The Place of Scriptureand Overcoming the Hermeneutic of Rupture
|Editorial FAITH Magazine May-June 2009|
'Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures." Luke 24:45
Books of the Da Vinci Code genre and television programmes such as Channel Four's flippant Christianty: A History earlier this year, have unsettled not a few Catholic parishioners. The beautiful Catholic vision concerning the convincing witness offered by the interplay of scripture, tradition and magisterium is not present enough in the minds of many members of our Church to protect them from ensuing doubt and confusion.
Even the practising Catholic who, against the fashion, is still up for arguing in defence of our Church's claims, for instance with upstanding Evangelical acquaintances, can sometimes have a tendency to argue from scripture alone. They can seem unaware, among other things, that it is the rejection of the idea of divine magisterium which has so hamstrung the sola schptura reformed traditions. The continual splitting of these communities into many denominations has witnessed to their weakness with regard to handing on authentically the content of Christ's "but I say to you".
It can be useful for such a Catholic interlocutor to remember that, particularly when at a loss, they are more than within their rights to admit, with the motorist confronted by a steaming engine in the 1980's AA television advert, "I don't know the solution, but I know a man who does"; that is Jesus in the Church. The Mystical Body of Christ wrote the Bible and also authoritatively interprets it. Catholics have not one but two books: the Bible and the Catechism. The Bible has and needs an ecclesial, incarnational context.
We need to understand this dynamic anew if we are to understand and revindicate the inspiration and interpretation of scripture.
The Year of St Paul has spawned, in the parochial context, many laudable attempts through talks and sermons to elucidate and inspire concerning his life, work and theology. This is a welcome phenomenon. However, to this writer's knowledge, some of the talks have undermined the project by passing on that fashionable downplaying of the magisterium which is fostered by influential Catholic theologians and periodicals.
This widespread modern dynamic was fostered somewhat at the beginning of this anniversary year at a diocesan meeting for 300 priests. These priestly shepherds were invited to a relaxed "Celebration of Priesthood", and were no doubt considering how they might mark the Pauline year for the people to whom they minister. In the event they were challenged to step significantly beyond our tradition by a prominent Biblical scholar. On 23rd June last Fr Tim Finigan published on his blog the below description of some of the points that were made on that occasion (which description he, needlessly it turned out, promised to update if anyone corrected):
"St Paul didn't believe in the divinity of Christ - he didn't deny it but his thought hadn't taken him that far. For Paul, Jesus was the model man - he showed us what we are capable of, by the example of his life. (Cf. the Office of Readings for today in the Liturgia Horarum: St Gregory of Nyssa 'On Christian Perfection', beginning 'More than anyone, St Paul understood who Christ is...]') There is no evidence at all that the papal primacy existed for the first 120 years of the Church's history. The monarchical Church was a later invention.
"Paul would not have fallen into the Anglican error of ordaining women priests because he was a pragmatist. St Paul was concerned not to scandalise others and therefore it was wrong for the Anglican Church to alienate the Global South by ordaining women to the priesthood - although that would be 'a good thing in itself.'"
If the essential magisterial tradition in which we interpret scripture can be thus devalued we are robbing the Bible of its proper power, and descending into the morass of personal interpretation. As ever in this space, we make no judgment of culpability for the ever deepening confusion concerning the nature and teaching of the Catholic faith being foisted upon our people, young and old. Our argument is that it is a symptom of a more fundamental intellectual malaise seeping ever deeper into the life of the Church. We would counter this hermeneutic of rupture in our culture and Church by emphasising the one, historical, developmental line of what Edward Holloway termed the divine "Evocation of the Word", from the advent of man up to the present day. This is the context in which scriptureshould be placed in the life of the Church today.
Contextualising the Word of God
The key reality to invoke here, is that man, as a being of physical body and spiritual soul, is called to commune with and be 'Environed' by the transcendent Spirit of God. Christ, as the incarnation of this same personal God, truly human and truly divine, needs then to be recognised as man's infallible guide and bread of life. God now has a continuous and personal relationship to mankind. This necessarily involves that divine magisterium upon earth which is constitutional to the Roman Catholic Church. It is through such a vision that we can reaffirm the classical, orthodox concept of biblical inspiration.
Biblical inspiration is but an aspect of divine magisterium itself. A magisterium which confers power to define indefectibly and infallibly in the name of Christ's Divinity and His continuing mission on earth is a particular fulfilment of the Biblical tradition of inspiration. The interpretation of the meaning of the inspired text belongs ultimately to that same magisterium in the Church which is a divine and not a human principle.
There is an organic and necessary relationship of God to men, whether in the personal life of the individual, or in the
public and social life of man which is natural to him. Among the communities which, by right of being and existence grow out of the nature of man, is the Church as a People and a Kingdom. When we come to recognise this relationship to God which grows out of our very being, the meaning of the Bible, as of Religion itself, becomes apparent.
