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On the Catholic Use of Sacred Scripture

This is a response piece to Christian McGuire’s article entitled: “On the Misuse of Sacred Scripture.”

Dear Christian,

As we discussed privately when I first read your piece, I agree with your basic premise that Scripture cannot stand alone as an authority without the vehicles of the Church (her liturgy, her teaching authority) and Tradition (the Fathers, the Doctors). Together, these three prongs of authority (Scripture, Tradition, and Church Magisterium) balance to form and inform a community of faith that has perdured across time, and will continue until the eschaton.

As Dei Verbum—the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation—shows: “It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all, [both] together and each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (¶10). I have written about the centrality of Tradition hereand would recommend that all who are reading this study Yves Congar’s book on the subject.

All that said, I do have serious reservations about the language used in your piece. It seems to remove too much authority from Scripture, while not doing justice to Scripture’s crucial role in nurturing the Church and her Tradition throughout the ages.

Perhaps the clearest image of Scripture as the defining and informative source of Western theology appears during the Medieval Period. In fact, from approximately 600 to 1100 AD, Scripture commentaries were the primary form of theology/theological education. When one looks to the pinnacle of the Medieval Period—to the Scholastic Theologians—one witnesses the fruits of this centuries-long veneration and respect paid to Scripture.

I am thinking here of Saint Bonaventure. He writes in the Prologue to his Breviloquium:

Scripture, then, deals with the whole universe: the highest and lowest, the first and the last, and everything that comes between. In a sense, it takes the form of an intelligible cross on which the entire world machine [i.e. the cosmos in its entirety] can be described, and in some way seen in the light of the mind. (Breviloquium Prologue, 6.4)

Scripture is what reveals and transmits God’s plan of salvation to us in its most complete—and history-defining—form. Scripture is what tells us the story of the people of God. Bonaventure begins his treatment of Scripture in this Prologue by quoting Ephesians 4:14-19, and then stating that the Apostle Paul, “filled with the Holy Spirit as a chosen and sanctified instrument, discloses the source, procedure, and purpose of Holy Scripture, which is called theology.”  This elevated understanding of Scripture was not lost with the Scholastics. The Blessed John Henry Newman (whom you quote to great effect in your piece) also asserted: “Scripture may be said to be the medium in which the mind of the Church has energized and developed” (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 7.4.2).

Scripture is the center and source of theology, and the primary tool by which the Christian faith is handed down from generation to generation. Of course—and here we agree—Tradition itself extends beyond things that can be written or said; it functions as the very womb in which Christians are born and nurtured. Through this womb of Tradition, Christians adopt a Way of Life—one which unites them to the Body of Christ (Church) and the story of that Body (Scripture). In this sense, as you correctly argue, Scripture depends on Tradition. Nonetheless, I want to make it very clear that Scripture is in no way inferior to Tradition. This is a position I worry some will infer from your language.

I won’t have time to address all of the areas in your piece which evince my concern, so I will stick to analyzing the following statements you made:

Second, the structure of the Sacred Text does not befit an instruction in the principles of Christianity … If God had intended for the Scriptures to act as the vehicle by which we are taught doctrine, the Bible would look very different than it does today. I submit that this collection of letters, narratives, songs and prophecies is unsuited to the systematic teaching of theology, but a wonderful aid in proving a pre-existing set of doctrines.

Scripture itself seems to contradict what you are stating:

As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:14–17)

It seems preeminently clear from this passage that Scripture is in fact useful for “instruction in the principles of Christianity,” regardless of how one might prefer it to be structured (i.e. more systematically).2  In addition, the author of 2 Timothy presumes that Scripture is “the vehicle by which we are taught doctrine” when he says: “from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  Dei Verbum cites this same passage, claiming that “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (¶11).

My larger point is not that you have incorrectly identified the role of Tradition, but rather, that you have given Scripture short shrift. As Dei Verbum is careful to chart out, we must hold that “sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (¶9). It seemed to me that your article did not give Scripture its due reverence.

All that said, I applaud your goal of “attempting to stop the kind of impiety that demands Scripture serve as something it is not.” I do not, however, believe that this goal can be achieved by attacking a strawman (namely, the idea that Scripture can stand alone; a position never held by the Church Doctors or Fathers), and thereby neglecting to recognize the pivotal importance of Scripture itself as the constant source of all theology, the theological textbook par-excellence, and “the supreme rule of faith” (see Dei Verbum ¶21).

I will conclude with the full quotation of this Dei Verbum passage:

The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles.

Thank you for your patience with me throughout this process, and I continue to welcome your feedback as a brother in Christ.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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