For even the most adroit of readers, the Scriptural texts that constitute the Bible can be complex and difficult to understand, not only in terms of content and meaning, but also with respect to their origin and purpose. The Bible has, for almost all of its history, been simultaneously a perennial object of study for scholars and a means of devotion and prayer for even the most simple and uneducated of believers. No other piece of writing in history has ever garnered such a great following from such a broad spectrum of readership. It is perhaps for this reason that the range of ideas about the role of Scripture in the life of Christianity and individual Christians is so diverse.
It is a widely circulated truth that exposure to the texts of the Bible is, for many Roman Catholics, almost exclusively limited to the public readings that occur during the Mass on Sundays. Catholics are somewhat notorious among the wider group of Christians for their lack of familiarity with the Bible. Admittedly, the attitude behind this phenomenon in Catholics is not exactly laudable, but is it entirely false? Is there perhaps some element of truth behind many Catholics’ exclusively liturgical experience of Scripture?
Occupying the opposite end of the spectrum, especially in America, is what has been called the Fundamentalist approach to the Scriptures. Fundamentalism, as I will consider it in this context, mainly centers on the belief that the Bible is not only completely self-sufficient as a source of revelation, but must in fact be the sole arbiter in all matters religious. The Fundamentalist sees the Scriptures as the inspired word of God and therefore as the basis for all doctrine, worship, and moral instruction.
So what is the Bible? The answer to this question will provide us with some criteria for judging the aforementioned attitudes about the Scriptures. In particular I want to focus on the very close connection between liturgical practice, Scriptural texts, and doctrinal beliefs. I hope to show that the most essential or causal problem with Fundamentalism is its necessary preclusion of the Bible’s intrinsic relationship to liturgical worship and that the common Catholic attitude toward Scripture, while not ideal, is at least partially based on a confidence about this relationship.
The list of canonical books approved by that gathering of bishops matches exactly the canon that was formally defined at Trent, but the question remains: why those books, and by what criteria what did they judge the candidates?
It has been said that the Bible is a collection of books rather than a single book. This “library” of books covers a multitude of themes, from history to poetry, from mystical prophecy to (seemingly) mundane parable. The unity of these myriad texts is, at first, somewhat vague, except insofar as they all seem to contribute somehow to telling the story of the election of the Jewish nation and the salvation of the world through them. So what is it that unifies all these wildly different texts?
When we speak about whether or not a book or text belongs with the other texts of the Bible we are speaking about what is called the Canon of Scripture. Canonicity is ultimately a question of whether or not a given text was written by an author who was inspired by the Holy Spirit and that “they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.”(Dei Verbum 11) “All Scripture is inspired of God” (2 Tim 3:16), but how do men determine which texts are inspired of God and are therefore deserving of the title of Scripture?
Now in order to understand what exactly the Canon of Scripture is, we need a bit of historical context to explain how it came about. While the Seventy-Three books of the Bible were not been formally defined until the Council of Trent in the 16th century, there is a great deal of evidence that there was almost universal agreement amongst the Christian churches of the ancient world as to the Canon by as early as the end of the 3rd century. Irenaeus of Lyons asserted confidently in the 2nd century that there could be no more than four Gospels despite the existence of a multitude of other texts floating around the Mediterranean world claiming to be equally valid “eyewitness” accounts of the life of Christ under the authorship of various apostles. Just what was it that made Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John acceptable as part of the Bible and not the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Judas, or the Proto-Evangelion? One of the earliest ecclesiastical gatherings on record to discuss these matters is the synod of Hippo called by St. Augustine in 393. The list of canonical books approved by that gathering of bishops matches exactly the canon that was formally defined at Trent, but the question remains: why those books, and by what criteria what did they judge the candidates?
The answer to these questions about how the council and synod fathers waded through what had become a veritable sea of texts claiming to give the real story of Christ’s life can be found by looking at the purpose for which they sought to approve a canon in the first place. The question of whether certain books ought to be admitted into the canon of Scripture was not, for the ancient Church, one of determining the books that the Bible read by the average Christian would contain. Rather, the fathers of the Church believed that the issue of the canon was an important one to resolve because they understood the inseparable relationship between Scripture and the Liturgy from which the Church Herself is generated and for which she exists.
