Hearts Aflame: Catholics and Inductive Bible Study
From the Sep/Oct 2004 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
In this selection, Gayle Somers introduces the principles that should guide a Catholic’s study of the Bible. She offers unique insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the inductive Bible study method—giving readers a way to avoid erroneous biblical interpretation by embracing the fullness of Catholic truth.
Gayle is coauthor with Sarah Christmyer of the new Hearts Aflame Bible study series. This new series combines the effectiveness of inductive study with the richness of Catholic tradition and teaching. GenesisI: God and His Creation, the first title in the series, is coming soon from Emmaus Road Publishing.
When I converted to the Catholic Church in 1995, after being an Evangelical Protestant for 28 years, one of the first things I was asked to do was lead a parish Bible study. A handful of women who knew my background said to me, “We want to study the Bible like the Protestants do.” Several of them had experiences with Community Bible Study (CBS) or Bible Study Fellowship (BSF), large Protestant organizations that have covered the globe with well-organized Bible studies. Without knowing its name, these women wanted to do inductive Bible study. This style of Scripture study was all I knew, so it was a happy arrangement. I’ve been leading Catholic inductive Bible studies ever since.
What is inductive Bible study? It is an approach to Scripture that asks lots of questions to arrive at the meaning or application of the text. It is the opposite of deductive Bible study, which begins with a statement of the meaning of the text and then develops application. Over my many years’ experience with Catholic adults and Scripture, I have had a lot of opportunities to think long and hard about inductive Bible study and its value to Catholics. It
didn’t take long for me to recognize that most of the Catholics I met who had any interest at all in Scripture study had spent some time, somewhere, in a Protestant inductive Bible study. Without exception, they were drawn to the vigor, clarity, and direct personal application they experienced in such studies. They did not hesitate to tell me that Catholic Bible studies, by comparison, were often bland and not very engaging. They had come to the conclusion that Catholics just don’t do inductive Bible study. If they wanted to learn the Scripture in a lively and personal way, they thought they had no other choice but to join a Protestant inductive Bible study.
I was eager to show them that they can certainly study Scripture in a fruitful way in the Catholic Church. However, when I began to lead Catholic inductive Bible studies, I slowly developed some questions and concerns about how well this study method, which is essentially Protestant, transplants into Catholic soil. This period of evaluation, which has involved hundreds of “guinea pigs” in my parish, has been extremely helpful to me. It has made me aware of the strengths and weaknesses of inductive Bible study. Fortunately, the strengths are real strengths, and the weaknesses can be addressed and mended. Inductive Bible study can be an effective, profitable way for Catholics to engage with Scripture. Below are a few reasons why:
(1) Inductive Bible study is text intensive.That is, it requires careful, frequent reading of the actual words of the passage. The value of this step in Bible study cannot be exaggerated, particularly for Catholics. For a variety of reasons, most Catholics today lack basic biblical literacy. Certainly many are familiar with Gospel readings, but very few have actually picked up a Bible and read it on their own. They do not know the words of Scripture as well as they could. This is a tragic deficiency, because the words of Scripture are supernatural words.
The Church tells us that the words of Scripture are God’s words, as well as the words of men (cf. Catechism, no. 105). Reading Scripture isn’t like reading the newspaper. The words of God have extraordinary, divine power (think of God “speaking” creation into existence in Genesis 1, or of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead by a shout), whether spoken or written.
Inductive Bible study, because it requires thoughtful and prolonged contact with the words of a text, is an excellent way for Catholics to encounter Scripture. The fathers of Vatican II desired this experience for all Catholics, both laity and clergy: “The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful . . . to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8).
Therefore, they should gladly put themselves in touch with the sacred text itself” (Dei Verbum, no. 25). A text-intensive approach to Scripture is not just for Protestants.
(2) Inductive Bible study introduces Catholics to long portions of Scripture, usually whole books. This is the only way to effectively teach contextual comprehension of the Bible. All verses of Scripture have a context, and the context provides invaluable help in understanding them. This is especially important for Catholics, who hear fairly small portions of Scripture read during Mass. Studying a whole Gospel, for example, can dramatically enhance comprehension of the Gospel readings. Studying a whole epistle of St. Paul’s helps Catholics to know his vitality, his brilliance, and his great passion for the Christians to whom he wrote. After that kind of study, hearing a few verses of his letters at Mass is like re-reading a letter from an old friend. Nothing demonstrates the importance of context as well as inductive Bible study.
(3) Inductive Bible study develops the reading habit of a curious mind. Over time, the inductive methodology changes all Scripture reading for the person trained by it. The words, phrases, dramatic action, and narrative choices of a text all become much more obvious and interesting to the Catholic who has done inductive Bible study. The mental tools of comprehension become well developed, making it easier to read and understand any passage of Scripture.
With so many strengths, what are some of the challenges presented to Catholics by this Scripture study methodology?
(1) Inductive Bible study can feel too open-ended, as if Scripture means whatever we think it means. This is the most difficult challenge for Catholics in using it, because we know that the Church, not the individual, is the final interpreter of Scripture (cf. Catechism, no. 85). Catholic inductive Bible study needs to be closely keyed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and kept within the bounds of Church teaching. Although the Church has not interpreted every verse in the Bible, she does have defined doctrines that set the limits for what we think various Bible passages can mean. Catholics understand that the guidance of the Church about the truth of Scripture is a wonderful liberation in Bible study. It prevents us from drifting off into interesting but false interpretations.
(2) Inductive Bible study can make Scripture seem like a textbook. We must guard against this notion at all costs. Although we study the Bible, it is not data to be mastered. The Church tells us that “in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the Word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life” (Dei Verbum, no. 21). Our tradition of lectio divina, which preserves the true nature of Scripture as a loving conversation between God and His children, needs to be retained in our inductive Bible studies. Application questions in our studies should not sound like steps in a self-help manual. They should direct us to listen carefully for the quiet voice of God. They should prepare us to say, as we open our Bibles, “Speak, for thy servant hears” (1 Sam. 3:10).
So, can and should Catholics do inductive Bible study? I am happy to report, after nearly a decade of working with adult Catholics in this study method, that Catholics who have used it, with some adjustments, have developed deep, rich relationships with God through His Word.
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