Why Reading the Bible Through the Lens of the Church is SO Important

By Erich Wallace

Hello, my friends!

How is life now that COVID-19 has affected the whole world? I’m a little anxious myself: the Journey Program in La Crosse has been postponed indefinitely, so I’ve moved home. I think all of the flat “high-touch” surfaces in my parents’ house are now ¼” lower because of how many times I’ve wiped them with Clorox. I also now have the hands of an 87-year-old steel worker as a result of how many times I’ve washed them… So, if you’re a little anxious, I feel ya! I’m praying we can trust more in the Lord than our anxieties and make it through this difficult time, though! To get our minds off the topic of viruses, I’d like to discuss a topic that has been on my heart for a while as I’ve been taking a Scripture class taught by Fr. Alan Wierzba, the vocation director for the Diocese of La Crosse: the importance of reading the Scriptures through the lens of the Church. Let’s begin!

First off, what does it mean to interpret the Bible through the lens of the Church? It means: 1) to read the Bible in the context of the time it was written and the audience it was written to, rather than trying to interpret it through a modern day lens; 2) to filter everything through the context of the whole Bible, not just single verses, because single verses taken out of context can seem contradictory to one another; and 3) to trust in the Church’s authority for interpreting the Scriptures correctly when we read something and are confused about how we should understand it, so as to not interpret it falsely and lead ourselves and/or others astray. Saying all that, it is important that we read our Bibles…

Catholics are often made fun of for not knowing their Bible, especially in relation to our Evangelical brothers and sisters. Very few Catholics are able to cite chapter and verse when trying to call on specific Bible passages. Why is that?

For much of Church history, the Bible was read in Latin. Why was it written in Latin in the first place when no one really speaks Latin, you might ask? The Old Testament was mostly written in Hebrew, the language of the Jews. The New Testament was written in Greek, which was the lingua franca (common language spoken between people whose native languages are different) of the Mediterranean at the time,(1) and Greek remained the main language among Christians until the faith began to spread to the Western Roman Empire, where the main language was Latin.(2) 

By the fourth century, there was a need for a Latin translation of the Scriptures so common people could read it. As a result, St. Jerome was commissioned to translate the Old and New Testaments from their original languages into Latin by Pope St. Damasus I in 382. Over time though, the Western Roman Empire began to decline – as did the common use of the Latin language – and other languages such as German, French, Anglo-Saxon, Italian, and Spanish began to rise.(3) The last common Latin speakers are said to have died off by the 8th century.(4) Latin, however, remained the language of the Church, and the Mass and Bible remained in Latin in the Catholic world. From there, only the educated, many of whom were priests, would have known Latin, and this brings up a divisive topic. 

Because Latin was no longer a commonly spoken or read language, many people think that the clergy reserved the interpretation of the Bible to themselves, and abused their power in relaying it to the common people. (5) While there may be some aspect of truth to this, it wasn’t totally without reason that the common people didn’t have access to the Sacred Text themselves. First off, Bibles – and books in general – were very valuable and expensive, especially before the invention of the movable-type printing press in the mid-15th century. (6) Remember, each copy of a book would have had to have been handwritten at that time, and the Bible isn’t something someone could pump out in a solid Sunday afternoon session… Secondly, Dave Armstrong states in his book, The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to Over Sixty Common Protestant Claims, that accusations that the Catholic Church forbade vernacular translations are historically misinformed and that Bible translations in common languages, approved by the Catholic Church, became very common in the Middle Ages as Latin ceased to be the language of the people. (7) The Church did, however, disapprove of the publication of unsupervised translations, which were also growing in popularity, to avoid error in the Sacred Text.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, is often given credit for being responsible for getting the Bible into the hands of the common folk, as he was the first person to translate the Bible into German from the original languages of Hebrew and Greek (instead of from the Latin Vulgate), and he translated the text into a more common dialect of German. As a result, a lot of the German-speaking world was able to understand it. Also, the printing press had now been invented, and more people were becoming literate. Many of those that sided with the Protestant Reformation saw this as a liberation from the papacy (8) and from the need to rely on priests because they believed they now had access to God on their own accord as a result of having the Scriptures in their hands.(9)

The problem with this was, though, as more people began to get the Bible in their hands, they began to interpret individual verses or portions of the Bible in their own way, to disregard any authority of the Church, and to begin their own versions of Christianity. A quote from James Gairdner, a Protestant church historian, is fitting here:

To the possession by worthy lay men of licensed translations (of the Bible) the Church was never opposed; but to place such a weapon as an English Bible in the hands of men who had no regard for authority, and who would use it without being instructed how to use it properly, was dangerous not only to the souls of those who read, but to the peace and order of the Church.(10)

