A Protestant friend recently told me that, at his church, the pastor was preaching and teaching about the Bible when he said that the surface meaning of the Bible is all there is. Nothing more can be read into the meaning of a passage of Scripture than whatever was intended by the author.

As a former Protestant myself, it was a related attitude toward Scripture that forced me to reconsider my viewpoint. I had held firmly to the belief that theology and doctrine should come from Scripture alone. This is the belief known as Sola Scriptura. The Bible alone. What forced me to extricate this doctrine from my worldview was the realization that I could not find Sola Scriptura taught clearly in Scripture. The dogma held that all dogma must come from Scripture, and yet this particular dogma did not come from Scripture.

It was with this background that I received my friend’s statement about the meaning of Scripture. So, I replied, with as much humility and charity as I could muster, “Where does the Bible teach that it must be interpreted only at a surface level? Where does the Bible tell us the proper interpretive scheme for itself? Isn’t the idea that we can only glean the surface meaning itself a scheme that comes from outside of Scripture?”

Thankfully, my friend had the humility to consider it and said, “Good point.”

I have found that brilliant writers often write into their works various levels of meaning. Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood is both an interesting, though disturbing at times, story and a call to recognize the astounding reality of the Holy Eucharist. The Violent Bear it Away is another novel about a story and, at the same time, about the Sacrament of Baptism.

I pointed out to my friend the fact that the first interpreters of Scripture, the Church Fathers, who were closer to the writers of Scripture linguistically, geographically, culturally, and temporally interpreted Scripture on several different levels. For example, St. Augustine writes about the story of the loaves and the fishes that the barley loaves represent the five books of the Torah, because barley is tough to get into, as are the books of the Torah, but the fruit inside is good. The two fish represent the two Old Testament positions of priest and ruler, united and fulfilled in Christ. Augustine writes, “Nothing is without meaning; everything is significant, but requires what one understands.” He then goes on to describe the meaning even of the number of people.

As another example, a masterpiece of interpretation, the Moralia, a commentary on Job by St. Gregory the Great, sometimes runs over the same passage multiple times, pulling from it literal and allegorical meaning.

We see this reflected, of course, even in nature itself. Every detail is a festival of meaning that celebrates God’s goodness, creativity, beauty and intelligence. God is more than a brilliant author, so of course the Holy Spirit would pack more than one meaning into his Holy Book.

When I discovered these various levels of interpretation, laid out clearly in our Catechism (paragraphs 115-119), it seemed to me that my Protestant perspective had been rather shallow. I remember telling my friend and guide at points, Trent Beattie, that my Protestant faith came to look very thin. In Catholicism, there is a greater depth and beauty to everything.

When I am in my right mind, I attribute this discovery to the work of the Holy Spirit who bestows the gifts of understanding and insight to whom he pleases, independent of our merits and gifts. He, not man, is the interpreter of Scripture and I have come to believe fully that he leads the Church into all truth, as Christ promised he would (John 16:13).