If you have ever moved around in Christian circles you will have probably heard people begin a sentence with the phrase ‘the Bible says…’ People, Christians and non-Christians alike, frequently back up their arguments by saying ‘but the Bible says….’ Even those who have fallen away from the faith sometimes critique the Church or justify their own position with the phrase ‘the Bible says…(insert here whatever verse supports your argument)’
This phrase is deeply problematic, quite simply, because the Bible, does not ‘say’ anything. It cannot ‘say’ anything because it’s a book. It can instruct, teach and inspire, but the Bible on its own does not speak. This is an often-misunderstood concept: the Bible does not speak!
Now, before you brand me a heretic and start preparing the stake and pyre, let me explain what I mean.
Let me be clear from the outset, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. It has one author: God, but many different writers. The Alpha course uses a good image to explain this idea: St Paul’s Cathedral in London is a famous architectural masterpiece. If you ask people who built St Paul's’, the answer you would typically get back would ‘Christopher Wren’. Yet Christopher Wren did not, to my knowledge, lay a single brick. He is the architect, the designer, the author even of St Paul's, but the work was carried out by many different individuals, all according to his plan. The same is true with the Bible, it is God’s Word, he is the author, but it is written by many people with their own understanding and perspective of the world.
The Bible is something that every Christian should have, read and use to pray with. In the Bible we discover the story of our salvation. In the pages of the Bible a love affair unfolds between God and his people, and God continues to speak to us through the Bible today. If we read the Bible prayerfully particular verses can ‘jump of the page’ as it were, and penetrate our hearts. God does indeed speak through the Bible. We should not be ignorant about the Bible. As St Jerome, the fifth Century biblical scholar, who translated the Bible into the language of the day (Latin!) said, ‘ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ’.
The Bible is so important that at every celebration of the Eucharist and every liturgical celebration it is publicly proclaimed. Furthermore, at the end of the reading the reader proclaims, ‘The Word of the Lord’ and we all reply Thanks be to God. At a Sunday Mass, the first section of the Mass is devoted to the Bible: ‘The Liturgy of the Word’. Four readings are proclaimed: An Old Testament reading, a psalm, a New Testament reading and then a Gospel! Sometimes some of our Protestant brothers and sisters dismiss Catholics as being ignorant of the Bible, but really this isn’t the case. A Catholic has the Bible in his/her DNA. The very prayers of the Mass come from the Bible and simply by just turning up to worship at Mass we encounter more scripture than many other Christian communities use in their own worship services.
The Bible is vital, there is no denying this. The Bible is God’s Word and the Bible is true, but, and this is important, the Bible on its own does not ‘say’ anything and here’s why:
The Bible did not drop out of the air, it is not a magic book, rather, it is the Church’s book. The Bible emerged, by God’s providence out of the Christian community, and the Christian community is the Church. The Church reflected, prayed and decided what books were to be considered as inspired texts and what books were not. This was an organic process, which occurred over a long period of time directed by the power of the Holy Spirit working in sinful human beings through the Church. We should not be surprised by this really, this is consistent with how God works - it’s basically his MO, his Modus Operandi! He partners with human beings. He doesn’t beam down from heaven and perform magical acts, rather, he enters his creation, works in and through it and redeems it. The Bible as we have it now was not even fixed as set collection of books until the fifth century. The common Bible amongst Protestant Christians of 66 books as oppose to the Catholic 73 books was not in fact standardised definitively until 1825 when the British and Foreign Bible Society made the decision that they would work only with a 66-book Bible.
The Bible then, is a collection of divinely inspired texts which grew out of the Church’s life and worship. The Church came before the Bible, it was not the other way around! The Bible cannot be understood apart from the living and sacred Tradition of faith in the Church. Everyone should read the bible, everyone can encounter God through the pages of the Bible, but the Bible should not be interpreted privately or individually without respect to the Tradition of the Church.
One of the big slogans of the Protestant Reformation was Sola Scriptura – Scripture (Bible) alone. This has been taken by many Christians of the reformation as the doctrine par excellence (incidentally not found in in the bible by the way!) The problem with this doctrine is that if you read the Bible alone it’s possible to read all kinds of contradictory things into the Bible. And, has been the case if you don’t agree with a interpretation you can simply find another bunch of people who do, or even start your own branch of a church. Up until the Protestant Reformation (which, by the way, was needed as the Church was in desperate need of reform, the tragedy was the split away from the Catholic Church not the need for reform itself) to be a Christian meant you were either Catholic or Orthodox, after the Solus Scriptura doctrine took hold, the last 500 years has given rise to thousands of Protestant denominations. This disunity in the Church is a tragedy for Christianity as it compromises our united witness and mission in the world.
The Church’s teaching authority, guarded by the Pope and the bishops of the Church, articulates authentically what the Bible means. God has revealed himself both through Scripture and through Sacred Tradition, these two sacred realities both go hand in hand - you can’t have one without the other. To interpret Scripture without reference to the Church fathers and to the 2000 years of living Christian witness risks a certain arrogance. Some may argue that Scripture was corrupted by the Church, but this argument ignores the way in which God works in the world. In fact, it was through God’s providence that the Christian community (the Church) encountered amongst other things Greek philosophy and Roman legislation and was thus able to use these wonderful gifts to understand and articulate more fully the divine revelation of Sacred Scripture.
Some Christians today claim that they must follow the Bible alone and seem to tie themselves up in knots trying to makes sense of obscure verses, whilst conveniently ignoring over verses which do not fit their ideas. No. the Bible must not be read and interpreted like this. In fact, I would argue that the Bible can be treated as an idol. A kind of idolatry or biblioatry! An idol in effect is anything that takes the place of God in our lives - that takes the rightful attention and worship owed to God alone. Some Bible alone Christians, risk falling into this trap with the Bible itself. The Bible is not God. It is the Word of God. To be a Christian is not to be a person of the book. To be a Christian is not even to be someone who is immersed in the Word. To be a Christian is to be someone who is immersed in the Word Made Flesh – Jesus Christ. God’s perfect and full revelation is Jesus Christ. The whole of scripture, anticipates, reflects upon, points to and culminates in the Word Made Flesh – Jesus Christ. And scripture cannot be understood apart from the Body of Christ: The Church!
What does the Bible say? Well, read privately irrespective to the Tradition it can say pretty much anything you want it to say, so in effect it says nothing. Read, however, within the living Body of Christ (the Church) then God speaks! He speaks powerfully, he speaks eternally, he speaks his Eternal Word, his Merciful Word, He speaks Jesus Christ!
Postscript: Our image of God and our understanding of God is affected by how we read and understand the Bible. Reading the Bible apart from the Church’s living and Sacred Tradition can give us a warped image of God. A further danger of Sola Scriptura is a false understanding of God’s actions in the Old Testament and his actions in the New Testament. For more on this please listen to my latest podcast episode: ‘Christ came to call sinners, Mercy is the supreme face of God’ https://anchor.fm/fr-luke-goymour/