The Magisterium & Personal Intrepretation of Scripture

Written by Joel on January 21st, 2009

I read an article from Zenit on the Pope’s priority for ecumenism. Here is an interesting excerpt:

Though agreement has been reached that Scripture and Tradition are not opposed, he said, there is still disagreement about, among other things, the role of the magisterium in interpreting it.

You can read the full article here.

For Catholics:

  • what is the magisterium and how does it interpret scripture?
  • Do they declare a single interpretation for a given scripture as valid for all time?
  • How do you interpret the interpretation of the magisterium?
  • Is there room for different interpretations across cultures?
  • Is it like a commentary on scripture?
  • How does this affect preaching?
  • Where can I go to find what the magisterium says about a particular scripture?

For Protestants:

  • What does personal interpretation mean?
  • Does it mean that anything goes?
  • How does one test their own interpretation?
  • How are the laity (and clergy) trained to read scripture?
  • What role does tradition and authority play in personal interpretation?
  • Is there such a thing as a wrong reading of scripture?
  • What happens when two personal interpretations are mutually exclusive?

Thanks for your answers and comments. Are there other important questions that should be asked?


 

4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Agellius says:

    [You may get this comment twice as I got an error message the first time I tried to post it.]

    Hi Joel. Nice you hear from you after a long absence.

    See my answers below, set off by brackets:

    For Catholics:

    what is the magisterium and how does it interpret scripture?

    [The Magisterium is the bishops teaching in union with the pope.

    Do they declare a single interpretation for a given scripture as valid for all time?

    [Not very often. Only a few passages of scripture have been definitively interpreted by the Church.

    How do you interpret the interpretation of the magisterium?

    [Huh?

    Is there room for different interpretations across cultures?

    [There is room for differences of opinion on any passage of scripture that has not been definitively interpreted by the Church, so long as your opinion does not contradict any of the *teachings* (not necessarily referring to scriptural interpretations here) of the Church.

    Is it like a commentary on scripture?

    [Is what like a commentary?

    How does this affect preaching?

    [Huh?

    Where can I go to find what the magisterium says about a particular scripture?

    [The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good place to start. But you should keep in mind that the Catholic faith is different from the various Protestant religions in one respect: Unlike Protestant groups, the Church does not necessarily have to base every teaching on an interpretation of a specific passage of scripture. We believe that the Church itself is a repository of faith, therefore the Church can teach a doctrine on its own authority based on the revelation it received orally from Christ through the Apostles.

    [So when you are trying to find out what the Church believes, the question is not necessarily, how does the Church interpret this or that scripture passage. The question is simply, what does the Church believe.

    Here is a listing of scripture passages that have been authoritatively interpreted:

    “The Council of Trent teaches that Rom., v, 12, refers to original sin (Sess. V, cc. ii, iv), that John, iii, 5, teaches the absolute necessity of the baptism of water (Sess. V, c. iv; Sess. VII, De bapt., c. ii), that Matt., xxvi, 26 sq. is to be understood in the proper sense (Sess. XIII, cap. i); the Vatican Council gives a direct definition of the texts, Matt., xvi, 16 sqq. and John, xxi, 15 sqq. Many more Scripture texts are indirectly defined by the definition of certain doctrines and the condemnation of certain errors” [Source: The Catholic Encyclopedia, Entry: Biblical Exegesis].”

  2. Joel says:

    Agellius,

    Good to hear from you too. Yes, I have been a lazy blogger lately. Its nice to know that my many adoring fan(s?) have missed me.

    1) I was under the impression that the magisterium is an office. Is this incorrect?

    3) (interpretation of interpretation) What I meant here was that language never has a set meaning. If the magisterium does give a definite interpretation, can’t that interpretation after a couple hundred years become unclear?

    5) (does the magisterium have a commentary on scripture?) A commentary generally goes verse by verse and looks at culture, history, literature, etc to arrive at an interpretation.

    6) (preaching) What I meant here is how much can a preacher read scripture for his own congregation, but it sounds like that was answered above.

    Putting it all together
    So, when a Protestant claims that the Catholic Church is against individual interpretation of scripture, that is not exactly true. In fact, as I read the catechism, the Church strongly encourages its people (clergy and lay) to read scripture. The issue comes to interpretation.

    Is it fair to say (from a Catholic view) that there is no such thing as “personal interpretation?” That all interpretation is done within some sort of context and with some bias. The Catholic Church simply teaches that the faithful ought to read from the context and bias of the teachings of the church.

    There also seems to be a considerable range allowed in interpretation – so long as it does not go against Church teaching. This view is certainly consistent – since in all things one ought not go against Church teaching.

    personal interpretation may be the only option for Protestants who do not have a deposit of Church teaching with which to guide them.

    Well, I which there were some Protestants out there who read the blog.

    Thanks for your comments Agellius, they were very helpful.

  3. Agellius says:

    Joel writes, “1) I was under the impression that the magisterium is an office. Is this incorrect?”

    It’s not a single office, no. The bishops in union with the pope pretty much defines it.

    “3) (interpretation of interpretation) What I meant here was that language never has a set meaning. If the magisterium does give a definite interpretation, can’t that interpretation after a couple hundred years become unclear?”

    I suppose a particular expression of an interpretation could become unclear, if in expressing it, it uses words that later change meaning; or if it uses idioms or cultural references that are peculiar to the time period in which it’s written. But this points up the advantage of issuing all official documents in Latin: Since Latin is a dead language, it doesn’t evolve the way ordinary languages do. Therefore the meanings of its words stay the same throughout the centuries.

    In any case, magisterial teachings are passed on orally from generation to generation, as well as in writing. So if one particular magisterial statement did become unclear for some reason, the current living magisterium would still know the authentic teaching and therefore would know what was intended to be expressed. This is yet another advantage of a living magisterium: We’re not at the mercy of texts the meaning of which may become obscure over time.

    “5) (does the magisterium have a commentary on scripture?) A commentary generally goes verse by verse and looks at culture, history, literature, etc to arrive at an interpretation.”

    Not that I’ve ever heard of, no, not a single “official” commentary that is used by the entire magisterium. But the entire record of commentary and interpretation by the Fathers of the Church and the saints and doctors of the Church throughout the centuries, is available for their reference.

    “Is it fair to say (from a Catholic view) that there is no such thing as “personal interpretation?” That all interpretation is done within some sort of context and with some bias. The Catholic Church simply teaches that the faithful ought to read from the context and bias of the teachings of the church.”

    No, I would say there is a wide latitude given to personal interpretation. There can be many differences of opinion as to the precise meanings of a large number of scripture passages, without ever coming close to contradicting any Church teaching.

    But as you say, it’s obvious that personal interpretations should not contradict the Church’s defined teachings. If the scriptures come from the Church, and if we trust that the Church is preserved from error by the Holy Spirit, then the scriptures should always teach the same thing the Church does. If someone finds that the scriptures contradict the Church, it should be obvious that he’s either misunderstanding something, or else he’s putting his own reason and discernment above that of the Church; which a Catholic, if he truly believes his faith, would never wish to do.

  4. Joel says:

    Thanks Agellius, for taking the extra time to answer some of my clarifying questions. Your answers are very helpful.

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