The Big Question: What is the Bible and how should we use it?

Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic features a big question the Church is facing. This month, panelists answer the question, “What is the Bible and how should we use it?” Responding are Benedictine Father Michael Patella, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville and professor of New Testament at St. John’s University and St. John’s School of Theology; Kristin Towle, who holds her doctorate in systematic theology from Ave Maria University in Florida and is a wife and mother of six, a speaker, writer and adjunct professor of theology at The St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul; and “The Bible Geek” Mark Hart, author, Catholic radio personality and chief information officer and executive vice president of Life Teen International.

Q:  What is the Bible? How was it created and put together?

FATHER MICHAEL: The Bible is divinely inspired, and as such, it is the Word of God in human words. When we say, “Word of God” we mean the record of God’s self-revelation to humankind. Nearly all the books in the Bible are based on oral traditions that were eventually written down. Naturally, some works are older than others, but scholars believe that scribes began to gather and record the stories about 2,700-2,500 years ago.

Q: How many versions of the Bible are there? Is there an official Catholic version(s)? How is it (or they) different from the others?

Benedictine Father Michael Patella

FATHER MICHAEL: Before Vatican II, there was only one version of the Bible that Catholics were allowed to read, the Douai-Rheims, and that was for reasons going back to the Reformation. The early Church used the Greek Old Testament in forming the Bible, and the Catholics and Orthodox Churches continue to do so. At the Reformation, the Protestants switched to the Hebrew Old Testament, which has fewer books than the Greek Old Testament. Today, however, many Protestant versions of the Bible contain these Catholic books, which they call the Apocrypha, but they are placed in a different section of the Bible and not in the Catholic sequence.

The most important movement between Protestant and Catholic biblical scholarship addressing Sacred Scripture began in the early 20th century and accelerated after World War II, when Protestants and Catholics tackled their most disputed question: which ancient manuscripts, among the many in existence, contain the most dependable Greek text of the New Testament? By pooling resources and research, this ecumenical effort settled the matter and led other scholars to produce biblical translations in their own, respective languages. With the possible exception of the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, the question of disputed, biblical sources is no longer a divisive issue for Protestants and Catholics.

Q: How should we go about reading the Bible? As history? As a bunch of separate books? As a single story? Is it prayer?

FATHER MICHAEL: I’m inclined to say, “Yes,” to all those ways! The Bible has history on every page, but it is more than a history book. The Bible has wonderful literature within its pages, but it is greater than its stories. As the Word of God, much of the Bible reflects the prayer and devotion of the people who recorded it, but it is deeper than our piety. Just as Christians believe that the Word becomes Flesh in Jesus Christ, so too reading the Word in the biblical text is an encounter with the divine. We read the Bible in many different ways, but I would say an element of prayer and reverence should always be part of the picture.

Kristin Towle

KRISTIN: Following the great teachers of the Church, we should read the Bible as God’s love letter to his children and as our response to him, our Creator and Savior. The Bible is one coherent book, inspired by the Divine Author, which is made up of several different writings with their own human authors, genres, styles, themes and purposes. All the books within the Book are unique and yet are meant to be read as part of the whole. And the different books with their diverse genres can offer keys for interpreting the other books. As we read the Bible, we should keep in mind that some books are historical, some are collections of prayers, some are poetic, some are lists of instructions, some are letters, some are prophetic, etc. We will avoid much confusion if we keep in mind the genre and purpose of each book.

Truly the Word of God, the speaking of God to his beloved ones, comes to us through Sacred Scripture. What we should remember, though, is that through the Bible we have one point of access to God’s revelation of himself, but also through the Apostolic Tradition, the oral handing on of the deposit of faith, we have another point of access to God’s speaking. So divine revelation flows to us through two conduits (as Vatican II teaches): what is written and what is orally handed on. In the Catholic Church we receive both the Bible and the Apostolic Tradition together.

MARK: While the Bible contains countless stories, it is ultimately “one” story … of God’s pursuit of us. It’s when we think Scripture (or the faith, in general) is about “our pursuit of God” that the proverbial wheels come off.

In the Bible you encounter the God of the universe and see how he moves, thinks and speaks. You’re not merely reading about characters from long ago, you’re reading about your very self. The Bible isn’t merely speaking to you; it’s speaking about you. You are Adam and Eve standing before God in all of your sin. You are Moses worried about his reputation as he strikes the rock a second time. You are David putting your wants before God’s. You are Esther deciding whether or not to endanger yourself to protect others. You are Peter being called to lead even though you’re far from perfect. You are the woman caught in adultery, or the woman at the well or Zacchaeus being told by God that you have worth regardless of your past.

