Avoiding Biblical Paralysis: Sacred Scripture and the Modern
by Curtis A. Martin
(Typically, we as readers stand in judgment over the books we
read, deciding for ourselves whether to accept or reject the
assertions that we encounter: But the Scriptures- because they
are written by God- stand in judgment over the reader; calling us
into a life-transforming relationship with the ultimate Author;
our Heavenly Father.)
Who has never experienced frustration trying to read the Bible?
The Book itself is fairly imposing, with more than 1,000 pages and
seldom a picture. The characters seem to be right out of the Iliad
and the Odyssey: "Mizraim became the father of Ludim and Anamin
and Lehabim and Naphtuhim" (Gen. 10:13). Trying to read through
the sacred text can lead to more perspiration than inspiration. So
what is the layman to do? Many people read modern commentaries or
even take classes on the Bible, looking for some helpful hints on
how to crack open the sacred page and begin to experience the joy,
the wisdom, and the life-transforming effects of which the saints
and so many of our evangelical friends speak. This is usually
where the problems begin.
A typical "Introduction to the Bible" course practically involves
learning a new language and a new alphabet. For example, instead
of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books),
we are told that J, E, P and D are the real authors. Just when one
becomes acquainted with the prophet Isaiah, we are told that there
are two of them, then three. The novices who thought that Matthew
wrote the first gospel, are then told no, it was Mark, actually Q
(or Q1, Q2, and Q3 for the more advanced!. Just when the letters
of St. Paul are beginning to become instructive, someone points
out that they are not all really his. What are the Catholic
faithful to make of this convoluted mess? Every new piece of
information only seems to call attention to how little we can
It is not always easy to discern how modern scholarship can be
reconciled with the official teachings of the Church. A recent
article in pointed out that most scholars
doubt the historical nature of many passages in Scripture: "[M]ost
U.S. Catholic scholars now generally view the Infancy narratives-
the visit of the magi, the flight into Egypt, the massacre of the
innocents-as religious legends created by the evangelists, or
their sources, to convey theological truths about Christ"
(Hutchinson, "The Case for Christmas," , p.
This position not only runs counter to what many Catholics had
always thought to be true, but it also seems difficult to
reconcile with magisterial teaching. For example, in his , Pope St. Pius X cites the following statement as an
example of the Modernist heresy: "In many narrations the
Evangelists recorded, not so much things that are true, as
things which, even though false, they judged to be more profitable
for their readers" (, no. 14, 1907). The average
Catholic wants to be well-informed and intelligent, but also to be
faithful. From my own studies it is far from clear how the two
positions can come together. It almost seems as though some
biblical scholars are suffering from doctrinal amnesia.
But even if modern scholarship could be harmonized with the
official teachings of the Church, it still is missing the point.
Vatican II encourages us to interpret Scripture thoughtfully and
carefully, to make use of human wisdom and scholarship (cf. , no. 12). However, it appears to the average layman that
the scholars have become more interested in their "scholarship"
than in what the Bible actually says, as though their "eyeglasses"
are more important than the world those eyeglasses were designed
to help them see. The Bible itself warns that some of its passages
are not easy to understand (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16), but some modern
scholars make the enterprise seem impossible.
I remember teaching seventh grade catechism several years ago. One
night we were to discuss the Gospel of St. John. The teacher's
manual began, "Be sure to stress to the students that the Apostle
John was not the author of the fourth Gospel." Even if this were
true-the Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its findings of 1907,
stated that St. John must be acknowledged as the author-this is
not catechesis. Here is the tragedy: In St. John's Gospel we have
many wonderful teachings, including the most compelling
explanation of the Eucharist (Jn. 6), the institution of the
Sacrament of Confession (Jn. 20:23), some of the clearest
teachings on the divinity of Christ (e.g., Jn.1:1-18; 8:58), and
many profound passages found nowhere else. But all of these things
were supposed to take a backseat, so that I could stress to the
students that St. John did not write the Gospel of St. John. How
does this help young people to deepen their faith in Jesus Christ
and his Church? Even if it were true, it is relatively trivial.
