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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology
CHAPTER V: VERSIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS OF SCRIPTURE.
154. Subject of the Chapter. – The fundamental difference between Catholic theologians and the expounders of the various Protestant systems is found in the view taken as to the Rule of Faith. In our second Treatise we showed that Catholics regard the living voice of the Church at all times as being the authentic interpreter of the Divine Revelation, and that there is no appeal from this voice; and that if Scripture or Antiquity or any other basis of argument seem to contradict this living voice, we are at once assured that there is error either in the principles or in the reasoning founded on them. The Protestant theory, on the other hand, holds that the Written Word of God is the supreme rule; that the revelation given by God is to be learned by each Christian reading the Bible; and that this reading, conducted under proper conditions, will not lead him astray. In the present chapter we shall explain the doctrine of the Church on the popular use of Scripture, and the precautions which are necessary, if the food provided for the souls of men is not by misuse to be turned to poison.
155. Translation. – We have seen (n. 120) that various languages were employed by the original writers of the Scriptures; that the original manuscripts have perished, and that the text as it came from their hands cannot be restored with absolute certainty in every minutest detail. It follows at once that translations are necessary before the Scriptures can be studied by the mass of men, and none but those who have paid special attention to the matter can justly estimate the immense difficulty of the work of making such a translation. The work cannot be done even tolerably without a familiar acquaintance with the original languages and a perfect command over that into which the translation is to be made. Also, no single chapter can be safely translated except by one who has familiar acquaintance with the whole of the Scripture, for otherwise the translator must be in doubt whether he has not missed some parallel passage which is decisive of the meaning of that on which he is engaged ; and we may say, yet more widely, that the translator of dogmatic passages must already have his mind made up as to the true doctrine upon the subject; he may have derived his convictions from his original or from some other source; but without convictions of some sort he cannot translate. Only the ignorant can imagine that it is possible to produce any tolerable result by translating literally: "word for word," as they would say. This attempt was made by the literal Aquila, who probably held some form of the doctrine of verbal inspiration, and felt bound to give the exact Greek equivalent for each Hebrew word. Applied to the first verse of Genesis this theory would give the result: "In heading created Gods with the heavens and with the earth," which is not greater nonsense than the specimen of Aquila's handiwork that stands in Origen's Hexapla. Literal translation in this sense assumes that every language contains some word which is the exact equivalent of each word in every other language, which is clearly false; further, it assumes that a combination of words in one language yields the same sense as the combination of the equivalent words in every other language, which is, if possible, still more false; as will be seen at once if the attempt be made to render on these principles the simplest passage from one language into another. In fact, as we have already remarked, every translation is in truth a commentary. The simple Protestant, therefore, adopts as his rule of faith a human work, while he believes it to be Divine.
156. Imperfect and false renderings. – The difficulties pointed out in the preceding section are inherent in the work of the translation, but they are very much enhanced when the work is undertaken by incompetent men; and the possibility of dogmatic prejudice and downright fraud must always be had in mind. The British and Foreign Bible Society has no difficulty in finding men who will undertake to translate the Scriptures into any language, however rude and destitute of the most elementary terms of religion; and particulars as to the deplorable result will be found in the first chapter of Mr. Marshall's Christian Missions. What is commonly, and perhaps deservedly reputed as the best of the Protestant vernacular translations, is that which forms the authorized version of the English Establishment, and which was put into its final shape in the year 1611. In 1870 a revision of this version was begun, and the result in due time appeared, showing that a vast number of alterations were deemed necessary; but the way in which the work was done has not given satisfaction to those interested, and it is quite possible that a revision of the revised version will appear before long. Meanwhile, the authorized version holds the field. It was with reference to this version that Mr. Thomas Ward compiled his book called Errata, being a long list of passages where the translators had allowed dogmatic prejudice to determine their choice of phrases; while cases are not wanting in which words seem to have been deliberately altered or omitted because the true version seemed too favourable to the Catholic side of the controversy. Thus in Cant. vi. 8, both the authorized and the revised version insert a but, without authority from the Hebrew original, thus weakening the argument which sees in this passage a proof of the unity of the Church. Also, in Malach. ii. 7, both these versions read should, instead of shall, making the passage no longer point to the office of the Bishops and priests of the Church to be in a special manner the guardians of Divine Revelation; but the worst case is I Cor. xi. 27, where the translators put and in place of or, which was required by all the authorities to which they had access. The revisors have altered this and to or; but meanwhile ten generations have read the words that falsely represent St. Paul as declaring a Divine command that the Holy Communion was to be received under both kinds. Another case is seen in Hebrews xiii. 4.
