Should Catholics Use Biblical Resources by Non-Catholics?

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.



Filed under biblical interpretation, Peter Williamson, Uncategorized

19 responses to “Should Catholics Use Biblical Resources by Non-Catholics?

  1. If the writer is sufficiently educated and not dead set against the Catholic teachings, then I will read them. Frequently I find that Protestant exegetes have a great deal to offer.

  2. Anne Archer

    Many Catholics are not aware of the theological differences and persuasions. Some years ago I attend Bible Study Fellowship – thinking it was neutral. Later I realized that I had absorbed some theology that was probably based on Calvinism and had to weed out the incorrect foundations. Steve Ray has a great article called Trojan Horse which every Catholic should read if they are going to use non-Catholic materials or attend non-Catholic studies that are touted as being “neutral”. No non-Catholic study is “neutral”. They are all based on flawed theology coming from Luther. Fundamentally they are opposed to the magisterium or any sort of authority.

  3. Bill G.

    I find that my protestant brothers are tragically misguided, and cut off from the true church. I try to take what they say with a (hopefully charitable) grain of salt. Reader beware.

  4. Tapestry

    You can read CS Lewis and feel pefectly catholic in his teachings.
    But sometimes you wonder why some ‘catholic’ authors say they are
    when they are so far off the mark it reeks of atheism or just pride
    against the authority of the church in general.

  5. “Those who are not against us are with us”- Jesus of Nazareth

  6. Christopher

    Pope Leo XIII spoke to this question is his landmark encyclical “Providentissimus Deus”:

    “But it is most unbecoming to pass by, in ignorance or contempt, the excellent work which Catholics have left in abundance, and to have recourse to the works of non-Catholics – and to seek in them, to the detriment of sound doctrine and often to the peril of faith, the explanation of passages on which Catholics long ago have successfully employed their talent and their labour. For although the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student, he should, nevertheless, bear well in mind–as the Fathers also teach in numerous passages–that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church, and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without the true faith, only gnaw the bark of the Sacred Scripture, and never attain its pith.”

    Leo argues strongly that our preference should be for Catholic authors. While he doesn`t condemn the use of non-Catholic sources, he recommends prudence, and reminds Catholics of the teaching of the Fathers that “the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church.”

    • Enrique I. Alonso

      “the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church.”

      That is very helpful. Thank you. But I wonder why that position is not heard today.

  7. When it comes to translating from Hebrew to English it hardly matters, because there are only so many ways to translate. When it comes to theological discussions, I largely stick to Catholic Commentary. There is a difference between exegesis and interpretation.

  8. Rosemary

    Ask a trustworthy priest or professor what authors are good to read. Some Catholic authors are sketchy, too, so one has to be careful. Read the non-Catholic authors only after some good grounding in theology. Take some online courses from sources of good reputation. Mix with daily Scripture reading and enjoy!

  9. Ray Ryan

    Except for CS Lewis, Martin Buber, Jacob Neusner, Elie Weisel,Maimonides and Cardinal Ronald Knox (Before and after his conversion) I would suggest one read all the Encyclicals, all ,, the Church Fathers, Read/Understand the Summa, and for Grace and guidance in reading say the Daily Office and attend Daily Mass. Then jump in to other stuff. God Bless us all- Ray Ryan

  10. pasisozi

    \\ St. Thomas Aquinas took the “secular” philosophy of Aristotle, preserved through the centuries by the Moslems, \\

    This is not true. Melkite Christians in communion with Rome made the FIRST translations of Aristotle and other ancient writers from Greek into Arabic. There’s an article about this in SOPHIA, the magazine of the Melkite Catholic Eparchy of Newton in the USA.

  11. The question really should be, are you able to discern the good from the bad? Reading doctrinal statements from the Church is good, but it is not Biblical study. At what point do you determine whether or not what you believe goes against what you are reading? Read the statement by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, that will help.

  12. Relationship between Magisterium and exegetes

    “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”
    Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission
    to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993

  13. Pingback: Feeding the 5,000: A Good Start! | St. John

  14. Especially in the beginning, I was very careful to stick to only Catholic (and orthodox Catholic, at that) works when choosing what to read on my own. And if something did not seem right, I’d bounce it off my priest. “Examine all, hold fast to what is good,” is a great principle to follow.

    As you grow in the faith, you are better able to discern Church teaching from that which is not Church teaching and can better navigate non-Catholic material. Guidance from others is a great resource and I would completely trust the board members of the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan to have reviewed all of the material which is offered in the program, and to only recommend material which will nourish us in the faith and which will not lead us away from Church teaching.

  15. steve40004

    Read the links I left above and you will see that the Providentissimus Deus is but one Encyclical on this subject. “Divino Afflante Spiritu of Sept. 30, 1943, was able to provide largely positive encouragement toward making the modern methods of understanding the Bible fruitful. The Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, of Nov. 18, 1965, adopted all of this. It provided us with a synthesis, which substantially remains, between the lasting insights of patristic theology and the new methodological understanding of the moderns.” Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission
    to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993
    (as published in Origins, January 6, 1994)

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