It is hard to believe today, but prior to Vatican II the general pastoral advice regarding lay persons reading the Bible was almost excessively cautionary. Our family Bible held a hallowed if underutilized place in my home as a youth. Catholic Bible publishers then and today provide a middle section of the bible where the owner’s family genealogy and sacramental records could be recorded. I believe our bible also contained our birth certificates. The thinking, I guess, was that important documents could be safely hidden in a book that no one would disturb. [If you remember the movie “Going My Way” , the old pastor Father Fitzgibbons hid his liquor behind his library of President Grant biographies.]
No priest that I can recall ever recommended reading the Bible straight up. As a rule, the only public Gospel readings one would encounter were those texts selected for Sunday Mass. My copy of a Tridentine Missal from the 1950’s states that after the Gospel “The sermon or instruction to the congregation is given.” Some priests did use the starting point of their sermons as the Gospel text of the day; it was more common to hear instruction on Christian duty, such as the need for Confession, for example. One year in my parish all three priests combined to devote a large portion of the year to a study of the Creed, one line per week. As the years have rolled along, I look back at the “Creed series” with a growing respect, an imaginative way to expand the Catholic mind with an effort to incorporate creedal statements with their biblical origins.
That said, pastoral caution over independent reading of the Bible makes more sense when one considers that the cultural gap between middle eastern language, mores, and expression, on the one hand, and the Greek-Roman thought world of western Europe, is huge. Simply arriving at a “mindset of the Bible” for a new reader is a near impossibility when working only with the text. Another point of difference is the blunt literary expression of the Judean and Christian tradition between the time of composition and today’s novice readers; pious ears in Catholic households in my elementary school years did not take easily to the many graphic portrayals of sins, natural catastrophes, war, and wanton violence, though our Christian ancestors were right at home with this depiction of life’s grim realities. And lest I forget, there is a lot of “knowing” and “begetting” in the Hebrew Canon on the Bible [“knowing,” in English translations, is synonymous with sexual intercourse.]
But aside from these considerations was the reality that even at the highest levels of Church authority the Bible was poorly understood and even regarded with some suspicion, as the Protestant Reformation adherents referred to themselves as “the people of the book” and had championed the cause of sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone is man saved.” Protestants accused the Catholic Church of spinning off many of its rites and disciplines without enough Biblical basis, or any basis, in the case of indulgences. In popular catechetics of my youth, it was stated in so many words that Protestant worship and practice contented itself with the Bible and sermon while Roman Catholics enjoyed full communion with Christ in reception of the Eucharist. If you are following the Reformation stream here at the Café, you can better appreciate that one of Luther’s major theological missteps was a poor appreciation of the linkage of the Word and the Christianity in the formation of both Bible and Church.
What Christians of all stripes seem to forget is that the origins of the New Testament and the Church are intertwined. It was inspired Church thinkers who composed the 27 books of the NT, and later Church leaders who determined which books belonged in the “canon” or collection of sacred revelation deeded sufficient for salvation. Consequently, it is impossible to live by the maxim sola scriptura just as it is impossible to live by the maxim sola ecclesia or “church alone.” A more detailed account of the formation of the New Testament canon is available in such works as The Canon of Scripture [2018 edition] by F.F. Bruce, for the ambitious reader. Other introductions to the Bible will include questions of authorship, intention of the author, and incorporation for each book of the canons as well.
The Catholic Church never believed itself independent of the Bible. It believed from earliest times that its holy leaders [many known, some not] received inspiration from God to produce Gospels, letters, history, and apocalyptic [end-of-world] literature that embodied the memory and message from God through his son, Jesus Christ. The written books of the New Testament are the third stage in a developmental process now considered normative in Catholic education. Stage  is the actual presence of Jesus upon the earth and the impression memories of his earliest followers of Jesus’ words and deeds. This stage would include the impressions of faith in encounters with the Risen Christ. Stage  is the oral preaching of Jesus’ witnesses, first to Jerusalem and Judaea and then to Gentiles. Stage  is the composition of written works for circulation to the growing Church, a process that began with Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians in c. 51 A.D. and probably extended into the early part of the second century. The first written Gospel, that of St. Mark, appeared around 70 A.D.
The Church through the centuries has employed several means of interpreting the New Testament. One might think the most obvious method is literalism, i.e., simply assuming everything in print is historically accurate and applying it as such. But even a superficial reading of the Gospels would demonstrate the shortcomings of such a method, something observed by the earliest Church fathers. The Gospels frequently report the same events in quite different ways, most notably the infancy narratives [Mark and John have none], and the Passion and Resurrection accounts. Very early on the Church learned to extract the critical story lines and eventual doctrinal truths from the inspired genius of the four authors.
The Church utilized analogies from the Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament and applied them to preaching and explaining the meaning of Christ. For a brief summary of these interpretive tools, follow this link to the Oxford Biblical Studies on-line. It is interesting that even before modern biblical studies blossomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Church art had developed icons and symbols to explain the revelation and teaching thrusts of each Gospel and Evangelist.
One of the earliest and greatest works of the Church was sorting out which literature of the day belonged in a “sacred canon” that would come to be known as the New Testament. In many respects this task was thrust upon the Church by the varieties of erroneous or heretical teachers. The most notable danger to the Church was the heretic Marcion, who denied that the entire Hebrew Scripture was divinely inspired. Church fathers thus began to sift the wheat from the chaff, beginning around 180 A.D. The criteria for a book’s inclusion into the New Testament appear to be its fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles, its use in Christian liturgy, and testimony from bishops and elders.
What is notable in the establishment of the New Testament Canon is the involvement of the entire Church in cooperating with the Holy Spirit toward the formation of the written corpus of Christian truth. The Bible—both Testaments—are communal books, and the communities who arrange their lives, beliefs, and worship around the sacred books have long traditions of study and experience in penetrating the meanings, studies that continue intensely in our own day. It is important, then, that the Bible be read in the context of its tradition, i.e., its faith community. I am not calling for sectarianism; in 1943 Pope Pius XII opened the doors for Catholic biblical scholars to join their Protestant colleagues in developing more accurate translations of the Bible in multiple languages, utilizing the many fragments of Scripture then available around the world.
To read the bible in a solitary stance is to leave the best portions of the divine banquet of revelation on the table. One reads profitably who reads with the guidance of church tradition, history, and scholarship. I would be the first to admit that present day catechetics for youth and adults falls far short of providing the assistance that we need to be offering. At the present time I am reading The Epistles of John by J. Howard Marshall for a Café post in the very near future. In the opening words of 2 John, the sacred author speaks of love as the identifying mark of the true believer. Read cold, the invocation of “love” sounds repetitious. Isn’t love something of a presupposition of the Bible?
But Dr. Marshall examines the specialized use of the word “love” across the five New Testament books that carry the name of John, and gradually the word and what it implies takes on a depth and vision that to me, at least, has captured my spiritual imagination and focused my religious experience over the past week. Seeking the Word of God is work, probably more work than we are used to investing. But this should give us pause, too. What is it we have passed off for meeting God until now?
Very shortly the Tuesday Stream of the Café will carry the banner “The Little Tiny Books of the Bible,” those texts like John’s epistles above that are frequently overlooked but which are considered part of the saving canon of sacred books.
Also, the Friday Book Club stream of the Café will carry more reviews for those engaged in adult study of the Bible.