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“Ask a Priest: Is It OK to Read the Bible on My Own?”
Q: Is it OK to read the Bible alone and without the help of an official Catholic interpretation, or with non-Catholic Christians? – Sofia
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Catholics are encouraged to read the Bible, which is given to us for guidance and for learning more about our Savior. As St. Jerome famously stated, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
While we can certainly “read the Bible alone,” in the sense that we can read it in the privacy of our home, for instance, we also want to read it with the heart and mind of the Church.
The Church draws on both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (the teachings of Christ and the apostles passed down orally) for understanding.
In practice, this means the Church relies on Tradition to help it interpret the Bible correctly.
Without the guidance of Tradition, we could end up interpreting Scripture in strange and contradictory ways. This is one reason why Protestantism has fragmented over the past five centuries — so many people think their interpretation of the Bible is the correct one.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Catholics can’t read the Bible and draw out personal insights.
But any correct interpretations of Scripture won’t contradict Church teaching; they won’t go against things in the Catechism, for instance. When you have a doubt about a moral or doctrinal point, it’s good to see what the Catechism says.
As to your specific questions:
You ask about reading the Bible “without the help of an official Catholic interpretation.”
In fact, the Church has “official interpretations” of relatively few passages in the Bible. That is because Scripture is deep and rich, and there are always new treasures to be found in it. One interpretation of this or that passage won’t be exhaustive.
Perhaps a distinction is worth keeping in mind. We shouldn’t confuse personal interpretations with private interpretations.
Let’s say you read the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). You might come up with a personal interpretation: “I think I’ve been acting like that elder brother. Instead, I need to reach out to my brother who’s been away from the Church and to show him more mercy and love.”
That would be a great example of a personal interpretation of Scripture that leads you to action.
But let’s say you open up your Bible and come across Luke 14:26 — “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
If you conclude from that passage that Scripture gives you permission to dump on your own family, that would be a faulty private interpretation. For it obviously contradicts the heart of Jesus’ message about the need for charity toward all.
The point here is that it helps to keep an eye on Church teaching when reading Scripture. It helps us from going off the road, so to speak.
As for reading Scripture with non-Catholic Christians, you would want to be careful.
Non-Catholics will see things through a different lens. They might already assume that the Eucharist is just a symbol, for instance, or that Peter didn’t receive any special authority from Christ to lead the Church. Or they might think that divorce and remarriage is OK.
You would need to be careful not to be misled by non-Catholic interpretations. This isn’t to say that non-Catholics don’t have valuable insights — many fine Protestant scholars have enriched the world’s understanding of Scripture — but you need to be on guard.
Also, remember that non-Catholics don’t accept all the Old Testament books that we do. So you might be reading from Bibles with different canons (lists of books).
For guidance, you might want to get The Didache Bible from Ignatius Press. It includes extensive commentaries based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I hope that some of this helps.
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