Entering more deeply into the Bible

Jared Staudt

Catholics in the United States have been enriched in the last few of decades with a renaissance of biblical studies. The Denver Catholic Biblical and Catechetical Schools now enroll over 2,000 students. Many others have gone through Jeff Cavins’ Bible Timeline series or benefited from the many books and resources from Scott Hahn and his St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, including the Letter & Spirit journal and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. There have also been new opportunities for academic studies, such as through the Augustine Institute and Franciscan University of Steubenville.

To continue this renaissance, the first volume of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament has been published, written by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre (Ignatius, 2018). This large book (1060 pages) is quickly becoming a Catholic bestseller, and for good reason. It is one of the best fulfillments of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a renewed Catholic interpretation of the Bible, rooted in the Catholic tradition and liturgical life, guided by faith, and which makes use of modern historical and literary studies. The authors help bridge a gap that largely divides the academic and spiritual readings of the biblical narrative.

The introductory chapter of the volume explaining the vision of the work itself makes an important contribution to explaining the proper way to read the Bible. It speaks of being “self-consciously both historical and theological in its approach” and utilizing “all of the tools of natural human reason . . . but unites them to supernatural faith” (9; 11). This vision takes flesh by examining major historical questions and issues raised by modern scholarship while also engaging the Church Fathers and magisterial tradition. For instance, it explores five different theories for why certain foods are prohibited in Leviticus, from Mary Douglas’ anatomical explanation to St. Thomas Aquinas’ liturgical view (212).

For each book of the Old Testament, Bergsma and Pitre provide a brief introduction, details on its literary structure and outline, overview of its content, historical issues raised by modern scholarship, theological issues, relation to the living tradition of the Church, and explanations of how it appears in the liturgical readings. In the sections on theology and the tradition, they regularly cite the Church Fathers, the writings of saints, and teachings of the Church, including the Catechism. Each chapter also includes helpful tables and boxes which answer common questions, such as how we count the Ten Commandments, as there are a few variations (see 179).

A Catholic Introduction to the Bible makes the sacred text more accessible by drawing out key themes, answering difficult questions and misconceptions, and drawing us into ancient history. The authors describe how “the Old Testament is in fact an enormous library of books that were written by human beings and gathered together over the course of centuries. Unlike many ancient books, it was preserved through time and continues to be the object of intense study up to our own day” (16). They help us to enter into this study ourselves, not only in its historic dimensions, but also through faith, which enables us to participate in its realities.

We can see this in participation coming out the book’s explanation of Exodus, which “recounts the foundational historical events by which God formed the people of Israel into a nation and entered into covenant with them. These events are commemorated, celebrated and sacramentally experienced in the liturgy of Israel as well as in the New Covenant liturgy” (199). Likewise, we enter into the mystery of the Incarnation through Isaiah, known as the fifth Gospel, “read more frequently [during the Mass] than any other Old Testament book but the Psalms and . . . rivaling the four Gospels in its frequency” (758). The mysteries of the Old Testament, though rooted in ancient history, remain living witnesses and guides into the realities of our salvation.

As part of our efforts to grow in discipleship, we need to continue the renaissance of biblical studies in the Church. If you have gone through the Great Adventure timeline or read a shorter overview of the biblical narrative, such as Walking with God or A Father Who Keeps His Promises, and you want to go deeper, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible will serve as a great guide. It’s very readable and engaging, even as it wades into scholarly questions. This weighty introduction will prove a crucial resource for entering more deeply into the Bible.

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash