Spring 1990, Vol.42 No. 1, pp. 62-74.

Leonard Doohan: Current Trends
      Scripture and Contemporary Spirituality

Leonard Doohan holds degrees in divinity and spirituality and a doctorate in theology. He is professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University, Spokane, where he lectures on New Testament and Church. The author of twelve books and many articles, he is also widely known for his public lectures and workshops.

CHRISTIAN spirituality studies the progress and development of Christian life to fullness. It is a discipline which is both theoretical and practical; it is based on revealed principles, but also on the knowledge of the human person. Its method is complex, since spirituality is both a science and an art. One author gives the following descriptive definition: "Spirituality refers to a living synthesis of human and evangelical elements. On the one hand spirituality is really the structuring of an adult personality in faith according to one's proper genius, vocation, and charismatic gifts; on the other hand according to the laws of the universal christian mystery."(1)

The living synthesis of human and evangelical elements is not easy, even from a theological point of view, let alone in life. When human conditions change, the synthesis is different. When the evangelical elements are identified, they too need to be interpreted and applied differently in different circumstances and times, so that what was spirit and life when proclaimed by Jesus will still be spirit and life for us today. Spirituality is a practical discipline, and studies the vital activities that lead to the growth and maturity of Christian life. It is concerned with identified causes of growth, necessary stages in commitment and development, and means that will help in directing others to the goal of union with God. The integration of these objects of spirituality is never complete, for each of the concepts relevant to Christian life is in constant evolution. The notions of perfection, holiness, Christian maturity, and so on, change as our notions of God, person, Church, sacred and profane develop. Put another way: our notions of God and Church are purified and demythologized; then there is a time lag in popular piety; and then Christian lifestyles are brought into a new understanding. It is also true that our notions of the human person develop under the influence of psychology, sociology, personal aspirations, and experience; then there is a time lag in integrating these and confronting them with the gospel; then lifestyles are adapted.


The relationship between spirituality and scripture is profound and vital, but it is also complex and delicate. The two are in a constant tension that can lead to life or death in spiritual relevance and growth. Spirituality studies the incarnation of the perennial values of Christian life. To do this, it must have a good grasp of source teachings on which this life is based, and a real feeling and understanding for the development of human-kind. It is a broad discipline. "Spirituality is a general science that cuts across all the rest and bridges all subjects relevant to theology. Always directly flowing from the font of revelation in Christ, it brings all such subjects into the life of the individual. Therefore it naturally arranges the other disciplines according to their bearing on actual Christian existence.(2) The success of spirituality depends on its ability to integrate the past of Jesus with the today of the Christian. It tries to give a synthesis of the vision and call of the Lord, concretized in changed circumstances, newly incarnated, and applied. Moreover, any synthesis will need to be open to the future, since there is always tension between what spirituality should mean and what is only inadequately expressed in the static concepts of any age. This tension and these problems are already felt in the early Christian era. Scripture is at once the only source for Christian spirituality and is also an inadequate expression in static concepts of what Christian spirituality should mean for us today. Spirituality attempts to echo the Bible's call for life in the Spirit, knowing that its call already includes applications and theologizing.

In the Bible we are always dealing with real people faced with real choices in concrete situations. We are not presented with biblical spirituality but, rather, with biblical spiritualities. In Christian scriptures, we have the challenge of spirituality understood by Matthew for his community, tempted as it is to return to Jamnian Pharisaism. Mark calls to his persecuted community to a spirituality which emphasizes imitation of the suffering Jesus. There is no such thing as the Gospel spirituality, and we should avoid the danger of systematizing and harmonizing early Christian life. Each individual author has his own spirituality, which is his attempt to apply the message of Jesus to the concrete circumstances of his own church. In our acceptance of the canon of scripture is implied our belief that God is working through these interpretations and applications of each author.

The challenge of Jesus is permanent, but spiritualities are transitory. As contexts, problems, and experience change, new lifestyles develop, and when these are verified in the essence of Jesus' call, they are new spiritualities for the Church. Each of these must be viewed with reverence, but never absolutized, lest they become a block to our own interpretation and openness to the biblical call for today. We, too, are called to live the unique spirituality of Jesus in the differing circumstances of our world. The spiritualities of the early Church, and some of the prominent individuals of that time, show us how early Christians answered the perennial questions of life and God. This ongoing religious experience of the Church is a guide to authentic interpretation, but it never frees us from our obligation to reformulate and reincarnate the call of Jesus.


Christianity is a religion rooted in the events and teachings of Jesus. He did not present us with an elaborate systematic spirituality; rather spirituality comes out of his message. The saving events of Jesus' life and ministry are, through the inspiration of the Spirit, concretized or embodied in scripture. Scripture is now the Word of God for us, the principal witness of the life and teachings of the Lord. We are reminded of the words of St. Jerome that "Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ."(3) The New Testament texts are the fruit of faith and show the conviction, reflection, remembering, and recelebration of former disciples.

