Understanding the Bible Series:
Sacred Scripture and Tradition - Part 1
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In order to appreciate the reason why were going into this course, we should,
we should read and reflect on the 13th Chapter of Matthews Gospel.
Remember it is the parable of the Sower who went out to sow his seed. The seed
fell on different kinds of ground. The first ground that the seed fell on as
Im sure you remember was the pathway. And when Christ went on to explain the
meaning of the parable He said that the seed that fell along the pathway was
the seed of the Word of God that enters peoples minds but like the seed on
the pathway which is picked up by the birds of the air and produces therefore
no fruit so those who receive the Word of God but do not understand it, the
evil spirit comes along and steals the Word of God from their hearts. In one
declarative sentence I think this is the main reason for the most serious crisis
in two thousand years of Christianity, we are going through now.
Never in the history of the Church has there been such devastating consequence
to people not understanding their faith. And the problem of course is largely,
if not caused by, at least aggravated by the fact that so many of the countries,
especially in the western world are in our day more educated, more academically
sophisticated than ever before. The annual average in the United States is
five million students on college and university campuses every year. Five million.
What happens? Along with the academic education that hundreds of millions have
now received the media, social communication are further shall we say educating
human minds, pouring all kinds of ideas into peoples intellects. But that
same mind that becomes so sophisticated, so academically educated in everything
in this world, unless that same mind correspondingly grows in its understanding
of the revealed Word of God, the inevitable happens, by the time children even
finish grammar school. Parents tell me, they may still go to Mass with their
parents, they may even still go to the sacraments if their parents keep a watchful
eye. Ive talked to too many, now adult, Catholics who told me they lost their
faith, they ceased to believe by the time either began high school or began
college or at least by the time they finished their college work. The mind
tells itself, dont be a child, youre an educated man or woman. And they
are, but educated in what? Educated in everything from enzymes to zoology.
They know so much about so many things and the same mind that can be so intelligent
and so penetratingly understanding of the world in which we live can be a babbling
infant when it comes to understanding the faith.
I sincerely believe the main reason, to summarize and even repeat myself, the
main reason for the horrendous crisis in the Catholic Church today is the ignorance
of their faith and I begin with priests and religious and you might almost say
inevitably, the laity. Needless to say, thats why Im here. To provide you
people with at least some deeper understanding of your faith. It is now come
to a point where if a person is deeply religious that person is psychologically
suspect of being a fanatic. And I know enough lawyers, including the woman
lawyer that could not make it to class today, but she will be here next class.
The state regularly gives divorces if a husband or the wife is well, fanatical
about religion. And all of that is good psychology. I think Ive told you,
for Sigmund Freud, any one who believes in a life after death and believes that
by patiently enduring life and carrying of the cross here on earth there will
be a heavenly eternity awaiting that person as a reward, Sigmund Freud says
that is psychosis. Sometimes I begin a lecture, my dear fellow psychotics.
Back to our subject. People can have memorized large sections of the Bible,
they can know a great deal about the Bible and be literally ignoramuses when
it comes to understanding of the Bible. This then is the purpose of this course.
I. Why is it Important For Us to Understand the Bible?
Then I go on and I give no less than six reasons, pardon me, five reasons.
First, it is important to understand Sacred Scripture? Because Sacred Scriptures,
plural are Divine Revelation. They are the revealed Word of God. When God
speaks we are to listen. In fact, that is what Revelation is, God speaking
to us, if we listen we have faith. Over the years in teaching my own Jesuits
both Divine Revelation and Sacred Scripture, this is where we begin. Divine
Revelation is God speaking. Faith is man listening. But notice when we say
that Sacred Scriptures are Divine Revelation, wed better know what that word
revelation means. To reveal means to disclose from the Latin re, velare,
velare to cover with a veil, revelare to unveil. Revelation properly
so called is God unveiling the truth of what God knows and except for His having
disclosed or revealed we would not know. However immediately this is the, might
say, the bottomline that has to be somehow understood before we go more deeply
into what we are talking about in this course.
God from all eternity has been engaged in conversation. Remember God is not
a single individual, God is a society. So true is this that in our own very
pedestrian human vocabulary we speak of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity
as being the Word of God. The Three Persons have been, to use a very poor human
language, have been engaged in conversation from all eternity. However, once
God created the human race from the moment the human race came into being God
began to speak to human beings. And the early chapters of Genesis are
just telling us how God engaged in conversation with our first parents. However,
we must immediately distinguish and without this we get nowhere, immediately
distinguish two ways in which God speaks to human beings. He speaks naturally
and He speaks supernaturally. How does God speak to human beings naturally?
