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Spirituality of Sacred Scripture

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The expression, “Spirituality of Sacred Scripture,” can have many meanings. It will be useful in this article to examine some of these meanings, and then concentrate on the one meaning in which we use this term in the present volume.

Spirituality of Sacred Scripture can mean a study of the spiritual life based on the Bible. Other sources of insight, like revealed Tradition, are not questioned or ignored, but the almost exclusive emphasis is on Sacred Scripture.

Again, spirituality of Sacred Scripture, or biblical spirituality, can refer to that part of biblical theology which chooses for special study the life and teaching of the spiritual giants of biblical history. In the Old Testament, they would be persons like Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah; and in the New Testament, figures like John the Baptist, Peter, John and Paul. Biblical Mariology would belong to this category, where the life and virtues of the Blessed Virgin are explored in their scriptural setting and the resulting conclusions are applied to our own spiritual life today.

Along the same lines, biblical spirituality can be a selective analysis of some particular aspect of the spiritual life, like the Holy Spirit at work in the world; or some virtue, like faith, humility or charity. In each case the Scriptures would be the main, if not exclusive, basis for investigation.

On the widest scale, every life of Christ is, in its way, a manual of biblical spirituality. Even when an author tries to limit himself to the external facts related in the Gospels, inevitably the spiritual dimension of Christ’s personality shines through. It is impossible to talk or write about the Savior without revealing something of the Spirit with whom, as God, He had the same divine nature and, by whom, as man, He was filled to the depths of His humanity.

What Is the Spirituality of Sacred Scripture?

In the present study, spirituality of Sacred Scripture is the science and art of the spiritual life as revealed in Sacred Scripture, interpreted by the Church, and lived out by the saintly followers of Christ from apostolic times to the present day.

Biblical spirituality is, therefore, first of all a science. It is a science of faith because it accepts Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as the sources of divine revelation. We believe on faith what God has revealed. But we also accept the Church’s teaching on the meaning of divine revelation and on how this revealed wisdom is to be put into practice. Moreover, as a science, biblical spirituality forms an organized body of knowledge that has been developed over the centuries. Building on the deposit of faith, it seeks by human reason to show how the spiritual life is not only consistent with sound philosophy, but raises man’s nature to heights of sublimity that would be impossible apart from Christianity.

But biblical spirituality is also an art, indeed, the greatest of the arts. Its purpose is nothing less than to lead the believer to Christian perfection. It recognizes that progress in holiness is a growth, traditionally in three stages, namely the purgative, illuminative and unitive. The work of the purgative way is to purify a person from his sins and streng-then him against committing them in the future. Once more or less purified, the believer must “put on Christ.” This means that one’s thoughts become more and more the thoughts of Christ, seeing as it were through His eyes. Finally in the unitive state, a person’s will becomes so united with the will of God that He is loved with selfless patience and generosity.

It is called spirituality of Sacred Scripture because the main resources on which it relies are the books of the Old and New Testaments.

A word of explanation is in place, however, to make clear that both Testaments of Scripture provide the revealed foundations of biblical spirituality. On first sight this may seem strange. Why? Because the ultimate purpose of our study is to become more like Christ, and yet we include in its scope the whole ambit of the Old Testament which, by definition, was written before Christ came into the world.

Does the Old Testament have anything to teach Christians today about the following of Christ? Yes, it does. There is, of course, a true sense in which all the Bible before the time of Christ is “old,” even as the Scriptures written during apostolic times are “new.”

Nevertheless, there is a basic unity of the Bible which underlies both Testaments; a unity so strong and pervasive that Catholics are only gradually coming to realize its importance in their spiritual lives.

Take the simple fact that the Liturgy of the Hours, which is mainly the Psalms, is now being followed by a growing number of the faithful in every state of life. Either they can find Christ somehow in the Psalms, or much of the Divine Office will be mistakenly considered beautiful but prechristian poetry.

This unity of the Scriptures is not bookish. It comes from the person who is their very center, Jesus Christ. What we call the Old Testament is the announcement and preparation for Him who has come. He is predicted and prefigured. We may even say He is predescribed by the prophets and seers of the Old Law. Is there anything, for example, more specific or more detailed about the life, and especially the passion and death of Christ than the Book of the Prophet Isaiah? No wonder the Church quotes so extensively from the one who foretold the virginal conception of the Messiah.

All that we have so far said about biblical spirituality is valid for Catholics only on the premise that this science and art depends on the interpretation of the Church founded by Christ.

