A Seeker's Guide to the Scriptures

Making Sense Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did by Mark P. Shea Basilica Press, 1999 263 pages, $14.99

Maybe you've tried it yourself. You decide you're going to read the Bible cover to cover, a chapter or two at a time, then give up before you've even polished off Leviticus. Mark Shea can relate. He recounts early in these pages how, years ago, his resolve fizzled out in just the fourth chapter of Genesis.

His frustration was so great, he writes, that he gave up on Christianity itself for a number of years. That only changed when, as a young adult, he was recruited by some evangelical Protestants. They helped him establish a living relationship with Our Lord, but, he says, “I also learned from them a deeply mistaken notion. For within a few months of accepting Christ as Lord and Savior, I had also incorporated into my outlook a sort of offhand belief which flatly contradicted not only my own experience but also common sense: namely, I had adopted a blithe certainty that Scripture was simple, clear, and obvious to all, and that anyone can just pick it up and understand it lickety-split.

“Given my previous history, you would think I would have noticed the irony. For in fact, I had gone from one extreme to another; from the notion that Scripture was utterly incomprehensible to the notion that Scripture was so crystal clear that I, alone and without the help of anyone else, could master its depths.”

Following his previous works tracing his conversion from evangelicalism to the Catholic faith — This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence (Christendom Press, 1993) and By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor Books, 1996) — Shea's new book describes how he got out of his Scriptural conundrum.

As a Catholic, Shea has learned to study the Bible in the light of sacred Tradition and under the guidance of the magisterium. Here he lays out the lessons of his re-education as it's developed along two distinct tacks: a review of 20 centuries of Catholic Scripture scholarship, and a growing appreciation of covenantal theology as popularized by Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Taken together, the two parts go a long way toward helping the Scriptural do-it-yourselfer get a grip on the Bible as a whole.

Covenant theology emphasizes the covenants which God establishes with man, and how each of them advances their relationship another step. The Old Testament covenants lead up to the “new and everlasting” covenant with Jesus Christ, which is Christianity itself. Shea's discussion of this subject is readable for those unfamiliar with the concept, yet deep enough to be of benefit for more advanced scholars as well.

He includes a chapter on how God prepared the Gentiles for their inclusion in the Gospel message, which of course didn’t turn out to be for the Jews alone. “By his providential care,” Shea writes, “he who is God of the Gentiles as well as the Jews had brought the human race to the point of readiness for something of which the world itself did not guess. Just as Israel was waiting for the coming of the Messiah, so the civilization of Gentiles beyond Israel had arrived willy-nilly at the dim, half-perceived and visceral awareness that it was standing on tiptoe waiting for ... it knew not what.”

The meaning of most Scripture is neither hopelessly hidden nor plain as day.

In the second part of the book, Shea examines the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses of Scripture upon which so much of Biblical interpretation depends. If this sounds like an esoteric topic of interest only to students and professional scholars, then appearances are deceiving. Many of the errors that inform today's erroneous assumptions about what constitutes true life in Christ have their roots in a poorly formed understanding of what the Scriptures are.

On the fundamentalist side, there is the tendency to treat the literal sense as the only one of consequence. Ascribing supernatural significance to everything leads to Christians dying of snake bites, or cutting off their hands or eyes “in what they imagine to be obedience to the literal sense of the text.” An appreciation of literary form is clearly needed, and Shea ably explains why. Some readers may object to his dismissal of any sort of “literal” sense to the first two chapters of Genesis, but just because the sacred author wasn’t writing modern science doesn’t mean that the notion of creation ex nihil has been utterly discredited.

On the modernist (or “progressive”) side, there is the tendency to explain the Bible away, stripping it of any supernatural meaning at all. This error Shea also refutes, especially in his treatment of the allegorical sense. The question of whether Isaiah wrote of a “virgin” or a “young woman” is a case in point.

“Matthew did not, in any event,” Shea explains, “derive his belief in Mary's virginity from Isaiah 7:14. He did not sit down one day, read Isaiah, and say to himself, ‘Let's see. Isaiah says something about a virgin here. So if I'm going to cook up a Christ figure, I'd better make him the son of a virgin so it'll fit with this text. On the contrary, the apostles encounter a man who does extraordinary things like rising from the dead and, when they inquire about his origins — which they could only have known if Mary or Jesus volunteered them — find he was born of a virgin. They then look at their Septuagint Bibles, run across this weird passage in the Greek text of Isaiah, and see him reflected in this verse.”

In readable, common-sense prose, Shea invites the contemporary Christian into the dauntingly ancient world of the sacred Scriptures. In so doing, he makes the roots of the Christian world view accessible in the days of “dot-com.” Never has it made more sense to make sense out of Scripture.

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.