Avoiding Biblical Paralysis: Sacred Scripture and Today's Catholic | Curtis A. Martin | Ignatius Insight
Who has never experienced frustration trying to read the Bible? The Book itself is fairly imposing, with more than 1,000 pages and seldom a picture. The characters seem to be right out of the Iliad and the Odyssey: "Mizraim became the father of Ludim and Anamin and Lehabim and Naphtuhim" (Gen. 10:13). Trying to read through the sacred text can lead to more perspiration than inspiration. So what is the layman to do? Many people read modern commentaries or even take classes on the Bible, looking for some helpful hints on how to crack open the sacred page and begin to experience the joy, the wisdom, and the life-transforming effects of which the saints and so many of our evangelical friends speak. This is usually where the problems begin.
A typical "Introduction to the Bible" course practically involves learning a new language and a new alphabet. For example, instead of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books), we are told that J, E, P and D are the real authors. Just when one becomes acquainted with the prophet Isaiah, we are told that there are two of them, then three. The novices who thought that Matthew wrote the first gospel, are then told no, it was Mark, actually Q (or Q1, Q2, and Q3 for the more advanced! Just when the letters of St. Paul are beginning to become instructive, someone points out that they are not all really his. What are the Catholic faithful to make of this convoluted mess? Every new piece of information only seems to call attention to how little we can (really) know.
It is not always easy to discern how modern scholarship can be reconciled with the official teachings of the Church. It was widely reported a few years ago that most scholars doubt the historical nature of many passages in Scripture: "[M]ost U.S. Catholic scholars now generally view the Infancy narratives—the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, the massacre of the innocents-as religious legends created by the evangelists, or their sources, to convey theological truths about Christ" (Hutchinson, "The Case for Christmas," Catholic Twin Circle, p. 10, 12/24/95).
This position not only runs counter to what many Catholics had always thought to be true, but it also seems difficult to reconcile with magisterial teaching. For example, in his Syllabus of Errors, Pope St. Pius X cites the following statement as an example of the Modernist heresy: "In many narrations the Evangelists recorded, not so much things that are true, as
things which, even though false, they judged to be more profitable for their readers" (Lamentabili Sane, no. 14, 1907). The average Catholic wants to be well-informed and intelligent, but also to be faithful. From my own studies it is far from clear how the two positions can come together. It almost seems as though some biblical scholars are suffering from doctrinal amnesia.
But even if modern scholarship could be harmonized with the official teachings of the Church, it still is missing the point. Vatican II encourages us to interpret Scripture thoughtfully and carefully, to make use of human wisdom and scholarship (cf. Dei Verbum, no. 12). However, it appears to the average layman that the scholars have become more interested in their "scholarship" than in what the Bible actually says, as though their "eyeglasses" are more important than the world those eyeglasses were designed to help them see. The Bible itself warns that some of its passages are not easy to understand (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16), but some modern scholars make the enterprise seem impossible.
I remember teaching seventh grade catechism several years ago. One night we were to discuss the Gospel of St. John. The teacher's manual began, "Be sure to stress to the students that the Apostle John was not the author of the fourth Gospel." Even if this were true-the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its findings of 1907, stated that St. John must be acknowledged as the author—this is not catechesis. Here is the tragedy: In St. John's Gospel we have many wonderful teachings, including the most compelling explanation of the Eucharist (Jn. 6), the institution of the Sacrament of Confession (Jn. 20:23), some of the clearest teachings on the divinity of Christ (e.g., Jn.1:1-18; 8:58), and many profound passages found nowhere else. But all of these things were supposed to take a backseat, so that I could stress to the students that St. John did not write the Gospel of St. John. How does this help young people to deepen their faith in Jesus Christ and his Church? Even if it were true, it is relatively trivial.
The confusion seemed unnecessary to me. As a fallen-away Roman Catholic, it was by reading the Protestant Bible that I came to see that the true Bible Church was in fact the Church of the Bible: Roman Catholicism. As a recent "revert," I quickly began to see that reading the Bible as a Catholic involved many apparent challenges and difficulties. I wanted to be faithful to the Church that I had rediscovered to be the mystical Body of Christ, but the "experts" seemed to be taking the Bible right out of my hands. Thank God for sacred Tradition and the Magisterium! The more I listened to the modern scholars, the more confused and frustrated I became. I decided to go to the source. By studying what the Church had said in her official documents, it became clear that it was her desire for all Catholics to be Bible Christians, and all Bible Christians to be Roman Catholics.
I have come to discover five basic principles which allow us lay people to read the Bible as Roman Catholics and maximize the profit we can gain from the sacred page. I will now share these principles with you, and then look at a couple of ways in which we might be able to begin our own personal study of the Word of God in Scripture, so that this "grand source of Catholic revelation [may] be made safely and abundantly accessible to the flock of Jesus Christ" (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, no. 2, 1893).
1. The Truth Will Make You Free: Biblical Inspiration and Inerrancy
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The first point is to realize that sacred Scripture is the very Word of God. As the substantial Word of God became like to men in all things, "except sin," so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except error (Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, no. 37, 1943).
The Bible is different from all other books because it is inspired by God. But it is important to understand what the Church means by this "inspiration." She does not mean that the Bible is necessarily inspirational, although it often is. Rather, the Scriptures are referred to as inspired because they are literally God-breathed. "For the sacred Scripture is not like other books. Dictated by the Holy Spirit, it contains things of the deepest importance" (Providentissimus Deus, no. 5). As the book of Hebrews says, "the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12). The fact that Scripture is God's very words becoming the words of men gives it an inner dynamism which differentiates it from all other books. The Scriptures possess a reliability in which we may place our trust about what we are to believe and how we are to act. This reliability is based upon what the Church calls inerrancy.
