Understanding why the Word became words

Scripture, says Dr. Jeremy Holmes, “offers an external guide rail for the Church to follow as she hands down to the next generation everything that she is; it is like a mirror in which the Church, the body of Christ, can look, see herself, and remember who she is.”

(Image: Pixabay/FotografieLink)

Dr. Jeremy Holmes is Associate Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. After a childhood in rural Arkansas, he earned his bachelors in liberal arts from Thomas Aquinas College in California, his masters in theology from the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, and his doctorate in theology with specialization in biblical studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee. From 2006 to 2008 he was Assistant Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, teaching courses in Christology, biblical studies, and patristic and medieval exegesis. He has published a number of articles in scholarly and popular journals.

His new book Cur Deus Verba: Why the Word Became Words, published recently by Ignatius Press, “unfolds a systematic theology of Scripture from a single key question: What did God seek to accomplish by making the Bible?” The renowned Dominican scholar Fr. Aidan Nichols describes it as “a beautifully clear account of the place of Scripture in the totality of Christian doctrine and life” and noted theologian Matthew Levering says that “Holmes has crafted a masterful theological introduction to the purpose, nature, suitability, and historicity of Sacred Scripture.”

Dr. Holmes recently corresponded with CWR’s editor Carl E. Olson about his new book and several aspects of Sacred Scripture, including modern Scripture scholarship, the nature of divine inspiration, the Incarnational and Trinitarian foundations of Scripture, difficulties in Scripture, and much more.

CWR: Let’s start at the beginning and with the big picture, as this book is very much about The Beginning and the Big Picture! What was the genesis of this book? What key issues or questions do you seek to address throughout it? If you had to summarize the essential point(s) or focus of the book, how would you put it?

Dr. Jeremy Holmes: In a 1988 talk titled “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis,” Joseph Ratzinger described the central problem in modern biblical scholarship. Despite tremendous progress in making heard once again the many human voices of Scripture in all their distinctness, much modern scholarship systematically excludes God from consideration. This is felt as necessary in order to undertake a truly historical study.

But Ratzinger argued that “the debate about modern exegesis is, at heart, not a debate among historians, but a philosophical debate.” History does not exclude God; bad philosophy does. To reunite ancient and modern biblical interpretation, we need not more historical erudition but good philosophy. More specifically, Ratzinger said that St. Thomas Aquinas’s use of the notions of analogy and participation “made possible an open philosophy, which is able to accept the biblical phenomenon in all its radicalism.”

This book started as an attempt to answer Ratzinger’s call for a new biblical synthesis around an “open philosophy”. In fact, I set out to create a work of “theology” in the most rigorous sense, which St. Thomas describes as one that speaks of “God primarily, and of creatures only insofar as they are referable to God as their beginning or end” (ST 1.1.3, ad. 1). From the point of view of theology, everything that is true of Scripture is true because of God. Many things are true of Scripture because of its human authors—but only because God chose those human authors at that place and time precisely in order to make those things true.

This is the essential focus of the book: to see every aspect of Scripture in relation to God.

CWR: Right at the start, you state, “The Church’s faith about the Incarnate Word parallels her faith that Scripture is both truly the words of men and truly the words of God.” Can you unpack that parallel a bit? How does Scripture itself express or point towards this foundational truth?

Dr. Holmes: Jesus Christ has a human nature and does normal human things: he walks, he hungers, he cries. But he also has a divine nature and does super-human things: he walks on water, he multiplies the loaves, he heals the sick. While these two natures in Christ are absolutely distinct and never confused one with another, they nonetheless work so inseparably in the one person of Christ that the Church Fathers speak of his one “theandric energy”.

Similarly, in Scripture we hear the voice of man speaking the way men speak: it expresses doubts and fears, it makes grammatical mistakes, it reflects the concerns of its age. But in that same text we also hear the voice of God: it reveals secret wisdom, uncovers the secrets of hearts, and speaks to every age. While the divine voice and the human voice are absolutely distinct and unmixed, nonetheless the reader’s pursuit of one is inseparably the pursuit of the other. Scripture is the very wisdom of God made audible.

In a vivid poem, the prophet Baruch describes God’s wisdom as desperately needed by men but as dwelling far from them. God has found the whole way to wisdom, Baruch says, and “afterward she appeared upon earth and lived among men” (Bar 3:37). The Christian draws in a sudden breath: could this be the Incarnation of God’s Wisdom, drawn out in plain terms in the Old Testament? But Baruch continues: “She is the book of the commandments of God” (Bar 4:1). The closest the Old Testament comes to saying that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14) is a panegyric on the inspired text.

CWR: Your book delves deeply into the nature of the Incarnation and how this central Mystery (along with the Trinity) is the source of, well, everything. Is there a sense in which we—that is, Christians—often fail to appreciate or comprehend this reality? How do you seek, in your book, to deepen the reader’s understanding of the Incarnational core of the Catholic Faith?

Dr. Holmes: Trinity Sunday is the subject of endless Internet humor. (“Brace yourselves: the Trinity Sunday homilies are coming.”) Priests aren’t sure what to say, and parishioners have no idea why they should say it. Why should your average Catholic be forced to sit and listen to boring technical theology stuff for twenty minutes?

