Catholic Tradition proclaims with 2 Timothy 3:16 and with all Christians that Sacred Scripture “is inspired by God.” What does this mean?
The Greek word behind “inspire” here means “to breathe or blow into.” The rich Hebrew word for “spirit”—ruah—is the “mighty wind” hovering over the abyss at creation (Genesis 1:2, NABRE), as well as God’s “breath of life” breathed into humanity in Genesis 2:7. The resurrected Jesus “breathed on” his disciples and told them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Thus the Scriptures are “God breathed”— filled with the very life, message, and presence of God.
What does divine inspiration not mean? The Church’s understanding of biblical inspiration is a strong rejection of other views. The Bible is not
1. merely a human text.
2. dictated word-for-word by God to humans acting as puppets.
Biblical inspiration is an inspired interworking of grace and human freedom. In a footnote to 2 Timothy 3:16, the New American Bible (Revised Edition) states, “God is its principal author, with the writer as the human collaborator. Thus the Scriptures are the word of God in human language.”
These four steps broadly show the Bible’s origin:
1. People experienced God—from Abraham, to Moses, David, Elijah, and many others. The experience of God and of divine revelation culminated in Jesus Christ.
2. People shared verbally (in an oral tradition) their stories of these experiences with God.
3. Divinely-inspired authors collected, wrote down, and edited the stories (written tradition).
4. The early Church determined the official list (canon) of writings, which constitute those texts authentically inspired by God.
The result is a library of seventy-three writings covering diverse genres, compiled over centuries and spanning various contexts. Of these writings, forty-six were sacred texts from the Jewish heritage (Christians call these the Old Testament); the other twenty-seven of them were written in response to the revelation of God in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (the New Testament).
Because of the Church’s authority to safeguard, interpret, and hand down divine revelation, the Catholic disciple can trust that, properly understood, the Bible is free from error in matters relating to faith and morals. This does not mean that the Bible answers every question, but the Bible does contain the saving good news the Lord wished to reveal.
Is Scripture True?
Think of the rich and multifaceted ways we communicate—writing, speech, facial expressions, tone, poetry, numerical statistics, music (with or without words), art, or dance. Even packing a child’s lunch can communicate love, care, and provision. Modes of communication convey meaning according to the confines of their genre and in relationship with the culture of the communicator and his or her hearers. When we ask about the truth in Scripture, all these dynamics play a part.
So do we take the Bible literally? According to Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,
The Bible is not a book; the Bible is a library. So the question is, “Do you take the library literally?” Well, it depends on what section you’re in! If you go in the journalism section or you go into the strict history section, you take that pretty straightforwardly. But if you wander into the poetry section or you wander into a section about mythology or you wander into a section about political opinion, then it depends on what genre you’re dealing with. The Bible is not “a book”; it’s a collection of books from a wide variety of literary genres. Therefore, you have to know which lenses to wear. So some books of the Bible are more straightforward; they are more historical. Think of the books dealing with David and Solomon and so on; you have the Gospels that do purport to be historical reportage. Then you have books like the beginning of the Book of Genesis, or you have the story of Jonah, and these aren’t straightforward, journalistic accounts of things that happened. They are theologically rich narratives and poems. Therefore, I don’t approach those with the same clunky lenses on that I use to read more historical texts. So it’s a basic principle of biblical interpretation that you have to look at the genre you’re dealing with.
Most Catholic study Bibles contain introductions to each book of the Bible, as well as footnotes to help the non-scholar understand the trickier genres and cultural motifs.
Principles for Catholic Interpretation
Biblical inspiration is an inspired interworking of grace and human freedom. “To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 109).
The Catechism lays out three principles for interpreting Scripture:
1. “Be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture.’ Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.”
2. “Read the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church.’”
3. “Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By ‘analogy of faith’ we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.”
We could summarize these principles by saying that we do not only read a line or book of Scripture in isolation and try to grasp its full meaning. We do believe that God can (and does) speak to us in a simple, direct way through any line of Scripture. However, a fuller grasp of the rich meanings of Scripture comes when we also keep in mind the whole of divine revelation, which encompasses the entire Bible and the Tradition of the Church.
We need not become experts in Scripture and Tradition in order to tap into the power of God’s word, but as we encounter challenging questions and puzzling passages, we can be assured that more clarity emerges from the broader view of Scripture and Tradition. Catholic pastors, teachers, scholars, and resources can help aid our study as we seek answers to our most pressing questions. Yet we must bathe all of these pursuits in prayer; even scholars and “experts” stand before God in the same relationship as we do—as his beloved daughters and sons.
This is a selection from Nextstep, vol. 2, by The Evangelical Catholic, published by The Word Among Us Press (2020). Available at www.wau.org/books