Avoiding Biblical Paralysis: Sacred Scripture and Today's Catholic | Curtis A. Martin | Ignatius Insight | Part Two | Part One
3. For the Sake of Our Salvation: The Purpose of Sacred Scripture
"The Church ... has always regarded, and continues to regard, the Scriptures taken together with sacred Tradition as the supreme rule of faith" (Dei Verbum, no. 21).
In its dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum, literally "the Word of God," the Second Vatican Council provides the gemstone of official Church teachings on the sacred Scripture. Building upon the firm foundation of other magisterial teachings, the Council Fathers remind us of the ultimate reason for God's gift of sacred Scripture: "It pleased God, in His goodness and wisdom, to reveal Himself and to make known the mystery of His will. His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the Divine Nature" (Dei Verbum, no. 2).
All of the truths about Scripture and each of the truths contained in the Scripture lead to the Gospel, the good news, that the almighty and ever living God has freely chosen first to create us and then reveal himself to us as a loving Father, through the work of our divine Savior Jesus Christ, and desires to draw us back into his divine favor through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. All of the wisdom and insights which may be gleaned from the Scriptures pale in comparison to this over-arching truth. In a beautiful and central passage of Dei Verbum the Church teaches: "Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" (Dei Verbum, no. 11).
This passage has one of the longest footnotes of any of the Vatican II documents. This footnote bears witness to the rich tradition upon which the Catholic perspective of the Word of God is based. The footnote contains references to St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius XII, each affirming the inspiration, inerrancy, and importance of the sacred Scriptures for the Church and the individual Christian.
These truths provide the framework within which we understand the Bible within the Church. It is inspired by God, literally "God- breathed," and therefore completely trustworthy. It is rich in content and meaning, and deserves our zealous and diligent study. It is an expression of the gift of God of His very self to humanity, and is provided to us for the sake of our salvation.
4. The New in Light of the Old: Analogy of Scripture
"God, the inspirer and author of the books of both Testaments, in His wisdom has so brought it about that the New should be hidden in the Old, and that the Old should be made manifest in the New" (Dei Verbum, no. 16).
The complete canon of Scripture includes 73 books. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, there is an inner unity which also allows us to refer to the Bible as a single book:
"Be especially attentive 'to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.' Different as the books which comprise it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since His Passover" (Catechism, no. 112).
This principle of interpretation is called the analogy of Scripture. The analogy of Scripture allows us to see how the plans, promises, and covenants of the Old Testament salvation history are realized and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ and the foundation of the Roman Church. Salvation history, viewed in this light, allows us to see that "His story" becomes "our story." This realization allows us to read the Scriptures with a new-found interest. What may have appeared to be an obscure story now becomes our family history. St. Paul states: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Rom. 15:4).
When viewed in this light, the Scriptures invite us in and provide us with a God-given worldview. We become acquainted with "the eternal purpose which he carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:1 1). We have become "fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone" (Eph. 2:19-20). It is with this knowledge and through the life of prayer which must accompany it that we may begin to make sense of our lives and our role in the modern world. Vatican II provides that "Christ fully reveals man to himself" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 22), and without this Christ-centered knowledge of self we have no hope of living the life that God intends for us.
5. Faith of Our Fathers: Analogy of Faith
"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us" (2 Thes. 2:15).
A final interpretive principle allows us to experience the breadth and length and height and depth of the fullness of the Roman Catholic Faith. This principle is called the analogy of faith, and is described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Read the Scripture within 'the living Tradition of the whole Church.' According to a saying of the Fathers, sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart..." (Catechism, no. 113). The analogy of faith is based on the fact that "sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church" (Dei Verbum, no. 10). This deposit of faith is given by God and entrusted to the Church, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). The analogy of faith is the secret weapon of the Catholic Church. If we as Catholics were to realize in our lives the analogy of faith, we would become suitable laborers in the work of authentic Christian unity.
The unity among Christians willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is a contradiction with God who is Truth (Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, no. 18)
It was the discovery of this interpretative principle which led me back to the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Bible is the very Word of God given in the words of men, there is still room for human error and misinterpretation. In the book of Acts, the deacon Philip comes across an Ethiopian eunuch who is reading a passage from the sacred Scriptures, and Philip asks him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" and the eunuch replies, "Well, how could I unless someone guides me?" (cf. Acts S:30-31). There are more than 25,000 different Christian denominations, each claiming the Bible as their rule of faith. So without someone to guide us, we would be unable to discern the authentic meaning of the sacred page. St. Jerome illustrates this point, stating: "What I have learned I did not teach myself-a wretchedly presumptuous teacher!-but I learned it from illustrious men in the Church" (Spiritus Paraclitus, no. 36).
