What is the Secret to Understanding Scripture?

Some years ago a scripture professor asked: “Do you know what the biggest obstacle is in understanding Scripture?”

Now since we were doing graduate level Scripture study, a few of us opined that it was the lack of the knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. Or perhaps it was that people today do not know the culture of Jesus’ time, or have not studied the historical-critical method (that answer usually got us extra points in Scripture class back in those days). Other students opined that fundamentalism was the biggest problem (another answer sure to gain points back then).

“No” said the professor. “Our biggest problem in understanding Scripture is our sin.”

Could it be that simple? Surely the woeful lack of catechesis, and the general ignorance of Scripture is the reason!

No, it is our sin. For if we were pure in heart we would seek truth, love Scripture, and the study of the faith. No one would have to drag us to Mass, and staying alert during the readings, sermon and prayers would be little effort, since some one we loved, the Lord, was speaking. We would prefer the beauty of God’s truth to the empty and vain trends of the world, and error would repulse and trouble us. Ignorance and lack of learning would not be an issue, for we would say with Blessed Job: Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12).

If we were pure in heart we would not wince at the moral teaching of the Scripture and rashly and rebelliously reject it as unrealistic and outdated. Instead we would weep for our sins and rejoice in the truth with the words of Baruch: Happy are we. O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us (Baruch 4:4)!

If we were pure in heart, our minds would connect so many dots, for we would lovingly remember that God had said similar things in other passages. We would see how grace and love and mercy were like threads connecting the whole of Scripture and Tradition. We would see victory even in apparent defeat, providence on every page, and wisdom in every paradox. We would see the whole of the Old Testament as a preparation for Jesus, the whole of the New Testament as the fulfillment of that was promised, and more. Love would enlighten every page of Scripture and Tradition, and that very light would scatter the darkness of worldly errors and selfish interpretations.

Yes, is quite simple in the end, our sin is our biggest obstacle in understanding God’s word. Sin leads to senseless, foolish and darkened minds.

Greek is good, parsing Hebrew verbs, a worthy matter. But seeking a purer heart opens doors that exegetical methods can only knock on. Learning is surely good and required, especially if it looks to the heavens, but only pure love can pierce the veil.

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Matt 5:9).

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children (Matt 11:25)

Here is a funny video that reminds us that things are sometimes simpler than they first appear.

26 Replies to “What is the Secret to Understanding Scripture?”

  1. No replies yet…..I take it that means none of us are pure at heart then.

  2. Lovely. Encouraging. We only need to pray to our Loving God for good things and He will grant it to us.

  3. It seems to me that you’re talking about two different meanings of the phrase “understanding Scripture.” To “unpack” the exact meaning of the words, phrases, pericopes, and books of Scripture in a way consistent with ancient ways of thought and speech, as well as the cultural, legal, historical, and social situations from which they arose, requires much study of the ancient languages as well as the those same situations. Neither faith nor purity of heart is required. On the other hand, to understand the spiritual message of Scripture, God’s message of freedom and love, requires faith and purity of heart (along with other virtues). It does not require any education, not even the ability to read, for someone can (for example) memorize Psalm 23 or other passages without even being able to read them. To such a person, however, the particular meanings of most biblical passages will remain unknown and confusing. The best biblical scholars, in my opinion, combine both of these traits. I mean people like Origen and St. Jerome, as well as many biblical scholars today (who are not the monsters that traditionalists and fundamentalists like to make them out to be–I should know; my wife is one!).

  4. And my biggest sin that obscures the meaning of scripture is my pride–the belief that I know better than my Mother what God is trying to teach me.

  5. I hv always interpreted Matt 5:9 as a promise to see God in heaven. This article has given me a new perspective. And it makes sense because understanding the word of God, which is God, is a way of seeing God. But I’d love to ask, will the saved ones see God in his form in heaven, since as Aquinas said, God has no form and cannot be contained?

  6. Msgr.,

    I can’t picture you trying to curry favor with your professors by telling them what they wanted to hear! Perish the thought!

    I believe this fits in with meditations of others I have read about Our Lady who, being free from all sin, can be said to be wiser than all other humans. If Scripture is a product of the mind of God, one needs to have a mind as closely conformed to God’s mind in order to understand Scripture. Our Lady would probably have been the best in that regard.

  7. Yes, yes, yes. Speaking from personal experience, when I am in a state of sin I tend to shy away from even trying to read Scripture. When in sin the practice of Faith becomes a burden…it becomes hollow and mechanical. I still believe, but it is an almost purely intellectual belief. Thank you for this timely post…time to get back to confession…to get my heart as well as my mind back in the game.

  8. It takes humility to be able to see how we fail when faced with moral teachings. Our culture bombards us with the theology of retreat: if it hurts us or convicts us then we’re to run away and distract ourselves with video games or some other addiction.

    Thank you for your succinct and instructive teachings, Monsignor Pope.

  9. Penetrating the the meaning of Scripture is given by the gift of the Holy Spirit of Understanding (which also allows the mind the penetrate the revealed truths of our religion).

    Understanding, with the other six gifts grow with the theological virtue of charity.

