How to read Sacred Scripture
By Fr. Mark Georges
Not long ago I came across a very interesting article about Russian icons. They are venerated in a special way and have a respected place in Orthodox liturgy. The beauty of the icon is that it aims to be a portal to a realm that transcends the bounds of space and time. Through what is limited and finite one attains to the unlimited and infinite, from what is bound to the transcendent. One can appreciate that a certain spiritual sensitivity is needed to see an icon. Something similar occurs with Jesus Christ. Through His sacred humanity he reveals to us the Love of the Father and his designs of salvation. His words and gestures are human words and human gestures. They are limited, temporal words and gestures but in the light of faith we understand that they are also divine words and divine gestures by which we are put in touch with the Blessed Trinity.
“I am the Way the Truth and the Life” said our Lord, “No one comes to the Father except through me”. Shortly after this affirmation, Philip asked a question that saddened our Lord somewhat: “Lord show us the Father and that would be enough” Jesus answered, “Philip, he who sees me has seen the Father”.
There is no wonder that the Saints had a longing and a profound desire, to contemplate the Sacred Humanity of Christ. Christ’s humanity, we can say, is like a school where we can learn the lessons of Divine Love.
From the last seat in a large stadium one can see very little. This is why front row seats for important games are so coveted by fans. Similarly to contemplate the Sacred Humanity of Christ we need to get close up. And how can we get close to Jesus? – By reading the gospels and reading them well.
“In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them”.
A little history
Leading up to the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) of the second Vatican Council there were two extremes in approaching the Bible. Two important magisterial documents devoted to biblical studies addressed these polar deviations: the encyclicalProvidentissimus Deus (PD) of Leo XII published in 1893 and the encyclical of Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, (DS) which was issued in 1943.
At the time Pope Leo XII wrote in 1893, the seeds of modernism sown over three centuries were aggressively springing up everywhere, menacing Christian culture. In the field of exegesis (interpretation of scripture), the invasion of modernism appeared forcefully, and not a few scholars were deeply influenced. Schools of exegesis arose which brought to bear faulty presuppositions in biblical interpretation. Some authors, for example, considered as a rule that all which refers to the divinity of Christ was derived from myths concerning Jesus in the early Christian community. They claimed that this supposition was necessary for scientific research. PD called for more study to counteract this overly liberal approach. Leo XII upheld the principle that Faith and Reason are complementary and encouraged further research in a true scientific spirit, open to transcendent truths and action. The magisterial document was very effective in stimulating study and the underlying incoherencies of the harmful theories were brought to light. A moral dimension to exegetical investigation was also highlighted stressing the importance of a prayerful attitude and a sincere struggle for holiness in order to understand the sacred text more deeply. Furthermore, the pope explained, as the biblical texts have been entrusted to the community of believers, it is illusory to believe that one can better understand it outside the mainstream of a great tradition.
In the years following PD, there arose an influential school of biblical interpretation that opposed the use of science by exegetes, seeking to impose a non-scientific, so called “spiritual” interpretation of the Sacred Scripture. Divino Afflante Spiritu was primarily concerned with defending Catholic interpretation from this error. This “mystical” method considered the words of the Bible as absolute and so the linguistic and cultural contexts of the writings would be mostly irrelevant for interpreting Scripture. From this perspective the sacred text has no need to answer to questions posed by reason, such as the need for coherency and unity. The Magisterium of the Church intervened to reaffirm the harmony between faith and reason. The Word of God is like human language in every way except error, and so the study of the literary genres and human circumstances of the text should not be neglected.
A turning point in the history of biblical interpretation took place during the second Vatican Council. Unlike the councils that preceded it Vatican II was more pastoral than apologetic. The Church sought a deeper understanding of itself and its activity in the context of the modern world. The Document on Divine Revelation from the Council, Dei Verbum, while reaffirming the teachings of the previous encyclicals, opened broader horizons for approaching Sacred Scripture in the spirit of the early Church fathers. Dei Verbum highlighted personal engagement with Scripture as a fundamental form of a relationship with God and this biblical orientation extends to the work of preaching, formation and evangelization. In the light of the Council a central question emerges– How should we read the Bible?
Much has transpired since the council, a good synopsis of which can be found in an important document from the pontifical biblical commission: The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1993. Here we present a few pointers that are useful for the average reader of Scripture.
In a recent address to the participants in an International Congress in Rome, the Holy Father recalled his own participation in the lively discussion that accompanied the drafting of the Conciliar document on Divine Revelation and drew attention to the emphasis placed on listening. “The Church is a community that listens to and proclaims the Word of God”, he affirmed. In this context he called to mind and recommended the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina. “The assiduous reading of Holy Scripture accompanied by prayer”, he explained, “brings about that intimate colloquy where by reading we listen to God who speaks and in prayer, we respond to Him with confident openness of heart”.
A great difficulty today in approaching the sacred text lies in the fact that the modern mind has been shaped by a philosophy that seeks to impose rather than to listen and learn. In the clarification of the errors of Modernism that Pope Leo XII so heroically undertook, much remains to be done. Its roots go back to Descartes in the 17th century, who concluded that whatever one captured clearly and distinctly in the mind would necessarily be real by Divine decree. Building on this principle philosophers have successively disregarded listening to nature and to God in favour of a harsh Voluntarism. They devise elaborate intellectual systems which are then imposed on reality, violently if necessary. Nature and its language, God and his revelation, are considered hidden, inaccessible and irrelevant. In this model there can be no Lectio Divina.
