Recently a prospective student of the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan (CBSM) raised this question. She noticed the inclusion of some books by Protestants on our reading list and was concerned. What follows is my personal response, which has benefited from the comments of fellow board members Fr. John Riccardo and Deacon Jack Gardner.
The question is a very legitimate one, since the lens through which one reads the Scriptures does significantly affect one’s interpretation. A Catholic, an Evangelical, a Jew, a liberal Protestant, a Jehovah’s Witness, a secular academic, and an atheist, read and interpret the Bible very differently! In the past (and sometimes in the present) scholars have made excessive claims to objectivity about their reading of Scripture. But everyone has beliefs that influence their interpretation.
In practice, the answer to the question varies depending on the reader, the setting in which the resource will be used, and the particular book in question. If readers have either a shallow understanding or a weak commitment to Catholicism, it is certainly best to guide them to basic Catholic resources. But if readers know their Catholic faith and are firmly committed to it, there is often a lot they can learn from our separated brothers and sisters.
By “setting” I mean who else is involved in the conversation about Scripture. It’s one thing to be consulting a non-Catholic resource with Baptists or Jehovah’s Witnesses who are interested in converting Catholics; it’s quite another to be using Protestant resources with Catholics aided by a theologically-informed instructor who is loyal to Church teaching. One reason the Catholic Biblical School is willing to use good resources written by non-Catholics is that CBSM teachers have at least a master’s degree in theology and are firmly committed to church teaching.
The Catholic Biblical School is not alone in making use of non-Catholic resources. Anyone who has a copy of the Lamb’s Supper or other books by Scott Hahn will notice plenty of references to non-Catholic scholars. My professors at the Gregorian University in Rome commonly assigned works by non-Catholic scholars. Probably the best evidence of Catholic practice in this regard is Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, where you’ll see that the Holy Father frequently cites Protestant and Jewish sources, as well as Catholic ones. Why is this?
Catholic tradition has always emphasized the importance of embracing truth regardless of where it is found. All truth has its ultimate source in God. For this reason the Fathers of the Church defended the use of some pagan literature by Christians. They compared pagan learning to the gold that the Israelites brought out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. When it was melted down it could serve even a sacred use, namely, the gold furnishings of the Tabernacle.
Following this principle, St. Thomas Aquinas took the “secular” philosophy of Aristotle, preserved through the centuries by the Moslems, and used it to formulate a new synthesis for Catholic theology. Aquinas steered a middle course between his contemporaries who rejected Aristotle because he wasn’t a Christian and those who embraced his scientific and philosophical learning uncritically.
In fact, Catholic tradition has recognized God’s graces at work in baptized Christians who are not Catholics. St. Augustine draws much of his teaching about biblical interpretation, particularly of the Psalms, from a Donatist Bible commentator named Tyconius.
Vatican II speaks of the presence of genuine charisms among other Christians in its Decree on Ecumenism:
Very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ. (UR 3)
Catholics also recognize a particular role for the Jewish people, through whom we received the Old Testament and Christ himself, in helping us understand the Bible. Both Origen and St. Jerome studied with rabbis and made use of Jewish writings in their efforts to understand the Old Testament. In recent years scholars have gained great insights into the life of Christ and the origins of Christian liturgy and sacraments through the study of ancient Judaism.
At the same time it must be acknowledged that not everything written by Catholics on Scripture is helpful, or even faithfully Catholic! The need to discern and evaluate what we are reading applies to Catholic resources as well.
So how should we evaluate Scripture resources, whether by Catholics or non-Catholics? While much more can be said, here are three steps that will keep us on the right path.
First, we need to clarify our own commitment to read and interpret Scripture as Catholics. This applies to biblical scholars as well as to lay people. The Pontifical Biblical Commission puts it this way in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church: “What characterizes Catholic exegesis is that it deliberately places itself within the living tradition of the Church, whose first concern is fidelity to the revelation attested by the Bible” (III.b, emphasis added). This entails believing what the Church believes about Scripture and interpreting Scripture in the way the Church teaches (see Catechism 101-141 or Dei Verbum 11-13). It entails deferring to church teaching (the pope and bishops) regarding doctrine and the meaning of Scripture, rather than holding on to our own opinion. Finally, deliberate adherence to Catholic tradition entails a commitment to reason and to an honest quest for truth. Of course, tensions sometimes arise, but faith and the Holy Spirit will bring them to a good outcome.
Second, it helps to consider not only the arguments and evidence, but also to ascertain the presuppositions, including the faith commitment, of the author we are reading. If the author is a Christian or a Jew, does he or she believe in God’s action in history or does the author discount those claims of Scripture? If a Catholic, does the author believe what the Church believes, or does he or she dissent from Church teaching? We can learn a great deal about Scripture from people who don’t share our faith, or share it fully, although we approach what they say with extra caution where their presuppositions may influence their conclusions.
Finally, Catholics don’t interpret Scripture on their own, but as part of the community of faith. As we study Scripture and make use of the variety of resources available, it is important to maintain dialogue with those who share our faith and to read reliable Catholic authors. In this context I’d like to recommend the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture that aims to interpret Scripture in light of the Church’s faith.