Approaching the Sacred Scriptures | Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch | IgnatiusInsight.com
Approaching the Sacred Scriptures | Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch | IgnatiusInsight.com
You are approaching the "word of God". This is the title Christians most
commonly give to the Bible, and the expression is rich in meaning. It
is also the title given to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God
the Son. For Jesus Christ became flesh for our salvation, and "the name
by which he is called is The Word of God" (Rev 19:13; cf. Jn 1: 14).
The word of God is Scripture. The Word of God is Jesus. This close association
between God's written word and his eternal Word is intentional
and has been the custom of the Church since the first generation. "All
Sacred Scripture is but one book, and this one book is Christ, 'because
all divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine Scripture is fulfilled
in Christ"  (CCC 134). This does not mean that the Scriptures are divine
in the same way that Jesus is divine. They are, rather, divinely inspired
and, as such, are unique in world literature, just as the Incarnation
of the eternal Word is unique in human history.
Yet we can say that the inspired word resembles the incarnate Word in
several important ways. Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate. In
his humanity, he is like us in all things, except for sin. As a work of
man, the Bible is like any other book, except without error. Both Christ
and Scripture, says the Second Vatican Council, are given "for the sake
of our salvation" (Dei Verbum 11), and both give us God's definitive
revelation of himself. We cannot, therefore, conceive of one without the
other: the Bible without Jesus, or Jesus without the Bible. Each is the
interpretive key to the other. And because Christ is the subject of all
the Scriptures, St. Jerome insists, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance
of Christ"  (CCC 133).
When we approach the Bible, then, we approach Jesus, the Word of God;
and in order to encounter Jesus, we must approach him in a prayerful study
of the inspired word of God, the Sacred Scriptures.
Inspiration and Inerrancy
The Catholic Church makes mighty claims for the Bible, and our acceptance
of those claims is essential if we are to read the Scriptures and apply
them to our lives as the Church intends. So it is not enough merely to
nod at words like "inspired", "unique", or "inerrant". We have to understand
what the Church means by these terms, and we have to make that understanding
our own. After all, what we believe about the Bible will inevitably influence
the way we read the Bible. The way we read the Bible, in turn, will determine
what we "get out" of its sacred pages.
These principles hold true no matter what we read: a news report, a search
warrant, an advertisement, a paycheck, a doctor's prescription, an eviction
notice. How (or whether) we read these things depends largely upon our
preconceived notions about the reliability and authority of their sourcesand
the potential they have for affecting our lives. In some cases, to misunderstand
a document's authority can lead to dire consequences. In others, it can
keep us from enjoying rewards that are rightfully ours. In the case of
the Bible, both the rewards and the consequences involved take on an ultimate
What does the Church mean, then, when she affirms the words of St. Paul:
"All Scripture is inspired by God" (2 Tim 3:16)? Since the term "inspired"
in this passage could be translated "God-breathed", it follows that God
breathed forth his word in the Scriptures as you and I breathe forth air
when we speak. This means that God is the primary author of the Bible.
He certainly employed human authors in this task as well, but he did not
merely assist them while they wrote or subsequently approve what they
had written. God the Holy Spirit is the principal author of Scripture,
while the human writers are instrumental authors. These human authors
freely wrote everything, and only those things, that God wanted: the word
of God in the very words of God. This miracle of dual authorship extends
to the whole of Scripture, and to every one of its parts, so that whatever
the human authors affirm, God likewise affirms through their words.
The principle of biblical inerrancy follows logically from this principle
of divine authorship. After all, God cannot lie, and he cannot make mistakes.
Since the Bible is divinely inspired, it must be without error in everything
that its divine and human authors affirm to be true. This means that biblical
inerrancy is a mystery even broader in scope than infallibility, which
guarantees for us that the Church will always teach the truth concerning
faith and morals. Of course the mantle of inerrancy likewise covers faith
and morals, but it extends even farther to ensure that all the facts and
events of salvation history are accurately presented for us in the Scriptures.
Inerrancy is our guarantee that the words and deeds of God found in the
Bible are unified and true, declaring with one voice the wonders of his
The guarantee of inerrancy does not mean, however, that the Bible is an
all-purpose encyclopedia of information covering every field of study.
The Bible is not, for example, a textbook in the empirical sciences, and
it should not be treated as one. When biblical authors relate facts of
the natural order, we can be sure they are speaking in a purely descriptive
and "phenomenological" way, according to the way things appeared to their
Implicit in these doctrines is God's desire to make himself known to the
world and to enter a loving relationship with every man, woman, and child
he has created. God gave us the Scriptures not just to inform or motivate
us; more than anything he wants to save us. This higher purpose underlies
every page of the Bible, indeed every word of it.
In order to reveal himself, God used what theologians call "accommodation".