Scripture, however, is not to be identified with the Word of God nor with revelation. Rather it is a testimony to the Word of God and a prolongation of the word of revelation.(4) It is certainly not the Word of God for me or for us, since it was written with someone else specifically in mind. Even so, it is true that for every Christian there is an unbreakable bond between the Bible and spirituality. The Bible is the source of spirituality, and all Christian life must be penetrated by its teachings.(5) Life which is uninfluenced by the Word of God cannot be Christian. However, Christian life is not simply the repetition of what is contained in scripture. Rather, in the Bible we see events that we must relive, reshare, recelebrate, and reincarnate. It contains creative theological reconstructions of Jesus' teaching. We also meet other disciples who, in their time and circumstances, lived the realities described. Already for us the Bible is a retelling of the events, together with an interpretation of that day.

The Bible, which is the inspired source of our spirituality, and which directs us to the revelation of God, offers us both the events of Jesus and their interpretation, adaptation, and application by believers. The Bible is both revelation and also a witness to humanity's struggle for truth and its search for God. The Bible indeed comes to us in and through the community of believers we call Church. "The Scriptures of the Church are not archives of the past but a channel of life for the continuing church, through which God instructs and admonishes his people."(6) We believe the scriptures are inspired, and that in them God reveals his call to us. They provide "the authoritative and definitive word that continues to shape and enliven the church."(7) However, this authoritative and definitive word is in constant process. The authoritative word is a combination of Jesus' message and the early Christian communities' varied interpretations of it. The canon is not static but opens to growth. One conclusion is that: "Scripture should be read together with post-biblical tradition, or... together with the 'history of the effects' of Scripture."(8) Biblical spirituality is complemented by the history of spirituality, that shows us people who are awed by the holy and live according to scripture. However, no one approaches the texts with an empty mind, but rather brings presuppositions that often hinder direct access to its challenge and filter its thought.

The word of God... is committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit, the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast... professing the heritage of the faith, (and) there results on the 9part of the bishops and faithful a remarkable common effort.(9)
Thus the Vatican Council stresses that revelation is given to the people and belongs to the Church. The word of God is actualized there through ongoing discernment which is not individualistic but a communal openness to the Holy Spirit that both authenticates the contemporary challenge of the Word and the appropriate contemporary expressions of spirituality.

What is the relationship between the Bible and spirituality? Certainly scripture is a source, but this could lead to fundamentalism, rigorism, and conservativism without the theological task of interpretation. Moreover the Bible is not the object of our faith, but our access to God in Christ. Perhaps before being a source of teachings, it is more simply a source of inspiration and edification. For we believe in the God of the Bible not the Bible of God. The latter idolatry absolutizes its words, rather than being open to its spirit. In reading the Bible, the believer finds a feeling for faith, a sense of what it means to be Christian, an interior appreciation of scripture's priorities, and a real resonance of his or her own life with disciples of another time. When read in faith, the scriptures give us an account of the discovery of God; the discovery of the person's own potentials; and the discovery of a shared mission in the plan of God. In some respects our reading highlights attitudes, not concrete situations, and we discover a biblical mentality or perspective which can then be lived out in new situations, even ones not envisioned by the biblical writers.(10)

Besides being a source of inspiration, the Bible is the means for growth in Christian life, life that must be consciously penetrated by Scripture. We see the importance of the foundational events for those believers who experienced them. The Bible is a source of spirituality not because it is the best formulation (it isn't), but because it is the presentation of foundational events that established humanity's relationship with God in Christ. We see how others tried to be faithful, and what means they used. We read the results of their convictions and faith.

Scripture, however, is more than an inspiration and means. It is also an inspired synthesis and vision of what discipleship was understood to be. This synthesis is embodied in circumstances different from ours, but the synthesis is clear. At times, this synthesis has been referred to as biblical spirituality, but this seems to be so restrictive as to be false.(11) The revealed synthesis is essential, but more is required. After all, Jesus did not elaborate a systematic spirituality. Rather, spirituality comes out of his message. His concrete teaching includes authoritative precepts that can be reapplied.

The fourth element of the relationship between the Bible and spirituality is that the former becomes the occasion for biblical spirituality.(12) It is the Church's preaching of the Bible which becomes for us the Word of God. Many of today's faithful are victims of the distancing that modern technology has put between them and the Bible. Points of immediate and natural contact between the Bible and people today are now very few and far between, and often the text cannot speak to them any more. As a result, several read their "simple faith" into the text and out of the text. This spiritualizing of the Bible can be devotionally helpful, but it is not being challenged by the biblical text. Such biblical pietism does not generate biblical spirituality. Thus, it is necessary that the text be an occasion for the proclamation of the Word of God, which calls to biblical spirituality. The word of God is invitation, call, dialogue, it is also symbolic -- evoking response, and it is sacramental, since it is charged with power.

