Tools for Thinking Sensibly About Scripture

For some folks, it takes a lot to dispel the myth of the hyper-controlling Church that only permits Bible study among the faithful after the insertion of the Vatican Orbital Mind Control Laser Platform chip in the frontal lobe of the brain. Indeed, it may come as a shock to such folk to discover that the Church offers us only three measly guidelines when pointing the faithful toward reading Scripture for its literal sense. Dei Verbum tells us:

1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”;
2. read the Scripture within “the living tradition of the whole Church”; and
3. be attentive to the analogy of faith.

That’s it. That’s all the mind control the Church offers when it comes to reading the Bible for its literal sense. What do these guidelines mean? In part, as we saw last week, they mean that when you read the Bible, you need to pay attention to what sort of literature you are reading. But other things come in as well.

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The Bible is a sort of organism, like a goldfish. Moderns don’t think of it that way because in their zeal to reject the notion that God is the primary author of Scripture, they insist that the Bible is just a collection of human writings from widely divergent sources that got stitched together pretty roughly and is therefore “full of contradictions.” “Biblical study,” both from atheist debunkers and even from not a few theologians, concerns itself almost entirely with looking for the “contradictions” and shabby seamwork. This can get pretty silly, as when A. N. Wilson discerns a fraudulent claim that Jesus was a “carpenter” since “no carpenter in real life came anywhere near to having a plank sticking out of his eye.”

From the perspective of sane biblical study, this entire approach (technically known as the “hermeneutic of suspicion”) is sort of like looking at a goldfish and seeing only a circulatory system, an excretory system, a pair of gills, a pair of eyes, some randomly distributed fins, a bunch of scales, a nervous system, and various connective tissues, all of which just happen to be crammed into a goldfish-shaped space — and then spending all your time looking for “junk DNA” in the goldfish cells while steadfastly ignoring the swimming, living fish.

In fact, the remarkable thing about Scripture is the organic unity of growth one sees in it. Seen from a perspective of common sense, it looks pretty much like what it is: the written record of a Tradition that is growing just like the mustard seed and revealing the gradual revelation of God to man, culminating with the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Yes, you can see the stitching at times (as when Genesis combines two accounts of creation). But so what? That’s only a problem if you think the Bible is a magic book and not a book written and edited by humans. So, to be sure, the human authors of Scripture display change over time. But it is the sort of change one expects in a growing thing, not a mutating thing. Ideas found in seed form early on (such as “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”) break out in huge leafy branches later on (such as the conviction found in the prophets and the books of the Maccabees that God will defeat death and even raise the dead at the end of time).

We discover, as we read, that the Bible is an immense conversation across the ages. The Old Testament longs for and looks forward to the New, and the New is only comprehensible in light of the Old. In short, there really is a unity to the whole of Scripture. So we do well to read it with that in mind. Each verse is related to the verses before it; each paragraph is related to the paragraphs before and after; and each book, especially in the New Testament, is not really comprehensible if you don’t know the other texts to which the author is alluding. So a return to the understanding of Scripture as a single organism, and not merely as a collection of loosely connected cells or systems, is the first order of business.

The next order of business (and the thing sola scriptura habitually overlooks) is that a living goldfish won’t live long outside the water. If you want to get to know the goldfish of Scripture better, the paradox is that you cannot do so by removing it from the Sacred Tradition of the Church, which is the water in which Scripture swims. The absolute worst way to read the Bible is to just go off with it by yourself and ask, “What does this text mean to me?” The real way to approach the text is to find out, as best we can, how the author and his readers would have understood it.

We know this about “real” books. But something goes wonky in the brain of moderns (and especially modern fundamentalists, whether atheist or Christian) when it comes to the Bible. All of a sudden everybody is quite sure they know exactly what Jesus meant when He uttered some saying that has taxed the minds and prayers of great saints and geniuses for centuries. And so the world is chockablock with Latest Real Jesuses who turn out to be, well, whatever the Lone Gunman and his Bible worked out using his special New Testament Decoder Ring. The common assumption of all these ace students of Scripture is that the Tradition — that is, the fruit of millions of lives of prayer and sanctity, not to mention scholarship of a very high order and even, in some cases, personal familiarity with the apostles themselves — is absolutely worthless if it contradicts Me and My Very Strongly Felt Intuition about what the Bible really means.

This entire approach is a form of deep stupidity that is primarily a fault of the will, not the intellect. It calls for humility, repentance, and a basic reorientation away from self and toward God and His revelation through His Church; not just a vague admission that, now and then, the Church gets it right by agreeing with me. And such a reorientation is vital because without it, the biblical reader inevitably winds up depriving the goldfish of Scripture of the water of Tradition it requires in order to live.

Happily, most Protestantism still retains quite a bit of Sacred Tradition by a sort of historical accident. So, for instance, much of Protestantism still holds (more or less) to the canon of Scripture (give or take a few Old Testament books). It still holds to monogamy (again, more or less). It still generally believes that public revelation closed with the death of the apostles. It still believes that life is sacred from conception, kind of. It still usually believes in the Trinity. All these are beliefs that are only possible to hold by reading Scripture through the lens of Sacred Tradition. So long as Catholics and Protestants agree on these things, it will be because the goldfish of Scripture is swimming in the waters of apostolic Tradition. As Protestant and post-Protestant skepticism keeps drying up the residual puddles of apostolic Tradition, what inevitably happens is not that we get a more scripturally pure faith, but simply an environment in which the goldfish cannot live.

To keep the water of Tradition from being spilled, the Church tells us to “be attentive to the analogy of faith.” This cryptic remark means, basically, “Hold on to the defined teaching of the Church.” The “analogy of faith” is the goldfish bowl that holds the water of Tradition. Without it you’ve got water all over the floor and, soon, a dead goldfish.

So what’s the “analogy of faith”? Well, an analogy is a thing that’s like something else. So a photo of my wife is an analog of my wife. It looks just like her, but it’s not her. The Church proposes various analogies of the Faith to us, such as the Creeds or the dogmas of the Church to give us a sense of what is and is not part of apostolic Tradition. A dogma is not the forbiddance of thought (as is commonly supposed) but the conclusion of thought: It’s what you get when you are done thinking something through.

Periodically, questions arise in theology, as they do in every field. When they do, the Church thinks the problem through and, when the occasion requires it and the Spirit wills it, the Church defines its teaching. The first time this happens is recorded in the book of Acts. The Church is confronted with the question, “Do Gentiles need to keep the ceremonial laws of Moses?” and arrives at the momentous conclusion that Christians are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, not by circumcision, keeping kosher, and so forth. They promulgate this decision in the shocking words, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us,” meaning that the dogma promulgated by the apostles and the elders is the authentic guideline for understanding the meaning of the Tradition with respect to this question.

Where do they get off talking this way? Well, to be fair, they formed the impression that they taught with the authority of Jesus Christ, who told them, “He who listens to you listens to me” (Lk 10:16). So it’s pretty much in the DNA of the Church. It appears Jesus had enough foresight to know that the Church would need a permanent teaching office to navigate the waters of history.

Now a modern reader might ask, “How can a 2,000-year-old teaching office matter to a modern up-to-date person such as myself?” I think the better question is, “How does something get to be 2,000 years old if it’s really as useless, ignorant, stupid, out-of-touch, and generally absurd as critics of the Magisterium so habitually take it to be?”

So I’ll be sticking with the easy yoke of Dei Verbum when it comes to getting at the literal sense of Scripture. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.



  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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