Misreading the Bible

by John Wijngaards, letter to the Tablet, 11 October 1997

Sir, in response to my article “See yourself in the Bible” (27 September), Hubert Richards rightly underlines the need of reading Scripture with circumspection, especially when we want to ascertain what God is really saying to us in our search for spiritual fulfilment. However, his letter raises some important issues concerning the pastoral use of God’s Word which deserve further comment.

First I must set the record straight with regard to one of Thérèse’s favourite texts. The translation of “little one” in Pr. 9:4 can be defended as entirely legitimate. Though the Hebrew word in question does often have innuendoes of childishness and immaturity, the word itself simply means “youngster”. Zorell’s Hebrew dictionary says that in some texts the word denotes “a person young by age, presumed to be good, without negative connotation”. Parallels of this usage occur in Pr.1:4 and 7:7. St. Jerome’s fifth-century Vulgate, from which Thérèse’s French Bible derived, follows this interpretation. Jerome must have studied the word carefully for he deliberately does not follow the Septuagint.

Thérèse was totally unaware of this academic background, as Richards points out, for she was no Scripture scholar. “She knew no Hebrew or Greek.” However, and this is extremely relevant to the point in question, she had read Scripture carefully and extensively. Her autobiography contains a total of 121 biblical quotations, half of which are from the Gospels. Twenty-one times she cites a verse from the Psalms; nine times from St Paul’s letters. Her favourite Old Testament texts are from: Isaiah, Canticles, Wisdom, Proverbs and Tobit. If we keep in mind that on 121 texts only 5 are quoted a second time and that Thérèse did not write to impress an audience, the wide range is truly astounding. Here is someone for whom God’s Word was real, who was attempting to make God’s Word her own; even though she was no academic scholar.

I am sure that Richards will agree with me that we do not need to be scholars to benefit from Scripture, but he, and others in the academic world, may not have sufficiently reflected on the implications of that fact. God speaks to us through a broken Word: a Word that often comes to us in a defective translation, that is often only partly understood and that addresses us as individuals with our own needs and our own limited perception. In fact, one could ask: is it then still God’s Word? The answer surely must be: YES.

If Scripture is God revealing himself/herself to us, God’s Word must also follow the principle of communication: “The meaning of the message lies in the hearer”. Whatever the original intention of the biblical authors, the inspired Word only becomes a meeting between God and the believer in the sense understood by the believer. God speaks to me by touching my mind and my heart. The scriptural words are only the channel, the tools, the sparking plug in God’s hands. What really matters in the end is a meeting between me and the living God, however much my understanding of his Word is broken and partial. And God takes my own images, my self understanding, very seriously.

Thérèse exemplifies this pastoral principle admirably. As I wrote in my article, she had a highly personal, even idiosyncratic way, of interpreting Scripture. Yet she absorbed its core meaning correctly. And she knew it was God responding to her directly: “Oh God, you have gone beyond my dreams! You yourself have shown me the way!”

The dangers of misinterpreting Scripture and misconstruing God’s Word are real, as Church history shows. But the opposite dangers of isolating and anodising Scripture through academic overkill are equally real. The Bible is the people’s book. In it God addresses each one of us individually, challenging us to a highly personal response. And, God speaks purposely through images because they are open ended.