As the Year of the Word begins tomorrow, here are a few passages from, ahem, my own forthcoming book. Shameless, I know:
Vatican II certainly did define the primacy of Scripture in teaching and practice, not that there was anything even vaguely or remotely novel in that. It certainly did not define the primacy, or even the admissibility, of secular and secularising Biblical criticism.
The Authorship of God’s Written Word is, like the Person of His Incarnate Word, both fully human and fully divine. The Bible comes only with, in and through the Church that defined its Canon and has preserved it through the ages, and its implications for doctrine, for morality and for future hope are integral to its literal, Authorially original sense.
The founders of Protestantism spoke of Scripture’s plain sense, but that sense is in fact canonical and ecclesial, allegorical and typological, tropological and moral, anagogical and eschatological, while also including the historical factuality of the events recorded as such at least from the Call of Abram onwards, with apparent difficulties finding their resolution precisely in Canon and Church, in Tradition and Magisterium. It is that which enjoys priority in faith and practice.
God’s Book of Scripture begins by recording the beginning of God’s Book of Nature, presenting the Author of both as creating, naming and commanding: He is concerned with being, knowing and doing; with ontology, epistemology and ethics. Throughout the Old Testament, God raises up priests, prophets and kings accordingly, corresponding to that with which each of these branches of philosophy is concerned, until the Perfect Form of all three appears in and as the Person of Jesus Christ, Who proclaims Himself to be the (Ethical) Way, the (Epistemological) Truth and the (Ontological) Life, and Who commissions His Ecclesial Body to teach (epistemologically), to govern (ethically) and to sanctify (ontologically).
The Septuagint translators had no problem identifying that creating, naming and commanding Author of both Books with and as the Logos of their wider Hellenistic culture, while the New Testament writers had no problem presenting the Perfect Priest, Prophet and King as the Incarnation of that same Logos, recognised in both the Septuagint translators’ own and the New Testament writers’ own Hellenism by the Semites who compiled the Septuagint. Is it possible that they recognised in the Hebrew concept the root of the Hellenistic concept? Or rather, is it possible that they did not do so?
One might add that “He saw that it was good”, and that “Behold, it was very good.” Beauty discloses being, truth and goodness: the really identical categories of being (i.e., of being created by God), of being true and of being good are in turn really identical with being beautiful. What could be more Platonic or more Thomist, not to mention saner or more commonsensical? And what could be more Biblical, when one looks at the very first chapter of the Bible?
Just as “conservatives” are challenged by the fact that the Bible, of all things, is an integral part of the roots of Western philosophy, but only if at least initially Afrocentric and related insights are taken on board, so “liberals” are equally challenged by the fact that it is the Bible, of all things, that is a standing contradiction and critique, both of the Eurocentrism of those who see philosophy as beginning with the Greeks, and of Greek misogyny when one contrasts the Greek belief that heredity was only on the male side with the Hebrew presupposition, seen in the purity and incest laws, of a biological relationship with both parents.
This latter difference has, in turn, profound class implications: the Greek theory was devised by members of a homosocial urban leisure class, whereas the Hebrew writers were working farmers, not to mention husbands and fathers. It is the Bible that is on the side of the working class, reflecting its practical wisdom. And it is the Bible that is on the same side as feminism, precisely because these parts of it were written by patriarchs. One might add that several Old Testament books, such as Ruth and Esther, although their precise authorship is unknown, were clearly written by women, just as, say, Pride and Prejudice would clearly have been written by a woman even if one had never heard of Jane Austen. So women were clearly literate in Hebrew culture, just as much of the Old Testament presupposes mass popular literacy generally.
In order to be more fully Herself, the Catholic Church needs to encourage large numbers of Her members to learn the culture of the Word from that Evangelical tradition which is historically, if even in its own terms no longer necessarily, separated from Her full communion. Such a culture is one in which the defining narratives are those of the Old and New Testaments. All cultures define and perpetuate themselves by telling stories, and the Bible culture initially arose in order to fill the gaps left after the Reformation where the Lives of the Saints had previously been.
Catholicity, however, requires both, not least in order to express the indivisible continuity between the Bible and the Church. Catholics are not being asked to take on anything remotely Protestant as such here: look at the Liturgy, look at the Fathers (up to and including the Medieval Doctors), look at the Medieval and post-Medieval mystics, and look at the iconography and other spirituality of the Christian East, whether Catholic or separated. Taking on is a defining mark of Catholicism, which radically and fundamentally distinguishes the Catholic Church from the giving up that characterises Protestantism.
While the heart of the Catholic Faith is indeed God’s incarnational redemption of human life and history from within, the various Quests for the Historical Jesus have floundered due to the lack of agreement as to the objective criteria for determining which parts of the Gospels are, and which are not, historical in the post-Enlightenment sense. It is absurd to assume, apparently a priori, that Saint John’s Gospel, the Infancy Narratives and anything involving miracles are by definition unhistorical. An absolute insistence that miracles do not ever happen is not even compatible with agnosticism, much less with Christianity.
On the matter of John, it is very much worthy of note that even Professor Dennis Nineham, in his epilogue to The Myth of God Incarnate, cites B H Streeter’s calculation that, except for the 40 days and nights in the wilderness, everything attributed to Jesus in all four Gospels could have happened in a mere three weeks. (This argument is also very useful against those who would deny the authority of the Apostolic Traditions.)
In any case, historical criticism cannot be treated as if it existed apart from the several other means of engagement with the Biblical text; they need all to be applied within the context of each other, even if sometimes to demonstrate why some of them are potentially useless, and even dangerous. And after all, both the Historical Jesus and the Historic Christ are here and now in the form of the Church, which is the Body of Christ and “Christ in action”. There is no human being without the stories about him or her, and without the community defined by those stories. There is no Historical Jesus without the Gospels and the Church. No such Jesus exists.
Useful though the Jerusalem Bible’s footnotes are, the text itself is frightful. The Revised Standard Version is preferred by all sensible people, and certainly not the New Revised Standard Version with the masculine pronouns taken out to the ruination of the sense; if the Bible is that bad, then why use it at all? At least until such time as anyone has the wit to reissue the RSV Edition of the Missal, authorisation of which has never been withdrawn, those reading at Mass (or, of course, on other liturgical occasions) should read out the appointed passage from the superlative Ignatius Bible, which no English-speaking Catholic should be without. Nothing could better accompany the move to a more accurate translation of the Mass, suitable for properly educated people. Above all, away with the atrocity that is the Happytudes instead of the Beatitudes.