Literal vs. Figurative Interpretation of Scripture

Dear Catholic Exchange:

In reference to Luke 22:19-20

Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you…."

I have had a seeker ask why Catholics interpret, "This is my body" literally while many Protestants interpret it figuratively or symbolically.

I have been taught that the different types of writing contained in Scripture (poetry, allegory, parables, prose, and so many others) are used for the purpose of conveying always "Truth" but not necessarily "fact" to the reader. Some passages are intended to be taken figuratively and some literally. Given that, how does a faithful, careful Catholic distinguish? (What resources, reasoning, etc., should one use?)

My apologies if this information has been addressed — I could not find reference to it. (If you will point me in the right direction, I would appreciate the help.)

Anne Hooge
Boerne, Texas

 

Dear Anne,

Thanks for this excellent question.

Any interpretation of Scripture must begin with the literal sense of the passage. "The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: 'All other senses [i.e., the spiritual senses] of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal'" (Catechism, no. 116, quoting St. Thomas).

You rightly note that Scripture communicates truth through a variety of genres and modes of expression, some of which are foreign to modern readers. Scholars from various disciplines are able to help shed light on the literal meaning of the sacred text as we strive to understand the passage as it was originally intended by the divinely inspired author. Clearly a text intended as a historical narrative would be interpreted much differently from a passage in which the author is employing hyperbole or some other literary device.

In addition, note that the Catechism provides three very helpful criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it. See nos. 112-14. They are the following:

(1) Be especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.

(2) Read Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church.

(3) Be attentive to the analogy of faith (i.e., we can't interpret Scripture in a way that contradicts what we know to be defined, divinely revealed truth).

In your example of the institution of the Eucharist, in addition to what we can know from the "literal" sense of Luke's narrative, we can look to other related Scripture passages. John 6 makes very clear that Jesus is talking literally, both through a linguistic analysis as well as through the reaction of the crowd upon hearing Jesus' words. We have the living Tradition of the Church, which has celebrated the Eucharist for two millennia (and for the first millennia there was no significant "dissent" on what we would now call the "Catholic" interpretion of this passage). And solemnly defined Church teaching at the Council of Trent and elsewhere provides further guidance in understanding this passage.  So we can see all the criteria come into play.

For further study, I'd recommend a good Catholic study Bible, such as the Ignatius Study Bible or the Navarre Bible. Also, our publishing division, Emmaus Road, has several titles related to the interpretation of Scripture. I'd especially recommend for your question the book Scripture Matters, by Dr. Scott Hahn. It's available at www.emmausroad.org.

United in the Faith,

Leon Suprenant

Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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    I am both a convert (pre-Vatican II) and a revert (post-Vatican II).  I spent some 16 years since I came back working with RCIA.  I found that most of the catechumens and especially the candidates would ask ME questions instead of the deacons who led the class.  In answering them, I found that Catholics and Protestants speak a different language and, having been both, I could "interpret" one to the other.  Unless we had a "Scott Hahn" in class, I found that they were more interested in a brief, well-backed answer.  My response to this question–and it came up every year–was to remind them of all the parables that Jesus told and would later explain to His disciples, but that He never-ever "explained" His teaching in John 6.  He never said, "Those losers deserve to go to hell for not understanding what I meant!"  And, He never said to His disciples, "Don't worry: I'll explain what I really meant later".  Instead, He watched the people leave with great sadness, and said to His disciples, "Will you also leave?"

    To which, St. Peter gave the only answer possible!

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