"[H]aving been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, [the books of the Bible] have God for their author and as such were handed down to the Church herself.... [This is a] Catholic doctrine by which such divine authority is claimed for the 'entire books with all their parts' as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever" (Divino Afflante Spiritu, introduction).
The Bible's inerrancy is based on God's trustworthiness, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. This trustworthiness distinguishes the Bible from all other books (cf. Lamentabili Sane, no. 12). Typically, we as readers stand in judgment over the books we read, deciding for ourselves whether to accept or reject the assertions that we encounter. But the Scriptures- because they are written by God-stand in judgment over the reader, calling us into a life-transforming relationship with the ultimate Author, our Heavenly Father. The sacred Scriptures, read in light of sacred Tradition and with the guidance of the Magisterium, provide that firm foundation on which we can build a life of faith and support for our daily lives (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15). Biblical inspiration and inerrancy are the fundamental principles upon which biblical interpretation rests.
The Lord's words are true; for him to say it, means that it is. Again, "'Scripture cannot lie'; it is wrong to say Scripture lies, no, it is impious even to admit the very notion of error where the Bible is concerned" (Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, no. 13, 1920).
An example of this commitment to the sacred page not only extends to all the saints, but to our Lord himself, who quoted from all parts of the Scripture with solemn testimony: "The Scripture cannot be broken" (Jn. 10:35). This is the commitment we too will need if we want to experience the fruits that Our Lord has intended for "hearers of his Word."
2. As You Sow, So Shall You Reap: The Importance of Sound Interpretation
"[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thin" for which I sent it" (Is. 55:11).
The prayerful and careful reading of the Scriptures will always prove itself to be a profitable use of time. This does not mean, however, that reading the Bible is easy or simple. The sacred Scriptures are like a large lake, sufficient for anyone to come and drink fully, but deep enough for anyone to drown. This is the way God has designed the Bible, to encourage us to dig deep and to dig humbly. While the Church encourages us to read the Bible, it calls us to read carefully. Special attention should be paid to the text so that we might discern the intention of the sacred writer. This includes noting the literary form, or genre, of the text: Is it poetry, a parable, or a narration? The nature of the text will affect the meaning of the passage:
"[I]t is the duty of the exegete, to lay hold, so to speak, with the greatest care and reverence of the very least expressions which, under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, have flowed from the pen of the sacred writer, so as to arrive at a deeper and fuller knowledge of his meaning" (Divino Afflante Spiritu, no. 15).
Proper care and willingness to always examine our understanding in light of the teachings of the Church will help us to avoid the opposing errors of fundamentalism and skepticism.
The Bible works something like a chamois, a leather cloth used to dry a car when washing it. A chamois needs to be moist in order to absorb moisture. This is the paradox for the biblical student: We need to know the Bible in order to get to know the Bible better. This means that in our first reading we may miss many elements and aspects which a later reading will show us. But God has designed the Scriptures so that the faithful reader will be able to get something every time he studies it.
One helpful hint may be to begin on more familiar ground. The ideal starting place for devotional reading may be the Gospel of St. John in the New Testament. The Gospels are more familiar to us. We hear them at Mass every week, even daily if we attend. The characters of the New Testament are also more familiar to us, such as Mary and the apostles. A commitment to read a portion each day will lead us quickly through the New Testament, and then we may be ready to go back to the beginning.
The Old Testament is admittedly more difficult. The names, places, and events can be foreign to the modern reader. I recommend a tape series by Dr. Scott Hahn entitled "Salvation History." In these tapes Dr. Hahn provides a framework within which we can begin to make sense of the Old Testament salvation history. This framework offers a "filing cabinet" in which we can begin to store the information as we read it, almost like a computer disk which needs to be formatted before information can be stored on it.
Most of all, we must avoid the temptation to become frustrated. There will be things we will not fully understand. When we encounter these difficulties, we should realize we are in good company: "Whosoever comes to [Scripture reading] in piety, faith, and humility, and with determination to make progress in it, will assuredly find therein and will eat the 'Bread that comes down from heaven' (Jn. 6:33 ); he will, in his own person, experience the truth of David's words: 'The hidden and uncertain things of Thy Wisdom Thou hast made manifest to me!"' (Ps. 51:6) (Spiritus Paraclitus, no. 43).
Pope Benedict XV also acknowledges: "[St.] Jerome was compelled, when he discovered apparent discrepancies in the sacred books, to use every endeavor to unravel the difficulty. If he felt that he had not satisfactorily settled the problem, he would return to it again and again, not always, indeed, with the happiest results" (ibid., no. 15, emphasis added).
As with any craft, there are many tools which can be used to maximize the profitability of our reading. First and foremost among these tools is the regular and consistent reading of the sacred page itself. St. Jerome taught, "Read assiduously and learn as much as you can. Let sleep find you holding your Bible, and when your head nods let it be resting on the sacred page" (ibid., no. 42).
Only after we have read and reread the sacred page ourselves can we effectively make use of other tools. There are modern commentaries on all of the New Testament put out through the Navarre Study Series by Scepter Press. Dr. Hahn has a number of commentaries on audiotape on various books of the Bible. There are several official documents put out by the Magisterium on the topic of sacred Scripture (Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pius X, Pope Benedict XV, Pope Pius XII, Vatican II, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission before Pope Paul removed its magisterial status). There are also a number of other study guides available for more serious investigation, such as concordances, Bible dictionaries, biblical encyclopedias, etc. But these tools, while helpful, can never replace the daily, personal reading of sacred Scripture. The Word of God is that pearl of great price which deserves all of our attention.
Read Part Two of "Avoiding Biblical Paralysis: Sacred Scripture and Today's Catholic"
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