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October 4, 2008 - 8:27 AM EDT
"Did not our hearts burn within he opened up to us the Scriptures?"
—Luke 24:32
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Catholic - Intermediate Material Catholic Principles for Interpreting the Scripture
Outline of Principles
I. The Foundational Principle
    1. The Word of God in Human Language.
II. "In Human Language": Catholic Exegesis and Human Knowledge
    2. Catholic Exegesis and Science
    3. Catholic Exegesis and History
    4. The Use of Philological and Literary Analysis
    5. The Contribution of Philosophical Hermeneutics
III. "The Word of God": Catholic Exegesis and Christian Faith
    6. A Hermeneutic of Faith
    7. The Role of the Community of Faith
    8. Interpretation in Light of the Biblical Tradition, the Unity of Scripture, and the Canon
    9. Interpretation of the Old Testament in Light of the Paschal Mystery
    10. Interpretation in Light of the Living Tradition of the Church
    11. The Aim of Interpretation: To Explain Scripture's Religious Message
IV. The Meaning of Inspired Scripture
    12. The Literal Sense
    13. The Spiritual Sense, Typology
    14. The Fuller Sense
V. "In Human Language": Methods and Approaches
    15. The Use of the Historical-Critical Method
    16. A Plurality of Methods and Approaches
VI. Interpretation in Practice

    17. The Task of the Exegete and the Relationship of Exegesis with Other Theological Disciplines
    18. Actualization
    19. Inculturation
    20. The Use of the Bible in the Church

I. The Foundational Principle

1. The Word of God in Human Language.  (TOP)

Sacred Scripture is the word of God expressed in human language (I.A.a). The thought and the words belong at one and the same time both to God and to human beings in such a way that the whole Bible comes at once from God and from the inspired human authors (III.D.2.c).

It is the canonical text in its final stage which is the expression of the word of God. (I.A.4.f)

Because it is the word of God, Scripture fulfills a foundational, sustaining, and critical role for the Church, for theology, for preaching and for catechesis. Scripture is a source of the life of faith, hope and love of the People of God and a light for all humanity (Intro B.b).

II. "In Human Language": Catholic Exegesis and Human Knowledge
2. Catholic Exegesis and Science  (TOP)

Biblical texts are the work of human authors who employed their own capacities for expression and the means which their age and social context put at their disposal. Consequently, Catholic exegesis freely makes use of scientific methods and approaches which allow a better grasp of the meaning of texts in their literary, socio-cultural, religious and historical contexts. (III.a)

Catholic exegesis should be carried out in a manner which is as critical and objective as possible.

Catholic exegesis actively contributes to the development of new methods and to the progress of research (III.a). In this enterprise Catholic scholars collaborate with scholars who are not Catholic (III.C.a).

3. Catholic Exegesis and History  (TOP)

Catholic exegesis is concerned with history because of the historical character of biblical revelation. Although the Bible is not a history book in the modern sense and although it includes literary genres that are poetic, symbolic and imaginative, Scripture bears witness to a historical reality, i.e., the saving actions of God in the past which have implications for the present.

Interpretation of a biblical text must be consistent with the meaning expressed by the human authors. (II.B.1.g)

Historical study places biblical texts in their ancient contexts, helping to clarify the meaning of the biblical authors' message for their original readers and for us.

Although Catholic exegesis employs a historical method it is not historicist or positivist, confining its view of truth to what can be demonstrated by supposedly objective historical analysis.

4. The Use of Philological and Literary Analysis  (TOP)

Because Scripture is the word of God that has been expressed in writing, philological and literary analysis are necessary in order to understand all the means biblical authors employed to communicate their message.

Philological and literary analysis contributes to determining authentic readings, understanding vocabulary and syntax, distinguishing textual units, identifying genres, analyzing sources, and recognizing internal coherence in texts (I.A.3.c). Often they make clear what the human author intended to communicate.

Literary analysis underscores the importance of reading the Bible synchronically (I.A.3.c; Conclusion c-d), of reading texts in their literary contexts, and of recognizing plurality of meaning in written texts (II.B.d).

