Using the Bible

In distinguishing between revelation and biblical inspiration, we have so far been directing attention to the formation of the scriptures in the past. What does the relationship between revelation and inspiration look like, if we turn to the role of scriptures in the life of Catholics and other Christians today?

First of all, experience witnesses to the way biblical texts can communicate divine revelation. Inspired texts continually prove themselves to be 'inspiring', and bring people into living contact with God. The Holy Spirit who guided the writing of the Bible continues to guide the reading of the Bible. Passages from the prophets and the psalms, words of Jesus from the Gospels, and reflections from Paul's letters can let the truth of and from God shine forth. These scriptural texts may repeatedly bring us fresh light; we can hear God's voice speaking to us through these words. What was long ago written under the impulse of the Holy Spirit can become inspiring and illuminating for us today. As Vatican II repeats from St Ambrose of Milan, when we read the scriptures, we listen to God (Dei Verbum, 25).

It is also a fact of Christian experience that less 'promising' parts of the Bible may also enjoy such a revealing impact. At first glance some scriptural texts seem 'primitive' (such as Saul's visit to the witch of Endor), 'boring' (such as the genealogies in 1 Chr. 1—9), or filled with a hatred that is incompatible with the revelation of the divine love. Such passages may act as negative 'foils', which express the true nature of divine revelation and an appropriate response to it. Saul's nocturnal visit to the witch of Endor is at least an inspired cautionary tale: we should not try to enter into contact that way with the other world. Some exiled Israelites did cry out for savage vengeance on their Babylonian and Edomite enemies (Ps. 137: 7—9). Their prayer, which faithfully records their desire for revenge, works to illuminate God's loving concern for all (Jonah 4: 11) and Jesus' prayer that his executioners be forgiven (Luke 23: 34). As regards the biblical genealogies, they may not always say much to most people in the North-Atlantic world. But for some other cultures, to lack ancestors is to suffer diminishment in one's personal identity; within the biblical setting the genealogies recall how God guides human history and, in particular, prepares for the birth of Jesus himself.

In short, experience shows how any biblical text can lead people to know the deep truth of God and of the human condition. Normally the 'great' sections of the scriptures have this revelatory impact, and trigger what we have called 'dependent' revelation. But some thoroughly 'unpromising' scriptural texts can initiate or renew a luminous knowledge of God. This point has more relevance nowadays for many Catholics and others who share the same lectionaries, since the prescribed readings for the Sunday and weekday Eucharist include a much broader selection from the Bible than was the case before Vatican II.

Here we should add that, like other texts, once biblical texts reached their final form and began circulating, they started to have their own history as people in different situations read, interpreted, and applied them. Whether it is a psalm, a letter by St Paul, a poem, a novel, or a political constitution, a text can mean and communicate to readers more than its author(s) ever consciously knew or intended when writing in a particular situation for a specific audience. Changes of context strikingly show how texts can express further ranges of meaning. We will make something more of Matthew 26: 52 ('Those who take the sword will perish by the sword*) when we proclaim the verse in one of the war cemeteries at Verdun than when we study it in the library of Rome's Biblical Institute. There is a plus value to all published texts, and especially to scriptural texts when appropriated in the new and challenging contexts of church and world history.63

Having acknowledged the revelatory power of the scriptures, we should also recall some limits and qualifications. The Bible was not and is not the only means for receiving divine revelation. Before the Jewish scriptures came to be written, God had already initiated the special revealing and saving history of the chosen people. Christians acknowledged in Jesus the climax of that revelatory and salvific history at least two decades before the first book of what would be called the NT (1 Thessalonians) came to be written. Even after the biblical canon (of which more later) was formed, not only contact with the scriptures but also an immense range of other means can mediate the divine self-communication, even to the point of radically changing lives. It was a night spent in reading St Teresa of Avila's autobiography that moved St Edith Stein (1891—1942) towards Christian faith and, eventually, martyrdom. The means for conveying God's revelation need not, at least initially, have anything directly to do with the scriptures. In the concluding chapter of this book, we will face the question of divine revelation reaching non-Christians who do not read or hear the Bible. God's word reaches them by means other than the inspired scriptures of Christianity. We should also note another limit in the Bible's revelatory impact. Sadly one can read and study the scriptures without being open to the Holy Spirit whose inspired guidance led to the writing of the sacred books (Dei Verbum, 12). A merely scholarly knowledge of the Bible may yield little or no personal knowledge of God, and in fact block the Bible from becoming a vehicle for revelation.

To sum up. As an inspired text, the Bible illuminates for millions the deepest reality of God and human beings; it is indispensable for Christian existence, both collectively and individually. The 1993 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the

63 For two examples of such plus value, see G. O'Collins, Fundamental Theology (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986), 254—6.

Church, fills out beautifully what Dei Verbum taught about the light that all Catholics and other Christians should constantly draw from the inspired scriptures.64 Nevertheless, revelation or the living word of God remains a larger reality and is not limited to the Bible and its immediate impact. One cannot and should not simply identify revelation with the scriptures. God's living word is not confined to a written text, even an inspired one. This fact legitimates the order in which Dei Verbum handles matters. The greater reality of revelation is clarified (ch. 1) before the document turns to tradition (ch. 2) and the inspired scriptures (chs. 3—6).

At the same time, however, we are justified in calling the scriptures the written 'word of God' (Dei Verbum, 9). First, unlike any other religious texts available for Christian and, in the case of the Jewish scriptures, Jewish use, they were written under the special guidance of the Holy Spirit. In a unique way that came to an end with the foundation of the Church in the first century, God was involved in the composition of these texts.65 Second, all the scriptures have some relationship to foundational revelation—to those persons, events, and words that mediated God's salvific self-communication that reached its decisive climax with Christ and his first followers. Even in the case of those books and sections of the Bible which focus less vividly and immediately on the divine revelation, some link can be found. Thus the love poems that make up the Song of Solomon relate themselves to the history of revelation and salvation by invoking key personages and places in that history (e.g. Solomon, David, and Jerusalem). The male protagonist of these poems suggests Israel's faithful, divine Husband (e.g. Hos. 2: 14—23). Third, in the post-apostolic period of dependent revelation any section of the scriptures may become for believers the living word of God. The revelatory and salvific scope of John's Gospel can be applied to the Bible: 'These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through

64 See also O'Collins, Dei Verbum and Exegesis', Fundamental Theology , 136—49.

65 To speak of divine 'involvement' is certainly not to reduce inspiration to verbal dictation, as if the inspired writers heard a heavenly voice dictating the words that they were to transcribe. Christian art sometimes reflects this reduction of the inspired writers to the status of being mere copyists. In the Pazzi chapel of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence, for instance, Luca della Robbia beautifully represents the evangelists. An eagle has arrived from heaven to hold a text for John to copy down; a lion performs the same service for Mark. Here wonderful art can be very misleading. In producing the scriptures, God and human beings collaborated; the inspired writers were genuinely and fully active in using their own talents. God's 'inspiring' work does not entail reducing the sacred writers to being mere secretaries who copied down faithfully what they were told. See O'Collins, Fundamental Theology , 230—1.

believing you may have life in his name' (John 20: 31). Our 'believing' is the completion of, and our 'life' the consequence of, God's self-revelation.66

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