Sola Scriptura

St Anselm of Canterbury and Sola Scriptura

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St Anselm of Canterbury, the Magnificent Doctor

‘Therefore, just as at the beginning God marvellously, without cultivator or seeds, created grain and other terrestrial things to nourish people, so too he marvellously, without human learning, made the minds of prophets and apostles and, above all, the Gospels, rich with seeds for our salvation. These are the source of whatever we sow salutarily, in God’s husbandry, for the nourishment of our souls, just as what we cultivate for the nourishment of our bodies derives only from the original seeds of the earth.

‘In fact, we proclaim what is useful for the salvation of souls only what Sacred Scripture, made fecund by the marvellous activity of the Holy Spirit, has produced or contains in its womb. For if at times we assert by a process of reasoning a conclusion which we cannot explicitly cite from the sayings of Scripture or demonstrate from the bare wording, still it is by using Scripture that we know in the following way whether the affirmation should be accepted or rejected. If the conclusion is reached by straightforward reasoning and Scripture in no way contradicts it, then (since just as Scripture opposes no truth so too it abets no falsehood) by the very fact that it does not deny what is inferred on the basis of reason, that conclusion is accepted as authorised by Scripture. But if Scripture indubitably opposes our understanding, ever though our reasoning appears to us to be impregnable, still it ought not to be believed to be substantiated by any truth at all. It is when Sacred Scripture either clearly affirms or in no wise denies it, that it gives support to the authority of any reasoned conclusion.’

-De Concordia 3:6

 

Is St Anselm supporting some form of the protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura, over four centuries before Martin Luther? Sort of.

That’s not to say that this Roman Catholic Archbishop and Doctor of the Church didn’t acknowledge the authority of the Church’s magisterium (i.e. authoritative teaching) however. That the minds of prophets and apostles are the original seeds, seems to imply that that the fruit they bore produced the plants that nourish us now, which must surely be their legitimate successors. For St Anselm, that must have meant the Holy Catholic Church and his fellow bishops. So we can’t say Scripture was for him the sole authority, as Luther made it.

However, he does clearly consider the Scriptures alone to be sufficient to tell between all truth and falsehood, at least regarding ‘what is useful for the salvation of souls’. Everything we teach must either be straight from Scripture, or proceed from straightforward reasoning and not contradict the Scriptures. Simple enough. While every heresy must, however reasonable it may seem, contradict the Scriptures and so be rejected. Revelation must protect us against the horrific reasonableness of heresy, because what else could? Yes, the magisterium of the Church, but the magisterium always refers us back to the revelation given to us once and for all in Jesus Christ.

This is a point we need to be clear on: The Church, as the authoritative interpreter of the Scriptures, has no authority over the Scriptures. Interpretation has come to mean something dishonest in our times; we suppose the meaning is being distorted and lost; in our post-modern world, we’ve started to wonder if there are any “correct interpretations”. Yes, there are. If the Bible is the Word of God, then its meaning is what God means by it, not what I decide to make of it. No one cares what I think. The Church, then, is the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, simply because She is the one who hears God’s voice and listens. The Scriptures were spoken to the Church, the Beloved Bride of Christ, and therefore they are Hers to understand. The Word of God belongs to Her, precisely because She belongs to the Word; ‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’ [Sg 6:3].

Yes, the Scriptures are also written to me particularly, but to me within the Church. They are never my private possession. The faith is mine, because it is ours. It is mine, only because I am a living member of the Body of Christ, and my faith cannot contradict that of the Church. As I wrote in the past, your religion is mine, and mine is yours.

 

I hope and pray that all Christians can establish true unity with one another. ‘Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.’ Amen.

The River of Tradition

‘In protestantism, the believer is always looking to the fresh rain of the scriptures, but in Catholicism, the believer looks to the fresh rain of the scriptures, as well as the great torrents of the river of reflection and consideration by the saints upon those same scriptures, going back to their source in the incarnate Son of God. To take this analogy a step further, the puddle corrupts and muddies the water it receives far more than the fast flowing river.’

