Three Guidelines for Reading Scripture
by Mark Shea
People who are approaching the Bible for the first time may be surprised to discover that the Church offers us only three basic guidelines for reading it. These are:
- Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”;
- Read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church”; and,
- Be attentive to the analogy of faith.
In these deceptively simple guidelines are enfolded, like the oak tree in the acorn, the entire pattern for reading Scripture in a healthy way. Let's unpack them a bit.
Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”
Scripture is often treated as a sort of "Treasury of Golden Quotes". It's not. In fact, as a general rule, the books of Scripture are coherent wholes. As in any book, each passage of Scripture relates to the passage preceding it and following it. Likewise, each paragraph and chapter. Moreoever, biblical writers will often have in mind other books of Scripture as they write. And so they will often allude to these other books with the expectation that we, as readers will "get" what they are referring to. So, for instance, when John the Baptist says, "Behold the Lamb of God" as he points to Jesus, he expects us to be completely familiar with the story of the Exodus and of the Passover Lamb, whose blood saves Israel from death. If we don't know that connection, we won't "get" what John means or, worse, we will think we understand him when we don't.
In other words, Scripture (because God is the Author) has a more-than-human unity to it. If you will, think of it as a single organism rather than as a collection of separate books, just as you think of a goldfish as a single thing and not as a collection of organs that happens to be fish-shaped.
Read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church"
Goldfish do not live in a vacuum. Neither does Scripture. Many people have the notion that the only way to get at what Scripture "really" means is by "peeling away Tradition". This is exactly like thinking you will get to know your goldfish better by peeling away all that interfering water and holding your fish in your hand. What you will find very soon is that your fish is dead. Same with Scripture, and for the same reason. Scripture is the result of the Sacred Tradition of the community that made it under the inspiration of the Spirit. Some people ask, "What right does the Church have to decide what goes in the Bible?" You may as well ask what right you have to decide what goes in your family photo album. Because Scripture is nothing other than the written testimony of what that Church believes and has experienced. Books that reflect those beliefs and experiences were (under the guidance of the Spirit) written and then preserved by the Church. Books that don't reflect this were not. Because of this, you can no more read Scripture apart from Tradition than you can talk to a person without air. Scripture is simply the written aspect of the Church's Tradition. It is written with the assumption that you are already eating, sleeping and breathing that Tradition. Which brings us to the last point:
Be attentive to the analogy of faith
The Church has a genius for cloaking commonsense ideas in difficult jargon such as "the analogy of faith". Continuing our discussion from above, perhaps the best way to explain that "analogy of faith" means is to describe it as the "goldfish bowl of doctrine". Fish gotta swim and to do that, something has to hold the water. For the Church, doctrine does this. In other words, the "analogy of faith" refers to those doctrinal statements that summarize and symbolize what we believe.
After all, what's an "analogy"? It's a thing that's like something else. "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed" is an analogy. Likewise, a photo of my wife is an analog of my wife. It looks like her, but it's not her.
In the most famous instance of an "analogy of the Faith"--the Creed--we find that the Church has summarized the basics of what we have to confess if we say we are Christians. It's called the "analogy of faith" because, like all analogies, it looks like the object it describes but is not the same thing as that object. For when we say we "believe the Creed" we don't mean we think the Creed made us or redeemed us, but that the Creed describes the God who did.
With these three tools, then, we are set to begin looking at Scripture. However, as we will discover next week, these tools are going to enable us to see not just the surface of a vast ocean, but to peer into its unguessable depths.
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'Sheavings' reproduced with permission from Mark Shea
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