Catholics and Scripture (A Post on Verbum Domini)
What Follows is a more personal and apologetic reflection on some of the writings in Verbum Domini. The Pope’s latest Apostolic Exhortation is full of wisdom, insight and just generally awesome and highly quotable statements.
From “Dei Verbum” to the Synod on the Word of God
Pope Benedict makes some awesome statements on the Catholic relation to scripture in the bold headline which is the section I am dealing with in Verbum Domini. I think these statements deserve wider notice. I know lots of people are excited about this document, and a lot will be said.
I do not claim to be the best interpreter or commentator, merely a papist with a propensity for pressing admiration and appreciation of the Holy Father, and an affinity for Sacred Scripture.
Catholics love scripture. It’s true.
We love the Church that gave us Scripture, and we love Scripture, but most of all we love the encounter with Christ which we affirm weekly in communal prayer. We love that it is this encounter that drives our reflections on Scripture and the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit. We love scripture so much we made reading it into worship. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out this post.
Moving right along…
Pope Benedict says of the synod fathers, “…We were conscious of dealing in a certain sense with the very heart of the Christian life…Indeed, the Church is built upon the word of God; she is born from and lives by that word.” Now, there’s a big misconception out there that Christians, specifically Catholic Christians do not know or care for the bible. That’s an urban legend. Are there Catholics who don’t know the bible? Sure. But to be fair, there are Christians of every stripe who are ignorant of scripture.
I know some of you are thinking…”Wait? Catholics say that their Church is built on the word of God and lives by that word?” Well frankly, yes. Catholics believe in scripture, in fact the mass is saturated with far more scripture than your average Protestant service. Further, remember how you have a bible in English? That’s no accident.
The fact that there is an English language at all is largely if not single-handedly the work of monks preserving scripture and culture in the British isles until English began to form as its own language. This language gave us Shakespeare and great poets and brilliant philosophers in no small way is most of English culture indebted to Catholicism and the monastic schools. Monks preserved the scriptures because they were so sacred that to let them pass from society would have been a travesty, this in turn gave us writing. Writing became popular again, which leads to Shakespeare and Coleridge and J.R.R. Tolkien and Chesterton and CS Lewis and John Henry Newman, and so many countless other
Pope Benedict says above that when the fathers entered the synod, they felt the immensity of their dealing with the source and wellspring of Christian life, Christ Himself and the scriptures that testify to Him. Now, I know, I’m a terrible vatican spy, because I’m actually seemingly defecting from the straw-man position that Catholics get painted with often. “How can a Catholic read scripture and still be Catholic?…There are things in their religion that aren’t in the Bible!” some people might say to themselves as they read thi
Well, the thing is, Catholics believe their religion to be shaped by and through scripture as well as the Tradition that comes to us through the apostles of the Early Church. But if we were to run the line of logic that says that Catholics do things that aren’t in the bible, so do Protestants.
I will keep going, just to drive the point home. Sound systems, flashing lights, priestesses, pastoresses, everyone owning a bible, communion with anything other than bread and wine, none of those things is in the bible. Megachurches, feel good preaching, microphones, youth church, children’s church, Wednesday church, sunday night services in addition to a morning service, revival tents, none of those are in scripture either, but neither are driving laws for cars or navigation advice for commanding a ship. So obviously, our view of scripture is wrong if we’re looking to it to be the guidebook of all those things.
The word of God is the heart of the Christian life. It would seem that the above quote implies that scripture is for the Church, which is something fundamentalists overlook.
The Word of God, that is Christ, is for the Church and offers Himself to her in every age and most especially in the visible signs of His presence through liturgy and sacrament. In the culture wars to present Protestant Christianity as the purest most pristine most scientifically accurate, or inaccurate, depending on your flavor of fundamentalism, there’s been something important missing. Christ as the Word of God is missing from the discussion and with Him the entire emphasis on the Church as the Redeemed body through which God’s manifold wisdom is expressed.
