The Use and Purposes of Scripture: Conclusion

The Use and Purposes of Scripture: Conclusion February 21, 2017

This is the second and concluding part of an essay begun here.

There are limits to what any text, including the Holy Scripture, can say. Holy Scripture represents and points to truths beyond itself. It uses conventions, some which were more readily understood at the time of its compositions, some which are still easily understood, to represent the transcendental reality which lies itself. The truth cannot be contained in words, but it can certainly be exemplified and symbolically presented by them, and by doing so, help people start their journey to the realization of that reality itself. What Buddhist sages understood of their own texts applies Christian Scripture. In The Scripture on the Explication of Underlying Meaning, the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, it is said that the holy ones who realized the truth wanted to help others realize their experience; these sages knew that in order to guide others to a similar realization, they had to use words as the means to communicate to others not only their experience, but the way of realizing that experience as well:

When, then, is the reality here? I would reply that it is that reality apart from language and realized in the perfect awakening of the saints through their holy wisdom and insight apart from all names and word. It is because they desire to lead others to realize perfect awakening that they provisionally establish [such expressions] as ‘the conditioned’ as verbal descriptions.[1]

This is similar to the point St. Jerome stated about the Gospels, where the truth of Jesus Christ is to be found not in the words used but in the meaning intended by those words:

We should not suppose that the essence of the Gospel is in the words rather than in the actual meaning of Scripture, or on the surface rather than in the inmost parts, or in the leaves of mere words rather than in the root of reason. The prophet says of God, ‘His words are good to him [who walks upright[.’ Scripture is advantageous to its hearers when it is spoken with Christ, when it is proclaimed with the Father, and when the preacher introduces it with the Spirit. [2]

To be able to acquire the meaning of the text, we must first realize the relative value of the words used in it, so we do not get turned astray by a too-excessive attachment to them. We are not expected to get worked up on the surface of the text. We should be interested in what the text intends to convey, and what it is conveying is the reality of God-with-us. We are to be united with God, to find God in us as we are in God, with Jesus as the bridge who unites us together. The reality of Scripture is the reality of the kingdom of God in us, the reality of the oneness of humanity in the body of Christ, and the reality of Christ’s union with God bringing us into the divine life. God opens himself to us and reveals that openness in Jesus; it is the openness of love which is manifested in the life and activity of Jesus. To understand Jesus, to understand his words, his commands, and his expectations of us, is to understand love. To understand love is to understand God and the meaning of Scripture. It is love which unifies the various modes of Scriptural interpretation and allows them to be one and diverse.

Saint Augustine by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 - 1691) – Painter Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Augustine by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) – Painter Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The rule of love is one rule: love. Yet, that rule is to be realized in particular forms. We love God. We love our neighbor. We love our enemy. All forms of love flow from love itself. To love our neighbor is necessary if we are to love God, and likewise, to love our enemy, however difficult it is for most of us, also flows from us through our love for God.  This is why when Scripture is read, it must be read under the guidance and direction of love; even if it leads to a misunderstanding in a particular verse, we will not be deceived, as Augustine told us:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.[3]

Indeed, Augustine was so adamant about this, he said that Scripture was merely a tool to help us achieve this aim. Once we have done so, Scripture can be dispensed with. Its point is educational, to help develop the Christian to know God in love, to be united with God in the heart of God, Jesus. To be sure, the text still has value, not for us, but for those who we are to teach, those who have yet to attain such clarity of vision:

And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces.[4]

For those who have attained what Scripture points to, the value of Scripture itself is assured but the text is no longer needed.  It is like a raft used to get off a deserted island, once the raft is used to cross the sea and those who used it have continued their journey onto the mainland, it is no longer needed by them. The raft can be given over to someone else who needs it, but otherwise, there is no reason why it must be carted along, burdening those who have used it to achieve its proper end. Scripture is useful, but its use must not be seen as being greater than it really is. It is a tool which helps us attain a certain end, but once that end is made possible, the text is useful as a common point of discussion to help others get there, but that is all. Realization of the truth, which is the purpose of Scripture, transcends what Scripture presents. This is why the intention of Scripture must always be kept in mind lest it becomes an idol which halts the realization of truth.

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