Reading the Bible in Protestantism and Catholicism

Oct 2nd, 2014 | By | Category: Blog Posts, Catholic Life and Devotion

Louis Bouyer is one of the best resources for understanding the theological and devotional genius and goodness of Protestantism from a Catholic perspective. I was re-reading one of his books this morning and came across the following:

There is a kind of print or engraving popularized by Rembrandt, which conveys the very essence of Protestant piety. It shows a man or a woman with the Bible open on the knees, the hands joined, and the mind evidently completely absorbed both in what has just been read and in God, whom the person has thereby encountered. As if overcome by the abundance of riches it brings by this immediate, personal meeting with God . . . the person wants to fix the whole attention on him who speaks in [Scripture], who must be answered now as a child answers his father or mother. . . . Direct, familiar, heart-to-heart intercourse with God, created, upheld, ceaselessly renewed by individual reading of the Bible, with a prayer to God, which is felt, above all, as a response to his own Word–this, taken as its source, seen in its living heart, is Protestant spirituality.

(The Word, Church, and Sacraments In Protestantism and Catholicism [Ignatius, 2004], p. 14-15)

What Bouyer depicts here is of course a beautiful and salutary form of devotion, though it is worthwhile asking questions about the implicit context in which it occurs. G. K. Chesterton once illustrated the difference between Protestant and Catholic devotion to Jesus, in relation to Mary, by invoking the concept of the Baby Jesus suspended in mid-air, alone, versus the traditional, historical, and Incarnational image of the Holy Child in the arms of His Blessed Mother. I think that something similar applies to Bouyer’s depiction of Protestant devotion in relation to Catholic devotion to God as revealed in the Bible. In this case, Sacred Scripture is analogous to Christ, and the Church is like the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whose arms Catholics read and meditate upon the text, which is the traditional, historical, and Incarnational mode of feeding upon the written word of God.

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  1. Bouyer’s book Du protestantisme à l’Église was of great help to me in my becoming a Catholic.


  2. Direct, familiar, heart-to-heart intercourse with God

    This is beautiful, and in my view, is absolutely key for dialogue.

    As a lifelong Evangelical and recent Catholic (with stretch-Armstrong arms still trying to bridge the gap) I think that many Catholics would benefit from seeing and being really challenged/expected to emulate this personal-emotional relationship (particularly through Scripture). This is not contrary to any other Catholic practice, but is a (sometimes neglected) facet of Catholic life to be enjoyed in concert with corporate worship. I think Catholics would not only be strengthened personally, they would appreciate their Protestant brothers’ perspective more. And, those Protestant brothers may more fully consider their Catholic brother’s positions after seeing some shared “street cred” (not only Biblical literacy, but an authentic and non-robotic response).

  3. Ave Maria!
    Markesquire, you may be interested in the document “Verbum Domini.” It talks about the place Scripture should have in our spiritual life. Commenting on the post itself, the particular place one has to understand Scripture as “plugging in” is the Liturgy. It is not the Word of God to be merely read privately, but it is to be proclaimed to the people of God and the whole world. To remove Scripture from the context of the Liturgy of the Word, which is followed by the liturgy of the Eucharist and fulfilled by it, it to loose the entire context of the Bible.

    I have pasted section 86 below:

