Living the Scriptures: How to Know What the Bible Says When the Experts Fight Like Cats & Dogs
There are lots of reasons why Catholics don´t read the Bible. But this would change if people could really hear God´s word in Scripture. And we can, if we do three simple things.
by David Mills | Source: Catholic.net
The laity, alas, do not read their Scriptures nearly as much as they should, and as the Church keeps telling them to. This is bad for the life of the Church, but I think average Catholics have understandable reasons for leaving their Bibles unread. Not excuses, mind you, but reasons.
Sometimes they see scholars fighting over what the Bible says and assume, quite reasonably, that the rest of us shouldn’t even try to understand it. Many have listened to very confident men and women with “professor” before their name, who told them that the Bible was not to be trusted, and humbly assumed the professor must be right.
At other times, they pick up this very big book, slog through a completely bewildering chapter or two, and give up trying to understand it. It’s a very long book, and it doesn’t seem to have a plot, and it has some poetry that doesn’t rhyme and some very dense theology, especially at the back.
And at yet other times, they can’t see any point in reading it. It doesn’t seem to tell us a great deal that we need to know. We face many difficult questions that aren’t clearly answered in Scripture. When should we go to war? Is it more important to protect the environment or people’s jobs? When, if ever, should we turn off someone’s life-support machine?
All this would change, of course, if people truly heard God’s word in the Scriptures. So what are we to do? How shall we hear God’s word in the Bible?
We must do three simple (but not easy) things. These won’t make us able to understand every difficult passage or successfully counter every new interpretation, but they will give us a confidence in biblical teaching that will sustain us even when we can’t answer an objection. And they will give us a serene certainty in biblical truth that may well prove more effective in changing others’ hearts and lives than any amount of knowledge or skill in debate.
The three things are:
1. Read and study the Bible;
2. Read it from within the Church; and
3. Give yourself to be formed more into the image of Christ.
Read and study
First, read and study the Bible. This means daily and for a significant amount of time, and it means using accurate translations and trustworthy commentaries. It also means mastering the art of meditating upon the Scriptures, which is to read them, think about them, and pray them so that you encounter the Lord in them.
You must read the Bible because the Bible is the source of biblical teaching. As the bishops gathered in the Second Vatican Council said, “in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets his children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the true and everlasting source of spiritual life” (Dei verbum 21).
Since the Bible is the only source of biblical teaching, it is no good basing your life on biblical teaching when you mean the ideas that “everyone I know believes in” or that “I remember from my parents and two years of CCD.” When the serpent slithered up to Eve in the Garden, he asked her if God had really said, “You shall not eat of every tree of the Garden.” The first temptation we ever faced was the temptation to forget, not to deny, the Word of God. If the serpent thought this the most likely temptation to work on us, it undoubtedly is. And he’s undoubtedly still using it.
We protect ourselves from this temptation by following the example of Eve’s counterpart, the Blessed Virgin. As St. Luke’s Gospel says, everyone who heard the shepherds’ testimony to the Christ child “wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:17-18). Notice that “but.” Mary did more than simply wonder. She pondered, reflected, meditated, over and over again. And so, had the serpent asked her “Hath God said?” she would have been able to say, “Yes. Now get thee behind me.” We should imitate our Lady, and hear and then ponder the Word in our hearts.
Pondering, we will begin to understand. For, although the Bible is often difficult to understand, it isn’t too difficult to understand. All the most important truths the Bible teaches really are clear, because the Author wanted to be clear. (Though not necessarily clear on the first — or second or third — reading, or if read without the help of the great saints and scholars and preachers.)
If you read the Bible with a humble and a contrite heart, you will know everything you need to know, even if you will never qualify as a scholar and will never be able to answer the clever arguments of its enemies. You will find it clear and coherent and consistent, however it has looked to you in your days of ignorance.
But how can this be true, when the experts fight like cats and dogs? If you know your Bible, you will begin to see the pattern in the biblical cloth. The cloth has a pattern because it has a Weaver, and you will soon learn to see His hand at work. You will also know that any particular error doesn’t fit the pattern, is a blotch or a rip or a stain. You will know it doesn’t feel biblical, even if you can’t refute it.
To put it another way, by studying the truth you will learn to know the truth when you see it. If you want to know a true Rembrandt from a forgery, you must study true Rembrandts. You do not study forgeries. You learn to distinguish an authentic painting from a very good fraud by studying paintings known to be authentic, with excruciating and time-consuming care.
You will never know Rembrandt’s paintings if you do not spend a lot of time with them. If you study them closely for a long time, though you will never know them with mathematical certainty, you will have trained your eye to recognize a true Rembrandt with confidence. If this seems an unreliable way of judging things, remember that people spend hundreds of millions of dollars on paintings on just such recommendations.
Hear the Word in the Body
So: Read and study the Bible. The second thing to do is to read the Bible within the Church and her teaching tradition, for otherwise you will go wrong. This may seem to contradict my claim that the Bible is clear and coherent and consistent if you read it humbly. It does not, because the man or woman committed to hearing the Word of the Lord will want to hear it within His Body.
