Ratzinger on Holiness and Interpreting the Bible


“The Saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.  The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most indelible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to purely historical.  Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone ‘lives through’ and ‘suffered through’ the sacred text.”

Joseph Ratzinger

‘True’ and ‘Truth’

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. Matthew 13:34

It’s easy to overlook the most common way Jesus spoke to people. I’m not so much concerned here with the why, but with the how: He spoke in parables.

Parables, unlike allegories, are stories that intend to convey a single truth (whereas allegories have many details that correspond to the many applications of the message).

Jesus, using the creativity of a parable, stirs the mind of the hearers, allowing their own creativity and imagination to arouse new thoughts about old topics.

I find it interesting that most recognize that his parables don’t need to be true stories in order for them to contain truth – but no one every really talks about them that way. It seems, we just don’t know if the parables Jesus taught were ‘true stories’ – and in all honesty, it doesn’t matter, because they are ‘truth stories’. Parable time was not history telling time, that was a known fact – and, like today, it was an accepted fact. What mattered was that hearers could connect to the content of the stories, regardless if those humans in the stories actually existed.

Let me illustrate. We all know about the cartoon The Simpsons, and we all know that Homer is a fictional character, and so is Ned Flanders, and so is everyone else in the cartoon. The cartoon is not a ‘true story’ – but, the reason many enjoy this cartoon (and every other movie, book, and tv show) is because there is a truth to the story. What I mean is that there are people in the world that we know that are very much like Homer, or Ned, or Bart, and the stories being told are (less often in the genre of the exaggerated reality we call humour) stories we can relate to – events that make up our lives.

It will  be a helpful consideration as we read and seek to interpret Scripture that is that there is an important difference between ‘true stories’ and ‘truth stories.’

To make sense of this, we need to recognize that Jesus wasn’t telling parables in order to teach of some “timeless principle” that is too easily and often displaced from history. He was telling of the reality in which we are living; the reality of the Kingdom that is happening now. These were certainly not “true” stories, but they were truth stories; revealing the way things are happening right now in history. Some of these parables are given their interpretation (Mark 4), and others are retellings of the Story of Israel (Mark 12). Either way, they were told in a way that allowed hearers to relate to it and make it their own – not only telling of the present reality of the Kingdom, but inviting hearers to enter into it.

Humble Hermeneutics

His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
2 Peter 3:16

We’re given a good reason to avoid reducing Scripture to pithy little (universal) principles (that I keep seeing on Facebook, more than anywhere else). The way it happens, is that people read a Scripture, quote it, then draw out a principle from it. And it’s done so confidently, so ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ -ly. That, I think, is dangerous.

Peter, in this epistle, notes the difficulty in properly interpreting Paul’s letters. The basis of his warning is, Scripture + ignorance = distortion and destruction.

I can hear listeners say, “well I guess we can’t read Scripture then.” You think that way simply because you, like every human, (including myself), have a tendency towards extremism; like a pendulum swinging from right to left. In other words, we are either too confident in our interpretation of Scripture, or, give up the hope for better interpretation.

I like what Paul tells Timothy in his second epistle: “Think over (or reflect) what I am saying, for the Lord will give you understanding in all these things” (2 Timothy 2:7). Something similar is said by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6).  Two things I note from these passages. First, is the need for work. Hard (intellectual) work is underrated in some  denominations. It is treated as an optional add-on; the proverbial third plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet: have some if you can fit it in. It is ironic and quite sad that the average Christian (and I’m speaking in my North American context) is progressively getting less thoughtful in a context that is progressively more resourceful with regards to Bible study. Thinking well and thinking hard needs to be emphasized for all ages again – the Church must rediscover the riches of Catechesis, and that sola scriptura always meant, ‘now you can read/study the Bible for yourself’ – a very prominent theme during the Protestant Reformation! Secondly, God is the Engineer in this whole process. He creates, he sustains, he brings growth, he multiplies. He is the One who gets the glory.

The answer, I think, is the need for humility.

It doesn’t mean that we do not attempt to interpret Scripture, but quite the contrary. We work hard, we attempt, and we maintain an attitude that is willing to be wrong, willing to jump in and make a mistake – because lets face it, we all make mistakes in all areas of life. This won’t apply to all things biblical hermeneutics, but it does provide a framework by which one can explore the treasures of Scripture. With learning, humility, and discernment (that is of course, empowered through communion with the Resurrected Lord), one can learn to hear Scripture, and hear the Lord speaking through it.

Lord, help us come humbly to your word, knowing that it bears witness to You, not a principle, but a person who is part of a grand story: the story of salvation, of rescue, of love and grace and beauty, a beauty that has been revealed, is being revealed and has yet to be revealed in its fulness. We are created and you are Creator: all glory is yours.