Sometimes the Lord stoops down to communicate by "condescension"that
is, he speaks as humans speak, as if he had the same passions and weakness
that we do (for example, God says he was "sorry" that he made man in Genesis
6:6). Other times he communicates by "elevation"that is, by endowing
human words with divine power (for example, through the prophets). The
numerous examples of divine accommodation in the Bible are an expression
of God's wise and fatherly ways. For a sensitive father can speak with
his children either by condescension, as in baby talk, or by elevation,
by bringing a child's understanding up to a more mature level.
God's word is thus saving, fatherly, and personal. Because it speaks directly
to us, we must never be indifferent to its content; after all, the word
of God is at once the object, cause, and support of our faith. It is,
in fact, a test of our faith, since we see in the Scriptures only what
faith disposes us to see. If we believe what the Church believes, we will
see in Scripture the saving, inerrant, and divinely authored revelation
of the Father. If we believe otherwise, we see another book altogether.
This test applies not only to rank-and-file believers but also to the
Church's theologians and hierarchy, and even the Magisterium. Vatican
II has stressed in recent times that Scripture must be "the very soul
of sacred theology" (Dei Verbum 24). Pope Benedict XVI echoes this
powerful teaching with his own, insisting that, "The normative theologians
are the authors of Holy Scripture" [emphasis added]. Elsewhere he reminds
us that Scripture and the Church's dogmatic teaching are tied tightly
together, to the point of being inseparable. He states: "Dogma is by definition
nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture." The defined dogmas
of our faith, then, encapsulate the Church's infallible interpretation
of Scripture, and theology is a further reflection upon that work.
The Senses of Scripture
Because the Bible haboth divine and human authors, we are required to
master a different sort of reading than we are used to. First, we must
read Scripture according to its literal sense, as we read any other
human literature. At this initial stage, we strive to discover the meaning
of the words and expressions used by the biblical writers as they were
understood in their original setting and by their original recipients.
This means, among other things, that we do not interpret everything we
read "literalistically", as though Scripture never speaks in a figurative
symbolic way (it often does!). Rather, we read according to the rules
that govern its different literary forms of writing, depending on whether
we art reading a narrative, a poem, a letter, a parable, or an apocalyptic
vision. The Church calls us to read the divine books in this way to ensure
that we understand what the human authors were laboring to explain to
The literal sense, however, is not the only sense of Scripture, since
we interpret its sacred page, according to the spiritual senses
as well. In this way, we search out what the Holy Spirit is trying to
tell us, beyond even what the human authors have consciously asserted.
Whereas the literal sense of Scripture describes a historical realitya
fact, precept, or eventthe spiritual senses disclose deeper mysteries
revealed through the historical realities What the soul is to the body,
the spiritual senses are to the literal. You can distinguish them; but
if you try to separate them, death immediately follows. St. Paul was the
first to insist upon this and warn of its consequences: "God ... has qualified
us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the
Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor
Catholic tradition recognizes three spiritual senses that stand upon the
foundation of the literal sense of Scripture (see CCC 115).
The first is the allegorical sense, which unveils the spiritual
and prophetic meaning of biblical history. Allegorical interpretations
thus reveal how persons, events, and institutions of Scripture can point
beyond themselves toward greater mysteries yet to come (OT), or display
the fruits of mysteries already revealed (NT). Christians have often read
the Old Testament in this way to discover how the mystery of Christ in
the New Covenant was once hidden in the Old, and how the full significance
of the Old Covenant was finally made manifest in the New. Allegorical
significance is likewise latent in the New Testament, especially in the
life and deeds of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Because Christ is the
Head of the Church and the source of her spiritual life, what was accomplished
in Christ the Head during his earthly life prefigures what he continually
produces in his members through grace. The allegorical sense builds up
the virtue of faith.
The second is the tropological or moral sense, which reveals
how the actions of God's people in the Old Testament and the life of Jesus
in the New Testament prompt us to form virtuous habits in our own lives.
It therefore draws from Scripture warnings against sin and vice, as well
as inspirations to pursue holiness and purity. The moral sense is intended
to build up the virtue of charity.
The third is the anagogical sense, which points upward to heavenly
glory. It shows us how countless events in the Bible prefigure our final
union with God in eternity, and how things that are "seen" on earth are
figures of things "unseen" in heaven. Because the anagogical sense leads
us to contemplate our destiny, it is meant to build up the virtue of hope.
Together with the literal sense, then, these spiritual senses draw out
the fullness of what God wants to give us through his Word and as such
comprise what ancient tradition has called the "full sense" of Sacred
All of this means that the deeds and events of the Bible are charged with
meaning beyond what is immediately apparent to the reader. In essence,
that meaning is Jesus Christ and the salvation he died to give us. This
is especially true of the books of the New Testament, which proclaim Jesus
explicitly; but it is also true of the Old Testament, which speaks of
Jesus in more hidden and symbolic ways. The human authors of the Old Testament
told us as much as they were able, but they could not clearly discern
the shape of all future events standing at such a distance. It is the
Bible's divine Author, the Holy Spirit, who could and did foretell the
saving work of Christ, from the first page of the Book of Genesis onward.