This is what the Bible offers you: an invitation to know God more deeply. The Bible helps you to “know” God beyond just your head and to engage him in your heart. Scripture deepens your prayer, enlivens your worship and makes the sacraments come to life in a whole new way.

Q: Is simply reading the Bible enough? Does reading it require something more of us?

FATHER MICHAEL: One should always read the Bible with the intention of forming a relationship with God. The Word of God speaks to us, and we will find ourselves conversing with God through Sacred Scripture. Reading the Bible requires a good faith effort to listen to the Lord.

KRISTIN: Simply reading the Bible is not enough. We are meant to read the Bible within the Church, for the Bible is her book. The Church has compiled the books of the Bible, she has always prayed with the Bible, and she has been given the responsibility to guard, interpret and teach the Bible. Therefore, we want to read the Bible as sons and daughters of the Church. For this reason, it is so important to have a good foundation in hearing the Bible read out loud and prayed in Mass.

We will also benefit greatly from reading the Bible in the context of the Church’s other important public prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, in which we meditate on the Psalms and short Scripture passages at different hours of the day. If we read the Bible without faith, we will not be able to understand how God is speaking to us and how we are to respond. Furthermore, if we read the Bible without the Church’s guidance, we will easily go astray in interpreting it. So reading the Bible is not enough: We should read it as faith-filled sons and daughters of the Church.

Mark Hart

MARK: The Bible calls us all to something more, something higher. If we read it with an open mind and heart, it will necessarily change our lives, but we have to be truly open to the Holy Spirit, who is the ultimate author of Sacred Scripture. I believe we need the Bible more than ever before. It’s dangerous to live in any present where you have forgotten your past. What if the God you “think” you know isn’t the actual God, at all? Many people follow a concept of Jesus that is not historically accurate … a pleasant, politically correct, “be nice to everyone” figure of Jesus that is anything but biblical. Many people ascribe traits to God that are not even remotely consistent with the God of Scripture.

All I can tell you from my own experience is that the Word of God has changed my life. It has deepened my experience of the Eucharist, both at Mass and in adoration. It has deepened my love for our Mother Mary and my gratitude for intercessory prayer and the communion of saints. It has deepened my love for the Church, the papacy and basic human dignity. It has fueled a fire within me for truth, the need to proclaim it, defend it and uphold it — especially in this morally relative culture. I pray it will do the same for you.

Q: Dr. Towle, as someone who has dedicated her life to helping others study the nature of God, how important is the Bible as a way of knowing God?

KRISTIN: It is good to keep in mind that God reveals himself to us in a natural way and a supernatural way. In one way, God reveals himself through his created effects, and so we can speak of the “book of creation” or the “book of nature.” This kind of revelation is open to our natural reasoning. And thus through scientific investigation of the world around us, we can come to know some things about the Creator of all the creatures. But we can never know through natural reasoning that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; nor can we discern his saving words and plan to bring us to eternal happiness with him. So the pagan philosophers could read the book of creation and conclude many true things about God, but they could not know that God is triune, that He made a covenant with the people of Israel, and that he would become man to save his people and bring them to heaven. They did not have access to the other book of revelation, the Bible. In another way, then, God reveals himself to us through his extraordinary words and actions in history: through speaking directly to his servants, through miracles, through guidance of his people, through prophecies, and ultimately through becoming incarnate. This divine revelation, this special revelation, cannot be found out by natural reasoning. It cannot be read in the book of nature. Rather, it must be received and accepted through faith. God’s special revelation about who he is — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and how he saves us — through Jesus Christ and salvation history — thus comes to us through the Church and her Scriptures, through the book of the Bible.

Q: What is one common question or misunderstanding students/youth have about Scripture? How do you address it?

FATHER MICHAEL: Although my focus is on the New Testament, students also have questions about the Old Testament as well. In either case, they generally ask me whether the biblical stories are true, and I generally answer, “Well, many of the stories may not be factually true, but any truth they have lies beyond the details the Bible is describing.” For example, the description of the creation in Genesis 1-2 is mythic history, but in its ability to describe the universe as resulting from God’s divine desire, it is perfectly true, despite the details of the account.

On the other hand, there are other parts of the Bible where the description is more reliable, e.g., the crucifixion, whose greater truth also rises above the details of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection: How great the love of God that he should die for us! Poetry gets to the truth better than a chronicle or newspaper account. If we think of biblical truth as a poetry, we are really opening ourselves to the truth of the matter. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, it is truth “told slanted.”

