What keeps us from studying Scripture? An interview with Jeff Cavins
By TCA Editors
Jeff Cavins is adult formation minister at the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, Minn., where he leads what may be the nation’s largest weekly Bible study (more than 2,500 members). Raised a Catholic, Jeff left the Church for several years and became an evangelical Protestant pastor, but he eventually returned to the Church. Since then his desire has been to help other Catholics become more familiar with Scripture through books, seminars, tape series and broadcast media, both television and radio. He is host of “The Great Adventure,” a 24-week Bible timeline seminar created to acquaint Catholics with the narrative “big picture” of the Scripture.
TCA: You left the Catholic Church for several years to join an evangelical Protestant denomination. Was there something about the way evangelicals used the Bible that appealed to you and influenced your decision to leave the Church and join them?
Jeff Cavins: The way my evangelical Protestant friends used the Bible wasn’t the primary reason I left the Catholic Church, but it certainly was one of the attractive things that led me that direction. When I went to evangelical churches, I noticed that everybody had a Bible with them. And not only did they have a Bible, but they had marked in their Bible, which meant that they had some kind of relationship with it, that they were familiar with it.
The idea that people could get their arms around the Bible, could be close to it in a personal way, was very attractive to me. It made me ask myself: If the Bible is so important, why aren’t we Catholics reading it, carrying it with us and discussing it in our homes?
I also found it attractive that evangelicals could easily quote certain Scripture texts as they related to practical problems and everyday situations. For example, if they were feeling overwhelmed at work, then they would quote St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). They always tried to bridge the gap between the problems in their lives and a particular scriptural text.
TCA: Why do you think evangelical Protestant seem so much more at ease than Catholics with studying and quoting the Bible?
Cavins: Evangelicals tend to offer simplistic answers from the Bible for complicated problems in their lives. I think that makes them feel more comfortable with the Bible, because it seems to them so easy to make use of the book. A parishioner thinks: If I have a difficult problem in my life, and my pastor has given me the answer to it in 15 minutes by reading the Bible, then I should do the same, and rely on it myself.
We have to keep in mind as well the typical Protestant conviction that all you really need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit to know the will of God. The Scripture is clear, they insist, a closed system that interprets itself, so you don’t need anything else to understand it correctly, such as Sacred Tradition or the Sacred Magisterium. The Holy Spirit is in your heart, and He will help you come to the right conclusion about the meaning of the text.
TCA: Of course, there are great dangers in that approach.
Cavins: Yes. Evangelicals don’t have many objective rules for scriptural interpretation. They usually ask simply, “What is God showing me through this text?” So the sky is the limit for what that can mean.
Because of this problem, there can easily be misinterpretations — yet no one can authoritatively say, “That’s not a correct interpretation,” because there is no objective authority. The reader needs only respond, “Well, that’s what God is showing me.” How do you answer that?
Sometimes, too great a familiarity can breed in evangelicals the attitude that the Bible is a sort of “magic” book of formulae for their use. If you can say the right biblical verse, if you can “confess” it right, certain things will happen, and God is bound to do what you want.
Yet another problem is that when people become thoroughly familiar with the Bible, they may simply quote memorized passages out of context as a way to “prove” notions that aren’t really scriptural. Again, when they do, they have no formal authority to correct them.
This casual approach to the Bible neglects the historical way the Church has approached Scripture. People may buy a Bible, go home to read it and in a couple of months conclude that they are now Bible experts. They think they can find a text to apply to every situation, yet they neglect 2,000 years of cumulative wisdom, knowledge and interpretive skill.
TCA: What are the greatest obstacles to Catholics who want to deepen their understanding of Scripture?
Cavins: One of the greatest obstacles — what comes up immediately in their minds — is this question: How can I know that my interpretation will be correct? I grew up in an era when we mostly looked to our parish priest to interpret the Gospel. So it never really dawned on me, growing up as a Catholic, that I could actually interpret Scripture. While evangelicals may be overconfident of their ability to understand Scripture, Catholics often have no confidence at all in the matter.