I wrote this in a post a couple years ago, and I just wanted to post it again on its own.

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God bless you!

How is Scripture to be read?/What is Scripture?

This question has kept on cropping up for me, whether I consider Catholic interactions with protestants, other faiths, or complete non-believers. A common issue in all such dialogues, is that they consider our Scriptures differently.

An easy example is a non-believer laughing at how, in the Genesis story, the character known as “God” doesn’t want us eating some random apple (which was actually the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”). But this is to read it as a mere story, when it is far, far more.

I think a large part of the blame lies with the protestant dogma of Sola Scriptura, saying that the Bible alone has authority. The basic issue with this is, that no interpretation of the Bible can then have authority, and without interpretation, the Bible literally means nothing. Of course, you can’t read the Bible without interpreting it, so they end up either abandoning any idea of certainty in belief, or only accepting the interpretation that seems to involve the least interpretation (though often this will be ignorant of the nature of what it is supposed to interpret). They must swing between liberalism and fundamentalism; between uncertainty and narrow-mindedness. There is no room for mysticism.

But Scripture is made to be interpreted! I’d go so far as to say that it’s made to have many (true) interpretations. The Scriptures are all, to varying degrees, art. At the time of writing, I believe the distinction had yet to be made between “mere art” and “mere fact”. Indeed, within a theistic universe, such a separation is incoherent! Truth cannot be separated from beauty, nor beauty from truth. All things are thoroughly a part of the whole, and all things must be understood in terms of each other.

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‘I have put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process.’

I believe Scripture is the inexhaustible artwork. The Church with one heart and mind has been meditating upon it for near 2,000 years, and is still finding new depths! You may have found some yourself. The works of Shakespeare or Van Goph or Tolkien or Mozart may move us deeply, reveal truths even the artist didn’t perceive, and even transform us, but each has its end. Even if it might seem inexhaustible to us, nothing but Scripture can be meditated upon by a whole society (the Church in this case) for millennia, and consistently surprise us with its depths.

Another way to put it, is that all artwork is a window into a mind. The craftsmanship of the artist determines how clear or opaque the glass will be, and the contents is everything of their mind they open to us. Its worth noting that the artists don’t know or understand everything in their minds, and so are often more profound than they know.

Scripture, then, is a window into the Mind of God. It is mediated through the minds of men, and so is also a window into the minds of its authors, and of the cultures they lived in. But thankfully, these are also God’s creation, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit their minds provided a special window in God’s Mind.

“The Mind of God”… What does this actually mean? I would equate it with the Wisdom of God, the Word of God, the divine Logos: Our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the complete and perfect revelation of God. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

All of Scripture serves primarily to reveal the person of the Son of God/Son of Mary. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, He is brought to us, even as by the same Holy Spirit He was incarnate of the Virgin. And by the exact same Holy Spirit, He is to be conceived in you and me.

So, how is Scripture supposed to be read? As a Christian. As a mystic. As personal encounter with God. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that the Word of God can be opened to us. It is only by the light of Christ that we see Christ.

There is no objective, “scientific” manner of interpreting the Scriptures as Scripture. Not even a little bit. Any doctrine gleaned in such a lifeless way, might or might not be correct… But either way, it will bring the reader no profit, no knowledge of the Truth. We should not read Scripture as a non-believer would (except for God’s grace intervening).

Theology must always be subject to mysticism. Every time this rule is refused, a heresy is born. How do we subject theology to mysticism? By always listening in humility for the Word of God, especially in His body, the Catholic Church. It is through the apostolic Church that Jesus desired to give Himself to the world, and it is there we must seek Him. The Church that is called to encounter God, is simultaneously called to be the encounter with God.

When we read the Scriptures, or do any theology, the only rule is to listen with humility to Jesus, wherever He is speaking to us. The powers of our intelligence are welcome, but they must sit at Jesus’ feet.

