Why Study the Bible?
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
To mark National Bible Week – November 18-24, 2018 in the USA, here's a video to let you know why it's important to know the Bible! As we look back over the sweeping changes in the life of the Church following Vatican II, we can never underestimate the important relation that exists between liturgy and the interpretation of the Bible. This relation is directly linked to the Church fathers who were first and foremost men of prayer, even when they were writing their learned treatises and pursing their theological investigations. They were never far from the Church’s worship. In the liturgy they came to know Christ no so much as a historical figure from the past, but as a living person present in the Eucharist. When they opened their bibles, they discovered this same Christ not only in the writings of the evangelists and St. Paul but also in the Old Testament. In the liturgy the words of the Scripture are alive and filled with the mystery of Christ.
The Church and the Word of God are inseparably linked. The Church lives on the Word of God and the Word of God echoes through the Church, in her teaching and throughout her life (cf. "Dei Verbum," n. 8).
It is accurate to say that the Bible provided a lexicon of words for Christian speech and the liturgy a grammar of how they are to be used. This must always be a guiding principle in our own efforts to make God’s Word come alive for the Church today. If we read biblical texts and teach them only for their historical and philological accuracy or inaccuracy, we fail to read the Bible as a book of faith that is the privileged possession of a living, breathing, praying community. We forget that the Bible is more like a library than a single book.
In spite of its many accomplishments, a strictly historical approach to the Bible can only give us a medley of documents from different times and places in the ancient world. It cannot give us the book of the Church, the Scriptures as heard by Christians for centuries, the psalms imprinted on the Church’s soul, the words and images that bear witness to the Trinity.
The key to biblical criticism is the recognition that, while the Scriptures are the word of God, they do not escape the limitations of history. It is not surprising that since then that several generations of Catholic biblical scholars has devoted themselves to catching up. Nor is it surprising that there have been excesses and criticisms along the way. The question is to what extent scientific methods of Scripture study should be used, as opposed to a more spiritual reading of the Bible. As one who has taught Scripture for many years, nothing that can help us understand the Biblical text should be excluded, just as long as we keep clear what the purpose of the different approaches are, and what their limits are as well.
How can we make Scripture once again the “soul of theology” and bridge this growing divide between those who study scripture, those who teach theology, and those who are preparing for ministry in the Roman Catholic Church? How can the hearts of our students and pastoral ministers, and the faithful to whom they will minister, be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs people to touch the text of his words?
I would like to suggest three ways to move beyond the impasse and offer two examples of great Scripture scholars of our time who integrated the historical-critical method and their Catholic faith in remarkable ways.
The “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”, a major document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission from 1993 emphasized the historical-critical method and accorded it primacy of place among the different methods and approaches discussed. The commission called this method “indispensable” and insisted that the proper understanding of the Bible “not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.” But this important Vatican document also speaks of the importance of “actualization,” a term that is new to church documents on Scripture. This term, transposed from the original French text, comes from actualiser, meaning “to make present to today.”
To realize the potential of actualizing the word, however, requires a change of attitude and reconsideration of the biblical formation we are presently offering in our seminaries, Faculties of Theology and universities. Actualization is necessary because biblical texts were composed in response to past circumstances and in a language conditioned by the time of their composition. Interpreting Scripture for today must not be a matter of projecting opinions or ideologies on the text, “but of sincerely seeking to discover what the text has to say at the present time.” Actualization, unlike strict historical-critical exegesis, demands personal faith as a prerequisite and concerns itself with the religious meaning of the Bible. According to the commission, “the Church depends on exegetes, animated by the same Spirit as inspired Scripture… .”
Another way of moving beyond the impasse is to rediscover the art of Lectio Divina, “divine or holy reading”, the continuous reading of all the Scriptures, in which each book and each section of it is successively read, studied and meditated on, understood and savoured by having recourse to the whole of biblical revelation, Old and New Testament. Thanks to this simple adherence to and humble respect for the whole biblical text, Lectio divina is an exercise in total and unconditional obedience to God who is speaking to human beings who are listening attentively to the Word.
