Catholics interpret the Bible with the help of the Holy Spirit, under the guidance of the Church, following three specific guidelines.
Bible interpretation results in a wide spectrum of belief in modern-day Christianity, making it difficult to know who is right and where to search for reliable answers. In the Catholic Church, there are specific guidelines to follow to ensure a correct reading of the Bible that is faithful to its original intention and consistent with Christian belief.The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers an introductory explanation of how a Catholic is to interpret the Bible.
Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with the help of the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church according to three criteria:
1) it must be read with attention to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture;
2) it must be read within the living Tradition of the Church;
3) it must be read with attention to the analogy of faith, that is, the inner harmony which exists among the truths of the faith themselves. (19)
These are broad, sweeping guidelines can be difficult to understand. The primary purpose of these guidelines is to explain how we shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to take a particular scripture passage out of context, or without consulting the history and tradition of the Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes a little deeper into these guidelines, explaining the different “senses” of scripture that a reader should be aware of, acknowledging the many layers the Bible has to offer.
According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.
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.”
The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.
– The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.
– The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.
– The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem. (CCC 115-117)
Above all, Catholics are invited to rely on nearly 2,000 years of Catholic teaching to help interpret the Bible, showing us what is consistent with the intention of the original authors and the beliefs of the earliest Christians. A great example of how to approach the Bible is found in St. Augustine. He wrote to St. Jerome in a letter, saying, “If I find anything in those writings which seems to be contrary to the truth, I presume that either the codex is inaccurate, or the translator has not followed what was said, or I have not properly understood it.”