 

God bless you

The Continual Touch of Jesus

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‘The Church, like every family, passes on to her children the whole store of her memories. But how does this come about in a way that nothing is lost, but rather everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood? It is through the apostolic Tradition preserved in the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy a living contact with the foundational memory. What was handed down by the apostles — as the Second Vatican Council states — “comprises everything that serves to make the people of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes”.

‘Faith, in fact, needs a setting in which it can be witnessed to and communicated, a means which is suitable and proportionate to what is communicated. For transmitting a purely doctrinal content, an idea might suffice, or perhaps a book, or the repetition of a spoken message. But what is communicated in the Church, what is handed down in her living Tradition, is the new light born of an encounter with the true God, a light which touches us at the core of our being and engages our minds, wills and emotions, opening us to relationships lived in communion. There is a special means for passing down this fullness, a means capable of engaging the entire person, body and spirit, interior life and relationships with others. It is the sacraments, celebrated in the Church’s liturgy. The sacraments communicate an incarnate memory, linked to the times and places of our lives, linked to all our senses; in them the whole person is engaged as a member of a living subject and part of a network of communitarian relationships. While the sacraments are indeed sacraments of faith, it can also be said that faith itself possesses a sacramental structure. The awakening of faith is linked to the dawning of a new sacramental sense in our lives as human beings and as Christians, in which visible and material realities are seen to point beyond themselves to the mystery of the eternal.’
Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) n.40

The Church, with its magisterium and sacraments, doesn’t keep us at arms length from the revelation of Jesus Christ, but brings us into direct, personal contact with him!

The good news isn’t something to be read in the papers, analysed, discussed, accepted and set aside, but a person, our Lord Jesus Christ, to encounter in his fullness, more intimately than we encounter anyone else in the world. But more than two thousand years after his birth, how are we meant to encounter him? Is it only through speaking to him in prayer, and reading about him in the scriptures? No disrespect to prayer and Bible study, but wouldn’t this make him a bit of cell-phone-saviour? A saviour you’ve never met “in person”, but have spoken with long distance. Of course, long distance relationships are wonderful, but the dream is always to be closer, more intimately with our Beloved.

Thank God for His Church and His holy sacraments! By these means (and more), Jesus Christ is always readily present to us, to teach, guide, cleanse, heal, forgive, strengthen, nourish, enlighten, refresh, rejuvenate, correct, sustain, and redeem us. He has not left us orphans, but is with us always, even until the end. The resurrected Lord Jesus Christ is with us, body and blood, soul and divinity, at all times.

Sola scriptura is a bit like refusing to listen to the king’s ambassador, because you read his (authorised) biography, and he can call or write you himself. The king has an ambassador, because he wishes to have a personal, authorised, representative with you, so that you can know his thoughts on all matters. The ambassador has lived with the king his whole life, and was there from the beginning. The king’s ambassador does not distance you from the king, but reveals him to you more perfectly. As a matter of fact, the king’s ambassador is also his wife.

And to stay away from the sacraments is a bit like a person in love, preferring to just speak over the phone (and it is tough to listen and easy to get distracted while on the phone).

In our life in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we are members of the one believing subject, present throughout all of Christ’s mysteries. We are part of the body of believers, present throughout Jesus’ ministry, in the Upper Room at Pentecost, and who all of the epistles are addressed to. We are living in the realities of the Bible! As I wrote here, about my first time visiting mass,

I remember noticing, that I had a wonderful feeling throughout, after the fear passed, that I had only ever had while reading the Bible. It almost felt like I was in the Bible.

God bless you in abundance!

P.S. If you haven’t yet read Lumen Fidei, do. Here’s a link. It’s so good. I suspect it’s especially wonderful in part because it’s the product of not just one Pope, but two.

Is Christianity Knowable?

One of the main things that drove me from protestantism to Catholicism, was realising that within protestantism, I couldn’t really know about most areas of my religion. One day I could be sure an issue was settled, and the next day I would have seen an argument against my earlier position, and think the matter’s open, and within a few days my mind could completely change on an issue. And each time, I’d have to run about, looking into ancient languages, history, and literary styles, to support my new belief. Often, I was trying (with moderate success) to push my own ideas onto the Bible (I very nearly had a vegetarian Jesus at one point, but there was a pesky fish in the way…).

