by Greg Youell


In order to more fully appreciate the Catholic Church's understanding of the Bible, one must first grasp the Church's view of Divine Revelation as a whole. 1 The Catholic Church teaches that during the Old Testament God revealed Himself in increasing measure to His people. 2 This revelation of Himself culminated in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. 3 The Church teaches that in Christ God revealed the fullness of Himself and "we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ." 4

The Catholic Church also maintains that Jesus appointed the twelve apostles to preach the Gospel throughout the world in order that God's revelation might be proclaimed to humanity. 5 They then ordained bishops and priests (presbyters) to succeed them in their ministry, who were called to "guard the truth that had been entrusted to them by the Holy Spirit." 6 Thus, Catholics view divine revelation as being originally transmitted primarily by oral means (Sacred Tradition). 7

The Holy Spirit also guided some of the apostles and the early Christians to write down the stories of Jesus and certain letters of instruction and revelation. The early Church came to recognize these writings as divinely inspired. The Catholic Church has continuously taught, therefore, that God's revelation is also transmitted to us through written means (Sacred Scripture). 8 Distinct from Protestantism, however, the Bible is not considered to be the exhaustive, comprehensive teaching of the Christian Faith. Rather, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture together are considered the integral source of divine revelation, as explained in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out of the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal. Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own 'always, to the close of the age.' 9

However, a third point remains to be explained regarding the Catholic view of divine revelation. Namely, that Jesus Christ appointed the Church to teach His revelation to all peoples and all places. Catholics understand that the Church has a mystical Body similar to the Protestant understanding of a "spiritual Church." Nevertheless, they also believe Jesus instituted a hierarchical, visibly-organized Church, to be led by Peter and the apostles and their successors. In order to ensure that revelation was preserved intact until the close of the age, 10 He promised that the Holy Spirit would protect and guide the Church. 11 Of course, by this Catholics do not understand that every individual believer or even teacher will be protected from error. Rather, the Church maintains that its official teachings and pronouncements (made by the pope or a church council approved by the pope) will be protected from error. Hence, Catholics look upon the Council of Jerusalem recorded in fifteenth chapter of Acts as a primitive example of the Church's authority to teach and guard the truth received from Christ by the apostles.

The development of the canon of Scripture illustrates the Catholic view of the authority of the Church. During the early centuries of the Church there was wide disagreement over which books formed the canon. For instance, many considered several books not found in the New Testament today to be part of Sacred Scripture, such as Clement's Letter to the Corinthians or The Shepherd of Hermas. On the other hand, some questioned or rejected the canonicity of books ultimately included, such as Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Revelation. However, this issue was ultimately settled through church councils, and papal pronouncements.

Thus, for the faithful Catholic, the reason one ultimately accepts that the books found in the canon are inspired is because he trusts the Holy Spirit to guide and protect the Church's official teachings in matters of faith and morals. Whether the issue is the canon of Scripture or the proper understanding of a biblical passage, orthodox Catholics view the Church's ability to teach authoritatively as God's gift to humanity to protect His revelation for all times and peoples. The Church maintains that God instituted the three pillars of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (the Church's teaching authority) to uphold His revelation to humankind. "In accord with God's most wise design," they are "so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others. . . " 12 Any consideration of the Catholic Church's relationship to the Bible must be preceded by this foundation of the Catholic view of Divine Revelation.


A. The Early Church

That the early Christians held the Bible in high esteem can be easily detected from studying early Christian commentaries, sermons, liturgies, and art. They agreed on the inspiration of the Scriptures (though there was disagreement over which books were canonical) and viewed the Bible as a "single work of a single Author." 13 Among the great Scripture scholars of the early Church were Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Pope Gregory the Great in the West, while Athanisius, John Chrysostom and the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa) were among the best-known in the East.

While some of the Fathers, e.g., Melito of Sardis, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, suggested principles for the interpretation of the Scriptures, rules remained generally flexible during this early stage. Allegorical interpretations of the sacred texts were accepted so long as the allegory pointed to the Christian Faith and were not at variance with Apostolic Tradition. The well-known maxim of Vincent of Lerins was very much the rule of the day: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus (what [has been taught] everywhere, always, and by all).

The literal, historical truth of the Scriptures was usually assumed by the Fathers. However, some were an exception to this such as some belonging to the School of Alexandria. Origen, for instance, taught that the events of the Old Testament were not necessarily historically accurate, but served as stories to communicate spiritual truths. In contrast, the School of Antioch such as John Chrysostom strongly rejected this approach, and maintained the historical reality of the Scriptures.

