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Jan 14, 2019

Benefits and Pitfalls of Personal Bible Study

Nicholas LaBanca

There’s an old saying among Catholics which goes back well over a thousand years. “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Of course, some might be surprised to hear this, as the old stereotype is that Catholics don’t read their Bibles. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

When St. Jerome uttered these words centuries ago, he was making a point that is still valuable for us today. Sacred Scripture makes up the backbone of Christian life. Where else can we find the recorded words of our Lord Jesus? Where else can we encounter the entire story of salvation history? While there are surely baptized Christians of every denomination who are individually ignorant of the Scriptures, the Catholic Church has always declared the importance of being familiar with the various books of the Bible. In many parishes over the last several decades, Bible studies and seminars have popped up all over the world. This is truly an answer to the Second Vatican Council’s call to all Catholics:

“The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8)… Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids which, in our time, with approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church, are commendably spread everywhere” (Dei Verbum 25).

Maintaining a Balance

Individual or small group Bible studies are great ways to come to a closer union with our Lord. We are fed by the Word of God in the Eucharist, and we can also be nourished by God’s Word in another sense by reading Sacred Scripture. But when we do find ourselves in these Scripture studies, we must be sure to avoid the traps that many Christians have fallen into. While several things in Scripture can be interpreted in different ways legitimately (such as the actual length of time that passed during the Creation), there are certain things in Scripture that have been defined dogmatically (such as the nature and necessity of baptism).

As we see from the example of the Protestant Reformers, many decided to become, in effect, their own pope. Unless we have a solid community around us, we can also run the risk of falling into inaccuracies in our interpretation. That’s why we always do well when we maintain a balance in our studies of Scripture; we have a healthy dose of Bible reading every day, and we always do so in union with what the Church, through Jesus, has taught. So when taking part in your next small Bible study, or when reading the Bible on your own, keep the following in mind:

The Benefits

1 – The Church says we must immerse ourselves in Scripture

In his 2010 Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI called attention to a particular point made by St. Augustine:

“The word of God is at the basis of all authentic Christian spirituality… The [Second Vatican] Council thus sought to reappropriate the great patristic tradition which had always recommended approaching the Scripture in dialogue with God. As Saint Augustine puts it: ‘Your prayer is the word you speak to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God.’”

By becoming engrossed in God’s Word, we find ourselves in an intimate conversation with our heavenly Father. Throughout Scripture we see God conversing with the various prophets and patriarchs. God enters into covenants with these men and their descendants, and when Jesus begins His public ministry we see that the Old Covenant has been fulfilled in him, extending the opportunity to enter into the New Covenant to all peoples. When we engross ourselves in Sacred Scripture, we find ourselves deepening our relationship with our Lord.

Even though we hear the same readings often enough during the Liturgy of the Word, there’s something to be said for reading something like the Psalms or one of the Gospels all the way through on your own. Instead of taking Scripture in bite sized chunks, we are offered a different perspective, and we see our beloved Jesus in a somewhat different way when we dedicate time specifically for reading from the Bible.

As Pope Francis put it:

 “Aided by the Holy Spirit, we must nourish ourselves at the table of the word by reading, listening, studying and bearing witness with our lives. We devote time to those we love, and here we are dealing with the love of God who desires to talk to us and offer us words of life eternal.”

2 – To be ignorant of Scripture is to be ignorant of God’s Revelation

As we saw above with St. Jerome’s quote, it’s clear that the serious Christian will seek out Scripture. But to ignore Scripture doesn’t only make one ignorant of Jesus Christ, but also ignorant of God’s greater revelation to humanity. To be a Christian without a basis in Scripture is like being a bandwagon fan of a baseball team. You want to keep cheering on the home team because it seems like it’s the thing to do, yet you have no idea how the game of baseball is even played! In the same way, many people get hyped up about Jesus, but when it comes to knowing his revelation to the world, particularly in the Bible, many show themselves to be ignorant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it pretty succinctly:

“‘The Word of God, which is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, is set forth and displays its power in a most wonderful way in the writings of the New Testament’ which hand on the ultimate truth of God’s Revelation. Their central object is Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son” (CCC 124).

Lest we believe that the Old Testament doesn’t apply here, the CCC continues by saying: 

“The unity of the two Testaments proceeds from the unity of God’s plan and his Revelation. The Old Testament prepares for the New and the New Testament fulfills the Old; the two shed light on each other; both are true Word of God” (CCC 140).

How could we as Christians possibly be ignorant of “the power of God for salvation”? The contents of the Bible make us more familiar with God’s will for us. To be ignorant of that would be folly.

3 – Reading Scripture on your own is always an option, even when Mass isn’t available

As much as we may love the Holy Mass, it’s often not possible for many of us to attend on days outside of Sunday. While we are given a healthy dose of Scripture at Sunday Mass, that leaves us six other days of the week where we might find ourselves scripturally deficient. One easy way to solve that problem is to read on your own. It’s great to do so in a small Bible study group as well, but as our Lord says:

“[W]hen you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

It’s great being able to pray in community, be it for Mass or for something like the Liturgy of the Hours. But the benefits of reading Scripture at home in your down time are many. What’s more, we’ll find that a simple reading of Scripture itself can be prayer. As Pope Benedict XVI expounds:

 “The study of and meditation on Scripture renders man wise and serene.”

