Reading the Bible Like a Grown-Up

As we saw in this space last week, antique atheists like Bill Maher still imagine that people who take the Bible seriously must read it literalistically, as he does. However, there is a difference between literalistic interpretation—which is the habit of all fundamentalists, whether atheist or Christian—and the literal sense of Scripture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#116) describes the literal sense this way:

The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal".

As we also saw last week, getting at the literal sense of Scripture involves, not mindlessly chanting “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” in the same way a Muslim shouts “Allahu akbar!” but reading like an adult and distinguishing between the various literary forms by which Scripture reveals to us the one revelation Who is Jesus Christ. It involves, in short, learning to discern what the author was actually trying to assert , the way he was trying to assert it, and what is incidental to that assertion.

So when an Old Testament writer tells me that the land of Canaan was “flowing with milk and honey” it does not mean that he believed a chemical analysis of the river Jordan would reveal a mixture of bovine glandular secretions and bee vomit. But neither does it mean he meant nothing. Rather it means (obviously) that he knew the land of Canaan to be what it was: an agriculturally rich area where Israel could settle down and be very happy raising farms, flocks, and kidlets.

Fair enough. But, of course, Scripture says quite a lot of other things that involve real claims of the supernatural (or appear to). What do we make of them?

The first thing we have to do is wipe any sneers off our faces. Guys of the Maher school of biblical criticism imagine they are being hard-headed thinkers when they reflexively reject the possibility of the miraculous. Their favorite slogan is “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.” The problem is: that’s not true. Skepticism is, in fact, the sterility of the intellect, just as credulity is. Take either skepticism or credulity too far and you wind up thinking nonsense (as when Maher extends his skepticism to reject, not just the unseen reality of God, but the unseen reality of disease-causing germs or a faith healing devotee chalks up every head cold to a demon). Or worse, you wind up not thinking at all, as when H.G. Wells’ skepticism in his essay “Doubts of the Instrument” leads him to doubt whether he can know anything—or the hyper-credulous person believes it when somebody says a 900 foot tall Jesus appeared to Oral Roberts, demanding cash.

Reflexive skepticism and reflexive credulity are both enemies of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which counsels instead both reason and faith. The devil sends both dogmatic skepticism and brainless credulity into the world as a pair so that, fearing one, we might flee to the other and be ensnared. Maheresque skeptics, living in the delusional fear that millions of Christians credulously believe the Virgin appears regularly on a grilled cheese sandwiches, runs to the opposite extreme of refusing to acknowledge the miraculous even if it walks up and hits them in the face. Oh sure, they may talk a good game about their desire for “scientific proof”, as Emile Zola did when he said he just wanted to see a cut finger dipped in Lourdes water and healed. But when confronted with a miracle (as Zola was by the miraculous healing of a tubercular woman whose half-destroyed face was healed after a bath at Lourdes) the dogmatic skeptic simply declares, as Zola did, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle.” This is not reason. This is unreason: a dogmatic faith that miracles cannot happen which precedes and excludes any possible testimony to the miraculous, including the testimony of one’s own two eyes.

The sane approach to the question of the supernatural is therefore to embrace a reasonable openness to the possibility of the supernatural combined with a sensible willingness to use the sense God gave a goose. In short, it’s the same approach we use for determining all other matters of historical fact: are the witnesses really trying to tell us a miracle occurred in actual human history and are they reliable witnesses? Not all biblical documents are uber-clear about these questions, but as a general rule, it’s not all that hard to tell them apart.

So, for instance, Jerome—the greatest biblical scholar of antiquity—tells us that the creation story is written “after the manner of a popular poet” or, as we say today, in mythic language. This is a shock to the Mahers of the world, who just knew from listening to other like-minded Mahers of the world that ancient Christians all took every syllable of Genesis literalistically.

