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Vol 38 No 2


Jim Quillinan

Michael Trainor

Trish Madigan OP

Michael Fallon MSN

Phil Riordan

Mark Raper SJ

Bob Irwin MSC



Biblical Fundamentalism


BIBLICAL FUNDAMENTALISM fails to understand what is happening in religious experience and what inspired authors are doing when they give expression to their religious experience in words. Let us look firstly at the nature of religious experience.

We do not have an immediate (un-mediated) experience of God. God communicates directly and personally with each one of us in the most intimate and mysterious ways, but we experience God only in and through our experience of the communication. We experience a movement of heart or mind. We experience it as gift and through faith we know that the giver of the gift is God, the source of all grace. God, however, is transcendent, and remains beyond everything that we directly experience. These apparently simple statements are of the utmost importance. Failure to recognise their truth continues to lead to the most serious religious aberrations.

The author of the fourth gospel is making this point when he declares: ‘No one has ever seen God’ (John 1:18). Gregory of Nyssa writes:
The contemplation of God’s face is an endless walking towards God…There is only one way to grasp the power that transcends all intelligence: not to stop, but to keep always searching beyond what has already been grasped. (In Canticum Canticorum, Hom 2,801.)

Augustine writes:
If you have understood, then it is not God that you have understood. If you were able to understand, then you would understand something other than God. If you thought that you were able to understand even partially, then you have deceived yourself with your own thoughts. (Sermo 52, vi, 16.)

John of the Cross agrees:
However elevated God’s communications and the experiences of God’s presence are, and however sublime a person’s knowledge of God may be, these are not God essentially, nor are they comparable to God. (Spiritual Canticle 1,3.)
Since God is inaccessible, be careful not to concern yourself with all that your faculties can comprehend and your senses feel, so that you do not become satisfied with less and lose the lightness of soul suitable for going to God. (Sayings of Light and Love.)

We experience movements of thought and feeling within our hearts that engage our yearning for communion with the One for whom we long, the One whom we believe is their source; but we are experiencing thoughts and feelings. We are experiencing God only in and through them.

We experience people and events around us that speak to us of God and engage our yearning for communion with God; but it is actual, limited people and events that we directly experience. We experience God only in and through them.

We read the words written by the actual historical people who were moved to write under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, but it is their limited words that we directly experience. We experience God only in and through them.

The inner movements of our soul and the outer realities of the world engage our yearning for God because they disclose something of the truth, they reveal something of the beauty, and they participate in something of the goodness of God; but while they participate in God, God always transcends them.

‘God’ is the name we give to that which we want to know and which we come to know in part whenever we know anything. ‘God’ is the name we give to that with which we want to be-in-love, and which we enjoy in part whenever we are in communion with anything. But God always transcends any knowledge or communion we have. What we come to know and love directly and immediately is a world that is made intelligible and lovable by God, and a self that yearns for union with and knowledge of this God, a self that we experience responding to God’s mysterious presence and action.

It is because religious experience connects us to One who is longed for but who remains beyond our knowledge, that it is an experience of ‘mystery’. Everything we do come to know and love supports our trust that the desire that impels us, and that is essential to our whole being as we experience it, is in fact a desire for what is real. We can be confident therefore that what we call God exists, but we cannot expect to conceive God adequately or define the infinite. If we forget this, we find ourselves calling God something that is less than God. It is right to associate God with the experiences that awaken our religious desire: the spring, the mountain, the grove, the person, the cult, the proposition expressing distilled wisdom, the inspired word contained in sacred Scripture. It is wrong to limit God to any of these.

There is need for constant correction and purification of our concepts of God. Christian tradition does this by focusing on the person and the life of Jesus, drawing on the experience of his contemporaries, who found in him a perfect human expression of God. Their experience has been re-affirmed by the countless millions of those since who have looked to him and committed themselves to live as his disciples. They have found him to be indeed the ‘Way’: the way to connect with their deepest yearnings, and the way to connect them with God. Reflection on the person, life and significance of Jesus has been for Christians the richest source for their reflections on the meaning of God, and so for their reflections on the meaning of human experience. We find this expressed in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 (Dei Verbum).

The most intimate truth which revelation gives us about God and human salvation shines forth in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of revelation. (n. 2)

Jesus Christ completed and perfected revelation. (n. 4)

When we speak of ‘inspiration’ and ‘revelation’, we need to remember that neither of these cut across or by-pass God’s transcendence; neither inspiration nor revelation speak of unmediated experience of God. God is free. We are in no position to place limits on what God might choose to do. But there are limits to what we can do, and one limit is that we are capable of experiencing the Transcendent God only in a mediated way. Therefore we understand inspiration incorrectly if we imagine that mediation is moved aside giving us direct access to the infinite God. We understand revelation incorrectly if we imagine that we see God directly. God remains transcendent, for everyone. The experience of God is mediated, to everyone. In our mortal human condition no one can have a direct, unmediated experience of the always and necessarily transcendent God.

