As early as the first century A.D., it would have been common for Jewish boys to memorize large parts of the Scriptures, up to the entire Pentateuch. It seems like an impossible feat to many of us who can barely remember the few numbers we have put to memory, like our own phone number or SSN. But such was the value placed on Scripture, especially in a world where few other books were in circulation. Today, we have a glut of reading material and so many good books available to us, that we take the Scriptures for granted. St. John Henry Newman, in his sermon, “The Christian Church a Continuation of the Jewish” teaches us how to approach the Bible by showing us the unity of God’s revelation to us.
Newman approaches the Bible as a student ready to learn from a trusted teacher. He is open, curious and hungry for truth. He is questioning and does not dismiss difficulties and apparent contradictions, but he does not let them cloud his understanding of what is clearly true. He writes, “All Scripture has its difficulties; but let us not, on account of what is difficult, neglect what is clear. Let us be sure there are many things said in Scripture most clearly, many things which any one, under God’s grace, might gain for himself from Scripture, which we do not gain from it; many truths, which all men, if they carefully thought over the sacred text, would one and all agree in finding there.”
One of those clearly understood truths is that the Scriptures have been given to us as a whole, and though it may take some work to see how each book fits into the story of salvation, this is our responsibility as students. Heretics throughout history have sought to emphasize differences in the Bible, such as Marcion of Sinope, who proposed that the Old Testament and New Testament described different gods, rather than one God. On the contrary, Newman explains how the prophecies found in the Old Testament have been fulfilled in the history of the Church: “What has taken place in the Christian Church is of course no fulfilment at all of promises made to the Jewish, unless in some very true sense they may be called one Church.” There are so many instances, Newman goes on to say, where Scripture speaks of the remnant of believers in each age that God sustains, whether from Noah’s ark, captivity in Egypt, captivity in Babylon and so on. This remnant is God’s holy Church: “I consider, then, that the word ‘remnant,’ so constantly used in Scripture, is the token of the identity of the Church, in the mind of her Divine Creator, before and after the coming of Christ.”
One does not need to be a Biblical scholar to begin to see the unity in Scripture as described by Newman. A child-like openness to truth and love of the Scriptures will take us a long way. In fact, one of the signs of fervent faith is a love of the Scriptures. Consider this passage from Psalm 119, which is King David’s hymn of praise to God’s Word: “In the way of thy testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on thy precepts and fix my eyes on thy ways.” When we reflect for a moment, we realize that this is a high view of the Bible, much higher than ours.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article concerning the rapid growth of Christianity and Islam in Africa, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria commented on how the growth of charismatic evangelicalism has affected Catholicism: “We needed Pentecostalism, you know, like a bit of a jab…One benefit of what I see in the relationship is that more and more Catholics are beginning to take the Bible seriously.”
What about us? Do we take the Bible seriously enough to read and meditate on it each day, perhaps reading the daily Gospel for the Mass and asking God to enlighten our understanding? Author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once said, “I read the paper every day and the Bible every day; that way I know what both sides are up to.” Brief but regular time spent reading God’s Word will foster our love for it, and in turn we will want to read it more. We will come to grow in union with Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word of God. Jesus, the Word made flesh, grant us a love for the Scriptures and receptiveness to the truth it teaches us.