Sunday, February 26, 2006

Taking God At His Word (Part 2)

(Continued from the previous post. Please read Part 1 first).

The Word of the Lord
The concept of “inspiration” actually comes from St. Paul. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul explains: “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The Greek word translated “inspiration” literally means, “God-breathed.” The Holy Spirit is the true author of Scripture. Vatican II explains that the books of Sacred Scripture “have God as their author” (Dei Verbum, 11).

Of course, the biblical books also have human authors—St. Paul, St. John, etc. It is important to remember that these sacred writers used their own particular experiences and styles in writing—that’s why the Gospel of John reads differently than, say, the Gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, the Church teaches that it was the Holy Spirit who was working in them and through them to write down exactly what he wanted them to write and nothing more. Vatican II states:

“In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their power and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which he wanted” (Dei Verbum, 11).

In Scripture, therefore, we have the “Word of God.” In fact, the Bible is the Word of God in the very words of God (cf. Dei Verbum, 24).

The Church teaches, therefore, that the study of the Bible should be “the very soul of sacred theology” (Dei Verbum, 24). In fact, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “dogma is nothing other than the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.” Therefore, he wrote, “the Bible becomes the model of all theology” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987], 321.)

Catholics do not disregard Scripture. Any Catholic who says the Bible is unimportant, doesn’t know what the Church teaches. Echoing St. Jerome, the Church has consistently taught: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

Going by the Book
Notwithstanding the great amount of common ground Catholics and Protestants share, there are of course real differences and I don’t want to simply pretend they don’t exist. Unlike mainline Protestantism, Catholics do not believe the Bible is the only authority for Christians—we recognize the role of Tradition and the Church’s Teaching Office (the “Magisterium”). Scripture has a primacy in Catholic theology, but it is not our “sole” authority. This is where Catholics and Protestants really do disagree. Martin Luther and the Reformers championed the cry, Sola Scriptura!—“the Bible alone.” This goes right to the heart of the Protestant “protest” against Catholicism.

Although this essay is concerned with the Catholic understanding of Scripture, I feel the need here to help clarify why Catholics recognize Tradition and the Magisterium as authoritative.

Scripture and Tradition
First of all, it is widely accepted—especially among those who study hermeneutical issues—that the modernist notion of pure objectivity has gone the way of the dodo. No one comes to a text without presuppositions. As writers like Anthony Thiselton have shown us by building on the works of philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Alasdair McIntyre, tradition is unavoidable. In this vein, Roger Lundin writes about the inevitable collapse of the Cartesian-Modernist idea of the “orphaned individual” (See The Promise of Hermeneneutics, 1-64). As these non-Catholic writers have demonstrated, our interpretation of biblical texts never happens outside of a tradition.

Catholics believe that God recognized this long before philosophers did. Not only did the Spirit inspire the sacred authors, he also guides the transmission and interpretation of that text. Not only does he give us an authoritative inspired text (the Bible), he also gives us an authoritative Spirit-led Tradition.

Of course, we could play you-show-me-your-verse-and-I’ll-show-you-mine all day. I don’t know how many times non-Catholic friends have pointed out to me Jesus' words to the Pharisees: “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt 15:3). Likewise, I know I have many times cited 2 Thess 2:15: “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us either by word of mouth or by letter." Protestants and Catholics believe their view is supported by Scripture. Ironically, our understanding of these texts will largely depend upon which tradition we stand in. Sincerity and intelligence abound on both sides.

At the end of the day, it seems non-Catholics believe that the biblical texts they cite are inspired by God, though the tradition they read it within is not guided by the Spirit per se - and Catholics like me wonder how God could leave us with that kind of dilemma.

The Bible and the Church
Catholics turn to a number of passages for biblical support of the idea of an authoritative Church. For example, in Matthew 16:18-19 and 18:17 Jesus speaks of the binding authority possessed by Peter and the Church. With reference to these passages, John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite scholar, writes, “The church is, therefore, most centrally defined as the place where ‘binding’ and ‘loosing’ takes place. Where this does not happen, ‘church’ is not fully present.” (“Practicing the Rule of Christ,” in Virtues and Practices in the Christian Tradition: Christian Ethics after MacIntyre, [Edited by Nancy Murphy et al.; Notre Dame: Indiana, 1997],143).

But again, we could play divide and conquer all day—a passage is cited by one side, the other side then tries to pick it apart to cast doubt on the conclusions drawn from it. Oftentimes, both sides, if they are honest, will have to admit that the same text can yield varying possible (though not all “likely”) interpretations (of course, that’s the debate isn’t it!). It would seem to some that we simply arrive at an impasse.

