Why Doesn’t the Church Infallibly Interpret Every Verse of Scripture?

cross, bible, scripture, prayer, meditation

cross, bible, scripture, prayer, meditation

Protestant apologists will often pose this question to Catholics: If your Church is really infallible, why does it not just interpret every last verse of Scripture for us? It has had two thousand years to do so. If it cannot do so, what good is infallibility to me?

Most often they will raise this question in the context of a discussion of authority. The Catholic will say, “Without the infallible Magisterium as a guide, all you have is your private interpretation of Scripture. That is why there are so many countless denominations out there.”

The Protestant will counter, “Unless your Church will interpret every verse of Scripture for you, you have no more than your private interpretation, either.”

It seems to be an impasse. How does one work through it?

Begging the Question

The first thing to note is that the question only makes sense if you assume sola scriptura as your starting point. For a Protestant, the Bible alone is the sole infallible rule of faith; unless the Bible says it, I need not believe it. It is a self-contradictory doctrine, of course; the Bible nowhere teaches sola scriptura, so a Protestant has only his tradition by which to defend it. But that does not need to delay us for our purpose here.

The real point, in this context, is this: If, for a Protestant, the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice, then the only possible reason to have an infallible Magisterium is to give him the definitive interpretation of the whole Bible. Once it has done that, it can step aside and leave him with his Bible alone. (And possibly a tree.)

In other words, you can only ask the question if you assume that sola scriptura is true. You beg the question. And in doing that, you mistake what the real purpose of the Magisterium is.

Why Have a Magisterium?

But we can find the answer to the question in a few related verses of Scripture. The first is John 16:13. In that verse, Christ is speaking to his disciples after the Resurrection.

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

The second is in 1 Corinthians 1:10.

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

Finally, the third is 1 Timothy 3:15.

If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

There is nothing in these passages, or anywhere else in the Bible, about the Holy Spirit guiding the apostles into the right interpretation of a particular set of texts. Instead, St. Paul identifies the Church—not the Bible but the Church—as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” And the purpose of the Church is to

  • maintain the unity of the faith (1 Cor. 1:10)
  • maintain the full deposit of revealed truth (John 16:13)

I will add a third, and that is to address new moral questions that could not have been anticipated by the writers of the Bible. One obvious example is embryonic stem cell research.

It is for these reasons—to identify what is true and what is false and so maintain the unity of Christians—that God gave us the Magisterium. It was not to provide an infallible interpretation of every verse of Scripture, or answer every question that could possibly be raised.

How Catholics Read the Bible

So where does the Bible fit in? Are Catholics simply left to their own wits, no different than Protestants?

In fact, not at all. It is not a choice between total anarchy of interpretation and rigid conformity to a single infallible hermeneutic. The Church allows Catholic readers of Scripture latitude and freedom to meet the text with their own intelligence and inquiry, while setting limits to avoid anarchy. We are not, in fact, left to our own private interpretation. Though he set us in a large room, God also “set bars and doors” (Job 38:10).

The “bars and doors” are found in the deposit of faith. These limits are found in what the Church teaches us to have been revealed by God. A Catholic may not read any verse of Scripture in such a way as to contradict either the teaching of the Church or some other verse of Scripture. I must read Scripture in the light of Church teaching, not in opposition to it.

The Catholic approach is thus freedom, with limits. In fact, it is in Protestantism where there is anarchy. There, I may interpret any verse any way I like and still be a good Protestant. If I run afoul of my denomination, I can join or start another. Nothing stops me. But the alternative to anarchy is not despotism.

In a few cases the Church does give us an authoritative interpretation of a verse of Scripture. Matthew 16:18 tells us that Christ chose St. Peter as the first pope—the rock upon which he would build the Church. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 tells us that those in a state of unrepentant mortal sin are not to receive the Holy Eucharist. Mark 10:6 tells us that marriage is between one man and one woman. No Catholic may dissent from these interpretations.

But the number of verses about which that may be said are few, and the reason is that it is not the purpose of the Magisterium to put us in chains. It is, rather, the purpose of the Magisterium to keep us within boundaries so that we do not wander off and get lost or hurt. God did not mean to bind our freedom, or our intellect, only to ensure that they do not turn vagabond.

That is why he gave us a Magisterium, but not one that tells us every last thing and detail.

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13 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t the Church Infallibly Interpret Every Verse of Scripture?”

  1. Pingback: Steve Hays posits false dichotomy between authority and reason

  2. I would add that even in the case of those few Bible passages which the Church has declared a Catholic must interpret as meaning a certain doctrine, she does not say that this is the ONLY thing we can derive from these passages. These passages merely INCLUDE this meaning, not restricting Catholics from also seeing one or more additional meanings in the same passage. In fact most passages of Sacred Scripture have multiple layers and facets of meaning.

