Friday, March 22, 2013

How Catholics Read the Bible

The idea had arisen that Scripture is complete; everything is found there; consequently there is no need for Tradition, and so the Magisterium has nothing to say. At that point Pope Paul VI transmitted to the Council fourteen formulae for a phrase to be inserted into the text on Revelation and he gave the Council Fathers, the freedom to choose one of the fourteen formulae, but he said that one of them needed to be chosen in order to complete the text. I remember more or less the formula "non omnis certitudo de veritatibus fidei potest sumi ex Sacra Scriptura", in other words, the Church’s certainty about her faith is not born only of an isolated book, but has need of the Church herself as a subject enlightened and guided by the Holy Spirit. Only then does the Scripture speak with all its authority.

This phrase is decisive, I would say, for showing the Church’s absolute necessity, and thus understanding the meaning of Tradition, the living body in which this word draws life from the outset and from which it receives its light, in which it is born. The fact of the canon of Scripture is already an ecclesial fact: that these writings are Scripture is the result of an illumination of the Church, who discovered in herself this canon of Scripture; she discovered it, she did not create it; and always and only in this communion of the living Church can one really understand and read the Scripture as the word of God, as a word which guides us in life and in death.

Reflection – There are such fine distinctions and careful reflections in this short passage that it merits careful close reading. Protestants reject this, of course, holding in their classical theology to the principle of sola scriptura – the Scriptures alone as the source of divine revealed truth. It must be said in response to that assertion that sola scriptura is simply not a Scriptural doctrine—nowhere in the Bible does it say that only in the Bible does God reveal himself. Indeed the ending of John’s Gospel explicitly says the opposite (Jn 21:25), and Jesus Himself says that the Holy Spirit would be with his disciples to teach them everything else they needed to learn (Jn 16:13).

Meanwhile, though, we do not exactly say that the Church ‘made’ the Bible. Benedict is clear here: we discovered it, we did not create it. Revelation is a gift from God, not a human product, but it is a gift He gave to His Church who received it, cherishes it, reads it, understands it in the light of all God’s other revelation in Tradition, and passes it on through the millennia.

We tend to think of things in terms of competitive opposites: Scripture or Tradition, the Word of God or the teaching authority of the Church. The more we can understand that God is the primary actor in the life of the Church and of salvation history, the more we can move out of this strange quasi-Marxist power struggle view of revelation and ‘who is in charge, who gets the last word’ being the most important question.

God reveals Himself to a body of believers, giving them a written inspired text and a living Tradition, and above all his Holy Spirit to abide with them to condition and guide their reception and interpretation of the revealed truth. It is a messy process, imperfect because sinful human beings are imperfect, but nonetheless that is our Catholic understanding of it.

And this understanding saves us from so many pitfalls in mis-reading of Scripture. One example, which is commonplace today. The exegete Rudolph Bultmann famously said that it is impossible to believe in miracles in the age of radio waves and antibiotics. Hence the miracle stories in the Bible are symbolic or legendary or something: at any rate, not to be taken literally. The dead cannot be raised, nor the blind healed, nor the lame walk, nor bread and fish multiplied. Of course not: we are modern scientific people, and know better.

Except… the Church has 2000 years of experience of, well, miracles performed by saints all over the place. Bultmann was a contemporary of Padre Pio! Lourdes is a place of ongoing miraculous healings. I personally know of instances of food being multiplied in soup kitchens for Christ’s poor. Miracles are not commonplace events of course—they wouldn’t be called miracles if they were. But if Bultmann was doing his exegesis within the catholic communion, he would never have written such a silly sentence.
That’s one example, and there are many others. It is the Church and its long experience of the ways of God in the world that conditions our reading of Scripture to keep it true to God’s Spirit. And that is how God’s revelation of love and saving power is passed on from one generation to the next, for 2000 years and counting.


  1. I think that this is important for understanding why we don't just believe (like Protestants, or, indeed, Muslims) the Scriptures JUST because they are the Scriptures. Someone had to put them there, and it was the Church. It's a no-brainer really. Nice one, Benedict. Lucid as ever.

    1. Father Denis,

      So, I am not sure I really understand. So, is he saying the Bible is not objective truth? Or that the Bible is as true as church doctrine?

      I am not clear about how this can help with questions about interpretation. In all those 2000 years, there are a lot of biblical interpretations, for me it seems to make the whole question of scriptural interpretation so much bigger, broader. Was that his intent? I do not know the context...

      Thanks for putting up with me...
      Bless you

    2. Well, I think Fr. Flynn's point is that the Bible came from somewhere, and at least part of that 'where' is the creative mind and discerning heart of the Church. God, ultimately, of course, but mediated through the Church both in its composition and selection, and then in its interpretation.
      It is because Bible as a written text needs to be interpreted (this is the nature of all written communication, indeed all communication) that something extra-biblical, in this case the deposit of faith of the Church, is necessary. We read the Bible as Catholics, in other words.
      This actually does make it larger and broader and more complex. We don't have to nail every verse down to a specific univocal meaning, since we are reading it from the solid ground of Church doctrine and faith - the Scriputres are preserved in their mystery and vastness and can minister to us in that vastness, because we are not feverishly clutching on to them as the one solid place of truth in an otherwise depraved world. That's how it seems to me, anyhow.

    3. Bless you
      And you too Father Flynn.


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