Wednesday, May 29, 2013

7 Questions: Dr. Steven Smith

Dr. Steven Smith is an author, speaker, and Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  His most recent book, The Word of the Lord: 7 Essential Principles for Catholic Scripture Study, is probably the best primer that I have seen on the subject.  It incorporates all the most recent magisterial documents, including Verbum Domini.  He recently spoke at our Catholic Biblical School of Michigan closing banquet, focusing on the topic of seeing God "face to face" in the Old Testament, by figures like Jacob and Moses, as merely a foreshadowing of its ultimate fulfillment as revealed in the New Testament, most notably in St. John's Gospel.  (I am so very happy that I am not teaching our class on the Gospel of John next year, Dr. Smith has set the bar exceedingly high!)  Dr. Smith was also a recent guest on EWTN's The Journey Home and has a number of comprehensive audio Bible studies for sale, including a 15 part study on the Gospel of John and an 18 part study on the Biblical roots of the Rosary.  If anyone wants a discounted set (about 20 less) and signed, they can contact Dr. Smith directly by email at This discount will last through this week only!

1) First off, thank you for taking the time to answer the following questions.  I wanted to start off with a question about your personal involvement with Sacred Scripture. How has Scripture played an important role in your prayer life?  Has it always been that way?
While I grew up in a loving Catholic family, as a teen and later a young adult, sadly my own faith grew faint.  By 18-20 years old, I barely attended Sunday Mass, didn't pray or even think about God much.  There seemed to be so many "exciting" things: college, dating, "stuff," etc. 

It was not until some evangelicals in college asked me if I was "saved" that I began to again ponder matters of faith.  By the grace of God, I began reading John's Gospel - and saw afresh Jesus and His love for me.  I experienced a profound inner peace and joy and (re-)committed myself to God.

However, because of my own lack of awareness of the "fullness of truth" (i.e. in the Catholic Church), I understood my experience as being "born again" by asking Jesus into my heart. So, I saw all of this a "personal relationship" of salvation in Jesus. Scripture was paramount - and everything else paled in comparison.

I knew I need "a church" but had no idea how to "select" one.  After a short stint in a non-denominational (Brethren) church, I found my way to Willow Creek Community Church, a so-called "seeker" church, a mega-church, in the NW suburbs of Chicago (where I was raised).

Later, in the late 1990s, after a number of years of spiritual growth and increasing leadership at "Willow" I felt God was calling me to be a pastor there. I enrolled in a Masters program at Wheaton College (Billy Graham also attended the "evangelical Harvard).  However, in my graduate studies in theology, I began reading the Church fathers, and soon found myself at odds with the "Acts 2" church of Willow Creek (it was founded by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost - not by Bill Hybels of Willow Creek!)

I returned to the Catholic Church joyfully in 2000, and have never looked back! 

2) You are a revert to the faith from Evangelical Protestantism.  How, if at all, has your reading of the Bible changed since becoming Catholic?
I would say that my prayer to see the whole of Scripture has absolutely, positively been realized by returning to the Catholic faith. All of my hopes and desires to "really know" the Bible have come to fruition - when I began to study it with a "Catholic ethos"-- and pray  it in the context of the Sacred Liturgy. 

This is not to say "I didn't see Jesus" in my evangelical days of Scripture study. No -- I did!  But now, looking back, I see the fruits of study, and the gifts of many, various "mentors" and god teachers in my evangelical circles (at Willow, at Wheaton, and elsewhere) were in many ways blessings and provisions from God. The Holy Spirit used these evangelical experiences to draw me closer to His Son, and closer to the Church. In all sincerity I can say that I love evangelicals, I love their devotion and passion for: God, Scripture, personal prayer, discipleship, evangelism, and for worship & praise.  God used these gifts in my life - stirring up His devotion in me, all the while drawing me closer and closer to "the fullness of the faith."

3) OSV recently published a book you wrote entitled "The Word of The Lord: 7 Essential Principles for Catholic Scripture Study".  What are your hopes for this book and what would say is the main message it is trying to get across to the reader?
Well, they're many!  Mainly, I suppose it is that "everyday Catholics" would have a reliable resource to study Scripture in a way that is helpful, clear, and ... robustly Catholic.  I'm saddened when I hear older Catholics say things like, "I was told not to study the Bible on my own." Sad, but perhaps true in an older generation.(We can dispute that this was ever Catholic teaching ... but if some in the Church, perhaps out of fear, so instructed folks, well. this is unfortunate.)

Today, I think are problems are different. One issue is that many Catholics are really asleep in their spiritual lives. Pope Francis recently warned about being "lukewarm Catholics."  I agree with his assessment. It goes beyond Scripture, obviously, but with such folks, our mission is to proclaim Jesus, to gently challenge them to take steps of faith, and to pray that Mary would awaken these sleeping souls, stirring in them a love for Christ!

However, a second problem, a different problem, is Catholics who DO want to study Scripture, but are confused / baffled / lost as to how to do so. Some simply don't do anything - which is sad. Some look to "historical-critical" approaches, which CAN be helpful, but can also, in many instances, overwhelm folks with its technical details, losing the "forest for the trees."  But more alarming still are Catholics whose faith is actually diminished by skeptical scholars, scholars like Bart Ehrman, for example.  Such skeptical approaches is very costly to the spiiritual life!  Some Catholics persever and, on their own, may find a Protestant /evangelical resource that does help - but often, however, such resources present the same limitation as I experience in my evangelical days: the "whole truth" is obscured. So, for example, you can find a good resource on John's Gospel, but miss the sacramental depth of meaning throughout the Gospel! Or, someome reads Revelation from such a perspective, as is immersed in frantic prophecies or misguided interpretations that promise a "secret rapture" or some such thing.