The confusion seemed unnecessary to me. As a fallen-away Roman
Catholic, it was by reading the Protestant Bible that I came to
see that the true Bible Church was in fact the Church of the
Bible: Roman Catholicism. As a recent "revert," I quickly began to
see that reading the Bible as a Catholic involved many apparent
challenges and difficulties. I wanted to be faithful to the Church
that I had rediscovered to be the
mystical Body of Christ, but the "experts" seemed to be taking the
Bible right out of my hands. Thank God for sacred Tradition and
the Magisterium! The more I listened to the modern scholars, the
more confused and frustrated I became. I decided to go to the
source. By studying what the Church had said in her official
documents, it became clear that it was her desire for all
Catholics to be Bible Christians, and all Bible Christians to be
I have come to discover five basic principles which allow us lay
people to read the Bible as Roman Catholics and maximize the
profit we can gain from the sacred page. I will now share these
principles with you, and then look at a couple of ways in which we
might be able to begin our own personal study of the Word of God
in Scripture, so that this "grand source of Catholic revelation
[may] be made safely and abundantly accessible to the flock of
Jesus Christ" (Pope Leo XIII, , no. 2,
1. The Truth Will Make You Free: Biblical Inspiration and
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for
reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that
the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2
The first point is to realize that sacred Scripture is the very
Word of God. As the substantial Word of God became like to men in
all things, "except sin," so the words of God, expressed in human
language, are made like to human speech in every respect, except
error (Pope Pius XII, , no. 37, 1943).
The Bible is different from all other books because it is inspired
by God. But it is important to understand what the Church means by
this "inspiration." She does not mean that the Bible is
necessarily inspirational, although it often is. Rather, the
Scriptures are referred to as inspired because they are literally
God-breathed. "For the sacred Scripture is not like other books.
Dictated by the Holy Spirit, it contains things of the deepest
importance" (, no. 5). As the book of
Hebrews says, "the Word of God is living and active and sharper
than any two-edged sword" (Heb. 4:12). The fact that Scripture is
God's very words becoming the words of men gives it an inner
dynamism which differentiates it from all other books. The
Scriptures possess a reliability in which we may place our trust
about what we are to believe and how we are to act. This
reliability is based upon what the Church calls inerrancy.
"[H]aving been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,
[the books of the Bible] have God for their author and as such
were handed down to the Church herself.... [This is a] Catholic
doctrine by which such divine authority is claimed for the 'entire
books with all their parts' as to secure freedom from any error
whatsoever" (, introduction).
The Bible's inerrancy is based on God's trustworthiness, who can
neither deceive nor be deceived. This trustworthiness
distinguishes the Bible from all other books (cf. , no. 12). Typically, we as readers stand in judgment over
the books we read, deciding for ourselves whether to accept or
reject the assertions that we encounter. But the Scriptures-
because they are written by God-stand in judgment over the reader,
calling us into a life-transforming relationship with the ultimate
Author, our Heavenly Father. The sacred Scriptures, read in light
of sacred Tradition and with the guidance of the Magisterium,
provide that firm foundation on which we can build a life of faith
and support for our daily lives (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15). Biblical
inspiration and inerrancy are the fundamental principles upon
which biblical interpretation rests.
The Lord's words are true; for him to say it, means that it is.
Again, "'Scripture cannot lie'; it is wrong to say Scripture lies,
no, it is impious even to admit the very notion of error where the
Bible is concerned" (Pope Benedict XV, , no.
An example of this commitment to the sacred page not only extends
to all the saints, but to our Lord himself, who quoted from all
parts of the Scripture with solemn testimony: "The Scripture
cannot be broken" (Jn. 10:35). This is the commitment we too will
need if we want to experience the fruits that Our Lord has
intended for "hearers of his Word."
2. As You Sow, So Shall You Reap: The Importance of Sound
"[S]o shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not
return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thin" for which I sent it" (Is. 55:11).
The prayerful and careful reading of the Scriptures will always
prove itself to be a profitable use of time. This does not mean,
however, that reading the Bible is easy or simple. The sacred
Scriptures are like a large lake, sufficient for anyone to come
and drink fully, but deep enough for anyone to drown. This is the
way God has designed the Bible, to encourage us to dig deep and to
dig humbly. While the Church encourages us to read the Bible, it
calls us to read carefully. Special attention should be paid to
the text so that we might discern the intention of the sacred
writer. This includes noting the literary form, or genre, of the
text: Is it poetry, a parable, or a narration? The nature of the
text will affect the meaning of the passage:
"[I]t is the duty of the exegete, to lay hold, so to speak, with
the greatest care and reverence of the very least expressions
which, under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, have flowed
from the pen of the sacred writer, so as to arrive at a deeper and
fuller knowledge of his meaning" (, no.
