From the beginning, the church, shaped in the wisdom of Israel’s faith, has regarded the reading of Scripture as a sacred and so sanctifying task. As Fr John Behr has said, the earliest Christians were “people of the book”—and not in the weak sense we sometimes suppose. In justly famous lines from his work on the development of the Nicene tradition, Behr lays out the heart of this conviction:
If God acts through His Word—then that Word needs to be heard, to be read, to be understood—our relationship with God is, in a broad sense, literary, and as such, it requires the engagement of all of our intellective faculties to understand and accomplish—or incarnate—God’s Word.1
Scripture, in other words, was not merely a record of God’s works but the means of God’s presence, a constituting instrument or medium of God’s purposes. As Rowan Williams has said, the Bible is recognized as “inspired” not because of anything like “a self-contained character of supernatural accuracy,” but because the living God makes a present of these texts to us and makes himself present to us through them. Precisely for that reason, we cannot (as some are keen on doing) divorce Jesus, the Word of God, from the Scriptures, the words of God, because knowing God comes in knowing Jesus, and knowing Jesus comes in knowing the apostolic and prophetic texts.
These convictions about Scripture and the reading of Scripture are epitomized in a remarkable prayer that comes near the end of Eriugena's Periphyseon (written in the 9th century, and summing up the ancient tradition Eriugena had received):
It is nowhere more proper to seek you than in your words, so too there is no place where you may be more openly found than in them. You abide there and you bring those who love and seek you therein. There you prepare spiritual banquets of true knowledge for your elect; making a passage therein, you minister to them. O Lord, what is this passage of yours other than the ascent through the infinite stages of your contemplation? You are always making this kind of passage in the intellects of those seeking and finding you.
For Eriugena—as for Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Gregory, and Maximus, among others of the Fathers—the sacred texts are sacred precisely because they are the site of God’s action. God abides there, in the movements of Scripture. In Eriugena’s phrase, God “makes passage” through each and every passage, as well as in the heart and mind of the readers. Following God's passing in and through the rises and falls of biblical passages, believers find themselves moved by God with God into God. The Word moves in the words. And as the Word moves, “highways” are cut into our hearts (Ps. 84.5). To seek God is to follow those paths, without and within, together and alone. Ratzinger is right: God opens for us “the sure road to the truth.”2 But it is always a path that runs through the valley of the shadow of death, through the fire, through the flood—and his footsteps are always unseen (Ps. 77.19).
In the light of the Fathers’ Abrahamic wisdom, we can read the Gospel’s story of Jesus walking on the water as a telling scene, an iconic moment, one which teaches us how the Scriptures are meant to be engaged. In Mark’s telling, Jesus, after leaving the disciples at sea, ascends the mountain to pray and from that height watches his friends straining against the winds. Eventually, as they struggle, he goes out to them, following his compassion—descending like Moses from the glory of the presence of the Lord, intending to “pass them by.” What does this mean?
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mk 6:45-52)
Before we can make sense of how this story teaches us to interpret the Scriptures, we need to consider two other stories, which Mark’s account recalls and reworks: one, a story of transfiguration; the other, a story of disfiguration. In the first story, Moses begs to see the divine glory, and receives this promise in return: “And the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence…’ (Ex. 33.19). But there is a caveat, an exception clause: Moses will not be allowed to see God’s face, because “no one may see me and live” (Ex. 33.20). So, the prophet is hidden in “a cleft in the rock,” his eyes covered by the hand of God until God has “passed by.” Then, after the glory passes, Moses’ vision is restored so that he catches a passing glimpse of God’s back (Ex. 33.21-23).
In the second story, Elijah hides himself in a cleft in the rock, driven not by a desire for the vision of God but by fear of his own demise. Still, as with Moses, the former prophet, so with Elijah: God passes by.
And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kg 19:9-14)
Moses is told his face must be veiled by the hand of God. But Elijah veils himself with his own hand. And when Moses actually encounters God “in the morning” (Ex. 34.2), God does pass him by, as promised, and proclaims the divine name—but only after first standing with him, wrapped in cloud (Ex. 34.5). In the aftermath, Moses’ face shines, which is surely a sign that God’s face has somehow shined on him (cf. Num. 6.24-26). Elijah, by contrast, remains apparently unchanged. He offers the same self-regarding answer after his hearing of the Voice as before (1 Kg. 19.10, 14).
