The Authority, the Character, and the Interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures
In the following series of six essays on revealed theology, we will examine the compatibility of the theory of evolution with the biblical accounts of creation. In this article, we will establish the authority of the Bible, its mediated character, and its authentic interpreter.
The Bible is called the “word of God” in that God is the primary author of the Bible. The human authors of sacred Scripture, such as Isaiah or Matthew, are also true authors of the text, but they are secondary, not primary, authors. How so? They are true authors in that they wrote what they understood, and they wrote it using their own intellectual and physical powers. They are secondary authors, and God is the primary author, because God used these human authors as His instruments in producing this written text—as one uses a pen as an instrument in writing a note.
As an illustration, when Albert Einstein wrote out the equation E = mc2, he—and not the pen he was using—was given the credit for producing that formula. He is the author of that formula, and the pen was the mere instrument with which he wrote it. The pen was not capable of producing the formula, but only of placing ink efficiently on paper.
Now, in the case of Scripture, the human authors were capable of recording a text in a human language that they knew, but only God is able to make this an authoritative and inspired text that brings sinners to repentance and to eternal life. God’s power is so great that He is able to use sinful human beings—despite their cultural biases, personal fears, and other limitations—as instruments in writing out His saving word (see essay no. 5 on causality).
Thus, Sacred Scripture is mediated: the Bible has true secondary authors. It is not a simple dictation by God, as if the human author had fallen into a trance and written what he himself might not have understood or agreed with. Even so, sacred Scripture is inspired, because God is the primary author. It is insufficient to say that the human authors were inspired by a religious experience and then wrote it down. Surely they were, but what makes the Bible unique among all written works ever produced or yet to be produced, is that God is the primary author of this book, and of this book alone.
This mediated character of sacred Scripture explains why the Bible can be translated into other languages without losing its status as the inspired word of God. Christians affirm that the Word became flesh, not a book in Hebrew or in Greek. In contrast, when Muslims translate the Quran, it is not clear whether this is the true Quran because, as they understand it, God’s original tablet in heaven is in Arabic; and no translation renders the original perfectly.
This mediation of the Scriptures through the community of believers is inescapable and should not be viewed as replacing God’s action as primary author. For example, Jesus spoke in Aramaic, but the New Testament is recorded in Greek—which already leaves us one step removed from Christ, if it is not the Holy Spirit Himself who worked through this mediation. Similarly, the decision as to what books belong in the Bible, which manuscripts are legitimate, and when no more books may be added, was the decision of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, valid translations of the Bible—on which the great majority of Christians rely since they cannot read ancient Greek and Hebrew—have to be approved by a legitimate ecclesiastical authority.
Now, the Bible is privileged above all other writings, be they the authoritative doctrinal declarations of Church councils, the mystical writings of the greatest saints, or brilliantly penetrating and universally integrative theological treatises. This is important to establish at the outset, because if the Bible rules evolution out, then for the Christian, the argument is over. There is no higher authority to which one can appeal.
In addition to having the highest authority, Scripture is of the greatest importance because it is God’s revelation of Himself and of our own ultimate vocation. The Bible teaches us things about God and ourselves that we could never discover on our own, such as the Trinity and the Resurrection, and also confirms things that human society could figure out on its own but only with great difficulty, such as the Ten Commandments. As St. Thomas explains, God reveals even these truths accessible to human reason because only the brightest minds over hundreds of years could reason these things out, and their conclusions would still include many errors (see Summa Theologiae I, q. 1, a. 1). This aspect of Scripture bears significantly on the question of evolution, because we can expect that Scripture has something to teach us about our first origin and our final end.
An inevitable question concerning a right understanding of the Bible is: who has the authority to interpret Scripture? A significant difficulty that attends written revelation is the possibility of divergent interpretations of the text. When there are disagreements about what God is saying in the Bible—and the stakes could not be higher—who has the authority to determine the correct view? If there is no authority on earth that can adjudicate, then the disputants remain in disagreement. History has repeatedly shown that when no such authority is recognized, the Christian community can fracture into separate churches; this is a scandal and embarrassment, for Christ’s prayer for His followers was “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17:21).