Proper care and willingness to always examine our understanding in
light of the teachings of the Church will help us to avoid the
opposing errors of fundamentalism and skepticism.
The Bible works something like a chamois, a leather cloth used to
dry a car when washing it. A chamois needs to be moist in order to
absorb moisture. This is the paradox for the biblical student: We
need to know the Bible in order to get to know the Bible better.
This means that in our first reading we may miss many elements and
aspects which a later reading will show us. But God has designed
the Scriptures so that the faithful reader will be able to get
something every time he studies it.
One helpful hint may be to begin on more familiar ground. The
ideal starting place for devotional reading may be the Gospel of
St. John in the New Testament. The Gospels are more familiar to
us. We hear them at Mass every week, even daily if we attend. The
characters of the New Testament are also more familiar to us, such
as Mary and the apostles. A commitment to read a portion each day
will lead us quickly through the New Testament, and then we may be
ready to go back to the beginning.
The Old Testament is admittedly more difficult. The names, places,
and events can be foreign to the modern reader. I recommend a tape
series by Dr. Scott Hahn entitled "Salvation History." In these
tapes Dr. Hahn provides a framework within which we can begin to
make sense of the Old Testament salvation history. This framework
offers a "filing cabinet" in which we can begin to store the
information as we read it, almost like a computer disk which needs
to be formatted before information can be stored on it.
Most of all, we must avoid the temptation to become frustrated.
There will be things we will not fully understand. When we
encounter these difficulties, we should realize we are in good
company: "Whosoever comes to [Scripture reading] in piety, faith,
and humility, and with determination to make progress in it, will
assuredly find therein and will eat the 'Bread that comes down
from heaven' (Jn. 6:33 ); he will, in his own person, experience
the truth of David's words: 'The hidden and uncertain things of
Thy Wisdom Thou hast made manifest to me!"' (Ps. 51:6) (, no. 43).
Pope Benedict XV also acknowledges: "[St.] Jerome was compelled,
when he discovered apparent discrepancies in the sacred books, to
use every endeavor to unravel the difficulty. If he felt that he
had not satisfactorily settled the problem, he would return to it
again and again, not always, indeed, with the happiest results"
(ibid., no. 15, emphasis added).
As with any craft, there are many tools which can be used to
maximize the profitability of our reading. First and foremost
among these tools is the regular and consistent reading of the
sacred page itself. St. Jerome taught, "Read assiduously and learn
as much as you can. Let sleep find you holding your Bible, and
when your head nods let it be resting on the sacred page" (ibid.,
Only after we have read and reread the sacred page ourselves can
we effectively make use of other tools. There are modern
commentaries on all of the New Testament put out through the
Navarre Study Series by Scepter Press. Dr. Hahn has a number of
commentaries on audiotape on various books of the Bible. There are
several official documents put out by the Magisterium on the topic
of sacred Scripture (Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pius X, Pope Benedict XV,
Pope Pius XII, Vatican II, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission
before Pope Paul removed its magisterial status). There are also a
number of other study guides available for more serious
investigation, such as concordances, Bible dictionaries, biblical
encyclopedias, etc. But these tools, while helpful, can never
replace the daily, personal reading of sacred Scripture. The Word
of God is that pearl of great price which deserves all of our
3. For the Sake of Our Salvation: The Purpose of Sacred Scripture
"The Church ... has always regarded, and continues to regard, the
Scriptures taken together with sacred
Tradition as the supreme rule of faith" (, no. 21).
In its dogmatic constitution , literally "the Word of
God," the Second Vatican Council provides the gemstone of official
Church teachings on the sacred Scripture. Building upon the firm
foundation of other magisterial teachings, the Council Fathers
remind us of the ultimate reason for God's gift of sacred
Scripture: "It pleased God, in His goodness and wisdom, to reveal
Himself and to make known the mystery of His will. His will was
that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the
Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in
the Divine Nature" (, no. 2).
