God’s Word in Human Terms: The Catholic Scriptural Tradition

January 20, 2021

This coming Sunday (Jan. 24, 2021), the Church will be celebrating the newly instituted feast, Sunday of the Word of God. In Pope Francis’ apostolic letter, Aperuit Illis (AI) (which is a reference to Luke 24:45 where the resurrected Jesus appeared to a pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures”), given in September of 2019, the bishop of Rome reminds the Church of how important understanding the scriptures is to being who we are. He says it is “essential to our identity as Christians” (AI 1). The collection of sacred texts that we now call the bible has been the quintessential cornerstone of Western culture. Our laws, art, architecture, and history has been deeply influenced by these divinely revealed words. Even to the professed non-religious, it is important to reckon our current worldviews with that expressed by scripture.

As the Church has continued to develop her understanding of the scriptures, the wealth of commentary and theology produced about it has put today’s Church in a bit of a conundrum. Perhaps this was the conundrum that Martin Luther was partly reacting to when writing the thesis on sola scriptura. Between all the words written about scripture and all the words of scripture itself, not to mention the Church’s treasury of papal encyclicals, conciliar documents, catechisms, spiritual treatises, et cetera; where should the beginner begin? Needless to say, it can be a little overwhelming. Here are a few tips for those looking to heed the Pope’s urging and engage the scriptures a little more meaningfully, but are not sure where to start:

  • Begin with Prayer
    • Having a lively personal relationship with God is important when it comes to this particular endeavor. Growing in understanding of the scriptures is like growing a garden. It requires patience, giving one’s due diligence, persistent effort, and the humility to recognize where “God gives the growth” (I Cor. 3:7). Prayer is essential because the Holy Spirit we ask for the gift of understanding God’s Word is the same Spirit that breathed these words into the prophets and human writers. Prayer engages us with the understanding that the bible was inspired (more on the meaning of Divine inspiration below). Having that personal relationship with God as a foundation to relating to God through scripture will be important for those times where understanding scripture is difficult. It is an immediate application of what one reads because scripture is ultimately a record of Israel’s experience of God.
  • Read with the Church
    • One of the common stumbling blocks to engaging a study of scripture is the conviction that because it is God’s Word and because God’s Word is infallible, that our understanding of it is also infallible. That’s a fallacy. There is a world that surrounds scripture that instigated its writing, influenced its images and language, and has been reflected on by every generation of people since. The Church of today in solidarity with previous generations invites every reader to read with that historical consciousness. That is why we cannot read these texts in isolation. Such reading is bound to misunderstand. Here are a few quick mentions of ways to read with the Church:
      • Read Church documents ABOUT her general understanding of the bible–develop a theology of the bible. Dei Verbum, Verbum Domini, and AI mentioned above help. And check their footnotes. These writings are important for properly situating the scriptures in our lives against the background of the entire faith experience. These tips are essentially an echo of what is contained there.
      • Fr. Mitch’s Bible in a Year Podcast sounds really solid and good. I have not had a chance to check it out myself but there is not quite anything like having a living expert walk you through something like this. Programs where interactivity is possible can be tremendously helpful.
      • For those more advanced in the study of scripture, engage the commentaries written by the Church Fathers, Doctors of the Church, and scholars of today. St. Thomas Aquinas’ multi-volume work, Catena Aurea (The Golden Chain) is a commentary on the Gospels wherein he draws upon what various patristic era writers have written about a particular verse or story. The cultures in which the ancient fathers of the Church understood scripture is less removed from our own and may act as the “missing link” between the cultural context of scripture and that of today.
  • Read with Historical Awareness
    • The scriptures are more accurately described as a collection of works as opposed to a single book. The actual times of writing the earliest and most recent texts of scripture span over a thousand years, and the most recent text was written almost 2,000 years ago. Historical context is important to keep in mind when trying to understand a story, event, or prayer. A first step should be to grasp how the authors understood their experiences of God before trying to grasp the implications for us today.
    • Having a cultural sensitivity is also important here because the world and its political-social structures are very different from the various times of scripture. The history of Israel contained in scripture is a case-study story of a nation. It speaks of tribes, judges, laws, kingdoms, and scribes in a time before the United Nations, the conception of human rights, and the Geneva convention. There are nations mentioned that simply do not exist anymore. The more world history you know, the better.
    • Also, unless you are reading in the original Greek or Hebrew, there are also translation concerns. The scriptures were written at a time before punctuation was invented. So encountering some of the run-on sentences of St. Paul for example raises questions of meaning even for those versed in ancient Greek. I am not proposing one need to learn either of these languages in order to begin reading scripture (although, more power to you if you decide to do that). Sometimes to get at the meaning of a particular verse or phrase, it can be helpful to read multiple translations in the same language. There are different approaches to translation, literal and dynamic, and both can be helpful.
  • Take Your Time
    • There are times where I’ve spent hours researching and flipping pages around in the bible or a commentary on the bible just to better understand a few verses. Just because you may not be keeping up with the lectionary or Fr. Bob’s reading itinerary does not mean you cannot stop and smell the proverbial roses from time to time. My Old Testament professor encouraged her students to stick with a particular passage for extended amounts of time because that is where the deep learning and understanding happens.
    • Taking this step together with “reading with the Church” pays spiritual dividends because not only is one reading God’s word, but also how St. Jerome and St. Thomas Aquinas, for examples, understood that same word. Suddenly, you’re part of the communion of saints, on the way to becoming a saint yourself.
    • Pay attention to the concordance and footnotes and follow those bread crumbs. Scholars have poured millions of hours into the study of scripture over the centuries the fruit of which humbly sit in fine print at the bottom of the page. Those little bits of information are gold nuggets. They make connections that we never would have imagined. Through them one could connect obscure and little known passages in, say, Leviticus with various instances in the crucifixion story of Christ and suddenly something makes a lot more sense. Though written by several authors over several centuries, because it is inspired by the same God, it has these connections that God wants us to see (more on this in a future post).
    • Just know that this “extra time” of study is a form of prayer. The desire and act of seeking to know is a way of Christian meditation.

Scripture is not some esoteric collection of writings magically inscribed on silver tablets that are invisible unless you are a mystically gifted “seer” chosen by God. The whole point of divine revelation is so that ALL can and would know who God is and what God has done. The inventions of writing, the printing press, and, now, the internet–the means of preserving cultural memories–greatly serve this purpose of making scripture available to all. These texts that were at various points in history only available to the educated minority is now accessible (practically speaking) to anyone with the least bit of effort. The Word of God in scripture is capable of truly opening the mind. It is a story of humanity, a story of how human beings went from wilderness wanderers to kingdoms. Of course, I’d be lying if I did not desire others to believe in the ultimate propositions of scripture, but regardless of the result, it is undeniably important to understand our society today to have read this story of a people.

In preparation for Word of God Sunday, I will be posting one or two more posts about tips for reading of scripture that I find helpful. These tips can bring a person to a higher order of understanding together with the guidelines already mentioned here. The Catholic Church has a rich tradition of reading scripture that is little talked about, frequently eclipsed by the hot-button topics of our day. If you’d like to be notified by email when those posted are published you can subscribe to this blog. If you have any questions or comments feel free to drop a line.

Questions, thoughts or comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: