How Not to Interpret Scripture

There is a class that most college students will take at one point in their academic career. It is the course on Western Civilization—“Western Civ” for short. It is a feeble attempt to supplement the modern college curriculum (typically in two freshman-level courses) with what used to be the very backbone of a liberal education. The course revolves around classics of the Western Tradition: Plato’s Republic, Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine’s Confessions, Descartes’ Meditations, and Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. But one text in particular, I think, has been subject to mistreatment and misuse—the Holy Bible.

The problem is simple. One of the goals of the Western Civilization class is to teach students the ways in which certain texts have shaped the world in which we live. This often does not happen within the modern secular university.

The reason for this is that most people charged with teaching such classes have been deeply steeped within the modern worldview; as such, their understanding of scripture is quite different from the approach that shaped the ancient and medieval world. Typically, there are three ways to understand scripture available to the modern mind—none of these are true to the actual historical reading of the Bible; more importantly, none of these accurately reflect the way in which the Bible has been understood within the Catholic intellectual tradition.

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The first of these three approaches to scripture is fundamentalism. This view, which has been popular in America for over a century, is a byproduct of the Protestant rejection of the interpretive tradition of the Catholic Church. Instead of relying on a tradition of apostolic tradition (full of flawed human beings, to be sure) or on the powers of human reason (which are often mistaken) to aid in our understanding of God’s Word, the fundamentalist view simply accepts all passages of the Bible as literal, historical truths. If the genealogy from Adam suggests that the world is 6000 years old, so be it—regardless of what human reason, through the sciences of geology, biology, anthropology, and all the rest may say. The word of God is meant to be taken literally at every step—and our faith demands that we reject our own reason when it conflicts with this literalistic approach to the scriptures.

While this approach to scripture is somewhat influential throughout America, the second approach is constantly growing in popularity among those with a weak background in theology and history, and especially among those who spend a considerable amount of time on the internet (i.e., the young). It is largely derivative of the fundamentalist view, except it is highly antagonistic in nature. This approach to scripture is largely characterized by a highly uncharitable reading of various passages with the intention to undermine their moral, spiritual, or religious authority. Popular authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and popular figures in entertainment like Bill Maher are spokesmen for this approach.

“You expect me to believe that snakes can talk? Or that ‘the first day’ could have existed before the creation of celestial bodies? How childish, how absurd,” they say, without ever attempting to penetrate the text in pursuit of deeper, spiritual, truths.

This view, while rarely endorsed by college faculty (for even most unchurched professors understand how anti-intellectual it actually is) is nevertheless very popular on college campuses due to the combination of theologically uneducated youths, the internet (where misinformation abounds), and a desire to view oneself as intellectually superior; picking on “people of faith” is an easy target when one thinks that such people are naive, superstitious, and simply irrational, given the assumption that everything in the Bible is to be understood (by people of faith) to be literal, unambiguous, scientific, historical truth.

The final approach to scripture encountered on college campuses, while certainly more intellectually respectable, is equally unhelpful when trying to gain an understanding of the way in which scripture shaped our world. This is the historical-critical method, developed in the early modern period by philosophers like Benedict Spinoza. Writing in a period of religious persecution and widespread theological controversy, Spinoza argued that biblical scholars should read scripture as if it were not the word of God—as if the many books of the Bible had no collective unity, no overall meaning as a whole, no purpose beyond what the human author, in his own historically limited view of the world, could have intended.

This became the model of all secular Biblical interpretation within modern universities—the Bible was a collection of ancient writings, stemming from particular and contingent historical circumstances, which could give us insight into ancient Jewish and Christian thought, but is not necessarily reflective of any higher, deeper truths.

The problem with all of these approaches, at least, within a Western Civilization class, is that they are peculiarly modern. That is, they are entirely inappropriate for understanding the way in which the Bible shaped the Western world within the context of ancient and medieval history, which is typically the context in which they are examined.

If the goal of a Western Civilization class is to help students understand the way in which these texts have shaped the world; if it is to involve them in the great conversation that extends back to the fathers of our Western culture, we ought to teach our students how the great minds within the Catholic intellectual tradition understood the word of God, as it was this Catholic tradition that shaped the West.

Students are often surprised to find that St. Augustine, an ancient Roman in a world of pagan superstition, argued that the creation stories in Genesis are not to be understood as scientific, cosmological truths. They are puzzled by the fact that Aquinas, a medieval monk, praises reason, philosophy, and science in addition to faith. This is a product of their lack of exposure to the very worldview that produced Christendom—a blind spot in the college education of many.

The approach to scripture that transformed the Western world is one in which the whole of the scriptures is interpreted through the lens of the Word of God incarnate. God, it is revealed to us, is Truth and Love. Therefore nothing within his revelation can contradict Truth and Love—any interpretation of the Bible that is contrary to the light of human reason or that contradicts the law of love cannot be from God.

Contrary to fundamentalism, our faith, and the scripture in which it is revealed, is not contrary to reason. Contrary to the critics of fundamentalism, we do not treat faith as an anti-intellectual substitute for reason. Contrary to the historical-critical method, the Bible is an integrated whole that cannot be understood merely by an analysis of its parts.

This leads to the last misunderstanding about the scriptures. It is not the Bible alone that serves as the basis for our faith; rather, the Bible is only at home within the Church, with its long apostolic tradition, a tradition of authoritative interpretation that can be traced to Jesus himself. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Ethiopian eunuch could not understand the scriptures until Phillip—an apostle, charged with authority by Christ—interpreted them for him.

It is rare that this apostolic, Catholic approach to Biblical interpretation is offered to students at our modern, secular universities. Thus, the graduates of these universities may ultimately become ignorant of the understanding of scripture that shaped the world in which we live. The approach to the Bible that produced the West as we know it—an approach that looks for deeper, spiritual meanings, transcending the letter of the text, as part of a holistic revelation of the God that is Truth and Love—is often missing from the college curriculum. This is true even in a course like “Western Civilization,” which places such importance on history, interpretation, and the roots of our culture.


  • Michael Hayes

    Michael Hayes is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Kansas and a tutor at the St. Lawrence Institute for Faith and Culture.

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