A Catholic Approach to the Bible: Thoughts for Starting
The first thing to remember about the Bible is that it has been given to all of us. It is not just for scholars or people who are in professions related to religion. The Bible is not always easy to understand, but there are many sources of help available. If we take advantage of some good resources, the Bible will become comprehensible.
Comprehensible, but never fully comprehended! Pope St. Gregory the Great, a leader of the Church at the end of the sixth century, said that the Scriptures are waters in which lambs may wade and elephants may swim. A beginner can read the Gospels and grasp the essential meaning of Jesus’ story (a lamb can wade). Scholars can devote decades to the study of one Gospel or another book of the Bible without ever feeling they have understood all there is to understand (elephants swim). That is the nature of any classic literary piece or work of art—we never do get to the bottom of them. So as we approach the Scriptures, we can recognize that all of us have limited knowledge, and we can help each other to understand.
MORE THOUGHTS ON THE BIBLE
The other ingredient we bring to the Scriptures is ourselves. Each of us has an experience of life and of faith. Our own experiences shape how we look at Scripture and receive its message. Further, when we share our interpretations of the Bible with each other, your experience may open up a way of encountering God in the Scriptures that I had never realized. This is true of cultures as well as individuals. A resident of a Brazilian favela will likely see the Bible through different eyes than a middle class citizen of the U.S.
The most important thing to keep in mind as we read the Bible is that it is designed to change us. It is a collection of testimonies to the action of God in the world: God’s actions of creating the world and holding it in existence; God’s work in liberating a people from slavery and forming them as God’s own; God’s action of offering reconciliation to all by becoming human in Jesus of Nazareth. These testimonies help us understand the relationship we have with God and how that relationship can change how we live in all of our relationships.
WHAT IS THE BIBLE?
The word “bible” comes from the Greek biblia: “books” or “writings.” It is less a book than a collection of books, a library of sorts. These books are, nevertheless, handed on together. It is in the context of the whole collection that we reach our best understanding of the meaning of any particular book for our faith.
The books of the Bible include many different types of writing. As when we read a newspaper or come upon a website, it is important to understand what kind of text we are reading and where it comes from. An editorial is different from a news story or an advertisement or a recipe or a comic strip. We bring a different set of expectations to each. This is why, for example, it is mistaken to expect scientific information from texts written in a pre-scientific age.
WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THE BIBLE?
A previous entry in this series mentioned that the Bible, like many literary classics, seems to have endless capacity to touch people’s lives. Some parts of the Bible—some stories from Genesis, some of the Psalms, or the story of David, for example—rank with the Iliad, Shakespeare or Dante’s Commedia as literary works. But literary quality is not why we read the Bible, and many parts of the Bible are not great literature. So what separates the Bible from other classic texts?
We read the Bible primarily because it witnesses to God’s revelation. That is, through it, God tells us about God and about ourselves so that we may be saved. This can occur because the Bible is inspired—and not only in the sense that we speak of other great works of art as inspired or inspiring. For we claim that the Holy Spirit guided the process by which the Bible came to be written, so that we can say that, in a genuine sense, God is the author (source or originator) of the Scriptures. In a later part of the series we will have more to say about the human dimension of the Scriptures.
CANON OF THE BIBLE
The word “canon” comes from ancient Greek, and it means “a measuring stick.” Originally, the word referred to the rule or standard that the Church used to decide whether a particular book should be included in the Bible. Later, it came to be used for the list of books in the Bible, the books that the Church has judged to be inspired and authoritative.
It is important to note that the various books of the New Testament arose within the Church communities, and it was the Church that determined which were reliable. Many books were written and valued by communities or groups within the Church, but not all of these became part of our New Testament. The process of choosing was complex.
By about 200 a.d., Christians generally agreed that the Gospels, letters of St. Paul, Acts of the Apostles and the First Letters of Peter and John were to be accepted as Scripture on the same level as the Jewish Scriptures. It was not until about 400 a.d. that the present list of 27 New Testament books seem to have been generally accepted. The Council of Trent formally defined the Canon of Scripture for Catholics in 1546.