5. The Contribution of Philosophical Hermeneutics   (TOP)

Because interpreting the Bible entails an act of human understanding like the act of understanding any other ancient writing, it is fitting that philosophical hermeneutics inform Catholic interpretation.

It is not possible to understand any written text without "pre-understanding," i.e., presuppositions which guide comprehension (II.A.1.a). The act of understanding involves a dialectic between the pre-understanding of the interpreter and the perspective of the text (II.A.1.c). Nevertheless, this pre-understanding must be open to correction in its dialogue with the reality of the text (II.A.1.a).

Since interpretation of the Bible involves the subjectivity of the interpreter, understanding is only possible if there is a fundamental affinity between the interpreter and his object. (II.A.2.c)

Some hermeneutical theories are inadequate due to presuppositions which are incompatible with the message of the Bible. (II.A.2.d)

Philosophical hermeneutics corrects some tendencies of historical-criticism, showing the inadequacy of historical positivism (II.B.2.c), the role of the reader in interpretation, possibilities of meaning beyond of a text's historical setting, and the openness of texts to a plurality of meaning (II.B.c; Conclusion d).

Because in the Bible Christians seek the meaning of ancient writings for the present, literary and historical criticism must be incorporated in a model of interpretation which overcomes the distance in time between the origin of the text and our contemporary age (II.A.2.a). Both the Bible itself and the history of its interpretation demonstrate a pattern of re-reading texts in the light of new circumstances (II.A.2.b).

III. "The Word of God": Catholic Exegesis and Christian Faith
6. A Hermeneutic of Faith  (TOP)

Biblical knowledge cannot stop short at an understanding of words, concepts and events. It must seek to arrive at the reality of which the language speaks, a transcendent reality, communication with God. (II.A.1.d)

Reason alone is not able to fully comprehend the events and the message recounted in the Bible. In order to truly understand the Bible one must welcome the meaning given in the events, above all, in the person of Jesus Christ (II.A.2.d). Because the Bible is the word of God, it must be approached in the light of faith in order to be properly understood.

Therefore, exegesis is a theological discipline.

The light of the Holy Spirit is needed to interpret Scripture correctly. As someone grows in the life of the Spirit, his or her capacity to understand the realities of which the Bible speaks also grows. (II.A.2.f)

7. The Role of the Community of Faith  (TOP)

The believing community, the People of God, provides the truly adequate context for interpreting Scripture (I.C.1.g). Scripture took shape within the traditions of faith of Israel and the early Church, and contributed in turn to the development of their traditions (III.A.3.f).

The Scriptures belong to the entire Church (III.B.3.i) and all of the members of the Church have a role in the interpretation of Scripture (III.B.3.b). People of lowly status, according to Scripture itself, are privileged hearers of the word of God (III.B.3.f).

Various special roles in interpretation belong to clergy, catechists, exegetes and others (III.B.3.i). Church authority is responsible to see that interpretation remains faithful to the Gospel and the Great Tradition, and the Magisterium exercises a role of final authority if occasion requires it (I.C.1.g).

8. Interpretation in Light of the Biblical Tradition, the Unity of Scripture, and the Canon  (TOP)

Catholic exegesis seeks to interpret the Sacred Scripture in continuity with the dynamic pattern of interpretation found within the Bible itself. In the Bible later writings often depend on earlier texts when their authors re-read what had been written before in light of new questions and circumstances (III.A.1.a). Catholic exegesis seeks both to be faithful to the understanding of faith expressed in the Bible and to maintain dialogue with the generation of today (III.A.3.h).

Catholic exegesis recognizes the essential unity of Scripture, which encompasses differing perspectives (III.A.2.g), yet presents an array of witnesses to one great Tradition (I.C.a, III.A.a).

Catholic exegesis interprets individual texts in the light of the whole canon of Scripture. (I.C.b; III.D.4.b)

9. Interpretation of the Old Testament in Light of the Paschal Mystery  (TOP)

The Church regards the Old Testament as inspired Scripture, faithfully conveying God's revelation (III.A.2.a; III.B.1.b).

