Indispensable but Insufficient! (RJS)

The second essay in the new book by Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis University), Peter Enns (Eastern University) and Daniel J. Harrington (Boston College), The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically & Religiously, is by Harrington, a biblical scholar, Catholic priest and Jesuit. Harrington is not simply a Catholic academic – he has also “been active as a Catholic priest, preaching on the Biblical texts every Sunday at two different churches in the Boston area and on weekdays within my Jesuit community. (p. 113)”  This brings a valuable perspective to his view of Scripture as religious and historical text.

Harrington makes a very significant point about Catholicism – and I would suggest about Christianity as a whole.

Catholicism is not a religion of “the book.” Islam may well be. And some say that Judaism and Protestantism (with its insistence on sola scriptura) are too. But Catholics view the Bible as primarily a witness to a person, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and the Word made flesh. Thus Catholicism is more a religion of a person. (p. 85)

A major point for reflection is focused on the question: Which came first … the Bible or the church?  The church came first – the scripture of the early church was the Old Testament, and the church reshaped their understanding of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ. The New Testament reports and reflects on this reshaped understanding. So Harrington puts it like this: “Catholics regard the Bible as the church’s book and the church as guided by the Bible.” (p. 86)

Indispensable and Insufficient. Because the Bible is the church’s book it is first and foremost a religious book. But because it is a religious book historical-critical analysis is indispensable. To fully understand the text, one must understand the context of the text. In fact, Harrington suggests that in recent Catholic thinking “historical-critical analysis [is] the necessary starting point and foundation for religious reading.” (p. 88) The theological foundation for this is found in part in the incarnation. God comes to our level in order to faithfully reveal himself to us. Thus we should expect the scripture to be rooted in a cultural and historical context. This is my paraphrase of the idea – and it needs some careful definition and nuance. But the historical-critical analysis will never be sufficient because it will fail to appreciate the religious depth of the text.

Historical-critical analysis becomes a problem only when equated with philosophical presuppositions that rule out divine action. In some circles the biblical witness is discounted because it doesn’t equate modern materialism and because it describes a God who acts and interacts in the world. These theological and philosophical presuppositions are “incompatible with, and not part of, the positive Catholic understanding of historical criticism as an indispensable tool in biblical interpretation.” (p. 95)

Gospels First. Another interesting aspect of Harrington’s outline of the Catholic approach to Scripture is in the reading of the New Testament. The person-centeredness of Catholic reading plays a clear role here – and the consideration of this aspect can help to illuminate the way the bible can be read religiously and critically .

In Catholic piety and liturgy, the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are preeminent because they are “the principal witness to the life and teachings of the incarnate Word, our Savior.” (Dei Verbum 18). There preeminence proceeds from the assumption that they “faithfully hand on” what Jesus did and taught.

However, Dei Verbum and other official Catholic documents insist that the Gospels have to be read and interpreted on three levels: Jesus, the early church, and the Evangelists. (p. 99)

The assumption is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John selected material on hand, either oral or written, to shape an honest and true account of Jesus. But they also addressed issues at play in the situation of the church to which they were writing. This shaping should impact our understanding of Scripture and of the nature of inspiration. Historical-critical analysis has a powerful role to play laying a foundation for the religious reading of the Gospels.

Concerning the rest of the New Testament:

In these writings, according to Dei Verbum 20 “those matters that concern Christ the Lord are confirmed, his authentic teaching is more fully stated, the saving power of Christ’s divine work is proclaimed, the origins and marvelous growth of the Church are recounted, and her glorious consummation is foretold.” While prominent in Catholic liturgy today, there is some truth to the observation that Protestants put more emphasis on the Epistles (especially Paul’s letters) and Catholics give more attention to the Gospels. (p. 99)

I will come back to some more of Harrington’s observations, and particularly the approach to the Old Testament that arises from these ideas. But this part of his essay leads to a number of questions worth some consideration.

Is Christianity a religion of “the book?”

Is Protestantism, like Catholicism better describes as a religion of a person? How would you nuance this?

Given the preeminence of the incarnation in Christian faith, should we be looking first to the Gospels?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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  • scotmcknight

    RJS, good sketch of a Catholic perception and use of Scripture. I like the category of “indispensable but insufficient” for the historical critical method. Yes, we must do historical work; and we are called to render meaning of the Bible’s texts in historical context but that method will not take us as far as we need to go. Did Harrington talk about the historical Jesus enterprise?

    The great tradition of the church has always given a prominent place to the Gospels as the primary story we tell. But liturgical prominence will not create personal faith. The preached and taught Word are to summon folks to the Person.

  • Rick

    “Which came first … the Bible or the church? The church came first – the scripture of the early church was the Old Testament, and the church reshaped their understanding of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ.”

    But if we ask it another way, we may get a different answer: Which came first, the message of the good news, or the church?

    Also, and slightly related: Is there any mention by Harrington of the Holy Spirit’s role in all this?