KRISTIN: Often people conflate “literalism” with the “literal” reading of Scripture. We as Catholics affirm the literal reading of Scripture, but we avoid literalism. According to the Fathers and the Scholastic theologians, the Bible can be read according to four different senses: the literal sense and the three spiritual senses. The literal sense is the basic reality that the text conveys: the history of events, a prayer, or a parable, for example. The spiritual senses are the myriad deeper meanings that the divine author communicates through the literal sense. Sometimes the literal sense is a historical account, such as the account of David becoming king of Israel. He truly became king of Israel, and the author meant to convey the account of his ascendancy. But sometimes the literal sense is something poetic, like the love poem of the Song of Solomon, which is about the love between a man and a woman. And sometimes the literal sense even includes metaphors and similes. So the literal sense of “God’s arm” is not that God has a physical arm, but rather that God is powerful. (A “literalist” reading would conclude that God has an arm. Catholics do not read the Bible in a literalist way.)

Thomas Aquinas teaches that the three spiritual senses are built on the literal sense. These deeper meanings of the biblical text are the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense. The allegorical sense means that Christ and his Church can be discerned in the text. The moral sense is when we can see how the text applies to our own life and experiences. Lastly, the anagogical sense is the final heavenly meaning of the text. So, for example, the account of the waters parting for the Hebrew people literally means that God divided the waters and made a dry passage for Israel to escape from Egypt. We as Catholics believe that such a miracle truly happened. But we also see in the historical event higher meanings: with the allegorical sense we see that this event foreshadows baptism in Christ; with the moral sense we can understand how we escape from sin in our own life; and with the anagogical sense, we see how God is leading us all to the promised land of heaven, even as we pass through the terrifying waters of this Earth. A true understanding of biblical genres, use of language, and the four senses of Scripture can help us to affirm a “literal” reading of Scripture without falling into the trap of a “literalist” interpretation.

Q: Are youth interested in the Bible today? Why or why not?

MARK: Youth are absolutely interested in the Bible; they just may not know it. I say this because teenagers want to know who they are and what their purpose is in life. They are no different than adults except in the fact that they are more open and more malleable than most of us adults.

This is what I tell teens:

God is the author of your life and you are the character in his story, not the other way around. Reality reveals (and the Bible affirms) that God created you through your parents. He loves you and wants you here. God has a plan for you. And if you really want to know yourself, the best and fastest way to do that is not deep psychoanalysis, it’s to get to know the one who created you.

The Bible is a great way to get to know the author of your story. By reading about his interactions with other characters who came before us, we can get to know not only how God thinks and moves, but how others have responded to him in both right and wrong ways.

When you read Scripture, you will see that while customs and traditions change, people really don’t change all that much. You’ll realize that you have more in common with biblical characters than you would have originally thought. We aren’t just reading about people from thousands of years ago. No, when we read the Bible, it’s like we’re reading about ourselves. God doesn’t change. So, knowing what did and did not please God in other people is a great way of knowing what does and does not please God in us.

These characters and stories of Sacred Scripture all have something worth learning and imitating. So, stop and learn from them. What you’ll soon realize is that living as a Christian is not so much about “finding yourself,” as it is about finding and unleashing Christ’s presence and power within yourself. The more you recognize God’s presence in yourself, your home, your school, the Church and the world, the better you’ll be able to share God’s love with all you come into contact with.

The secret to a joyful life and a hope-filled future isn’t about figuring out tomorrow, it’s about listening to God today. God, the Author of Life, has something to say to you through the brothers and sisters who came before you.


Minnesota Catholic Podcasts

The following podcast will be posted in October. You can access it by visiting www.TheCentralMinnesotaCatholic. org and clicking on “Minnesota Catholic Podcasts.” You also can subscribe to Minnesota Catholic Podcasts on iTunes or Google Play.

Topic: The Bible for beginners

Guest: Mark Hart, executive vice president for Life Teen International and co-host of “The Catholic Guy Show” on SiriusXM radio

Mark addresses everything a novice Bible reader needs to know, including tips for purchasing one, reading it properly and making the Bible an integral part of your daily prayer life.


Question for reflection

What Bible verse or passage of Scripture challenges or inspires you the most? You are invited to submit your answer (150 words or less) to editor Joe Towalski at A sampling of responses will be published in a future edition of The Central Minnesota Catholic.

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Leave a Reply