The Bible, as a unity, was put together for the sake of one primary end, namely to be proclaimed in the liturgical assembly and fulfilled in the celebration of the Eucharist in the hearing of the very same assembly of the baptized. Thus, the texts that were defined as belonging to the canon were selected not by some abstract study or academic process of inquiry into their content. This is not to say that a great deal of thought did not go into their selection, but the point to see here is that the books which were canonized were canonized precisely because they were already in use by the Church in Her liturgy; canonization was merely a step taken for the sake of unity and which confirmed the already accepted practice of the Church.
In other words, a priest cannot simply show up and do a half-Mass, bypassing the readings and just consecrating the bread and wine.
So the Church formally declared as inspired those books which were already considered to be inspired by the Christian community through liturgical practice. Fair enough. But how did those churches and the Church as a whole know what to accept into the liturgical proclamation of the Word and what to reject as lacking in inspiration by the Holy Spirit? We have established that the Church has, from the beginning, seen the Bible as being something liturgical in nature, but now we must examine what exactly the Church believes about the liturgical proclamation of the word that makes it so important.
Most Catholics probably remember from catechism class that there are two major divisions in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Liturgy of the Word and The Liturgy of the Eucharist. So what is the purpose of having a liturgical reading of Scripture? Is it just to coax the faithful into a nice spiritual mood for the celebration of the Eucharist that is to follow? The Church has always maintained the proclamation (not merely reading) of the Scriptural texts in the liturgy as an essential element of celebrating the Eucharist. In other words, a priest cannot simply show up and do a half-Mass, bypassing the readings and just consecrating the bread and wine. Why would that be? It would seem that the consecration of the gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ would stand so far above the public reading of any kind of text, no matter how pious or Godly, as to dwarf its importance.
The reason that the liturgy is the primary place of the Biblical texts is because of what the Church believes about what happens when they are read in the liturgical setting. Because the Scriptures recount the actions of the Holy Spirit in the past events of the human race, they are more than just a recounting when they are proclaimed during the present action of the Holy Spirit in the here and now of the Eucharist. The Scripture, read in the liturgy is not simply a memory of a past event, it is re-presentation of that event in its most profound spiritual reality (the action of the Holy Spirit in salvation history) in the present assembly of the baptized being led through this movement to God the Father through the agency of Christ the Head by his priest. Thus, when the Exodus from Egypt is proclaimed to the liturgical assembly, it is not simply a nice remembrance of a great thing that God did for His people in the past. It is that, but it is so much more because the same Word through whom the world was made and through whom the great events of salvation history came about is truly present to the assembly through the proclamation of the Scriptures inspired by His Holy Spirit. Fr. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB writes in his book Theology at the Eucharistic Table,
It is in the liturgical assembly that the deepest encounter with the Word is achieved. Here the believer realizes that scripture is not so much a book as a living Word from God, a Word which, when announced in the assembly, defines the very event that is underway. It is God’s intervention and offer of salvation in the here and now of a particular assembly.
This is the scandal of the Incarnation. God has deigned to reveal himself by becoming man and meeting mankind face to face.
We can see this dynamic at work even within the Liturgy of the Word, since even there it is the case that not all Scriptural texts are equal. Thus, assembly assumes a different posture of reverence for the proclamation of the Gospel than it did for the Epistles or the Old Testament. This is because there is a movement in the action of the Holy Spirit and of God’s Word through salvation history that is signified by its fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah. Thus, the Word of God who made the world and who will become substantially present in the Liturgy of the Eucharist is already present in the Liturgy of the word by the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that without doubt the primary place for the Christian to encounter the Biblical text must be within the Divine Liturgy, as the Pontifical Biblical Commission says in their document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,
“It is above all through the liturgy that Christians come into contact with Scripture…Christ is then present in his word, because it is he himself who speaks when sacred scripture is read in the Church. Written text thus becomes living word.”
So if the Church believes that the liturgical proclamation of the Bible is the primary place of encounter with the word of God because He makes Himself truly present by speaking here and now to the assembly, what does this tell us about how the Church is able to discern which texts have this potential and which do not?
The fathers of the Church often refer to something called the “Rule of Faith” when sorting out disputes about doctrine, and most especially, about the Bible. What is the Rule of Faith? When the fathers speak this way they are referring to the verbal tradition handed on from the Apostles that is the personal teaching of Christ about who He is and where He comes from. While this Rule (or “canon”, etymologically) was not defined in explicit, scientific terms by the Church until its basic tenets were challenged by heresy, it definitely existed in the Church as a measure against which Christians could judge anything that claimed to be a revelation about God’s nature and the way He saves us.