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Rick (2) – I suppose we might even argue that just as Eve was present within Adam before she was present with him, so the Bride of the Lamb has been present in Christ since before the foundation of the universe. In that sense the church comes before the Bible. But there again, Christ is the Word made flesh, the Word has been there from the beginning and the Bible is (at least in some sense) the Word written down.

    Maybe we need to conclude that neither the Bible nor the church came first because both are and have always been in the Son and are and always will be being brought out into the open more and more fully by the power of the Spirit.

    The Word and the Bride are eternal, existing from before the beginning and lasting beyond the end. HalleluYah!

  • Michael

    Good post. The church gave us our bible. Or at least decided what to include in the bible.

    As an interesting word play, I often find it interesting when fellow Protestants talk about the word of God (meaning the bible) and I often smile and think of the Word of God as described in John 1.

  • Bill

    “the church reshaped their understanding of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus Christ”
    This is also Enns’ view on the relationship between the O.T. and the N.T. I think this is an inaccurate view; I would rather look at it as the scripture of old had finally come to fulfillment in the person and work of Christ, and as the witnesses to it saw this good news being displayed more clearly, they then could see and read the Law and the prophets better. You may say that would be a reshaping, but I think that description can be misleading. I think it would be better to call it a re-looking at the prophets to see where they had misinterpreted them. Thus the writings of the gospels and epistles are the exposition of the message of the Law and the prophets.

  • Rick in IL

    The church honors the word because it bears witness to a person, The Word. In His earthly ministry, The Word honored the word. The church honors the word because The Word honored the word.

  • Rick

    Chris #3-
    “Maybe we need to conclude that neither the Bible nor the church came first because both are and have always been in the Son and are and always”

    Thanks for your feedback. Perhaps I am reading too much into what you are saying, but your comments sounds like you are saying the church has always been, in addition to the Trinity. The Son/Word has always existed, and His message has existed, but the instrument He and the Holy Spirit use to communicate that message is created.

    I don’t mean to underestimate the role of the church, and the on-going relationship between church and Bible is tight, but the church is relaying the message it was told to proclaim- The gospel.

  • phil_style

    I wish I could go back in time and ask St. Paul what his thoughts would be regarding the idea that some of his writings should be considered equal to the Torah. That would be a great discussion.
    Or asking the author of Mark what he thought of the Gospel of John….

  • AHH

    I think many Protestants would upon reflection agree that being people “of the person” has primacy over being “people of the book”, but that in some sense we are still “people of the book” because the book bears witness to the Person in a unique and authoritative way.
    So “the book” as the key tool to point us to Jesus, rather than as an end in itself. Which one might think of as the difference beween sola scriptura and solo scriptura (or perhaps as one difference between fundamentalism and a Christ-centered orthodoxy).

  • Marshall

    FIRST, we should be listening to the unmediated voice of God that comes to us as individuals in the person of the “good counsellor”, the Holy Spirit. The Bible is “indispensable” for learning to do that, but only if read with honesty, attention, and reflection on the events of daily life. The fact of God’s incarnation in history and in one’s person here and now is infinitely more important than anything that can be said, written, or read about it. Don’t confuse the map with the territory.

  • Jag

    I too have often thought about what Paul would say if he knew his words were placed on the same level as the words of Christ.

  • RJS

    Rick (#2),

    Harrington does mention the Holy Spirit. This post is just a brief sketch of part of his view.

    I found the comment about Catholicism being more a religion of a person that a religion of “the book” thought provoking.

    I think Protestants err at times by making Christianity a religion of “the book,” but I don’t think the Catholic view as Harrington describes it is quite right either. Christianity as a religion of a person runs the risk of misreading and minimizing much of scripture, reducing it to promise and fulfillment.

    I think perhaps we need to view Christianity as centered first and foremost on the mission and purpose of God in the world. Christ as the Word became Flesh is central – but not because Christianity is centered on a person, rather because the incarnation is the most profound self-revelation and intentional act of God. This needs more thought and nuance … but like Harrington’s description of the Catholic view it does move away from a focus on “the book.”

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Hi Rick (7) – In (3) I was just pondering in a provocative manner. But there is a serious point there too. If we are ‘hidden in Christ’, when did we become hidden? Have we been hidden in him for all eternity, or just since we first believed? Is it fair to say that the church has been there as long as we, it’s members, have been?

    In fact, church may not be the best word to use. Maybe ekklesia is better, we are the ‘gathered’ ones. When were we gathered? Is that temporary (when we meet) or is it permanent (whether we are meeting right now or not).

    And were we hidden in Christ in the same way Eve was hidden in Adam? She became visible when Yahweh removed the rib and formed it, but presumably she was there from the time Adam was made from the red earth. Ekklesia became visible when Christ’s blood was shed, when water and blood flowed from him, when his side was punctured. But was she there before he died? Was she there before he became flesh?

    How should we think about all this? How much do we really understand?

  • Kenny Johnson

    @Bill #5

    But what would you say about, for example, Matthew’s “creative” use of the Old Testament. For example, Matthew 2:13-18.

    This seems to be a deliberate reshaping of the Old Testament to me. I don’t believe anyone saw those passages as point toward Messiah before Matthew wrote it.


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