God as personal 'Environer'
This personal context of biblical inspiration is rooted in the relationship of interior prayer and seeking between God and the human personality. From conception onwards, faith as a virtue and state of being is elicited within the human spirit, and through faith, hope and charity. (See Faith editorial last November, Mysterium Fidei: Towards A New Liturgical Synthesis). The comparison of the seed in the ground might help us here - as with variations it did the teaching of Our Lord himself. The seed lives in a context, that is to say it lives in an environmental relationship at all times with nature around it. The sun and the shower, the earth and the atmosphere, all of these prompt within it a fuller life, a life more abundant. Within these things, one might say, itlives, and is, and has its being. The pattern of life and growth for the spiritual creation is the very same we would suggest, whether it be the angel of the purely spiritual order, or man, in whom is synthesised within his one being both orders, spiritual and material.
That which by nature compliments and fosters the spiritual creation is the ministration and being of God himself. God prompts within the spiritual being that increase of depth and nobility of being which comes from the possession of God, and makes it yearn more fully for that possession. God is the milk of this life, God is the bread of the maturity of this life. That is why at apex of the Divine Economy, Jesus Christ gave us the Eucharist. God is our food and drink indeed. God is quite literally the natural environment of the soul, and therefore of the personality of man. St Paul affirmed to the Athenians that in God we live, and move, and are, and have our being (Acts 17:28). What lesser creatures draw from visible nature around, humans draw from the being of God who comes "that theymay have life, and have it more abundantly".
The Evocation of The Word
The angelic spirit does not need words to go to God, or to be reached by God. God can enlighten the intellect, fulfil the longing, and suffuse with love the very being of that creature totally and immediately as Pure Spirit unto pure spirit. This will happen if that dynamic spiritual creation accept God. In loving God it will be transformed into blazing union with Him. It can also reject Him selfishly and be centred totally on itself and self-love, which is the heart of all sin. Either way the flesh and its works and words are irrelevant to angelic communication.
With man it is quite otherwise. Flesh and spirit as we are, we need the word. Our words are knowledge wrapped up in material signs and sounds. We cannot convey to another, nor fully express within ourselves that which we know and enjoy without the sign, the picture, the material beauty that expresses the spiritual, that is to say without the word in all
its aspects. This is true in the individual mind and heart, in the family, and in the communities through which we and society grow.
So God must, we would say, evoke the word. The human word is the proclamation of the knowledge that is within a man. God must evoke the word to express to mankind the knowledge which is within Himself. Because of this the Word of God himself becomes flesh. The Word is the living Personal content of the divine self-knowledge, and this Word must eventually be uttered to man.
In human affairs there is no deep knowing of God and loving of God which does not carry with it a desire to express this good to other men and share it with them. Even the most contemplative joy in God seeks to witness to men. How much more so with God. God must evoke the word of His Word as part of His one wisdom in creating the cosmos.
The Prophet as Natural
If God utters a 'word' like this He will need to raise up in society, in accordance with the nature he has implanted in man, the priest and the prophet, the spiritual genius who will minister the word of God. Nature itself does something similar. In good men and bad it throws up the leader, the kings and the counsellors, the wise men and the seers. All men have some power to know, to declare, and to rule, otherwise there would be few good parents. Only the few, however, are geniuses in governing, in teaching and in wisdom. There needs be the spiritual genius as well: the saint, the priest, the prophet, - the 'great soul'. Yet the meaning of the word of God to be proclaimed will be in God and not in man.
The word of God will be spoken through a man, and through the consciousness of a man. The prophet himself will be aware within himself that the knowledge, the power, and the authority come not from himself, but rather come upon him from another. The prophet will know this in the peace and joy, awe and power that possess his spirit when he 'speaks the words of God'. The word spoken, may concern the doctrine of God, morals for man and prophecy concerning the future. The economy of God in human society builds up like the process of life and evolution itself before man, to a supreme climax. Therefore that 'word of God' must be prophetic in the sense that what is said now, however much it may have an immediate meaning, possesses its fuller sense and ultimate meaning in the long years ahead. Inthe same way, men, events, actions, good things and disasters, all of these within their own being can show forth a greater reality that is yet to come. Our Truth Will Set You Free column in this issue applies this dynamic to the contemporary pastoral challenge of calling our people to conversion.
God must protect the word He speaks through the prophet so that with all the limitations, and all the cultural attachments and symbolisms that belong to the prophet and his age, God's word of truth remains without falsity, and can develop through time. This word, if it is the official, the authentic, the continuing and permanent line of God's guidance upon
mankind, will not be false through human error, nor merely mythological. And as it is true it can organically develop.