This is fundamentally a point about the nature of the Christian belief in revelation. Unlike other religions wherein the primary mode and content of the revelations about God are received as visions or inspirations to a holy man who, in turn, writes them down in a book to be known from there primarily, Christianity is about a personal experience, that is, the direct and concrete experience of another person. This is the scandal of the Incarnation. God has deigned to reveal himself by becoming man and meeting mankind face to face. Unlike Mohammed, the Apostles did not receive visions of who God is, rather, God appeared in the flesh and taught them personally, directly and concretely about who He is. This is very essential and fundamental difference between Christianity as it has been from the beginning and every other faith on earth. The consequences of this truth for Scripture are enormous.
Since God revealed himself by becoming flesh and literally speaking to human beings in person about who He is and how He would save us, he entrusted to those same frail and sinful human beings the responsibility of teaching all nations the Good News. Personally. This means that at a fundamental level, Christians are not a ‘people of the book’, but rather a ‘people of the Word’. For this reason the Church judges any text that claims to be an account of who that Word is according to the Rule of Faith that the Church received from that same Word Himself as he taught it to the Twelve whom he chose. For the same reason, then, the liturgy must be the “where” of the Scriptures because only in the place where we meet the Word personally, concretely, substantially, can we hope to hear to hear the word as it is spoken through Scripture.
Any way of reading or approaching the Bible that is divorced from its liturgical context cannot, therefore, be consonant with its true meaning because only the presence of the Word Himself causes the written word to have and to give life to those hearing it.
This thought about the dynamic presence of Christ is itself scriptural. One of the first moments of Christ’s public ministry is his liturgical reading of the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue and declared that was just proclaimed has been fulfilled “in your hearing.” Your hearing of the word is intrinsically connected and inseparable from the presence of the Word through whom it is spoken. Further, on the road to Emmaus the Lord showed the centrality of all of Scripture in his person, but the disciples did not understand it until they “knew him in the breaking of bread.” The dynamic between Christ’s substantial presence and the vivification of the spoken word (which always was all about him, it turns out) is intrinsic and is visible in the Church from the very beginning, as the Bible itself illustrates. Jesus Christ reveals himself to us in the liturgy and nowhere else simply because God’s chosen mode of revelation is personal, direct, and concrete. Where is the Word of God? Where can I meet the Good News, fulfilled in my hearing? The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is where He is really and truly present in word and in sacrament.
It follows from this that we must see the Biblical text as something that comes out of the Church’s direct experience of the person of Jesus Christ, not the other way around. Biblical fundamentalism would have us see the Biblical text as the starting point from which to proceed and try to experience Christ somehow by spiritually reaching out to him. Man can only experience God on God’s terms because the gap between us is impossible for us to bridge. God has revealed himself personally to us and wants us to return to him by listening to His written word fulfilled in our very hearing by the Word He has spoken and continues to speak into each us to give us life and create us anew.
In conclusion, what can most primarily and essentially be said of Sacred Scripture is that it is a liturgical text. This means that it exists first and foremost in the liturgy because its fulfillment and very purpose is to manifest to us the presence of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit of the Liturgy. The cause of this is manifested by seeing that the Scriptures are themselves used for this purpose by Christians who judge them to accurately reflect and make present to them their own personal experience of who Christ is. These texts are then canonized, that is formally defined as fitting within the rule of faith handed on to the chosen apostles by Christ Himself. While Christians ought certainly to read the Bible outside of its liturgical proclamation and know it to the best of their ability, they should always see their reading as an extension of its primary place. Any way of reading or approaching the Bible that is divorced from its liturgical context cannot, therefore, be consonant with its true meaning because only the presence of the Word Himself causes the written word to have and to give life to those hearing it. This is, therefore, not even a question about the interpretation of these texts or about what doctrines may come out of them (that is a real, albeit separate, issue). Rather, this is a question of the spiritual power of the revealed word of God. Scripture read alone and divorced from its liturgical purpose and context cannot save because it lacks what makes it the word of God; the presence of Christ, the Word. Taken together with the sacrament of Christ’s presence, however the written text can become the real presence of the living Word of God through whom all things were made and who says “Behold, I make all things new.”(Rev 21:5)