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What the Bible is not



Fr. Peter John Cameron, OP - published on 01/21/23

When we read the Word of God, we must approach it the way we would a person.

This weekend the Church celebrates Word of God Sunday, the aim of which is “to give new life to the responsibility of all believers to deepen their knowledge of Sacred Scripture.”

The priceless gift that the Bible is cannot be overstated. But start with what the Bible is not. The Bible exists not to be a textbook, a history tome, a rulebook, a chronicle, an operation manual, an annals, or an archive. In the words of one prominent Catholic Scripture scholar, “The Evangelists had no intention of providing a shorthand record of what Christ said or a report of his actions such as a police officer might do” (R. Schnackenburg).

Rather, Scripture is the sacred writer’s memory of exceptional facts that happened which the writer re-presents as an announcement so that those saving events might happen to us as well. Through the Sacred Scripture, God wants to communicate his very self with us. Scripture is written the way it is — in literary language as a story, not in dry, technical prose — precisely because Scripture intends to reveal God to us as a person to love. When we read the Word of God, we must approach it the way we would a person.

God speaks to us through Scripture

Scripture itself states that “the Word of God is living and active” (Heb 4:12), and that “the Father willed to give us birth by the word of truth … able to save your souls “(James 1:18, 21). As Paul Claudel put it, “the text breathes.” 

The documents of the Church accentuate this fact: “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children and talks with them” (Dei Verbum 21). “Christ is present in the Word, since it is he himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church…. For in the liturgy God speaks to his people and Christ is still proclaiming his Gospel” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 7, 33).  

St. Gregory the Great points out a mystery that seems impossible: “All Scripture was written for us.” The great spiritual master Fr. Louis Bouyer explains this: 

In the Word of God, it is God who speaks to us, who never ceases to speak to us, in these words. Even though they have been fixed in their phrasing for thousands of years, he who makes us hear them today already had us in mind when he inspired them of old, and he is always present to address himself to us through them as if they were at this instant pronounced for the first time.

Scripture intends to share with us God’s very heart, and to appeal to our heart … targeting its hurts and needs and longings. Scripture is written to move us at the level of our affection, not just at the level of the intellect. “In Scripture,” observed moral theologian Fr. Servais Pinckaers, O.P., “God always approaches us with promises of happiness before speaking of precepts.” Even St. Thomas Aquinas insists that “the doctrine of Sacred Scripture contains not only matters for speculation but also matters to be accepted by the heart.” Which is why “in every Word of God, what matters most is God’s opening his own heart to us in it, and it is by this that our heart should be touched, changed from top to bottom” (L. Bouyer). St. Augustine urges us: “Learn to know the heart of God in the words of God.”

How to read the Bible

This determines the way we are meant to read the Bible. It is never appropriate to dissect or dismantle the Bible piece-by-piece or to try to reduce it to so many propositions, precepts, morals, or maxims. “Scripture will always contain more revelation than is formulated in dogmatic definitions” because “Scripture’s literary ‘modes’ convey the highest truth” (L. Alonso-Schökel). And the meaning Scripture contains is inexhaustible—every time we read it, we unearth deeper riches. 

We know this from our own experience. Whenever we want to express deep-felt truths, we resort to literary modes like metaphor. For example, on a couple’s wedding anniversary, a husband might give his wife an anniversary card that reads, “You make the sky blue.” This is not a meteorological statement — it is a poetic device that attempts to articulate the inexpressible depths of love he has for his spouse. We must read the Bible with the same imagination with which the sacred writer wrote it. 

When we go to read the Bible, it is important to remember this: God intends to enter into a dialogue with us through his Word.

Something we risk taking for granted in everyday life: the fact that God speaks and responds to our questions…. In this dialogue with God we come to understand ourselves and we discover an answer to our heart’s deepest questions…. The Word of God [is] an openness to our problems, a response to our questions, a broadening of our values, and the fulfillment of our aspirations. All Scripture … challenges our life and constantly calls us to conversion. (Verbum Domini 4, 23)

Something we risk taking for granted in everyday life: the fact that God speaks and responds to our questions …

The Word of God: Consolation in our struggles

St. Ambrose asks: “When does God the Word most often knock at your door? He visits in love those in trouble and temptation to save them from being overwhelmed by their trials.” Sacred Scripture exists to be a consolation — literally, “to be called to someone’s side.” Through the Word of God, the Lord consoles us in our sorrows and struggles and solitude by entering it and sharing it with us. “The hands of the Word of God are stretched out to us when we are out of our depth” (St. Gregory of Nyssa).

If we are faithful in giving ourselves to the Word of God, our participation in Scripture’s wisdom increases as our life changes. St. Gregory the Great instructs us that “the divine words grow with one who reads them. Where the mind of the reader is directed, there, too, the sacred text ascends. For it grows with us, it rises with us. When the reader addresses a question to the text, the answer is in proportion to the reader’s maturity.”

St. Thomas Aquinas identifies other effects of reading the Word of God: “The Bible teaches us the truth; it protects us from falling into error; it keeps us from doing evil; and it moves us to do good, because the ultimate effect of Sacred Scripture is that it brings people to perfection.” A 9th-century monk, Ardo Smaragdus, counsels us that prayerfully reading the Bible “sharpens perception, enriches understanding, rouses from sloth, banishes idleness, orders life, corrects bad habits, draws tears from contrite hearts, curbs idle speech and vanity, and awakens longing for Christ and the heavenly homeland.”

The important thing is just to take up the Bible and read, no matter if all you can manage is a passage or two. St. John Chrysostom gives this encouragement: “Even if the scriptural phrase is short, its power is great.” Bring to your reading all your frustrations, anxieties, searching, confusion, expectation, and doubt. The Word of God is a faithful friend, resourceful and generous, ready to listen and respond. As Pope Benedict XVI said so beautifully, 

In the Word of God proclaimed and heard Jesus says today, here and now, to each person: “I am yours, I give myself to you;” so that we can receive and respond, saying in return: “I am yours.” (Verbum Domini 51)

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