As the centuries passed, the natural familiarity with the languages of Scripture (Greek and Hebrew) and the early oral traditions diminished. Thus, the need for a more formal set of principles for hermeneutics and exegesis arose. Gradually, the continued development of the art and science of Biblical study led to the great Catholic tradition of the four senses of Scripture.

The first of the four senses is the literal sense, which, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the sense upon which all of the senses rest. The literal sense is simply the literal and direct meaning of the words, although this could include metaphor (e.g., the Sons of Thunder would still be the literal sense even though it is metaphorical).

The other three senses, the allegorical, anagogical, and moral, together form the spiritual sense. The allegorical sense focuses on the symbolic meaning produced by the words. The many instances of foreshadowing in the Old Covenant of the New are examples of this sense. The anagogical focuses on how the words relate to what Catholics call the "four last things;" namely, death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Lastly, the moral sense teaches the effect of the words on how we live. The teaching of the four senses was summed up in a well-known medieval couplet:

Littera geta docet, quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogica.

In essence, this can be loosely translated to say: "the letter teaches us what happened; what you are to believe is called allegory; what you are to do is called the moral sense; the anagogical sense has to do with the final end of your life." 14

B. The Middle Ages

The study of the Scriptures thrived throughout the middle ages, an era in which theology and Biblical studies were considered the "pinnacle of learning" and the "queen of the sciences." During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church preserved and transmitted the Scriptures. It is said that two monks working full-time required four years to transcribe the entire Bible. Hence, it was due to their incredible value and their desirability as an object to steal that Bibles were sometimes chained down in churches and libraries (as were other books of high value), and not because of a Church conspiracy to keep the Bible from the masses, as some would assert. To the contrary, the Church did all in its power to transmit the written word during the Middle Ages as it also helped to preserve Western learning and culture.

This era extolled the search for truth wherever it was to be found. It is not surprising, therefore, that in this era universities, libraries, and the arts and sciences flourished. Biblical studies and interest in the original languages expanded in this time. For instance, the Council of Vienna (1311) prescribed that chairs for the study of oriental languages be erected in universities.

Perhaps the most well-known movement of the Middle Ages in Biblical studies was the School of Scholasticism. The great scholars of this age, among whom were Bernard of Clairvaux, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure, sought to synthesize reason and faith. This school of thought studied philosophy and the Natural Law in light of the word of God. For example, Aquinas explained the Christian faith in light of the teachings of Aristotle in an attempt to demonstrate that Christianity is a reasonable, logical, and truthful faith. It might be worth noting, however, that the Church was careful to maintain that in spite of the value of reason and philosophy, grace was needed to attain faith, hope, and charity. That is, one could reason his way to the truth using natural means, but only through supernatural grace could one believe and be saved.

Theologians of the Middle Ages relied heavily on the commentaries of the Fathers and were cool toward new and innovative interpretations. Scholars such as the English historian and theologian Bede, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas produced works that collected the writings and opinions of the Fathers. Another scholar of the time illustrated the times when he wrote, "It is better not to be taken up with supposedly new ideas, but to be filled from the fountain of the ancients." 15

Scriptural study also relied heavily on the allegorical sense of Scripture. Indeed, in the eyes of many today, some of these interpretations might seem "imaginative," if not absurd. Mark Holtz explains:

We are told by Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1090- 1141) that the length of Noah's Ark, 300 cubits, is a sign of the Cross, since the number 300 is represented in Greek by the letter tau (T), which has the shape of a cross. Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075-1129) tells us that Proverbs 19:12, "A king's wrath is like the growling of a lion," speaks of Christ in his crucifixion, since then the King of kings roared at the Devil. 16

Certainly, at least some of the interpretations proposed during the Middle Ages might be discarded today as an over-zealous use of the spiritual sense. However, it also reflects the deep conviction held by theologians of the age in the inspiration of Scripture. In contrast to liberal modern exegetes, they were able to see God as the ultimate author of Scripture. Consequently, even the most mundane verses were often seen as having spiritual significance and being open to allegorical interpretations.