The New Testament did not, therefore, abolish the Old. Rather, the New
fulfilled the Old, and in doing so, it lifted the veil that kept hidden
the face of the Lord's bride. Once the veil is removed, we suddenly see
the world of the Old Covenant charged with grandeur. Water, fire, clouds,
gardens, trees, hills, doves, lambsall of these things are memorable
details in the history and poetry of Israel. But now, seen in the light
of Jesus Christ, they are much more. For the Christian with eyes to see,
water symbolizes the saving power of Baptism; fire, the Holy Spirit; the
spotless lamb, Christ crucified; Jerusalem, the city of heavenly glory.
The spiritual reading of Scripture is nothing new. Indeed the very first
Christians read the Bible this way. St. Paul describes Adam as a "type"
that prefigured Jesus Christ (Rom 5:14). A "type" is a real person, place,
thing, or event in the Old Testament that foreshadows something greater
in the New. From this term we get the word "typology", referring to the
study of how the Old Testament prefigures Christ (CCC 128-30). Elsewhere
St. Paul draws deeper meanings out of the story of Abraham's sons, declaring,
"This is an allegory" (Gal 4:24). He is not suggesting that these events
of the distant past never really happened; he is saying that the events
both happened and signified something more glorious yet to come.
The New Testament later describes the Tabernacle of ancient Israel as
"a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary" (Heb 8:5) and the Mosaic
Law as a "shadow of the good things to come" (Heb 10:1). St. Peter, in
turn, notes that Noah and his family were "saved through water" in a way
that "corresponds" to sacramental Baptism, which "now saves you" (I Pet
3:20-21). Interestingly, the expression that is translated "corresponds"
in this verse is a Greek term that denotes the fulfillment or counterpart
of an ancient "type".
We need not look to the apostles, however, to justify a spiritual reading
of the Bible. After all, Jesus himself read the Old Testament this way.
He referred to Jonah (Mt 12:39), Solomon (Mt 12:42), the Temple (Jn 2:19),
and the brazen serpent (Jn 3:14) as "signs" that pointed forward to him.
We see in Luke's Gospel, as Christ comforted the disciples on the road
to Emmaus, that "beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted
to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself " (Lk 24:27).
It was precisely this extensive spiritual interpretation of the Old Testament
that made such an impact on these once-discouraged travelers, causing
their hearts to "burn" within them (Lk 24:32).
Criteria for Biblical Interpretation
We too must learn to discern the "full sense" of Scripture as it includes
both the literal and spiritual senses together. Still, this does not mean
we should "read into" the Bible meanings that are not really there. Spiritual
exegesis is not an unrestrained flight of the imagination. Rather, it
is a sacred science that proceeds according to certain principles and
stands accountable to sacred tradition, the Magisterium, and the wider
community of biblical interpreters (both living and deceased).
In searching out the full sense of a text, we should always avoid the
extreme tendency to "overspiritualize" in a way that minimizes or denies
the Bible's literal truth. St. Thomas Aquinas was well aware of this danger
and asserted that "all other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the
literal" (STh I, 1, 10, ad 1, quoted in CCC 116). On the
other hand, we should never confine the meaning of a text to the literal,
intended sense of its human author, as if the divine Author did not intend
the passage to be read in the light of Christ's coming.
Fortunately the Church has given us guidelines in our study of Scripture.
The unique character and divine authorship of the Bible calls us to read
it "in the Spirit" (Dei Verbum 12). Vatican 11 outlines this teaching
in a practical way by directing us to read the Scriptures according to
three specific criteria:
1. We must "[b]e especially attentive 'to the content and unity
of the whole Scripture'" (CCC 112).
2. We must "[r]ead the Scripture within 'the living Tradition of the
whole Church'" (CCC 113).
3. We must "[b]e attentive to the analogy of faith" (CCC 114; cf. Rom
These criteria protect us from many of the dangers
that ensnare readers of the Bible, from the newest inquirer to the most
prestigious scholar. Reading Scripture out of context is one such pitfall,
and probably the one most difficult to avoid. A memorable cartoon from
the 1950s shows a young man poring over the pages of the Bible. He says
to his sister: "Don't bother me now; I'm trying to find a Scripture verse
to back up one of my preconceived notions." No doubt a biblical text pried
from its context can be twisted to say something very different from what
its author actually intended.
