Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch31:2:Biblical interpretation contested

The Bible does not interpret itself, and its interpreters do not agree

The Bible does not interpret itself, and its interpreters do not agree

But just as scientists insist that the evidence speaks for itself, only to discover that it speaks with different voices to different scientists, so those who maintain with Irenaeus, that the Bible speaks its own message clearly, directly, and unequivocally to all soon discover themselves in wild disagreement as to what it says. Vincent of Lerinum, author of the famous Vincentian canon, notes that "although the canon of the Scripture is complete, 'and of itself is sufficient and more than sufficient for all things,' yet tradition is needed for a proper understanding of the Scripture."35 Already we are questioning the vaunted self-sufficiency of the holy page to convey its own message; yet the churchmen dare not change their position, lest they lower the bars to revelation. But how can they presume to add their comments and explanations to the Bible, supplying that information without which, they assure us, the holy Word cannot be understood, and at the same time insist that they are adding nothing, but simply letting the book speak for itself? Like the scientists, they are not letting the evidence alone at all; they are officiously helping it to say the things they think it should say. But how, short of revelation, will we ever know the real word of God? That is a question that greatly exercised St. Hilary. "We are quite aware," he says, "that most people think the mere sound of the words or the letters are enough," but of course that won't do: Scripturae enim non sunt in legendo sunt, sed in intelligando—The Scriptures don't consist in what you read but in what you understand.36 But how can our weak intellects, our humana imbecillitas, ever be sure of understanding aright? Only by revelation, is Hilary's sensible conclusion.37

Now surely the fat is in the fire, but Hilary deftly snatches it out again by defining revelation as the reading of the Scriptures "not as men interpret it, but as it is," with no private human opinions allowed to color or distort it, and "no human interpretation stepping an inch beyond the bounds of what is divinely constituted."38 Since our fatal weakness lies in our inability to interpret the Word of God, Hilary will simply dispense with all interpretation and read the Word as it is. But the same Hilary has just announced that the Scripture is not as you read it but as you understand it; on what ground, then, would he interpret it? He is good enough to tell us: our "revelation" should be founded on right reason, good historical knowledge, and a sense of correct doctrine.39 To this day the clergy have never been able to solve the problem of how to enjoy inspired guidance while renouncing all claim to revelation.40 "The Word of God," writes E. C. Blackman, "is in the words of the Bible, but is not to be identified with them . . . but interpreted out of them. . . . The Bible is not itself revelation but is the record of revelation."41

Interpreted, but how? Well might the Catholics challenge the Protestant position with the argument: "The Bible is a difficult book, it is full of dark places and apparent inconsistencies. How do you Protestants think you can manage without the authoritative guidance of the Church when you come to interpret it and to build doctrine upon it?"42 To which the proper answer is: "How do you Catholics think you have solved the difficult problem of interpretation simply by agreeing (after centuries of hot debate) on who is to do the interpreting, without the vaguest idea of how he is to do it, apart from the normal fallible processes of human intelligence?" For Catholic theologians often repeat St. Augustine's lament that "men of the most outstanding piety and wisdom very often disagree in their interpretation of the Scriptures."43

We have noted above that Augustine knew of no higher court of appeal; but even in much later times "the medieval mind, indeed, was much perplexed by the possibility of error in the interpretation of the will of God." 44 At present Catholic journals are full of articles on "The Inerrancy of the Scripture," "The Consequent Sense of the Scripture," "The Sensus Plenior of Scripture," etc., with one scholar asking, Do the Scriptures "perhaps contain a deeper meaning expressed by God and left to the ingenuity of the human mind to detect?"45 And another proving that Genesis 3:5 refers to Mary with the observation: "The text, if paraphrased, reads simply enough, once cleared of the unnecessary accretions which have been read into it."46 Here we see both the ultimate appeal to the human intellect and the way it is answered—by a critic who removes from the text what annoys him personally and then proves his case by paraphrasing what is left. Aquinas insisted that the Bible is "the only sure and binding authority. But one uses the authority of canonical scripture properly and in arguing from necessity,"47 that is, by employing the old techniques of the schools. St. Thomas warns us especially against getting any fancy ideas about revelation: "For our faith rests upon the revelation given to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, but not upon revelation, if such there were, given to other teachers."48 It is learned, not inspired, exegesis, which is recognized: "In the philosophical interpretation of its eschatological hope," an eminent Catholic theologian has very recently written, "Christian theology from the very beginning clings to Aristotle." 49 Aristotle was not a prophet, but a scientist; what would a pagan professor know about the "eschatological hope"?[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 31, references silently removed—consult original for citations.