Who would imagine that a collection of brief works written between two thousand and three thousand years ago would speak to people in the twenty-first century? Yet the Bible is not only the bestseller of all time, it was the bestseller of 2006, with more than 25 million copies sold in the United States alone.

Why are most of us unaware of this fact? According to a longstanding but regrettable convention, the Bible is not included on "bestseller" lists, precisely because it would always head the list. And it's a bestseller in other nations as well. People of diverse cultures and ages have found that the Bible speaks directly to them.

Why does the Bible have such an impact? Because it is more than the ideas of human beings who lived a long time ago. As the Pontifical Biblical Commission put it, the Bible is the "Word of God, addressed both to [the Church] and to the entire world at the present time" ("The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,"IV.a.).

Many Catholics are familiar with 2 Timothy 3:16: "All Scripture is inspired by God." Father Raniero Cantalamessa explains that the Greek word theopneustos, "inspired," has, in addition to this passive sense, an active meaning. Having inspired the words of Scripture:

"The Holy Spirit is, as it were, contained in it, lives in it, and enlivens it unceasingly with His own divine breath. ... Once and for all time, the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture and now, each time we open the book, Scripture breathes the Holy Spirit!" ("The Mystery of God's Word," Alan Neame, trans.; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 80).

Nevertheless, it's usually not the case that Scripture dis-closes its meaning without some effort on our part. Because God entrusted His word to human beings who each wrote at a particular time and in a particular place, we often need to study Scripture to traverse the time and culture gap to discover what God is saying to us today.

Let's sketch briefly a three-step method for studying Scripture so that we can apply it to our lives. This can be done more or less thoroughly, depending on whether we have 15 minutes or 15 hours to devote to the task.

What Did the Writer Mean?

First, we seek to answer this question: What did the biblical writer mean in this passage? As with any other text, we begin by reading carefully, considering the meaning of each of the words and their logical relations to one another.

Then we ask questions such as these: What is the context? What does the biblical book itself tell us is going on? What do we know from history or other biblical texts about the situation the author faced? Is there anything that precedes or follows the passage we're puzzling over that sheds light on its meaning?

We need to pay attention especially to what kind of writing we're dealing with: a historical narrative, a parable, a teaching, a poem, a proverb, or whatever. It may help to look at footnotes in our Bible or to check out cross-references. If time allows, we can consult a commentary, Bible dictionary or some other resource.

Although academic biblical scholarship often stops after the first step, this is not enough.

What Is God Saying?

The second step considers the author's meaning in the context of the whole of Scripture and of our Catholic faith in order to answer these questions: What is God saying here? What is the theological or religious meaning?

This task requires that we compare our passage with other texts in the Bible. How do they complete, confirm or balance the passage we are studying? What light does the Creed or the teaching of the Church shed on this passage? What truth, principle or instruction for life does this text teach or illustrate? Consulting the Catechism or other theological works may help here.

These first two steps comprise what is known by scholars as sound exegesis, the explanation or interpretation of a text. They are important steps to take if we wish to distinguish God's thoughts from ours. Some people make the mistake of assuming that Scripture means (and God is saying) whatever strikes them when they read it. This assumption can lead to big mistakes!

How Is This God's Word for Us?

The third step of applying the text to Christian life today is called actualization, which means to bring the text into the present (from the French word, actuel, meaning "present"). This is the part that most depends on prayer and spiritual discernment and bears the most fruit in preaching.

Pope Benedict XVI recently emphasized actualization in reply to a student who asked him how to know the meaning of the Bible for the present. The Pope replied: "One must start by praying and talking to the Lord: 'Open the door to me. . . . Help me to understand ... what it is that you want to tell me in this passage?'"

The question we pose in the third step is how is this God's word for us? Is the Holy Spirit drawing my attention to some aspect of the text or its message? What contemporary problems or questions relate to this text? How is our situation similar to or different from the situation addressed in the text?

In addition, we must ask: What is the appropriate response to this text? Is there a warning to heed, an example to follow, a command to obey, a promise to trust, wisdom to ponder or a truth to believe? Does this text lead to self-examination and repentance, to prayer or to praise?

Throughout the ages Christians have described Scripture's power using the metaphor of nourishment. As the fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it: "The force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life" (Dei Verbum, No. 21).

Catholics, and indeed the whole world, are desperate for this nourishment. Let's read, study and pray the Scriptures, so that we can feed ourselves and others as well. TCA

Peter S. Williamson, Ph.D., teaches New Testament at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich. He is author of "Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture" (Loyola).