On the other hand, Jerome does not poeticize when the biblical author obviously intends to be offering reportage of eyewitness accounts that are extremely close to the event. So when John tells us that Mary Magdalene saw the Risen Christ and Thomas stood with his finger poised over the wound in the hands, feet and side of the His Glorified Body, Jerome knows perfectly well John means to say “The man I saw crucified on Good Friday is the same man I saw alive and well three days later. He is God in glorified human flesh!” Jerome knows that John is not saying “Jesus was eaten by wild dogs and his carcass is now scattered across the Judean wilderness, but I am sublimating my guilt by concocting a messianic myth compounded of Israelite myth, rumors of Osiris, and the delusional gestalt of me and my half-crazed friends.” Jerome, like Paul, knows that if Christ is not raised as the apostles say, then the whole thing is a load of skubala and the apostles are a bunch of lying dirtbags (1 Cor. 15:12-19). In short, Jerome knows the difference between mythic language and an eyewitness account. He can make the distinction and give each text the sort of assent it asks of him because, before he picked up the Bible, he had worked out a sensible philosophical approach to the question “Do miracles happen?” The answer to that question, for anybody who is open to reason and not dogmatically committed to the unreasonable rejection of the supernatural, is “Yes.”

Now, the only question is, “How do you tell the difference between accounts of the miraculous and mere fictional tales?”

To get some tools for sorting that out there are, as Vatican 2 taught in Dei Verbum , three things we must take special care to do when approaching Scripture:

1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”;

2. Read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church”; and,

3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith.

Next week, we’ll look at how to flesh those guidelines out.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • Mark,

    You’ve hit it head on – I’ve found that as Catholics we’er taught to live Scripture in general rather than to memorize it. I think its good to do both but obviously more important to live out the lives that Sacred Scripture calls us to.

  • Mark Shea

    Yeah. The main thing I’m getting at here is that we need to realize just how sophisticated a document the Bible is. Our culture teaches us to think we are 5000 years smarter than the authors of the Bible, because we have plasma TV’s with Oprah on them. T’aint so. The sooner we realize that living a long time ago doesn’t make you stupid, the sooner we will realize that living right now doesn’t make us smart (as the Great Crash is perhaps demonstrating to us in our overweening pride).

  • Mary Kochan

    “Reflexive skepticism and reflexive credulity are both enemies of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which counsels instead both reason and faith. The devil sends both dogmatic skepticism and brainless credulity into the world as a pair so that, fearing one, we might flee to the other and be ensnared.”

    What is amazing is that as this generation has gotten further into what they think is “scientific skepticism” about the Bible, they seem to fall credulously for the most inane New Age bunk. It isn’t just that people flee from skepticism to credulity or vice versa, but that both things seem to be able to inhabit the same mind at the same time!

  • kford

    Thank you for the great insight here, Mark.

  • Tarheel

    Thank you! Thank you! I’m going to email this article to everyone in the bible sytudy group I lead at me parish here in Mobile. Is it okay to print this out and distribute to those that do not have Email?

    Again thank you.


  • Mary Kochan

    Of course Tarheel. Also I recommend you go here:

    Mark has a great book that would be perfect for your Bible study group called Making Senses out of Scripture. It is only $20.00, including shipping. I suggest you propose everyone in your study group get it and go through it together chapter by chapter. It will greatly enrich everyone’s reading of the Bible. What you are getting here in these articles only scratches the surface of the great info Mark has in his book.

  • bkeebler

    Thank you

    (I think it is when we read scripture with an open heart to our Lord, not so much the mind, He is able to teach us and we begin to learn.)

    Matthew 11: 25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

  • plowshare

    As usual, Mark Shea has written another excellent article about the foolishness of the atheists who attract the most attention. They are a throwback to the people William James labeled “village atheists” a century ago.

    I do have one minor quibble–at one point he uses unnecessarily strong language in calling honey “bee vomit”. Even calling it “regurgitated bee food” is a bit strong, but at least it doesn’t turn my stomach.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    “I think it is when we read scripture with an open heart to our Lord, not so much the mind”

    bkeebler: I think I understand where you are driving at with this particular comment: we should not allow the skepticism that is inculcated into the modern outlook to interfere with simple assent to the Truths of faith. Or more succinctly, the wisdom of men is folly compared to the wisdom of god. It is an important observation.

    Nevertheless, I think this (i.e. heart-focus) is exactly where we go wrong in deepening our love for God and neighbor. For one thing, the mind is essential to an integrated faith. Indeed, you cannot be a human person without it. You may go nuts if you attempt to engage scripture with the heart but not the mind because by making the attempt, you enter into conversation with God not as a whole person but as a mere part. But more importantly, we live in a world that has chosen to be skeptical of religion and (perhaps ironically) credulous about just about everything else.