THE BIBLE IS CANONICAL (PART TWO)
We noted last week that the word “canon” originally meant “measuring stick” in ancient Greek. We saw that the word “canon” is used today for the list of the books in the Bible—the ones that the Catholic Church regards as inspired by God. They are the books that “measured up.”
The Bible is canonical in another sense as well. Because the Scriptures bear witness in an authoritative way to the saving actions of God—and particularly to the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ—they become our touchstone, a standard that guides us in what we believe and do. The Scriptures guide the teaching of the Church. As the bishops of the Second Vatican Council put it: “The magisterium [the teaching authority of the Church] is not superior to the word of God, but is rather its servant.” (Dei Verbum, 10) The words of all of our liturgies are firmly rooted in the Scriptures as well. Through these sources and through our own prayerful reading of the Scriptures alone or with other Christians we can indeed find a guiding standard for living fruitful lives in Christ!
THE BIBLE IS TRUTHFUL
Another way the Bible is unique is that in it we find the truth we need in order to live in God. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council wrote: “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.” (Dei Verbum, 11)
This is a careful statement, and worth reading carefully. Note that it does not say that there is no error of any kind in the Bible or that everything written in the Scriptures is true. It does say that the truths necessary for our salvation may be found in the Bible. It does not attempt to list those truths. How do we find out what they are? By encountering the Word of God within the life of the Church community.
There are many ideas expressed in the Scriptures, and many stories told. It is within the living Tradition of the Church that we discern together which of these ideas are central and which of the stories are to be our models as we allow God’s grace to shape our lives.
THE WORD OF GOD IN HUMAN WORDS
If you ever watch or listen to programs featuring fundamentalists talking about the Bible, you have probably heard the argument. It seems simple and logical. “The Bible is the Word of God. God is truthful. So everything in the Bible must be true.” So Adam and Eve were persons who lived in a garden about six thousand years ago, there really was a person named Methuselah who lived for 969 years, and a prophet named Jonah spent three days inside a large fish shortly before moving the Assyrian king to repentance before the God of Israel.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores the human dimension of the Scriptures. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission put it in a 1993 document, fundamentalist interpretation of the Scriptures “refuses to admit that the inspired Word of God has been expressed in human language and that this Word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the Word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods.”
TRADITION IN THE SCRIPTURES
We saw last week that a literalist, fundamentalist approach to the Scriptures ignores the human dimensions of our sacred writings, treating the Bible as if it were dictated by the Holy Spirit word-for-word to the sacred authors.
The Scriptures, however, are truly human words as well as divine words, and they come to us through that most human of religious activities—they were handed on from generation to generation. This is the process of tradition. The word comes from Latin roots meaning “to give across.”
Many biblical books result from complex patterns of tradition. Spoken stories may be passed on, written down in various forms, gathered, rewritten, edited, and finally collected. For many books, a single author is not easy to identify. Creativity often consisted in adapting traditional materials to the needs of the author’s own community.
This is where modern scholarship has made its mark. Before modern times, the human dimensions of the Scriptures were poorly understood. Today, good biblical studies help us to understand the literary, cultural, and historical background of the texts. By understanding better what a text may have meant to its author or to its first hearers, we can begin to understand more clearly what it might mean for us.
CERTAINTY AND THE BIBLE
Human life is uncertain and troubling. Among all the beauties and joys that we sometimes experience are doubts and fears, danger, illness, and death. As we make our precarious way through life, It is no wonder that we long for certainty. Perhaps this is why it can be so appealing to people to treat the words of the Bible as God’s words only. We want God “straight”, as it were, without any complications. We want a clear word from heaven to tell us what to do.
As understandable as this desire may be, some of its implications are problematic. Let’s leave aside for a moment the presumption that we could take God “straight”! Let’s also leave aside the innumerable complications that are raised by treating the entire Bible as if it came right from the mouth of God.
For the moment, let’s just focus on how God seems to prefer to interact with people. We (sometimes at least) seem to imagine a God far away from us, like a distant emperor, and want to get his directions straight and simple. God, on the other hand, prefers to get mixed up with us in the midst of our human lives.
