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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,
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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