Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Encountering the Risen Christ in the Scriptures

It’s fitting that I post about Encountering the Risen Christ in the Scriptures today, because today is the feast day of St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church and one of its preeminent biblical scholars of all times. In fact, St. Jerome was responsible for translating what was for over 1500 years the standard Latin text of the Bible, called the Vulgate. In this post, I want to look at three things: (1) the historical transmission of the text of the collection of books that are together called Bible; (2) the meaning and role of the Bible in the life of the Church; and (3) how I have encountered Christ therein.

The texts that became the Bible were written by a variety of authors over a period as many as a thousand years, the most recent being the Gospel, Letters, and Revelation of St. John, written toward the end of the first century after Christ. At the time of Christ, the standard translation of the Bible used in the Holy Land was actually in Greek, and it was called the Septuagint. It included the 46 books still found in the Catholic and Orthodox versions of the Bible. This Bible is the one used by Jesus and the apostles. After the Ascension of our Lord, the Christian community began to flourish and spread. The earliest books in the New Testament are actually letters written to these communities by St. Paul, St. John, St. James, St. Peter, St. Jude, and probably some of their disciples. It’s important to note that the communities to whom these men were writing already existed. It sounds like a no-brainer, but really, it’s important. The Bible and its books did not found the Church, and are not its foundation. The Church came before the Bible. These letters were mostly written between about AD 45 and AD 65, except for the letters of St. John and the Letter to the Hebrews, which probably came somewhat later – and the first Christians went out into the world to spread the Good News (the Gospel) in Jesus’ name sometime around AD 35. Apostles and their disciples later wrote biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they insisted had risen from the dead, and a history of the earliest days of the movement that started around Him. These books, the gospels and Acts of the Apostles, were all written sometime between AD 60 and AD 90 or so.

Many others wrote works providing their take on Jesus and the early Church, but while their writings provide historical insight into the situation of the early Church, very early on, Church leaders became convinced that these other writings did not accurately depict Jesus or the Christian faith. As early as about AD 180, lists of which books belonged and which ones didn’t were already circulating among bishops, and these lists matched what is found in the Catholic Bible today. By about AD 400, there was nearly universal agreement as a number of local councils and popes had considered the matter with increasing unanimity. The works selected were chosen because they were clearly of apostolic origin, depicted the faith and beliefs of the Church, and were already in widespread use among Christians for the liturgy and in religious instruction. It is the constant Christian belief that these books, 73 in total, were inspired by the Holy Spirit as they were authored by their human authors in real times and places, and that the Church authorities were inspired to select them accurately.

The inspiration of the Scriptures guarantees their correctness, or inerrancy. This topic can be problematic if misunderstood. St. Thomas quipped, “If we understand the Scriptures to be wrong, it is because we wrongly understand them.” To properly understand what the intent of a passage is, it is important to know what sort of passage it is, because different types of writing use different styles to address different topics. No part of the Bible is a science textbook, for instance. So we should not take the Genesis creation stories to be rivals to scientific theories about the physical origins of the universe. That’s not what the Genesis creation stories are really about. It would be like reading a newspaper article for instructions on making a cake, and being surprised that the cake turns out badly, or using a financial ledger to woe a lover. That’s not what those things are for. The Scriptures are inerrant, without error, only in the way they were intended to be: the moral-of-the-story parts always tell the right moral; the historical parts always get the key historical details right; the praise and prayer parts rightly tell us how to pray to God; and so on. On the other hand, just because an account, say of the slaughtering of some tribe or another, is included in a historical description found in the Bible, that doesn’t mean that we are all to go out and slaughter some tribe. That’s not what that part was trying to tell us. Precisely because the Scriptures are difficult to understand, as St. Peter himself warns us (2 Pet 3:16), it is important to realize that they do not stand alone. The Scriptures themselves record the earliest Christian belief that the same Spirit inspiring the Church to write and select the books of the New Testament also inspires the Church to understand them correctly (Jn 16:13). On a natural human level, the Bible is not the foundation of the Church, nor is it exactly the rule of faith for the Church. Rather, taken together with the whole living and handed-down memory of the Church, of which the Scriptures are a part, we have the Deposit of Faith, which is our rule. Though the Scriptures are the most concretized expression of that deposit, but alone are insufficient because they do not interpret themselves, explain themselves, or enforce themselves.

Yet all the above in no way denigrates the Scriptures. Rather, it is written to put them into their natural, proper context: the life of the Church. The Scriptures contain in written form, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the whole Word of God, the same Word that created the world (Gen 1:1-3), and the same Word that took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:14). The Word of God is God’s self-understanding, His self-articulation, His self-expression. The Word of God is the pattern upon which God crafted the entire universe, which is why the Scriptures, themselves the written Word of God, can always be applied in every human circumstance. Jesus Christ is the Word-Made-Flesh, which is why His Life speaks to every human life. If we cannot see His Life in ours, it is because we are blind and not because He has left us. If the sacraments are the lifeblood of Christ given to us, the Scriptures are the mind of Christ given to us. All Christian thought, and all thought about Christ, should have recourse to the Scriptures, should stand on them as on a rock, and should be built of out of the Scriptures as if out of building blocks.

In my own life, I have found great consolation in the Scriptures. When read as a book of platitudes and promises, the Bible is a complete waste. But when it is read prayerfully as a witness of faith, and under the guidance of the Church’s teachers, the Bible is an absolutely indispensible tool for growth in faith, hope, charity, and all the Christian virtues. St. Therese Lisieux, whose feast day is tomorrow (1 October), is also a doctor of the Church. She died very young, and was very photogenic. These facts seem to have led many to believe unconsciously that the Church added her to the ranks of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the other doctors of the Church (there are 33 in total) because she was so cute. Anyone whole will read her writings, and especially her hundreds of letters, will see that this unconscious conviction is incorrect. Without any secondary or higher education, St. Therese intuited that the Bible is meant to be a living book, like a script for a play, which governs the details of our lives as medicine does – by digestion. Reading, rereading, and praying over the Scriptures led her to internalize their words so that in whatever circumstances, just the right words for the Word came to her heart, mind, mouth, and pen. She put herself into roles found in the texts, and put her friends and family into roles as well. By doing so, she was able to find sure guidance for how to live a loving, Christian life. You might call this interpretive key, or hermeneutic, that she developed the Hermeneutic of Love.

While struggling to understand God’s plan for my life, and in great anxiety that I had entirely misunderstood His purpose for me, I came across a passage in Jeremiah, at 18:1-6. The passage shows Jeremiah going, under inspiration from God, to the house of a potter. At the potter’s house, Jeremiah observes the potter working clay into one shape, and then flattening it and molding it into another, until he comes up with just the right vessel. That was what God was doing with me, I realized. He was kneading and folding me, and though I could not tell where He was going, He still had a plan for me. In understanding that, I received a peace that had eluded me up until then.

And so it goes. If we think that we can test and judge the Scriptures, their meaning will evade us, because God’s ways are far above ours, and the Scriptures are a presentation of His mind. But if we will humbly submit to them, those sacred words will be like stars above us, illuminating our paths and providing just enough light to see the signs of our life. Before reading the Scriptures, we should pray for inspiration. If our understanding of some passage upsets us, we should humbly submit it to the teachings of the community that has given us the Bible, and to the teachers that preserve that teaching. When we finish with the Scriptures for the day, we should replace them reverently to their secure and accessible home, and thank God for having opened His mind to us thus.

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