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Catholics and the Bible

The authority of the Gospels as inspired writings rests on the word of the Church

Catholics are often accused of arguing in a “vicious circle,” proving the Bible by the Church, and the Church by the Bible. We must be careful to avoid this by explaining that we put the Church before the Bible because the Church existed first and wrote and compiled the Bible. The authority of the Bible depends on that of the Church. Then we use the Bible to prove the Church; we use it not as an inspired volume, but merely as a historical document. From the Gospels as historical documents we learn that Christ founded a Church, but the authority of the Gospels as inspired writings rests on the word of the Church.

We can define the Bible as “a collection of writings, which the Church of God has solemnly recognized as inspired” (Catholic Encyclopedia). What is the non-Catholic’s definition? Paul says, indeed: “All Scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17). But he gives no list of Scriptures nor any method for discerning which they are.

The Scriptures themselves assert that they are incomplete and send us to the Church. “Many other signs also did Jesus . . . which are not written.” (John 20:30). “Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest ?” . . . . “How can I, unless some man show me” (Acts 8:30, 31).

It is impossible to get unanimity of impression in different ages and countries. Books appeal to one date and country, not to another: The Epistle of Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and several gospels at first thought inspired were rejected by the Church. On the other hand, the Books of Kings, Chronicles, and Ecclesiastes are disputed by modern critics as not containing ” heavenly matter,” yet are accepted by the Church as part of the organic whole—for the Bible is an organic whole, and many parts lose their meaning if severed. Each age and nation and temperament, by their interpretation, would (and in Protestantism do) practically make a different Bible, when, leaving ancient authority, they test each part by their subjective feelings.

No internal evidence could prove inspiration, because inspiration is essentially a supernatural fact. It is objective, not subjective. It is simply that God said this thing in this way. It may not appeal to me personally—parts of it may not be meant especially for me—but God wished to say it for some person or time. Therefore the inspiration can only be known upon some authority sent from God. The only possible competent authority would be either Christ or his apostles or the successors of the apostles—that is to say, Christ’s Church. All Christians appeal in fact to some authority behind the Bible (e.g., Luther claimed to alter the canon of Scripture, and Lutherans accepted this on his authority). Christ nowhere told men to go to a book to learn his doctrine. He himself wrote nothing down. But he did say to Peter: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18); and to Peter and the rest of the apostles: “Go ye teaching therefore all nations” (Matt. 28:19). “He that hears you, hears me, he that despises you, despises me, he that despises me despises him that sent me” (Luke 10:16). The apostles went forth and taught according to Christ’s command. They ordained others to succeed them. Much of his teaching they handed down in their tradition only—that divinely protected living memory of the Church. Much they committed to writing and collected together by degrees.

Though collections of sacred writings, varying in extent, existed in the various local Churches of Christendom, the canon or official list of Scripture was only compiled by the Church toward the end of the fourth century—at Hippo in 393, Carthage in 397, whence it was sent to Rome for confirmation in 419. The Bible may be called the notebook of the Church, and she has always claimed to be the guardian, exponent, and interpreter of it. . . .

As then, so today, private judgment leads to wild chaos in interpretation. But further, the rejection of the Bible has come directly from the claim of heretics to make it the sole rule of faith. The Bible is often obscure—a daily rule of faith and action must be clear —hence arose impatience of delays and obscurities.

Two schools came from Protestantism: Believers in an almost wooden theory of verbal inspiration making no allowance for the human instrument (e.g., various translations, slight discrepancies in different accounts of the same scene, texts from the Old Testament quoted with slight verbal inaccuracies in the New Testament); believers in absolutely unchecked freedom of criticism, neglecting the divine inspiration.

The Church insists on both the divine and human: “In interpreting the Bible scientifically, its twofold character must always be kept in view: It is a divine book, in so far as it has God for its author, it is a human book, in so far as it is written by men for men. In its human character the Bible is subject to the same rules of interpretation as profane books but in its Divine character it is given into the custody of the Church to be kept and explained, so that it needs special rules of hermeneutics” (Catholic Encyclopedia 5:696).

