The Bible tells the story of God’s repeated attempts to form a link with humanity. For Catholics, the implication is that God continues to reach out to us now, out of pure love.

From Genesis to Revelation, we read that God chose patriarchs, sent commandments, commissioned prophets, ordained kings, became incarnate and established a church so that we might stay in relationship with the Almighty and live according to divine intent. Why all these various attempts to get through? It seems we are a bit thick-headed, or in the Hebrew expression, “stiff necked.”

Some Christians act as if the Bible fell from the sky whole and then the church came along to follow it. By contrast, Catholics embrace the historical reality, which is that Scripture began as oral tradition handed down lovingly through generations in all kinds of settings. The written Christian Bible was a collection formed via the church’s discernment in the centuries following the death of Jesus. That’s why for Catholics, Scripture and church tradition have similar authority. We believe both are inspired by God.

The Bible is a collection of stories and letters from various perspectives, from the desert camps of ancient Israel to a Roman prison where St. Paul wrote some of Christianity’s oldest documents. For Catholics, it is good to understand the historical contexts from which Scriptures emerge. For example, a persecuted group of Christians told the story of Jesus in a different way than a relatively safe society of philosophers. The more we know of such history, the richer our understanding.

What ties the Bible’s varied accounts together is God’s abiding interest in and love for Israel and the church, inviting the human family to respond with faith and integrity. We witness this theme, for example, in God’s thunderous acts of liberation in the book of Exodus and again in the stunning story of Jesus’ teaching, death and rising.

Sadly, Catholic enthusiasm for the Bible chilled in the 16th century when Martin Luther and other reformers insisted that Scripture alone was the source of authority, thus downgrading 1,500 years of Christian tradition. But by the 1940s, Catholic Scripture scholars began to take a fresh look and there has been a great flourishing of Catholic interest in the Bible.

Catholics know it is the book for the church, not a private library. Only in the context of the church’s faith and tradition can the full meaning of the Bible be discovered. Loners often come up with bizarre interpretations.

And, unlike those doomsayers, Catholics know the Bible’s authority arises because the texts are compelling, not coercive. The Bible may not help us predict what will happen next year, but it will allow us to better understand a God who is faithful, encouraging and full of surprises.

Ed Langlois is managing editor of the Catholic Sentinel. He holds a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from the University of Portland. 

This story was featured in the Catholic Sentinel’s April 19 special print insert, “Catholic Basics: A guide to the fundamentals of the faith.” A version of this story ran in 2018.