This is no idle observation but belongs to the essence of understanding and using the Sacred Scriptures for the spiritual life. It was in the Church that the inspired books of the New Testament were written. It was by the Church that the canon of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, was finally approved and definitively recognized. A simple fact like the existence of no less than twenty-five Gospels in the early Christian era shows that, except for the Church’s decisive authority, we would not today even know which Gospels were divinely inspired.

It was to the Church that Christ entrusted the preservation, explanation, and application of reveal-ed truth, whether in Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition.

Consequently authentic biblical spirituality depends on the Church’s hierarchical authority as a condition for its authenticity. This dependence may be either direct or indirect. It is direct when and, in so far as, the Church’s Magisterium has passed decisive judgment on the meaning of certain passages in Sacred Scripture as, for instance, by a general ecu-menical council. It is indirect in that broad area of the Church’s use of the Bible in her teaching of the faithful, in her sacred liturgy, in her catechetical instruction of the People of God, in her recognition of the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and in her approval of the use of the Scriptures, in writing and speaking, by those who are raised to the honors of the altar as canonized saints.

The last part of our description of spirituality of Sacred Scripture deserves special attention. Our subject is no mere academic science or even natural discipline. It is a record of saintly living by tens of thousands of men, women and children in every age of the Church’s history, and in every culture of humanity. It is a record of persons whose faith in Sacred Scripture has literally worked miracles of virtue that have no coun-terpart in any other religion in the annals of mankind.

Let us be clear, however, in stressing the fact that biblical spirituality has a very definite purpose. It is meant to be appropriated by those who study it and transform their lives to become more like those who have found in the written revealed word of God their guidebook for traveling through time into eternity.

Sequence of Subjects

As already intimated, biblical spirituality is an ocean of wisdom whose depths are incomprehensible and whose range of contents is beyond limits. Fortunately by now so much has been written in this field, and so many saints and scholars have surveyed it that we can choose certain areas for concentrated attention. The areas which follow are not only not exhaustive, they are hardly more than samples. Yet they are judicious samples that should give us a fair idea of what we are exploring and how it should be put into practice.

Creation and the Fall

The bedrock of the spiritual life is the fact that we have not made ourselves, that we have been created out of nothing and therefore depend abs-olutely on the infinite God from whom we came. Along with the fact of creation is the event of the fall of the first parents of the human race. That is why Genesis and the Gospels belong together. Christ and Christianity are intelligible only on the grounds of man’s origin from nothing by the almighty loving power of God, and on the historical fact of man’s fall from grace at the dawn of human antiquity.

The Torah

Catholics are not accustomed to using the word “Torah” to mean “law.” But the Hebrew word Torah is fundamental to a correct understanding of Christian spirituality. When God chose the Jews to be His own people, He not only revealed to them something of who He is, but also what He wanted them to do. No less than Judaism, Christianity is not only a religion of truths to be believed but of laws to be obeyed. Christ declared that He did not come to destroy the law, but to make it more perfect. Christians do not cease to be bound by the essentials of the Torah. But they have the further duty of obedience to the “Law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Word of God

In the Old Testament, the Word of God is not an object of philosophical speculation. It is mainly a fact of religious experience. God speaks directly to some persons whom He specifically chooses as the intermediaries of His mind and will. They thus become prophets or spokesmen of the Most High. They have a mission to transmit His Word to others, and not only to a small group but to the entire People of God.

Indeed, the Word of God in the Old Testament is more than once personified, parallel to that of Wisdom. It (or He) is the revealed Word (Psalm 119:89), and especially the acting of Word who carries into effect the commands of the Almighty (Psalm 147:15, Wisdom 18:14ff).

Of course, the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ. No longer is there a foreshadowing or personification. Christ is the Word of God, and one with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity. Yet the basic attributes of the divine Word become man remain the same as in the Old Testament. Jesus is the Word of God as the light which reveals divine truth; He is also the power which produces marvelous effects in the hearts of men.


The Old Testament distinguishes between human wisdom and the wisdom according to God. True wisdom comes from God, who gives to men “a heart capable of discerning good from evil” (I Kings 3:9). Those who posses this wisdom know how to conduct their lives in order to obtain true happiness. In fact, wisdom and happiness are related as condition and consequence.

The New Testament is new precisely because the Wisdom of God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. With the Incarnation, it was no longer God speaking “in divers manners . . . by the prophets.” But God Himself “has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). True wisdom thus became the following of Christ, “who has become for us God-given wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:30).

