Unique among all the world’s literature, the Bible is really God’s word in human language
Q. Recently I heard a homilist describe the Scripture readings at Sunday Mass as "inspired," whether they be from the Old Testament historical accounts, the prophets, Israelite poetry or the New Testament writings. Can you please explain more about this? Thank you.
A. The history of God’s involvement in this world, in salvation history, came through a particular people of God’s special choosing, the Jewish people. They were the people “to whom the Lord our God spoke first,” as we recall in one of the solemn intercessions on Good Friday.
Certain persons at certain times in their history had deep experiences of God, in which God communicated God’s self to them. They put their experiences into writing at God’s direction, and they did so with such depth and accuracy that their fellow believers embraced these experiences of God’s self-relevation.
Throughout the centuries, people of different backgrounds gathered, organized and edited God’s word in their own language, just as God wanted them to do.
Thus, the Bible is really God’s word in human language. As God’s message, God’s self-communication, it is completely divine, as words on a page, as written text, it is completely human.
As the word of God and the word of humans, the Bible is unique among all the world’s literature. God is the heart of the Bible because the Bible comes from the heart of God. But the word of God comes to us through human hearts and minds and hands. This is what is meant by “biblical inspiration.”
The Holy Spirit of God breathed God’s message into human authors, who then put into writing what God wanted to communicate, and only that. But they had to use the writing skills that any high school student needs when writing a term paper.
There is no evidence that the biblical authors spoke or wrote differently from us. God didn’t turn the inspired human authors into robots to produce God’s words or into secretaries to take God’s dictation.
God never uses people as robots; thus, when God inspired them to write the books of the Bible, God inspired them as people with different outlooks, skills and abilities.
This helps to explain the differences in the books of the Bible, sometimes within a particular book itself.
Sometimes the inspired word of God is poorly written Hebrew or Greek because God inspired authors who wrote Hebrew or Greek poorly. If God had dictated God’s message, the inspired word would not have been poorly written.
Here is more evidence that the Bible is not merely human or merely divine, nor partly human and partly divine, but all human and all divine.
It is all human because it was written by human beings, and it is all divine because it was inspired by God.
It’s like listening to guitar music: You can be sure that both a guitar and a guitarist are producing it. Guitars cannot make music without a player, nor guitar players without guitars, but together they can produce great music. A most marvelous result of divine and human cooperation was the Bible, God’s word in human language.
Whenever we read a book or watch a television program, we have some expectations of what we might get from it. If the book is a whodunit, we expect to be led, not so directly, to the solving of a crime. If the TV program is a comedy, we expect to laugh a lot at the funny situations presented there.
All that we can reasonably expect of any book or program, of any work of art or product, is that it lives up to the purpose and standard it sets for itself.
The Bible is God’s self-communication in human language. But often we find the Bible difficult to understand because of the many different forms of writing it contains. To understand the Bible, we have to know what the human authors meant to say. But knowing what their words mean is not enough, we also have to know the different forms of writing that the various authors are using.
Today, as we read the sports page in the newspaper, we know that a sports column by a highly opinionated commentator is not the same as a straightforward review of last night’s game. The purpose of each kind of writing is different.
Similarly, the people of biblical times understood the author’s words because they recognized the form of writing and they understood the symbolic value of such things as colors and numbers. Recognizing such literary techniques is part of our Catholic approach to interpreting the Bible, and it can keep us from falling into fundamentalism when we read a book like Genesis or Revelation.
The forms of writing in the Bible are many: legal documents, court histories, political speeches, sermons, prayers, contracts, lists of ancestors, narratives, legends, poetry, proverbs, folklore, prophecy, parables, epics, Gospels, letters.
Many of these forms of writing are found in the Scripture readings assigned to the Sunday, feast day or weekday Eucharist. The purpose of each form is the key to understanding and receiving God’s message, God’s truth, in that piece of writing.
The Bible is true, but it gives us God’s truth in a human document. The truth in the Bible is not in the language itself because our human words are limited, imperfect and subject to change in use and meaning over time.
Words are often inadequate to express a human truth like the love between husband and wife. And it’s simply impossible to define God in words. Biblical truth is not even fully expressed in Scripture’s many literary forms because they are only the means by which God’s message reaches us.
Biblical truth is found chiefly in the intention of the author; that is, what a human author inspired by God wants to communicate about God. Biblical truth is the message that God wants us to know and understand.
That message, no matter in what form it comes, is God’s own message, God’s self revealed in human words. The authors of the various books of the Bible were all trying to communicate one great idea: that God calls a people; that God wants to help and care for them, even when they stray; that God asks this people to respond to him in love — freely and generously. In all of this, we find that God’s word of love for us is God’s deed of love.
Benedictine Father William Heidt has said: “Scripture is the map which outlines the way by which [God] wants us to know, love and serve [God].”
That is why Scripture plays such a necessary and important role at Sunday Eucharist.
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015. Father Michael enjoys giving workshops and presentations on liturgical topics to parish groups. Reach him at the email or postal addresses listed here.