There could be arguments over what was scripture (“Paul never even met Jesus…”), what the scripture said (“the Hebrew word used, beit-nun-hei, was used to…), and how scripture should be read (“scripture came through men, and cannot be taken at face value”) [I can see the appeal of KJVonlyism]. I read good Christian books and theology, and found they kept referring me to a new “heart of Christianity”. It was when I heard about a Christian who believed we should still follow Jewish dietary laws that I got really fed up. Without hearing him out, I couldn’t dismiss him, as he was probably better informed on the matter than me. But I decided to anyway, because I was tired of being told I didn’t know my religion until I learned about ancient languages and history and the rest. I felt it was settled by St. Paul in the first century Anno Domini. I began to wonder if I had be a full-time scholar to know the “true” teachings of my own religion.

Sadly, these arguments aren’t confined to trivial matters. To this day, there are people arguing from the Bible against Christ’s divinity, God being the Trinity, who God loves, how we are saved, the way to read the Bible, the role of the law, the nature of sin, and much more. Today, protestantism still has to fight many of the heresies dealt with by the early Church. Protestantism is, naturally, in a worse state than the early Church was, because they have only the scriptures to refer to, and so each theologian must start again from the scriptures, whereas the early Church could also refer to the oral teachings of the apostles, and those given authority by the apostles.

As a result of this general uncertainty (and greater geographical mobility), you’ll find most protestants today will only call themselves Christian, and will avoid even calling themselves protestants (perhaps out of politeness also). Few are willing to associate with a denomination, since a better interpretation may come along, or they may move somewhere where that denomination is less to their worship taste. Exactly what constitutes a “Christian” is up for debate, and it’s accepted that on most matters, there is only opinion. As a result, churches only teach basic Christianity.

At the end of the day, the question remains unanswered, “Who is Jesus, and what exactly does he want?” Does he just want to save us, so we can sin as much as we like and still be saved? Does he want to threaten everyone with eternal torture so they obey his blood-thirsty Father? Does he want us to start a revolution? Does he want us to not judge others? Does he want us to follow him even to death? Does he want us to eat his body and drink his blood, and so enter into mystical union with him? Does he want us to be saved for doing good to the needy?

The Solution

Catholicism. Catholic teaching is known, and does not change. The Catholic Church has an immense, two thousand year old intellectual tradition, reasoning through everything thoroughly, and yet, the Catholic faith can be reasonably accepted by illiterate peasants as well as the finest scholars, because it is from the Church that Jesus founded.

The Catholic Church doesn’t struggle with the old heresies anymore, because they were definitively settled more than a millennium ago. The arguments were laid to rest, and we’re done with the matter. That’s not to say there are none left. There are always new heresies, but they’re being dealt with too.

The Church has come a long way since she was the early Church, and has remembered and passed on all of the teachings of the apostles, and ‘treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart’ (Lk 2:19). Indeed, the Church has internalised the understandings of those who originally wrote and received the scriptures, so that the Church’s teachings are naturally the teachings of the scriptures in their proper context. That’s not to say that the Church isn’t looking back to the scriptures though.

In protestantism, the believer is always looking to the fresh rain of the scriptures, but in Catholicism, the believer looks to the fresh rain of the scriptures, as well as the great torrents of the river of reflection and consideration by the saints upon those same scriptures, going back to their source in the incarnate Son of God. To take this analogy a step further, the puddle corrupts and muddies the water it receives far more than the fast flowing river.

‘Hold firmly that our faith is identical with that of the ancients. Deny this, and you dissolve the unity of the Church.’
St. Thomas Aquinas

Ultimately, the reason I became a Catholic is because I had come to believe that the Catholic Church really knew Jesus. I looked at her teachings, practices, and attitudes (particularly towards poverty and suffering), and I looked at the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, and found she was living in radical continuity with Jesus and the apostles. Catholicism was the real deal. And since the Church really knew Jesus, she really knew his teaching.

God bless you.