In some ways, I am thankful for the work of men like Martin Luther because he spoke up and addressed some of the corruption that was going on in the Church, and these arising controversies in the Church then prompted a response through the Council of Trent. Luther also did get the Bible (though his own version – which wasn’t approved by Church authorities) into the hands of common folk. However, the actions of Luther and others have led to some major problems and division in the Body of Christ. Some sources claim there are now 33,000 different Christian denominations. (11) That number is inflated and inaccurate, but nonetheless, there are thousands of different versions of Christianity, and they result from not having a central power to interpret and proclaim what is Truth with a capital “T”. This central power is what we call the Magisterium (the Church’s authority or office to give authentic interpretation of the Word of God). An objection to this might be: “Well, the Catholic Church controls the interpretation of the Bible so tightly that it really doesn’t matter if Catholics are allowed to read the Bible or not because they are told what to think rather than allowed to learn from the Scriptures themselves.” I agree, there may still be room for an abuse of power there (as there always is insofar as we may wield our free will for the glory of God or the glory of ourselves), but there has to be a central interpreting authority, otherwise we end up with thousands of different denominations and divided Christians; and Jesus prayed that we would all be one. (12)

This is why Jesus appoints Peter as the first pope; calls him the rock on which He will build His Church; states that the gates of Hell will not overcome that Church; grants him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven; and states that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in Heaven. (13) Christ was basically saying that while the Church will not be preserved from sinful people, it will be preserved from being overtaken by falsities and heresy in relation to doctrine on faith and morals. This is further shown when Jesus says to Peter in Luke 22:32: “I pray that your own faith may not fail.”

To be clear though, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which was a council formed in response to the Protestant Reformation, there were only seven verses from the Bible that were not to be interpreted in a certain way (that is, they were not to be interpreted as some of the Protestants proposed):

  1. Luke 22:19 – related to the Eucharist
  2. 1 Corinthians 11:24 – also related to the Eucharist
  3. John 3:5 – related to Baptism
  4. Matthew 18:18 – related to the priesthood
  5. John 20:22-23 – also related to the priesthood
  6. Romans 5:12 – relating to original sin
  7. James 5:14 – related to the anointing of the sick

Even in these cases, interpretations that did not contradict Catholic dogma were   allowed. (14) Moreover, Armstrong states that this doesn’t mean that the Catholic is bound to adhere to a prepackaged interpretation of every verse when reading the Bible. As the Letter to the Hebrews states, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (15) The Word of God is meant to pierce each and every one of our hearts, to speak directly into our individual life-situations, to help us to make decisions that bring us closer to Christ, and to be a cornerstone to our relationship with Him. But, once again, in order for there to be unity in the Church, there needs to be some boundaries and a final say on how to interpret certain passages so we don’t go off in thousands of different directions. This is why we have Mother Church, and why Jesus promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against her: so that when we are struggling to find the meaning of something, we can place our hope in the Church that Jesus began and rest easy knowing that she has a final say we can trust in.

Catholics, Christians, and humans in general: read your Bibles. It is a shame that so many of us do not. May each one of us have crinkled pages with pencil lines, highlighter marks, and coffee spills abounding on them. However, despite the fact that there have been corruptions of power and bad catechesis by individuals throughout Church history, let us not be afraid to trust that Christ has kept the Church preserved in Truth through the ups and downs of time because He promised He would.

Peace and joy be in your hearts,

Erich

  1. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-latin-facts/facts-on-latin-in-the-roman-catholic-church-idUSTRE74C2C220110513
  2.  http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac66
  3.  http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac66
  4. Why did Latin die out? How and why have other languages died out? What are the processes?
  5. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ac66
  6. “The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to over Sixty Protestant Claims.” The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to over Sixty Protestant Claims, by Dave Armstrong, Sophia Institute Press, 2007, pp. 12–13.
  7. “The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to over Sixty Protestant Claims.” The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to over Sixty Protestant Claims, by Dave Armstrong, Sophia Institute Press, 2007, pp. 12–13.
  8.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luther_Bible
  9.  Martin Luther’s Influence on the German Language by Heather R. Darsie
  10.  The Protestant Reformation (article)
  11.  We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denominations
  12. John 17:21.
  13. Matthew 16:18-19.
  14. “The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to over Sixty Protestant Claims.” The One-Minute Apologist: Essential Catholic Replies to over Sixty Protestant Claims, by Dave Armstrong, Sophia Institute Press, 2007, pp.13.
  15. Hebrews 4:12.

One thought on “Why Reading the Bible Through the Lens of the Church is SO Important

Add yours

  1. There is a great quote from st Augustine along this line: We need to read holy scripture sitting on the lap of our Holy Mother the Church

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: