Biblical Interpretation

Q. When God says something to a person we’re reading about in the Bible, are we to interpret that passage to mean that He is also speaking to us?

A. Sometimes, yes, the words spoken by God to a person in the Bible are intended for us as well in a direct manner. As an Old Testament example, consider the Ten Commandments. When God told Moses and the ancient Israelites, “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15), He was speaking to all people of all time. In the New Testament, when Jesus told His listeners, “Love your enemies” (Mt 5:44), again, He was speaking to us all.

Nevertheless, we can’t simply assume that everything spoken by God to someone in Scripture is spoken directly to us as well. For example: God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice (see Genesis 22:1–19). Even though this was only a test of faith and God didn’t allow Abraham actually to carry it out, we shouldn’t read this passage to mean that God is putting us to a similar test or that He wants us to sacrifice our children.

At the same time, even a story like this can be read, if we do it carefully, in such a way that we learn a general principle behind what God was saying, which we can apply to our own lives. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, the obvious principle is that we must not value any attachment, even to our children, more than we value God. But even when attempting to discern principles, we must ask what differences in circumstances there may be between the scriptural situation and our own, which may determine the nature of our application.

Catholic tradition teaches us that some things Jesus commanded as recorded in the Gospels are for everyone who would embrace the gospel; these are called the evangelical precepts. Others, however, which are more difficult to obey, are directed to those who “would be perfect”; they are called the evangelical counsels, or counsels of perfection.

The precepts have to do with matters of spiritual and moral necessity: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). The counsels, however, are voluntarily accepted by those who seek to move as quickly as possible toward the final goal of perfection to which everyone is called: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21, emphasis added). The Apostle Paul offered a similar counsel — celibacy — which he made clear was not a “command of the Lord” to be obeyed by all Christians (see 1 Corinthians 7:25–35).

So how do we tell the difference between divine commands addressed only to someone in Scripture and those that are spoken to us directly as well? We need the interpretative tradition of the Church. That’s why we must read Scripture “with the mind of the Church.” The Bible alone isn’t sufficient; it needs an authoritative interpreter. PT