Tradition and lexicon how to interpret scripture

By Bryan Cross


About a year and half ago, I came across an internet discussion between a number of Protestants and Catholics talking about what still divided them. I had arrived late to the discussion, and so I read through all the comments with a somewhat different perspective than a participant in the thick of it. The question I was asking myself as I read through the comments was not “Who is right?” Instead I was studying the exchange while asking a different set of questions: “Fundamentally, why are they disagreeing? Why are they unable to resolve their disagreement in this exchange, or make headway toward doing so? What is preventing them from understanding each other, seeing each other’s point of view, and finding the truth together? What is the underlying reason why they are continually talking past each other?” I was looking for the underlying assumptions, reasons, and paradigms, that prevented them from resolving their disagreement.


 If one takes into account … that the sacred Scriptures came from God through a subject which lives continually — the pilgrim people of God — then it becomes clear rationally as well that this subject has something to say about the understanding of this book.”1

– Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

What I noticed as I studied the exchange is what I’ve noticed in many such discussions. Typically in answering the question “What still divides us?” Protestants and Catholics give lists of doctrines about which they disagree. The Protestant, for example, will say that justification is by forensic imputation, while the Catholic responds by saying that justification is by infusion. The Catholic will say that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, while the Protestant responds by saying that they do not. The Catholic will affirm the authority of the Pope, while the Protestant denies this. And the list of theological disagreements goes on. They each defend their position according to the standards and methods intrinsic to their respective paradigms. Very rarely do the discussions focus on the underlying reasons for the first-order disagreements. And so the participants end up talking past each other, in a way, debating at the level of first-order questions while standing in very different paradigms at the second-order level. That makes the debate seem interminable, and inclines Christians to settle for the inevitability of schism, agreeing to disagree, and retreating to separate communities, or when by chance crossing paths, simply making polite conversation about other things. The seemingly interminable nature of the disagreement discourages many Christians from pressing forward toward reconciliation and the reunion that will put to an end this nearly five-hundred year schism.

To understand why the disagreement seems interminable, we have to direct our attention beyond the first-order disagreements, to the second-order disagreements that underlie them. Here in this post, I’ll address only one of the second-order disagreements; it concerns how we determine the meaning and interpretation of Scripture. When Catholics and Protestant approach Scripture, on the face of it we seem to be doing the same thing, in the same way. It is this superficial appearance of methodological common ground that sets us up with a false hope that this common ground is sufficient to resolve our disagreements. The futility of our subsequent respective appeals to Scripture  leaves us perplexed and frustrated. But the truth is that our respective approaches to Scripture are ultimately very different.

In general, Protestants think differently about how to go about interpreting Scripture than do Catholics. When trying to understand the meaning of a passage in Scripture, Catholics have always looked to the Tradition; we seek to determine how the Church has understood and explained the passage over the past two millennia. We look up what the Church Fathers and Church Doctors have said about the passage. By contrast, Protestants typically do not turn first to the Church Fathers when seeking to understand the meaning of a passage or term in Scripture that is unclear. Protestants generally turn to contemporary lexicons and commentaries written by contemporary biblical scholars whom they trust. Only rarely, and perhaps as a final step, do they turn to the Church Fathers. The common form of the Protestant mind is ready to believe that the Fathers often got Scripture wrong, and to use their own interpretation of Scripture to ‘correct’ or critically evaluate the Fathers. That kind of a stance toward the Fathers does not dispose Protestants to be guided by the Fathers in their interpretation of Scripture.2 In short, the Catholic approach sees the Fathers and the councils as the primary guide to interpreting Scripture, while the Protestant approach sees the lexicon and contemporary academic commentaries [that one trusts] as the primary guide to interpreting Scripture, and that by which the Fathers’ theology and interpretation of Scripture are critically evaluated.

What explains this difference between the Catholic and Protestant approaches to Scripture? The explanation of the Catholic approach to Scripture lies in its ecclesiology, its understanding of the Church as a family extending through time back to Christ and the Apostles, and perpetually vivified by the Holy Spirit. And this understanding of the Church as a family spread out through many generations, has methodological implications with respect to interpreting Scripture. Here’s why. If you were to come into my home, you would understand many things said in my family, because you speak the same language that our broader society speaks (i.e. English). But you would not understand some things that we say to each other, because you would not have the inside-the-family point of view. You wouldn’t get the inside jokes, the allusions to past family events you hadn’t experienced. You would not have the internal lived experience of my family as the fuller context of our present communication with one another. To understand fully our intra-family communication, you would have to live with us for quite some time, learn our in-house catch words, the events and habits and stories that form the mutually understood background against which we expect our speech-acts to be understood when we communicate to each other.