The Prophets

We commonly associate the prophets of the Old Law with persons who spoke, wrote or acted under the extraordinary influence of God to make known His divine will to the Chosen People of Israel. What is less well known is the fact that the prophets were also messengers of the New Covenant. The spiritual teaching of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel—to mention only three—was intended also for the people of the New Israel.

Hebrew Worship

In the same way as the prophets, the ritual worship of the ancient Jews was not meant to simply disappear with the coming of Christ. As with the law and the prophets, He came to fulfill the Jewish worship and bring it to completion. Thus the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments take on a new perspective and depth of meaning when viewed in the light of their Mosaic ancestry.

The Psalms

There is no better representative of Hebrew worship that has entered the ritual of Christianity than the Tehilim or hymns of praise which form the Psalter. Use of the Psalms for divine worship was adopted by the Church from apostolic times. Their spiritual teaching covers the whole range of man’s relationship with God.

Spiritual Movements in Later Judaism

By “later Judaism” is here meant the period which began under the leadership of Ezra (404-358 B.C.) and continued until the dawn of Christianity. During this period widespread reforms were introduced, to such a degree that they may be considered forerunners of Christianity.

The Spiritual Legacy of Judaism

We distinguish between the historical developments in spirituality revealed in the books of the Old Test-ament, and the basic legacy that Judaism passed on to the followers of Christ. The latter will be studied as something for which Christians should be deeply grateful because it gives them a continuity with the descendants of Abraham, “our father in faith.”

The Spiritual Teaching of Christ

At this point biblical spirituality takes on a new dimension. All the biblical writing of the inspired authors of the Old Testament found its culmination in Jesus Christ. Fundamental to Christ’s spiritual teaching is the fact that this was God Himself giving the instruction. He became man to redeem us from sin, and except for His death on the Cross no one could hope to see the face of God. But our redemption is not only the work of Christ; it is also our work by cooperating with the graces that Christ won for us by His death on the Cross.

But how do we cooperate with divine grace? We do so by accepting on faith what the Savior taught us during His visible stay on earth and then putting His teaching into practice.

The Primitive Church and the Teaching of the Apostles

The foundation of biblical spirituality is the teaching of Christ the Master. Yet the New Testament, as divine revelation, was not completed with Christ’s Ascension into heaven. He continued to enlighten by His Spirit and revealed many things that are now contained in the other writings of the Christian Scriptures.

The Spiritual Synthesis of St. Paul

Among the books of the New Testament, beyond the Gospels, the most extensive are the letters of St. Paul. His teaching on the spiritual life has had a libr-ary of commentary, even as the letters themselves are a divinely inspired commentary on the Gospels.

Whatever else is plain in the writings of St. Paul it is the fact of man’s sinfulness and therefore his need of a Redeemer. St. Paul’s spirituality is uncompromising in its insistence that, without Christ and apart from His grace, we are helpless human beings who are unable to take a single step on the road to heaven. There is a realism about Pauline teaching that is more than ever necessary in today’s utopian world that has, in affluent countries like the United States, almost lost its sense of sin and its corresponding sense of the need of Christ as the only true Savior of the human race.

Johannine Spirituality

Even as St. Paul stresses man’s sinfulness and need of grace to cope with his fallen nature, so St. John emphasizes man’s innate blindness and need for light from Christ who is the Light of the world.

The spirituality of the fourth evangelist has been called mystical, which it is. However, it is also pro-phetic in its revealed anticipation of the constant struggle that the followers of Christ will have, until the end of time, with the demonic forces of evil at work in the world.

Worship and Sacraments in the New Testament

Christian spirituality, we know, is not only the practice of virtue and the avoidance of sin. It is also, even primarily, the honor and worship of God.

Moreover, Christ has provided His followers with infallible sources of grace, namely the sacraments, which honor and glorify God and give the light and strength we need to reach our heavenly destiny.

It is especially here that Catholic Christianity opens up vistas of spirituality that are closed to those who claim there is only one source of New Testament revelation, the Bible. The Catholic Church’s belief in Sacred Tradition as co-equal with Sacred Scripture gives her members access to seven sacraments, instituted by Christ, as channels of sanctification. The spiritual life thus becomes real and practical and livable, as the Church’s history has shown in the lives of her saints and martyrs over the centuries.

Father Hardon is the Executive Editor of The Catholic Faithmagazine.

Copyright © 2003 by Inter Mirifica

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