In the Gospel, Jesus “passes by” the apostles in the boat. Doing what only the Lord can do, he also does what the prophets did not. Afraid, they disciples want to hide, as Elijah hid. But there is no cleft in the rock. And Jesus does for them exactly what he had previously done for Moses and tried to do for Elijah: he unhides himself, declaring the creative word of peace that is his name. Hearing his voice, they see his face. Seeing his face, they live.
This, then, is the pattern that teaches us how to read the Scriptures. As we read, we’re always in the position of the disciples in that boat at night: we never stand “above the fray,” never stand outside the experience. We are never “objective,” “scientific” observers of our own realities. We’re always “at sea,” “lost in its unshored harborless immensities.” We are always suspended over the deep. “Fastened to the cross—with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss.”3 We are always “straining at the oars,” striving and mostly failing to overcome “adverse winds”—the spirits that try to pressure us into a lifeless conformity.
Still, we stay at the task, waiting for the Word's “passing.” And that is as it should be. Again and again, however, God’s arrival proves to be more frightening than the abyss beneath us and more frustrating than the winds against us. Why? Because we so often mistake Jesus for a ghost, a demon—the terrifying projection of our own worst fears.
Even more tragically, we are often tempted to worship that image, either because something in us thrills at the power of the threat or because we hope to protect ourselves from that power by cowering before it, currying its indulgence by playing the role of the thrall. But God does not leave us to our illusions, our false impressions. He speaks to us. He shows his face. He makes himself known so we cannot help but acknowledge him.
Scripture, like the Sabbath, is made for us. But it is not left at our disposal. We have to keep the Scripture just as we have to keep the Sabbath. And whatever else it means to say that Scripture is holy, it certainly means it cannot be bent to our purposes, cannot be resourced to win arguments, cannot be leveraged to exert power over the lives of others.
Rowan Williams describes the Bible as “the territory in which Christians expect to hear God speaking.”4 The trouble is, many of us have learned to treat the Bible the same way we learned to treat the land. (I say this as someone born and raised in Oklahoma.) Instead of living harmoniously with Scripture, respecting its limits and honoring our common needs, we’ve abused it, exploiting it for gain. We’re meant to make pilgrimage though the territory of Scripture, not to stake our claim on it. Perhaps the old children’s song had this exactly wrong? The B-I-B-L-E is not ours to possess. We do not “stand alone on the Word of God.” Instead, as we read, we yield ourselves to the comings and goings of God, comings and goings which always turn our attention toward our neighbors, allowing ourselves to be moved by the Spirit of the Word given voice in the body of these words.
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the end, this is how we know the Lord has passed us by: we sense an unexpected quickening, an enlivening of confidence, even self-confidence, and suddenly the winds cease—the Spirit taking the pressure off our lives so that we are able to catch our breath, and find ourselves touched by a wonder at what we know we’ve not yet even begun to understand.
In Mark's Gospel, the disciples “seem to be in a perpetual fog of misunderstanding, following Christ from scene to scene, with little or no comprehension of what is happening around them.”5 And that is true in this case, as well. At the end of this passage, even after Jesus has calmed the winds and joined them in the boat, the disciples remain unsure, distracted, mystified. They’ve changed only every so slightly—a change surely unnoticed by most and perhaps even lost on them. But the truth is that they have been changed. However weary, however uncomprehending, they do follow him. They “cross over,” taking their place beside Jesus as he does what he came to do. And although they surely do not sense it, slowly, in fits and starts, they are becoming like him, however incompletely, learning to do what he does, not only moved by him but moving with him.
And that, needless to say, is what we have to hope is happening to and in and through us as we read the passages of God in the passages of our Scriptures. And thanks to the Spirit, that hope is not hopeless. Turning to the biblical text, we are turning to God, confident that God in that same move is turning toward us, doing for us exactly what we need to do for ourselves and for others. In God’s wisdom, learned first by Israel’s prophets, every passage of Scripture holds in secret a “passing by” of the Son whose death has opened the way for us to follow him into life—if only we do not hide our faces.
Behr, The Way to Nicea Vol 1, 15.
Ratzinger, Church Fathers and Teachers from St Leo the Great to Peter Lombard, 119.
Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 19.
Williams, Being Christian, 23.
Cave, “An Introduction to the Gospel of Mark”; available online: https://www.nickcave.it/extra.php?IdExtra=78.