Monday, June 15, 2015

7 Questions: Dr. Peter Williamson

Dr. Peter S. Williamson occupies the Adam Cardinal Maida Chair in Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He received his M.A. in Theology from Sacred Heart in 1995 and his S.T.D. in Biblical Theology from the Gregorian University in 2001. Dr. Williamson, a convert to the Catholic Church in 1972, is a married layman who has been involved for over 35 years in evangelization and pastoral ministry. He is the author of Ephesians (Baker, 2009) and Revelation in the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture and general editor of the series along with Dr. Mary Healy. In addition he is author of Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture: A Study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" (Loyola Press, 2002) and co-editor with Ralph Martin of John Paul II and the New Evangelization (revised edition, St. Anthony Messenger, 2006).  I was blessed to have Peter as an instructor for three of my scripture classes at Sacred Heart Major Seminary during my time there doing graduate work.  I consider him a good friend and mentor in the Lord. 

1) How did you acquire a great love for Sacred Scripture?

My Protestant parents and grandparents were an important influence on my life as the regards the Bible.   They really did honor and revere the word of God.  They read it, talked about it, argued about itJ, and treated it as authoritative for every aspect of life.

My mom told us, read us, and had us read Bible stories when we were kids.  Both my dad and my mom taught us to memorize Scripture verses.  When I had trouble losing my temper as an adolescent, after punishing me for lashing out verbally or physically, they had me write out and learn texts from Proverbs about controlling anger.  Here’s one I remember:   “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city”  (Prov 16:32).  Here’s another:  “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

I remember asking my grandfather, a former missionary in China and pastor, how much Scripture he read: about five or six chapters daily.

So the example and teaching was there from my parents and grandparents so that when I had my “adult” conversion when I was a freshman in college, I knew that to live as a Christian meant to read and obey Scripture.   Fortunately, I was received into a charismatic community of Christians, many of whom were Catholic, that loved and believed in Scripture just like my parents did.   It was then that reading and studying the Bible really became a part of my life.

2)      How do you pray with Scripture?

The way I pray with Scripture most is by prayerfully reading through books of the Bible while I eat breakfast.  I do this every day without exception and it’s a quiet high point of my day.  In our house, I’m the morning person and my wife is the evening person, so we both have some quiet time when we get up.

I suppose I average two or three chapters a day, but my pace varies greatly.  Recently I read through the Gospel of John and I only got through half a chapter each morning.  However, most of the last six months I’ve been reading a few chapter a day of the wisdom literature, and before that, the historical and prophetic books.  I may also pray a psalm or two during the day, but am not consistent about that.

I’m a firm believer in the importance of reading through books of Scripture, rather than exclusively reading the liturgical texts, for three reasons.  First, in order to get the full meaning of what we read, it’s necessary to know the context, and that is usually not provided in the Mass readings.  Second, the daily and Sunday Mass readings of the entire three year cycle only cover about 28% of the Bible—70% of the New Testament and only 13.5% of the New Testament!  There’s a lot that we miss if we only read the lectionary readings.  Finally, a person who mainly knows the Bible from the Mass readings has no idea where to find things in the Bible and is severely handicapped when he or she wants to talk to someone else about the Bible or wants to use Scripture in catechesis or pastoral ministry.

Of course, the selection of Mass readings is very good, and I read or listen to them most days. But for daily personal reading, I recommend reading through biblical books.  Pope Benedict was of the same mind, urging bishops and theologians to read through the NT every year and the OT every two years.

2b) When you are reading the bible in the morning over breakfast, do you typically read the original Greek/Hebrew or a translation?

That depends on whether I’m seeking to read through, to get the big picture and main things a book of the Bible is saying, or whether I want to go more slowly and to catch the nuances.  Most recently I’ve read through John and am re-reading Revelation in Greek.  Before that, my reading of the wisdom literature, prophets and historical books was in English.   My Hebrew reading is mainly confined to the Psalms, but occasionally I work through another biblical book in Hebrew. 

People who don’t know Greek or Hebrew, but who know some other second language can benefit from reading the Bible in whatever other language they know.  They will invariably notice different things in the text than they notice when they read in English.   A similar advantage can be found in reading a different translation than a person is accustomed to.

3)      This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dei Verbum, the Vatican II document on Divine Revelation.  How important has this document been for the promotion of Scripture study in the Catholic Church?

It’s a great document, one that I love and am really proud of, since in sections 11 and 12 it says a lot about what Scripture is and how to interpret it in a few sentences.  Some people think that it is only Protestants that regard Scripture as 100% divinely-inspired and true, but that is also what we believe as Catholics,

Dei Verbum has done a great deal to promote the reading and study of the Bible in the Church.  The document was the result of a movement of biblical renewal that preceded the Council and has continued since then.  Here are a few lines from section 25 that encourage reading and studying Scripture:

All the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures  through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word…. The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful… to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the "excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:8). "For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ."(5)

4)      Could you talk a bit about how the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture came to be?  How did it come to be published by Baker Academic, a prominent Protestant publisher? What are your hopes for this commentary series?