Lectio Divina does not select passages suited to themes and subjects already previously chosen with a view to needs or tastes already felt or noticed by the reader or the community engaged in the reading. It does not adopt the method of "biblical themes" but prefers to keep away from any theological picking and choosing from the message of the Bible. It starts with the Word of God and follows it step by step from beginning to end. Lectio Divina presupposes and takes seriously the unity of all the Scriptures.
The point of departure of Lectio Divina is "wonderment", a spirit which is accompanied by listening, silence, adoration of the divine mystery and placing oneself in front of Scripture as the Word of God. It is an ideal from which we are very far removed. Current methods of teaching Scripture do not encourage wonderment, reverence, listening, silence and adoration of the mystery of God and his divine communication with human beings.
The secret of the success of using Lectio Divina lies in the fact that we do not offer students, parishioners, young adults a philological lexicon, a catechism lesson or even a homily but rather the necessary means for them to put themselves face to face with the text so that they can try out lectio divina for themselves. Lectio divina prepares us for an encounter with the living Lord.
Experiencing the Holy Land: the Fifth Gospel
A final suggestion of moving beyond the impasse in contemporary Scripture teaching is to offer the Holy Land as a backdrop and stage for the Biblical story. It is essential to tell the biblical story in the context of a long pilgrimage against the background of the Holy Land. It is even more important to go to the land and let it speak. The Holy Land is the Fifth Gospel, the key to understanding the other four!
The psalmist praises those whose hearts are "set on pilgrim roads" (Ps. 84:5). We who are entrusted with the ministry of teaching and preaching Scripture must help others to prepare themselves to make the journey "as pilgrims". Tourists pass quickly through places, but the places pass slowly through pilgrims, leaving them forever changed. Teaching the Scriptures without reference to the Holy Land, or without fostering, encouraging, and, when possible, leading others to visit it, is to tell only part of the story of the Bible.
All of the best biblical renewal programs in the world, the most eloquent Vatican documents, vision statements, and even the most current analyses of the future of the church can never substitute for the hope, power and strength of the Word of God in our individual and communal Christian lives. Documents, statements and catechisms might never renew us, but the Word of God, especially experienced in its natural habitat will.
Contemporary Scripture studies have been a great blessing to the academy and the Church. I would like to pay tribute to two remarkable individuals known to all of us, and who were good friends, professors and mentors to me. The late Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. and the Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown, S.S. In Frs. Stuhlmueller and Brown I observed three outstanding qualities at work, which may be instructive for other pastoral ministers and students of Scripture in their own biblical research, teaching and preaching.
First was their ability to present the Bible in an accessible way, as a "user-friendly" book or library. Both men often recounted basic principles they learned in their youth: "Read the Bible as we would listen to a friend." Reading as a listener implies an openness to hear what is being said and an attitude of expectancy; listening as to a friend implies a large measure of confidence that the message will ultimately be a helpful guide for living, and sometimes for specific situations. Of course, one listens to a friend critically, that is, with the full use of one's faculties, education and experience. By the same token, in the Catholic tradition, one never undertakes Scripture studies to master or criticize the Word, but to be mastered and criticized by it. There is a way in which we must allow the Word of God to read us.
Second was their ability to present the Biblical story as a pilgrimage, a set of stories for the long haul. How well I can still hear Fr. Stuhlmueller saying these words on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem or sitting by the lake in Galilee as we directed Scriptural renewal programs for priests and pastoral ministers in the Holy Land! After all, what is the story of our salvation if not the passage from the Paradise Lost in Genesis to the Paradise found, and symbolized beautifully, in the New Jerusalem of John's wild dream in Revelation?
Third is the ability to see how Scripture is vivified in prayer and liturgy. For it is in the silent adoration of prayer and in the congregation's act of worship in liturgy that the Bible comes alive. Liturgy reveals the fruits of scholarship. Hence, we must ask ourselves if our teaching and preaching leads others into celebration, prayer and adoration of the Lord of history? Or has our reliance on scientific methods and writings only compounded the confusion already found in the world?
May Fathers Stuhlmueller and Brown intercede for each of us as we study and pray God’s life-giving Word. And may our hearts be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs us to touch the text of his words.