Diving into the Word

For years, Tom Davis’ Bible sat on a shelf gathering dust. Although Davis was raised Catholic and never missed Sunday Mass, he simply didn’t give much thought to the Sacred Scriptures.

Then, he heard an audiotape of a Dr. Scott Hahn lecture.

“I was amazed by what I didn’t know,” he said.

That first tape led to another. Then another. And another one still. The more Davis learned about the Bible, the more he wanted to learn … and the more his Catholic faith grew.

Today, Davis leads two Bible studies — one in his home parish in Ontario, Calif., another in nearby Upland — both from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, which was founded by Hahn. This will be his eighth year leading the Journey Through Scripture studies and for both him and the participants, Davis said the “journey” has been life-changing.

“I’m continually in a state of awe,” he said. “Studying the Bible has opened up the Faith to me, to all of us, on levels we never considered before.”

Signs of renewal

Scott Hahn
Hahn

Davis isn’t alone. The past several years have seen a surge in Catholic Scripture study, as more and more Catholics have taken advantage of the growing number of studies, tools and programs — all designed to aid Catholics in their quest to read the Bible from the heart of the Church.

Whether it’s a new study in Jeff Cavins’ The Great Adventure series, the newest addition to the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, the next volume of the St. Paul Center’s journal of biblical theology “Letter and Spirit,” the sudden profusion of Catholic Scripture commentaries and translations of the early Church Fathers, or events like the recent National Catholic Bible Conference, there is, as Hahn told Our Sunday Visitor, “a super-abundance of evidence” that “a new renaissance in Scripture study” is taking place within the Catholic Church.

“When I think back to when I entered the Church in 1986, there was a dearth of Catholic Bible studies,” said Hahn, a professor of theology at Franciscan University and the author of more than two dozen books on Scripture and the Catholic faith. “You were starting to see a resurgence in the apologetics movement, but almost no one was doing serious Scripture study.”

To an extent, that held true as recently as 2005, when Ascension Press hosted its first National Catholic Bible Conference.

“Initially, attendees were tentative,” said Sarah Christmyer, co-developer of The Great Adventure series. “We had to persuade people that it’s OK to read the Bible as Catholics, that it’s not a Protestant thing.”

Lingering misconceptions

The reasons such persuasion was necessary were manifold, including residual effects of the Counter-Reformation (which rightly stressed the priority of the sacraments and looked with skepticism on Protestant’s private interpretation of Scripture) to the problems of fidelity that plagued Catholic theology in the mid-20th century.

Likewise, many Catholics fell into that habit of thinking of the Bible as a book only for “experts.” In other words, they believed the average person couldn’t pick it up and find something useful without specialized training.

And while a person doesn’t need a pontifical degree to understand the Bible, it is true that it takes more expertise to understand Scripture than it does Harry Potter.

“The Bible is old, foreign and not always easy to understand,” said Curtis Mitch, co-editor of the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. “That turns people off. You don’t feel like you can be nourished by something you don’t understand. And most Catholics were never given the tools they needed to understand the Bible.”

Make no mistake: Those tools are necessary. When it comes to reading Scripture, the maxim “anything goes” doesn’t hold for Catholics. Through the centuries, the Church has laid out certain rules or guidelines — starting with the recognition that the Bible must be read in unity with the whole Faith — designed to help people understand the sacred texts and guard against misinterpretation. For those unfamiliar with the guidelines, the mere idea of them can make a foray into Scripture more intimidating still.

In reality, however, those guidelines are fairly simple and straightforward. And as growing numbers of Catholics have dived into the Scriptures in recent years, they’ve discovered just how much richness learning the Church’s “rules” adds to their encounter with God’s Word.

“As Americans, we pick up this idea that rules and guidelines are bad, that they work against freedom,” said Jeff Cavins, co-developer of The Great Adventure. “But that’s not the case with life in general or with Scripture in particular. Learning the basics about how the Church reads and understands Scripture actually gives you the freedom to go deep and wide.

“As a Protestant pastor, I thought I knew the Bible well,” he added. “I’d studied it for 20 years. But when I became Catholic and submitted to the Church’s guidelines about how to probe the depths of Scripture, I couldn’t believe how the Bible exploded in terms of meaning.”

Reasons for renewal

That recognition, at least in part, is driving the renewal in Catholic Scripture study.

Taking their cue from Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the most successful studies and programs, including The Great Adventure, Journey Through Scripture and Catholic Scripture Study International (see sidebar), strive to give participants a thoroughly Catholic understanding of the Bible, where Scripture and Tradition go hand in hand. That overview of the Church’s understanding of Scripture and salvation history has given Catholics the confidence and tools they need to go deeper.