To be truthful, it was frustration with some other Bible commentaries that made me see the need for a new series.  Things have gotten better, but in the past many commentaries were overly academic and not related to Christian life.  They were also often written from a rationalist anti-supernatural point of view, rejecting or explaining away biblical miracles as merely symbolic. 

I saw a need for commentaries for Catholics serious about studying Scripture that approach the Bible with a hermeneutic of faith and that seek to discover the meaning of the text for Christian today.  I was happy to discover that the Pontifical Biblical Commission was of the same mind, so I wrote my doctoral dissertation on their 1993 document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.   After I completed my doctoral studies I got to know Dr. Mary Healy and found that she shared my interest in developing Catholic commentaries with these priorities.  Kevin Perrotta, an old friend and author of many books and articles on Scripture was interested as well, and so we decided to do it together.

It took us awhile to find a publisher for the series—a year or two.  Several Catholic publishers were interested, but then backed off because of the magnitude of the project or because our series would compete with other projects they had in mind.  Meanwhile Baker Academic, which initially said no, successfully published a few Catholic titles, even winning a Catholic book-of-the-year award, and decided to commit to the series.   They’ve been wonderful to work with.

5)      Just recently, your commentary on the Book of Revelation was published.  Many Christians tend to shy away from Revelation, due to its fantastic images and symbols.  How would you encourage someone to navigate this mysterious book?

I have to admit that Revelation is one of the hardest books of the Bible to understand.  A reader does need some orientation to the book.  Baker has published an excerpt from my Revelation commentary on the series website that includes my introduction to the book.   That would be a good place to start, but there are other good introductions out there as well.

My main advice is to be courageous, pick up a Bible and read through Revelation, asking the Holy Spirit to help you take away what he wants you to understand.  You may not understand much the first time, but do your best.  I am still growing in my understanding of Revelation each time I read it.

Two points will help.  First, Revelation is not a literal play-by-play description of what will happen at the end of history.  It does tell us both about the present time and about the end of history, but it communicates its message in a symbolic and visionary way.  If you think about any of the visions elsewhere in the Bible, such as Joseph’s dreams in Genesis or Peter’s vision in Acts 10, their meaning is always communicated symbolically rather than literally.  That’s true of Revelation as well.

Second, although the book of Revelation begins with the time of its author John in the late first century and ends with the return of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem, it does not progress toward its conclusion in a linear fashion.  Instead, it presents the drama of human history and its conclusion through a series of visions that cover the same events from various perspectives. You could say that the story line is circular or spiral in shape.  The purpose is not to give us an exact and detailed knowledge of the future, but instead to help us discern what is happening in the present, so that we make the right responses to what we’re facing. 

Revelation is also intended to build our confidence and hope so that we can endure hard times, confident that Jesus wins in the end, and that he and his Bride, the Church will really live happily ever after. Really!  Revelation, the Bible, and human history—despite its troubles and sorrows and conflicts—will have the best ending imaginable.

6) Given your experience in evangelization and teaching Sacred Scripture, do you have any suggestions in how we can help our family and friends develop a love for Scripture?

The book of Deuteronomy gives the best advice:

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.   You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise”  (Deut 6:6-8).

That’s more or less what my parents did, and gosh, they got it right!  All six of their sons and daughters (and their spouses) love the Bible and read it regularly.  I think it works for friends too—if we tell people what we’re learning from the Bible, many of them will get interested too.  Bible studies are great.  A simple way to begin is with one of Kevin Perrotta’s Six Weeks with the Bible booklets.  And of course, praying for people is very important too!

7) Do you have a favorite verse or passage from Scripture?
The following words of St. Paul both move me very deeply and summarize the essence of the gospel and the key to our life as Christians:
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).


Anonymous said...

Interesting! I've been really enjoying the CC series he was started. I hope he'd consider starting as Old Testament series eventually!


Timothy said...

Me too!

Anonymous said...

The Deuteronomy quote is from the ESV.

Dominic1752 said...

Why the minor variance in the Deut passage from the RSV? Better grammar? Just curious...

Anonymous said...


EC was right in citing the English Standard Version as reference of Dr. Williamson.

Checking upon RSV-CE and ESV on Deuteronomy 6:6-8, the differences were very minor, most of them only bringing the text into modern English.

6 And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.

6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.

Vince C said...

Yes! The Old Testament next! Perhaps the Pentateuch, at least for starters. I would have loved to hear him asked about that. I have all the volumes that have so far been released (except Revelation-- I've asked for it for Father's Day ;) ), and find them extremely clear and useful.

TS said...

I love these Seven Questions posts!

Luke said...

Great interview and that is my favorite verse as well. I pray it every time I receive Holy Communion. I just finished Mary Healy's commentary on Mark and am now reading the commentary on John. I too hope they tackle the Old Testament!