The Church's criteria guide us here by defining what constitutes the authentic
"context" of a given biblical passage. The first criterion directs us
to the literary context of every verse, including not only the words and
paragraphs that surround it, but also the entire corpus of the biblical
author's writings and, indeed, the span of the entire Bible. The complete
literary context of any Scripture verse includes every text from Genesis
to Revelationbecause the Bible is a unified book, not just a library
of different books. When the Church canonized the Book of Revelation,
for example, she recognized it to be incomprehensible apart from the wider
context of the entire Bible.
The second criterion places the Bible firmly within the context of a community
that treasures a "living tradition". That community is the People of God
down through the ages. Christians lived out their faith for well over
a millennium before the printing press was invented. For centuries, few
believers owned copies of the Gospels, and few people could read anyway
Yet they absorbed the gospelthrough the sermons of their bishops
and clergy, through prayer and meditation, through Christian art, through
liturgical celebrations, and through oral tradition. These were expressions
of the one "living tradition", a culture of living faith that stretches
from ancient Israel to the contemporary Church. For the early Christians,
the gospel could not be understood apart from that tradition. So it is
with us. Reverence for the Church's tradition is what protects us from
any sort of chronological or cultural provincialism, such as scholarly
fads that arise and carry away a generation of interpreters before being
dismissed by the next generation.
The third criterion places scriptural texts within the framework of faith.
If we believe that the Scriptures are divinely inspired, we must also
believe them to be internally coherent and consistent with all the doctrines
that Christians believe. Remember, the Church's dogmas (such as the Real
Presence, the papacy, the Immaculate Conception) are not something added
to Scripture, but are the Church's infallible interpretation of
Putting It All in Perspective
Perhaps the most important context of all we have saved for last: the
interior life of the individual reader. What we get out of the Bible will
largely depend on how we approach the Bible. Unless we are living a sustained
and disciplined life of prayer, we will never have the reverence, the
profound humility, or the grace we need to see the Scriptures for what
they really are.
You are approaching the "word of God". But for thousands of years, since
before he knit you in your mother's womb, the Word of God has been approaching
 Hugh of St. Victor, De arca Noe 2, 8: PL 176, 642: cf. ibid.
2, 9: PL 176, 642-43.
 DV 25; cf. Phil 3:8 and St. Jerome, Commentariomm Isaiah libri xviii,
prol.: PL 24, 17b.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology
| Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of
Suspicion" | James Hitchcock
Enter Modernism | Philip Trower
Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J.
Exploring the Catholic Faith! | An Interview with
What in Fact Is Theology? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
This article has been adapted from the introduction that appears in the Ignatius Study Bible.
The Ignatius Study Bible series provide Commentary, Notes,
and Study Questions by Dr.
Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. Also included are an Introductory Essay,
Topical Essays, Word Studies and Charts. The Introductory Essay covers
questions of authorship, date, destination, structure and themes. The
Topical Essays explore the major themes of the book, often relating them
to the doctrines of the Church. The Word Studies explain the background
to important Bible terms, while the Charts summarize crucial biblical
information "at a glance".
PUBLISHED SO FAR:
Gospel of Matthew
Gospel of Mark
Gospel of Luke
Gospel of John
Acts of the Apostles
1 and 2 Corinthians
Galatians and Ephesians
Philippians, Colossians and Philemon
Thessalonians, Timothy, and Titus
Dr. Scott Hahn, Founder, President and Chairman of the Board of The
St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, is one of the world's most
successful Catholic authors and teachers. He earned his Ph.D. in Systematic
Theology from Marquette University, writing his dissertation on "Kinship
by Covenant: A Biblical Theological Analysis of Covenant Types and Texts
in the Old and New Testaments." His scholarly writing has appeared
in Journal of Biblical Literature, Catholic Biblical Quarterly,
and Currents in Biblical Research.
Dr. Hahn is the general editor of the Ignatius Study Bible and
is author or editor of more than twenty books, including the best-selling
Rome Sweet Home, co-authored with his wife, Kimberly. He has
more than one million books and tapes in print worldwide.
Dr. Hahn holds the Chair of Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation
at Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and is Professor of
Scripture and Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
Curtis Mitch, Research Fellow and Trustee of The St. Paul Center for Biblical
Theology, holds an advanced degree in Theology and Christian Ministry
and is the co-author, with St. Paul Center Founder, Dr. Scott Hahn, of
the acclaimed Ignatius Study Bible, an ongoing project that is being heralded
as a significant development in Catholic biblical studies.
Mitch has published Ignatius Study Bible volumes on each of the Gospels,
the Acts of the Apostles, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and
Ephesians. He has completed work on the remaining books of the New Testament
and is currently working on the Pentateuch. He has also contributed essays
on biblical theology for the popular Catholic For a Reason book
series issued by Emmaus Road Publishers. He has been a guest lecturer
in theology and biblical studies for Franciscan University of Steubenville,
The Institute of Applied Biblical Studies and The Institute for Evangelization.
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