Q&A with Fr John Flader: The interpretation of Scripture

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A young American woman studies the Bible in this 2009 file photo. Photo: CNS/Karen Callaway, Catolico

Dear Father, In a recent column you wrote that the Bible is truthful in everything it says, and I am happy to accept that. But when there seem to be problems in some books, for example in describing nature, how can we say that it is always truthful?

The answer to your question lies in the interpretation of Scripture, in how we understand each passage. This is obviously a matter for the experts, the exegetes, as we call them, who help us understand the meaning of the texts.

And it is also a matter for the Holy See, which intervenes when particular questions of interpretation are put to it. Nonetheless, there are some general principles of interpretation, which can help us understand the Scriptures better ourselves.

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, On the Study of Holy Scripture (1893), gives us some of these principles. A first principle is that in Sacred Scripture natural phenomena are spoken of not directly and intentionally, but only insofar as they are useful for the teaching of religious truths.

“It is not the intention of Sacred Scripture to teach us about the inner workings of nature but rather to teach us that all of creation is the work of God.”

In light of this, St Augustine teaches that “the Holy Spirit didn’t intend to teach men things which would in no way be useful for salvation”, and also that God did not promise the Holy Spirit in order to instruct men about the course of the sun and the moon, because he wanted to make them Christians and not mathematicians (Gen. ad litteram, 2, 9, 20; cf. De actis cum Felice Manich.,1, 10).

Thus, it is not the intention of Sacred Scripture to teach us about the inner workings of nature, as this is not necessary for salvation, but rather to teach us that all of creation is the work of God.

A second principle is that the Scriptures do not intend to explain the intimate essence and constitution of natural phenomena.

This beautiful fresco of St Augustine of Hippo is one of four painted in the pendentives of a domed room in the Vatican palace. Photo: Lawrence OP/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
This beautiful fresco of St Augustine of Hippo is one of four painted in the pendentives of a domed room in the Vatican palace. Photo: Lawrence OP/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

Pope Leo XIII says: “As to the equity of this rule let us consider, first, that the sacred writers or more truly the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these things (namely, the innermost constitution of the visible universe) as being of no profit to salvation; that, therefore they do not carry an explanation of nature scientifically, but rather sometimes describe and treat the facts themselves, as today in many matters of daily life is true among most learned men themselves. Moreover, when these things which fall under the senses, are set forth first and properly, the sacred writer (and the Angelic Doctor also advised it) describes what is obvious to the senses, or what God himself, when addressing men, signified in a human way, according to their capacity”.

In view of this, we can understand that the Scriptures describe natural phenomena by their outward appearances, as we do too, when saying, for example, that the sun rises and sets.

Thirdly, Providentissimus Deus makes clear that sometimes the Scriptures describe natural phenomena using figurative language, which is not meant to be interpreted literally. For example, “He who sends forth the light, and it goes, called it, and it obeyed him in fear; the stars shone in their watches, and were glad” (Bar 3:33-34).

“Since there cannot be error in the Bible, we must understand that the object of the description is not the inner nature of the phenomenon, but its outward appearance.”

In passages like this, nature is, as it were, personified. This does not mean that nature can think or have emotions like fear or gladness. The Scriptures here are using figurative language to express the reality that all of nature is subject to God’s almighty power.

Fourth, since there cannot be error in the Bible, which would be a lack of conformity between the judgment of the sacred writer and the reality he is describing, we must understand, as the writer inspired by the Holy Spirit does, that the object of the description is not the inner nature of the phenomenon, but its outward appearance.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission sometimes gives an authentic interpretation of the Bible too. For example, in answer to the question of whether the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis must be understood in the sense of six natural days, the Commission answered on 30 June 1909 that they may be understood equally as a certain space of time.

In that same decree, the Commission stated that, provided the literal and historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis is presupposed, in the light of the teaching of the Fathers and of the Church itself, certain passages may be interpreted in an allegorical and prophetic sense.

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