On the Bible, its brokenness, and our wading through the difficulty.
The heart of a Christian understanding of scripture is based in taking seriously its authority to speak to us as hearers of the word, and its ability to point us to the life of Christ. The life of Christ is always at the center of our reading of the bible, and it holds all other senses of scripture in its grasp. When we read the bible there is a necessary measure of respect due to the authors, to realize that their concerns are not my own.
When I begin to notice that St. Paul is not saying what I thought He was saying, it is then that he becomes an authority to me. When i realize that Jesus’ parables are rightly confusing but nevertheless demand my education and understanding, it is then that the words of scripture are challenging me as an authority in my life. Without wrestling with the text, we may as well call any other book infallible. If God’s authority over our lives doesn’t come out in our reading, we’ve missed the point entirely. So long as we ignore the text with our lives and praise its ability to be used as a tool for us, with our actions we do not believe that the bible has authority to speak to us as the Word of God.
The word isn’t found in the propositions about it, whether it’s infallible, inerrant, incorruptible. These are all ideas that meet their end in terms of real application. Biblical authority is the event of being formed by reading the text, carefully, with attention, devotion and others. It means working with the text in community, it means allowing our lives to be shaped by the tradition’s readings, it means dialoguing with 2000 years of Christian history and looking to the Church fathers for guidance because they share our struggle, but they also provide necessary guidance.
Simply having the most laudatory doctrine does not mean the bible’s authority is being exercised in our midst. The first place the authority of scripture takes place is not in the churches that have the highest doctrines on scripture but those places where it is formative of the people and they hear it often and carefully. Scripture’s authority i’d say doesn’t lie in inspiration alone, but with inspiration, scripture’s authority lies in the place where its living voice is heard today, the proclamation of the Church.
The Fathers, and Mothers of the Church disarm our preconceptions about what the text might mean, and how us a whole new way of imagining the text, and a whole new vision that is both old and new. When we talk about scripture and its authority, we’re really talking about the authority of God in our lives to shape us towards humility, and relying on one another to make sense of this overwhelmingly powerful book. The primary affirmation of scripture is in the challenges we face when we stand naked before the text. Does it drive nails into our flesh, does it lead us to the Beatific Vision? Is it shaping our imaginations, so that a word like Babel, or Golgotha or Moriah calls to mind an entire story and framework for education?
The scandal is that where we’d like to affirm supreme power, God makes us rethink everything that Kingdom and sovereignty mean. Where we’d like to cement power in the bible, in our leaders, in anything, Christ Himself is the image that challenges all others, but in so doing puts them in the place that they belong.
God’s word to us is surely powerful, but it’s powerful after we’ve been taught to see the scandal, the displeasing unsettling cross. God’s word to us is ultimately Jesus, the text is a witness to this ultimate word, but bears in itself the power to speak to us as God’s word insofar as it leads us to this event as the chief interpreter. The full height and depth of what God wishes to say to humanity can only be said in and through this Jesus and His entire life leading us up to the moment of ultimate beauty, the scandalous cross.
The Bible is not an almighty work standing far above everything else in perfection, it’s a crucified word, like our crucified God. It stands before us broken, compiled by many authors, in different times, with different genres. It’s not that we have a perfect and immaculate text that generates our faith. Anyone who studies the bible knows it has historical errors, it contradicts itself, it tells different versions of the same stories. But, it’s from that brokenness that we have to struggle with the text. Because in its brokenness, it stands far above our shallow idea of perfection.
The bible is a written account of the proclamation of the church, from Israel through the apostles. It is our kerygma our proclamation. However, just because the entire proclamation is not written word does not mean it’s invalid. Many Christians are sadly the Saddusaic representatives of Christianity, thinking that the word will suffice when Jesus never affirmed that it would and even used popular rabbinic traditions oral traditions to make his point. Scripture and the Apostolic tradition are the two ventricles to the heart of the devotional life of the Christian faith. One without the other will not succeed. They are both necessary elements of the Church’s proclamation, and in turn the proclamation is part of how we are to go about making disciples.
Without scripture as part of the devotional life we will fail to be Christianized in our imaginations and it is this proclamation which must be prized above others Yet, too often we find ourselves comfortable in reading the text as a de facto if it is read then it is understood. I disagree.
Without the apostolic tradition, our interpretations are suspect, and we’re too readily comfortable with identifying the text’s desires with our own. We need the entire proclamation of the church, both her scripture and the tradition, which are harmonized in unity by the Spirit. Without the continued voice of dedication we hear in the lives of the saints, Christianity quickly disperses into the lowest common denominator, or we try to relate obscure biblical references to our lives as a means of reading our lives as part of this story. We quickly assume the continuity between St. Paul and ourselves, we think he clearly means religion is bad and relationship is good. Without the tradition’s witness of continued holiness, most protestant Christians find themselves looking to their local pastor or a few past revivalists for inspiration in the way of holiness. Authoritative interpretation is found in the lives of the saints, as well as the entire Christian witness.
At the heart of the gospel is a challenge, a call to come up higher, to empty ourselves and take on a yoke, a teaching, an instruction. Nowhere is this more visibly retained as a continued rabbinic tradition than in the Catholic faith. Without the saints and their continued ability to speak into our lives, we lose sight of what standard we’re all called to. Without the seat of Peter as a sole governing authority, we fall into division. What stands out to me is that, even the East does not work, it’s not one church, it’s many churches, quickly scattering into division. What compels me is that, despite abuses, dissenters and schisms, the Catholic faith retains visible manifest unity, a unity that stands out as a witness, a unity in tradition, a unity that cannot be reproduced, or manufactured artificially. We cannot reproduce apostolicity outside the Catholic faith, it’s simply impossible.
Scripture and tradition are in a kenotic nuptial union, and they produce the manifest devotion of the Church, one without the other is not what God intends for His Church. You cannot grab a bible, and assume you know what it means, you have to be taught by authorities, who have dedicated their entire lives to this text and the continued challenge it poses to humanity. The question becomes, where are the authorities and hos is it manifest among them?I think the answer is a dual one, it is in those pastors who visibly bear discernible discipleship, it is nowhere univocally. Even in the Catholic church there are bad pastors, however, wherever people are Christocentric and cruciform, there is the authority of God. Ultimately what the text witnesses to is a crucified God, and his power is manifest in the weakness of those who have come to boast in their weaknesses in Him.
At the height of Christian life stands the glory of self-emptying Divine Love. This love calls all things to itself and gives them back to us in and through Himself. The proclamation of the Church and her written testament work together as the two ventricles to the one heart of devotional life. This life of worship cannot function without both the otherness of the text and its continued presence to us in the lives of the saints throughout Christian history.