The Catholic understanding of the Church as a family stretched out over two-thousand years entails likewise that there is within her an inside point-of-view, a context that is richer and fuller than the social context common to pagans and Christians alike. This fuller context is informed by every period of time in this family’s history, and includes the lived experience and testimony by those within the Church, even those who first spoke and taught the words of the New Testament, before those words were written down. This internal point of view, passed down within this family as a living memory, from those men who spent three years with Jesus, to those bishops, presbyters and laymen to whom these Apostles carefully explained the gospel in many late night discussions and daily teachings, and to each succeeding generation of the Church family, is what we call Tradition. It is the view from the inside, the living memory of the family in which the Scriptures were written, received, and explained. The memories of those who were members of this family when the Scriptures were being received from the Apostles, and in which the Scriptures were explained and understood, did not vanish; they became part of the internal life of this family, and have been continually handed down within this same family for almost two-thousand years.

What is presupposed by approaching Scripture through the lexicon rather than through the Fathers? From the Catholic perspective, interpreting Scripture apart from the view-from-the-inside, would be like trying to understand my family’s internally developed cliches and allusions, by turning to the dictionary. What is linguistically common between my family and the world, is not sufficient to understand what is linguistically unique to my family. The outsider who assumes that he can rightly interpret my family’s speech-acts, simply by way of dictionary, has failed to recognize the unique language community that my family is. He has mistakenly assumed that the most specific language community in this case is simply that set of persons who speak English. He has failed to recognize that the unique and intimately shared life of my family within the broader society, creates a language within a language.

Likewise, approaching Scripture through the lexicon, apart from the Fathers, presupposes that there is no inside-the-family point of view with respect to Scripture; it is an approach from the outside, outside the divine Life that animates the Mystical Body of Christ. It is somewhat like the reductionistic method of studying an animal by cutting it into pieces, and studying its parts. The method is useful, but only when conjoined to what is already known about the animal as a living being. Otherwise, the animal is explanatorily reduced to its parts, as though it is nothing but its parts.

The contemporary lexicon, quite similarly, has been worked out by contemporary academics who do not draw from the continuous lived memory of the Church in her liturgical and pedagogical tradition, but who collect and cite the ancient usage of various terms both by Christians, non-Christian Jews, and pagans living at the time the Scriptures were written. Understanding how these terms were used at that time can be very helpful. It can shed light on what we already know, and reveal various facts about these terms in relation to prior uses in Scripture and to uses in the pagan society. But the methodology by which lexicons are compiled does not include the internal point of view handed down by the Church family. For that reason, the lexical approach to Scripture (apart from the Fathers) methodologically presupposes that there is no Church extending down through the ages, no internal memory and life passed down through her many generations to the present. It is a Church-less approach to Scripture, as though either the Scripture was not given within the Church, to the Church, by the leaders of Church, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, or the lived memory of this family somehow died away and now must be archaeologically rediscovered, from the outside.

For this reason, approaching the Scriptures by means of the lexicon apart from the Fathers, is not ecclesiologically neutral. It presupposes either that there was no Church, or that ecclesial deism is true. In this way, the lexical approach is not a neutral presupposition with respect to the Catholic-Protestant divide; it is a question-begging presupposition, because it presumes the falsity of Catholicism. Thus this lexical approach to resolving interpretive interpretive disagreements between Protestants and Catholics begs the question against the Catholic, by methodologically requiring the Catholic to deny the Church and the Tradition.

Notice how as explained above, ecclesiology predetermines how Scripture is to be approached and interpreted. Given an ‘invisible church’ ecclesiology, or ecclesial deism, one can only turn to lexicographers studying the usages of terms in ancient texts, and concur with the probabilistic opinions they reach. But given that the Church is an unbroken family, indwelled and preserved by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the view from the inside (i.e. Tradition) takes precedence over the view from the outside (i.e. the lexical approach). And to approach Scripture from the inside, one must approach it within the lived Tradition of the family that received it, embodied it, and handed it down faithfully.

The Church has never believed that the way Christians are to discover the meaning of the words of Scripture is simply from their textual context. That’s because the Church has never seen herself as having received a book that must then [i.e. subsequently] be interpreted. The Church has always understood herself as already having received the deposit of faith, from Christ, and from the Apostles themselves (in person), before receiving the deposit of faith in its written form. Christ taught the meaning of the Old Testament to the Apostles, and they subsequently taught it to those whom they ordained to succeed them. They also taught the gospel (the entire deposit of the faith they had received from Christ) to their successors. The role of the Church’s magisterium was to preserve and explain what had already been entrusted to them and explained to them by the Apostles, not to figure out the meaning of a book that, as it were, simply fell from Heaven. For this reason, the [exclusively] lexical method to discovering the meaning of Scripture exemplifies a mindset that is foreign to the Church at every point in her history. It presupposes ecclesial deism insofar as it assumes that this original family understanding of the text as it was received by the Church from its human authors, vanished or decayed over time.