C. The Counter-Reformation

In the 16th century the Church found itself facing critical challenges in the form of Turkish invaders approaching the gates of Vienna, and the Protestant Reformation. In many respects, the Church had been experiencing a gradual decline in spiritual vigor since the 13th century. Problems included increased corruption among the clergy, inadequate catechesis of the laity, and the scandalous Great Schism, during which two popes claimed to be the legitimate successor of Peter--one in Rome and the other in Avignon, France.

The Church responded to the Protestant Reformation in the Council of Trent. The Council Fathers admitted the Catholic Church's culpability in the decline of morality and teaching in the life of Christians. However, the Council reiterated the traditional doctrines in response to the Reformers' new interpretations of the Bible. The Vulgate was re-affirmed as free from any error in faith and morals. The Vulgate's traditional canon was also upheld, which includes the deutero-canonicals of the Old Testament (called the "Apocrypha" by Protestants, who reject the books as part of the canon). This canon had been generally accepted by the Church for centuries as evidenced by the Councils of Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397 A.D., and other councils. Trent, however, left no room for any doubt, and authoritatively defined the canon once and for all.

In the Reform-minded Church, Biblical studies thrived once again. Jesuits such as Peter Cansisius, Robert Bellarmine, and Francisco Suarez were among the best known theologians. Interest also continued to grow in studying the original languages. Thomas More, for instance, asserted, "How can [anyone] know theology if he is ignorant of Hebrew and Greek and Latin?"

D. The Enlightenment to the Modern Era

The rejection of Church authority that exploded during the Reformation opened the door to the critical and skeptical approach to the Bible. In the Post-Enlightenment period during the 17th and 18th centuries, liberal Protestant Scripture scholars began to reject the inerrancy of the written word of God. In the 19th century the historical-critical method of Scriptural study gained ground, which studied Scripture in light of the historical processes in which it was written. The historical-critical scholars were influenced by Hegel and other modern thinkers. Consequently, they approached the Bible with rationalist and naturalist presuppositions, according to which any supernatural events in the Bible were explained away as products of mythology.

The methodologies of the rationalists were condemned by the Church toward the turn of the 20th century. For example, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893) forcefully rejeced the heretical and faithless denial of the truth and inspiration of the Bible, while exhorting Catholics to study it. In 1943, Pope Pius XII penned Divino Afflante Spiritu, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Proventissimus Deus. The Pontiff wrote that the science of literary criticism had developed to the point that it could be safely employed in Biblical studies without jeopardizing the true meaning of Scripture. He also encouraged Biblical scholars to stay abreast of archaeological, cultural, and other historical studies in order to better understand the sacred writers' words.

Among the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council (an ecumenical council of the Catholic Church convened between 1962 and 1965 in order for the Church to respond to the sweeping changes that were taking place in society), Dei Verbum (the Word of God) is among its finest. This document summarized the Catholic Church's stance on Divine Revelation. It reiterated the great treasure Christians possess in the Scriptures, their inestimable value to teach truth and lead us to follow Christ. It also taught that literary forms, historical contexts, and other such "human elements" must be taken into consideration in Biblical studies. Highly influential in the formation of Dei Verbum was Sancta Mater Ecclesia (Holy Mother Church), released by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1964. This document set forth the Catholic understanding of the Gospels, emphasizing their historicity and relationship to oral tradition of the apostles.

Sadly, we must lament that during the post-conciliar (post-Vatican II) era many in the Church distorted the true intent of the council in order to promulgate many of the things that had always been explicitly condemned by the Church. Examples include the explaining away of the miraculous events of the Bible as mere mythology and the unreserved acceptance of the historical-critical approach (in complete disregard for Providentissimus Deus, Divino Afflante Spiritu, and the Church's entire tradition of Biblical interpretation). All too numerous are the accounts of bewildered parishioners who endured homilies in which it was explained that demons were merely "first-century explanations of psychological disorders," or that the miracles of Jesus were legends created later by the early Christian community.

Pope John Paul II together with Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have slowly but steadily attempted to bring the ship back to the original course set by the Second Vatican Council Fathers. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, released in 1994, contains a marvelous section on Sacred Scripture. 17 The Catechism sets forth orthodox Catholic doctrine and has inestimable value in helping guide the Church for years to come. Also included is a marvelous section on divine revelation, which describes the four senses of Scripture. This move was interpreted by many as a clear signal from the Vatican affirming the validity of the traditional views of Scripture.