The New Testament interprets the Old Testament in the light of the paschal mystery (I.C.1.i). Jesus' life, death and resurrection fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures (III.A.2.a). Jesus' own interpretation of the Old Testament and that of the Apostles expressed in the New Testament under the inspiration of the Spirit are authoritative, even if some of the interpretive procedures employed by New Testament authors reflect the ways of thinking of a particular time period (III.A.2.f).

Christians do not limit the meaning of the Old Testament to the ways in which it prepares for the coming of Christ. Rather the Church esteems the canonical interpretation of the Old Testament before the Christian Passover as a stage in the history of salvation (I.C.1.i). Christians continue to draw sustenance from the inspired message of the Old Testament (III.A.2.e).

10. Interpretation in Light of the Living Tradition of the Church   (TOP)

Catholic exegesis deliberately places itself within the stream of the living Tradition of the Church (III.b) and seeks to be faithful to the revelation handed on by the great Tradition, of which the Bible is itself a witness (Conclusion e).

Within this living Tradition, the Fathers of the Church have a foundational place, having drawn from the whole of Scripture the basic orientations which shaped the doctrinal tradition of the Church, and having provided a rich theological teaching for the instruction and spiritual sustenance of the faithful (III.B.2.b). However, Catholic exegesis is not bound by the Fathers' exegetical methods (II.B.2.h; III.B.2.k).

11. The Aim of Interpretation: To Explain Scripture's Religious Message  (TOP)

The primary aim of Catholic exegesis is to explain the religious message of the Bible, i.e., its meaning as the word which God continues to address to the Church and to the entire world (IV.a, III.C.1.b). The ultimate purpose of Catholic exegesis is to nourish and build up the body of Christ with the word of God.

IV. The Meaning of Inspired Scripture
12. The Literal Sense  (TOP)

The literal sense of Scripture is that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors. Since it is the fruit of inspiration, this sense is also intended by God, as principal author. One arrives at this sense by means of a careful analysis of the text, within its literary and historical context (II.B.1.c).

The literal meanings of many texts possess a dynamic aspect that enables them to be re-read later in new circumstances (II.B.1.e).

13. The Spiritual Sense, Typology  (TOP)

The spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture is the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read under the influence of the Holy Spirit in the context of the paschal mystery and of the new life which flows from it. (II.B.2.b)

The spiritual sense is always founded on the literal sense. A relationship of continuity and conformity between the literal and the spiritual sense is necessary in order for the literal sense of an Old Testament text to be fulfilled at a higher level in the New. (II.B.2.e)

Typology is an aspect of the spiritual sense. (II.B.2.i)

14. The Fuller Sense  (TOP)

The fuller sense (sensus plenior) is a deeper meaning of the text, intended by God but not clearly expressed by the human author (II.B.3.a). It has its foundation in the fact that the Holy Spirit, principal author of the Bible, can guide human authors in the choice of expressions in such a way that the latter will express a truth, the fullest depths of which the authors do not perceive (II.B.3.c).

The existence of a fuller sense to a biblical text can be recognized when one studies the text in the light of other biblical texts or authoritative doctrinal traditions which utilize it. (II.B.3.a)

V. "In Human Language": Methods and Approaches
15. The Use of the Historical-Critical Method  (TOP)

The historical-critical method is the indispensable tool of scientific exegesis to ascertain the literal sense in a diachronic manner. (I.A.4.g, I.A.a)

In order to complete this task, it must include a synchronic study of the final form of the text, which is the expression of the word of God. (I.A.4.f)

The historical-critical method can and must be used without philosophical presuppositions contrary to Christian faith. (I.A.4.b-c) Despite its importance, the historical-critical method cannot be granted a monopoly, and exegetes must be conscious of its limits. Exegetes must recognize the dynamic aspect of meaning and the possibility that meaning can continue to develop (Conclusion d).

16. A Plurality of Methods and Approaches  (TOP)

Catholic exegesis is characterized by openness to a plurality of methods and approaches. Although the historical-critical method retains its primacy, literary methods and approaches based on tradition, the social sciences, or particular contemporary contexts can yield important insights into the meaning of the biblical word. However, the value of these insights will correspond to their harmony with the fundamental principles which guide Catholic interpretation.

