People have many questions about the Bible, and frequently have misconceptions of this sacred text. Even the well-intentioned often think of the Bible primarily as a type of literature, as a collection of very different, loosely connected books by human authors. Considering the Bible in this way can lead to questions about this foundational text.
Some common questions are: How does one make sense of passages that present a seemingly cruel God, or how does one make sense of passages that contradict one another? These are questions asked by people who either do not have faith or who have little instruction in the faith. St. John Henry Newman, aware of these misconceptions, taught how to read and understand the Bible. One of his Anglican sermons, Faith and Obedience, provides us with some principles, principles that he maintained all his life.
Newman stressed the need for a plain understanding of most biblical texts, interpreting them with the light of the Holy Spirit, along with the teaching of the Church. Although there are difficult passages in the Bible, there is an overall meaning which is plain or straightforward and cannot be neglected. He was aware of various methods of interpreting the Scriptures that would explain a text away, stripping it of a straightforward meaning. He criticized a reading of the Bible that focused on some truths to the exclusion of others; as well as the growth of historical criticism that put into question its supernatural origin.
“If man cannot see the obvious meaning of God’s words in the Scriptures, he would in despair say, ’Then truly Scripture is not a book for the multitude, but for those only who have educated and refined understandings, so as to see things in a sense different from their obvious meaning.’”
Newman understood the Bible as the Word of God that is revealed to men through the writings of other men inspired by the Holy Spirit, and accepted by the Church as part of an inspired canon. As the Word of God, it demands the faith of the reader and his obedience.
St. Paul speaks of the need for faith and of the obedience of faith. Christ speaks of keeping the commandments in order that one might enter into life; and St. James writes that “a man is justified by works and not by faith only.” Newman explains how faith and obedience or works are not opposed to one another:
“To believe is to look beyond this world to God, and to obey is to look beyond this world to God; to believe is of the heart, and to obey is of the heart; to believe is not a solitary act, but a consistent habit of trust; and to obey is not a solitary act, but a consistent habit of doing our duty in all things. I do not say that faith and obedience do not stand for separate ideas in our minds, but they stand for nothing more; they are not divided one from the other in fact. They are but one thing viewed differently.”
God is the author of the Scriptures and the inspired writers are secondary authors. There is a unity between what they write and thus they do not contradict themselves. Frequently biblical scholars wishing to identify the background of the authors and the communities for which they wrote, emphasize the differences or even point to supposed conflicts among authors. Newman notes that it would be absurd to set in opposition the teaching of St. Paul with that of Jesus Christ himself in the Gospel.
“Doubtless those Epistles are inspired by the Holy Spirit: but He was sent from Christ to glorify and illuminate the words of Christ. The two heavenly witnesses cannot speak diversely; faith will listen to them both. Surely our duty is, neither to resist the One nor the Other; but humbly to consider whether there is not some one substantial doctrine which they teach in common (…)”
Another significant point in Newman’s teaching is that of considering the Bible as a whole. All of the books of the Old Testament and of the New Testament form a unified text. There is a continuity between the Old and the New Testaments, where the Old prepared the New and is fulfilled in the New with the revelation of Jesus Christ. During the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries it was common for biblical scholars to separate the Old and New Testaments. For Newman this did not make sense. His explanation of religious truths often draws from Old Testament passages or shows the connection between the Gospels and Epistles with Old Testament texts. This is the case in his explanation on faith and obedience where he cites the well-known passage of the prophet Habakkuk on two occasions in this sermon: “the just shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4).
In the sermon Faith and Obedience, St. John Henry Newman thus identifies one of the central themes in the Bible – faith and obedience: man’s response to God’s revelation and God’s call to the obedience of faith. Through successive covenants, concluding with that of his very Son, God reveals his love for man and asks man for his obedience. Newman also helps us resolve difficulties in our understanding of the Bible by accepting it as the Word of God, rather than of one or another author, but as a unified whole. With these admonitions in mind, read the Bible and let the plain meaning speak to you through faith; do not be overly concerned with things that might seem as contradictions. Listen to St. John Henry Newman and accept what you read as God’s very words.