Many sincere Christians disagree on biblical interpretation. For example, should our Lord be taken literally when He says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (Jn. 6:53)? Imagine how much insight we could gain if we could speak with St. John himself and ask him what he understood our Lord to mean. Well, this is exactly what the Fathers of the Church were able to do. St. Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of St. John, and St. Ignatius is not silent on the subject. He writes in his letter to the church of Antioch, "They [the heterodox] do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins in which the Father in His goodness raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes."
When I discovered the analogy of faith, I realized that I was no longer left to my own devices and subject to my own limitations in trying to discover the fullness of faith. Rather, I was able to enter into a "dialogue" with other faithful followers of Jesus Christ. And I also had the wise and anointed leadership of the Magisterium, the servant and teacher of God's word. For the Catholic, the riches of the Bible are open completely. We have the very word of God, in Tradition and in Scripture, as preserved and proclaimed by the Teaching Church. This means that Catholics among all Christians should be the most biblical.
Some people are concerned that by reading the Bible we may fall away from the Church. But what I have seen is quite the opposite. Catholics who read the Bible within the Church help others to come into the Church. Catholics who are ignorant of Scripture are easily drawn away to a "Bible church," which rightly focuses on the importance of the Word of God, but does so outside of its God- given context, the family of God, the Church.
Two Ways to Start
There are many styles and methods of studying the sacred Scriptures. The most basic is an inductive Bible study: to go to the very words of Scripture and allow them to teach you. As a Catholic, this must be done in light of the five principles of interpretation already mentioned. These principles allow us to read the Bible with freedom and confidence, knowing that if we encounter something that we do not understand or that seems to contradict the Church, we will humbly defer and allow the Church to guide us into the right interpretation. The Gospels may be the most fruitful subject for this inductive approach. In them, we are confronted by the very words and person of Jesus Christ, who invites us to repent and believe, and challenges us to live, not for the sake of this world, but for the sake of the world to come.
Seemingly, every passage of Scripture is an invitation to have our lives transformed by God. St. Paul writes, "I appeal to you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom. 12:1-2).
Another type of study is a deductive study, in which we allow a topic or a teaching to lead us into the Scriptures to show us its foundation and its biblical principles. Perhaps the most useful guide for a deductive study is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism is filled with scriptural references, so much so that one modern theologian accused it of citing the Bible in a "fundamentalist way" (E. A. Johnson, "Jesus Christ in the Catechism," America, p. 208, 3/3/92).
To read articles of interest in the Catechism and then to follow the references into the sacred Scriptures allows you to interact with the teachings of the Faith in the way the Catechism intends. In a certain sense, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not the last word in Catholic teaching, but rather the first word, leading us to deeper study through the extensive references and footnotes. It is a wonderful synthesis of teachings flowing from the sacred Tradition of the Fathers, saints, church councils, and especially the sacred Scriptures, which embody the very soul of sacred theology, the study of God. By utilizing these principles and techniques, we lay people can avoid the confusion which sometimes surrounds modern Catholic biblical studies.
Theories will come and theories will go, but the official teaching of the Catholic Church provides us with a reliable guidepost to lead and transform us into the children of God we have been called to be.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the March/April 1996 issue of Catholic Dossier.
Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:
"A Word Addressed by God to His People": Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Introduction to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's God's Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office | Peter Hünermann and Thomas Södin
God, The Author of Scripture | Preface to God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology | Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.
The Old Testament and the New Testament | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Going Deeper Into the Old Testament | An Interview with Aidan Nichols, O.P.
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue | From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | From You Can Understand the Bible | Peter Kreeft
Introduction 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 | From Truth and Turmoil: The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church | Philip Trower
Singing the Song of Songs | Blaise Armnijon, S.J.
Curtis Martin is the President and Founder of FOCUS [http://focusonline.org/], the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, one of the fastest growing programs in the Catholic Church. Curtis Martin holds a Masters degree in Theology from Franciscan University. He is co-host of the ground-breaking show Crossing the Goal, on EWTN and author of Made For More. He is co-author of Boys to Men: The Transforming Power of Virtue and Family Matters: A Scripture Study on Marriage and Family as well as a contributing author of Catholic for a Reason, Vols. I, II, III and IV. He was awarded the inaugural Excellence in Evangelization award by Envoy magazine. In 2004 Curtis and his wife Michaelann were awarded the Benemerenti Medal by Pope John Paul II for their outstanding service to the Church. He serves as an adjunct professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado. Curtis and his beautiful wife Michaelann live in Greeley, Colorado with their eight children.
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