Without that internal, living memory of the eyewitnesses who received these texts, the best the lexical approach can do is look to the usages of terms found in the New Testament by pagans and Jews. But for this reason the lexical approach to Scripture implicitly presupposes that the mind of Christ contained in the Scriptures is determined by matching it to the minds of those pagans contemporary to the writing of Scripture, as they used those same terms. Methodologically implicit in that approach to Scripture is the notion that the supernatural quality of the deposit of faith does not extend to the concepts associated with the terms, such that the concepts are elevated or broadened or nuanced by divine revelation. It allows the deposit of faith to consist only of new combinations of existing concepts. In other words, it allows the deposit of faith to be new only in the sense that pre-existing terms are arranged in new ways, not also in the sense that pre-existing terms are expanded or deepened, unless that expansion or deepening is spelled out explicitly in Scripture.

For example, if pagans used the term ‘dikaiow’ (‘justify’) to refer to a change in legal status not on account of any change internal to the accused, the lexical approach would methodologically assume that this is what this term must mean when St. Paul uses it to refer to what God does to us, when we believe the gospel. But that is not a good assumption. Simply by an assumption implicit in the methodology, it limits what God can do when He justifies to what a human judge can do when he justifies. Why should God’s justification of men be limited in its nature only to what pagans can do in declaring a person legally righteous without actually making that person internally righteous? God is greater than man. Hence, even from this example alone, we can see that the lexical approach carries with it not just anti-ecclesial presuppositions, but potentially even anti-theistic presuppositions.

For Catholics, the interpretation of the deposit of faith belongs to those whom Christ authorized and entrusted with it, i.e. the Apostles and their successors, referred to as the Church’s Magisterium. The meaning of Scripture is not merely a matter for the outsider to determine by lexical analysis, but first and foremost involves coming to Sacred Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church, as unveiled and unfolded to us by those to whom the deposit of faith was entrusted, and to whom interpretive authority was given. The lexical approach is fine when used under the guidance and auspices of the Church’s Magisterium, because then its insights can be interpreted and understood within the context of the Tradition. Understanding the contemporary sense of terms as used by the human authors of Scripture can help us deepen our understanding of Scripture and its meaning. But when the lexical method is used as though there is no  Church, or as though ecclesial deism is true, or as though the concepts of the deposit of faith must be limited to concepts found in pagan speech and culture, or even to concepts found in ancient Hebrew speech and culture, the method implicitly denies that Christ founded a Church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail even to the end of the age, and deposited within her a divine revelation that surpassed all previous revelation. In this way, the lexical approach to Scripture fails to apprehend its true context, which is the life and liturgy of the Church.

The context of Scripture is not merely within its pages, but is the living organism which is the Body of Christ, i.e. the Church. Since the gospel teaches us that Christ founded a Church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, we should expect to approach Scripture through the view-from-within of that Church. Insofar as the lexical approach methodologically denies the Church, the lexical approach implicitly denies the gospel. To find and follow the gospel, we should come to Scripture through the Tradition of the Church. This is why Sacred Scripture can be rightly understood only in the bosom of holy Mother Church. Both Protestants and Catholics need to understand this fundamental difference in their respective approach to Scripture, in order to make progress in resolving their long-standing schism.

In the Church, Sacred Scripture, the understanding of which increases under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the ministry of its authentic interpretation that was conferred upon the Apostles, are indissoluably bound. Whenever Sacred Scripture is separated from the living voice of the Church, it falls prey to disputes among experts. Of course what they have to tell us is important and invaluable; …. Yet science alone cannot provide us with a definitive and binding interpretation; it is unable to offer us, in its interpretation, that certainty with which we can live and for which we can even die. A greater mandate is necessary for this, which cannot derive from human abilities alone. The voice of the living Church is essential for this, of the Church entrusted until the end of time to Peter and the to the College of the Apostles.”3

– Pope Benedict XVI

  1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Relationship between Magisterium and Exegetes.” Address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission. In L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English. July 23, 2003. As quoted inCovenant and Communion, Scott Hahn (Brazos Press, 2009), p. 46. []
  2. That disposition has shifted significantly among a small but significant minority of Protestants toward a respect for the teachings of the Fathers.  Think of the late Robert Webber’s ancient-future movement. See, for example, this article in Christianity Today. []
  3. Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Mass of Possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome (May 7, 2005, inL’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English (May 11, 2005), as quoted in Covenant and Communion, Scott Hahn (Brazos Press, 2009), p. 21. []