How to read the Bible

Be careful how you read the Bible!  When you hear in the 1st Reading (Ecclus 15:15-20) of God watching over us, remember that Jesus teaches us that God watches over us as a loving Father NOT a fierce judge. When you hear of the hidden wisdom of God in the 2nd Reading (1 Cor 2:6-10) remember that Jesus teaches us that this is the wisdom of a little child holding a parents hand, NOT some mysterious series of complicated thoughts. And finally, when you hear Jesus in the Gospel (Matt 5:17-37) expanding the Commandments to make them so hard that no-one can really keep them, remember that that’s the point. He does it to remind us NOT to rely on being good, but on the mercy and love of God.

I started with that warning today, because I became aware, during the week ,how easily people can forget that we are not meant to read the Bible as a set of separate texts each of which is equally valid, but always should read it through the eyes of Jesus; and to read it as the Church has explained it, down the ages, when inspired by God, she has sought to put right those who have tried to read the Bible in mistaken ways.

This process of interpretation can be seen in the Bible itself. First of all, we see it in the teaching of Jesus. The Old Testament may say one thing, but Jesus will say, as we heard today “But I say this to you.” St Paul does the same, taking an immoral story from the Old Testament, and showing that we must not read it literally as an example of what we should do now. He tells us instead that it must be read, what he calls “figuratively”. (Gal 4:24) What St Paul does here, is what the Catholic Church goes on to do down the ages, so that we know that we cannot, for example, justify war and violence or other immoral things, simply because there is a lot of it in the Old Testament.

Another obvious example, and more than a little relevant to those of us in England at the moment, is the story from the Old Testament of the Flood. (Genesis 6:9-8:22) Ignorant Christians, reading that story literally, would go on to say, “Ah, so God makes floods happen, to teach us something.” But we know, as Catholics, that God does not affect natural events like that. Again, we know this partly because Jesus explicitly says that we must not understand God like that, (Luke 13:4-5) and partly because the Church teaches us that this primitive view of natural disasters is not a Christian view of God.

This is one of the main reasons why I became a Catholic in 1994, after many years as a Church of England Vicar. I realized more and more that unless I belonged to a Christian body that defined for me what Christianity taught, I might as well make up my own ideas of what it means to be a Christian. How can any of us decide how to interpret what the Bible says in any particular place if we do not have some guidance? Without the teaching of the Church (what is called the Magisterium) anyone can say that their interpretation of the Bible is the right one, and set up their own so-called “Church”, as the founders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses did in the late 19thC.

They, for example, hold the view that the physical world is evil and was not made by God, who only made the invisible spiritual world. They make this mistake by misreading phrases from Jesus where he says that we “are not of the world.” (John 17:16) This idea is actually a very old mistake, and is one of the reasons why we have our Creed, and say every Sunday, amongst other things, that God is the “Maker of heaven AND earth.”   

This Creed was approved by one of the various early Councils of the Church. These are times when the Bishops, with the Pope, get together to define what Christianity actually believes, especially when there have been some misunderstandings or disagreements. The most recent of these Councils is within the living memory of some of us, the Council called Vatican 2, which took place between 1962 and 1965.

Some of us older people will remember a time when it seemed that the Church condemned to hell all those who were not Catholics. So when the Council of Vatican 2 met, they had to make it very clear in their official statements that this was not the case; that although it was preferable to be a Catholic, those who were not Catholics, not even Christians, might still find their way to God. I still meet people who are surprised that this is what the Catholic Church teaches, but that is the advantage of having a Church which actually has an official teaching – a Magisterium. We can actually point them to the text and say “That is what the Church teaches.”  So those words from Jesus “It was said…. But I say this to you” are much more significant than we might think.

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