As most of you probably know, I grew up with and still maintain a very high view of Scripture. I was taught to read it daily as a child, and we read it together as a family before I could read it for myself. I spent a significant portion of my developmental years on a mission center dedicated to Bible translation. Every significant step in my spiritual journey has been deeply influenced by Scripture.
That said, my understanding of Scripture has often been embarrassingly simplistic. I remember trying to convince another student that the American Revolution was justified Biblically. I broke out a concordance and looked up every verse containing the word “liberty” or “freedom”. I think I kind of had myself convinced, but I also remember even then realizing how dangerous the methodology I had just used was. The Bible’s status as the ultimate authority coupled with the belief that its meaning was clear to the average reader rendered it especially vulnerable to proof texting and manipulation.
My efforts at understanding the Bible increased with time. By college I knew to pay attention to context, both literary and cultural. I now knew that the Bible wasn’t a simple information manual written for my personal usage (Confused about prayer? See Section 12 paragraph 3-5 for all the information you need). I still understood Scripture as something that could be dispassionately accessed, though. With the right knowledge set I could essentially make Scripture what I wanted Scripture to be: my one stop guide for life and faith, the answer book.
My exposure to the many issues in understanding Paul’s letters stretched my assumptions even more, though. It seemed that the cultural context that Pastors had always brought up in sermons wasn’t always a sure thing. In the academic world, opinions could shift as to the exact context of the early Christian communities that received letters in the first century AD. It seemed that while some parts of Scripture could serve as edification for pretty much any Christian, it apparently took scholars to discern the real meaning of pretty much any part of Scripture.
Somewhat simultaneously, I was distraught by the widespread usage of allegory in the early Church. To me, it seemed like allegorical readings were only acceptable if the passage in question was clearly written as an allegory. Otherwise, we would be imposing our own understandings on what God had said. It was dangerous. The Church fathers clearly did not understand how dangerous it was.
Realizing that I wasn’t a Scripture scholar, I rarely felt Scripture speaking authoritatively anymore. I found deep and useful meanings for sure, but mainly through personal interpretations which I felt may not apply outside of my own spiritual life. The Holy Spirit undoubtedly spoke through Scripture—as a gentle whisper. How could I help others encounter the voice of God in Scripture though? Scripture was supposed to be useful for doctrine and reproof as well as personal edification, but discerning the distinction between the voice of God and the voice of the reader in Scripture grew increasingly difficult.
I grew somewhat jealous of yet also comforted by the way Catholics encountered Scripture. It’s common to pit the unchanging Word of God (Scripture) against the doubtful “word of man” in Protestant circles, but in my experience, Scripture seemed to shine most brightly as a beacon of truth in the harbor of the Catholic Church. Catholics’ faith wasn’t vulnerable to new insights on “what Paul meant” in the same way Protestants were. They could say that any interpretation that belittled salvation, the incarnation, or the trinity was an illegitimate interpretation. (note: denying the legitimacy of such an interpretation, not the legitimacy of Scripture itself) While still turning to Scripture for answers, they didn’t pretend the Bible was written as an instruction manual, and they didn’t claim unlocking Biblical doctrines was simply a matter of applying basic exegetical techniques to Scripture.
In the Catholic view, everything was all tangled together. Christ came as the fullest “Word” of God incarnate. To know Christ is to know Him who sent Christ. After speaking through the prophets "now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb. 1:1-2) Scripture, too, functions as the word of God among us (Dei Verbum). Precisely because Catholics understand Scripture as truly the Word of God, they believe in the inexhaustibility of its interpretation. The point is not to unlock the the five irrefutably clear points God stored in a given chapter of Scripture. The Bible is not God reduced to the format of a puzzle. The point is an encounter with God. Our primary knowledge of God comes from Christ. In Him, the fullness of divinity was pleased to dwell bodily. Any understanding of Scripture must be an understanding, an interpretation that puts Christ at the center and in which we encounter Christ. The Bible cannot be interpreted like any other book. All interpretation must be Christological. In a true sense then, our encounter with Scripture is an encounter with Christ. When we encounter Christ we encounter truth, life, love, and mystery.
Scripture is not the sole witness to Christ. The Church too can never be separated from its work of evangelism, of proclaiming the Gospel, of pointing people to Christ. In the Catholic tradition, the Church also exists as a very real embodiment, a continuing incarnation of Christ. In a typically Christian way, all Scripture truly points to Christ, yet Scripture is only truly understood by looking at it through, with, and by the grace of Christ. It follows then that Scripture speaks most fully when understood with and through the body of Christ, the Church. Reading Scripture without the Church is just as ludicrous as imagining the Church without Scripture.
Attention to genre and context still matter of course. And because the incarnation of the Son of God into a specific time and place constitutes a pillar of our faith, the Church will always take the quest for the original context and historical setting of Scripture seriously. And that fidelity to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God will always ripen our understanding of Scripture. Scripture, together with the Church and its faith handed on in life as well as in Word can never cease to proclaim the Gospel and render Christ present in the world.