Steeping Ourselves in the Word of God: Studying It, Interpreting It
by Sue Grenough, Ed.D.
"Their proclamations of the Gospel, their personal testimony, and their living witness to the transcendent values of the Christian life can be particularly effective because they know the ordinary experiences of everyday life so well and are able to incarnate the Gospel in those ordinary circumstances" (National Directory for Catechesis, n. 54B, 8).
“Their proclamations of the Gospel, their personal testimony, and their living witness to the transcendent values of the Christian life can be particularly effective because they know the ordinary experiences of everyday life so well and are able to incarnate the Gospel in those ordinary circumstances” (National Directory for Catechesis, n. 54B, 8).
This statement highlights the awesome and significant responsibility of those who serve as ministers to God’s people through a variety of roles. Regardless of the specific role one has, we all are called to be ministers of God’s revelation, God’s Word through our words and deeds. In faith and in ministry, we are nourished, inspired, and challenged by the Word of God. And even beyond that, we have the privilege of sharing the abundant wealth of the Divine Word with the faithful committed to us (see Dei Verbum, n. 25).
Living and Sharing the Word
To be effective and faithful to this sacred responsibility of living and sharing the Word of God, we must carefully read, study, pray, and be versed in interpreting the sacred texts. The ministers of God’s people must steep themselves in the Word of God.
What does this call for? The word steep brings to mind the image of making tea and the experience of drinking tea. This image, of course, does not hold for instant tea but rather this is about making tea from tea bags or tea leaves. The process cannot be rushed. Making tea takes time, patience, and planning. There is also the choice of which flavor to prepare. Then the tea must be steeped in the water, which has been heated. And then, when ready, the tea is enjoyed by sipping slowly.
The approach to Scripture is very much like making tea. We have to set aside time for the study and reading of the sacred text. We have to plan which book or selection of the Bible to study. And a good reflective environment will help us become steeped (immersed) in God’s sacred Word.
Why Study the Word
Because we are encouraged to read the sacred Word of God, some wonder why there is a need to study and interpret it. Doesn’t the Word speak for itself? Doesn’t the need to study make it less available to the faithful?
First, there is no doubt that the reading of Scripture is grace-filled, as the Word of God reveals God and is the presence of God. Second, as we desire to probe and understand further the meaning of the Word, study is as necessary in the approach to Scripture as it is for any other type of literature we read. The purpose for which it was written and the context and culture of the times are information that will enlighten us to a greater depth of understanding.
Anytime we read a work of literature, it is important to know whether it is fiction, non-fiction, history, science, poetry, etc. For the form of the written word helps determine meaning. The customs, concerns, and way of life of the people of a certain time and location will influence the images and language used.
From this information, Scripture scholars discern the truth “God wanted to communicate to us” (Dei Verbum, n. 12). Then the interpretation of Scripture is subject to “the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God” (Dei Verbum, n.12). It is important to remember that the interpretation must always reflect the content and unity of the whole of Scripture. There is an integrity and harmony in the truths of Scripture, which is what the exegetes of Scripture work to maintain (see Dei Verbum, n.12).
Also, we need to study Scripture because we can easily rely on our perceptions and let our familiarity with many of the stories of Scripture lull us into thinking that we know the meanings of the language, culture, and context. Some of these perceptions can even exist as accepted myths.
For example, respond to the following five statements as true or false:
1. The books of the Bible were written in the order in which they appear, i.e., Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc.
2. The stories of Scripture, for the most part, were written when they occurred.
3. The Church possesses the original texts of the Bible.
4. There are no contradictions in Scripture.
5. One author wrote an entire book.
1. False: The books of the Bible are not arranged in chronological order. The dating is more complicated than that, and the dates for many books are given as possible ranges of years rather than specific dates.
2. False: The events that are recorded in the Bible were communicated orally for years before the final writing, editing, and acceptance into the canon of the Bible. Most people at the time of the events could not read or write.
3. False: We do not have any original texts of the Bible. We have early fragments and we are always working with translations of translations. Translations can be difficult, as words often do not translate easily into other languages.
4. False: There are many contradictions in Scripture—that is, similar accounts that do not match exactly. The order of creation in Genesis chapter 1 and chapter 2 is an example. Another example concerns the details of the conversion of Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.
5. False: The first step in the composition of any of the sacred texts was the oral telling of the story/event. Writing always came later. Usually there were many authors and editors until the final editor put the various stories and traditions together into a final book for acceptance into the canon, the officially accepted books considered inspired and normative.
If you responded “false” to each of these five statements, you probably have some background in Scripture. None of these statements is true. For the most part, they serve as some of the reasons why reliance on Scripture scholars for the study and interpretation of Scripture is needed for authentic reading. Those experienced in the study of the cultures, times, and language in which the various books of the Bible were written offer us the background we need to read Scripture with insight and understanding.
We need not be deterred from approaching Scripture; nor should we be simplistic in our approach to Scripture. Instead, this information can and should prompt us to rely on the guidance of the Church when approaching Scripture.
The Teaching Office of the Church
“The task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (Dei Verbum, n. 10). This can give us confidence and assurance. Humility and an open mind and heart to the guidance of the Holy Spirit are required for the study of Scripture. If few are able to study Shakespeare without assistance, one should not be surprised that Scripture, which is literature even more ancient, would also need commentaries, dictionaries, and summaries.
In the ministry of the Word, various Church documents call for formation in Scripture for Church ministers. The General Directory for Catechesis says that sacred Scripture should be the very “soul” of the formation of catechists (n. 240). The National Directory for Catechesis states that catechists must be firmly rooted in Sacred Scripture (n. 55E). How does a catechist proceed in this study? Some background information can be helpful.