The Church maintains absolutely the inspiration of Scripture. The [First] Vatican Council thus defines it: “These books are held by the Church as sacred and canonical, not as having been composed by merely human labor, and afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author and have been transmitted to the Church as such.”

She maintains also the sovereignty of truth in every sphere: “All truth is orthodox.” Truths cannot be contradictory. But time and patience are sometimes needed to bring home their full bearing and mutual harmony. We must remember that the Church is often asked to accept as truth theories which are only imperfectly worked out or are full of errors. She rightly insists on waiting until the chaff and wheat have been sifted. She will not accept hypotheses as proved facts.

For a Christian face to face with a Bible passage the question “Is it true?” does not arise; God wrote it, and he cannot lie. The question in every instance is only, “What does it mean, what did the biblical author, inspired by, God, wish to convey and teach?” Now to ascertain this the guidance of the Church is essential, and time and patience are often needed.

Leo XIII’s encyclical on Scripture (Providentissimus Deus) tells us that it is not the aim of the inspired writers to teach us science or history: “[The Holy Ghost] who spoke by them did not intend to teach men these things, things in no way profitable to salvation. Hence they described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language or in terms which were commonly used at the time and which, in many instances, are in daily use to this day even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers (as the Angelic Doctor reminds us) ‘went by what visibly appeared’ or put down what God, speaking to men, signified in a way men could understand and were accustomed to.”

It is the office of the Church’s theologians and Scripture students to ascertain how far statements in the Bible apparently scientific are bound up with those sacred truths which the writer is inspired to deliver, and in that sense they are to be understood. Until any question arises we accept these statements in their simple meaning. When a question arises we await the Church’s interpretation. Thus the troubles about the Copernican system struck a severe blow to Protestant dependence on the Bible, but have not affected Catholic belief. Galileo’s condemnation was a mere incident, which had no permanent result on Catholic belief in inspiration, because Catholics had the Church behind the Bible and knew that, whether quickly or slowly, she would give them an interpretation and explanation.

Thus, while outside the Church excessive dependence on the unsupported letter of Scripture has led to such a reaction that people are giving up the Bible altogether, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, keeps for her children the treasure she originally gave them.

But are her children even allowed access to this treasure? Are Catholics allowed to read the Bible? Let’s look.

Pre-reformation literature is saturated with Bible quotations. Much that is left to us consists either of books of the Bible or breviaries which are almost wholly made up of Scripture. The sermon literature of the Middle Ages was a mosaic of Scripture texts. Preachers used the Bible much more than is customary today in any pulpit. Half an hour’s perusal of the sermons of a Bernard or a Bonaventure shows us that the preachers almost thought in Scripture texts. For those who could not read, the Church provided a knowledge of the Bible by means of mystery plays, illustrated editions of parts or the whole of it in paintings, sculptures, and stained glass windows: The statuary of one great cathedral is known as the “Bible of Amiens.” Of the Bible in pictures, the Synod of Arras (1025) said: “The illiterate contemplated in the lineaments of painting what they, having never learnt to read, could not discern in writing.” To the man of the Middle Ages the Bible was a living reality.

Today, priests are obliged to read Scripture in their Office, or daily prayers, for about an hour and a half every day. The laity are more than encouraged, they are urged to read the Bible. By Pius VI (1778), by Pius VII (1820), they were earnestly exhorted to read it, by Leo XIII a special blessing was given to all who would read the Gospels for at least a quarter of an hour daily. Benedict XV (himself the founder of the Society of St. Jerome for distributing the Gospels in Italian, which sells great numbers every year) sent, by the Cardinal Secretary of State, the following message to the Catholic Truth Society: “It was with no little gladness of heart that the Holy Father learned of the work of the Society and of its diligence in spreading far and wide copies of the Holy Gospels, as well as of the other books of the Holy Scriptures, and in multiplying them so as to reach all men of good will. Most lovingly therefore His Holiness blesses all who have put their hand to this very excellent work; and he earnestly exhorts them to persevere with ardor in so holy an enterprise.” . . .

