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Sep 18, 2015

How to Read and Understand the Bible

Deacon John Harden

Many of us think of the Bible like we do the engine in our car. We know it exists. We hear it all the time. And we know it’s important, but we couldn’t begin to tell you how it works or how to understand it. This is unfortunate, because the Bible is so important. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church proclaims, “In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength … ‘In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them’” (CCC 104).

The beliefs and practices of our Catholic Faith are rooted in Scripture. Its words form the basis of our liturgies and prayers, and the Bible is where we, as God’s children, encounter him as our loving Father. As Pope Benedict XVI has taught, “Our personal and communal relationship with God depends on our growing familiarity with the word of God” (Verbum Domini 124). So how are we to make sense of Sacred Scripture?

What Is the Bible?

If we want to make sense of the Bible, it is important that we first understand what the Bible is. The Bible is not like other books. In fact, it is really not a book at all. Rather, it is a library of seventy-three different books. These books were written at different times, to different audiences, for different purposes, and in different literary genres.

What makes the Bible truly unique, though, is that its words are both human and divine. As the Catechism teaches, “God is the author of Sacred Scripture … [he] inspired the human authors of the sacred books” (CCC 105-106). The Bible is similar to Christ in this way. Jesus is fully divine, and fully human. The Bible contains “the words of God, expressed in the words of men,” and these words “are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men” (CCC 101).

So, when we read the Bible we need to pay attention to two things: (1) “what the human authors truly wanted to affirm” and (2) “what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (CCC 109). How do we do this? Here are five things to keep in mind when reading the Bible to help us understand the human author’s intention and discover what God is revealing to us.

Understanding the Human Author’s Intention

“In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current” (CCC 110). To understand what the human author is trying to say, it helps to know two things:

The Historical Context: When was the book written? Who was its intended audience? What was its main purpose, i.e., the message it sought to convey?

The Literary Context: Is the writing historical, poetic, prophetic, or some other kind of literature? Is the author using analogies, metaphors, or parables to make his point?

Understanding What God Is Revealing to Us

“Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (CCC 111). Scripture is not simply a piece of religious literature. It is the inspired Word of God. To truly understand Scripture, it is necessary to approach it “in the light” of the Spirit— that is, through the eyes of faith. With this in mind we should:

  1. “Be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture’ … Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan” (CCC 112).
  2. “Read the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church’” (CCC 113).
  3. “Be attentive to the analogy of faith,” that is, “the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation” (CCC 114).

Making the Complex SimpleBTL_NEWchart_3d

All of this might seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. There is a way to make the complex simple, and this is what The Great Adventure Bible Timeline seeks to do. The Bible Timeline gives you the information you need to begin to read and understand the Bible by presenting:

The Historical Context: The Bible Timeline divides the Bible into twelve time periods that act like chapters in salvation history, and it shows where the key events occurred. It even color-codes each period to make them easier to remember.

The Literary Context: It focuses on fourteen narrative books that tell the story of Scripture from beginning to end, and then places the other fifty-nine “supplemental books” within their appropriate historical context.

The Content and Unity of Scripture: It follows God’s “family plan” as he established a series of covenants with humanity from Adam and Eve to Christ and the Church.

The Living Tradition of the Church: It ties all of Scripture together, showing how the key events in salvation history led to the establishment of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

The Analogy of Faith: It shows how our beliefs—the sacraments, Mary, the Mass, the pope, the Church—are all rooted in Scripture.


You Can Understand the Bible, but You Can’t Exhaust Its Riches

St. Gregory the Great tells us that, “Scripture is like a river … broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” Anyone—beginners (lambs) and theologians (elephants)—can make sense of the Bible. But, because, “God transcends all creatures … Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.” (CCC 42). St. Ephraim tells us not to be discouraged by this. He likens Scripture to a fountain and tells us to give thanks for its inexhaustible riches:

Be glad that you are overcome and do not be sad that it overcame you. The thirsty man rejoices when he drinks and he is not downcast because he cannot empty the fountain. Rather let the fountain quench your thirst than have your thirst quench the fountain. Because if your thirst is quenched and the fountain is not exhausted, you can drink from it again whenever you are thirsty.

Tools for Reading and Studying the Bible

The Great Adventure Bible Timeline Chart, Reading Plan, and Bible studies guide you through the story that lies at the heart of Scripture—the story that reveals God’s unfailing love for us and his marvelous plan for our lives. They give you the “big picture” of the Bible, so that you can begin to understand it. When you see this “big picture” and discover what the Bible is all about. You will come to a greater appreciation for your faith … and you will develop a deeper relationship with God as you see more clearly how much he loves you.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

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