If you don’t want to hear it within His Body, you probably don’t really want to hear it. You aren’t really a friend of the Lord if you don’t care what His other friends think. If you want to get to know Him better, you’ll sit down and listen to those who know Him much better than you do.
If you are a friend of the Lord’s, you will rightly assume that only among His friends — in His Body the Church — will you find the authoritative guidance and direction you need, the answers to obscurities and the encouragement to accept the (to worldly minds) unlikely and (to sinful hearts) unappealing. Only in the line of believers going back to the Apostles will you find the insights and discoveries, the accumulated wisdom, the experiments successful and unsuccessful, the testing of truth and error, to balance and correct your own weaknesses, blindnesses, and faults.
We are all in grave danger if we insist on reading the Bible without submitting ourselves to the wisdom of the Church. Because we are sinners we will misread the Bible in our favor. It is easy to use the pages of the Bible to paper over all the mirrors in our house so that we never see ourselves as we really are. And because we are creatures of time and space, we will misread the Bible to fit our assumptions and prejudices and do so without even realizing it.
It should be said here that, although the Scriptures speak clearly, we still need the help of scholars. There is much in the Bible we would never know without their help. Not knowing Hebrew and Greek, most of us couldn’t even read it without their work.
And there is much in their scholarship that can deepen and refine our relationship with the Lord and His people. Some of the most profound students of the Bible are uneducated but saintly men and women, but even they would be more profound students if they had the scholar’s knowledge.
The scholars themselves disagree violently, however, in part because many are believers but many are not. A degree in biblical studies does not guarantee either sanctity or sanity. This makes your own reading even more important. Only by intensively reading the Bible yourself will you be able to discern the godly and helpful scholar whose work you can trust from the unbelieving and destructive scholar whose work you must test very carefully.
So: read and study the Bible, and read and study it within the Church and her tradition. The third, and most difficult, thing to do is to give yourself to be formed more and more into the image of Christ by His Word in His Body the Church.
You will only begin to truly understand the teaching of the Bible when you become like its Author, when He dwells in you, and you in Him. Remember that the risen Christ spent the time before His ascension opening the Scriptures to His disciples. The Lord dwells with us to open His Word to us.
We tend to think that we can just go to the Bible and find out what its says, and then obey it or not as we wish. But that isn’t true. It is the product of a modern way of thinking often called “positivism.” Positivism wrongly applies the methods of science to moral and spiritual things. It assumes that anyone can discern God’s law as easily as he can observe the law of gravity.
“Positivism” fails because it leaves out the human heart. The heart is the instrument through which we see and measure spiritual things. If your heart is corrupt and unredeemed, you won’t be able to see with it. Its subtle flaws will make you see wrongly while thinking you see rightly. It will deceive you like the soft, flattering light of certain clothing stores, which hides flaws the clear bright light of day would reveal.
“Thou shalt not kill” seems absolutely clear, for example. It means “don’t kill.” But in the Middle Ages certain princes decided that it didn’t apply to Muslims in Palestine, and today certain ideologues believe it doesn’t apply to unborn children. The princes saw wrongly because they lusted for power and control, and I suspect the modern ideologues see wrongly for the same reason. Whatever the case, the commandment is still violated and innocent people die.
You can’t come to the Bible as a scientist observing the world with tools that will give the same readings whether you believe or don’t believe. You are the instrument for interpreting Scripture, and how you live your life will determine how accurate and sensitive an instrument you will be. You can distort your own vision so that you do not see what is really there — and never know that you do not see, because it all looks right to you.
What you say to God in the way you live your life determines whether you can hear Him speaking in the Bible. You have to believe it and guide your life by it, have to read it with a humble and a contrite heart, or you will never know with assurance what it says — or, worse, will think it speaks to your comfort when it speaks to your judgment, or the other way round.
In other words, if you want to know what is good, become good. If you want to know what is true, become like Truth Himself. If you want to know what the Bible teaches, you must not only read and study it, and not only read and study it within the Church, but you must become conformed to the image of its Author.
But what of those with whom we try to share God’s Word? How can we convince them when we still don’t know all the answers to their questions? And when the biblical answers to their questions sometimes sound so harsh and unloving and so difficult to follow? How can we convince them that in this very big book which seems so odd and so hopelessly outdated, they will find the strength of faith, the food of the soul, the true and everlasting source of spiritual life?
The answer is, like so many biblical truths, simple but not easy. It requires a lot of us. It requires that we become like Jesus, and this always means taking up a cross. But pain, like His, will bear fruit. As we each become more like our Lord, we will find that our witness for biblical teaching will increase. People are rarely convinced by arguments but are often transformed by love.
David Mills, a senior editor of Touchstone, is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus (Servant/Charis, 2001). This article originally appeared in New Covenant magazine and was revised for Catholic.net.