Understanding the Scriptures
by Peter Brown
More Catholics must take studying the Bible more seriously than they do. The infinite transforming power of the Eucharist requires hearts and minds that are formed by the Word of God, which is why in the Mass the table of Scripture must always precede the table of the Lord’s Body. Catholics simply will not appreciate the Eucharistic banquet if they fail to take time to learn God’s biblical “recipe” that created it.
Yet despite numerous exhortations of popes, bishops’ conferences, and the clear desire of Vatican II for a renewed integration of biblical study in the life of the Church, the fact remains that Catholics who become interested in the Bible will often feel like Johnny-come-latelies. They will learn that the vast majority of study tools such as concordances, commentaries, lexicons, maps, translations, and ancient language tutorials (however useful they may be) have been produced under non-Catholic auspices. Besides this, most of what has been produced specifically for Catholics has fallen under two categories.
On the one hand there have been a number of study guides that focus on scholarly critical issues and attempts to reconcile interpretive difficulties. Though quite important in themselves, these matters seem presented in a way that have the effect of tweaking the nose of the pious rather than confirming them in their faith.
On the other hand, there have been an abundance of more devotionally oriented Bible guides that follow some passage-a-day routine. These studies, though a good and venerable tradition, are often quite unsystematic and detached from any sustained effort to understand the text as the original author might have intended or original hearers would have understood it. Done apart from serious study of the whole Bible according to the analogy of faith, devotional readings will be apt to produce interpretations that are at best inadequate and at worst dangerously arbitrary.
If the purely critical academic approach leaves the student confused about what he can believe, the purely devotional will leave him hungry for the true bread of God’s Word.
Fortunately, Catholics famished for scriptural nourishment now have available to them several outstanding Bible study programs that avoid the usual pitfalls. These combine the best of ancient and contemporary scholarship with an ability to integrate this into the practical lives of Catholics everywhere.
The Great Adventure
One such program is The Great Adventure: A Journey Through the Bible by Jeff Cavins. As a Protestant pastor nearly twenty years ago, Cavins noticed that the biggest obstacle to Biblical understanding was the inability to grasp what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the “content and unity” of scripture—in other words, the ability to see the forest through the trees. Many Christians remember individual little stories, but they fail to grasp the logic of the big story—that beginning with the fall of Adam, God had a plan for the redemption of all mankind.
Worse still, much understanding eluded members of his flock because they had little knowledge of the history of Israel as punctuated by the series of covenants by which God revealed Himself to His people. And reading the Bible without knowing about Jewish history is like reading Gone with the Wind having never heard of the Civil War—one grasps the basic love story but the larger plot makes little sense.
Cavins wanted his congregation to grasp the back-story, so he had them focus just upon the fourteen books of the Bible that chronicle salvation history from the fall of Adam to the establishment of the Church. After he rejoined the Catholic Church in 1995, he added many insights of the faith he had once forsaken and developed The Great Adventure, teaming up with Scott Hahn, and later Tim Gray and Sarah Christmyer. The multimedia package walks students through fourteen of the Bible’s “narrative books” (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Maccabbees, Luke, and Acts). The remaining books, far from being less important, actually become much more meaningful once students grasp their historical underpinnings. Isaiah and Jeremiah, for instance, clearly assumed that their readers were thoroughly familiar with the events that led up to the division of David’s kingdom and the various waves of conquest and deportation of God’s people at the hands of other nations. Unaware of these things, far too many modern readers do not see the extreme disadvantage they face when they try to read these books.
The most recent version of The Great Adventure is a twenty-four-week program, complete with maps, color charts, study questions, and Jeff ’s signature pieces: the timeline breaking salvation history into various ages marked by covenants, and the set of mnemonic wrist beads. Various packages are available in cassette, CD, or DVD format, and for both individual and group study. The cost ranges from $149-$399 and can be ordered from www.thebibletimeline.com.
Catholic Scripture Study
If Jeff Cavins wants his students to grasp the “big picture” of the whole Bible, where do these same students turn next to apply that knowledge to unearthing the treasures buried in each Biblical book or even chapter and verse? One excellent choice is Catholic Scripture Study (CSS), a program offered by Catholic Exchange and Gail Buckley. If The Great Adventure takes the “bird’s eye view” of the Bible as a unified book, CSS takes the complementary “worm’s eye view” of Scripture, leading its students on an indepth tour through individual books, chapter by chapter and verse by verse. And “student” is just the right term, as the CSS program is designed for parish or home-based classes that meet weekly under the direction of a study leader. The classes even follow the normal academic year, with time off for summer and holidays. Each class consists of small, guided discussion groups, which review answers to study questions from the previous week, as well as a taped lecture (available on CD or DVD). Study leaders are expected to be Catholics in good standing and in full communion with the Church. The studies themselves are authored by Catholic luminaries such as Scott Hahn, Mark Shea, and Carl Olson, and frequently attempt to build bridges between the Biblical text and the teaching of the Church— something sorely needed in contemporary ministry to the Word.
The only disadvantage of CSS is that, to date, there are only completed studies on the books of Exodus, John, and Revelation (along with a mini sample study on the Letter to the Ephesians). Also, CSS is only designed for group study (minimum size of ten), so the minimum $600 cost of a study (based on $60 per person) might be off-putting to some. Still, this works out to little more than one or two coffees a week from Starbucks—not too much of a sacrifice. For more information, visit css.catholicexchange.com.
The Kingdom Series
Dei Verbum teaches that the Bible should be the “soul of sacred theology.” For those more interested in studies that delve into the much-neglected theology of the New Testament writers, Emmaus Road Publishing has several outstanding titles available. Mystery of the Kingdom by Edward Sri, Mission of the Messiah by Tim Gray, and Witnesses of the Messiah by Stephen Pimentel each take the books of Matthew, Luke and Acts respectively, and “open” them up to us in light of the Old Testament.
Sri, Gray and Pimentel show us that both Matthew and Luke (each in their own way) want to teach Catholics that when God promised to restore the Kingdom of David in the Old Testament and reunite the human family, He achieved this goal through Jesus and the Church He established. These books point out numerous parallels between the law and the prophets of the Old Testament and the intricately skilled use of these themes by Matthew and Luke. Indeed, even familiar stories leap off the page, revealing whole new layers of meaning completely missed by most modern readers.
Catholics must remember that studying the Bible well and truly applying its message to ones own life is not easy. God’s Word is not like a “heat and eat” TV dinner or a user-friendly computer interface; it takes real diligence and a lifelong commitment to penetrate its meaning and “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:1–3). With the outstanding Bible study aids now available, Catholics have the opportunity to begin this glorious transformation.
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Peter Brown is an Information Specialist in CUF’s Catholic Responses department and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. This article originally appeared in Lay Witness magazine. Copyright Catholics United for the Faith
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