Rediscovering the Word of God
By Fr Thomas Crean O.P.
What will be the fruits of the Synod of Bishops just concluded in Rome? The champion of the liberals, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, had already fired a shot across his fellow bishops’ bows in February by warning them not to “take us backwards in respect of the Second Vatican Council”. And the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod has caused controversy by seeming to limit biblical inerrancy only to matters pertaining to salvation. Father Thomas Crean OP offers some introductory thoughts on the theme of the Synod.
The Twelfth Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops took place in Rome from 5-26 October. Three years ago, the theme for discussion was the Holy Eucharist. This year, the chosen topic was ‘the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church’. At the time of writing this article, only the working document (Lineamenta) produced by the General Secretariat of the Synod was to hand. A post-Synodal exhortation will no doubt be issued by the Supreme Pontiff in due course. But in the meantime, it may not be out of place to recall the Church’s teaching on this subject, and to make some observations on the provisional Lineamenta.
The phrase “the Word of God” refers in the first place to the second Person of the Holy Trinity, who was made man for our salvation. It may also refer to the message communicated by God to man, first of all through the patriarchs and prophets, and then fully by the Incarnate Son through his apostles.
In this regard, we must note an important difference between Catholics and Protestants. Protestants hold that all revealed truths are explicitly contained in the Bible. Quite logically, therefore, they refer to the Bible as ‘the Word of God’, without further qualification. Catholics, however, hold that Revelation is contained both in Scripture and Tradition. Not all the truths revealed by Christ and taught by the apostles are explicitly written down in Holy Scripture.
Two examples of truths which are indeed implied or adumbrated in the New Testament, but not explicitly taught by it are the sacrificial character of the Mass and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Catholics therefore say that the Word of God is contained in Scripture and Tradition, and we refer to the Bible as ‘the written Word of God’, not ‘the Word of God’ tout court. Quoting Vatican II, the Lineamenta states that the written and unwritten Word of God are to be received with “equal loyalty and reverence”.
Today, we sometimes encounter the phrase “living Tradition”. Though perfectly legitimate in itself, this phrase is not without its dangers. Since ‘Tradition’, in the sense in which it is paired with ‘Scripture’, simply means all those revealed truths taught by the apostles but not consigned by them to writing, it cannot grow, any more than the Bible itself can grow. For, as the Lineamenta notes, public revelation ended with the apostolic age. So whereas physics or philosophy, say, should in principle extend their range in each generation, Scripture and Tradition together constitute an immutable body of knowledge, which the Church’s Magisterium has simply to pass on free from taint.
“O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to thee”, writes St Paul. Whilst theologians can bring out the order and harmony that exist among revealed truths, they cannot increase their number. By contrast, ecclesiastical traditions can grow over the centuries, as has happened with the formation of the Church’s liturgy.
One important Catholic doctrine on Holy Scripture is its plenary inerrancy. This means that everything in the Holy Scriptures is inspired by the Holy Spirit and hence that the sacred books are free from all error. This doctrine has been taught many times by the Popes, for example by Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, by Benedict XV in Spiritus Paraclitus, and by Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu. And Christ Himself said, “Scripture cannot be broken”.
Unfortunately, an ambiguous phrase in Vatican II’s document Dei Verbum has led some theologians and exegetes to claim that the Bible’s inspiration is limited, and hence that the sacred authors could err. The highly influential Jerome Biblical Commentary, for example, even goes so far as to categorise the various kinds of error into which the Bible falls! It is disappointing that the Lineamenta, while mentioning the three pre-conciliar encyclicals named above, does not quote from them, nor does it explicitly teach the inerrancy of Holy Writ. Instead, it quotes frequently from a document produced in 1993 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, called On the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, which also omitted to teach Biblical inerrancy.
While this body consists of scholars chosen by the Holy See, it enjoys no magisterial authority (it has the same status as the International Theological Commission, which recently produced an inconclusive document on the subject of Limbo). The Biblical Commission’s documents are thus no substitute for the great Scriptural encyclicals of earlier Popes. We must hope, and I should suggest, pray, that the Holy Father re-affirms the authentic Catholic teaching on inerrancy in his forthcoming Exhortation.
The Gospels as history
A closely related question is that of the historical character of the four Gospels. Vatican II rather solemnly affirmed the historical truth of the Gospels. Unfortunately, one still encounters the suggestion, and not only from those outside the Church, that the evangelists invented sayings or deeds which they then attributed to our Lord. Sometimes this suggestion insinuates itself even into editions of Holy Scripture approved by local hierarchies, as with the notorious Bayard Bible in France (this is the translation that rendered “Blessed are the meek” as “Joie de tolérants!”)
The Lineamenta does not repeat Vatican II’s strong teaching on this subject; instead it states that “the historical-critical method” of reading the Bible is a necessity. Since this ‘method’, as often as not, consists in imagining motives that could have led the evangelists or the other sacred authors to invent details or even whole narratives, we must again hope that Church teaching on this point will be authoritatively re-affirmed by the Holy Father.