This can lead us to the practice of Lectio Divina, which is accessible to both the person already deeply grounded in Scripture, and to the person who has just started to immerse themselves in God’s Word.

What to Avoid

1 – Not availing yourself of someone who is grounded in the teachings of the Church

A common mistake that one can fall into during either solo or small group Bible studies is that the doctrines of the Church can sometimes be pushed a bit to the side. A mentality that the various pronouncements of the Church are secondary to the Bible can be problematic. That’s why it’s always great to have someone on call to converse with when coming behind a particularly confusing passage.

We see in the very pages of Scripture how important it is to ask for a little help every now and then. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Ethiopian eunuch is studying Scripture, but clearly recognizes when he is in need of some help, instead of solely relying on his own interpretations:

“Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31).

Having someone to lean on, be that a pastor, a parent, or a trusted friend, is important when delving deep into Scripture. Which brings us to our next point:

2 – Viewing yourself as a final authority

No one wants to be seen as being more Catholic than the pope. In the same way, we should not aspire to become our own pope. As mentioned above, that was the main problem with the various founders of Protestantism. Luther himself would often proclaim that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” But it’s clear that such a notion is ridiculous once we look at real life situations.

One person says that Jesus really asked us to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood in John 6. Another says that this is simply a metaphor. Both point to Scripture for their interpretations. Who is right? This is why we need a mediator. God didn’t drop a Bible from the sky, leaving us without guidance. Instead, he founded a Church. With the founding of the Church comes a real authority to settle disputes between various interpretations. As St. Peter mentions:

“There are some things in [Paul’s Letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).

When we do encounter something hard to understand, we should never feel strange referring to a Bible commentary or the writings of the Church Fathers. In his encyclical on the study of Holy Scripture, Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII demonstrates just how important such commentaries are:

“[T]he Holy Fathers, We say, are of supreme authority, whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith. The opinion of the Fathers is also of very great weight when they treat of these matters in their capacity of doctors, unofficially; not only because they excel in their knowledge of revealed doctrine and in their acquaintance with many things which are useful in understanding the apostolic Books, but because they are men of eminent sanctity and of ardent zeal for the truth, on whom God has bestowed a more ample measure of His light” (PD 14).

One good place to start, as far as the Gospels go, is with the Catena Aurea, or “Golden Chain”. Commissioned by Pope Urban IV, St. Thomas Aquinas painstakingly compiled many writings and commentaries by the Church Fathers in order to bring about a deeper understanding of Scripture to those studying it. For those that wish to be of one mind with the Church, the Catena Aurea is a great resource to have on hand when delving deep into Scripture.

3 – Starting to think that the Magisterium and Tradition are unnecessary

Believe it or not, we would still have the whole and entire apostolic faith without the Bible. Just ask the first Christians. People like Barnabas and Timothy came to their faith in Christ without a complete New Testament. Again, Jesus didn’t write a book (or series of books), but he did found a Church. St. Augustine once said

“For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”

To rely only on Sacred Scripture, without taking into account Sacred Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium (or teaching authority), is to only take in part of God’s revelation to the world. In order to experience the fullness of the faith, we need all three of these things. Taking one without the other leads to a deficient understanding of the faith we hold dear. The Catechism lays it out beautifully:

“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal…

It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (CCC 80, 95).

This is the classic three-legged stool. If you take out one or two legs, the entire edifice collapses. Scripture is meant to be taken in tandem with Tradition and the Magisterium. Revelation is transmitted by more than just Scripture. Our Protestant brothers and sisters—and perhaps even some Catholics—might be troubled hearing that, but it’s something important to keep in mind when we start wondering why there are so many divisions in Christianity. The simple answer to this is because many Christians have deviated from the teaching of that Church founded by Christ. When Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium are treated as second rate, or worse, we find ourselves in a fragmented Christianity.

The Dedicated Guardian of Scripture

To put a bow on all this, it’s clear that the reading of Scripture is of paramount importance to every Christian. If we want to know Christ, we must become intimately familiar with the books of the Bible. But in the Catholic Faith, we so very often deal with “both/and’s” instead of “either/or’s”. We need both Scripture and Tradition. Both are sacred, and both are interpreted by the Church’s Magisterium, particularly in faith and morals. There is some latitude in interpreting certain biblical passages, but since the Church is our Mother, we can always trust her judgment due to the promises that our Lord has made regarding her.

“This Magisterium [of the Church] is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant… At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully (CCC 86).

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

About Nicholas LaBanca

Nicholas is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

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  • While doing Bible study, I strongly recommend reading the Passion Story in parallel. Compare each pericope in Mark with the same story in the other three Gospels. Very enlightening!

    Just how historically reliable are the Gospels and Acts if even prominent conservative Bible scholars believe that fictional accounts may exist in these books? I have put together a list of statements from scholars and historians such as Richard Bauckham, William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Craig Blomberg, and NT Wright on this issue:

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