I mentioned that Catholics have a hard time understanding why non-Catholics hold to the authority of the Bible alone and reject the authority of the pope and councils. Aside from the exegetical disagreements, the denial, to us, seems problematic: without the authority of something other than the Bible, how does one know which books belong in the Bible in the first place? How do we know which books are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit? No biblical book gives us the list. (And even if one did, how would we know that it itself was inspired?) It seems therefore that the Bible’s authority is not sufficient—there's a need for something more than Scripture in order to know what belongs in.

Leaving aside the more complex issue of the deutero-canonical (“Apocrypha”) books—which, incidentally, leading Protestant scholars like Martin Hengel and Albert Sunburg Jr. have argued were wrongly excluded from the Protestant canon—it seems obvious that the canon was finally determined by the Church. Catholics believe that it is important to read Scripture in the light of the Church that assembled its books into the canon in the first place.

The reason I’ve gone through these issues is two-fold. First, I wanted to explain that Catholics do not believe Tradition and the Magisterium supplant Scripture. We believe their authoritative role is affirmed by Scripture. God uses Tradition and the Church to help us recognize what Scripture is and how to interpret it faithfully by the Spirit. Yet, though we affirm their authority, we never call them "inspired."

The Unique Role of Scripture
Before he became pope, Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized that Catholics must recognize the privileged role Scripture has in the Church. “The normative theologians,” he wrote, “are the authors of Holy Scripture” (Principles of Catholic Theology, 321). Catholic theology is first and foremost to be a “biblical theology” (cf., Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, On the Theological Formation of Future Priests). Terms like “Trinity,” “Transubstantiation,” “Immaculate Conception,” etc., are given to us by the Magisterium and represent the infallible teaching of the Church. These dogmas are meant to help us understand the truth that is found in Scripture. As Pope Benedict once wrote that dogma is “nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture” (“Crisis in Catechesis,” Canadian Catholic Review, 7 (1983): 178).

For more I highly recommend the last essay in Scott Hahn's book, Scripture Matters.

In fact, when Catholics gather for worship we do not EVER read papal encyclicals, counciliar documents or writings from the saints. The only thing prescribed (and permitted) for liturgical reading is Scripture. Indeed, the inspired books were collected into what we now call the “Bible,” because Christians needed to know what could be read in the Liturgy. The early Christians didn’t have their own private study bibles. The proper place to read Scripture was the liturgy. The Bible is a liturgical book.

But we'll deal with that in a later essay…


Lee said...

Michael, I appreciate the additional insight you are providing on this matter. I work as an evangelist with a small non-Catholic church in Lithuania. Lithuania is nearly 80% Catholic and so I spend time trying to better comprehend what role the Bible plays in the Catholic church here as well as the daily lives of Catholic Lithuanian. Thanks again,

Steve Bogner said...

Michael - Thanks for taking the aproach you did with this, it was refreshing. Catholics and Protestants could play tit-for-tat with Scripture all day long and all it proves is that our tradition shapes how we view things.

I chuckled when you mentioned that we don't read encyclicals and so on at Mass - just imagining that being done is pretty humorous to me!

Michael F. Bird said...

Michael, Interesting post, but I'm sad to say that the gap between Geneva and Rome is still quite broad. You raise a good point to the effect that Protestants preach the authority of the text, but in reality practice the authority of the Protestant tradition. In some senses, Protestants have simply traded one traditional authority for another. Presuppositions are merely the traditions we care to affirm. I think there is something to be said about the role of tradition in the theological interpretation of Scripture (i.e. interpreting Scripture in the Church, for the Church, and in light of the Churches corporate effort to discern the meaning of the word). But Scripture and traditional must be mutually submissive. That means that tradition must be willing to yield and be corrected by Scripture - but that cannot be done if you profess that tradition itself is infallible. My understanding of Catholic theology (and believe me I'm no expert) is not that there is not two authorities but one: Scripture interpreted in light of tradition. If I'm correct then we must seperate them and look at what our traditions (note the plural) have to say about Scripture and allow Scripture to rebuke and correct our traditions. So the Protestant problem is not with the idea of tradition per se, it is the relationship of tradition to biblical authority. On the protestant side Biblical authority in indeed sufficient, but apart from a stable ecclesial witness (tradition) it risks denigrating into pluralism (multiplicity of interpretations) and sectarianism (developing new and independent traditions which suppose that only their is correct). Just my passing thoughts.

David Campbell said...

What Michael F. Bird said sparked a thought in my head. If tradition and scripture are really both authoritative, then scripture would be a check against tradition, holding it in fidelity. An tradition would act in a similar way towards scripture. In this way they would cooperate together, instead of competing. This cooperation reminds of the human and divine natures of Christ, equally present and cooperating but distinctly different. If everyone operates with their own tradition, then it seems to me that the great adventure is to find that tradition which most fully cooperates with scripture. That tradition would have to be very similar to the tradition of the early Christians, since out of their faith came the New Testament. So the original tradition must necesarily pre-date Scripture, just as the divine nature of Christ pre-dates His humanity.