Fifthly, the Bible is the measuring rod for authentic spirituality, the norm and test of all spirituality in the Church. Unfortunately, it is often used as a support for doctrinal positions, whereas it ought to be used as a source to control the authenticity of present spiritual teaching and practice. All elements of life must be measured by its call. However, there is no prior presupposition of harmony or agreement among the authors of the New Testament regarding spirituality, and thus each individual book cannot be considered normative when taken alone. Christian traditions have either posited the immediate supervision of the Spirit (Protestant) or continuous Church tradition (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox) to safeguard the common norm of the Bible's teachings.

The relationship between the Bible and spirituality is also one of constant dialogue between the unchanging Word and the changing situations of disciples. God, who was already working through the interpretations of the evangelists, is also at work in the ongoing growth of the tradition. Biblical spirituality is only found when the dialogue is complete, and we see yet again the originality of Christian life, which continues to echo the biblical message. (13) Thus, the Bible is the source of teaching, the occasion for new insight, and the confirmation of the teaching. It has been suggested that today biblical spirituality is not found in the Bible, but rather in people who live the Bible's message and call. (14)


"What we find in scripture is not biblical spirituality itself, but the inspiration, the ideals, the models, the patterns, the norms and principles from which biblical spirituality can spring."(15) The only element which is basic and common to all is obedience to the Word of God. The Gospel is the ultimate norm and the common inspiration for every authentic Christian spirituality. However, biblical spirituality is not simply what is contained in the Bible, but the appropriate and discerned application of the Word to one's life, thoughts, actions, and prayer. It is the Word of God in so far as it has been conceived and brought to birth in concrete ever-changing circumstances. Biblical spirituality, therefore, is not found in the Bible, but in people who proclaim it in the their lives and in their new incarnation of the Word. This is the essence of both the spirituality and pastoral theology of the preacher. The task is to embody biblical spirituality and proclaim it.

When the Word proclaimed does not facilitate this reincarnational change, then we have a Christianity of piety, devotion, dedication, and total irrelevancy. Proclamation by word and life shows that Christianity is relevant to every generation, culture, and experience, and this is the preachers' task. Their attitude must include an interest in scripture; a conviction that God's message is relevant to every life. They will avail themselves of every opportunity to listen to the witness of the Holy Spirit today, so that the Word proclaimed will be the living Word of God in the Church. They must be humble and uncertain of themselves; and finally should portray great joy and profound peace of mind.

Preachers must not just repeat; proclamation is for now. Each time they unfold the Word to people in search of its life-giving value now, they should be able to say with Isaiah; "Now I'm revealing new things to you, things hidden and unknown to you, created just now, this very moment; of these things you have heard nothing until now, so that you cannot say: 'Oh, yes, I know all this"' (Is. 48:6b-7). There is a newness and vitality in the Word each time it is proclaimed in the new circumstances of every day. Ministers of the Word become ministers of interpretation or they risk being irrelevant in the essence of their ministry.

There are several stages in the interpretational (hermeneutical) task if the emerging spirituality is to be authentic. First there must be a hermeneutics of suspicion towards oneself, one's colleagues, and the New Testament communities that produced these texts. There is a critical need for moral responsibility, selfcriticism of presuppositions, and honesty regarding one's own basic stance.(16) This suspicion is extended to other scholars in the community of faith to detect the ideological overlay they bring to their task of proclamation, and it is equally extended to the original writers of the biblical texts. This effort to avoid absolutizing anyone's interpretation is part of an initial conversion to biblical criticism which is necessary before any further challenge is possible.

The second stage in identifying the Word's present call and meaning is a hermeneutics of remembrance. Through searching for the meaning of a text we often end up re-evaluating previous interpretations. This history of understanding shows the living meaning of a text several generations, and while we want to remember the foundational events, we also discover their critical and spiritual meaning though time, how other disciples discerned the Gospel's call and interpreted it. Seeking what happened, we generally find what was remembered and how it was remembered. This helps us span the gap between recovered meanings and our contemporary challenge.(17) A hermeneutics of proclamation, the third stage, deals with an analysis of attempts to restate the ancient message in modern terms. The effort to translate "what the text meant" to "what the text means" takes place in the act of interpretation and proclamation.(18) The proclaimer of the Word reactualizes the memory of Jesus -- those decisive events that can still touch us in depth. The preacher's task is to discover the meaning and perpetuate its influence. In obedience to Jesus' words, "Do this in memory of me," he or she tries to actualize the life-giving power of the past in the present moment. In this, they share in the Church's teaching function, that of interpreting the texts of scripture. Such interpretation is twofold: first, it is personal and existential, and, second, it is scientific. This double reading of scripture grounds the spirituality and pastoral theology of the preacher.

