The Bible must be interpreted by each generation
—in light of its own experiences.
One of the great challenges facing the Christian Faith today comes not from outside Christianity. It comes from within--from people who share with us a common faith in Jesus Christ, but a radically different view of the Bible. It is the challenge posed by fundamentalists who insist that every word of the Bible must be taken literally--exactly as it is in black and white.
For a long time I have struggled with an appropriate response. I have sought to find a way to explain that the Catholic Church is biblical in the sense that an authentic interpretation of the Bible lies at the root of our faith. Coupled with Tradition, that biblical interpretation is always evolving. I remember reading a very helpful story.
Once upon a time, there was a man who found a piece of land with a beautiful view in all directions. So, he bought the land and built on it a house with four large windows--one window in each wall of the house. This way, the man thought, no matter what direction he faced, he would be able to see the beautiful view.
But many years passed and, with that, many new people were moving onto the land and the beautiful view was changing. The man did not like this change because he thought it was ruining his view. The man then hired an artist to come to his house and to paint on each of the windows the old view that he loved so much. The man was happy again because now, no matter what direction he faced, he could see the beautiful old view.
More years passed and the man stopped going outside because he could not accept how much the view had changed. Instead, he just stayed inside, sat in his chair and looked at the old view painted on his windows. And he thought, "What a beautiful view! Now, isn't this living?"
The more I reflect on the literalist view of the Bible, the more I realize that fundamentalists are much like the man in the story. By insisting that every word must be taken literally, fundamentalists effectively freeze in the past both the Word of God and the world in which we live.
The Catholic Church recognizes that the world today is very different than it was in biblical times. We confront situations and difficulties that were impossible for the biblical authors even to imagine. To take a text that envisioned another world and apply it without qualification to our world is like the man who painted the old view on his windows so that he didn't have to see the real view. But is that living? Is it even reality?
The Catholic Church teaches that the Bible communicates without error that truth which God intended for the sake of our salvation. And so it is correct to say that the Bible is the Word of God. But that expression contains two elements: the divine and the human. Sometimes we forget that only human beings speak words. Recognizing this, we believe that while inspired by God, the Bible was written by human beings who had limitations. They reflected God's message for the people of their own time in the only way they could. Our task is to interpret that message for the people of our times.
How much more real it would have been in the story for the man to scrape off the old view and see the world as it really was. How much more freeing and fully alive it is for us to scrape away the literalist view of the Bible and let the truth of God find expression in our world today.