In a sense, the Body of Christ speaks through the Scripture. But, as we know, such an encounter — if it’s an encounter with the real Christ — implies faith and the “traditioned” communion of the Church. These are the factors necessarily involved in the event we call revelation. It’s how the Church, through the Scripture and Tradition, presents the “mystery of Christ” to the world (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 80).
But however clear this process is, it doesn’t really clear everything up. That is to say: by no means does it prevent arguments from breaking out about the Bible or its interpretation and application. If you’ve ever been around Christian people for any length of time, you know this. Christians have always argued about the Scripture — and they always will.
This is why, when we talk about the Church in relation to the Scripture, we’re not talking about some abstract or merely conceptual church. Rather, we’re talking about a real Church, the Catholic Church. For that’s where and how such arguments are handled — by the Church exercising its teaching authority, its “living Magisterium.” The task of the Magisterium is simple: it’s to preserve the People of God from error so that they may remain in “the truth that liberates” (cf. Catechism, No. 890). It’s a task that demands a real, tangible, fully human, but also inspired, Church. When we talk about the Church as necessary to the right reading of the Scripture, that Church must indeed be an actual Church. Otherwise, this process leading to the event of revelation, which I’ve described, all falls apart. This is undoubtedly a bold claim on the part of the Catholic Church, yet by no means is it a novel claim. It’s not new at all.
We see this in the writings of the early Church Father St. Irenaeus. When he emphasized the necessity of the Church, he wasn’t talking about some mere concept, but the real Church. “Suppose there arises a dispute relative to some important question among us,” he said, “should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held in constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?”
Writing in a free market of competing Christianities, Irenaeus’ argument was basically that Christians should stand on the Faith associated with the apostles and their successors. When a tricky argument arises, go to the apostolic line, Irenaeus said, referring to the apostolic communities in which the Faith has always been proclaimed. “For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary in that case to follow the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?” (“Against Heresies,” No. 3.4.1). The Church, which preceded the formation of the Scripture, remains the arbiter of theological controversy for Irenaeus. And such remains the Catholic view. By now, it should be clear that the notion that each individual is free to interpret the Scripture for himself or herself is not a Catholic idea. But nor is it really a Protestant idea; even the Reformers were clear that the Bible had to be read under some authority. It’s just that the Reformers rejected Roman authority.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean every argument among Christians needs immediately to be appealed to the teaching office of the Church. Argument is in fact good for a community. As St. Augustine said of heretics: they’re useful in that they help us seek the truth more urgently (cf. Sermon No. 51.11). The same is true for charitable arguments generally. Before seeking out the final word of the Church’s Magisterium, Christians should take up the studious and spiritual task of interpretation. For instance, as Augustine said, “When investigation reveals an uncertainty as to how a locution should be pointed or construed, the rule of faith should be consulted as it is found in the more open places of the Scriptures and in the authority of the Church” (“On Christian Doctrine,” No. 3.2.2).
That is, Scripture interprets Scripture, Augustine said; yet, even this method of interpretation presupposes the rule of faith. For example, if there’s a passage in the Gospels that makes Jesus look merely human (say, when he thirsts on the cross) we should remember those passages wherein he looks like God (say, when he walks on water). That is, we should remember both the “form of God” and the “form of the servant” when reading about Jesus in the Gospels (cf. “The Trinity,” No. 1.3.14). That’s how Augustine applied the rule of faith: by remembering always the core Christian belief that Jesus is fully human and fully God, by remembering what the Church has always proclaimed to be true. “Remember you are Catholics!” Augustine once preached; again, Christians do indeed read the Scripture with a ready set of commitments (“Sermon,” No. 52.2). That’s what engaging the Scripture as a Catholic looks like — like faith, like study and, finally, like obedience to the Church.
And this is basically the Catholic approach today. Each Catholic is encouraged to read the Scripture and, within reason, even interpret it for himself or herself; however, such reading and personal interpretation must always be subject to the Church’s traditioned guidance and even the Church’s correction. I personally could interpret a certain passage of the Scripture and think I’ve achieved some remarkable insight, and indeed I may have. However, if I were to pass such insight off as settled Catholic teaching, then there’s a problem. Each person may be comforted by the Scripture in his or her own way, but the Church insists we are guided by several millennia of faithful reading, by the tradition and finally the authority of the Church.