And yet the Trinity is the deep reality beneath everything, the inmost secret of the inmost source of all being. Our calling is to join in its life, first by the indwelling of the Trinity in our souls here and now through grace, and later by open vision in the new creation. Without the doctrine of the Trinity we cannot understand our own spiritual lives, who we are, or where we are going.

Now, reason alone is enough to tell us that creation is a reflection of God’s perfection. But the revelation of the Trinity shows us that to reflect God’s perfection is to resemble God’s Son, the perfect Image of the Father. Creation is like a portrait painting, while the Son is like the original who sat for it. So when God’s creation fell away from him and began to sink into chaos, he sent the Son to restore creation to itself by re-impressing himself on it. The Incarnate Son is more what creation is than creation itself, and by uniting ourselves to the Incarnate Son we become ourselves again.

Christianity is all about the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is the path back to the life of the Trinity.

CWR: To steal the title of one of the book’s chapters: What is Scripture for? What are some ways in which the purpose or nature of Scripture is misunderstood? What must we do or know to properly read and understand Scripture?

Dr. Holmes: Christ saves us by impressing himself on us. He does this invisibly through grace, visibly and in an ever-adapting way through the magisterium, and visibly and unchangeably through Scripture. This is why Scripture needs to be not just the infallible words of holy men but actually the word of God: it needs to convey the Word to our hearts.

Scripture’s unique way of doing this comes from the fact that it is made of physical, written signs. This means that it stands forever outside the uncertainty of our self-knowledge and the vagaries of our discernment. We can misread and abuse it, but it remains in front of us, with ever the same words on the page. It offers an external guide rail for the Church to follow as she hands down to the next generation everything that she is; it is like a mirror in which the Church, the body of Christ, can look, see herself, and remember who she is.

Sometimes we suppose that the purpose of Scripture is simply to impart truth. Of course, it does impart infallible truth! But this is subordinate to the larger purpose of impressing Christ on us. It would be better to think of Scripture as a life companion that shapes and changes us in ways we do not realize, acting on us subtly even when we do not understand.

CWR: The nature of divine inspiration in the writing of Scripture is, for many people, either hazy or crudely simplistic. What do you emphasize in your discussion of this topic, which is central to your book? And why is it so important?

Dr. Holmes: “Inspiration” is a name for how God moved men to write down everything he wanted written and only what he wanted written. We cannot think well about inspiration until we think well about how God moves men in general, and we cannot think well about how God moves men until we have thought well about how God moves anything at all.

The great mistake is to think of God as a “thing” alongside other things, moving them as one thing moves another, from outside. But God is Being itself, and every being and every aspect of every being (including every motion of every being) exists only by radiation from his fullness. So he moves beings from within them, by giving them their own motions.

Think of it this way: no man can make a rock fall. We can remove obstacles to a rock’s falling, and we can throw a rock (a motion from outside it), but only God can give to a rock that rock’s own falling. In a similar way, only God could give to a human author that man’s own—very own—authoring.

If we get this wrong, we might make Scripture less than fully God’s word, so that it could not fulfill its purpose of impressing the Word on us. Or we might get this wrong by making Scripture less than fully the words of men, so that pursuit of the human authors’ intentions no longer matters for discovering the mind of God. Either way, we lose the connection between inspiration and Incarnation.

CWR: You note, in writing about the literal sense of Scripture, that while it seems that “God’s favorite biblical books are those that tell a story…” it is “… hard to find in the tradition a clear account of why story should be important for the Bible.” Why is story so important in Scripture?

Dr. Holmes: Of everything in modern biblical scholarship, I think the Church Fathers would be most excited about narrative analysis. Only in the modern era have we taken “story” as a subject in its own right and built an adequate toolbox for reading. What many of the Fathers did implicitly and intuitively, we now do explicitly and analytically.

Story gives structure and rationality to memory, the storehouse of experience. Memory in turn gives permanence and enhanced existence to time, which exists outside of our memories only as the indivisible now. If we had no memory, we would have no identity, no sense of the permanent reality that is the “I”. So story is what brings coherence to our identity, by structuring memory.

But there is more. By storing up time and giving it unity, memory resembles God’s eternity, where all times pre-exist as one. By giving structure and unity to memory, story brings it to an even closer resemblance to God’s eternity. And memory participates most of all in God’s eternity when it soaks in the story of all time as narrated by God himself. When this happens, we take on a sense of identity proper to the sons of God.

CWR: In your chapter on literary forms used in Scripture, you discuss some of the challenges faced by modern readers in reading the sacred text. What are some of those? How can readers overcome or get past those difficulties?

Dr. Holmes: One basic problem is the assumption that modern ways of thinking are the only ways of thinking or are the self-evidently better ways of thinking. Even if we realize that ancients wrote history differently than we do today, and that they thought about the world in a way different from today’s scientific understanding, we tend to assume without question that today’s way of thinking about history and about the world and so on are superior in every way. We have to understand that ancient ways of thinking inform Scripture not because God could not do any better—because he did not have any modern people available to be authors—but because he wanted these ways of thinking to inform Scripture. We as moderns need to have the humility to realize that, for all our sophistication, we have a lot to learn from “outmoded” forms of writing.