The Lineamenta observes that Holy Scripture must not be read “arbitrarily”, but in the light of Tradition, and in faithfulness to the Magisterium. This, of course, is classic Catholic doctrine. More puzzlingly to my mind, it also warns about the danger of interpreting Scripture “literally, as in fundamentalism”. Since the word “fundamentalism” is used in the media today to describe everything from belief in the Virgin Birth to a willingness to blow oneself up to further the cause of one’s religion, it seems to me unwise to employ it, as here, without explanation.
Catholics do, in fact, hold that everything in the Bible is literally true, that is, that every passage is true in the sense understood and intended by its human author. Following the teaching of Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, we must also hold that the obvious, surface sense of Scripture is the one intended by the human author, unless there are decisive reasons for thinking that this is not so. So the obvious sense of Genesis 1 is that God created the universe in six ordinary days. Someone who believes that there are decisive reasons for thinking that the Creator did not so act is permitted by the Church’s Magisterium to hold that this apparent sense is not the sense intended by the human author. But no one can be prevented from holding to the apparent sense, which is, after all, the one taught by most of the Fathers of the Church.
I should respectfully suggest that the term “fundamentalism” sheds no light on the correct interpretation of the Bible, and is better left unused.
Another question left untouched by the Lineamenta is that of ‘pseudepigraphy’. It is sometimes asserted, without proof, that it was an accepted practice in the first century to write a book in someone else’s name, and pass it off as the work of that other person. So some exegetes will say that 2 Timothy, for example, was written by someone pretending to be St Paul, or 2 Peter by someone pretending to be St Peter. The Church, however, has consistently held that the scriptural books are really written by those who claim to be their authors. The New Testament really comes from the apostles, or, in the case of St Mark and St Luke, from men who were the ‘secretaries’ and traveling companions of the two principal apostles, St Peter and St Paul respectively.
Thus, under St Pius X, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (when it was still an organ of the Magisterium) stated that one must hold that St Matthew is truly the author of the Gospel that bears his name. While this and other early decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission are generally dismissed by modern Catholic exegetes, they have never been revoked (a good presentation of the binding force of these decrees may be read on-line at www.rtforum.org).
Even though I have suggested that there are lacunae in the Lineamenta, it should be emphasised that there is also much to inspire the reader. It is particularly rich in quotations from the Fathers of the Church. Here for example is St Jerome: “This is our true good in this present life: to nourish ourselves with His Flesh and to drink His Blood, not only in the Eucharist, but also in the reading of Sacred Scripture.” Or, again, St Ambrose: “When man begins to read the Holy Scriptures, God walks with him again in an earthly paradise.”
A special concern of the working document is to encourage the practice of lectio divina among the faithful in general. The authors note that this classically takes the fourfold form of lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio. That is, one reads a passage from Scripture, seeks to grasp its meaning, and makes spontaneous prayers based on what has been read, remaining in this way in the presence of God.
Since we are now in the midst of the Year of St Paul, it may be that some readers will want to set aside a few minutes each day to reflect on a passage from St Paul in this way. The Church offers a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, to any of the faithful “who read the Sacred Scriptures as spiritual reading, from a text approved by competent authority, and with the reverence due to the divine word, for at least half an hour” (Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, 30).
Of particular interest to readers of Mass of Ages may be some remarks in the Lineamenta regarding the place of the Word of God in the Church’s liturgy. The authors state, “maximum care should be given to the Liturgy of the Word celebrated during not only the Eucharist but also the other sacraments.” They are thinking, presumably, of the ‘ordinary forms’ of the sacraments. But we should note that while the Traditional Rites of the sacraments do not all contain ‘set piece’ readings from Scripture, they by no means fail to communicate the Word of God. One only has to think of how many references to Holy Scripture are woven into the Traditional Rites of baptism or extreme unction, for example.
Again, in regard to the Mass, we can reflect on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s profound remark, that the appropriate attitude for listening to the reading and the Gospel is not so much that of learning, which pertains more to study of Scripture outside the liturgy, as of “reverently letting the light of Revelation shine on us.”
Finally, the Lineamenta emphasises the “piercing” character of God’s Word, able, says St Paul, to “reach unto the division of the soul and spirit, of the joints also and the marrow” (Heb. 4:12). By reading the Scriptures ‘in the spirit in which they were written’, or listening to what the Lineamenta calls “spirited preaching”, we receive actual graces from God. There are many examples of this in the lives of the saints.
Thus St Anthony, ‘father of monks’, was converted by hearing the phrase in the Gospel, “if you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor”; Saint Augustine was converted by reading the words, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desire.” Who knows what inspired words will fashion the saints yet to come?
[Taken from "Mass of Ages" November 2008, The Latin Mass Society's quarterly magazine] Reproduced with permission
Version: 8th February 2009