Scripture – the Catholic way
Nicolas Stebbing CRexplains why we must study the Bible properly
Several years ago, when I was a young monk I was sent to the Jesuits to do the Spiritual Exercises and to learn how to give them. It was an exciting but scary prospect. I imagined steely-eyed Jesuits frog-marching me through the Exercises in a spiritual equivalent of square-bashing. It turned out to be nothing like that at all. Nice relaxed Jesuits welcomed us warmly, seemed to think Anglicans were just like other Christians, and gently introduced us to Ignatian spirituality.
Learning to love Scripture
When the Exercises began, we kept seeing Jesuits sloping off down long corridors each with a large Bible under his arm. We found ourselves doing four or five hours of prayer each day, based, yes, upon Ignatian Exercises but always with Scripture to see us through. So we went into the First Week reading about God’s love for this world he created (Gen. 1; Wisdom 11.24ff) and how we humans have messed it up (Gen. 3). We saw God in Hosea weeping over unfaithful Israel (Hos. 11.1– 9) and the destruction of his beloved vineyard (Isaiah 5.1–7). Whoever said the Old Testament was all about a God of wrath? Yes, God does get angry, but he keeps repenting of his anger because he loves so much. His love is gentle,soft, caring. He tries everything he can to keep his people faithful and at the first sign of repentance he gives in. God in the Old Testament is the Prodigal Son’s Father!
Then in the Second Week we walked with Christ through Galilee, seeing how he preached the Kingdom, how he taught the people, how he healed people out of compassion. Our imagination brought us close to him, to Mary, to those muddled but faithful disciples and to the lepers, blind people and beggars who so loved him. Gospel stories I thought I had known for years suddenly sprang into fresh life and revealed untold riches. So it went on through the passion and death and when we came to the Resurrection we found ourselves walking to Emmaus with him, or picnicking on freshly grilled fish on the shores of Galilee. My retreat ended in the Song of Songs 3.1: ‘I sought him whom my soul loves...I found him, and would not let him go.’ It was the Jesuits who taught me to love Scripture. You could hardly get more Catholic than that.
That is only one way to read the Bible. Priests constantly have to preach on Scripture and most of us use it as a convenient peg on which to hang our favourite ideas. That is not really good enough. Time spent with a commentary and if possible a Greek text pays off with far more interesting, challenging sermons.
Sadly, there is a prejudice against proper study of the Bible. Those who studied it some years ago in College remember the reductionist passion as everything was squeezed and doubted and hardly anything left of the message of Christ. Old Testament studies spent a lot of time analysing J, E, P and D sources or showing how nothing in the Old Testament could not be found in other Near Eastern religions. Things have changed radically in recent years. New ways of reading the Bible, of using hermeneutic theories, for instance, really have brought out new dimensions of its message which one never thought were there. On the other hand scholars such as Richard Bauckham have shown how, even if the Gospels were written in the late first century, their witness is true and reliable; the gap between Jesus and the Gospels is not as big as once imagined.
There is a deeper reason why we should find new ways to put the Bible at the heart of our life: mission. We grieve that most of our churches are far less full than we would like them, and mostly not with young people. No matter how well we do the liturgy it doesn’t bring in the masses. Then we look to our evangelical neighbours and cannot help feeling jealous. They fill church buildings with the young; they get intelligent, able professionals to come to their services; they plant new congregations and draw thousands together to their various festivals. Is it just their rather sentimental songs, or the emotional preaching that does it? Or is it the fact that behind this their clergy do serious postgraduate degrees on Scripture; they study it, preach properly from it, allow their lives to be formed by it? There is a life waiting there for us, and our attempts at mission here in England will bear little fruit if we ignore it. The Bible is often called the Word of God. We might prefer to say the Word who took on flesh and now lives in Scripture revealing new life to all who seek him there.
What can we do? Here are some ideas.
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