Hence the traditional wisdom that tells us of the need for discernment. There are criteria, however subtle, that can be used to check our impressions, and we would be foolish to so rely on our own judgment that we thought we could by-pass spiritual direction, or go it alone without keeping in touch with both the spiritual wisdom of the past and a living community of faith in the present. After all, the God we are speaking of is moving everyone, not just us, and we have a lot to learn from the wisdom of others, living and dead.

God is constantly revealing God’s self to each one of us and constantly inspiring us, through the world around us and through the movements experienced within. However, neither the revelation nor the inspiration can happen unless we are open to it. Inspiration happens every time we are moved by reality to know and love and to respond truthfully, lovingly and creatively. Our response to this constant, mysterious and richly varied inspiration from the self-revealing God finds expression in many ways. We speak of inspired thoughts, inspired writing, inspired art, inspired action.

God, being free, can reveal God’s self to people in whatever way God chooses. God, being transcendent, the revelation remains mysterious. The veil hiding God is not over God but over us. When we do receive the mediated revelation of God, the veil is partly lifted. When this happens, we experience, however partially, in the people and world around us, and in the movements of our own mind and heart, some satisfaction of our longing to know and to be in love. For then God, the source and goal of our being, the One from whom we come, in whom we exist, and for whom we long, is imperfectly, but really, revealed to us.

The history of revelation is the history of human response to the mystery of God’s Word and God’s Spirit. There are no limits to God’s desire to reveal God’s self to us and to draw us into intimate communion in the divine life. The inexhaustible depth of the divine mystery, however, and the inherent limitations of every historical manifestation of the divine, plus the always and necessarily imperfect comprehension on the part of the human mind to receive divine manifestation and enlightenment, mean that our grasp of God is never complete. This is one good reason for inter-religious dialogue. Others have responded to the revelation of God’s Word and the inspiration of God’s Spirit in ways that can enrich and help purify our response. Revelation occurs with the coming together of the free divine initiative (‘grace’), and the human insight into and response to this initiative. Revelation occurs when we realise and embrace reality as graced, when we recognise that ‘the earth is filled with the glory of God’ (Isaiah 6:3).

Inherent And Necessary Limitations Of The Scriptures

This brings us to our second consideration. What are the inspired authors doing when they give expression in words to the revelation that they have experienced in prayer? It is important to distinguish between religious meaning and religious value, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the ways in which this meaning and this value find expression. Our longing to know and to be-in-love without restriction impels us to transcend ourselves to engage in an endless journey of imperfect and mediated encounters with the divine. These encounters bring us some imperfect but real knowledge of God in God’s relations with us. We give expression to this knowledge or communion in simple ways. We do it whenever we genuinely love; we do it with a nod, a smile, a kiss. We do it through the medium of art, using symbols. We can attempt to express what we experience in the specialised language of metaphysics. The inspired authors of the Bible gave expression to revelation (that is to say, to what they saw of God through their religious experience) in their writings.

Whatever means we use to express religious experience, we must recognise its inherent limitations. We must be clear about the limitations even of those treasured words found in the Bible. None bypasses mediation. None gives us direct access to God. In the words of the Vatican Council:

The words of God expressed in human words are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like us. (Dei Verbum n. 13.)

Even when we look at Jesus we do not see God in God’s transcendent being. We see God as God has chosen to be revealed in the limitations of the human. When we listen to the words of the Old Testament, we do not hear God communicating with us in some ethereal, transcendent, super-human way that by-passes history and human experience. We hear God mediated through people who gave expression to their religious experience in words that have all the wonderful qualities of human language, but also its unavoidable limitations. It is precisely within the limited human condition of Jesus that the divine shines out so beautifully and so convincingly. The words of the Bible are the ‘words of God’ only in this mediated sense.

Raymond Brown quotes a Jewish Rabbi as stating that all that God ‘said’ to Moses on Mount Sinai is contained in the sound of the first consonant in the Hebrew alphabet, the glottal stop, Aleph. Brown goes on to say:

With this daring statement that the actual revelation to Israel consists only of the Aleph, Rabbi Mendel transformed the revelation on Mount Sinai into a mystical revelation, pregnant with final meaning, but without specific meaning…It has to be translated into human language, and that is what Moses did. In this light every statement on which authority is grounded would become a human interpretation, however valid and exalted, of something that transcends it.1

In the same article, Brown writes:
The Bible is the literary objectification of a faith that is a response to revelation’ (page 9). He goes on to define Scripture as: ‘divine revelation to which human beings have given expression in words (p. 13).

Raymond Collins writes:
Though canonised by long usage, ‘word of God’ should not be used of the Scriptures without further hermeneutical reflection…A distance is to be maintained conceptually between the scriptural expression and the self-communication of God in itself… Theologically it is less confusing to state that the Scriptures witness to the word of God.2

Schmaus writes3
What we encounter in the Sacred Scriptures is first of all the objectivization of the belief in and understanding of Christ which was possessed by the Church or the local congregation. In other words it is the answer to the revelation of God. In this answer, however, the word of God itself is expressed, for this word has entered into the answer of the Church and is effective in it. On the other hand we must not forget that God’s word, which enters into our human answer of faith, nevertheless always transcends it.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) warns us not to give ‘absolute value’ to words that ‘reflect limited human understanding’ (p. 94). When God inspires a person to write, God is inspiring someone who lives in a necessarily limited culture to use a necessarily limited language to give expression in a necessarily limited way to necessarily limited insights into God that are a response to God’s presence and grace. God does not give an absolute value to words that are historically conditioned (ibid. p. 113). The authors were people of their time and their writings express many of the limited viewpoints of their contemporaries, many of their false assumptions, many of their mistakes and errors. But in their writings we can find the flowers of inspired insight that disclose something of the mystery of the always transcendent God.

