magisterium is itself fallible. A supposedly infallible magisterium doesn’t solve the problem of human fallibility. By contrast, under the Evangelical view, we are all held responsible for our own understanding and interpretation of the Bible (1 Thess. 5:21). While the Catholic believer is not responsible for their interpretation (they trust the magisterium), the Protestant believer is. So, this gives us great incentive to learn the Bible for ourselves and handle it accurately (2 Tim. 2:15), rather than simply trust the interpretation of another individual. This is by far a much better safeguard for preserving the truth.

ARGUMENT #2: The NT refers to church tradition as authoritative.

Catholic apologists typically offer a number of verses to argue the case that church tradition should be viewed equally alongside of Scripture. Consider each passage below:

(2 Thess. 2:15) Does this passage support the Roman Catholic doctrine of the teaching magisterium?

(1 Cor. 11:2) Should we follow traditions or not?

(3 Jn. 13-14) Does this passage imply that verbal tradition is greater than Scripture?

ARGUMENT #3: Most essential doctrines weren’t authoritative until several hundred years after Christ.

Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong writes,

Doctrines agreed upon by virtually all Christians develop, too. The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ was not formally defined until the Council of Nicaea in 325, and the divinity of the Holy Spirit was proclaimed at the Council of Constantinople in 381… Why should Protestants accept these authoritative verdicts, but reject similar proclamations on Church government, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, Mary, the papacy, Purgatory, priestly absolution, baptismal regeneration, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the intercession of the saints, and so forth?[12]

However, we do not find this argument persuasive. While church councils may or may not have issued formal creeds on certain doctrines for hundreds of years, do we really believe that Christians were lost in theological confusion until then? For instance, regarding the deity of Christ, do we really believe that no Christian was able to understand this central doctrine of Christian faith, until a Church Council told him to? While we find clear testimony of the divinity of Christ in Scripture (see “Defending the Deity of Christ”), we do not find good biblical evidence for these other doctrines that Armstrong lists above.

[1] Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. “Dei Verbum.” Pope Paul VI. November 18, 1965. Chapter II: Handing On Divine Revelation.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 83.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 86.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 100.

[5] See White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 76-78.

[6] See White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 78-80.

[7] White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 79.

[8] White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 79.

[9] This chart is taken from White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 80.

[10] Kreeft, Peter. Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988. 275. Cited in Geisler, Norman L., and Ralph E. MacKenzie. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995. 183.

[11] White, James R. The Roman Catholic Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996. 47.

[12] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 65.