157. The Church and Versions. – The Church regards the Written Word of God as a most precious treasure entrusted to her keeping by her Divine Founder, to be used as an instrument in doing the work which she is commissioned to accomplish; and seeing the necessity of translations being made, seeing also the difficulty of the task and the ease with which corruptions may be introduced, she sedulously watches over the production of versions, especially in vernacular languages. She knows also how difficult is the work of interpreting the Scriptures, and that it is no less true now than it was in the days of St. Peter, that the unlearned and unstable wrest the Epistles of St. Paul and the other Scriptures to their own destruction. (2 St. Peter iii. 16.) She has therefore laid down certain rules for the guidance of her theologians in the interpretation of Scripture; and she has legislated with regard to the printing of editions and versions, and their use especially by the laity. The Church herein proceeds upon a theory totally opposed to that acted upon by the supporters of Bible Societies. The work of these Societies is to scatter printed copies of versions of the Scriptures, without note or comment, as widely as possible in all the countries of the world, and enormous sums of money are yearly expended upon this enterprise; with how little fruit will be seen by the reader of that first chapter of Marshall's Christian Missions, which we have already quoted in the preceding section. Foolish as the proceedings of these Societies are, it must be admitted that the promoters act consistently upon their theory. This theory, which we have already met with on several occasions, holds that the perusal of the Written Word of God is the divinely appointed means of salvation for all men; on this theory, to scatter Bibles is to spread the Gospel; just as on the Catholic theory that faith comes by hearing (Romans x. 17), not by reading, the way to spread the Gospel is to send preachers duly commissioned to carry on the work of the Apostles. We have already sufficiently discussed the two rival theories, in our Treatise on the Channel of Doctrine: but we may add a few citations from some of the earliest Fathers, to show how far representative Christians about the year 200 were from holding the Bible Society theory. St. Irenæus speaks of the barbarians as believing in Christ without the aid of ink and paper (Contra Hær. 3, 4; P.G. 7, 855); Tertullian (De Prescript. 14; P.L. 2, 27) gives a solemn warning against engaging with heretics in argument on the sense of Scripture; and Clement of Alexandria (Strom, I, 20 and 2, 6; P.G. 8, 816, 960) expressly states the Christian method is that faith comes by hearing, which he contrasts with that of the Greek philosophers. It will be remembered that these three writers represent the faith and teaching of almost the whole of the Christian world. (See n. 51.)
158. The Vulgate. – There is one only version of the Scriptures which has received the formal approval of the Church: this is that one among the Latin versions which obtained general currency in the West, and goes by the name of the Vulgate, or ordinary version. As to this, the Council of Trent declared not only that the Books contained in this version, with all their parts, were inspired; but also that among all the current Latin versions this one was to be held as authentic, and as such was used by the Council in proving the dogmas of the Church, and reforming morals.
This declaration of the Council (Sess. 4, Denz. 666, 667) is often misunderstood. It does not imply the entire conformity of the Vulgate to the originals; and it is perfectly allowable to suppose that the translator was misled by false readings in the manuscript that he used, or that he mistook the sense of what was before him. The work of critically settling the text, and of interpretation, is not interfered with by the Decree; as a matter of fact, the critical value of the Vulgate stands high, but it is not conclusive. But the meaning of the declaration is this: that in an argument upon a question of faith and morals, there is no appeal from the authority of the Vulgate: whatever propositions, in these spheres, follow from the Vulgate are undoubtedly true. It may be that the corresponding passages of the originals did not yield the same sense; this is a question for theologians to discuss (n. 84): and whatever follows from the original texts as to faith or morals, or any other subject, is to be implicitly received as the Word of God to man (n. 145): but it will never be shown that the teaching of the Vulgate on faith and morals is in conflict with what we know on the subject from the originals, or from other sources of knowledge of Divine truth. On other subjects the interpreter may, if he think right, discard the Vulgate, though if he be wise he will be very slow to do so. Thus the Council leaves him free to form his own opinion as to the species of plant that sheltered the Prophet Jonas (Jonas iv. 6), and he may believe that it was a kind of gourd, as the current Hebrew and Septuagint have it, and not ivy, as in the Vulgate: this is a point of botany, not of faith or morals; and on such a point we are sure that the teaching of the original was correct, but we have no authentic means of determining what that teaching was; especially, it must not be hastily concluded that because the original was written in Hebrew, therefore it is faithfully represented by the Hebrew which is now current: it is possible that a casual mistake has crept into the text.