    This means, I think, that our modern world has regressed to the state of paganism common in the early centuries of the Church. Those to whom we might propose the faith dismiss religion as mere product of emotion. The ancient Fathers faced this, too. That is why some of the most stunningly robust and reasoned defenses of the faith were originally written 1700+ years ago. The overly sophisticated audiences then might readily have laughed at the emotive arguments often offered today — as indeed the Bill Mahers in today’s world laugh at all of the emotion-based religiosity that they see. Indeed, they not only laugh at it but also assume that all arguments for faith are of the heart and therefore irrelevant.

    Besides, belief requires assent of the will. The will is governed by the mind, not the heart — or at least not by the emotions. Moreover, the will, properly offered to God for formation, is our only hope for overcoming concupiscence, which is to say the disordered passions we inherit as a consequence of original sin. Concupiscence is always the product of emotion and physical appetite together run amuck. Such passions typically render the will inert. Thomas Aquinas called this phenomenon a “darkening of the mind.” It is what leads to sin.

    I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to be faithful by focusing exclusively on the heart. We need more intellectual sensibility, and not less, if we are to find our way forward amidst our modern challenges.

  • bkeebler

    HomeschoolNfpDad: Your comments are thought provoking…

    Still it is in our hearts that we find our true Love for Christ, and His true Love for us is revealed there. His Scripture can then flower when our hearts, as the soil, are watered by the Love of God. The mind only “sees” the benefits of His beauty and comprehends the fullness of what God wants to show us. I don’t mean to imply we do not “use” our minds in a rational, thinking way. I only mean to say we do not so much use the mind, but instead our hearts to realize the fullness of God’s Love through His Scripture (then interpreted by the mind). Also an “emotion” of gratitude, joy, awe, thankfulness will be a result of this encounter (nothing to avoid because it is inevitable). I would have to disagree that “The will is governed by the mind, not the heart”. I think you are confusing “heart” and “emotions”. By all means we can not trust our emotions as directions, as they may well be the product of misdirected passions (still we can be rightly “passionate” for Christ with rightly directed “emotions”). Some would say the heart is the “emotion” and the mind is the “rational thinking” but I would disagree. Until Christ touches our hearts (not just our emotions) and we answer to His prompting, we can not truly think rationally but instead our thinking is flawed. When we open our hearts (our whole selves) to our Lord, God reveals Himself to us (as Christ promises).

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    The Scripture that comes most to my mind in understanding the totality of the person is when Our Lord proclaims the two greatest commandments in the Synoptic Gospels: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your soul, and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

    Aside from articulating the requirements of Love, I think Jesus is reminding us that our own love must be total. In order to accomplish this, he actually catalogs the various components of the human person: mind, heart, soul, and body (or strength). So your argument and mine seem to differ mostly in vocabulary. You define “our hearts” as “(our whole selves)” and talk about the heart participating in the direction of our wills. I would look at those Scripture passages about the greatest commandments and observe that our whole selves are constituted by heart, mind, soul, and body, where the heart orders emotions, the mind orders the will and intellect, the soul orders our supernatural reality, and body is the sole visible component that ties the other three together and allows us to express our deeper realities in a physical way.

    Thus, the integrated view requires the heart-mind-soul-body entity known as the human person to work together in an integrated fashion. There may be room for emphasis of one portion over the others. I would agree, for example, that the heart is instrumental in personal spiritual growth because Jesus tells us He enters into each one of us through the heart (and interestingly enough, not through the soul, though the soul is no doubt important for spiritual growth as well).

    In addressing a secular audience, however, the intellect probably needs to play a stronger role in articulating the realities of faith. Indeed, it is primarily through the intellect that we are able to understand the world around us (with some big assists from the bodily eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and fingers). And it is this understanding of the world around us that allows us to perceive God in the created world. Thus, of the two great laws, the Natural Law is most readily perceived by the intellect. And it is by articulating arguments for religion in light of the Natural Law that we have our best shot at evangelizing an overly sophisticated audience.

    (The revealed Divine Law is, of course, superior and certainly heart-centered, but when you are talking to someone who discounts divine revelation out of hand, your conversations will be short if you keep your focus here.)

  • bkeebler


    I agree with all you said. I can not help but think, though, about those who have limited physical and mental capabilities but still see the miraculous, whose lives are an obvious manifestation of Christ’s Love and Revelation. Where, maybe, the mind and body get out of the way to let God be present in and through them in ways we may not ever fully understand… but still, there they are, filled up with Him. Isn’t God Great! He truly can take the weak, the helpless, the “infants” and reveal so much of Himself. I am so thankful too.

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