Another key document was the Pontifical Biblical Commission's The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993). While this document upheld the use of the historical-critical approach to Scripture as a means to more accurately ascertain the meaning of Scripture in light of the historical, culture contexts in which it was written, it warned of the potential dangers stemming from this approach, especially when it is utilized to the exclusion of the spiritual interpretation. This document reaffirmed that Biblical interpretation is not solely the work of university scholars. Rather, the Bible is the living, active word of God, which lives principally in the hearts of the members of the Church.

Certainly, it would be na´ve and overly-optimistic to say that the Catholic Church has emerged from the doldrums of the post-conciliar period. However, the Catholic faithful look with hope to the future, believing Pope John Paul II's view that the Church stands poised at the beginning of a new springtime--a blossoming that is sure to include the renewed emphasis on Biblical study in the life of the Church.


A. Old-English and Middle-English

Today many still believe that the Catholic Church endeavored to keep the Bible from the people. This demonstrates the Church's dismal performance in public relations over the past 500 years, for nothing could be farther from the truth.

Indeed, it was at the request of Pope Damasus in the late 4th century that St. Jerome undertook the creation of the Latin Vulgate. The eminent scholarship of St. Jerome produced this translation as an accurate standard and rendered all previous Latin translations obsolete. This text would serve as the authoritative Scripture for the Western Church for the next fifteen-hundred years. The Council of Trent reiterated its authority and endorsed its use "in disputations, in lectures and in preaching."

In order to understand the Vulgate's value, one must first grasp that throughout the Middle Ages and even until quite recently, Latin was not the dead language it is today. In Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages, anyone who was literate read and wrote in Latin. Education was conducted entirely in Latin. It was the language of all men of learning and culture. Thus, for the literate people of England, the Vulgate served as the primary Bible during the Middle Ages.

However, this is not to admit the charge that the Bible was kept in Latin during the Middle Ages. In the seventh century poetic renderings of portions of the Bible were done by a monk named Caedmon. During the following century the well-known Venerable Bede undertook a translation into the vernacular. Many other partial translations were done during the next couple centuries, including one of the Psalms attributed to King Alfred the Great.

In 1066 the Normans conquered England, and Middle English and French replaced Old English (Saxon). From this time we have various manuscripts such as the paraphrase of Orm (ca. 1150) and the Salus Animæ (ca. 1250). The existence of translations during this period is affirmed by the original preface to the King James Bible and Sir Thomas More, who wrote: "The whole Bible long before Wycliff's day was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read." 18

B. 14th Century to the Reformation

During the late 14th century, the language of the English people began to change drastically, approaching what we would recognize today as the English language. During this period there were several translations done of parts of the Bible before Wyclif's, including the Psalters attributed to William Shoreham and Richard Rolle, among others. During the 1380s the translation of the Vulgate into the vernacular attributed to John Wyclif was composed in separate editions. The Synod of Oxford, convened in 1408, condemned translations unapproved by the Church. This was done because the Church viewed Wyclif's translation as erroneous (such as translations by the Jehovah's Witnesses might be viewed today).

Throughout the entirety of the Middle Ages, it was the monks who painstakingly preserved the Scriptures. Clergy were often required to know by heart the entire psalter. Liturgies, homilies, music, and commentaries of this age also abundantly suffice to demonstrate the clergy's grasp of the Bible.

Regarding the laity, the words recorded in the form of literature, legal documents, correspondence, etc., provide ample evidence that the lay people were exceedingly familiar with Scripture. Though the common people of that time were largely illiterate, the Bible was conveyed to them through means other than reading, such as instruction in school, church sermons, drama, and art. Churches themselves were "visual Bibles," in which the many statues and stained-glass windows served to communicate the stories and teachings of the Bible.

C. The Reformation and the Douay-Rheims

After the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, the first printed Bible in the vernacular in England was that of William Tyndale. In defiance of his bishop he left England and settled in Worms, Germany, where he met Luther. His translation was completed abroad and smuggled into England in large numbers. The translation included anti-Catholic footnotes and was considered erroneous by the bishops of England. The calm and fair-minded St. Thomas More wrote of Tyndale's translation that to "find errors in Tyndale's book [was] like studying to find water in the sea." 20 Not surprisingly, the translation was condemned and copies were burned.

Over the course of the 16th century, a host of other English Bibles emerged. These included the Coverdale Bible and the Geneva Bible, which, as the name suggests, was written in Geneva by Protestants who followed John Calvin and Theodore Beza. Also completed was the Bishops Bible, which was done under Queen Elizabeth by the Church of England to counteract the Calvinist influence in the Geneva Bible.

