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In April, the Catholic Biblical Federation announced the results of a study conducted in preparation for the Church's synod on the Word of God, which is running through Oct. 26 in Rome. The study included a survey of people in nine countries, including the United States and several European countries.
In the results, as always, there was good news and bad news. Three quarters of Americans (75 percent) said they had read the Bible at least once in the preceding year. That's not great news, but it's something of a relief to know that most of our neighbors are dusting off the Good Book at least annually.
Europeans, however, did not fare so well. There, the Bible peaked in Poland, where 38 percent report at least one reading in the last year.
Interestingly, in both Europe and the United States, there was little difference in Bible-reading habits between Catholics and Protestants -- and little difference in Bible knowledge.
Our most noticeable common ground is this: In every country surveyed, a majority judged the Bible's contents to be "difficult."
These findings are fascinating. We live in boom times for Bible reading. Publishing in the fields of biblical studies and biblical translation is at an all-time high. The airwaves are thick with television and radio shows that claim to represent a biblical worldview. New software enables us to search the Scriptures with the speed and accuracy that ancient monks thought impossible this side of heaven. Yet Christians find the Bible increasingly inaccessible.
Why is that? I believe it's because we've lost the habit of "reading the Bible from the heart of the Church." I hope these few articles will help us begin to recover that habit, because with the habit comes a sense of adventure. The Bible becomes a thrill-a-minute page-turner, and each of us is the protagonist.
Scott Hahn is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center for BiblicalTheology.
Natural (and supernatural) habitat
How do we read the Bible "from the heart of the Church"?
The phrase can have many meanings, all of them true. It suggests the dispositions we should have when we approach the Scriptures. We are trusting children of God and of the Church, our mother. We read the sacred page within a community that's larger than our local Bible-study group. Our "study group" is the Communion of Saints, the voices of Catholic tradition, the great cloud of witnesses from all of history. Our guide is the Holy Spirit, working through the Church's magisterium.
But, most importantly, we should read the Bible in its natural and supernatural habitat. We should read the Bible in light of the liturgy.
The Bible and the liturgy were made for one another. That statement would have seemed self-evident to the apostles and Church fathers. There were no printing presses in their day, and very few people could afford to have books copied by hand. So people did not so much read the Scriptures as absorb them, mostly in the Mass. The Mass itself is a stunning compendium of scriptural texts, and it has always included extended readings from both testaments.
In the early Church, the Bible was considered a liturgical book. Indeed, the canon -- the official "list" of books in the Bible -- was originally drawn up to limit the texts that could be used as readings in the Mass.
But the connection goes back even further than that. For the scriptural texts themselves presume the context of the Mass. The apostles and evangelists seem to be writing with liturgical proclamation in mind.
If we read the Bible as they wrote it, we'll read it from the heart of the Church. And that heart is eucharistic. It is the heart of Jesus.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission put it well in its 1993 document "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church": "It is above all through the liturgy that Christians come into contact with Scripture. ... In principle, the liturgy, and especially the sacramental liturgy, the high point of which is the eucharistic celebration, brings about the most perfect actualization of the biblical texts. ... Christ is then 'present in his word, because it is he himself who speaks when sacred Scripture is read in the Church' (Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 7). Written text thus becomes living word."
What Is the Word of God?
This month, a great number of bishops from throughout the world are gathering in Rome for a synod on "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church." They'll be joined by many experts -- theologians and exegetes (biblical interpreters) -- as well as others, including observers from non-Catholic and even non-Christian faith traditions.
The agenda for the synod -- called the Instrumentum Laboris -- identifies the Word in its primary sense, not as the Bible, but as Jesus himself. This is the sense we find in the New Testament: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14).
God has indeed spoken to us "in many and various ways"(Heb 1:1). He speaks to us in the wonders of creation; for he made the entire universe through his eternal Word (see Jn 1:3). He speaks to us in the written story of creation and salvation that we find in the Bible -- in law and poetry and prophecy; in history and letters and biography.
Word made flesh
Yet all these various strains harmonize perfectly in the person of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God communicated himself completely. Yet even then he spoke to us in words. Jesus spoke, preached, counseled, taught and prayed aloud. He asked questions. He told stories. He even traced words in the sand. He did all of this for our sake, because words are a normal human thing. Nevertheless, his words are extraordinary, because they are revelatory. They are human words that reveal the eternal Word of God. They are the Word of God in the words of men and women and children.
In the Bible, we encounter not a dead letter, but a person: the "Word of God . . . living and active" (Heb 4:12). This is not a word we can manipulate or spin to suit our whims. It is Jesus Christ, who comes with a fearsome power over all the elements, over life and death. "His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems. ... He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God" (Rv 19:12-13).
Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate. The Bible is the word inspired. It is the Word of God in human words. Because it comes to us from Almighty God, it has the power to be life transforming. For God knows each of us, and he knows what we need when we open up the book. Sometimes we find his Word thundering from above, sometimes whispering in a still, small voice, but always it is the Word sent by the All-Knowing, All-Loving, All-Powerful.
The Bible is a whole library of books written over the course of more than a thousand years, in many different styles, with many different points of view, by dozens of different writers. It is divided into two Testaments, the Old (46 books) and the New (27 books). The Old Testament tells the story of God's covenant with humankind from the beginning of creation. The New Testament tells of the covenant's fulfillment and consummation in Jesus Christ.
The Bible is many books; yet it is still one book, with one Author, telling one story. St. Augustine said that the New Testament is concealed in the Old, and the Old Testament is revealed in the New.
Christians believe that the Bible, unlike any other book, is inspired by God. "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tm 3:16). But what do we mean when we say that these writings were "inspired"?
The Greek text of 2 Timothy says, literally, that "all" the Scriptures are "God-breathed." So inspiration means more than just God's help, approval or agreement. It means God's authority, his authorship.
Catholic tradition speaks of "dual authorship" of the Bible. God is the "principal author," and the human writers are "instrumental authors." The human authors freely wrote only what God wanted them to write, and they wrote everything that God wanted them to write. They wrote the Word of God in the very words of God, and yet they did this freely.
A great mystery
This is a great mystery -- so great, in fact, that the Church compares the inspiration of Scripture to the incarnation of God the Son. In both cases, God acts as a true Father who stoops down to meet his children.
Through the Incarnation, the eternal Word became flesh in order to share our life. Through inspiration, God accommodated His eternal word to human language.
Both the incarnate Word and the inspired Word are fully divine and fully human. In both, the human and the divine are inseparable. In both, the human is the instrument for communicating the divine.
Both inspiration and incarnation are divinely revealed mysteries, known only by faith, and otherwise unknowable by human means. Pope Pius XII said: "As the substantial Word of God became like men in all things, except sin, so the words of God, expressed in human language, are made like human speech in every respect, except error." An earlier pope, Pope Leo XIII, explained that divine inspiration "is essentially incompatible with error."
Still, "without error" does not adequately describe the Bible's authority. Other books can be free of mistakes -- for example, a well-edited math textbook -- but no other book has God as its author, and so no other text conveys God's saving power so purely. Jesus himself tells us: "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (Jn 6:63). Scripture is like a sacrament in the way it perfectly conveys the Word of God for the sake of our salvation.