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Do Catholics Take the Bible Literally?

BIBLE HAND POV George Redgrave CC
George Redgrave CC
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Apologetics 101: Answering Your Questions About the Faith

Question: Do Catholics take the Bible literally?

Answer: Yes, we do. Now, I know I just sent a lot of “Spirit of Vatican II” folks into spasms by saying that, but they need not fear, as I’ll explain momentarily.  From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph #115, we read, “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses [more on those below].”  

Paragraph #116 of the Catechism gives us more on the literal sense of Scripture, “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.’”

Okay, what is being said here? Yes, Catholics take the Bible literally.  What that means, though, as the Catechism states, is that we look for the meaning that the author of any given Scripture passage meant to convey, we don’t just look at the words on the page and take them at face value.  An example: If I said that I went to a concert last night and there were a million people there, does that mean that I am trying to tell you that there were exactly one million people at the concert?  No, of course not.  Everyone in our particular culture would take that to mean that I went to a concert last night and it was absolutely overflowing with people.  That could mean hundreds, or even thousands, depending on the size of the arena where the concert was held, but it definitely does not mean exactly one million people, even though I actually said there were a million people there.  

This is what is known as an idiom of speech – using words that, taken at face value, actually mean one thing, to mean something else.  Another example: Often, when watching the weather reports on the local news, you’ll hear the weather person say something along the lines of, “The sun came up at 5:33 this morning.”  Everyone knows what that means.  Yet, that word – sunrise – taken at just a surface meaning, actually implies that the weather guy or gal thinks the sun is revolving around the earth.  The truth is, the sun does not rise in the morning.  What actually happens is that the earth’s rotation causes people to be able to see the sun at a particular time each morning. But, instead of saying, “The earth’s rotation caused the sun to come into view at 5:33 this morning,” we just say “the sun rose at 5:33 this morning,” and everyone knows the meaning we are intending to convey.

Again, we often use language in a way that conveys meanings that are different from the surface meanings of the words we use.  Every culture, every language, in every time, has had their own particular idioms of speech.  Which is why reading the Bible and figuring out what this or that passage means, figuring out the “literal” interpretation of the passage, can sometimes be very difficult.  The folks who wrote the Old Testament used idioms of speech.  The folks who wrote the New Testament used idioms of speech.  The problem is, that as English-speaking 21st century Americans, we don’t necessarily know what the idioms used by Hebrews and Greeks in the first century and earlier mean.  

Think about it: Let’s say some archeologist, two thousand years in the future, whose native language is Japanese, was excavating the site of a 21st century American library and came across a book that had the phrase, “It was raining cats and dogs,” in it.  What is he to make of that?  Is the book speaking of some strange meteorological phenomenon where cats and dogs were falling from the sky like rain?  How is he supposed to figure out what that phrase means?  

Well, he has to do what we have to sometimes do today when trying to figure out exactly what this or that passage of the Bible means.  He has to dig a bit deeper to find the author’s intent (CCC #110).  He has to take into account the historical conditions of the time and the culture of the author.  He has to take into account the type of literary genre the book was written in – is it historical narrative, poetry, or some other mode of literary expression?  He needs to investigate 21st century English more deeply, and so on.  Basically, he has to do his homework. We have to do the same when reading the Bible.  

All of that is to say that, yes, Catholics take the Bible literally.  As the Catechism says, the literal sense of Scripture is what all the other senses of Scripture are based on.  So, if we don’t get the literal sense right, then we don’t get the spiritual sense right.  But, we do not just look at the words on the page and necessarily take them at face value. If we were to do that, we might not properly understand what the author was trying to tell us.  The literal meaning of a passage is the meaning the author of that passage intended to convey.  It can sometimes be difficult to discern.  That’s why we have to look to authentic Catholic Scripture scholarship for help, and, even more importantly, that’s why we have to look to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church for help, in understanding the Scriptures.