VI. Interpretation in Practice
17. The Task of the Exegete and the Relationship of Exegesis with Other Theological Disciplines  (TOP)

The task of the Catholic exegete is both a work of scholarship and an ecclesial service (III.C.a). Because sound interpretation requires a lived affinity with what is studied and the light of the Holy Spirit, full participation in the life and faith of the believing community (III.A.3.g) and personal prayer are necessary (Address 9).

The primary task of the exegete is to determine as accurately as possible the meaning of biblical texts in their own proper context, that is, first of all, in their particular literary and historical context and then in the context of the wider canon of Scripture (III.D.4.b).

Catholic exegetes arrive at the true goal of their work only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God's word for today (III.C.1.b). Exegetes should also explain the christological, canonical and ecclesial content of biblical texts (III.C.1.c).

Exegesis is a theological discipline, which exists in a relationship of dialogue with other branches of theology (III.D.a).

18. Actualization  (TOP)

The Church receives the Bible as the word of God addressed both to itself and to the entire world at the present time (IV.a). Actualization is possible because of the richness of meaning contained in the biblical text, and it is necessary, because the Scripture was composed in response to circumstances of the past and in language suited to those circumstances. (IV.A.1.b-c)

Actualization presupposes a correct exegesis of a text, part of which is determining its literal sense (IV.A.2.e). The most reliable and fruitful method of actualizing Scripture is to interpret Scripture by Scripture. The actualization of a biblical text in Christian life proceeds in relation to the mystery of Christ and the Church. (IV.A.2.f)

Actualization involves three steps: 1. to hear the Word from within one's own concrete situation; 2. to identify the aspects of the present situation highlighted or put in question by the biblical text; 3. to draw from the fullness of meaning contained in the biblical text those elements capable of advancing the present situation in a way that is productive and consonant with the saving will of God in Christ. (IV.A.2.g)

19. Inculturation  (TOP)

The foundation of inculturation is the Christian conviction that the word of God transcends the cultures in which it has found expression. The word of God can and must be communicated in such a way as to reach all human beings in their own cultural contexts. (IV.B.b)

The first stage of inculturation consists in translating Scripture into another language (IV.B.c). Then comes interpretation, which sets the biblical message in more explicit relationship with the ways of feeling, thinking, living and self-expression proper to the local culture. Finally, one passes to other stages of inculturation, leading to the formation of a local Christian culture, encompassing all aspects of life. (IV.B.e)

The relation between the word of God and the human cultures it encounters is one of mutual enrichment. The treasures contained in diverse cultures allow the Word of God to produce new fruits, while the light of the word of God allows helpful and harmful elements in cultures to be discerned. (IV.B.f)

20. The Use of the Bible in the Church  (TOP)

Interpretation occurs in all the ways in which the Church uses the Bible-in the liturgy, lectio divina, pastoral ministry and ecumenism.

In principle, the liturgy brings about the most perfect actualization of the biblical texts since it is Christ himself who "speaks when Sacred Scripture is read in the church" (SC 7). The liturgy gives a privileged place to the Gospels, and the cycle of Sunday readings, which associate an Old Testament text with a Gospel reading, often suggests a typological interpretation. (IV.C.1.b-c)

Lectio divina is a reading of Scripture as the word of God, which leads, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to meditation, prayer and contemplation. (IV.C.2.a)

Pastoral ministry makes use of the Bible in catechesis, preaching, and the biblical apostolate (IV.C.3.a). Scripture provides the first source, foundation and norm of catechetical teaching and preaching, where it is explained in the light of Tradition (IV.C.3.b). The role of the homily is to actualize the word of God (IV.C.1.d).

In ecumenism, the same methods and analogous hermeneutical points of view permit exegesis to unite Christians by means of the Bible, the common basis of the rule of faith. (IV.C.4.c,e)

© Biblical Institute Press. Peter S. Williamson. Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." Subsidia Biblica 22. Preface by Albert Vanhoye. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute Press, 2001. ISBN 88-7653-617-5

Catholic Principles is available in the U.S. for retail or bookstore purchase from Loyola Press in Chicago (1-800-621-1008, It is also available direct from Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, Piazza della Pilotta 35, 00187 Rome, ITALY (

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