Inspiritation and truth in the Bible

In a short message to the Pontifical Bible Commission (translation), Pope Benedict XVI addresses the topics of inspiration and truth in the Sacred Scriptures, and how both these elements are “constitutive characteristics of [their] nature”. He makes some very interesting points which we should keep in mind when reading the Bible and studying or applying the texts in it.

Photographed on the day he released his message, the Holy Father is seen, very fittingly, with the words "Verbum Domini" in the background.

First, there is the following statement:

“[T]he topic of inspiration is decisive for the appropriate approach to the Sacred Scriptures. In fact, an interpretation of the sacred texts that neglects or forgets their inspiration does not take into account their most important and precious characteristic, that is, their provenance from God.”

Essentially, what the pope seems to be saying here, is that the inspiration of a Biblical text, that is its origin and source, as well as the process by how it came into being, should dictate how we read those texts. Sacred Scripture ultimately finds its source in God. That is not the same as saying that He personally dictated the words to whichever scribe first committed them to paper, but He is behind it, so to speak. His truth is in those words. They are His Word, written down by man. It is not a thesis by which someone tried to defend his position or ideas. It is not a human construct, and neither is it academic. The texts in the Bible are grounded in historical reality, a reality in which God played an important part. The texts, in their nature, are characterised by that reality.

“Because of the charism of inspiration, the books of Sacred Scripture have a direct and concrete force of appeal.”

Their inspiration gives the books of the Bible their living authority. The Holy Father writes that their relevance did not end at the death of the last Apostle, but it continued through the constant proclamation and interpretation through the ages.

“For this reason the Word of God fixed in the sacred texts is not an inert deposit inside the Church but becomes the supreme rule of her faith and power of life. The Tradition that draws its origin from the Apostles progresses with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and grows with the reflection and study of believers, with personal experience of the spiritual life and the preaching of Bishop.”

This process of interpretation occurred within the framework of the Tradition of the Church which, the Holy Father notes, has progressed with the assistance of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost, and grows via four means: reflection, study, experience and preaching. ‘Reading the Bible’, then, engages the entire person, not just the intellect. We read or hear, we feel, think and, certainly not least, we experience.

The reference to “the preaching of the Bishop” is interesting in its own right. Just as the Apostles were the first to proclaim the Word of God in the Tradition that we still enjoy. This work was later performed by their successors: the bishops. Our Tradition is so much more than a collection of old habits and customs: it is a living organism built around the Word of God that we find in the Bible, but also in the Tradition, in its interpretation and truth.

“[I]t is essential and fundamental for the life and mission of the Church that the sacred texts are interpreted in keeping with their nature: Inspiration and Truth are constitutive characteristics of this nature.”

Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Climbing to the top at Easter – Dutch bishops focus on the mysteries of faith

The Eucharist and its celebration are the source and summit of our Christian life. It’s a line that has appeared time and again on this blog and in many other places. And while at times it may seem like a snappy sound bite or handy slogan, it is an essential truth that we need to understand and practice in order to live a proper Christian life. In His Son, God has come among us and given Himself to us. If we profess to follow Christ but ignore Him in his most vulnerable presence among us, we are missing the essential point.

Our faith is an Easter faith. The death and resurrection of Christ that we remember and celebrate at Easter permeates every day and everything we do as Christians. It is the foundation and seal of the new covenant that God has made with us. To pretend otherwise is a denial of what the Lord communicates to us in the Bible and sacred Tradition.

In a letter dated to Ash Wednesday, and sent to all priests, deacons, pastoral workers and caregivers in the country, the Dutch bishops seem to want to emphasise this. Starting with the Easter Triduum of 2013, they say, the focus of the communal celebrations must return to the Eucharist. Easter, they say, is after all “the feast of feasts”. What we remember and make present at Easter is, again, our covenant’s basis and seal.

