Professor John Bergsma is Full Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He is visiting Australia this week, spending two days in Sydney (18-19) and three days in Perth (20-22) on a tour sponsored by Parousia Media. While he might not be a household name in Australia – yet – the Old Testament scholar has co-authored several articles with fellow convert celebrity and colleague, Scott Hahn. Raised a Calvinist in the strict Dutch tradition, John served as a Calvinist pastor for four years before his conversion to Catholicism in 2001. He is passionate about encouraging Catholics to read the Bible.
Have you been in Australia before?
No, this is my first visit to the Land Down Under!
Besides getting a selfie with the Sydney Opera House in the background, I’d like to meet some of the Catholic communities in Australia and build up our faith together!
What have you been speaking about?
(Mostly) about Scripture and the Catholic Faith. I’ll be using simple drawings, stick figures, to teach the ‘big picture’ of the Bible story line. People are sometimes scared of the Bible because it seems long and complicated. But if you can see the basic story line, or ‘big picture’ it starts to become much easier to understand and enjoyable. People also sometimes think that reading the Bible personally is a ‘Protestant thing’. But personal study of the Bible helped me become Catholic! I’ll be sharing about that, how I converted to Catholicism after being a Protestant pastor.
Why do you think Catholics do not read their Bibles?
There’s a cultural attitude among many Catholic communities that going to Mass is enough. It’s so sad, because many attend Mass without understanding what’s going on, and as a result they don’t benefit as much spiritually. Sometimes they don’t benefit at all.
For God’s grace or power at Mass, and in the other Sacraments, to really make a difference in your life, there has to be faith and understanding. The understanding comes from reading God’s Word. Many of us as Catholics have attitudes and lifestyles that don’t agree at all with God’s Word. Because of that, our lives are not blessed, and we seem just as unhappy and dissatisfied with the world as everyone else around us. The answer is to reshape our thinking by reading and memorising God’s Word.
How can Catholics be encouraged to read the Bible?
Honey catches more flies than vinegar. I don’t think ‘guilting’ people into reading the Bible is the way to go. But if we can catch the vision for the joy and peace it can bring into our lives, we will want to read Scripture. My whole approach is to keep the study of the Bible light-hearted and enjoyable. That’s why I use stick-figures. My attitude is that Scripture is a kind of holy playground that God has given his children to explore. It is delightful, inspiring, and sheds light on how we should live in this world.
The Old Testament (OT) can be very challenging. How do you suggest approaching it for someone who is not well versed (pun-intended) with the Bible?
I wouldn’t begin with the Old Testament; I would begin with the Gospels. When a person has a decent grasp of the life and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, then you start delving into the Old Testament in order to understand better Jesus’s message. And I don’t think it is possible to approach the Old Testament without a guide. I wrote the book Bible Basics for Catholics precisely to be such a first guide. It provides a ‘mental map’ of the storyline of the Old Testament. Without that mental map, you can get lost, bogged down in all the detail. With the mental map, I think a person can find their way through the forest, and even come to enjoy it.
What OT passages have you found the hardest to reconcile with the Revelation of God as Love?
Well, there are the passages of judgement, when God causes the death of certain persons, as when he sends the great flood or commands the Israelites to put certain Canaanite cities to the sword. At first sight, this doesn’t seem compatible with a God of love. But what I’ve come to understand is that God is the Lord even of life and death. He sets the time and circumstances of each one of our deaths, and he does it in his loving providence. Sometimes – as with the people before the flood, or the Canaanites – we are sinning so grievously, that He cuts our lives short, so that we stop digging ourselves into a pit in the afterlife, so to speak.
It is also helpful to remember that our God, who sets the time and circumstances of our birth and of our death, is also the one who came down, became a man like us, suffered terrible abuse, and experience death on our behalf. He did all this to prove his love for us. So whenever we ponder human death–whether it’s the death of sinners in the Old Testament, or maybe a loved one who passes away untimely–we need to remind ourselves of some basic truths: God knows what it’s like to die. God knows even what it’s like to die painfully and unfairly. Further, God has proved he loves us in the most dramatic way possible, by dying for us. Therefore, when God permits us or anyone else to die, it can be assured it is only be because it fits into his loving plan for us.
Have their been any passages in the OT that have tested your faith?
Just the ones mentioned above, the passages of judgment on peoples, mostly in the first six books of the Bible.
How do you personally approach the Bible?
Different ways of reading the Bible are appropriate for different stages in one’s spiritual life.
When I was young, my Sunday School teacher started me off memorising individual verses. That was good, but later I needed to start reading the Bible through, in order to come to understand the story line and be exposed to the content. Later, when I became Catholic, I would read along with readings from daily Mass, concentrating on the books and passages used in the Lectionary.
Now, I’ve gone back to memorising, like when I was a kid! Why? Because I have the story line and content down pretty well, but I have to go deeper. I need to live it out better, and for that it helps to shape my thinking by running the words of Scripture through my mind over and over, which is what it takes to memorise. One of the first verses I ever memorized was Psalm 119:11: ‘Your word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you,’ and I’ve come full circle back to that verse. Memorising Scripture is a big help to growing in holiness.