• Readings for today's Mass

Making good sense of the Scriptures

Summary of main ideas

Though we have usually thought of the Bible as a single book, the Scriptures are a library of books - the rich literature in which, inspired by the Holy Spirit, God's people remember how the covenant has called them to a new life and identity.

The Reformation confrontation profoundly influenced our attitude to the Scriptures. The Reformers appealed to the authority of "Scripture alone"; Catholics responded by appealing to "Scripture and tradition". Both points of view are open to criticism. Like any literature, the Scriptures only have their full meaning within the life of the Church. For a Catholic theology which was widely accepted before the Reformation, "Tradition" is not a body of truths complementing the Scriptures, but the whole mystery of the Church's life handed on from age to age with the aid of the Spirit. This point of view, now taken for granted by Catholic theologians, was forgotten in the pressures of the Reformation controversy. The Scriptures are an all-important part of Tradition, as the very life of the Church. (Most of us, we will recognise, have been brought up with the idea of "tradition" as a complementary body of truths.)

In the last couple of centuries, historical scholarship has brought a new appreciation of the biblical literature. The findings of scholarship seemed, at first, to contradict basic Christian assumptions; but it is now recognised that they have given a sound understanding of the intentions of the authors, and of the over-all development of the biblical texts. God's Word comes to us through a human literature; as a consequence it is important for us to appreciate how that literature assumed its present form.

It is in what God has done for the covenanted people that God's ways are revealed. The Scriptures, therefore, are the record of an ongoing history, and of the interpretation of that history which has been inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament's long record of expectation contains all the main literary forms of those times.

One great intervention of God is the inspiration of each Testament. The Old Testament is shaped by memory of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The New Testament is the expression of faith in God's final achievement in the Resurrection of Christ.

The New Testament Scriptures developed rapidly and have fewer literary forms. Among these the Gospel form is the most important. Modern scholarship helps us to understand this form - an enthusiastic sharing of faith in the Risen Lord. Matthew, Mark and Luke combine story units with have had a previous history into one coherent story of the career of Jesus. Hearing this story, all believers are invited to meet Jesus and to live as his disciples. There is an obvious interdependence of these three gospels. Comparing them brings out what each means to emphasise in the life of Jesus, as they share the faith of the community in which they live. John's gospel, written later, adopts a more meditative and interpretative form, as it recalls the events of Jesus' life.

Paul's letters give us first hand the faith of the first communities. The Acts of the Apostles is a sequel to Luke's gospel, describing events in the early Church. The Letter to the Hebrews is a remarkable treatise interpreting the fulfilment of Jewish faith in Christ. The Apocalypse is an example of a form of writing common in the time of Christ, reassuring God's people in a time of difficulty, that God's promises will certainly be fulfilled in "a new heaven and a new earth". Fundamentalists are mistaken when they interpret it as describing how the end will come.

Vatican II – particularly through the liturgy – has called us to a new appreciation of the Scriptures. Vatican II and later Church teaching confirms the approach of modern scholarship, underlining the human character of the biblical literature – which expresses itself through the scientific and historical outlook of the time. Its God-given message, which is preserved from all error, is the truth of God's ways and God's saving plan for humanity.

Modern scholarship of recent decades has enriched our understanding. We should recognise, however , that one does not have to be a scholar to have access to the essential truth of God's generous ways given in the Scriptures. This insight, it should be noted, is misinterpreted by "Fundamentalists", who reject the sound insights of modern scholarship, and rely upon a simplistic and sometimes misleading interpretation of the biblical texts.