John Henry Newman on Interpreting Scripture

John-Henry-Cardinal-NewmanSince then there is in the Church an authority, divinely appointed and plenary, for judgment and for appeal in questions of Scripture interpretation, in matters of faith and morals, therefore, by the very force of the words, there is one such authority, and only one.

Again, it follows hence, that, when the legitimate authority has spoken, to resist its interpretation is a sin against the faith and an act of heresy.

And from this again it follows, that, till the Infallible Authority formally interprets a passage of Scripture, there is nothing heretical in advocating a contrary interpretation, provided of course there is nothing in the act intrinsically inconsistent with the faith, or the pietas fidei, nothing of contempt or rebellion, nothing temerarious, nothing offensive or scandalous, in the manner of acting or the circumstances of the case. I repeat, I am all along inquiring what Scripture, by reason of its literal text, obliges us to believe. An original view about Scripture or its parts may be as little contrary to the mind of the Church about it, as it need be an offence against its inspiration.

On the Inspiration of Scripture

What I gather from this is that it is not scandalous or weird for someone to hold a differing opinion before an official pronouncement has been made by the Church.  Once the pronouncement has been made is it heretical to hold contrary, but before then people are free to hypothesize, philosophize, ruminate, postulate, and offer disagreements with others (within reason, I’m sure).

Here is a bonus quote from Joseph T. Lienhard from his book The Bible, the Church, and Authority which is along the same lines of reasoning:

“Generally, the early Church did not define its teachings on its own initiative. Instead, it defined them by reacting. Only when someone announced, ‘I’ve got it all figured out,’ did the Church take a long look at the solution, measure it against its sense of the faith, and often enough say, ‘No, you don’t; that’s not in line with our faith.'”


Disclaimer – This blog post is just that: a blog post with my personal thoughts. I am not a Catholic apologist or theologian. What I say here is not official doctrine of the Catholic Church. I am still learning and am susceptible to error. Don’t take anything here as Gospel. Don’t be stupid. Do your own research and learn for yourself what the Church teaches.

Catholics: if my understanding of Catholic doctrine needs adjustment, please point out my error.


2 thoughts on “John Henry Newman on Interpreting Scripture

  1. Mustfollow,

    Another excellent quote. I was recently re-reading some of the posts I wrote when I began considering Catholicism, and the driving force behind my conversion was the question of doctrinal authority. I thankfully began to have the ability to recognize that a “living voice” was needed to settle doctrinal disputes regarding Scripture. A person who is stuck on the idea that Scripture is the final doctrinal authority is probably someone who’s a little too comfortable with his own personal interpretation of Scripture, or he hasn’t run into too many questions yet about how to properly understand the more difficult passages. Even Scripture itself refers to the Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and I have yet to see a translation of 2 Timothy 3:16,17 that says “Scripture alone is the final doctrinal authority for Christians” as much as people might try to make those verses say words to that effect. Without an authoritative statement from Scripture, “sola Scriptura” is self-defeating, logically… leaving us to consult the authority that God left for us in His Church. Thankfully, the powers of death have not prevailed against it (Matt. 16:18 RSVCE), and it’s not too hard to find (Matt. 5:14).

    It only makes sense that a doctrine is not necessarily developed in its entirety until after the doctrine has been opposed and therefore must be examined and explained in more detail. It’s just a matter of further explaining the “faith that was once for all delivered” (Jude 3), in order to answer the questions of the times. But that kind of doctrinal authority must come from God, and occasionally must be exercised through ecumenical councils.

    I’ve been enjoying your Newman quotes. May God bless you on your journey.


    • Thanks, Ben.

      It takes a lot of effort to read Newman and I know I don’t fully grasp everything he says and often feel as if I’m just surviving. 🙂 But then, out of the blue, he will summarize or word something just right and leaves me saying, “Ooooohhh….. I think I get that.” The way I feel about Newman is the way I felt about G.K. Chesterton upon first reading; he’s either a madman or a genius but I sense he’s a genius.

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