All of the truths about Scripture and each of the truths contained
in the Scripture lead to the Gospel, the good news, that the
almighty and ever living God has freely chosen first to create us
and then reveal himself to us as a loving Father, through the work
of our divine Savior Jesus Christ, and desires to draw us back
into his divine favor through the sanctifying power of the Holy
Spirit. All of the wisdom and insights which may be gleaned from
the Scriptures pale in comparison to this over-arching truth. In a
beautiful and central passage of , the Church teaches:
"Since, therefore, all that the inspired authors, or sacred
writers, affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit,
we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly,
faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the
sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred
Scriptures" (, no. 11).
This passage has one of the longest footnotes of any of the
Vatican II documents. This footnote bears witness to the rich
tradition upon which the Catholic perspective of the Word of God
is based. The footnote contains references to St. Augustine, St.
Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, Pope Leo XIII, and Pope Pius
XII, each affirming the inspiration, inerrancy, and importance of
the sacred Scriptures for the Church and the individual Christian.
These truths provide the framework within which we understand the
Bible within the Church. It is inspired by God, literally "God-
breathed," and therefore completely trustworthy. It is rich in
content and meaning, and deserves our zealous and diligent study.
It is an expression of the gift of God of His very self to
humanity, and is provided to us for the sake of our salvation.
4. The New in Light of the Old: Analogy of Scripture "God, the
inspirer and author of the books of both Testaments, in His wisdom
has so brought it about that the New should be hidden in the Old,
and that the Old should be made manifest in the New" (, no. 16).
The complete canon of Scripture includes 73 books. But as the
teaches, there is an inner
unity which also allows us to refer to the Bible as a single book:
"Be especially attentive 'to the content and unity of the whole
Scripture.' Different as the books which comprise it may be,
Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God's plan, of
which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since His
Passover" (, no. 112).
This principle of interpretation is called the analogy of
Scripture. The analogy of Scripture allows us to see how the
plans, promises, and covenants of the Old Testament salvation
history are realized and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ
and the foundation of the Roman Church. Salvation history, viewed
in this light, allows us to see that "His story" becomes "our
story." This realization allows us to read the Scriptures with a
new-found interest. What may have appeared to be an obscure story
now becomes our family history. St. Paul states: "For whatever was
written in former days was written for our instruction, that by
steadfastness and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might
have hope" (Rom. 15:4).
When viewed in this light, the Scriptures invite us in and provide
us with a God-given worldview. We become acquainted with "the
eternal purpose which he carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord"
(Eph. 3:1 1). We have become "fellow citizens with the saints and
members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the
apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone"
(Eph. 2:19-20). It is with this knowledge and through the life of
prayer which must accompany it that we may begin to make sense of
our lives and our role in the modern world. Vatican II provides
that "Christ fully reveals man to himself" (, no.
22), and without this Christ-centered knowledge of self we have no
hope of living the life that God intends for us.
5. Faith of Our Fathers: Analogy of Faith
"So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which
you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us" (2
A final interpretive principle allows us to experience the breadth
and length and height and depth of the fullness of the Roman
Catholic Faith. This principle is called the analogy of faith, and
is described in the : "Read the
Scripture within 'the living Tradition of the whole Church.'
According to a saying of the Fathers, sacred Scripture is written
principally in the Church's heart..." (, no. 113). The
analogy of faith is based on the fact that "sacred Tradition and
sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of
God, which is entrusted to the Church" (, no. 10).
This deposit of faith is given by God and entrusted to the Church,
"the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). The analogy
of faith is the secret weapon of the Catholic Church. If we as
Catholics were to realize in our lives the analogy of faith, we
would become suitable laborers in the work of authentic Christian
The unity among Christians willed by God can be attained only by
the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its
entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is a contradiction with
God who is Truth (Pope John Paul II, , no. 18).
It was the discovery of this interpretative principle which led me
back to the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Bible is the very
Word of God given in the words of men, there is still room for
human error and misinterpretation. In the book of Acts, the deacon
Philip comes across an Ethiopian eunuch who is reading a passage
from the sacred Scriptures, and Philip asks him, "Do you
understand what you are reading?" and the eunuch replies, "Well,
how could I unless someone guides me?" (cf. Acts S:30-31). There
are more than 25,000 different Christian denominations, each
claiming the Bible as their rule of faith. So without someone to
guide us, we would be unable to discern the authentic meaning of
the sacred page. St. Jerome illustrates this point, stating: "What
I have learned I did not teach myself-a wretchedly presumptuous
teacher!-but I learned it from illustrious men in the Church"
(, no. 36).
