Charismatics And The Bible

by Fr. Ronald D. Witherup, S.S

As a newly ordained priest, fresh out of seminary, a group of Catholic charismatics invited me to be their chaplain. AmazonLogo.gif (1915 bytes)

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 The leaders of the group expressed an intense interest in learning more about the Bible. They also felt that their non-Catholic friends were unduly influencing some members of the group about Bible interpretation. They asked for my assistance because I was a priest and had a degree in biblical studies.

I thoroughly enjoyed my ministry with these charismatics. I learned a lot from them about prayer and perseverance, about hope and trust in the Holy Spirit. I found them truly seeking in their lives to discern God’s will, especially through the power of the Word. But quite soon in my new "chaplaincy" I became aware of tensions within the group, especially over Bible interpretation. Some members clearly interpreted Scripture more literally than others and some were suspicious of modern biblical study because it seemed to dampen the miraculous aspects of scriptural stories. A few strongly resisted my attempts to introduce a sound Catholic approach to the Bible, and eventually these members of the group split off and went their own way. Over the years I have continued to encounter some misunderstanding among charismatics (and among other Catholics!) about the Bible, so I want to offer a few reflections about a basic Catholic approach to the Bible.

Capitalizing on Charisma

I begin by calling to mind a few gifts (from the Greek, charisma!) that Catholic charismatics bring to Bible study. Sometimes effective tools for learning are found within our very grasp. We should always capitalize on the gifts we already possess before going on to supplement them with other knowledge or tools. What gifts do charismatics already have that pertain to Bible study?

In the first place, Catholic charismatics are interested in and open to the Word of God as an accessible aid to spiritual growth. More so than the average Catholic, charismatics have developed a sense of the power of God’s Word. I have found charismatics to be eager to learn more about the Bible and to take the time and effort to read the Bible daily for personal and family inspiration. This openness to the Bible is essential. It demonstrates a yearning to be instructed and a desire to be fed by God in a way that has ancient roots. The Word of God has nourished generations of Jews and Christians. While not everyone diligently works to incorporate the Bible into their daily lives, charismatics have embraced the Bible and come to know it as a friend. I applaud this devotion and encourage its development. It provides a good foundation for further Bible study.

A second gift is the special devotion to the Holy Spirit. Charismatics by definition recognize that, as St. Paul taught, all gifts are from the same Spirit and are given for the building up of the body of Christ (I Cor 12: 4-11). The beginning of any good Bible study or Bible prayer is an invocation of the Holy Spirit to come and guide the process. The Holy Spirit is the true interpreter of the Word in our lives. In fact, I recommend that each time the Bible is used in study or prayer, a short prayer to the Holy Spirit should begin the session. The purpose is simply to surrender our own intention to read into God’s Word what we might like to find in it and instead to invite God’s Spirit to come as our guide. Calling God’s Word "inspired" (Spirit-filled or filled with God’s breath) is an acknowledgment that God formed this Word. Ultimately, the "how" of inspiration is a mystery. But the assertion that the Scripture is inspired is an act of faith. Calling on the Holy Spirit to come as interpreter and to guide the process of reading the Bible should be second nature to charismatics.

A third gift is enthusiasm. From my earliest days with charismatics I have been impressed with their fervor, devotion, and zeal. The original sense of enthusiasm (from the Greek for "filled with God") summarizes well my experience. Exercised in a responsible manner, enthusiasm can be infectious. It can inspire others to "hop on board," to become part of a good thing. I would hope that charismatics would continue to utilize their own enthusiasm for the Bible as a way of calling others to awareness of its role in the faith life of the community. These are just a few gifts that Catholic charismatics possess and that can be helpful in fostering good Bible study. To these we now need to add a few elements to a Catholic approach to the Bible.

Catholic Principles for Bible Study

All Christians share certain attitudes about the Bible. For example, all Christians call the Bible the inspired Word of God, but different denominations have special ways of describing the nature of inspiration or of defining the parameters of God’s Word. Catholic Bibles, for instance, contain 46 books in the Old Testament, while Protestant Bibles contain only 39. This difference is based upon an historical development. The 16th century Reformers used the Hebrew Bible (39 books), while Catholics relied upon the Greek edition (the Septuagint, 46 books). Some distinctions between Protestant and Catholic approaches are significant, but others are rather minor. Can we point to some distinctive Catholic principles? I believe we can. I will use specific sections (paragraph number) of The Catechism of the Catholic Church as a source for summarizing these principles.