    86. The Synod frequently insisted on the need for a prayerful approach to the sacred text as a fundamental element in the spiritual life of every believer, in the various ministries and states in life, with particular reference to lectio divina.[290] The word of God is at the basis of all authentic Christian spirituality. The Synod Fathers thus took up the words of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum: “Let the faithful go gladly to the sacred text itself, whether in the sacred liturgy, which is full of the divine words, or in devout reading, or in such suitable exercises and various other helps which, with the approval and guidance of the pastors of the Church, are happily spreading everywhere in our day. Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture”.[291] The Council thus sought to reappropriate the great patristic tradition which had always recommended approaching the Scripture in dialogue with God. As Saint Augustine puts it: “Your prayer is the word you speak to God. When you read the Bible, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God”.[292] Origen, one of the great masters of this way of reading the Bible, maintains that understanding Scripture demands, even more than study, closeness to Christ and prayer. Origen was convinced, in fact, that the best way to know God is through love, and that there can be no authentic scientia Christi apart from growth in his love. In his Letter to Gregory, the great Alexandrian theologian gave this advice: “Devote yourself to the lectio of the divine Scriptures; apply yourself to this with perseverance. Do your reading with the intent of believing in and pleasing God. If during the lectio you encounter a closed door, knock and it will be opened to you by that guardian of whom Jesus said, ‘The gatekeeper will open it for him’. By applying yourself in this way to lectio divina, search diligently and with unshakable trust in God for the meaning of the divine Scriptures, which is hidden in great fullness within. You ought not, however, to be satisfied merely with knocking and seeking: to understand the things of God, what is absolutely necessary is oratio. For this reason, the Saviour told us not only: ‘Seek and you will find’, and ‘Knock and it shall be opened to you’, but also added, ‘Ask and you shall receive’”.[293]

    In this regard, however, one must avoid the risk of an individualistic approach, and remember that God’s word is given to us precisely to build communion, to unite us in the Truth along our path to God. While it is a word addressed to each of us personally, it is also a word which builds community, which builds the Church. Consequently, the sacred text must always be approached in the communion of the Church. In effect, “a communal reading of Scripture is extremely important, because the living subject in the sacred Scriptures is the People of God, it is the Church… Scripture does not belong to the past, because its subject, the People of God inspired by God himself, is always the same, and therefore the word is always alive in the living subject. As such, it is important to read and experience sacred Scripture in communion with the Church, that is, with all the great witnesses to this word, beginning with the earliest Fathers up to the saints of our own day, up to the present-day magisterium”.[294]

    For this reason, the privileged place for the prayerful reading of sacred Scripture is the liturgy, and particularly the Eucharist, in which, as we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament, the word itself is present and at work in our midst. In some sense the prayerful reading of the Bible, personal and communal, must always be related to the Eucharistic celebration. Just as the adoration of the Eucharist prepares for, accompanies and follows the liturgy of the Eucharist,[295] so too prayerful reading, personal and communal, prepares for, accompanies and deepens what the Church celebrates when she proclaims the word in a liturgical setting. By so closely relating lectio and liturgy, we can better grasp the criteria which should guide this practice in the area of pastoral care and in the spiritual life of the People of God.

    87. The documents produced before and during the Synod mentioned a number of methods for a faith-filled and fruitful approach to sacred Scripture. Yet the greatest attention was paid to lectio divina, which is truly “capable of opening up to the faithful the treasures of God’s word, but also of bringing about an encounter with Christ, the living word of God”.[296] I would like here to review the basic steps of this procedure. It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas. Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged. Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us. Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us? In the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul tells us: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Contemplation aims at creating within us a truly wise and discerning vision of reality, as God sees it, and at forming within us “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). The word of God appears here as a criterion for discernment: it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). We do well also to remember that the process of lectio divina is not concluded until it arrives at action (actio), which moves the believer to make his or her life a gift for others in charity.

    We find the supreme synthesis and fulfilment of this process in the Mother of God. For every member of the faithful Mary is the model of docile acceptance of God’s word, for she “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19; cf. 2:51); she discovered the profound bond which unites, in God’s great plan, apparently disparate events, actions and things.[297]

    I would also like to echo what the Synod proposed about the importance of the personal reading of Scripture, also as a practice allowing for the possibility, in accordance with the Church’s usual conditions, of gaining an indulgence either for oneself or for the faithful departed.[298] The practice of indulgences[299] implies the doctrine of the infinite merits of Christ – which the Church, as the minister of the redemption, dispenses and applies, but it also implies that of the communion of saints, and it teaches us that “to whatever degree we are united in Christ, we are united to one another, and the supernatural life of each one can be useful for the others”.[300] From this standpoint, the reading of the word of God sustains us on our journey of penance and conversion, enables us to deepen our sense of belonging to the Church, and helps us to grow in familiarity with God. As Saint Ambrose puts it, “When we take up the sacred Scriptures in faith and read them with the Church, we walk once more with God in the Garden”.[301]

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