Many sincere Christians disagree on biblical interpretation. For
example, should our Lord be taken literally when He says, "Truly,
truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (Jn. 6:53)? Imagine
how much insight we could gain if we could speak with St.
John himself and ask him what he understood our Lord to mean.
Well, this is exactly what the Fathers of the Church were able to
do. St. Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of St. John, and St.
Ignatius is not silent on the subject. He writes in his letter to
the church of Antioch, "They [the heterodox] do not confess that
the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ, flesh
which suffered for our sins in which the Father in His goodness
raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in
When I discovered the analogy of faith, I realized that I was no
longer left to my own devices and subject to my own limitations in
trying to discover the fullness of faith. Rather, I was able to
enter into a "dialogue" with other faithful followers of Jesus
Christ. And I also had the wise and anointed leadership of the
Magisterium, the servant and teacher of God's word. For the
Catholic, the riches of the Bible are open completely. We have the
very word of God, in Tradition and in Scripture, as preserved and
proclaimed by the Teaching Church. This means that Catholics among
all Christians should be the most biblical.
Some people are concerned that by reading the Bible we may fall
away from the Church. But what I have seen is quite the opposite.
Catholics who read the Bible within the Church help others to come
into the Church. Catholics who are ignorant of Scripture are
easily drawn away to a "Bible church," which rightly focuses on
the importance of the Word of God, but does so outside of its God-
given context, the family of God, the Church.
TWO WAYS TO START
There are many styles and methods of studying the sacred
Scriptures. The most basic is an inductive Bible study: to go to
the very words of Scripture and allow them to teach you. As a
Catholic, this must be done in light of the five principles of
interpretation already mentioned. These principles allow us to
read the Bible with freedom and confidence, knowing that if we
encounter something that we do not understand or that seems to
contradict the Church, we will humbly defer and allow the Church
to guide us into the right interpretation. The Gospels may be the
most fruitful subject for this inductive approach. In them, we are
confronted by the very words and person of Jesus Christ, who
invites us to repent and believe, and challenges us to live, not
for the sake of this world, but for the sake of the world to come.
Seemingly, every passage of Scripture is an invitation to have our
lives transformed by God. St. Paul writes, "I appeal to you,
therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies
as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your
spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be
transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what
is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom.
Another type of study is a deductive study, in which we allow a
topic or a teaching to lead us into the Scriptures to show us its
foundation and its biblical principles. Perhaps the most useful
guide for a deductive study is the . The is filled with scriptural references, so
much so that one modern theologian accused it of citing the Bible
in a "fundamentalist way" (E. A. Johnson, "Jesus Christ in the
Catechism," , p. 208, 3/3/92).
To read articles of interest in the and then to follow
the references into the sacred Scriptures allows you to interact
with the teachings of the Faith in the way the
intends. In a certain sense, the is not the last word in Catholic teaching, but rather the
first word, leading us to deeper study through the extensive
references and footnotes. It is a wonderful synthesis of teachings
flowing from the sacred Tradition of the Fathers, saints, church
councils, and especially the sacred Scriptures, which embody the
very soul of sacred theology, the study of God. By utilizing these
principles and techniques, we lay people can avoid the confusion
which sometimes surrounds modern Catholic biblical studies.
Theories will come and theories will go, but the official teaching
of the Catholic Church provides us with a reliable guidepost to
lead and transform us into the children of God we have been called
Curtis Martin holds a Masters degree in Theology from the
Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is President of
Catholics United for the Faith. He is a featured speaker for The
Institute of Applied Biblical Studies, founded by Dr. Scott Hahn.
Curtis and his wife Michaelann live in Steubenville, OH, with
their children, Brock 5, Thomas 3, Augustine 1, and MariAna.
This article was taken from the Mar-Apr. 1996 issue of "Catholic
Dossier". Catholic Dossier is published bi-monthly for $24.95 a
year by Ignatius Press. For subscriptions: P.O. Box 1639,
Snohomish, WA 98291-1639, 1-800-651-1531.