May 26, 2006

Be Our Guest / Jim Welter

Scripture interpretation is subject to time and culture

While it is not necessary for me to defend God, I take exception to the May 12 assertion in the
Be Our Guest column
that “Catholics are left in a perpetual state of confusion” presumably because some of us do not agree with the letter writer that it is “under God’s leadership and direction” that human beings kill each other!

The letter writer quotes two priests as having said, “I never heard that.” Unfortunately, I have heard it—many, many times. The writer’s understanding of the fifth commandment (thou shall not kill) betrays a lack of awareness of the Church’s teaching on interpreting Scripture.

The foreword of the New American Bible includes the text of the Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican Council II, (which echoes the teachings of Pope Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu).

Section 3, paragraph 12, of that document states (in part), “The interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers intended by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his [the sacred writer’s] own time and culture. Due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer.”

With that said, if we consider the time and culture in which the Ten Commandments were revealed, there is no illogic or inconsistency in the command not to kill and the stories we read of the taking of the Promised Land. What the letter writer presents to us is a false dilemma (implying that we must choose between belief in the inspiration of Scripture or accepting a God who commands the killing of his own creation).

We face no such dilemma and that interpretation does an injustice to God’s word! In the time and culture in which the Ten Commandments were revealed, the prevailing belief was in a nationalistic God. The Israelites interpreted the commandment as: “Thou shall not kill one of your own people,” so it was not inconsistent for them to believe in a God who would direct the killing of their enemies. But Jesus changed all of that when he revealed to us a God who “is love” (1 John 4:7). So we don’t get off the hook that easily!

“Thou shall not kill,” I suspect, means exactly what it says! Most assuredly, there is a difference between killing and murder, as the letter writer states, but the commandment goes beyond that distinction to hold up the ideal that any intentional shortening of human life is wrong. Jesus takes us to an even higher level, commanding us to, “Love our enemies.”

So, what do we say to the children of soldiers and law enforcement officers who kill for our protection and in defense of our freedom? I served in the military and I would say this: I cannot begin to comprehend the enormity of the sacrifice that you have laid on the altar of freedom. I am profoundly grateful for what so many have done and continue to do to protect us, and I pray for them each day. I am equally sorry that the decisions of people have put your loved ones in a position of having to choose between the lesser of two evils; of killing or being killed, of fighting or being enslaved.

I benefit from, and therefore support, their decisions. I regret that the ideal to which we are called is still beyond our grasp, and I’m sorry (and embarrassed as a human being) that those you love have been put in such an untenable position.

I would also like to suggest to the letter writer that St. Augustine is not the final word in Scripture interpretation. He too was subject to his time and culture.

Today’s Catholic Scripture scholars are among the finest in the world, and they have at their disposal texts that are far older than those available to St. Augustine. We might want to at least consider what they have to say as expressed in the teachings of our Church.

In closing, I would offer one overriding principle for interpreting Scripture: If our interpretation of Scripture presents an image of God that is different from the loving Father that Jesus revealed to us—then we need to reconsider how we interpret Scripture! “God, by [the] very definition, cannot be illogical or ‘un-Godly’ ” —on this the letter writer and I can agree.

(Jim Welter is a member of St. Barnabas Parish. Since 1984, he has presented an adult education series, “The Ascending View … A Contemporary Look at Scripture,” throughout the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. He is the founder and a regular contributor to the St. Monica parish e-mail Scripture ministry which sends out daily reflections to more than 6,200 subscribers each business day.) †



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