Now, what about these spiritual sense of Scripture that I mentioned above?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) tells us that not only does the text of Scripture reveal to us things about God and His plan of salvation (the literal sense), but that the “realities and events” about which Scripture speaks can, in and of themselves, be signs that further our knowledge of God and His plan (CCC #117).  For example, 1 Peter 3:20-21 speaks of Noah’s ark as a sign of Baptism.  People were “saved through water.”  This meaning behind the literal meaning is known as the spiritual sense of Scripture.

The Catechism tells us that there are three spiritual senses of Scripture: the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical (CCC #117).  The allegorical sense refers to how any given event in the Bible can be understood in a more profound way by recognizing its “significance in Christ.”  For example, is there anything allegorical – anything that speaks to us of Christ – in the story of the Passover meal?  Indeed there is.  We can see the Passover meal in a more significant way when we recognize it as a sign pointing to the Passion and death of Christ.  You have the slaughter of a spotless lamb whose blood would save the people of Israel from death.  You have a lamb whose bones were not to be broken (John 19:36; Exodus 12:46).  A lamb that had to be eaten (the Eucharist).  Looking at biblical events with an eye to how they might acquire deeper significance in Christ helps us to understand that God reveals His plan to us not only through words, but through events as well.

The moral sense of Scripture is that which leads us to “act justly.”  An obvious example of this is the story of God giving Moses the 10 Commandments.  In the New Testament, we have the story of the servant who owed much to his master and the master forgave him of his entire debt, but then that servant turned around and did not forgive someone who owed him a much smaller debt. The master, when he hears of this, gets angry with the first servant and reimposes the debt upon him and tosses him in jail. We are taught that we must forgive in order to receive forgiveness.

The third spiritual sense is the anagogical sense.  The anagogical leads us to “view events and realities in terms of their eternal significance.”  The example the Catechism gives is that of the Church on earth being a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.  Another example would be the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – of how wickedness leads to destruction, not necessarily physical destruction as in the case of those two cities, but more importantly, to spiritual destruction.  The parable of the Prodigal Son is another example.  It tells us that we must turn away from sin and to the Father in a spirit of repentance in order to be accepted into the Father’s house – heaven.  

As mentioned, these three spiritual senses depend on the literal sense.  Problems in the interpretation of the Bible have come when someone interprets the Bible in only a literal sense, not recognizing that the events of Scripture point to certain realities in the plan of salvation in a way that goes beyond just what the words on the pages say.  This is a more fundamentalist mode of interpretation.

On the other end, however, problems in the interpretation of the Bible have arisen when someone interprets the Bible in a completely spiritual sense and minimizes, or even dismisses, the literal sense of Scripture.  This is particularly true when it comes to the stories found in Genesis.  I’ve had theologians say things along the lines of, “Well, we know Adam and Eve didn’t really exist, that’s just a story made up by different writers to convey a particular theological message.”  Really?!  Or, I’ve been told many times, and read in many places, that Jesus didn’t really work any miracles, that the miracle accounts were inserted into the Gospels by His followers many decades after His death to, in essence, help them convey a transcendent message about the Christ and the Christian religion.

Sorry, but if the miracles are not true, if the literal sense makes no sense, then the only meaning the spiritual senses can have are whatever someone makes up.  How exactly is it, one might ask, that God conveys meaning through events that never happened?  Overly spiritualizing the Scriptures has actually led to a loss of faith.  After all, if what the Scriptures tell us really isn’t true, then on what does one pin their faith?

Catholics take the Bible in the literal sense, and in the spiritual sense.  The latter depends on the former; the former is given deeper meaning and significance by the latter. Both are important to a proper understanding of Scripture.

John Martignoni is a nationally-known Catholic apologist and Bible scholar. He is the Founder and President of the Bible Christian Society, where you can find lots of free apologetics materials — CD’s, mp3 downloads, e-newsletters, and more, and host of EWTN’s “Open Line” airing on Mondays at 3 p.m. EST. 

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