The Holy Spirit: Interpreting Scripture and the Joint Mission of the Son and the Spirit

No book, not even an inspired one, interprets itself.  Humans do that.  So when Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood the meaning of the passage from Isaiah he was reading, the eunuch replied, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” (Acts 8:31). The Bible is a book written in three dead languages between three thousand and two thousand years ago.  It was written by and for people living in a culture vastly different from our own, addressing questions that are often completely foreign to the post-modern mind and using images and terminology we often do not understand without help or, worst of all, imagine we understand when we are, in fact, completely misreading it. 

Nobody would simply pick up a copy of the Iliad, the Enuma Elish of ancient Mesopotamia, or Dante’s Divine Comedy and declare, “I’ve got this.  God will tell me what it all means.  I don’t need human teachers.”  But many people labor under exactly this illusion when it comes to the Bible.

How do we learn to read Scripture?  Well, if you want to understand the U.S. Constitution, you try to find out what the Framers meant by reading the Federalist Papers, a series of documents they wrote which tell us what they meant and what they were trying to accomplish with each article of the Constitution.

To understand Scripture, we do something analogous: we turn to the teaching of the Church to whom Christ said “I will be with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20); to whom he promised the Spirit who “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13) and to whom he gave apostles with the promise, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).

That Church gives us three guidelines when approaching Scripture[1]:

  1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”.

Being “attentive to the content and unity of the whole Scripture” means that we need to remember Scripture is both a library of seventy-three books containing many different kinds of literature written over a wide range of times and place by different authors to different audiences, but that it is also directed by the Spirit toward one end: the revelation of Jesus, the Word made flesh, to the glory of God the Father.  So we need to read it in different ways. Poetry is not read the same way as historical chronicle, which is not read the same way as myth, which is not read the same way as parable, which is not read the same way as apocalyptic literature, which is not read the same way as moral exhortation, which is not read the same way as theological reflection and so forth.

Commentaries can be very useful here, since they not only bring to bear the thought of previous generations of Christians for the past two thousand years, but also, the work of modern scholarship and the developed teaching of the Church, all of which can give us greater insights into the meaning of a text and how it relates to other passages in Scripture.

  • Read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church”.

To “read the Scripture within ‘the living tradition of the whole Church’” means to pay attention to how the Church has always understood the teaching the apostles handed down to it—and to how that Tradition has developed over time in union with the Magisterium.  The apostles did not simply hand on a book: they handed on a living Tradition that comes down to us in both written and unwritten form (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:15).  That Tradition is the common life, common worship, and common teaching of the People of God, guarded by the bishops in union with the successor of Peter known as the Pope, all in succession from the first apostles. Sacred Scripture is nothing more or other than those books the Church either received from Israel to prepare the way for the Messiah or those books she received from the apostolic Church which reveal the Messiah and are read in the celebration of the Eucharist he handed over to the Church to celebrate “in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).  Accordingly, just as a mustard seed grows and changes into a mustard plant without mutating into an octopus or a pine tree, so the Church grows and develops in its understanding of the Tradition as the Spirit guides her into all truth without losing any of the deposit of faith the apostles handed on to her.

  • Be attentive to the analogy of faith.

If you think of Scripture as a goldfish and Sacred Tradition as the water in which the goldfish swims, then the “analogy of faith” is the goldfish bowl.  It is the body of Magisterial teaching that has come down to us over the centuries as the Church has, on occasion, defined its teaching.  Indeed, a supreme example of it is the Creed itself, which helps to describe the faith of the Church as it is expressed in Scripture.  Note that Catholics do not “believe in” either the Creed or the Scriptures.  Rather, they believe in the personal, triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Teaching documents such as papal encyclicals, conciliar documents, letters from bishops, or summaries of Church teaching such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church can help us greatly in learning to read Scripture with the mind of Christ.

