The Successor of Peter and Biblical Interpretation

Posted by Dr. John Bergsma on 11.10.11 |

St. John Lateran
The Chair of Peter in the Basilica of St. John Lateran

Some months ago on this blog, we had a discussion about the role of the Papacy in the Church and specifically with respect to the interpretation of Scripture.

I keep coming back to the Pope’s homily upon assuming the Chair of Peter in St. John Lateran (7 May 2005).

(St. John Lateran is, of course, the Cathedral of Rome—not St. Peter’s in the Vatican.  St. John Lateran is the official church of the Bishop of Rome, and thus considered the mother church of Christianity.  This church has it’s own feast day, which we celebrated yesterday.  When a new pope assumes the Chair of Peter in St. John Lateran, it marks the beginning of his tenure as Bishop of the Diocese of Rome.)

In this homily, the Pope pointedly addresses the issue of Scriptural interpretation, and his own role in it.

I quote here the most relevant paragraphs for reflection:

“The Bishop of Rome sits upon the Chair to bear witness to Christ. Thus, the Chair is the symbol of the potestas docendi, the power to teach that is an essential part of the mandate of binding and loosing which the Lord conferred on Peter, and after him, on the Twelve. In the Church, Sacred Scripture, the understanding of which increases under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and the ministry of its authentic interpretation that was conferred upon the Apostles, are indissolubly bound. Whenever Sacred Scripture is separated from the living voice of the Church, it falls prey to disputes among experts. (emphasis mine)

Of course, all they have to tell us is important and invaluable; the work of scholars is a considerable help in understanding the living process in which the Scriptures developed, hence, also in grasping their historical richness.

Yet science alone cannot provide us with a definitive and binding interpretation; it is unable to offer us, in its interpretation, that certainty with which we can live and for which we can even die. A greater mandate is necessary for this, which cannot derive from human abilities alone. The voice of the living Church is essential for this, of the Church entrusted until the end of time to Peter and to the College of the Apostles.

This power of teaching frightens many people in and outside the Church. They wonder whether freedom of conscience is threatened or whether it is a presumption opposed to freedom of thought. It is not like this. The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith. The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”

The entire homily is available here.

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