A while back, the Time magazine ran an article misleadingly titled, ‘Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible’.
Predictably, there was an uproar from both the evangelical Protestants – who thought the Church to be giving in to the secular society – and the secular society – who thought the Church was finally admitting something they knew all along; that it is untrue.
The Catholic Church still swears by the truth of the Bible, and it always has. However, the Bible is a collection of books consisting of many genres, including poetry, songs, history, genealogies, legal codes, and even a sensus. Just as you would not go in a library to a Poetry section to research for a scientific paper, one needs to read them in the way the author intended, and in context of the genre. It is not the historical Christianity that insists on the literal sense – this literalist approach is held by the newcomers: Christian Fundamentalists. In this sense, the Church is proclaiming nothing new; and so here is lesson 3 on how Truth is twisted by the media (see lesson 1, lesson 2 and lesson 2.5).
Thus, there are four senses of Scripture with which the Church reads the Biblical texts:
Peter Kreeft has this fictional dialogue on the topic:
Sal: You mean you really think God sits up there in the sky on a golden throne and has a strong right hand, and gets angry?
Chris: No. That’s poetic language. But you can tell the truth in poetic language, you know. God really is exalted—though not physically, in space, in the sky. God really does rule the universe, though not from a physical golden throne. God really does have all power, though he doesn’t have the same kind of strength as Muhammad Ali had in his right hand. And God really does want us to do good and not evil, though he doesn’t get hysterical and red in the face.
Sal: So it’s just symbolism.
Chris: But true symbolism. Not just a made-up story, like Santa Claus.
Sal: So you admit the whole Bible is poetic symbolism, not literal history.
Chris: No, I didn’t say that. I said that the language it uses to describe God has to be symbolic. God can’t be described literally because we can’t see him. He doesn’t have a physical body. But there are a lot of things in the Bible that are described literally -things we can see.
Sal: How can you tell what parts of the Bible to interpret symbolically and what parts to interpret literally? Isn’t it just your personal preference?
Chris: No, there’s an objective standard.
Sal: Well, what is it?
Chris: It’s quite simple, really. Language about visible things is meant literally, language about invisible things is meant symbolically.
Sal: So the story of the creation of the world in Genesis is meant literally? It is about visible things, the universe.
Chris: But before the creation of Adam and Eve there was no human eye around to see it. So the account isn’t an eyewitness account. It’s true, but not literal. The “6 days” of creation, for instance, don’t have to be 24 hour days.
Sal: And the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelation—all that stuff about the end of the world, horses and burning mountains going through the sky and angels blowing trumpets—that’s not literal either, right?
Chris: Right. That’s symbolism. But it’s true. It’ll happen, just as the creation happened.
Sal: But it’s not literal because nobody’s there to see it yet. It’s future.
Chris: Well, prophecies of the future can be literal. You could predict something literally. Some passages in the Bible do. For instance, the Old Testament predicts dozens of specific details about the Messiah that happened, literally, to Jesus, like being sold for 30 pieces of silver, and having his clothes gambled for.
Sal: I guess I’m really concerned with whether you interpret the miracle stories literally or not.
Chris: If they’re meant literally, yes.
Sal: Like Noah’s flood and the ten plagues in Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea? And all Jesus’ miracles? And the literal Resurrection?
And the fact is, the Church has acknowledged this not in the 20th century, but at least from the time of St. Augustine (and probably from the beginning of the Church). His complaints about the tendency of Christians to insist on the literal sense, when it is inappropriate, dates back to 408 AD:
“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20 [A.D. 408]).
“With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation” (ibid., 2:9).