Interpreters and readers of the Scripture form a spiritual symbiosis with the Church’s Magisterium, a symbiosis of spiritual and intellectual exploration and humble ecclesial obedience. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “It is the task of exegetes (interpreters of the Bible) to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment.” However, “interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” No. 12). The Catholic Church does indeed say there is an ultimate authority capable of making a judgment about what is an appropriate interpretation and what isn’t. Again, the Reformers believed this too. They just took Rome out of the equation.
Now, this authority is mostly a negative authority. That is, the Catholic Church has left many questions of Biblical interpretation open. Only in rare instances does the Church exclude an interpretation, and then, only when it contradicts the rule of faith or seems otherwise contrary to the truth. It’s a policing authority, so to speak. And necessary, considering the long strange history of heresies and cults and wild biblical ideas put forward that have ruined people’s lives. Like Harold Camping, to cite one example among too many: he said the world would end on May 21, 2011; then he said Oct. 21, 2011. Now, of course, Camping was just deluded. It was simply foolishness. Yet, some people were ruined by his foolishness. The Catholic Church, though, weathered that apocalyptic nonsense 1,000 years ago. Of course, one still finds such nonsense from time to time among Catholics, but it never takes the form of authoritative teaching; it’s always fringe. And that’s because the Catholic Church exercises a “living Magisterium,” an authority capable of settling such nonsense, preserving the faithful from harmful speculation.
And as I said, the Magisterium is exercised by a real Church, the Catholic Church. Again, this is a bold claim — but necessary. Authentic interpretation is “entrusted to the living teaching off of the Church alone” (Dei Verbum, No. 10) And particularly, “This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Catechism, No. 85). So, the Catholic Church does attach the final word on interpretation — again, mostly in a negative sense — to the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the pope.
But this is no different than what St. Irenaeus said in his time. For him, if one wanted to settle some important argument about the Faith, one should seek out the apostles and their successors, particularly, “the Church that is greatest, most ancient, and known to all, founded and set up by the two apostles Peter and Paul at Rome.” By appealing to the tradition and the faith proclaimed “down through the successions of bishops even to us,” believers are able “to shame all who in any way, through infatuation or vainglory or blindness and a wicked doctrine, gather together wrongly.” But again, Irenaeus pointed first to Rome. “For it is necessary for every church — that is, the believers from everywhere — to agree with this church, in which the tradition from the apostles has always been preserved by those who are from everywhere, because of its more excellent origin” (“Against Heresies,” No. 3.3.2). So, even in the early Church, the buck stopped somewhere. And for Catholics — for a very long time — it stopped in Rome.
Now, the claim made by the Catholic Church to be the final interpreting authority of both the Scripture and Tradition is indeed bold. However, it’s not an authority merely to invent things. The Church cannot invent doctrine and dogma. Everything the Church teaches must be obedient to the rule of faith and the word of God. Again, this is a patristic principle, as St. Augustine exemplifies. “The authority of these books,” he said, “had come down to us from the apostles through the succession of bishops and the extension of the Church, and from a position of lofty supremacy claims the submission of every faithful … mind” (“Against Faustus,” No. 11.5). Augustine was clear that the Scripture wields authority over doctrine. As the ancient ecumenical councils enthroned the Gospels before deliberation, the Church has always understood its role to be steward, not master, of the Scripture. Again, as the Second Vatican Council taught, “this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant (Dei Verbum, No. 10). What the Church teaches, it believes always to be under the authority of the Scripture. The dogmas of the Church are not something added to the Scripture; rather, such dogma is in coherent harmony with the Scripture, a traditioned articulation of the Scripture. And that’s because, as we’ve said before, the Scripture and Tradition, although distinct, are not two separate sources of truth; rather, they flow “from the same divine well-spring.” They “form one thing, and move towards the same goal” (Dei Verbum, No. 9). And that’s the revelation of the “mystery of Christ” — a revelation we believe still possible today.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.