What The Author Is Asserting As Being Revealed By God

We can easily misunderstand the text. We can find meanings in it that it was never intended to express. We can even use it to support our own bias or prejudice. After all, those who crucified Jesus did so in the name of what they considered to be God’s revealed word. The sacred text functions as a mirror that the Spirit of God uses to reveal to us our own hearts. It is, however, more than a mirror. It is a window that opens onto a wonderful world of religious experience from an age and from people whose life experience was quite different from our own. The Second Vatican Council states:
Seeing that, in sacred Scripture, God speaks through people in human fashion, it follows that the interpreter of sacred Scripture, if he is to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of the words (Dei Verbum n. 12).

To pursue this question we must be alert to the literary form being used by the author. The key insight is expressed well by Carroll Stuhlmueller who says that ‘the Bible is theology rooted in the sequence of human events as retold within liturgical celebrations’.4 He goes on to say:
The purpose of the Bible is not to describe ancient events with detailed accuracy, but rather, from the memory of events, to draw listeners into worshipping God and into reliving the hopes of ancestors (ibid. page 41).

Obviously, liturgical writing can express religious insight and so mediate divine revelation. We find examples of many different literary forms in the Old Testament, for the authors were interested in the truth of God and how God was communicating with them, but they were also interested in teaching, in providing a catechism for believers, and in drawing God’s chosen people to a deeper fidelity to the covenant.

Our aim is to open ourselves to the richness of the literature, allowing it to invite us into the religious experience that it expresses. We cannot find the inspired meaning of the text if we bypass the meaning intended by the human author or the meaning that encouraged the recipients to preserve the word. To eliminate meanings that cannot be supported by the text and to direct the reader to the range of meanings that can be supported by the text is the task of biblical scholarship. Fundamentalism presumes to bypass this necessary and fundamental task.

Reading The Scriptures From Within The Community Which Has Preserved Them

An important safeguard against misinterpreting the inspired writings of the Bible is for us to read the scriptures from within the community of faith which has treasured and preserved the text and which offers it to us for our contemplation. Many holy and wise people before us, and many wise and holy people today, are reading and studying the sacred writings. It is important that we read it from within this community of faith.5

There is a necessary and unbreakable interaction between the sacred writings, whether of Judaism or of Christianity, and the community which treasured them, preserved them, and handed them on. The written word has its home within the faith-community, for it was the faith of this community that recognised it as indeed the ‘word of God’. We would not have the Bible were it not for the believers who preserved it, so one cannot take the Bible outside the tradition of faith and fossilise some ‘objective’ meaning that stands apart from the community and its faith.

It must also be remembered that not every document was accepted by the community just because it existed. Usage provided a filter that separated out for preservation material that engaged people’s faith experience. This is the basis for our confidence in the inspired nature of the documents that were finally accepted by the community in the official canon. The communities protected themselves against points of view that, while perhaps claiming to be inspired, were judged to be heretical when tested against the authentic religious experience of those people in the community who were judged to be especially holy.
As we read the Bible we should stay in touch with the religious community within which the Scriptures were written, treasured and preserved, allowing our minds and hearts to be enriched by the long tradition of prayerful meditation that has gone on in the community from the first generation up till now. Past interpretations do not exhaust the meaning of Scripture. But many wise words have been uttered and we would be foolish to by-pass them, thinking that our own personal meaning is right just because it is ours. Let us also share our insights with others and learn from their spiritual experiences, learning from the past, but open, too, to the surprising new insights that the Spirit can bring to us through these sacred words.

Fr Michael Fallon has published numerous books including Fundamentalism: a misunderstanding of religious experience (38 pp.), Parish Ministry Publications, 1993. Just out are New Testament Letters, Vols 1 and 2, Chevalier Press, 2004.


1 Brown RE, ‘And the Lord said: Biblical reflections on Scripture as the word of God’ in Theological Studies 42[1981], p. 11, quoting G Scholem, The Kabbala and its Symbolism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965, pp. 29-31).
2 Raymond F Collins in the article ‘Inspiration’ found in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1990) p. 1033, par. 69.
3 Dogma 1: God in Revelation (London: S&W, 1968), p. 188.
4 New Paths through the Old Testament (Paulist 1989) p. 76.
5 See The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993) p. 103.

Michael Fallon has just published New Testament Letters, Vol. 1: An Introductory Commentary on the Letters of Paul (769 pages, $50.00), and Vol. 2: James, Peter, John, Jude and Hebrews (291 pages, $25.00), Chevalier Press.