First, if we have an acquaintance with types of literature, we can more easily appreciate the significance of this in the various books of the Bible. Knowing what form of literature is used and why it was used will give some insight into the message of the written work. Then theological errors can more easily be avoided. For instance, one won’t be tempted to read Genesis as scientific evidence regarding the beginning of the world when the book was written as poetry expressing the religious origins of creation and the goodness of the Creator revealed in all of it.
Second, understanding similarities and differences in the cultures of the Middle East can prepare us for meeting a different culture and time in the stories of our spiritual ancestors. The appreciation of the similar essential questions about the mysteries of life and death that are part of the faith journey will be found in the people of ancient times as well as in people today.
Skills for Scripture Study
For our personal faith, study of the Scriptures can occur through individual study, in a group, or in a more formal class setting. The goal of steeping ourselves in God’s Word is to nourish our faith so that our words and life make God visible in everyday life, which the opening statement explained. There are some skills we can develop to make this a reality.
First, make the reading of Scripture a frequent if not daily habit. Second, use the Bible when possible, not just selections taken from their source. Third, and very importantly, read the introduction to each book of the Bible and the footnotes. These sources of information are valuable for the context of the reading. Fourth, make use of the wisdom of the Scripture scholars by referencing a commentary and/or a dictionary. These aids approved by the Church authorities are readily available.
Finally, read more than the lectionary selections. Read an entire chapter or, better, an entire book. Then the hearing of the lectionary selections during Mass will have the added significance of the context in which they occur.
As we steep ourselves in the Scriptures in these ways, these habits will more easily become available to those to whom we minister. If we exhibit ease with approaching the sacred texts for nourishment and guidance, the faithful entrusted to our care will be encouraged to use the Scriptures for their own benefit as well. Guiding the faithful to read the information about the books in the Bible through the introductions and footnotes will help develop the appropriate reading habits for Scripture. Investigate together the customs and concerns of the people of another time and place, and discover together God’s care and mercy for humankind. What we practice regarding Scripture for ourselves will be the same traits we encourage and pass on to the faithful.
Developing skills for reading Scripture and habits of studying Scripture fulfills the role that is shared by the community entrusted with the Word of God. The community is to pray, study, celebrate, and pass on God’s Word so that it may come to know God more authentically through God’s own revelation—and know hope. The Word of God is the very presence of God. “For all that was written was for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Second Vatican Council.
General Directory for Catechesis (Congregation for the Clergy, United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C., usccbpublishing.org)
National Directory for Catechesis (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C., usccbpublishing.org)
Dr. Sue Grenough has worked extensively in the field of catechesis as a parish and a diocesan director of religious education. She teaches religious studies at Spalding University and frequently gives retreats and workshops.
The National Directory for Catechesis (NDC) states: “Jesus Christ is the energizing center of evangelization and the heart of catechesis” (n. 1). “Sacred Scripture inspires, directs, and nourishes the Church’s catechetical mission” (n. 3). The ongoing study of Scripture is a primary responsibility of the catechist. As catechists, we are to immerse ourselves in the study and incorporation of the Good News into every fiber of our lives. Never is the seriousness of this task to be taken lightly or sporadically, but woven into every catechetical learning experience.
Pope Benedict XVI has voiced his desire that by rediscovering the Word of God, which is always timely and never out of date, the Church might rejuvenate herself and experience a new springtime (Nikola ETEROVIC, see Instrumentum Laboris, Preface).
1. How does the metaphor of steeping tea communicate with my approach to the study of Scripture?
2. Why are environment, space, and time essential for my study of the Scriptures? How do I prioritize and set the stage for my study? Or what adaptations can I make to begin the journey?
3. What are the factors that influence the interpretation of the Scriptures? What have I read or studied lately that complements what I have read in this article? How has it been beneficial for my vocation as a catechist?
4. How does my perception color my understanding or misunderstanding of a Scripture passage or story? Give examples.
When I student the five false statements regarding the Scriptures presented by Dr. Grenough, what questions continue to emerge for me?
6. What are some effective approaches catechists may use in the study Scripture?
1. Reflect on the following sections of the NDC that highlight the fundamental objectives for catechesis related to the teaching of the Scriptures: (a) Pastoral Directives for Evangelization (n. 7E); (b) Inculturation of the Gospel Message (n. 21). Identify how these objectives are demonstrated in your catechetical planning. Or what steps need you consider to become more conscious in their application?
2. Throughout this UD catechist formation series we have suggested websites for your ongoing biblical studies. Spend time navigating through these websites or Google “Catholic biblical studies” or “Catholic Bible” to discover a wealth of catechetical materials. Share these with other catechists. Prepare a file of these resources for future reference.
3. Sign up for a course, workshop, or seminar in your parish, diocese, or online to strengthen your knowledge of Scripture.
4. Read the Instrumentum Laboris (The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, Synod of Bishops, 2008, vatican.va). What most motivates and inspires you regarding the Church’s vision for animating a new passion for the Scriptures?
Dawes, Gregory. Introduction to the Bible (New Collegeville Bible Commentary, Liturgical Press, litpress.org)
Bandstra, Barry L. Reading the Old Testament: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible (fourth edition, Wadsworth Publishing Company, wadsworth.com)
“The Bible Today” (journal, Liturgical Press, litpress.org)
Klein, Peter. The Scripture Source Book for Catholics (Harcourt Religion Publishers, harcourtpublishers.com)
Perkins, Pheme. Reading the New Testament (second edition, Paulist Press, paulistpress.com)
Online catechetical Scripture courses (vlc.udayton.edu)
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