Peering into the Darkness

In a previous post, it was mentioned how invaluable the idea of Covenant was for a true understanding of Scripture.  It serves as a unifying principle that unlocks the overall purpose of God’s revelation through Sacred Scripture.  A thorough examination of Scripture in its individual parts however presents a number of challenges.  First and foremost, there are those passages that appear to be contradictions like the Lord being “the great king over all gods” (Psalm 95:3) while maintaining the fact that “God is one” (Romans 3:30).  Complicating matters further, there are some rather dark passages where God appears to will evil.  Both of these types of Scripture are often used as ammunition against Christians in order to “debunk” the Bible.  Joseph Ratzinger devoted much of his scholarly life attempting to address this very issue.  His work culminated during his papacy with his 2010 Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini where he cautions that “it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic” (Verbum Domini (VD), 42).  He provides the faithful with two very important principles that can help them navigate through these difficult passages.

First it is necessary to mention the intended audience for Scripture.  The Fathers of the Church thought Scripture could only be rightly understood from within the “heart of the Church.”  What they meant by this is that the book only makes sense in light of the gift of supernatural faith.  Faith is absolutely necessary to understand the Scriptures.  St. Augustine found the Scriptures utterly absurd until St. Ambrose stirred up faith in him by his preaching.  He came to understand once he first believed (see the beautiful passage in Confessions VI, Ch.4).  The Bible is a specialist’s book.  A man without faith has as much chance of understanding it as I do reading a nuclear engineering text.  I might grasp parts of it, but to truly understand I would need training in nuclear engineering.  Faith is the “qualification” for a proper understanding of Scripture.

This may come as a surprise to many but Scripture itself offers us an example.  The Ethiopian Eunuch is a man of good will who greatly wants to understand the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah.  But until “someone instructs” him, he remains in the dark (Acts 8:26-40).  St. Paul tells Timothy that while “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” this only applies to the “one who belongs to God” (2 Tim3:16-17).  This is because the Scriptures were and still are primarily liturgical books.  This is how we came to adopt the term “New Testament” to refer to the Scriptures of the Covenant of Christ.  Again Scripture itself witnesses to this.  When the words “New Testament” appear in the text itself, it is always within a liturgical and sacrificial framework (see 2Cor 3:6, 1Tim 3:8-13, Hebrews 8, 9:15,12:24).  This is not to imply that there should be no personal reading of Scripture only that Scripture is the book that is proclaimed to the People who gather for the Sacred Liturgy (as an aside, Scott Hahn has an excellent book that follows this line of argument more deeply called Consuming the Word).

Once we concede that faith is absolutely necessary, then Pope Emeritus Benedict’s principles naturally follow.  The first hermeneutical (a fancy theological term that means “biblical interpretation”) technique is the concept of Divine Pedagogy.  What this means is that “God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance” (VD, 42).  The Judeo-Christian God is one who is actively involved in guiding mankind.  Compared to the  Koran which was allegedly dictated directly to Muhammad because it is an eternal book, the books of the Bible “bear the impression of a history that (God) has been guiding” (Benedict XVI God and the World).

In the Summa (ST II-II, q.2, a.3), St. Thomas also refers to this hermeneutic of divine pedagogy by likening the state of Israel in the OT to spiritual childhood.  God reveals aspects of Himself that are perfectly adapted to their needs and their ability to receive it.  Rather than revealing all there is to know about Himself at once, he does so by a certain gradualism that meets them where they are and then brings them along.  In so doing He meets them within the historical period in which they are living.  They are surrounded by polytheists who have gods like the sun and moon that demand human sacrifice.  He reveals Himself as the One Who created the sun and moon in the Creation account in Genesis.  He shows Abraham very explicitly that He is not a God who demands human sacrifice when He commands him not to lay a hand on Isaac.  That could not be known unless He brought Abraham to the cusp and rejected his sacrifice and revealed to him that He would provide the Lamb instead.

All of Scripture is meant to progressively reveal God, until in the “fullness of time” He fully reveals Himself in Jesus Christ.  To try and “judge” God in the Old Testament is stacking the deck.  We are using the principles of His full revelation to show that these partial revelations were wrong.  It is like a theologian criticizing the use of the clover as a teaching tool for the Trinity.  It works well for 6 and 7 year olds, but it was never intended to be a pedagogical tool for 26 year olds.  It is assumed that it is extremely limited in its application.