159. Interpretation of Scripture. – We have seen according to Catholic doctrine, the agreement of Christians on any point as having been revealed by God is decisive of the truth: the whole Church cannot go wrong. It is, therefore, in perfect accord with this doctrine that the Council of Trent, in the same Session (Denz. 668). forbade all interpretations of Scripture which were opposed to the unanimous consent of the Fathers. We have seen (nn. 93-95) that in certain cases the existence of this unanimous consent can be inferred, even where few writers have treated of the matter, and we must carefully distinguish between the witness of the Fathers to the Tradition that they have received, and their judgment as critics, on points as to which they have received no tradition. In the former case, their unanimous voice is decisive; in the latter, it is possible for more recent criticism to have discovered reasons for adopting a different view. We may illustrate this by the case of the Days of Creation. The Fathers are not unanimous as to what is meant by them. (See St. Augustine, Genesis ad Literam, 4, 27; P.L. 34, 314; De Civil. Dei, n, 7; P.L. 41, 322.) But even were it otherwise, they would have spoken merely according to their knowledge, seeing no reason to doubt that Day in the first chapter of Genesis had its natural meaning: if considerations drawn from the teaching of geology or other sources lead us to doubt whether they were correct in their judgment, we shall not be going against their witness. (See n. 322.) The same remark applies to the passages of Scripture which have been thought to be opposed to the Copernican astronomy (Psalm xcii. 1; Josue x. 13, &c.): it was natural to take them as referring to absolute motion, so long as no reason to the contrary was seen; but there was no tradition on the subject; and therefore there was no objection to understanding them of relative motion, as soon as reason to do so was adduced. We shall speak again of the case of Galileo in another place (n. 292); we here only remark that no unanimous consent of the Fathers, if such existed, would bind us to accept the Ptolemaic hypothesis. The doctrine on this matter is given shortly, but quite clearly, in the Encyclical lately quoted, (n. 145.)
160. The use of Versions. – The Church, aware of the evil that is apt to result from the rash use of Scripture, especially of versions in the vernacular, has guarded it by various regulations. We can do no more than give a very short sketch of the Common Law upon the subject, which law, however, is by no means necessarily binding in any particular country: modifications to suit the varying circumstances of the populations have frequently been introduced by custom or otherwise. The Common Law, however, forbids the use of all copies of the Scriptures that have not been printed under the responsibility of some Catholic: no translations into the vernacular are to be made unless accompanied by proper notes, to guard against the danger of misunderstanding; and they must not be printed without the approbation of the Ordinary. These rules are the more necessary because the Bible Societies sometimes print editions of their own, founded on former editions which had received approval: they retain the approbations, but omit the notes, and often corrupt the text, in this way endeavouring to mislead the unwary. An episcopal approbation does no more than allow the printing of the work: it by no means implies that the prelate giving the approval agrees with all that is said: in fact, the person that gives the approval will sometimes see reason subsequently to withdraw it.
The essential opposition between the Catholic spirit and the spirit of Jansenism comes out clearly in the condemnation by Pope Clement XI., in the Bull Unigenitus (1713), of the following propositions taught by Quesnel:
LXXIX. To study and know the spirit, piety, and mysteries of Holy Scripture is at all times and in all places necessary to all sorts of men.
LXXX. The reading of Holy Scripture is for all.
LXXXI. The obscurity of Holy Scripture is no reason for laymen dispensing themselves from reading it. With much more to the same effect. (Denz. 1294 − 1300.)
It may be suspected that many of those who advocate the indiscriminate reading of the Bible are but imperfectly acquainted with the contents of some of the Books: and they fail to observe that not a single text can be cited so much as hinting, that Christians ought to look to a book to find the doctrines of their religion: all the texts commonly cited refer to Jews, who are exhorted to search the Old Testament, where they will find proof that He Whom the Apostles preached was the true Messiah; but when that is clear, they are to receive His doctrine from the mouth of His messengers. (See n. 83.)
161. Recapitulation. – Having in our first and second Treatises spoken of the Christian religion and its evidences, and the Channel of Doctrine, our third Treatise has been devoted to Holy Scripture. In successive chapters we have spoken of the meaning of Scripture, of the special character of the Books, and their Inspiration; after which we have determined what Books form the collection. Lastly, we have explained the necessity of having translations of the Scripture, and pointed out why the task of furnishing them is so difficult, and shown that the work has often been done with negligence, prejudice, and even fraud. The attitude of the Church towards versions is then explained and justified, the special position of the Vulgate is explained, together with the caution to be observed in the interpretation of Scripture. Lastly, we have sketched the Common Law as to the translating, printing, and reading Scripture.