So for example, our culture tells us that science is the best kind of knowledge; we piously assume that Scripture imparts the best kind of knowledge; therefore, many conclude, Scripture imparts science. But God chose a pre-scientific literary form to tell the story of creation, and in this mode he does something science in fact cannot do: he tells us the absolutely first efficient cause of all things (God), the absolutely first form of all things (God’s wisdom), the absolutely first matter of all things (nothingness), and the absolutely final end of all things (God). This is wisdom! And we can relearn the nature of wisdom by approaching Scripture in humility.

CWR: Speaking of difficulties, you have a long chapter titled “Difficulties in Scripture”. Without getting into specific texts, can you give readers a sense of how you address the fact that Scripture does have many difficult passages?

Dr. Holmes: When difficulties crop up, they feel like ammo for atheists, so we tend to find a quick fix and deny that any serious difficulty was there. We feel that if Scripture has “problem texts” then the case for Christianity is weak—and we react with anxiety.

We have to understand that the difficult and dark passages of Scripture are not there despite God’s best efforts but because God wants them right where they are. There are fruits we can only reap by wrestling with those passages. When we deny that they are problematic, or pretend they don’t exist, we actually do an end run around God’s intention!

Yes, we should look for solutions to the hard texts. But we should also ask ourselves why we find them so hard. What light has this text shed on our assumptions and anxieties?

CWR: A deep theme throughout the book is an emphasis on “participation”. What is “participation”? Why is it so vital in reading and understanding Scripture and the Catholic Faith as a whole?

Dr. Holmes: It would be a mistake to think of God as just one being alongside other beings, perhaps bigger than them. But it would also be a mistake to think of God as simply other, so that this world can bear no likeness to him. The truth is that the world only exists as his reflection, while he is the true Being who alone is in no way a reflection of anything else. This means that we are both infinitely distant from him and like him at the same time.

This is the most important case of “participation,” where one thing exists by being a reflection of another: it gives us that “open philosophy” Ratzinger said is necessary for biblical interpretation. But the same concept can be found throughout my replies to the questions above: God became incarnate to renew our participation in his interior life; inspiration is impossible unless every creature’s action is a participation in God’s eternal act; the literal sense of Scripture gives our memory a participation in eternity; moreover, the spiritual sense of Scripture is the Old Testament’s participation in the New Testament and the New Testament’s participation in the age to come.

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. Phew! I’m reeling! There’s so much here!

    About the nature of scripture. Of reality. Of God.

    Talk about tackling the big questions! And in such a confined space!

    This interview exemplifies why I spend time with CWR. My mind is utterly boggled — in the best possible way.

    I’m going to read this one again tomorrow.

  2. Somewhere I read from a scholar that the Word of God exudes, literally breathes Christ. Reading through Jeremy Holmes doctor of scriptural theology I sensed kinship of belief not always experienced. Somewhere he likely speaks of the written Word as referred here. There is in the Word inked on parchment 2000 years ago translation to interior sound that implants understanding as Augustine says in the heart. There given continued life, a continuity. A unique mysterious journey of the living word as oft referred to. Word remembered awakened by the Spirit in the Evangelist written on parchment of Christ’s spoken Word began that transference of more than matter rather the fiery spiritual, a mysterious alive reality of the inventor of words from nothingness, Holmes’ “The absolutely first form of all things (God’s wisdom), the absolutely first matter of all things (nothingness), and the absolutely final end of all things (God)”. This is where I found that nexus. Christ is present in the written word not quite the real presence rather in process of realization within the believing heart of Man.

  3. We read: “…much modern scholarship systematically excludes God from consideration. This is felt as necessary in order to undertake a truly historical study.” Helpful in understanding this abuse is a contrast with the polar alternative offered by the Qur’an which is believed to transcend history altogether.

    The Bible is “inspired;” the Qur’an is believed to be “dictated.” The first can be translated, the second must only be read in Arabic. The first speaks of the FATHER; the second has no such concept or word. The first testifies to CHRIST as the Incarnation and the Second Person of the Trinity; the second regards this as idolatry and points instead to a monolithic God and, as a book, is believed to be of the very essence of God and “uncreated.” The first points to and records the coming of the HOLY SPIRIT; the second is limited to a self-appointed “final prophet.”

    In short, the Bible is inspired words about the Triune nature of the Divinity, and witnesses to the incarnate Christ as the “Word made flesh.” While the dictated Qur’an (after referring to Christ most respectfully some twenty-two times) REPLACES Christ as the Word with the words of the Qur’an.

    The Qur’an is marked by a submissive hermeneutics of discontinuity (!) whereby the earlier “revelations” are simply “abrogated” by latter contradictions, as when Meccan jihad—-as inner struggle—-is coupled with Medinan jihad—-as exterior conquest. Without the Incarnation–both historical and graced, the biblical mystery of God remains totally inscrutable, a mystery of arbitrary fate and predestination, impenetrable by reasoned analogy (Aquinas and Benedict) and deprived of graced imprinting/indwelling.

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