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Raphael's "The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament"

In order to understand the Scriptures, we must recognize their simultaneous human and divine origins: through the Bible we encounter the living Being who inspired its human authors.

Christians, like the Jews before them, have made the remarkable claim that God has revealed himself to the human race through a people he chose especially for that purpose. This claim of an explicit and public revelation raises an obvious question: how has that revelation been made? Where and how has God communicated himself such that he has been – and can continue to be – seen and heard by humans? The answer to this question encompasses the whole of salvation history, stretching from the call of Abraham and the creation of a Chosen People to its culmination in the arrival of God himself among us in human form in Jesus of Nazareth, and the subsequent history of the Church. If God has indeed worked in time among a specific people, there must be a means of recording that history if it is to be remembered and passed on. The instrument that accomplishes this task of recording the deeds of God and speaking them anew to each generation is the body of sacred writings – the Sacred Scriptures – that members of God’s people have authored and gathered together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout history, human cultures have recognized something mysterious and powerful in the use of language; in fact, words are among the decisive features that distinguish humans from animals. Language provides the clothing for rational thought and communication. Words have been thought to have inherent power, and various peoples have attempted to create magical phrases, spells, and incantations based on that belief. Although children under verbal attack may say in defense, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” this is ultimately untrue: words can do a great deal of harm, as well as a great deal of good. As the proverbs put it, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

If words are powerful, it stands to reason that words are close to the very heart of things. It is therefore no surprise that every great religion has a collection of sacred writings. In Christianity, the sacred writings take on an increased significance. According to the Christian account of creation, God “spoke” the world into being at the beginning of time, and he continues to hold all things in being by his word. The Logos – the Word – is understood to be divine, the second person of the Trinity through whom the world was created. Christ is that Word made flesh, become human. It is therefore fitting that God should reveal himself in specific human words, words inspired by him and understandable in human terms. This revelation of God in human words is the Bible – the Book – the most influential piece of writing in the history of the world.

The Bible is both a human and a divine production. It was written by God, and it was written by various people over the course of more than a millennium. This cooperation between God and humans was not a neat division of labor, such that God wrote some parts of the Scriptures and humans wrote other parts. If that were the case, we would want to find a way to separate the human part from the divine part so that we could have the words of God in all their purity. Christians claim, however, that God wrote the entirety of the Bible and that humans wrote the entirety of the Bible. The work of authorship belongs primarily to God, but he has drawn humans into his self-revelation such that his words are inextricably bound with theirs. The Bible, the written word of God, thus echoes the incarnate Word of God. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, a mysterious union of God and humanity; in an analogous way, the Scriptures are both fully human and fully divine. Remembering this mysterious union will help us to avoid two opposite errors that tend to arise when we approach the word of God in the Bible.

When we pray, we speak to God. When we read scripture, God speaks to us.
St. Augustine of Hippo

On the one hand, it is possible to view the Bible merely in its human aspect, forgetting its divine quality. Because the Bible is so genuinely a human product, it can be approached as if it were simply another book. The Bible bears all the limits and specificities of its human authors, including their personalities, their learning and skill, and the cultural and historical settings they inhabited, and it came into its final form over an extended period of time in the midst of complex historical circumstances. Furthermore, the Bible includes various forms of literature, including mythology, genealogy, history, law codes, hymns and prayers, romantic poetry, prophecy letters, sayings of the wise, moral tales, apocalyptic works, and the utterly unique genre of the Gospels. It is sensible, therefore, that we might attempt to discover who the human authors of the biblical writings were and how their different backgrounds, personalities, and theological interests influenced their writing. We can investigate legitimately how and when the different books first came into being, how they made their way through history, what kind of editing may have occurred, and what kind of process was developed for determining which writings should be considered inspired and thus incorporated into the Sacred Scriptures. We can thus rightly place the writings in their cultural and historical perspectives, look for extra-biblical corroboration of their contents, examine them linguistically, and trace the history of copying and transmission through time.

