Understanding The Bible:
A Catholic Guide To The
Word of God

Too many Catholics aren't comfortable reading and understanding the Bible.

Let's look at the most essential principles taught by the Catholic Church for reading and interpreting Scripture.

For a strong faith, it's important to know this!

The Bible is uniquely important

The Holy Bible is unmatched in importance for learning about God, his plans for us, and how he has worked through human history for our salvation.

Pope John Paul II wrote:

[Sacred Scripture] is truly divine, because it belongs to God truly and genuinely: God himself inspired it, God confirmed it, God spoke it through the sacred writers—Moses, the Prophets, the Evangelists, the Apostles—and, above all, through his Son, our only Lord, in both the Old and the New Testament.

It is true that the intensity and depth of the revelation varies [within the Bible], but there is not the least shadow of contradiction [between different parts of Scripture].

(Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Patres Ecclesiae,
January 2, 1980)

Since God inspired & confirmed the Bible, we had better know how to read it correctly!

Key principles for reading Scripture

These three points are essential to a basic understanding of the bible:

  1. God is indeed the principal author of Sacred Scripture.
  2. God made use of specific people that wrote in a human language, and did so at a particular time and place in history.
  3. At times we have to work carefully to determine exactly what a sacred author is asserting to be true, distinguishing that from something he's using as an image to help us understand the truth more clearly.

We need to look at each of these points in detail...

God is the principal author of Scripture

If there is only one thing you remember about understanding the Bible, let it be this point!

To get it just right, I'll quote from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

God himself is the author of Sacred Scripture.

(Compendium of the Catechism, #18)

(The Compendium of the Catechism has a wonderful section on understanding the Bible within the part about Divine Revelation. You should read all of #6-24 to get a full understanding, but #18-24 are specifically about Scripture.)

God chose to reveal to us certain truths for the sake of our salvation. This message of salvation is the set of revealed truths which we call the "deposit of faith," or Divine Revelation. The Bible is primarily concerned with telling us these truths, which are without error. God himself made sure of that.

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) said it well: "everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit" (Dei Verbum, #11).

Got it?

Good. That's the most essential point for reading & understanding the Bible. Now, remember that point as we look at some other details...

God made use of people to write the Bible

This is important: God did not "dictate" the Bible, word for word, to people who just wrote down his words. Instead, he did something...

...more amazing!

He made use of specific people to write the various sacred books of the Bible. And although God gave each author special grace to aid him in this work, each author wrote in a way that was natural to him.

This is also really important for a true Catholic understanding of the Bible. We have to understand this point completely, or we risk a serious misunderstanding!

The Second Vatican Council put it this way:

In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

(Vatican II, Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), 11)

These writers used the language of their time, and they used words and wrote in a style that reflected their own personalities and educations.

Some people get nervous when they start reading about this point—don't be! This is important for a solid understanding of the Bible.

Let's summarize it this way:

  1. These men had to work with the imperfections of human language and understanding.
  2. Despite this limitation, the Holy Spirit still used them to write the message of salvation in a way that was completely accurate.

John Paul II made this point when he addressed the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1979:

The language of the Bible is to some degree linked to language which changed over the course of time.... But this only reaffirms the paradox of the [Christian] proclamation of revelation: ...people and events at particular points in history become the bearers of an absolute and transcendent message.

(Pope John Paul II, Address, April 26, 1979)

This is really quite astonishing—God was willing to work through people to tell us his saving truth. He revealed his divine truths via historical acts, using events and people of his choosing.

And he did so using...

Human language and knowledge

God also used human language and knowledge—with all of its limitations—to tell us his eternal truths.

He conveyed things to people through words and actions that made use of the ways of speaking and thinking that were common at the time. God worked this way so it would be possible for humans to write down or pass on these eternal truths.

The people who experienced these events and received God's divine messages either wrote them down later, or would pass them on in a reliable oral tradition that was later written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, sometimes we have to work carefully to get past the imperfections of human language and knowledge in order to see what God wanted to tell us. This is an important step for understanding the Bible!

Unlocking the original meaning

We can easily put these principles to practical use when reading Scripture.

First, learn to understand exactly what the inspired authors meant when they wrote their words. A good Catholic commentary will help explain any relevant language, concepts and cultural references. (I recommend the Navarre Bible commentary, which is outstanding in its explanations and its desire to help you see how the Church understands even the smallest details of the Bible.)

That's an essential first step—if you don't understand what the sacred author was saying to people in his own cultural context, in terms as they were used at the time, you won't be able to clearly see what God is saying through him.

But don't worry! It's really not hard to get this right for many passages. And once again, a good commentary will do the heavy lifting for you.

And once you understand the sacred author's actual message...

Embrace the Word of God

The whole point of reading and understanding the Bible is to encounter God, understand the revelation he has given us, and grow in faith.

So now that you've read a passage of Scripture and understand what the author is saying...

...take that next step—listen to God!

Scripture is a living thing, meant for people in all times & places. God speaks through it now just as much as he did when it was written.

To help our faith grow as we read Scripture, the Church gives us three important points for interpreting and understanding the Bible:

  1. "Be especially attentive 'to the content and unity of the whole Scripture'" (Catechism, 112). It all fits together, so don't just look at parts in isolation.
  2. Read the Bible within "the living Tradition of the whole Church" (Catechism, 113), since the Holy Spirit guides the Church in interpreting Scripture. Especially helpful is seeing how the Saints, Popes, and Church councils have commented on Scripture.
  3. Pay attention to "the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation" (Catechism, 114). Like point #1, above, the entire deposit of faith forms a wonderful unity—doctrine sheds light on Scripture, and Scripture on doctrine.

Let the Bible enkindle your faith

Some people feel intimidated when they start to read Scripture.

But not you!

Now you have a solid foundation for understanding the Bible. The basic principles contained in this article will help you overcome many uncertainties people have with Scripture.

So start reading!

Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.

(St Jerome)



You can read our main article about Catholic Bible study, or check our home page for more articles about the Catholic faith!

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