The Catholic Church accepts that Christ instituted the apostles and their successors as this authority, to teach and preach in His name. We can hear this from Jesus in the gospels of John and Matthew for example:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn 20:21-23).
Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matt 28:18-20).
And so the Second Vatican Council affirms that “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum, Chapter 2, No. 10).
Some Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of the Church’s mediation here because it seems to cut off the believer’s direct contact with God—and who could possibly serve as an adequate substitute for God? These Christians would maintain that when they read the Bible faithfully, the Holy Spirit will reveal to them what the Scriptures mean, and so there is no need for any authority other than the Holy Spirit.
Now, it is true that no one needs anything in addition to God the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit Himself has willed to give the community of believers a charism that He gives to no single individual, and He has willed to work through the Church’s ministers as His own instrument. Since the Bible itself is a mediated but inspired message of God, it is not unreasonable that its interpretation would also be mediated but in some way inspired.
Here it is important to note that it is not the Church instead of God who interprets Scripture. It is God who guides, speaks, and interprets through the Church. Analogies for this abound. For instance, could we not just go straight to God instead of to the Bible, which was produced by humans (at least as instruments)? Of course we could, but we have to go to the Bible because God willed to reveal Himself through this humanly written word. Could God not create and nurture new human life without human parents? Of course He could, but God has willed to use human parents as instruments to accomplish this task. Could God not speak directly to everyone at all times without apostles, prophets, teachers, patriarchs, or miracle workers? Of course He could, but God has willed to use human instruments throughout salvation history, such as Moses, who spoke to Pharaoh in God’s name and led the chosen people out of Egypt by God’s power. God has willed that one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church interpret the sacred Scriptures in His name.
But is there not a great risk that corrupt ministers might discredit the Church, whereby the very authority of Scripture and of Christ Himself would be brought into question? Yes, indeed. But Jesus did not change His mind about sending the apostles forth to teach and preach in His name, even though one of the twelve had betrayed him, and the rest—save one—had abandoned Him in his hour of greatest need. God takes the same risks with bad parents, who have a decisive role in nurturing their child’s life and faith. Astonishingly, in His wisdom and love, God calls us sinners to be servants consecrated to Him and to share in His own ministry.
We should also note that what Catholics claim for the pope and bishops is less than what some of our separated brothers in Christ claim for each Christian—namely an infallible authoritative reading of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit anywhere at any time. In the Catholic understanding, while the Holy Spirit regularly leads individual believers a correct grasp of the Scriptures, He gives an infallible authoritative interpretation only to the pope and bishops who have come together in a council to determine, after prayerful discernment, what must be affirmed and what must be denied, as they read the Bible according to the sacred tradition of the Church, that is, according to what has been believed and handed on from the beginning.
But where does this sacred tradition come from? The New Testament comes out of and is predated by the community of believers, who have a living tradition which Acts 9:2 refers to as the “Way.” The new Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Let us recall that the Church flourished with a living tradition after the Lord’s Resurrection for about twenty years before the earliest text of the New Testament was written and for likely seventy years before the latest book of the Bible was completed. Also, for forty days after His resurrection, i.e. until He ascended into heaven, Jesus taught the apostles, “speaking of the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). So, this tradition comes from the Lord Jesus and is developed and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul instructs the Thessalonians to “hold to the traditions” that he has taught them (2 Thess 2:15) and commends the Corinthians for doing just that (1 Cor 11:2).
Catholics’ confidence in the Church’s mediatory role is based on the fact that the Holy Spirit did not only work through the Church when the Bible was being written and compiled, but He works in the Church no less right now!
— Rev. John Baptist Ku, O.P.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, Bible Sunday (used with permission)