It is interesting to observe that this attitude can be found as far back as the gospel era. The Scribes and Pharisees distorted the meaning of Sacred Scripture even though they were supposed to be experts. They forced the inspired writings into their own narrow minded schemes. Jesus accused them of putting aside the true meaning of the Law for human precepts. Neither did they practice what they preached which merited their harsh condemnation by Christ as hypocrites.
Lectio Divina implies an attitude of openness to reality and the ability to be surprised, captivated and awed before something unexpected and in some way mysterious. For this it is necessary the cultivation of several human virtues, in the first place humility.
A person who is humble will be willing to listen, learn and change, trusting in God despite the personal sacrifices entailed. Jesus Christ encouraged his followers to imitate little children in their simplicity and trust. What is hidden from the wise and learned is revealed to little ones (Mt 11:25). To illustrate the importance of this virtue one can consider, for example, the moral message of the gospels. It is a demanding one for Jesus asks that we leave all things, denying one’s very self in order to follow him (Mk 8:34-38). Persons who make themselves the centre of everything will stubbornly refuse to modify their opinions and plans and much less to give their very selves for love, in obedience to Gods will. In these circumstances, the moral message, so central to the gospels, can only be grasped in a superficial way if at all. A symptom of tending in this direction is the willingness to entertain esoteric interpretations of the gospels that are clearly opposed to the fundamental teachings of the Church. Reading the Sacred text is not about making novel connections but rather becoming identified with Christ in the concrete circumstances of ones life.
In the act of reading several instruments must be activated to unfold the potential of the text. It is much more than the mere line by line decoding of written symbols. As one advances in the text one recalls something read a few pages earlier, and new expectations are opened up which await reply. A world of references is built up; there is brought into being the “world of the text” about which the text is speaking.
When dealing with Sacred Scripture this reading takes place in the Church with the guidance that is provided not only by the text itself but also by the Holy Spirit. These make up the world of the text for the Christian reader who, when reading, has present the content and the unity of the entire Scriptures, the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith, that is, the inner harmony which exists among the truths of the faith themselves (Compendium CCC,19).
An important guideline emerges from the consideration of these philosophical and theological principles. Reading the Scriptures, when properly done, ought to be accompanied by what is traditionally called Catechesis. It is by means of this activity that the reader may obtain the important elements of theology which he or she must have present. Many excellent resources are available in this area, most importantly the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its summary version, the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Every adult Catholic reader of Sacred Scripture should have and study these documents.
Living the text
Commenting on the Passion of our Lord, St. Josemaría wrote: “To read is to recall something that happened in the past, to live is to find oneself present at an event that is happening here and now”. For this modern day Saint the deeper prayer and contemplation of God that ought to accompany reading takes place in the context of living the text. Some effort is needed to apply one’s imagination and understanding but this is well within the reach of the average reader. Part of living the text, therefore, involves a skill that has to be learned which, like all skills, requires practice, effort and perseverance. A strategy that can help here is to learn from the experiences of others. In other words, by reading the commentaries on Scripture of great spiritual writers, their style of approaching the gospels can be assimilated in a natural way. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, used and recommended Compositio Loci. It involves picturing the circumstances in ones imagination and filling in the details that would impact on all the senses. The late John Paul II had a talent for using methods from public speaking and theatre which clearly come out in his writings. He suggested their use as a methodology that corresponds to the logic of the Incarnation itself: “God wished to assume in Jesus, human features”, he affirmed, so that “by means of his corporeal reality we enter into contact with his divine mystery” (RVM 29). The Bible itself teaches us about using such methods in the manner in which the Jews and the early Christians celebrated the central events in the history of salvation. A great deal of preparation and effort went into re-enacting the scenes as they would have occurred.
While the great spiritual writers offer much in terms of skill and method, they are above all teachers in contemplating the gospels. “You will be captivated like Mary who hung on every word that Jesus uttered”, wrote St. Josemaría, “or, like Martha, you will boldly make your own worries known to him, opening your heart sincerely about them no matter how little they may be”. This is the full meaning of living the text. Commenting on St. Josemaría advice, the renowned biblical scholar, Francisco Varo wrote: “he is not inviting the reader to travel in his imagination to recreate a story in the distant past, rather we are asked to contemplate today’s world, the world lying before each of us, and go to the Sacred Text as a point of reference to evaluate our own experience in its true supernatural dimension”.
We could call the bible the never-ending book since once we finish it, we can simply begin again, drawing new lights and insights for our daily life from it. It must certainly be our favorite book for there we get to know better our favorite person, Jesus Christ. A practical guideline is to systematically read and meditate upon the Gospels for at least a few minutes each day. It is most important that we learn how to listen to the Word, to live it and bring it into our own lives. Over time we will find the stories of the Bible, especially the New Testament, as familiar as the story of our own life. This is further enriched by our efforts to understand more deeply the teachings of the Church and to be better acquainted with the writings of great spiritual authors. A good complement to the daily reading of Sacred Scripture therefore, is to dedicate some time each day – ten to fifteen minutes for example – to the reading of a spiritual book, normally recommended by ones spiritual director.
The 40th anniversary of Dei Verbum has just been celebrated. Like the ringing of a bell this significant occasion is a call to promote more widely – universally – the practice of reading the Word of God. Adequate tools for this broad apostolate need to be developed and made available. All Christians have a part to play which starts with their own commitment to read the Bible and to read it well.
Fr Mark Georges is an alumnus of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and the University of Navarre (Faculty of Theology). He is now based in Trinidad and Tobago.