A few days ago, a friend who is the busy pastor of a parish asked if I would take a look at a question that had come in from an inquirer through his parish’s website. He hoped that I could take the time he did not have to research the answer and provide some resources for his inquirer. In a nutshell, this person wanted to know why Catholics affirm that believers could both be a part of the communion of saints and yet sin, since the apostle John said of believers:
He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God (1 John 3:8–9).
First John has to be read as a whole, and much of the letter is devoted to distinguishing between venial and mortal sin, and life in the community of Christians for people in venial or mortal sin. In chapter 1, verses 8–9, John talks about the “little” sins we all commit (i.e., venial sins). In 1 John 5:16–17, he basically defines mortal sin and states that the grace of the Christian community cannot be passed on to someone in mortal sin through personal prayer because he is cut off from the life of grace. (He must be restored first through the sacrament of confession before such graces can be of assistance to him.) It is in this context that 1 John 3:8–9 deals with life in mortal sin.
(Nota bene: I also added that if this pastor’s inquirer was a Protestant he may not accept or understand this distinction between mortal and venial sin. I also recommend a couple of tracts, here and here, as additional resources to be passed on to the correspondent.)
Afterward, I reflected on how often misunderstandings of Scripture crop up because of lack of context. Too often readers of Scripture forget that the chapters and verses of the books of Scripture were added much later to the original text and were intended to help readers quickly find a passage of Scripture. Helpful though chapters and verses were for that purpose, they had the drawback of shaving Scripture into tiny slivers all too easily pulled from their context.
Let’s look at another example of this phenomenon, one that has caused many problems between Christians and Jews. A Jewish convert to Catholicism once commented:
I was reading Michelle Arnold’s response to whether or not Jews worshipped the same God of Abraham. And I know this [my answer] is the Catholic stance. However, as I was reading the Bible, I found a passage that would seemingly contradict this (John 8:38–44). Isn’t Jesus saying here that the Jews who reject him are actually loyal to Satan and not [to] the God of Abraham?
This inquirer asked this question sincerely and without malice, but all too often in Christian history, anti-Semites have used this passage of John’s Gospel to argue that Jews are “children of the devil.” Even the horns on Michelangelo’s Moses, which the artist intended to symbolize Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai, are sometimes interpreted by anti-Semites to be “devil horns” because of this Gospel passage.
But if we go back to Scripture itself, and look at this passage in the context of the whole of the Gospel of John, we can more readily find something much more subtle going on.
Jesus was not speaking to all Jews of all time, or to all Jews of his time, or even to those who had met him but honestly could not believe in him. He was speaking to a very specific group of Jews, ones who had once believed in him but had apparently deserted him (John 8:31), possibly after the showdown over the promise of his body and blood (cf. John 6:66). In fact, there is an interesting parallel between John 6 and John 8: In John 6, Jesus said that the disciple who stopped believing in him but did not leave was “a devil” (John 6:70); in John 8, he warns former disciples who had once believed in him but lost faith that their “father” is the devil (John 8:44).
If this language from Christ sounds harsh, keep in mind that these were not people who were never able to believe, but instead were people who once had the grace of belief and forfeited it. As Jesus said elsewhere:
Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more (Luke 12:48).
If anything, this passage is as much a warning to Christians today who are wavering in their faith as it was to the Jews then who initially believed in Christ but deserted him.
Sewing Scripture together
The Church urges Christians to avoid the dangers of shaving off small sections of Scripture and divorcing those shavings from the whole. The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), wrote:
Since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. . . . [A]ll of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God (DV 12).
What can you do in your reading of Scripture to overcome the danger of interpreting Scripture according to its fragments? Here are a few ideas:
Listen to Scripture. Most people are visually oriented. It is difficult to ignore chapter and verse breaks when you see them on a page. But when you hear Scripture read, those textual breaks become much less noticeable. The one place you can easily listen to Scripture being read on a regular basis is at Mass. But you can also get together with friends and take turns reading aloud from Scripture for the group, or you can listen to Scripture being read on audio CD. As St. Paul observed, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
If listening to Scripture read by friends, you might devise a game to test each other on where chapter breaks occur. Then you can discuss whether a particular chapter break was judicious. For example, was it wise to conclude Revelation 11 at verse 19, with the appearance of the Ark of the Covenant, or should Revelation 11:19 have been used to open Revelation 12, with the appearance of the woman clothed with the sun (cf. Rev. 12:1–2)?
Create the big picture. Rather than read the Gospels chapter by chapter, try to find the overarching story the sacred author is telling. For example, read an infancy narrative, either in Matthew or Luke, as one story, doing your best to ignore the chapter breaks. (I’ll offer an idea for how to avoid chapter breaks altogether in a moment.) This is particularly helpful exercise with the Gospel of Luke, which offers a more detailed account of the birth and childhood of Jesus. Try it with the Passion narratives in each of the Gospels, which also are spread over multiple chapters.
It can be illuminating to line up stories from the Gospels side by side to see what one evangelist includes and another omits. For example, which Gospel writer includes the flight into Egypt in his account of Christ’s infancy? Which Gospel writer does not include the institution of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper, and what does he choose to focus on instead?
Read Bible stories. When I was a child, my family had a ten-volume set of Bible stories for children. Although I had little Christian catechesis as a child, I read all of those volumes, cover to cover, many times. Doing so gave me an overview of the Bible that has remained with me to this day. That may be one reason why I am quite good at remembering the stories of Scripture and can readily come up with a Bible story to illustrate a point. At the same time, though, I am terrible at remembering chapters and verses and am heavily dependent on this Bible search tool to find the stories I want to reference. But while I am in awe of those who can summon up verses on cue, I believe that focusing on the stories is more important.
(Nota bene: Should you decide to take this suggestion, I do not recommend tracking down the set of Bible stories I devoured as a child—either for yourself or for your children. That set was published by a Seventh-Day Adventist publishing house and thus has an Adventist editorial slant. Rather, I recommend that you look for Catholic Bible stories for your kids and at one or two of the popular life of Christ books for yourself. My favorite life of Christ is Frank Sheed’s To Know Christ Jesus.)
Read Church documents about Scripture. The Church has a wealth of documents that can assist your understanding of the context of Scripture. There are commentaries on Scripture from Fathers, Doctors, and saints of the Church; there are magisterial documents from Church councils stretching back over two thousand years; and there are local documents prepared by national bishops’ conferences. Worth mentioning in this post, in addition to Dei Verbum, are two that are helpful to understanding the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people: The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible by the Pontifical Biblical Commission and God’s Mercy Endures Forever by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference.
Visualizing the whole
Finally, when a Scripture verse is flung at you with the demand that Catholics “explain this,” try to visualize the book of Scripture it comes from as a whole, and ask yourself if a similar demand would be made with any other book or document. Would you be asked to justify why the American Founding Fathers called the rule of England over the colonies “an absolute tyranny” in the Declaration of Independence? Or, if you were, could you refrain from hooting over the question, asked by someone who evidently ignored the context of the “long train of abuses” spelled out in exhaustive detail by the signatories to the Declaration?
In a similar way, passages snatched from the letters of apostles, such as those of John and Paul, cannot be interpreted absent the whole of the letter. When a non-Catholic asks you to explain a couple of verses of Scripture, the first step should be to read the whole chapter (and also the whole story, if the story stretches beyond a single chapter).
And never forget that there is good reason why our first pope in his second letter offered this wry observation:
Our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures (2 Pet. 3:15–16).