Finally, "the meaning of a text is disclosed not only in reflection upon it but also in concrete social action based on it."(19) This hermeneutics of actualization (20) shows our fidelity or rebellion to the call of the Word. By reactualizing the Word's challenge, individuals and communities show the living spirit of the word rather than its dead letter.

Interpretation must be authoritative for spirituality to be authentic. Authority should not be limited to mere authorities, be they clergy, magisterial, or academic, even though it will include their conclusions. It will also include the consensus of the faithful and an inner identification in faith. "The scholar... has no access to the original meaning unless the text has some meaning for him (or her) now."(21) Interpretation is authentic when it is rooted in the past and its authoritative Word, relevant to the present as a renewed life-giving expression of the Lord's call, and confirmed by the faith-filled discernment of the community.


As the Christian tradition was passed on, it was modified according to new needs. Perennial values were reverenced but interpreted in transitory forms. Christian spirituality is already evolving and does so in varied ways, such that no harmonizing of Gospel spiritualities can give us a unified view. Christian Scripture had already left the past behind, having accepted it, not as a model to be repeated, but as a mirror that reflects Christians' present identity. Scripture reveals to us our own present and, more especially, our future call. Thus, "texts... continue to have a life of their own in the believing community and acquire new meaning."(22)

The exploratory dimension of spirituality preserves its relevance. All interpretations, including the Bible's, are provisional and transitory. Biblical spirituality must be closely related to its present pastoral applicability. In fact, that was the early Christian writers' criterion "insofar as the concrete pastoral situation of the community is determinative for the selection, transmission and creation of biblical traditions."(23)

The Bible is our inspiration, it is a means for growth in life, and contains a synthesis of the Christian vision. It is the occasion for new proclamation, a norm for evaluation, and a point of dialogue. It is not a blueprint, but calls to new life. "It yields certain perspectives, patterns, and priorities, and it forms the christian mind which then turns to the examination of contemporary issues -- perhaps to apply central New Testament principles more rigorously than any of the New Testament writers."(24)

When seen in this way it is clear that the Bible contains and calls forth many spiritualities. In fact, we really do not have a biblical spirituality, but many spiritualities to which the inspiration and teaching of the Word gave birth in the early Christian era. Through faithful remembrance and interpretation in the believing community, the same inspiration and teaching continue to generate them today.

  1. A. Besnard, "Tendencies of Contemporary Spirituality." Concilium, 9 (1965): 26.

  2. Josef Sudbrack, "Spirituality," Sacramentum Mundi, Karl Rahner with Cornelius Ernst and Kevin Smyth, eds. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), vi, p. 151. See also C. Duquoc, "Theology and Spirituality," Concilium, 19 (1966): 88-99.

  3. See Vatican Council II, Decree on Divine Revelation, 18:1, 25:1.

  4. Cf. Leo Scheffczyk, "Word of God," Sacramentum Mundi, vi, pp. 365-66.

  5. See Hans Urs von Balthasar, "The Gospel as Norm and Test of All Spirituality in the Church," Concilium, 9 (1965): 14-17.

  6. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970), p. 99.

  7. Ibid., p. 100.

  8. See P. Schoonenberg, "Notes of a Systematic Theologian," Concilium, 70 (1971): 90.

  9. Vatican Council II, Decree on Divine Revelation, 10:1.

  10. Childs, op. cit., pp. 44-45.

  11. See J. N. Wijngaards, "Biblical Spirituality," Scripture Bulletin, 9 (1978): 9.

  12. See E. Hamel, "L'usage de l'Ecriture Sainte en théologie morale," Gregorianum, 47 (1966): 58.

  13. Sudbrack, art. cit., p. 151.

  14. See Wijngaards, art. cit., p. 9.

  15. Ibid.

  16. P. D. Hanson, "The Responsibility of Biblical Theology to Communities of Faith," Theology Today, 37 (1979-1980): 39-50.

  17. William D. Thompson, Preaching Biblically, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981), p. 14.

  18. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, "Contemporary Biblical Scholarship: Its Roots, Present Understandings, and Future Directions," in Modern Biblical Scholarship: Its Impact on Theology and Proclamation, Francis A. Eigo, O.S.A., ed., (Villanova University Press: Villanova, PA, 1984), p. 15.

  19. Ibid., p. 19.

  20. For detailed comments on the hermeneutics of suspicion, remembrance, proclamation, and actualization, see Fiorenza, pp. 28f.

  21. Ibid., p. 14.

  22. Reginald H. Fuller, The Use of the Bible in Preaching, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. 35.

  23. Thompson, op. cit., p. 15.

  24. J. L. Houlden, Ethics and the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 119-20.