All of the questions concerning the human origins and transmission of the Biblical texts mentioned above are interesting, and some of them are useful for getting at the meaning of the texts. However, if we stop at the human side of the Scriptures, the Bible as a unified book falls to pieces: it becomes a grab-bag of writings on spiritual topics with only a tenuous connection to one another. If there is no single Author, no one Mind behind all the human authors’ minds, the Bible ceases to have interest for us except as a kind of religious artifact, something to be arranged alongside bits of statutes and ruins of buildings and other remnants of past civilizations.

On the other hand, balance can be lost in the opposite direction. The Bible is sometimes viewed as if it had floated down from heaven without having passed through the minds of any human authors and the complexities of history. As Christians, we can forget that it was God’s intention to reveal himself in the midst of history by means of humans in all their particularities; we can expect that the human authors possessed divine omniscience; we can flatten out the many different types of human language present and read all parts of the Bible in the same way without distinguishing its various modes of communication; or we can attempt to make sense of the Bible apart from the context of the worshipping and believing community in which it arose and continues to be read. The result of these errors is a distorted picture of what God is communicating. If we are to take God’s revelation seriously, we must respect the manner by which it was given to us as part of its content and interpretation.

The Bible is not a safe book; rather, it is a living fire with a power all of its own. Playing with fire can be dangerous: it either purifies or consumes all that it touches.

Each of these opposite tendencies has also dogged the perception of Jesus. It is far easier to conceive of Jesus either as a divine being who appears temporarily in human form or as an impressive man who had a lot of good things to say – but both fully God and fully human? There is something scandalous in this intimate joining of the divine and the human, the infinite and the finite, the immortal and the mortal. It is much easier to let one half of the equation drop away than it is to grapple with the mystery of God made man. In the same way, it is much easier to treat the Bible as either wholly divine or wholly human than it is to attempt to understand the voice of God itself wrapped in human words and mediated through human minds.

Despite its human aspect, the Bible is unlike any other book. The Bible does not merely give us information about God or provide inspiring examples of virtue and sound spiritual wisdom. It does this, but it goes much further. The words of Scripture are alive, not only because they still apply to our circumstances, but even more because in the pages of the Bible we meet a living Being, the same God who first inspired its authors. To read the Bible is to encounter the presence of God. The great medieval theologian St. Bonaventure explained what this means for reading the Bible:

The source of sacred Scripture was not human research but divine revelation. This revelation comes from the Father of Light… From him, through Jesus Christ his Son, the Holy Spirit enters into us… It is impossible, therefore, for anyone to achieve this understanding unless he first receives the gift of faith in Christ. This faith is the foundation of the whole Bible, a lamp and a key to its understanding (Prologus, Opera omnia 5).
There is an intellectual and spiritual principle in play here: Bonaventure echoes the whole of the Christian tradition when he says that those who wish to understand the Sacred Scriptures need to be in a relationship with God, with the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures and who opens the minds of those who are looking for truth in its pages. We who are heirs of the Enlightenment tradition can find this principle difficult, preferring to think that the attitude of the inquirer should make no difference for the inquiry. “If a thing is true,” we think, “it should be evident to anyone who looks into it as long as proper methods of rational inquiry are followed.” However, even we moderns know that this way of thinking does not make sense for the pursuit of every kind of knowledge. If, for example, we want to get to know another person well, we must get beyond merely piling up external information, and must come to sympathize with the person, establishing a relationship of confidence within which personal knowledge can be shared. Ultimately, we will not get to know another person well unless that person “opens up” to us. Similarly, when we read the Bible we draw near to the self-revelation of a Person, the divine Being who created us. As in any genuine relationship, love opens the door to knowledge – that is why there have been many uneducated men and women in the Church’s history who have understood more of the Bible than many highly learned people. University degrees are no guarantee for understanding the meaning of the Scriptures.

As a final word concerning the Sacred Scriptures: those who are contented with their lives just as they are and are not seeking something deeper and richer, or who prefer to make their own way in the world, or who are not looking to change themselves and would just as soon avoid dealing with the magnificent and unsettling personality of God would be advised to be careful in approaching the sacred text. The Bible is not a safe book; rather, it is a living fire with a power all of its own. Playing with fire can be dangerous: it either purifies or consumes all that it touches.

Further Reading

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