What evidence do we have of this? We can start with our Lord himself—Jesus Christ—in whom true divinity and true humanity come together. We can look at the reality of the Church community, in which we see divine and human elements thoroughly mixed. And we can read the Bible, in which God’s word comes to us through the words of real human beings.
The bishops at the Second Vatican Council pointed this pattern out: “Indeed the words of God, expressed in human language, are in every way like human speech, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the weak flesh of human beings, became like them.” (Dei Verbum, 13)
We may, amid the uncertainty of life, look to the heavens for a Word thundering from God. What we find instead is a God who insists on being with us, among us, within us, in the middle of all of our troubles, doubts, and fears.
WHAT KIND OF WRITING IS IT?
When we try to understand a Scripture passage, there are several questions we can ask. First, what kind of writing is this? When reading a newspaper, we expect something different from a news story than we expect from a recipe or an opinion piece. If we were to treat a satirical column as a news account, we would get a warped idea of the reality of a situation! It is the same with the Bible. There are dozens of different kinds of writing within this large and ancient collection. Is our passage a story that explains something about the world, such as the Tower of Babel story in Genesis, chapter 11? Is it part of a compilation of laws such as we find in Exodus, chapters 20-23? Is it an oracle of a prophet? Or a legendary story about a great popular figure, such as Samson (Judges 13-16)? Even within one of St. Paul’s letters, we may find passages that explain the mystery of Christ, others that provide moral exhortation, and others that relate to practices for the promotion of orderly life in the Christian community. Knowing what we are dealing with gives us our first step toward understanding what message the passage may bear for us today.
WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
A second question we can ask as we try to understand a passage in the Scriptures is: where does this come from? What is the historical and cultural context of the passage? How can we place it within the “big picture” of the story of Israel and of the Church? Ezekiel’s prophecy regarding the valley full of bones (Ezekiel 37), for example, might just seem like a bizarre vision until we realize that the prophet is speaking to a community in exile, a community whose hopes have been shattered by brutal forces of politics and warfare, a community that is wondering whether God has left it for dead. In context, the image of heaps of bones of dead soldiers that becomes a living, breathing army testifies to God’s continuing commitment to the people of Israel and God’s power to bring life even out of tragedy.
Study aids are greatly useful in learning about the context of Scripture. Any major Catholic publisher will have books on the Bible. Some Catholic bibles come with extensive study materials included. Among them are the Catholic Study Bible, 2nd ed., published by Oxford University Press (ISBN 978-0195297751 for hardcover) and the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible (ISBN 978-0814636480 hardcover). Either of these Bibles has extensive notes, and the former has a reader’s guide of almost 600 pages that considers each book of the Bible. Resources like these give us insight into the world of the Bible so that we may understand it better.
WHAT DOES THIS BIBLE PASSAGE MEAN FOR US?
A third question we can ask of a Bible passage is: what does it mean? As we saw last week, many Bible aids and resources are available to help us understand the cultural or literary background of any Bible passage. These aids help us to understand better what the passage may have meant to the people who originally wrote the passage or originally heard it. The effort clearly involves some guesswork, but we try to make it educated guesswork.
Finally, though, with the original meaning in mind, we come to the crucial question: what does this passage mean for us? What is the Lord calling us to understand or see differently through this inspired Word? There are many resources we can bring to this effort as well. One is the rest of the Bible itself. How is this passage related to other passages in the Scriptures? For the Bible (being, as we have seen, a divine Word that comes to us through human words) speaks with many voices, not just one. How is the passage interpreted in the teaching of the Church or in the writings of holy people in our tradition? How does this passage interact with my own experience of life? Or with the experiences of other believers with whom I study the Bible?
WHAT WILL WE DO WHEN WE HEAR THE WORD OF THE LORD?
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only,” says the letter of James (1:22). This is the final and most important step in our encounter with the Word of God in the Scriptures. The Word moves us to change, to repentance, to a new way of looking at life in which we begin more and more by grace to love as God loves. After we have done our best to understand the meaning of a Bible passage, after we have prayerfully asked what the passage might mean for us, what remains is to act.
As Jesus says at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel: “Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” (Matthew 7: 24-27)
This bulletin series was prepared by staff member Andrew Bechman.
This bulletin series was prepared by staff member Andrew Bechman.