  10. I have never winced at the moral teaching of the scriptures, but I have felt guilty because of sin. Because of this I have stopped praying, stopped talking to god, and generally felt unforgiveable. But only for a short time. Luckly something always kicks in and reminds me to pray, especially now, especially when I sin, ask for forgiveness, ask for guidense. Thankfully God is always faithful. He has pulled me away from sin so many times you would think I would be a saint by now. You think I would have learned by now. I hope I have. If you have problems understanding teachings of the scriptures, especially the easy ones, don’t kill, don’t steal etc. Ask, seek understanding, God will answer your prayers. It’s what he wants you to do.

  11. I think this is correct. Sin probably has a host of spiritual, physical, and mental effects that cloud our life which we often mistake merely for life’s every day hurdles. Couldn’t some of the saints actually smell the “stench” of sin?

  12. You know, understanding Scripture is crucial but we also have to realize that God is speaking to us individually through Scripture. When we read Scripture, our lives have just crossed paths with Christ, the Word and He’s talking to us in the context of our lives at that moment.

    God didn’t write Scripture for “us”….he wrote it for each and every one of us. This is equally crucial as understanding Scripture intellectually.

  13. If this is true nobody will understand scripture. God loved us even when we were sinners.

    It is the absence of Jesus in our life that keeps us from understanding scripture.

      1. Ok, maybe we just dont want to really and sincerely understand and know scripture…

        We begin here…

        1. We need to understand Scripture, but we need to realize that God is speaking to us through Scripture (among other ways He speaks to us)

          One fourth of the Catechism deals with prayer. Right in the beginning of that section,some points are made clear:

          Prayer is conversation with God
          He always starts it (example the “Where are you? What have you done? conversation with Adam and Eve)
          He speaks to us through His Son, the Word…Scripture incarnate.

          “Understanding” has to do with our brain, but “hearing” incorporates our heart into the process. If We don’t hear Christ through the word, how can we pray?

          Prayer, like Faith doesn’t come from us directed towards God, it comes from Him directed toward us. When we go pray the rosary, it doesn’t really originate from us…He put that desire in our hearts sometime before then.

          In my restaurant, I have a lot of dear customers and friends who are Protestant….and often I have to remind them that we’re saved by Faith and Baptism….not Bible knowledge.

  14. Since the scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, I have a hunch that receiving the Baptism of the Spirit is a sine qua non condition to understanding them.

  15. My first thought of an answer, from reading the question, was self imposing scripture. Meaning by reading scripture to fit ones own life. I see to many people (I myself sometimes) just taking what they want to take out of the Bible. This is done usually to backup (justify) the sin in our lives.

  16. I appreciate and grateful for all comments and my contribution is that my understanding of scripture improved after my baptism and tremendously improved after confirmation and frequent receipt of Holly Communion and Eucharist adoration on Fridays

  17. I tend to agree. The pure at heart, if such exist on this side of the veil, would see that lessons about sin show that hurting ourselves is … hurting ourselves.

  18. This will be posted in my web-pages Folder of Fame! This is the kernel (the mustard seed) I have been seeking to acknowledge the change in me since taking on bible study eighteen months ago and committing to living a life imitating Christ. YES! YES! and YES! (When we change for the good, it must be for good—no turning back!)

    Thank you Msgr. Pope!!!

  19. Okay, I have a question if anyone is still reading this thread. Which is the better translation from Sunday’s July 1 reading, “destructive drug” or “poison”

    First Reading (Wisdom 1:13…)

    USCCB website translation:
    God did not make death,
    nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
    For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
    and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
    and there is not a destructive drug among them
    nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
    for justice is undying.

    Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible

    For God made not death, neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. [14] For he created all things that they might be: and he made the nations of the earth for health: and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor kingdom of hell upon the earth. [15] For justice is perpetual and immortal.

  20. (Cont)So, here’s the point. Okay two points. First, I like tilasantrons that stick with ‘God Breathed’ because we read back in our definition of “inspired” when we look at that verse. The word ‘inspired’ makes people think that the Bible authors were inspired the same way musicians are inspired. Conversely, it makes people think that when they “feel inspired” by God, or when “God speaks through me” that it has the same level authority of that of the Scripture, and it just doesn’t. Second, when Paul uses that word he is acknowledging that God did something special and unique to bring about what we call the Old Testament. Not just the prophetic works, or the Theological works, or the poetic works but all of it. He is claiming that, knowing or not, what was written down was what the Holy Spirit intended to be written down. The prophets heard from God directly so it’s easy to say “inspired.” But the guy who recorded all the boring lineage stuff inspired too- or rather, God-breathed. So, back to the original question did Paul know that what he was writing was inspired? Based on the above, can I change the question to, “Did Paul know that what he was writing was God-Breathed?” I think saying it that way differentiates it from when we say things like, “I was prompted by the Holy Spirit”, or “God was speaking through me.” My opinion, is No, but I don’t really have a problem with Yes either. In the same way the lineage guy was merely writing “so-and-so begat so-and-so” I think Paul was merely (!!) writing letters of encouragement and instruction and explanation to people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. In both cases the words in those letters also happened to be the words that the Holy Spirit “super-intended” to be written down.

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