Sacred Scripture is the Word of God but “there are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2Peter 3:16).

Consequently, the interpretation of Sacred Scripture has always involved difficulties and debates.

These have become more intricate in modernity.

The Protestant Reformation disputed the normativity of Tradition and the Church’s magisterium for the interpretation of Scripture.

The development of historical research provided an array of new techniques and insights. Unfortunately, these have often been divorced from the rule of faith and wedded to rationalist premises.

What then are the proper principles that allow us to hear what God is really saying to us in Sacred Scripture?

On the one hand, the Church teaches us to give priority to the literal or historical sense of Scripture, by taking into account the hagiographer’s intention and modes of writing.

“On the other hand, since Scripture must be interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written, the [Second Vatican Council’s] Dogmatic Constitution [on Divine Revelation] indicates three fundamental criteria for an appreciation of the divine dimension of the Bible: 1) the text must be interpreted with attention to the unity of the whole of Scripture; nowadays this is called canonical exegesis; 2) account is be taken of the living Tradition of the whole Church; and, finally, 3) respect must be shown for the analogy of faith.” (Benedict XVI, Post-synodal exhortation Verbum Dei).

In this interview, Dr. Jeffrey L. Morrow explains the Church’s principles of biblical interpretation and takes us through some of the best books on them. In part two, he discusses some further recommended readings.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Morrow is Professor of Theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University. A Jewish convert to Catholicism, he specializes in the history of modern biblical interpretation. Among his publications are Jesus’ Resurrection: A Jewish Convert Examines the Evidence, A Catholic Guide to the Old Testament (co-authored with Jeff Cavins and others), Murmuring Against Moses: The Contentious History and Contested Future of Pentateuchal Studies (co-authored with John Bergsma), and Modern Biblical Criticism as a Tool of Statecraft (co-authored with Scott Hahn).

  1. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum
    Second Vatican Council
  2. Verbum Domini:Post-Synodal Exhortation on The Word of God in the Life and Ministry of the Church
    by Benedict XVI
  3. Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy (also availble for Kindle)
    edited by Scott Hahn
  4. Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History
    (also availabe for Kindle)
    by John Bergsma
  5. A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament
    (also available for Kindle)
    by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links to the books listed in this post.

Most Catholics are not biblical scholars. Nevertheless, they need to apply the principles of biblical interpretation as they listen to Scripture in the liturgy or read it for themselves. Do they pick them up connaturally from the Order of Readings and the liturgical prayers, or do they need to be taught about them more explicitly?
Both are the case. It is a case of “both…and…” As a good Catholic, I have an analogical sense.

On the one hand, we Catholics have the benefit of hearing the texts organised in a certain way in the liturgy, where there is a privileged means of interpretation. We hear the Old and New Testament read together. The liturgy forms a natural connection, where we can interpret the Old in light of the New, and the New in light of the Old. It is helpful to learn to interpret Scripture from the liturgy: from the heart of the Church. That does not come naturally. We need to learn how to do that.

Before we come to your recommended readings, could you list the major principles of sound biblical interpretation?
From a Catholic perspective, the major principles of sound biblical interpretation are laid out very nicely in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum).

It teaches that we need to take the dual authorship of Scripture very seriously. God is the primary author, whereas the human sacred authors are, as St. Thomas Aquinas would say, the instrumental authors. Both are real authors. Consequently, we need to understand the genre and the historical context as best as we can, for the literal sense. We also need to understand that “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written” (Dei verbum 12). We need to understand that it was also written by God, indeed fundamentally. In that sense, Dei verbum lays out three major criteria, which the magisterium of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI also articulate clearly.

First, we need to read the Bible in light of the rule of faith: the dogmas and what the Church has declared as divinely revealed. The Church’s doctrine does not make it more difficult to understand Scripture, despite what many scholars would say. By clarifying for example, that that God is Triune—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Church helps us understand the Bible better.

Second, we need to read the Bible canonically: as a whole. Genesis, Revelation, and everything in between, are related to each other. This runs counter to a lot of what we learn in the classroom or from many scholars: to read every book of the Bible by itself— maybe even assuming that it started out as a series of different books or texts—as isolated, discrete forms. The Church teaches that we need to the Bible as a whole: as one divine book, with its differences and variances, but reading each book in light of the others.

Third, we need to read Scripture in light of the Church’s living tradition. We believe that the Holy Spirit gives us the magisterium to guide our reading of Scripture.

All three principles need to be taken into account when we read the Bible.

Some documents talk about the analogy of the faith. Is that the same as one of the principles you've stated of some different?
I use the term “rule of faith.” Benedict XVI uses the two terms interchangeably. We need to read Scripture in light of the faith that has been revealed to us or in light of the Church’s dogmatic tradition.

" We can read Scripture typologically because God writes history typologically."

Building upon the distinction that St. Paul draws between the letter and the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6), the Church Fathers identify four meanings that a passage from Scripture may have. Besides its literal sense, it may have any of three spiritual senses: the allegorical, insofar as it is a type that prefigures Christ and his Church; the moral or tropological; and the anagogical, insofar as it refers to the last things. Does the doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture encapsulate the various principles of biblical interpretation?
It does, implicitly. The Church Fathers have a diversity of interpretations. Technically, there are only two senses: the literal and the spiritual. As you mentioned, the spiritual is then subdivided into three: typology or allegory; tropology or the moral sense; and the anagogical. There is much more going on with the Church Fathers, but, in the Summa theologiae, St Thomas Aquinas helpfully identifies the fourfold sense in this way.

The literal sense encapsulates much of what we are dealing with at the human level: the human authorship, though the divine as well.