The bishops write that, in every aspect, the Easter celebrations must be dignified. They are a celebration of God’s sacrifice, not merely one of human community. The celebrations must take place in cathedrals and parish churches, provided it can be done with dignity there. These locations allow the attendance of many faithful, servants and other volunteers and the singing of at least some parts of the liturgy. Small communities, special groups and societies are urged to join these celebrations, and what is interesting about that last point is the reason given by the bishops: it will allow the celebrations to be held in the best possible form. The focus is not first on the community of faithful, but on the celebration of the sacred mysteries. And rightly so, for we are a community through the Eucharist, through Christ’s sacrifice at Easter. We don’t make that community, God does.

Simplified or shortened celebrations are to be avoided. Celebrations on the various days of the Triduum have their own unique character and timing. The Easter vigil, for example, is celebrated after sunset, and not without reason. Afternoon vigils take away an essential element of the celebration and make it subordinate to our own limitations and wishes. It should, of course, be the other way around. The ‘complete’ celebration of the Church, the bishops write, takes precedence over that of the smaller local community (and the customs and deviations that have been allowed to develop in those smaller communities over time).

As Word and Communion celebrations by laity have steadily become more and more common, especially in those areas where priests are few, the bishops’ statement that it is “of the utmost importance that, during the Easter Triduum, the faithful indeed take part in the special liturgical celebrations led by a priest” is timely.

All celebrations during those days are to be led by a priest. Other forms are not allowed. Every diocese will point out specific churches where the celebrations will be offered in their fullness, and smaller communities and new movement are expressly invited to join these celebrations.

Lastly, the bishops urge all the faithful to receive Communion at Easter, preceded by Confession.

Fifteen years ago, such a letter would have been unheard of, and if it was released then, very few faithful and clergy would have taken it seriously. I am not saying that every lay faithful, deacon or priest will happily accept it today, but it is a step in the right direction. In the western world, in western Europe especially, we must combat the individualistic life philosophies which teach us that things are good as long as they feel good, that no one has a right to tell me what to do, and that the only truth that exists is the truth that I make for myself. These trends are no less visible in the Church. By refocusing at least the Easter celebrations on their contents instead of on the superficial feelings and perceived rights of the faithful, we may begin to counter the dictatorship of relativism.

Tradition and progress in the liturgy – a papal address

Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI addressed members of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute St. Anselm, meeting for their ninth International Liturgy Congress. Among other things, he addressed the still-sensitive topic of the reforms of Vatican II. He writes:

“Not infrequently tradition and progress are clumsily opposed. In reality, the two concepts are integrated: tradition is a living reality, which because of this includes in itself the principle of development, of progress. It is as if saying that the river of tradition has its source in itself and flows toward the outlet.”

Go read the full text, or my translation, which offers some lucid comments on what the liturgy is and how progress and tradition relate to one another.

Photo credit: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Mettepenningen speaks again. And still understands nothing

Seriously, how did this man ever make it to official spokesman of the archbishop of Brussels? The two are polar opposites in intelligence, intention and willingness to go against the grain.

Yesterday, Archbishop Léonard offered a Mass in the Extraordinary Form in Brussels; the first time a Belgian archbishop has done so in over 40 years. Belgian daily De Standaard reports some 500 people attending the Mass, but plays the number down by saying that these were mostly just “curious”. Sure.

Disgraced spokesman Jürgen Mettepenningen also opened his mouth about it: “I have never known of Cardinal Danneels having done the same. This is not the signal that a Church that wants to be contemporary should send out. It fits within an attitude that falls back on the past, when the liturgy was still something between priest and God.”