What has caused the general impression that the Church does not wish her children to read the Bible?

Her claim to guide and teach them in the reading and interpretation of it: Danger is incurred in many ways by putting the Bible, without guidance, into the hands of children or the unlearned. (No one would maintain that the Old Testament in its entirety is suitable for the young even to read; again, some explanation is absolutely necessary for many parts of both Old and New Testaments.)

Her refusal to allow her children to use false and incomplete translations. At one time Bible translations were falsified in the interest of certain heresies. William Tyndale, for example, always substituted the word “congregation” for ” Church” and “ordinance” for “tradition” because of the Catholic connotation attached to these words. He also translated “Little children, keep yourselves from images”; instead of using the more accurate rendering ” idols.”; Again the authorized Anglican version translated 1 Corinthians 11:27 as ” and drink this cup,” so that the Catholic custom of Communion under one kind should seem to be condemned by it. The Revised Version has corrected this, and the text now stands ” or drink this cup.”

The harm done by bad translations and by want of an interpreter may be specially seen if we examine the efforts of various Bible societies and non-Catholic missionaries in the last century. In China, India, and elsewhere, they either altered the Catholic versions or wrote new ones in various dialects before they had acquired real knowledge of the language into which they were translating; these they scattered broadcast, without explanation. Educated natives declared that in many cases the translations were so bad as to make absolute nonsense and in other cases were even blasphemous. They derived from them nothing but contempt for Christianity. Moreover, the way in which these sacred books were distributed shocked all, especially the Muslims, who declared nothing would induce them to give the Koran to anyone unless they were certain it would be treated respectfully. These Bibles were often used as wrappings for drugs and other merchandise, wallpapers, or covers for cartridges (See Marshall’s Christian Missions, vol. 1., chap. 1).

It may, perhaps, be allowed that at some periods and in some countries this caution of the Church has been carried to excess, but in the long run the realization of the existence of difficulties and of the need of an interpreter has preserved the Bible for Catholics when others are losing it.

Next we ask, How should Catholics read the Bible? Ordinary Catholics should be guided by the Church in reading it. Let us begin with the missal. Then, for those who have time, the breviary shows us the Church’s mind from the beautiful way in which the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, and the thoughts of the great Doctors and Fathers are brought together in a living unity. By following the seasons year by year in missal and breviary, we are using one of our most precious Catholic privileges. The meaning of the great feasts becomes more actual to us and illustrates the Bible for us.

We can, of course, read the Bible as literature, as a series of documents of surpassing human interest.

Our chief profit, not for ourselves only, but also in our work for others, will lie in reading it devotionally.

Some must, of course, undertake the work of the revision of texts, higher criticism, etc., but this is the office of experts.

If we are to understand a book, we want to know the aim for which it was written; if to understand a man, we ask what is the leading thought and aim of his life. In trying to grasp a system of thought we look for that which is central and around which all else is grouped.

What is the center of the Bible? The Son of God made Man for us. It is only in the light of that central Figure that we can understand the Old Testament, as well as the New. All the great personalities of the Old Testament are vivid to us chiefly as types of him. He speaks through the words of prophet and of patriarch. His voice is heard in the psalms of David. The whole of the Old Testament is a looking forward to and a preparation for Christ’s coming. The New Testament looks back and tells the history of that coming and of the fulfillment of Christ’s mission in his Church, and then looks forward once more to that glorious second coming, when all things shall be made visibly subject to him, and God shall be all in all.

Stretching across the mountains and the plains of Israel, dimly visible at times, at times clearly seen, goes that Way which is also the Truth and the Life. And in one simple sentence Christ tells us his divine secret: “Before Abraham was made, I am.” It is this that gives the Bible its amazing unity; it is in his light that we see light, and the Bible becomes alive to us read in that light which is the life of men.

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