The elephant in the room for Protestants is the active role of where and to whom Scripture belongs. Catholics believe that scripture is God’s gift to the Church as an outworking of the Spirit’s guidance of the Church. Catholics have an answer, it’s called The Church. Scripture is for the Church, for her upbuilding spiritually and otherwise, it is for her growth, and her maintenance. It is for her renewal. Protestants may say that the scriptures are for Christians, but what they must mean by that is, scriptures are for those who affirm it through their experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important that we remember that we have to experience God, because He experiences us every time we pray, but we have to say that this experience belongs in a communal context. As a former Charismatic protestant, I simply affirm the idea that what Catholics call Tradition, I simply call authoritative communal-experience over time.
I’m still Charismatic-Pentecostal, but merely in the Catholic context, where I feel my charismatic tendencies find their fullest expression. The thing I love about Catholicism is that it is just like scripture. Scripture is a collection of witnesses to the actions of God in the world in His dealings with Man as Father-Son-And-Holy-Spirit.
Just like scripture is not a single witness but rather a polyphony of witnesses, so too Catholicism shares the same idea. No one saint dominates any of the Theology of the Church. Even Scripture is part of a multi-faceted choir which we call the word of God. First there is Creation, a multifaceted ‘book of Nature’ as it is called which testifies to something glorious as our source. The way Catholics and most Protestants read Creation there is more to Creation than naturalism.
Secondly, there’s everything from Genesis to Jesus which also forms the Word of God, embodied in His dealings with prophets and kings. There’s the sacred scriptures, and the apostolic preaching from the early church, the Christ from conception/incarnation to death and resurrection. Then there is of course the handing down of the apostolic preaching in what we call the Tradition.
Justin Martyr wrote a short book entitled the ‘Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching’ in which he emulated the stylistic approach of the apostles, quoting the Old Testament, verifying Christ as the culmination and using those combined things that had been handed on, he interprets the old testament and Proclaims the Word of God, that is Jesus, through the word of God, that is the tradition and the preaching. Finally after all these things and yet together with them is the final written word given to us by the Church in 382 with the decree of Pope St. Damasus I.
Are there distinctive voices that sing often? Sure. But that’s the beauty of it. The Catholic Church isn’t built on the teachings of one man, like a Luther or a Calvin, it’s built on the teachings of Jesus, and all 12 of His apostles, plus the elected replacement Matthias and the 13th apostle, St. Paul.
But it doesn’t stop there, the song goes on through every successive generation, even where some voices drop out due to unfaithfulness, or others become particularly strong, the Church holds that manifold witness and presents a single song with many voices. Every generation of successors to the apostles carries on this song. The Church presents her history to us full of people telling the story of God in the world, carrying on a single tune from earliest days.
It’s nice to have a long-standing witness that God never left the earth, nor did he leave humanity when he ascended. He does continue to speak, not through just a single man, or a single book of the bible, or even only through the bible, or only experience, or even the Pope, though God certainly calls and uses the Pope to establish and lead the Church.
The Church herself is full of other voices, other times and places shaping different parts of the song she sings. She is full of Christ the Word of God, on every level, in fact he is present corporeally at every single mass. The Church’s song is deep, robust and bristling with life and fervor.
The thing about being Protestant is, eventually you realize the song you’re singing is very small, compared the beauty of the choir just across the river. Sometimes as a Protestant it’s not even scripture that shapes your song, but the opinions of a local pastor who fancies himself a pope in his own right.
However, there’s beauty just across the way, there’s immesurable beauty of choirs and witnesses, just over the Tiber River. That same beauty is how Catholics approach scripture, in the fullness of distinctive voices, each author telling a unique but congruent story. It’s like polyphony, there’s multiplicity, but it’s still the same song.
The song that the Church sings is at the heart of the Christian life, we call this liturgy. The Song and the One it is about are the foundation and reason for everything else. It all makes sense when you get the right vantage point, and when you take it seriously enough to listen closely. So, next time you hear that Catholics don’t like scripture, think about music. You might think twice.