Honestly, just about every sentence is rife with errors. Cardinal Danneels not having done anything like this fits within the general trend in the Low Countries, as well as with the cardinal’s own priorities. It says nothing about Archbishop Léonard. This is indeed the signal of a contemporary Church; a Church willing to embrace the complete package of Tradition, liturgy and doctrine, instead of the politically correct bits and pieces in an attempt to speak to the masses by not being too difficult. Acknowledging and making use of Tradition, the 2,000-year development of Church, faith and philosophy could be considered falling back on the past: the past being, in this case, the rich treasure chest from which we draw so much of our identity, knowledge, faith and, yes, knowledge of the Lord. And then, lastly, the liturgy being between priest and God? Ridiculous nonsense. The liturgy is always a matter of God and His people. In that order. God first, people second, in an eternal dialogue of love and teaching. The priest faces the Lord together with the people: all face the same direction, because before God all men and women are equal, be they priest or laity. The liturgy of the Mass is not about ‘having something to do’; it is about prayer, about getting to know God (something with which we are never finished), communicating with Him, and He with us, not according to our own standards, but to His, the standards which were part of His plan for us ever since the Fall.

Abp. Léonard offers Mass in the Extraordinary Form

Mettepenningen’s comments are characteristic of the shallow idea of ‘being Church’ that has spread so heavily in the west in the past decades. Church is not something we make together: it is something given to us by Christ as the prime means of our salvation. It is therefore not a social club, not a self-help centre, not an opportunity to be constructive by being the centre of attention. The liturgy of the Mass is the uniting of the people of God to the heart of Christ, in prayer, as part of the world Church, and thus as something much, much greater than we are.

Photo credit: (2) Bart Dewaele/De Standaard

Introduction to “Verbum Domini” translated

The first part of Verbum Domini (the introduction) is translated into Dutch and available here. In it, Pope Benedict XVI grounds the text and the Synod that preceded it in the Gospel of John and the Tradition of the Church. He recalls preceding papal documents (most notably “Dei Verbum”), and reflects on the actual proceedings of the Synod of Bishops. With these two lines of thought, Verbum Domini no longer stands alone; it is a development, a part of the ongoing Tradition of the Church, the ongoing development in man’s relation to God (and His word), and an ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The Apostolic Exhortation is available in several languages, such as English, on the Vatican website.

St. Thomas Sunday

Christ and Saint Thomas (1467-1483), by Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence

Today we hear the Gospel about St. Thomas who refuses to believe in the Resurrection until he has seen the evidence. Only when Jesus appears to the Apostles and invites Thomas to lay his hand in His side and see and feel His wounds, does Thomas believe. He accepts the full truth of the Risen Lord with a simple but heartfelt “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 28)

Jesus gently rebukes him and says a seemingly simple line about the nature of Christian belief: “You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20: 29).

That final line gives a statement about the value of belief. It is easy for us to believe in the existence of, say, a table, a cat, or our neighbour. We can see them, touch them, and, in the case of the neighbour, speak to them and expect an answer. This is a very basic notion of belief; I see so I acknowledge the existence of what I’m seeing. But basic as it is, it dictates much of our daily life. After all, we must know that what we see and wish to interact with is truly there.

But the notion of belief that Christ employs is different. The acknowledgement of the reality of existence of what we believe in – God, Christ, the Resurrection – is an inseparable part of that, but there is more. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” presupposes a sense of trust. We have not seen it, but we rely on the knowledge of others to belief in the reality of something.

Faith requires such a notion. It is not enough to simply say, “Oh, I’ll accept that God exists”. That;s not enough, because it says nothing about the relationship between us and Him. But including trust and faith into our sense of belief does, or at least it makes a start.

Even when we say that we have faith in somebody, indicates that we trust that that person is capable of something, that he or she can do good, or whatever. It is the same with our faith in God. Based on what we have learned about Him, through Scripture, the Tradition of His Church and the teachings of writers and theologians throughout the ages, we have faith in Him: we trust that he is capable of our salvation.

We have not seen Him, but that makes this faith more pure: the trust we place in Him is not a human faith. It transcends it, just like Christ far transcended His human nature.

Blessed is he who is able to transcend his human nature and put his faith in Who he has not yet seen.