Another great obstacle is that the Bible comes out of a different culture, with terms, settings and customs that are far removed from my current situation. How can I understand all that? It seems at first glance that the issues the Bible addresses are not the issues I face in my everyday life.
Of course, upon closer examination of the Bible, persistent readers find that the more things change, the more they stay the same — that biblical people dealt with the same issues we are dealing with today, and God provides the same answers for us that He provided for them. But you have to help people make that closer examination of the Bible in order to find out that this is in fact the case.
TCA: So what can Catholics do to become more comfortable with the Bible?
Cavins: For starters, they can purchase a personal copy of the Bible — not just a big one for the coffee table, but one they can carry around and read easily. I encourage people to get a Bible they can “live” in.
By that, I mean they should get a Bible in which they can write: underlining or highlighting certain passages that mean something to them, making notes in the margins, adding cross references as they discover them — anything that will later jar their memory about what the text meant to them when they first read it. In this way, the Bible becomes part of their personal history, much like a journal.
My grandfather was a Baptist, and his Bible is the most precious family heirloom I have. It contains page after page of his notes and observations, and in it I can see my Grandpa’s heart.
Catholics should also get in the habit of reading the Bible at home. Parents should read to their children from the Bible. Kids should learn that the Bible is not just some book on the shelf, but a book to be read, studied and discussed.
TCA: How can Catholics approach the Bible on their own, yet do it in a way that avoids the typical pitfalls of evangelical interpretation that you noted?
Cavins: Catholics have to make sure that they are reading the Bible with the Church. The New Testament was written by Catholic Christians, the canon of Scripture was assembled by Catholic bishops, and the Bible is meant to be read, celebrated and lived out within the context of the Catholic faith community. So the community has something to say about what that book means, and we need to listen to what it has to say. When we take the Bible out of that community, as Protestant interpreters have done, we run into all kinds of problems.
I think the Catechism of the Catholic Church provides the best guide for Catholics to read the Bible with the Church. It puts the Scripture in the greater context of Catholic faith and offers some basic guidelines for interpretation (see especially nos. 112-114).
TCA: What do you think about Bible memorization?
Cavins: I think Bible memorization is of the utmost importance. That was how most of the early Christians learned Scripture. The psalmist says to God: “I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps 119:11). It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit can bring memorized scriptural texts to mind when we’re tempted or going through other difficult times. And if we have the Word of God “laid up” in our hearts, then when we hear a homily it can trigger a memory of related scriptural texts.
TCA: Why isn’t it enough just to listen carefully to the Scripture readings at Mass and reflect on these? Why should we be studying the Bible on our own?
Cavins: The Scripture texts read during Mass, and the homily preached afterward, certainly feed us spiritually, and we can get a great balanced “diet” of the Word of God from these. But the “meal” doesn’t end there. We can’t pack into a few minutes each Sunday the spiritual nourishment we need for the entire week. We can’t do it with the meals for our bodies, and we can’t do it with the meals for our souls, either.
The Scripture texts given us on Sunday should be the cornerstone of our week. But the Church expects us to continue our relationship with Christ throughout the week, in part by studying and meditating on His word.
TCA: Which Bible translations do you recommend?
Cavins: Either the Revised Standard Version (RSV), Catholic Edition, or the New American Bible (NAB). The advantage of the RSV is that it’s the version used in the Catechism, and it’s familiar to many of our Protestant brothers and sisters, so it gives us more common ground with them in discussing our faith. The advantage of the NAB is that it’s the version used in our liturgy in the United States. Both translations are approved by the U.S. bishops.
TCA: If you were a Catholic taking up the Bible to read on your own for the first time, where would you start?
Cavins: I would recommend starting with the biblical books that carry the narrative — the overall story line — of the Bible. Using this approach, you would first read these 14 books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Maccabees, Luke and Acts.
If you read four chapters a day, you can get through these books in three months. Once you have some sense of the larger biblical story, you can then go back and read the other books within that framework.
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