FBT – Interpreting the Scriptures

April 5, 2008

What denotes a proper interpretation of the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis? When one begins to discusses Biblical interpretation, the terms "fundamentalist" and "literalist" quickly emerge. We derive the first of these two terms from a group of late-19th Century Christians who adhered to a set of fundamental beliefs. Earnest Christians who adhere to the Church’s core teachings may be improperly perceived as radical Fundamentalists, groups of self-appointed moral policemen who cannot stop imposing their will on others. The second of these two terms, "literalist," has also taken on a negative connotation in popular parlance. Many Christians who are faithful to God’s word are considered to interpret the Bible so literally that they throw logical reasoning into the wind and believe outlandish premises like that King Herod actually was a furry little fox (cf. Lk 13:32). Rather than say Catholics are literalists and associate them with a pejorative term, it would be better to affirm Catholics as believers who seek to believe and obey all that the Bible teaches according to God’s intention in giving us His text, believing it to be without error and to contain all the things vital to our salvation and growth in holiness.

The question of how to interpret the Bible does not arise from problems that individuals have with the Biblical text itself but from a disagreement over Biblical issues. Three such issues emerge: (1) Do we believe in Biblical miracles? (2) Do we believe in Biblical prophesy? (3) How are we to understand "myth," particularly the "creation myth"? How a group of Christians answers these three questions directly guides the way they interpret the Bible. For instance, the historic Churches’ interpretation of Scripture leads them to a belief in seven Sacraments instead of two.

Far from merely psychoanalyzing the human authors of Scripture, one does well to consider the divine intent of their words within the normal canons of language. One must never subtract the mystery of God from His Word, lest he render it flat and meaningless while multiplying his sorrows. Let us be confident in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (66:2).

In this light, we turn to the two creation stories in Genesis. Some good points to establish from the start are that the meaning of the Hebrew word "day" neither precludes nor requires a 24-hour period and, interestingly, the text refers to "morning" and "evening" before the creation of the sun. From the start of Genesis, it emerges that God creates from nothing and then orders his creation. It is clear that God makes man from dust and forms him in His own image and likeness. Despite being moral, attracted to beauty and goodness and finding his meaning hidden in God, when given the opportunity to chose between life and death, he disbelieves and disobeys. As Paul establishes, all men have sinned not only because of Adam’s sin but also due to their own delight in disbelief and disobedience.

Pope Pius X’s Against Modernism rebukes those who follow the lie that the Scriptures contain error or are not important to follow. St. Irenaeus says that heretics approach the Scriptures like one who destroy a mosaic of a man by rearranging its tiles into an image of a fox. When Paul says "the letter kills and the spirit gives life," he only seeks to say that the letter apart from the spirit brings condemnation and establishes that the letter along with the spirit gives life. The Holy Spirit guides us as we interpret the Scriptures, starting with the most central passages and then moving onto the more obscure points, always abiding by the living tradition and Magisterium of the Church. Unless are constrained by a right interpretation of the Scriptures, which are a "constitution of the people of God," we are prone to numerous divisions.

Let us not be so presumptuous as to deny our identity as created beings or the fact that we have an infinitely powerful creator. By humbly approaching the Scriptures buttressed by sacred Tradition and the Magisterium will we be able to see that the first eleven chapters of Genesis contain the framework of the entire Bible: the creation and ordering of the universe; the sin of Adam which we recapitulate; the prophesies after the fall that reestablish an implicit covenant and establish hope for a second Adam and a second Eve; the wayward nature of the world; Noah’s salvation through water as a prefigurement of Baptism; and that the prohibition of eating meat with blood in it is a key to the sanctity of life. We will be richly blessed by respecting and savoring the Biblical texts, asking the questions that God presses to our hearts and thanking Him for all the blessings He bestows upon us.

As mentioned last week, these recordings are from a while ago (2005), so apologies if the quality is not as good as usual.
Music: Mussorgsky’s "Pictures at an Exhibition" performed by the Skidmore College Orchestra. www.musopen.com

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