“To read the Bible detached from the magisterium, detached from the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church, is like a botanist who rips up a plant by the roots, takes it into the lab, puts it under a microscope, then wonders why it’s dying,” Hahn told OSV. “Only when we read the Bible within the whole tradition and the life of the Church can it bear the fruit it’s meant to bear, both in the Church and our lives.”

That’s a lesson Catholics have learned not only from Vatican II, but also from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who likewise gets much of the credit for the recent revival in serious Catholic Scripture study.

Carpenter
Carpenter
Cavins
Cavins
Davis
Davis
Leonard
Leonard
Christmyer
Christmyer

“In the Church’s 2,000-year history, no other pope, before ascending to the Chair of Peter, has been a world-class biblical theologian on the level of Joseph Ratzinger,” Hahn said. “In a deliberate, thorough and singular way, he made it his highest priority to integrate Scripture into all he did as a theologian. And he succeeded in a way that is comparable to the early Church Fathers.”

Other factors in the revival include the influx of Protestant converts, such as Hahn and Cavins, who brought their passion for Scripture with them into the Church, as well as the continued downward spiral of the culture.

According to Christmyer, as people’s faith has been challenged on a practical level at home, in the neighborhood and on the job, many have come to see the necessity of knowing their faith better. And as they’ve looked for answers to their most pressing questions, they’ve discovered that, “There’s nothing quite like knowing Scripture to help you understand God’s plan,” she said.

Bearing fruit

Tim Carpenter, director of Religious Education at St. John the Baptist Parish in Howell, Mich., has witnessed the same over the last several years.

Carpenter, who leads anywhere from two to four Bible studies annually at the parish (most often from the Great Adventure series), said that participants are amazed by how much a deeper knowledge of Scripture opens up the rest of the Catholic faith to them.

“Again and again, what you hear is ‘I went through 12 years of Catholic school (and sometimes four years at a Catholic university), and I didn’t learn any of this,’” he said. “Almost all of it is new to them. But the deeper they go, the more they see what God has been and is doing in his Church. That leaves them in awe.”

It also has other effects, he told OSV, including a deeper desire to participate in the Mass, a greater understanding of the sacraments and prayer, and an easier time submitting to God and the Church’s teaching.

“They start recognizing that God is active in their lives, just as he is in Scripture,” said Carpenter. “That helps them not only see him more readily but also trust him more too.”

“The Bible is God’s love story to us,” added Matt Leonard, executive director of the St. Paul Center and the author of “Louder Than Words” (OSV, $14.95). “Our true identity is children of God. Scripture not only shows how we fit in his master plan, but how this new identity affects how we approach him in our daily walk.”

New Springtime

Both Christmyer and Leonard agree that the past five years have seen a notable spike in Catholics’ interest in Scripture — with attendance at the National Catholic Bible Conference more than tripling since 2005, more than 5,000 Catholics receiving training to lead the Journey Through Scripture studies in the same time period, and requests for more studies and more leaders increasing with each passing year.

“Even the level of knowledge in attendees has grown exponentially,” said Christmyer. “There’s a much greater hunger among Catholics to know and teach and spread God’s word, even compared to just a few years ago.”

In many ways, however, the renewal has just begun. There’s still a long way to go before Catholics match their Protestant counterparts in enthusiasm for and familiarity with Sacred Scripture. In part, that gap is to be expected. As Mitch said, “Catholic life, formation and spiritual growth are fed by the seven sacraments, whereas for many Protestants, the Bible is all seven sacraments rolled into one for them. It’s the one place where they can encounter Christ and grow in a relationship with him.”

But while the gap might not be surprising, it remains a problem. Throughout the past 50 years, the Church has repeatedly harkened back to the Church Fathers’ understanding of the unity of Scripture and Tradition, Word and Sacrament, stressing that for Catholics, it’s not supposed to be an either/or relationship; it’s supposed to be both/and.

Much rides on helping more Catholics grasp that truth.

“The dynamic Catholic, the modern Catholic, has to be, first and foremost, a disciple of Christ,” said Cavins. “If you’re going to be a disciple of Christ, you have to meet him regularly in Word and Sacrament. Just one isn’t enough. As St. Jerome said, ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’”

The struggle, he added, is turning “fans” of the Church into “followers” of Christ.

What’s the difference? Fans love learning about the Faith and reading about the Faith, Cavins told OSV. They are “enthusiastic admirers.” Followers, on the other hand, are people who have a real relationship with Christ and strive to imitate him in word and deed.

“There are a lot of fans out there,” said Cavins. “But Jesus doesn’t want fans. He wants to have a relationship with us, to talk to us, to transform us. That transformation will never take place, however, just by learning more about the Faith.

“In order for the New Springtime to fully unfold, Catholics have to enter into the grand conversation with Scripture,” he said. “They have to start living in their Bibles. That’s where transformation happens. The gold pages can’t stay nicely gilded anymore.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.