Such a process by which God 'possesses' the seer or teacher is quite possible, because of the total self-surrender of the 'great soul' to God, and because in the humble joy of his vision of the meaning of God, the seer will express, at least adequately, just what is the truth which gives him the joy. God does not need to dictate verbally. He 'inspires', which is to say he guides and teaches, expressing his own divine word through the loving and humble ministry of man. The content given is of God's mind in the primary sense of the meaning conveyed and intended. God is and must always be the principal Author of the Sacred Scriptures.
The Uniqueness of Messianism
There are sacred books of great thought and great beauty in all great religions of the human spirit. This beauty and truth proceeds from great souls who seek God in contemplative communion and great purity of heart and find an answer in the personal love and communion of God. This also is the gift of God, who is no snob. But this is not 'inspiration' in the biblical sense. Inspiration in the biblical sense is the claim that God has raised up amidst the history of man a line of doctrinal and moral truth developing through the ages. This is in spite of original sin and all the incoherence and confusion it causes in the human psyche. This is the full, authentic, and consistent line of growth towards God's final communication of Himself to mankind. Divine inspiration is the guidance of thisline, as written down, taught, and used to expect the blessing of God yet to come. Divine magisterium covers not only the doctrine, but also the prophecy, and the entire control and direction of this line of truth and love to the fulfilment of mankind. This line of doctrinal tradition gradually reveals God's mind, not man's mind, making sense of man.
In the Bible we do find unique characteristics. It has an amazing sobriety and freedom from myth and magic. It is rational and factual. So much is this true, that the Victorians could believe that the creation narrative of Genesis and the later chapters on the development of human culture were literally and directly true. They saw no need for further criticism or exegesis, simply because of the grave, sober tone of the narrative, and the absence of gods and goddesses, warring, sinning, and being so very utterly human writ large, in the higher heavens. We can trace also in the Old Testament, a continuous development of doctrine, concerning moral excellence, union with God, monogamous marriage, the survival of the soul after death, and the survival of the spirit with joy and blessednessafter death.
None of the religious cults of the Middle East, nor Hinduism or Buddhism, have creation stories involving such continuous, coherent development. Development of doctrine is held back in the Islamic faith by the claim that the Qur'an contains the last words of God dictated to the prophet. Such developments as are currently and encouragingly being offered from within Islam, usually in the form of Qur'anic commentary, are not really organic but are either
the response to challenges from people such as Pope Benedict or concessions to the Western mindset or that of other cultures.
It is Messianism which is unique in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and which makes the Bible what it is. This is the concept of the chosen people and the Anointed and Holy One who is to come. It might be termed the sharp, hard spearhead of the evolution upward of the faith of the Bible. It is no random evolution, but patterned and consistent. Age after age it grows only clearer and more vocal, and to it the whole interpretation of the prophets was turned by the official priesthood and the rabbinate of the Jews. There is only one way to explain this mighty fact, a fact spread across at least five thousand years of consistent development and coherent communication from the one creator. We are in the presence of a living magisterium which transcends man and man's history and man's culture.It works within that history but the magisterium leading onwards is from outside man. It is orientated to the coming of the transcendent one who is to come personally into history, a supreme climax preached for so long a time.
When you look back from Christ upon the past, you can see the quite amazing and often very detailed fulfilment in Him of so many a prophecy, so many a type, so many a suffering servant of the Lord God. If Christ, along the road to Emmaus, "beginning at Moses" opened to the two disciples "the things that were concerning Him" He was expounding only what was there to be found and following a tradition wholly accepted as true and meaningful by the Jews of His time and of earlier times. Since the prophecies of Daniel however, Messianic fervour had grown stronger and much clearer among the Jews, than in earlier times. The Messiah was to be a person, a King, a new sort of priest, in all things the saviour of His people, and of all mankind. Simeon at least, in his farewell canticle of praise,expressed the mystic knowledge and hope of the holy Jew, whatever the sword swinging zealots, and the cynical Sadducees might have looked for in the Messiah.
There is nothing like the magisterium of Messianism in the whole history of human religion. It is fulfilled in Christ, and it passes with Christ into the Magisterium of the Catholic and Roman Church. God revealing himself as The Eternal Word, and becoming Incarnate as the Word made Flesh is one seamless garment. This is the core of biblical inspiration and biblical inerrancy. Such inerrancy is compatible, in distant ages past, with many a statement, many a quotation made in the presumed context of human history and widely accepted among men as true of human culture which might have been only very partially accurate. It can have its obiter dicta, its cultural presumptions, its implicit citations, but the message preached, and the facts asserted as facts within the ambit of the prophet'smessage, whether directly doctrinal or not, must be true and are true.
