The Joys of Not Being a Scripture Scholar

Our business is to journey on in unceasing search of God, the sheer outpouring of whose Word upon the Scriptures suffuses every page with the presence of Another.

Not a day goes by, I will confess, that I do not find a reason to rejoice that I am not a Scripture scholar. That the good Lord has seen fit to spare me years and years spent in fruitless study of strange and exotic languages is a deliverance for which I am no end of grateful.

Who wants to learn Coptic, anyway? Or a dozen other languages, for that matter, for which I have neither aptitude nor appetite. Including German, by the way, whose only use, so far as I can tell, is in addressing a large dog. And since I haven’t got a dog, why would I want to speak it? Nor do I have a mistress, which is why I do not speak French. 

As for Spanish—especially suited, I am told, when conversing with God—I am almost embarrassed to admit that even after long stretches spent in Spain, my skill set remains as thin as unbuttered toast. I suppose I could manage to order a meal (toast, for example), but don’t ask me to chat with the waiter—or God, with whom I shall continue to speak in English, fully confident that He understands. If not, He can’t be much of a God, can He? 

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By the way, these are not admissions for which I am particularly proud, even as they have freed me from having to compete with real Scripture scholars like John Bergsma, Scott Hahn, or Michael Waldstein, esteemed and learned colleagues who know their way around the Bible and could easily hold their own with all twelve apostles, including Judas, whether in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, or Greek.

Their offices are located right around the corner from mine, and were I to eavesdrop I’m sure I would hear the sounds of several ancient tongues. Happily, they do not expect me to follow along, which is no small mercy since I’d be no better than the village idiot. 

But, at the end of the day, why does it matter? There is no competition. Why would there be? Are we not all members of the same body, committed to the same faith, annealed in a common hope in Jesus Christ? Who speaks most plainly to us in every language, yes, even English. It is, after all, God’s own self-revealing Word that we read and revere, however dispersed we may find it amid the myriad and diverse words that make up that great library of books we call the Bible. And so, quoting that great landmark of 20th-century Christian poetry, T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,                            

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again; and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

And what is our business? It is the same every day, and in every way, which is to journey on in unceasing search of God, the sheer outpouring of whose Word upon the Scriptures, suffusing every page with the presence of Another, urges us on in loving submission to all that He wishes to tell us. Nothing less than a complete confrontation with the whole of the Scriptural text will do; only a spirit of submission will yield up its riches, its hidden mysteries.  Nothing less than a complete confrontation with the whole of the Scriptural text will do; only a spirit of submission will yield up its riches, its hidden mysteries.Tweet This

How wonderfully plainspoken Dei Verbum is on the subject. “Sacred Scripture,” we are told in Article 9, “is the very speech of God as it is put down in writing under the Breath of the Holy Spirit.” Exactly. And, to be sure, it is only the Bride, she who is both Mother and Teacher, who can mediate its message to us on every page. Yes, even if one has to extract all the gold and silver from The Good News for Modern Man Bible. Never mind the translation, then, or how the learned pedant parses the words while the poor peasant goes limping along, we shall both find ourselves at every turn face-to-face with the living God, giving us news of Himself and ourselves in relation to Him.   

 “Between man and God,” Hans Urs von Balthasar tells us in Love Alone is Credible, 

the only language possible is the word of God, that is if we mean a genuine, personal disclosure, and not some vague knowledge of one another’s existence; and this communication is only possible if it so pleases God to make his word understood by man, which means to say, if he interprets himself in speaking to man. 

And thus, he concludes, there is simply 

no way of “backing” or “underpinning” the text of God’s word with another text, and giving it another background in the hope of making it more easy to read and more comprehensible. God’s word must interpret itself and wishes to do so. And if it does so, then one thing is clear from the outset: it will not be found to contain what man has thought out for himself about himself and God, whether a priori or a posteriori, whether readily or after infinite pains, whether from the first or in the course of a long evolution.  

Scrubbed down, what Balthasar is saying, what the Church herself says, is that when we listen to the words, bringing to them an intensity of attention not unlike falling in love, it will be the Word Himself whom we hear. Not scholarship, but discipleship, will be the key to unlocking the meaning of the text. Such is the only finally appropriate attitude to take before the event of God speaking His Word. How else will we understand unless we are willing to move in docility and reverence before the Self-Revealing Word? 

“Be worthy of the flame consuming you,” says Paul Claudel. Scripture is a consuming fire, in other words, so let us be worthy of it. Isn’t that what all education is about? Not filling buckets, but lighting fires. “Leaving one still,” exhorts Eliot, “with the intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings.”   


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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