Friday, 19 May 2017

Why do we trust Scripture?

By Fr Nicholas Crowe, OP

Theology, in contrast to other more philosophical attempts to deal with the mystery of God, is only possible because God has spoken. The fact that God made us and made the world we live in means that it is in theory possible to deduce, simply by thinking long enough and hard enough, that God exists and that he must be one, simple, good, omnipotent and so on. 

However, whilst we can know that God exists from his actions and effects using our natural powers of reasoning alone, we cannot reach beyond the knowledge gained from our senses to know who God is without God’s help. There is no way for us to independently reach up to God and discover what he is like. If we are to come to know God, then, God must come to us. God must make himself accessible to us. God must communicate with us. We call God’s self-communication to us revelation, that is, the ‘revealing’ of something to us that is otherwise hidden or covered up. And what God has freely chosen to reveal to us is the extent of His love for us.

So how exactly does God communicate his love to us? Let’s start by thinking through how human beings reveal their love for one another. The most direct way to tell someone that we love them is simply to tell them. But we all know that communication is about much more than words alone. The way we use words, our tone and our body language and so on adds nuance and meaning to what we say, as does the way we live our lives more broadly. Our words become meaningless if they are not matched by deeds. But if our words do in fact correspond with our actions then they can help the other person to see the true significance of our behaviour. Our words can help other people to make sense of what we are doing. So we can say that human beings communicate love to one another by what we say, how we say it, and what we do.

Now God’s love is even more mysterious than human love, but again we can say that God communicates His love through words and deeds, and that the words of God help us to understand the meaning of God’s loving actions. Now of course, God does not speak and act in the same manner as a human being. Instead, in the Old Testament we find God speaking through the prophets, and we see God speaking in the events of Israel’s history itself. So just as human beings communicate their love through words and actions, God also speaks through the inspired words of the prophets which are recorded for us in the Old Testament, and through His providential ordering of the revelatory events of Israel’s history.

The Prophets and the Old Testament

I think it is this interconnection of words and deeds that first led Israel to trust their Sacred Scriptures. The prophets were not speaking into a vacuum. The Sacred Scriptures did not appear suddenly and out of nowhere. Instead, they emerged in the context of a community that was trying to make sense of its relationship with God. In time, the Scriptures would gain a privileged and authoritative place in the life of the people of Israel precisely because these writings, inspired by the Holy Spirit, led men and women into a more profound relationship with the living God. Israel learned to trust the Sacred Scriptures because they found, through experience and prayer, that these texts led them to God.  Nevertheless, neither the words of the great prophets, nor the revelatory events of Israel’s history are fully able to communicate the love of God. Full communication demands full communion: and so it was fitting that the Word of God, which had been spoken through the prophets, and was inscribed in the history of Israel, became flesh and dwelt among us. 

Jesus and the New Testament

In Jesus, God spoke of His love for humanity using the full range of human communication. Jesus revealed God’s love to us in who He was, what He said, and what He did - especially through his free choice to sacrifice Himself for our sake on the cross. Once again, then, we have the love of God communicated to us in words and deeds. This time, however, the love of God was revealed to mankind by a man: Jesus loves us as one of us. He loves us in a human way and so opens up the possibility of us loving Him in a human way. The coming of Jesus, the Word made flesh, opened up the possibility of a new kind of relationship with God whereby God makes His love known to us through the Sacred Humanity of Jesus.

Now it was the Apostles who were most fully immersed in this revelatory relationship with God through the Sacred Humanity of Jesus. It was the apostles who lived closest to Him and shared His life most intimately during his public ministry, and on the day of Pentecost it was the apostles who were filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Jesus commissioned these apostles to hand on to the four corners of the world what they had seen and heard so that the revelation of the Word made flesh might be received by every tribe and people and nation. Once the apostolic preaching mission was well under way the apostles and their associates, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, began to commit their preaching and teaching about Jesus to writing. These writings make up what we now call the ‘New Testament’.

Why did the early Church accept these New Testament writings as Sacred Scripture? Why does the Church continue to this day to trust that these writings are inspired by God? It seems to me that once again this interconnection of words and deeds is key. The New Testament emerged from an encounter with the Word made flesh, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Through prayer and meditation Christians have found that these texts lead back to an encounter with the same Risen Lord. Our trust in the Sacred Scriptures, then, is inseparably bound up with our faith in the Word made flesh who inspired these writings, and our confidence in His mystical Body the Church which draws its life from Christ’s bodily presence among us under Sacramental signs. We trust in the Sacred Scriptures because we recognise within their pages the voice of the Lord who is alive and dwelling amongst us: the Bible speaks to us of God and our relationship with God, and in its Truth Christians in every generation have found freedom.   

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