Typology is helpful because it shows how the Old and New Testament are connected at a spiritual level. Here it is important to point out something that is not clear in the Church documents. Typology is not some literary sense of the text the human authors have in mind. Rather, it is how God writes history. Typology is fundamentally historical at one level. That is why it is in Scripture. We can read Scripture typologically because God writes history typologically.

The doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture does contain or assume, implicitly rather than explicitly, the criteria for understanding Scripture as a Catholic.

In Modern Biblical Criticism as a Tool of Statecraft, you and your co-author, Scott Hahn, argue that modern biblical scholarship has often been informed by naturalism and political interests. How did you come to this realization before undertaking this research project?
That is a long story. I shall try to be brief.

Scott and I came to it separately. I was a doctoral student and he was a scholar already. We had both worked on it on our own. He had written a work with Benjamin Wiker: Politicizing the Bible, which covered the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. I had been working on the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

I already saw some problems—simply historical or archaeological ones—with many of the “assured results” of modern biblical criticism. I wondered why history seemed to support the Bible so much better than it does the so-called historical-critical scholars. As I studied the history of modern biblical scholarship, I discovered that most of the modern biblical scholars were not doing pure, objective, neutral science. They were not disinterested scientists. The earliest ones had political, theological, and political interests. Their scholarship was just as biased, or even more so, than the theological interpretations they were arguing against. I started to see the ways in which their own political commitments and their support for certain statesmen, shaped the implicitly sceptical methods that they adopted. This is an oversimplification but, generally, if the tradition said one thing, the scholars tried to undercut it. Rather than trying to figure out what actually happened, they looked for a method to support specific political ends. This is particularly the case in the seventeenth century, but it becomes clear as you walk through the history.

"Liturgy is the most important, living place for reading Scripture. Scripture and the liturgy go together."


The rise of modern biblical criticism has prompted the Popes to issue a series of important documents on the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Foremost among these are Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893) and Pius XII’s Divino afflante Spiritu (1943). There is also the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993). Why, though, does the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum (The Word of God) top your list?
I would distinguish the documents of Leo XIII and Pius XII from the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1993 document. The latter is not magisterial. St. Paul VI removed the Pontifical Biblical Commission from functioning as an arm of the magisterium in 1971. The last document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission that was part of the Magisterium is Sancta Mater Ecclesia (1964) on the historical reliability of the Gospels.

Leo XIII’s document is very important. It is the first papal magisterial document on Scripture. It deals with another area of my research: the modernist controversy. It is at the cusp of modernism and deals with it before it is condemned. Leo is writing primarily against an author I work on: Alfred Loisy, who was excommunicated in 1908 under St Pius X.

Leo’s 1893 encyclical is trying to understand how we can use history and archaeology, in the literal sense, as a defence against all the scepticism that is entering not just biblical scholarship in general, but Catholic biblical scholarship in particular. It teaches that the interpretation of the Church Fathers is very important in this regard.

Pius XII is looking at this fifty years later, in 1943. By that time, some had pushed the spiritual interpretation a little too far and neglected history. However, God entered history in Jesus Christ: in the Incarnation. Pius XII discusses the good contributions that historical research can make.

These two important documents go together.

Dei Verbum, on the other hand, succinctly encapsulates the Church’s preceding tradition: the Church Fathers, Providentissimus Deus, Divino afflante Spiritu, and the documents of Pontifical Biblical Commission from those years. In six short chapters, the Second Vatican Council captures the Tradition of the Church. It shows the beauty of the Church’s teaching on Scripture. That is why it is so important. It should be a touchstone for all future Catholic biblical interpretation.

There are some areas in which the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 document is very good; others that are more relevant for scholarly discussions than the general Catholic.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission, since St. Paul VI reconstituted it, has become an advisory commission for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Father (which used to be called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Not every Catholic needs to delve into the massive 1993 document.

Just as Pius V followed up on the Council of Trent by issuing a compendium of the Catholic faith, the Roman Catechism, John Paul II did likewise by following up on Vatican II with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Does it add anything to Dei Verbum’s teaching on biblical interpretation?
It does. I am glad you brought that up. The Catechism of the Catholic Church really is, in a sense, the catechism of Vatican II, in the light of St. John Paul II’s teachings.

In the section on Sacred Scripture, particularly in nn. 115-119, it deals with something that you mentioned earlier: the fourfold sense of Scripture.

Vatican II did not deal explicitly with the interpretation of the Church Fathers in that way. Dei verbum helpfully lays out what the Word of God is and how we have received it in Tradition and Scripture. Then it tells us about the Old and the New Testament, their interpretation, and Sacred Scripture’s role in the life of the Church.

The Catechism uses that as a basic outline and walks us through how we are to understand what Scripture is and interpret it. That is, it refers explicitly to the way in which Christians from the early centuries and the Middle Ages understood Scripture fruitfully and applied it to their lives by attending to the fourfold sense of Scripture.

There is the literal and then the spiritual sense. The spiritual sense is based on the literal. With the typological sense, we see how the Old and New Testament relate to one another: how Jesus, the Church, and the sacraments are “hidden in the Old and made manifest in the New” (novum in vetere latet, vetus in novo patet), as St Augustine eloquently puts it. Then there is the tropological or moral sense. How do I apply this to my life and become a saint? By corresponding to God's grace from reading scripture. Then there is the anagogical sense. How does this orient me towards heaven?

Not every passage will have all these senses. Every passage has a literal sense, the meaning of the words, and a spiritual sense. It may not have, for example, an anagogical sense: an explicit reference to heaven. However, the teaching on the fourfold sense of Scripture is very helpful. It is probably the best thing that the Catechism adds to Vatican II’s teaching on the interpretation of Scripture.


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