Catholics fled to the European continent under Queen Elizabeth's reign. A group of Catholic translators began working on the New Testament in Rheims, France. The completed text was presented in 1582. The Old Testament was then translated at the English College in Douay, France and completed in 1609. According to the translators, the translation was undertaken "with the object of healthfully counteracting the corruptions whereby the heretics have so long lamentably deluded almost the whole of our countrymen." The translation was based upon the Latin Vulgate and compared with the original Greek. To answer why they had utilized the Vulgate as the basis instead of the original languages, they responded that the Vulgate "is not [only] better then [all] other Latin translations, but [than] the [Greek] text [itself], in those places where they disagree . . . the same Latin [has been far] better conserved from corruptions." 21

During the mid 18th century, Bishop Challoner significantly revised the Douay-Rheims to eliminate obscure words and render the text more readable. The influence of the Latin in the Douay-Rheims is evident in the translation. The Douay-Rheims also influenced the translators of the King James Version. One example was the adoption of "charity" to translate the Greek word agape (a transliteration of the Latin caritas), which was used twenty-eight times in the KJV.

D. Modern Translations

The Douay-Rheims became the standard Bible of English-speaking Catholics for over three hundred years. A few revisions were attempted, but none successfully competed with the Douay-Rheims. In 1941, the Confraternity Version of the New Testament was released. This was a new translation, which, like the Douay-Rheims, was based upon the Vulgate and compared with the original languages. However, upon Divino Afflante Spiritu's mandate for translations based on the original languages in 1943, work ceased on the Confraternity Version, leaving the Old Testament incomplete.

The New American Bible (NAB) was released in segments from 1952 until 1970. The NAB is a dynamic translation, which means that it leans toward readability over literal translation. Some Catholics complained about its abandonment of some traditional Catholic renderings. For instance, Luke 1:28 was translated "Hail, favored one!" in place of the classic "Hail, full of grace!" -- which, of course, forms the first line of the Hail Mary. Nevertheless, the NAB remains the most widely-read translation for American Catholics today, and has received accolades from scholars of many denominations. A revised New Testament was released in 1986, which included use of gender-neutral language, albeit much more limited than the NRSV and others. Work on an Old Testament revision has been completed, according to a 2002 conference for Catholic Biblical studies.

Other modern Catholic Bible translations include the Jerusalem Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, which is used for liturgical purposes in English-speaking countries outside the U.S. The Revised Standard Version-Catholic Edition also remains a favorite among many Catholics for its more literal translation and lack of gender-neutral language (consult the separate pages on this site for further information on Roman Catholic versions).


1. A comprehensive summary of this can be found in the Second Vatican Council's Dei Verbum or the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).

2. cf. Heb. 1:1-2, etc.

3. cf. Jn. 14:9, Dei Verbum 4.

4. ibid.

5. cf. Mt. 28:19ff., Mk. 16:15, etc.

6. 2 Tim. 1:14, cf. 2 Tim. 2:2, Acts 1:15-26, 14:23, 15:22ff., Rom. 10:15, Titus 1:5, etc.

7. cf. 2 Thes. 2:15, 3:6, 1 Cor. 11:2.

8. cf. 2 Pet. 3:16

9. CCC 80.

10. cf. Dan. 7:14, Mt. 16:18-19, 28:19-20

11. cf. Jn. 14:26, 16:12-15, Acts 15:28, Eph. 4:12-14, 1 Tim. 3:15, etc.

12. Dei Verbum 10..

13. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, III.B.2.

14. Wilker, Robert J. "Interpreting the Bible: Three Views." First Things (August/September 1994).

15. Demarest, Bruce A. "Interpreting the Bible," in Tim Dowley, ed., Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity (Carmel, NY: Lion Publishing, 1977), 284-85.

16. Holtz, Mark. "All Scripture Is Inspired By God: Medieval Exegesis and the Modern Christian." The Catholic Dossier (March-April 1996).

17. CCC 101-141

18. Dialogues III. in Henry Graham, Where We Got the Bible (Rockford, IL: TAN Books 1977), 100.

19. Graham, 123.

20. ibid., 128.

21. Preface to the Douay Old Testament, 1609. (The original includes many spellings now obsolete. Hence, the extensive use of brackets in the quote.)

"The Bible and the Catholic Church" © by Greg Youell, 2003