There is a twin authorship to the Bible, and the literal sense of the prophet may be only an aspect of the full sense
of God, who is leading this sense forward to its being understood uniquely in Christ. One would think that the whole of scripture is Christological. Just as the womb of Mary was nature's offering to God for the Incarnation of Christ, so for this writer the Scripture is consummated in all its aspects in His Coming and His Attributes.
In the nature of the case the Scriptures, as St. Peter asserted a long time ago, are not subject to private and human interpretation but to the meanings of the Holy Spirit of God, and to the magisterium that declares that meaning. Among the Jews themselves, the priesthood and the rabbinate which killed the prophets nevertheless alone had the canonical power to declare the Canon of the Scriptures. Neither the seer himself, nor the individual as such, had power over 'the word of God'.
That magisterium given in Moses and Aaron, was trustee only for the Christ, in Whose person it was to pass away. Yet even that limited magisterium asserted and used its power to declare and to interpret the inspired word of God. That power, dim, partial, and hesitant before the Incarnation, passes into the Magisterium of Christ which lives in the Church, and stems directly from the Divinity of Christ. Christ as Lord of history lives, teaches, and defines with a final word within the Catholic Church. Only within the Church is there the will and the faith to declare and to use this power, a power totally necessary to vindicate the Divinity of Christ, and to allow Christ to fulfil His mission among men till the end of time. Christ is not only Lord of the Church, but as Lord of all humanhistory, Lord indeed of universal history, He is Lord of the Bible as well.
It teaches and declares through the leading and inspiring of God, "the things that are concerning Him". In the last analysis therefore the written word, 'Holy Writ', is always subject to the word, the spoken and declared word of ecclesial Magisterium. The scripture had to come out from the mouth of priest and prophet before ever it was written. It had then to be accepted and declared authentic by those who have received from God "power to sit in the chair of Moses", as Christ put it. Only then could the people know that it was indeed the word of God. Whether it was written down after the death of the prophet maybe, or declared in blazing words by the prophet, it was all part of one living tradition, one living magisterium of God which was the faith of Israel. It is the same now.
The magisterium of the Church declares in her faith, and in her liturgy, the meaning of Holy Writ. It is God's meaning, not always obvious to man, and God must speak His mind. The same magisterium of the Church has power to define such meaning if necessary. Sometimes it has done so, as in the case of the meaning of the Petrine text, concerning the Primacy of Peter and the power on earth of "the keys of the Kingdom". Much more often the magisterium of the Church has indirectly taught the meaning of the Scripture either by accepting the universal consent of the Fathers of the Church, or by basing definitions in Council on long quoted passages, as for instance at the Council of Trent.
The coherence of the development of doctrine in the Catholic Church allied to the coherent and continuous development of prophecy, doctrine and Messianism in the Old Testament raises up in history itself one vast monument to the direct participation of God in the history of mankind and the religious and spiritual life of mankind. This is the natural, the proper, the expected union and communion of God with man: in Him we live, and move, and have our being. This sign set before the nations is its own evidence and it is not explicable from the historic, cultural, relative social life of human society itself. If it were so, then there would be many another example, and there is not. The line from Adam and Abraham to Christ and the Vicar of Christ reigning today is a unique line, unique inits claims and vision across all of hum an history.
The interweaving of the Bible, the teaching of the synagogue and the Catholic Christian Church, witnesses to the presence of a Mind, a Power, and an Authority with love that transcends the mind of man and the power of man. Yet it manifests itself as the control and direction, the Environment to be expected, of the life of man. It carries its own conviction.
As with most of the themes proposed in this space, these thoughts need further development. But let us remember that generous young minds need to be sure that there is within the Church and its treasury of God-given wisdom from the past, a majesty of truth and life that far outstrips the quite wretched limitations of rationalist critics. We think Pope Benedict and the new Archbishop of Westminster in his latest book, have been encouraging us to offer something similar (see our Road from Regensburg column).
There is no such thing as an 'on-going revelation' that proceeds from the mind of man. This will be merely the disintegration of the fulness of Christ, and of the real meaning of human nature and the dignity of human love.
Cardinal Newman has shown that the meaning and origins of doctrine in a living faith can be understood only by the official and authentically recognized saints and theologians of that faith: that is by orthodox, consistent, and 'canonised' development. One might add by 'martyred' development, because that was so often the price of genuine development. It was the same with Biblical leaders and prophets. It is the same today with Popes ridiculed for their active magisterium by fashionable media in and out of the Church, yet, when deceased, held up as better than their predecessors.
There is an on-going development of the understanding of doctrine, and of the vision of Christ's majesty, and that understanding resides within the Church Catholic, and in that work the meaning of the Scriptures is still carried on. It is carried on by the One who prompted it in the beginning within Adam, by the Holy Spirit of God who receives the things that are of Christ and until the end of time manifests that fulness to men through the Word of the Eternal Word made now the solemn word of the Church which Christ animates.