  3. it seems more than a little absurd to think that the magisterium interpreting every verse in sacred scripture would put an end to debates about them. instead we would have tens of thousands more pages to disagree about. it seems to me that if God wanted His truth to be restricted to the written words, Jesus would have written them. of course, Jesus was quite familiar with the rabbis debating the meaning of scripture. the doctors of the law were not high on Jesus list of recommended leaders.

  4. . The problem though is in your saying a Catholic may not interpret scripture in such a way as to contradict Church teaching. Yes…if said teaching is clearly infallible as per canon 749-3. But some moral teaching is non infallible and the non infallible should never trump scripture. It did however on usury for centuries because Aquinas ignored effectively Deut.23:20. Church teaching after him mistakenly said all interest on personal loans was intrinsically wrong despite extent of amounts involved ( see Vix Pervenit …based on Aquinas by Pope Benedict XIV ) and despite God giving the Jews the right to charge foreigners interest in Deut.23:20. You could not lend your sister a thousand ducats for redoing her kitchen and ask for even a tiny interest a year later when she repaid. That was the Church contradicting scripture because Aquinas saw the permission of Deut.23:20 to be similar to God permitting divorce to the Jews. It wasn’t. Now after 1830 when the Vatican issued ” they are not to be disturbed” concerning those taking moderate interest, we have effectively joined Calvin’s 1545 belief that charging moderate interest to the non poor is not sinful. Calvin had our 1830 guidance by the Holy Spirit in a moral matter but he had it in 1545. We were three hundred years slow because our theologians didn’t want to be under a charge of heresy and the death penalty.

    You are correct if you mean interpreting scripture in a way contradicting infallible teach is off limits.
    But the problem is that most lightly to moderately read Catholics think all Church moral teaching is infallible but it’s not. We’ve now gone to the other extreme. Usury is now an antique hardly mentioned at all whereas it was once the premier moral issue with St. Antoninus denouncing a whole city as being under its spell. Interest on credit cards like Visa is getting many a millenial in trouble but the issue is tiny in Church consciousness now.

    1. “But some moral teaching is non infallible and the non infallible should never trump scripture.”

      No one’s talking about Catholic moral teaching “trumping” Scripture, as if the two are in conflict and it’s a question of which will emerge triumphant in this battle or in that.

      The question has to do with the proper understanding of Scripture. On complex questions such as usury, where financial systems (among other things) have changed enormously, there is a wide range of permissible opinion on how the Mosaic texts apply to us.

      But several things are not in question, which is that usury is condemned by Pope Benedict XIV in Vix Pervenit, that Gregory XVI and Leo XIII both reiterated that condemnation, that Benedict XVI condemns it in Caritatis in Veritate, that the Catechism says that the Mosaic prohibitions are not softened by Christ.

      And the larger moral question, which is the sin of trapping the poor in an endless cycle of debt, is not in question either.

      I am always suspicious when someone says, oh but this only applies to infallible teaching. That kind of formula only permits people to squeeze what counts as infallible narrow enough to be able to ignore just what they want to ignore. The Church tells us that we owe our consent to its judgments even when they are not technically infallible, and that governs how we understand the sense of scripture.

      Scripture is not, and cannot be, in opposition to the Church.

    2. But scripture can be in conflict with the non infallible part of the Church. You didn’t answer the content I gave. You reacted emotionally which took you away from my data. You descended into the hermeneutic of suspicion of motives and to listing documents as though they were identical in this matter. If you think Benedict XVI agrees with Vix Pervenit in all details, you are incorrect. He can’t after 1830.
      In the 1830’s the Vatican permitted moderate interest over against Vix Pervenit which noted that interest amount was irrelevant. In the 1830’s we like Calvin but unlike Vix Pervenit said amount was relevant. We always permitted business loans or investment with payment called extrinsic titles by theologians. The question was always personal loans. Vix Pervenit was in the 18th century and our big change was only slightly after that in the 1830’s. Economic structure did not change that much between two such dates.

    3. The Church’s application of its moral teaching on usury changes as historical circumstances change. It is not one size fits all, but the unchanging moral principle is one that stands at the back of it: don’t exploit the poor for personal gain. Don’t get rich off the poor.

      You’re seeing a conflict with Scripture where there is none. Deut 23:20, in its letter, does not apply to us because, in its letter, it was written for the OT Jews.

      But the moral principle at the back of it does apply to us, and does not change, and that is what the Church has been working out, in differing detail, as historical circumstances have changed. We are not simply free to ignore all this by claiming that it does not meet some technical definition of infallibility. The definition is not there to provide Catholics an escape hatch to ignore things.