1) Vatican Council II emphasized that Catholics rely on both God’s Word and Church Tradition. Catholics are a people of Word and Sacrament! Catholics do not think of the Bible alone as a revealing source of God’s will. Thus, it is important that Catholics interpret Scripture in the context of the Church’s teaching. That is why a good Catholic edition of a study Bible can be helpful. Its footnotes or articles can help explain more obscure passages and place them in the proper context for interpretation. (See Catechism #113)

2) Catholics emphasize the unity of the whole-inspired canon of Sacred Scripture. This means respecting the relation between the Old and New Testaments and trying never to interpret passages outside of the larger context of the whole Bible. At times the Bible can teach seemingly contradictory messages. That is because the various biblical books were written over centuries and in different contexts. Recognizing this principle of the whole of the Bible can keep us from over-interpreting one passage while ignoring a host of other passages. (See Catechism #112)

3) Catholics recognize that God’s Word has multiple senses. There is not simply one meaning to a given passage, although the meaning of passages must relate somehow to the literal sense of the words. Yet there are deeper meanings that can be understood in diverse ways and that go beyond the literal sense of the words. This is one of the beautiful aspects of God’s Word, that the richness of its meaning can never be exhausted. Recognizing this principle helps prevent canonizing one’s own private interpretation as the interpretation of a passage. (See Catechism #117)

4) The Catholic Church officially promotes the scientific study of the Bible by professional experts. Unlike some Christians who fear that modern scientific biblical study undermines faith, the Catholic Church has officially charged its biblical scholars (since the days of Pope Pius XII) to use every means available to explore the Bible and its culture. This principle requires attention to what the human authors were trying to communicate. It also means using archeology, linguistic study, historical study, and the like to explore the background of Bible passages. Contrary to harming the faith, such Bible study enriches it and places it on a firm foundation. This is another reason to promote good Bible study in parishes and among Catholics in general. (See Catechism #109-119)

5) Catholics also recognize that the origin of the Bible involves a complex history of oral, written and edited traditions that were collected over time. This lengthy process necessarily produced some inaccuracies in the biblical materials as regards historical or scientific details. Catholics do not hold that the Bible is in errant in every detail, but only with regard to faith and morals. This principle is quite different from some more fundamentalist Christian groups who interpret the Bible quite literally and as factually true in every detail. What is most important for Catholics is discerning the appropriate religious teaching of the Bible. (See Catechism #126)

Summary

These are only a few main principles from a Catholic approach to the Bible. Combined with the inherent gifts of Catholic charismatics, I believe they provide excellent guidance and encouragement for proper use of the Bible for study and prayer. Catholics have no reason to be afraid that they will distort God’s Word when they open up their Bibles, invoke the Holy Spirit, and attempt to read the Word of God in this context. Indeed, those who use the Bible regularly find themselves filled with new hope, splendor for their lives today. Fortunately, Catholic charismatics have taken a lead in calling Catholics to rediscover their roots in God’s Word. As I encouraged my first charismatic prayer group to explore God’s Word with confidence and courage, so I encourage you who read these words to do the same. Take the time to read the Bible, study it in depth, and pray with it daily in union with the Church, and you will find yourself joining the psalmist in the ancient prayer: "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Ps 109:105).

About the Author...

Fr. Ronald D. Witherup, S.S. is the Provincial of the Sulpicians of the United States, headquartered in Baltimore, MD. His books, Conversion in the New Testament and A Liturgist’s Guide to Inclusive Language are available at bookstores that advertise with us and through our bookstore, at www.sfSpirit.com

Fr. Witherup invites you to help provide ongoing care for senior priests who led seminary communities and guided spiritual direction in the formation of priests. Tax deductible donations may be sent to The Society of St. Sulpice, 5408 Roland Ave., Baltimore, MA 21210. Tell him you enjoyed his article.—Editor

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