Pope Benedict reading the Bible

The point is that it makes no sense to call the God of the Old Testament violent or capricious.  All the gods were.  The only reason why anyone knows that gods should not be that way is because the God of Jesus Christ revealed it to them.  The way He does this however does not happen by simply giving a list of differences between Him and the other gods.  No one would believe Him.  Instead He must begin by taking what Israel knows of “gods” and show them how He is not like those gods.  But He does this through actual historical events.  He allows certain errors to persist for a time like any good teacher does because the student is not ready for all the details yet.  Once they get the student to a certain point they will reveal all to them, but this takes maturity and experience in the student.   This plan is summarized beautifully by Augustine in the City of God:

“The education of the human race, represented by the people of God, has advanced, like that of an individual, through certain epochs, or, as it were, ages, so that it might gradually rise from earthly to heavenly things, and from the visible to the invisible. This object was kept so clearly in view, that, even in the period when temporal rewards were promised, the one God was presented as the object of worship, that men might not acknowledge any other than the true Creator and Lord of the spirit, even in connection with the earthly blessings of this transitory life…It was best, therefore, that the soul of man, which was still weakly desiring earthly things, should be accustomed to seek from God alone even these petty temporal boons, and the earthly necessaries of this transitory life, which are contemptible in comparison with eternal blessings, in order that the desire even of these things might not draw it aside from the worship of Him, to whom we come by despising and forsaking such things.”(Book X, Ch.14)

Pope Benedict also enunciates a second important principle when he says that “[W]henever our awareness of its inspiration grows weak, we risk reading Scripture as an object of historical curiosity and not as the work of the Holy Spirit in which we can hear the Lord himself speak and recognize his presence in history” (VD, 19).  His point is that we need to not only admit the Scriptures are inspired but also to attempt to unpack this mystery.

In Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council document on Divine Revelation defines inspiration in the following way:

In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

This leaves inspiration as a mystery by which God inspired Scripture and at the same time the human authors were still free in the process. But because it is a mystery we may understand it better if we talk about what inspiration doesn’t mean.

First of all inspiration does not mean that God was merely an assistant in the process.   He actively caused and inspired those men to write what He willed them to write. What was written in Scripture is there because God wanted it there.  Much in the same way as when we write with a pencil, we are the cause of the writing even though the pencil is the actual instrument.

Second, God did not act as a copyeditor in the process.  When St. Paul was done writing he did not go to God and ask him to review it and make any necessary corrections.

Thirdly, the human authors of Scripture were not mere scribes, passive recipients of revelation. God did not merely whisper in their ears and they merely transcribe what they heard.  God “made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” (DV 11).

When St. Thomas addresses prophecy in the Summa (ST II-II q 171) he includes all the authors of Sacred Scripture.  He defines “inspiration” as an outside influence of the Holy Spirit which raises the mind above its ordinary level and endows it with greater intellectual vigor.  What it does is to prepare the author to receive a revelation from God.  Scripture is said to be inspired because God prepared the authors to receive a revelation from Him.

If we examine the Latin word auctor, which we translate as author, we can see that attributing authorship to God means something more than author in the literary sense that we normally use it.  Blessed John Henry Newman says that properly speaking,  auctor means “originator” or “primary cause” rather than in a strict literary sense “author.” This makes the distinction between inspiration and revelation is important because God can be the originator of Scripture without every idea therein being His.  This does not mean that he was the originator in the sense that He merely got the ball rolling but He is still intimately involved in the entire process.

What happens is that God may infuse what is to be revealed into the mind of the Sacred Author, but the Sacred Author must still use his own words to describe it.  No amount of words can fully explain an idea, but can only do so in a limited manner and from a certain perspective.  This is how man too is said to be an author—he is using his own words (conditioned by his culture, his own understanding, even his own conscience) to explain what God revealed to him.  This means we must always know this background information if we are to interpret Scripture fully.  A favorite verse of those opposed to the “Violent God” of the Old Testament is Psalm 137:9 which reads “Happy those who seize your children and smash them against a rock.”   Inspiration prepared the Sacred Author to receive the revelation that there is always a need to oppose a paganism that is opposed to God, but how the human author actually expresses this is going to be conditioned on his own understanding of what should be done to oppose paganism.  The person of faith will naturally know this because they have been given the “abbreviated Word” of Christ Himself.  The man of no faith will be left scratching his head, but if he is going to “judge” the morality of Scripture then he had better take inspiration into account.

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