      I pass no judgment on your motives personally, but am only taking note that the line of argument you are using is a Pandora’s box. Liberals use it when they want to disregard some teaching about sex; conservatives use it when they want to ignore some teaching about money. It ends up being used, not to shed light on differing levels of epistemological certainty, but simply as an excuse to ignore teachings that are personally inconvenient.

    4. Your ” Don’t get rich off the poor” is laudable as a summation and arguably what usury meant originally but that changed with Aquinas in the 13th century and his change filtered into Vix Pervenit in the 18th century and had zero to do with the poor. Aquinas on lying and on usury wanted Aristotle to be correct and Aristotle had said interest was against the nature of money regardless if you charged the poor or you charged the rich. And Aristotle was against lying because it was against the nature of speech but the Biblical record on lying is quite different with Solomon findng the true mother of the infant by a white lie and Judith defeating Holofernes and Jehu defeating the idolaters with verbal deceptions. Indeed Christ saying ” I have come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” within the hearing of the Canaanite woman after He had already helped the Roman centurion…was a white lie on Christ’s part. Aristotle’s version however now rules the catechism and scripture’s more nuanced position on lying is forgotten.

      We were always against usury but we changed in 1830 on what that meant radically. Ask three priests what is usury in fact. Does it condemn 19% interest by Visa while US bond interest is extremely low even at the long end? No one is sure because you can make 40% in Nike stock in a year and in such a world, is 19% charged to the middle class really usury?
      Again you mean well but beneath it all, you understandably desire a Magisterium that is infallible constantly on morals via the concept of the Holy Spirit guiding and you desire a Church that never does great damage morally. That former is a form of pan infallibility; the later is disproved by our specfic involvement in killing heretics qua heretics ( not only as insurrectionists ). St. JPII apologized for the five thousand protestant deaths because the Magisterium made that damaging choice to kill heretics beginning with Pope Innocent IV in 1253 against the general tradition of the first millenium according to the Catholic encyclopedia at new advent/ Inquisition/ by Josef Blotzer. The Popes of the late 13th century made execution of heretics mandatory on the princes according to that essay.
      My central peeve is that the new anti death penalty campaign by these last three Popes will kill thoudands of murder victims yearly just in the Phillipines alone unwittingly because St. JPII circumvented penology as a discipline by changing the meaning of deterrence from deterring uncaught murderers to deterring simply the one murderer you caught. Read ccc 2267 closely.
      It’s a magic trick. It says you are safe from murder because you are safe from caught murderers.
      But Brazil, the largest Catholic country, catches n 8% of their murderers. Catholic
      Guatemala catches 5% of theirs. And an entire Church sleeps through the catechism error despite the two largest Catholic non death penalty countries…Brazil and Mexico…having murder rates twenty times that of Asia by UN figures on murder worldwide.

    5. because we do not possess full understanding of the faith and the teachings of Jesus does not justify our calling Jesus a liar.

    6. did not the jewish faith, before Christ, also have a law whereby fields law fallow and debts were forgiven every seven years? there are so many factors and so many verses, the magisterium wisely has not thrust itself in to interpreting each and all of them for every instance and exception. it is nonsensical to even suggest that the magisterium should get involved in such a concept. it is ignorant or disingenuous to suggest that because the Church does not exercise its infallible role in every aspect of the faith renders the doctrine of infallibility false.

      Jesus is the cornerstone of the Church, but His selected Twelve, the first magisterium also act as the Church’s foundation. it is the succeeding generations of apostles that continue to build the structure of the Church.

    7. Laurence Charles Ringo

      Hmm…is anyone bothered by the fact that a charge of supposed “heresy”would cause someone to lose their life,or rather have their life taken from them? Anyone?

  5. It seems to me that the notion of inerrancy is not, in a significant sense, truly coincident with the Church’s teaching about Sacred Scripture.

    Inerrancy, as an approach to the text, takes a “negative” view . . . positing that the text is free of inconsistencies or error in fact. However, the Church teaches that the Bible contains the truth . . . thus the text, and what it reveals to us, is approached in a positive way. That there may be certain “errors” in the text, not affecting faith and morals, does not, in any way, detract from the truth that the text contains. The use of the term “inerrant” is, by this account, and in a sense, a misdirection in approach to the text, from the wrong direction as it were, from a “negative” perspective.

    I know that it is more complicated than this and that the relationship between inerrancy and inspiration is more subtle than can easily be expressed, but, it seems to me, we must approach the text in a positive manner, what does the text reveal of the truth, what is the narrative and truth that God has revealed and unfolded to us, not in a negative manner, as through the notion of inerrancy, the perspective that approaches the text in a defensive manner, defending that there are no errors in the text. There can be certain “errors” in the text, nonetheless the text fully reveals the truth to us.

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