Rules of the sound interpretation of Sacred Scripture

Christians in past centuries have committed flagrant acts of injustice, justifying their actions with biblical texts. They kept other human beings as slaves. They denied women their full rights. They favoured the rich above the poor. They colonised other races. This slide back into pagan practices is sad indeed, but even more scandalous was their claim to be following God’s will. Christians justified their unChristian behaviour with quotes from Scripture!

There is a well known saying among theologians that even the devil can quote Scripture (from Matthew 4,6). History confirms the danger. Hundreds of heresies have been proclaimed and thousands of blunders committed on the strength of Scripture texts that have been wrongly understood.

The inspired text needs to be read carefully. God speaks through human authors and what they say in his name follows all the rules of ordinary human language. God does not say more than the human author intended to say.

In the course of the centuries Catholic exegesis, with the approval of Church authorities, has formulated some important rules that help us understand the inspired message more accurately. Only by following these rules will we avoid the pitfalls so many have tumbled into.

Exegetical Rules

1. We must know what the human author wanted to say before we can come to any conclusions as to what God is telling us.

This is known as the rule of the “literal sense” (not the “literalist sense”!!). It has been endorsed by the Second Vatican Council.

2. In many texts we have to discern the teaching by analysing the literary form the scriptural author is using..

This rule, which follows from rule one, is known as the rule of the “literary form” . This too has been endorsed by the Second Vatican Council.

3. We may not ascribe statements or assertions to a biblical author which lie outside his intended scope.

The rule of the author's intended scope follows from the previous rules.

4. We have to distinguish substantial statements by the author from rationalizations and popular reasonings in which he expresses his own human opinions.

Failing to recognise rationalizations has often been the source of serious misunderstandings regarding the intention of scriptural authors.

John Wijngaards

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