The Joint Mission of the Son and the Spirit

Luke begins his second volume—the Book of Acts—with these very significant words:

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up…. (Acts 1:1-2)

The obvious implication is that, as the title suggests, Acts will relate what Jesus is now continuing to do and teach.  And indeed, even a casual reading of the book makes clear that the mission Jesus began in the flesh by his Incarnation, Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension is indeed now continuing in all its supernatural power through his body, the Church.  From the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on his disciples in Acts 2 to the triple reiterations of Jesus’ words to St. Paul, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14), Luke makes extremely clear that Jesus completely identifies himself with the baptized and teaches Paul to understand that what he does to them, he does to Christ. Likewise, what the Church does in her liturgies and sacraments—and in acts of love done in obedience to Jesus—is the work of the Jesus himself, continuing his saving work by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why the creedal discussion of the Holy Spirit does not end here, but continues on to discuss the Body of which he is the soul: the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

[1] Dei Verbum, 12 § 4


4 Responses

  1. So this is probably my fault:
    An InConsistent Life Ethic: A Review of The Church’s Best-Kept Secret by Mark Shea

    Now, just to be clear, the contexts in which I recommended your book had nothing to do with abortion. There were in response to these articles:
    Catholic Virtue Vs. Modern Virtue Signaling
    Two Lessons Learned from Catholic Integralism

    The reason I told him to do so, were because he seemed to exhibit a very shallow or a complete lack of understanding of Catholic Social Teaching. I mean, at one point, he was pitting “environmentalism” against “Catholic Virtues”, and at another, he was flirting with the idea of “Catholic Integralism.” I know that the Church has a few things to say about the proper roles and responsibilities of government, but as far as I can tell, a complete authoritarian takeover of it by the Church isn’t one of them.

    But of course, he had to make it all about abortion, because that’s the only thread he could hang on to. Ironically, despite his intentions to the contrary, he actually make you look pretty good. He also, perhaps inadvertently, became an example of the very thing you criticize: using the unborn as human shields for all the other GOP policies that run counter to Catholic teaching.

    From this and numerous interactions I and others have had with him, I can tell that self-awareness is not his strong suit, at least when it comes to these kinds of subjects.

    1. I saw the piece. Yeah, he doesn’t get it and winds up doing everything I describe in the book in terms of reading Catholic teaching through his culture war lenses instead of reading his culture war dogmas in light of Catholic teaching. He also displays in other pieces, *the* number one psychological trait of MAGAfied conservatism, a chronic and profound terror of empathy for anybody who is not Himself or an extension of his ego. It is super-weird. He literally writes an article warning of the danger of empathy (cuz that is totally something conservatives like him are always in peril of getting carried away with.)

      Reminds me of Screwtape: “We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere “understanding”. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.”

      The spectacle of the worshippers of spite and cruelty in Donald Trump warning one another against empathy is a prime illustration.

      Anyway, thanks for challenging him. It is utterly characteristic that, as conservatives overwhelmingly tend to do, he manages to reduce all of Catholic Social Doctrine to Sola Abortion and a dwarfish and truncated bit about subsidiarity that come down to “I do what I want and the state can go to hell.”

    2. @Mark:
      I held back my initial thoughts, because I didn’t want to get mired in another argument about abortion, and I got him to admit, quite begrudgingly and perhaps inadvertently, that he doesn’t have any problems with the actual contents of the book, just with what he thinks are the political implications, or as he puts it, the “conundrum” it places conservative Catholics in.

      Of course, what he seems to fail to realize, is that if he doesn’t find the book to be an actual misrepresentation of Catholic doctrine, then what he really has a problem with, is with Catholic teaching itself. Maybe that will sink in. Eventually.

      So I decided to actually get a copy myself, especially given I’ve recommended it several times now, based on the excerpts I’ve read and your previous writing on the subject. I tried to buy it directly from your store, but for some reason it doesn’t accept Puerto Rico as a valid billing address, so I ended up getting in though Amazon. You might want to look into that, along with the problems when trying to view the previews you’ve posted on this site.

      Anyways, cheers, and have a happy 4th of July!

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