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“Ask a Priest: What is the Church’s stance on the Bible?”
Q: I am a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, and my wife is Catholic, yet she told me that she thinks the Bible is subjective. However, being with the LCMS, I strongly believe that the Bible is to be taken literally, and that it is the infallible Word of God and the final word on all moral and ethical issues. My question to you is, What is the Catholic Church’s stance on the Bible? Is it the final word? Is it higher than canon law, equal to it, or does it complement it? Also, could you please provide examples of canon law that support the Church’s stance? Finally, what does it say about a Catholic who teaches others contrary to what the canon law says is true — like gay marriage, for example? -D.A.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Before getting to the substance of your question, let me assure you that every faithful Catholic believes that the Bible is the revealed word of God. As No. 133 of our Catechism puts it (quoting one of our greatest biblical scholars and saints): ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’ Now let me dig in to some of the specifics you raise in your question.
The Catholic Church also teaches the importance of the literal sense of Scripture. The Catechism, in No. 116, says, “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.'”
Now, literal is not the same as literalist. A literal sense of, say, Genesis 1 is that God created the world; nothing happened “by chance.”
A literalist reading would hold that God created the world over the course of seven, 24-hour days. But that kind of interpretation “excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development,” notes the Pontifical Biblical Commission in its 1994 document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” The writer of Genesis 1 was trying to convey profound truths about the origins of man and the universe with a particular audience in mind, and he used language and imagery that would be accessible to that audience.
Regarding Scripture in general, the Catholic Church holds that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God” (see the Second Vatican II constitution Dei Verbum, No. 10). “Both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (Dei Verbum, No. 9).
“Tradition” means the oral transmission of teachings passed on by Jesus. This is understandable, since not everything Jesus did was recorded in Scripture. “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). St. Paul passed on things orally, too: “Hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
The upshot is that Scripture cannot stand on its own without Tradition. Scripture reflects Tradition. For instance, look at the canon, or list, of books in the New Testament. Where did that list come from? Why are 3 John and Philemon — relatively short letters — in the New Testament, but not the “Gospel of Thomas”? The list reflects Tradition — the ancient Christians discerned what and what shouldn’t be included in the canon, based on what they learned from what had been passed down orally from Jesus and the apostles.
Does the Church consider Scripture the infallible word of God? Dei Verbum says it well: “[T]he books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (No. 11). Note the important qualification: “for the sake of salvation.”
Scripture sometimes seems to contradict itself. For instance, in Genesis 6:19 God commands Noah to take two of each kind of animal into the ark. But in Genesis 7:2 he commands, “Of every clean animal, take with you seven pairs, a male and its mate; and of the unclean animals, one pair, a male and its mate.”
Now, a literalist would have a hard time explaining the seeming contradiction. But the Catholic Church doesn’t see a problem here. One reason: the two verses probably came from different ancient sources that the redactor blended together. Rather than artificially trying to iron out the difference, he respected both versions and left elements of both in the final text. The point here is that, for the sake of salvation, what is important is the overarching message of Noah and the flood, not the exact list of how many animals went into the ark. So is the text error-free? Absolutely, in the sense that what God wanted in the text for our salvation is there and error-free.
Is Scripture “the final word on all moral and ethical issues”? The short answer is no, and it isn’t meant to be. Let me explain.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:30, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” How should we read that verse? A literalist who read that verse might already be reaching for the nearest knife. How should the rest of us read it? The Catholic Church interprets this verse, not as a call to self-mutilation, but as an example of Jesus’ using hyperbole to make a point. And why would the Church interpret it in that manner? Because it reads the passage in the light of Tradition — that is, what Christians have always understood about the text.
Is Scripture higher than canon law? Yes, in the sense that Scripture is God’s inspired word. Canon law is of a different class of writing. Some of it can change according to the demands of the times. This is not to say it is arbitrary, for Christ did say, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Canon law helps the Church in its day-to-day functioning, as well as spelling out the rights of the faithful.
As to Catholics who teach things that go against the faith, well, at the very least we could say such folks are not presenting Church doctrine correctly. (Gay “marriage,” by the way, isn’t so much a canon law issue as much as a basic human and Christian truth. I say “human” because someone doesn’t have to be Christian to believe it; marriage between a man and a woman has been a given for the vast majority of human history in every culture and religion.) If Catholics are mistaken about Church teaching, then they need prayers for enlightenment and possibly conversion.
I hope this helps. God bless.