For all these reasons, I wanted to develop a Catholic guide to Scripture study.  This book is rooted in a "Catholic sensibility" and in Sacred Tradition, and I pray, will help many Catholics to study the Word of God, from the heart of the Church. 

4) I really appreciate chapter 3 in your book, where you discuss Principle 2: God's Word is Revealed in History.  In particular I found your walk through of the history of the Church's interaction with the historical-critical method to be very helpful.  Pope Emeritus Benedict has certainly been the model in how one utilizes the historical-critical method while affirming the supernatural and God's intervention in history (237)."  Do you see a greater awareness among Catholic biblical scholars of the need to balance both of these? 
I think there is good reason for hope, yes. But there's much more work to be done.  For example, in many universities, the study of gospels begins with false assumptions. Assumptions like, we don't know and can't know "who wrote the Four Gospels."  In place of the apostolic eyewitnesses are the so-called "communities" of the gospels ("Matthean community" etc.)  Such H-C approaches look at the Gospels as more about the communities to whom the gospels were written than about Jesus and the apostles!  So, for example, when Luke talks about "care for the poor" it's not so much that Jesus taught this, but that the "later community" struggled with a kind of "equality" and "compassion." So, over decades of redaction, the community placed these words on the lips of Jesus, so that those who were in need of this message who have reason to heed the text: Jesus said it.

This may seem like a lesser issue for some, i.e. whether Jesus "really said this or that" ... but I don't believe it is. Now - clearly, we as Catholics do believe in the apostolic eyewitness of the gospels.  We don't have to resort to a kind of "Catholic fundamentalism" which strips from the Evangelists a reasonable ability to select, arrange, and present "what Jesus really said" in His public ministry.  The Catechism itself reminds us, as does Dei Verbum that the human authors, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, were "real authors" (see CCC 126, DV 11-12).

A Catholic approach, of course, affirms that the prophets and apostles were "real authors" - under the inspiration of the "ultimate author," the Holy Spirit.  The "apostolic eyewitness" of the Evangelists is a gamechanger!  Everything we read in the gospels cannot, with the "individual eyewitness" of, for example, John Son of Zebedee, be set aside as "later developments of the Christian community!  No -- we can really trust them to teach us the truth about what Jesus really said and really did.  So to answer your question, I believe that after decades of skepticism, more biblical scholars are beginning to see that such skepticism does not square with the historical fact, nor is it helpful in such a critical way.

5) Over the past 20 years or so, there has been a noticeable
increase in the amount of quality  Bible materials, bible study programs, and biblical schools for Catholics.  We still have a long way to go, particularly in comparison with our Protestant brethren.  Nevertheless, where do you see the greatest growth in Catholic Biblical literacy?  What can Catholics learn from our Protestant brethren in this regard?

I think having the "big story" of the bible is important. I devote two entire chapters of the 13-ch. book to explain the whole story of the OT - and how it is fulfilled in Jesus. 

6) In Appendix C of your book you provide a list of resources for further study.  You mention Biblical software first.  Was this intentional?  Do you see Biblical software, like Logos, as major step in Bible study, not only for the scholar but also the lay person?
Yes, I think so.  While its not necessary for every layperson, some motivated students of Scripture may want to take a look at what's available today. For example, Logos Bible Software has "Catholic" packages. For some time, such tools were aimed mainly at Protestants.  Without wanting to pat myself on the back, I and some others really pushed for software companies like Logos to develop truly Catholic packages. Today's Catholic can have access to the Scriptures in multiple translations, along with the Church fathers, magisterial and papal documents, Catholic commentaries - even the Catechism.  Logos has a "Ratzinger' supplement and developing a number of add-on modules that are fantastic. All of these can be "synched" to open to the appropriate places as one studies a given book of Scripture. 

7) Finally, do you have a favorite passage or verse from the Bible?
Great question!  It changes constantly. It's usually whatever I'm studying: as I go deeper, I "see" more of God's love, His mercy, His plan for us.  So, one week it may be Rev. 22 ... the next week, the Book of Tobit or one of the Psalms!  If I'm honest, I have always been very profoundly moved by John's Gospel.  Really any passage of John will plunge us deep - deep into the OT and NT, and deep into the love of God the Father, the divinity and glory of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, Mary, the Eucharist, confession, the sacraments, the Church, Peter, the Cross, the Resurrection, evangelization, truth -- its all there in John!

Incidentally - I just finished a brand new "publication" ... its a 15-CD set called "Jesus, the Glory of God: A Complete Introduction to Saint John's Writings."  I trust that it will be a useful and powerful resource for Catholic Scripture study.


losabio said...

Caught Dr. Smith's episode of The Journey Home the other day. It was a good one! Keep up the Catholic Bibles interviews in 2013, they're always enjoyable to read.

Steven C. Smith, Ph.D. said...

Thanks - God bless!

Steven C. Smith, Ph.D. said...

Thanks! God bless -
Dr. Smith