Well the very word tells us, through the nature that we have and that the world
around us possesses. And He speaks to us through our own native or natural
intellect. And that is, though we dont normally use the language, that is
what we call natural revelation. God revealing, disclosing Himself through
the world in which we live and with the mind that we all possess. And this
natural revelation is the foundation for the supernatural revelation and even
people who have no faith in Gods revealing Himself supernaturally are nevertheless
bound to learn all they can about God and follow all the divine precepts which
are noble from reason alone from nature alone but this is not the object of
our reflections in this course.
Now God speaks supernaturally in two ways. First, what does it mean to say
God speaks supernaturally? He speaks in a way, which is not, well, natural.
A good synonym for supernatural revelation is miraculous revelation. God miraculously,
which means above or beyond the forces of nature, thats what a miracle is.
Whatever God does that surpasses the powers of nature, the standard definition
of a miracle. God supernaturally, call it miraculously, has enlightened certain
people to know what they could never know by their own native powers. He tells
them what He wants them both to know themselves and to communicate to others.
And that then is the first and primary meaning of supernatural revelation.
Certain chosen people over the centuries and it began with our first parents
and we hold that revelation continued for centuries, millennia up to and including,
but ending with the end of what we call the Apostolic Age, the death of St.
John the Apostle, about 100 A.D. Thus our first parents received Divine Revelation.
God enlightened them to know what they would not have known except for Gods
special supernatural illumination.
Then the ancient patriarchsespecially the three principle patriarch, Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob, then the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel. So supernatural
revelation is that communication from God through chosen human beings. But
then we must immediately subdivide. And this subdivision is what makes us distinctively
Catholic, not to see this distinction is not to really know what a Catholic
is and Im afraid many Catholics dont know. Thats why, and by the one
of my Jesuit confreres from Columbia, South America, but pastor of a parish,
Hispanic parish in Chicago, he tells me, The great sorrow in my work with the
Hispanics is that we have so few resources, so few people who are zealous enough
to well teach the Hispanics their faith, be kind to them be friendly to them,
whereas the Protestants are in constant competition with us. And the figure
he gave me, he said, We lose in the United States about 700 thousand Hispanics
a year, not every year, sometimes more, sometimes less. Romes figures are
that over 40 million Hispanics who had been Catholics are now zealous and often
strongly anti-Catholic zealots.
Back to ourselves, it is here that we Catholics are Catholic in the most fundamental
sense of the word. We believe that Gods supernatural revelation has been communicated
to the human race in two different ways. Through Sacred Tradition and through
Sacred Scripture. That during the millennia before the time of Christ and during
the first century of the Christian era God did choose men and women as the channels
of His wisdom to the human race. But He chose them in two different ways.
Some, some of these chosen persons could be both the channels of grace for Sacred
Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Others for Scripture only and not Tradition.
Others again for Sacred Tradition and not Sacred Scripture. Name one person
in the New Testament who is a channel of Gods Revelation but only in what we
call Sacred Tradition. Name one person. The most important person who ever
lived. Christ left us nothing in writing. And His mother, Mary, left nothing
in writing. I cannot tell you how crucially important this is. Especially
in our, what shall I call it, word intoxicated age. Weve come even, can you
imagine, weve even come to identify intelligence with literacy, what madness.
Ive said this before but I like to keep repeating it, the most dangerous people
on earth are educated ignoramuses. And there are plenty whove read shelves
of books, fill libraries and they are stupid. Intelligence has nothing to do
with literacy, zero. Christ then, as we believe, not only gave us Gods revealed
Word, He was Gods revealed Word. Back again to the supernatural revelation.
In both cases it is God speaking to human beings and speaking in a supernatural
way, meaning He is communicating His knowledge, as we say, miraculously; infusing
and enlightening the human mind in a way the mind could never have been enlightened
by its native powers. Now this knowledge God may intend, this knowledge God
may intend to be written and written by the very person who received the knowledge
and then we have what we call inspired writingSacred Scripture. Or/and God
has revealed Himself without inspiring the ones who received the knowledge to
be also inspired to write what they have learned and that then is Sacred Tradition.
We ask ourselves how can God communicate His wisdom through human beings if
they dont write anything? Oh thats simple. What does God do? God enlightens
people, reveals Himself to people without t he corresponding inspiration to
write but He inspires these people to reveal Gods Word to them. How? By how
they live and what they say. And that in one sentence then is Sacred Tradition
without dwelling on this huge subject. God reveals Himself through Sacred Tradition
in the persons whom He enlightens to live according to His mind and will and
to speak, according, again, to His mind and will.
Having said all of that, now we concentrate, and this is still number one on
Sacred Scripture. In Sacred Scripture without going into too much detail now,
this is, Im meaning this to be preliminary for the course that we are taking.
In Sacred Scripture God inspires certain people in two ways. He inspires them
with whats on His mind so it can also be in their minds. And secondly, He
inspires these people to then want to put in writing what God has enlightened
them to know. And what they then write, is first and primarily the Word of
God. The primary author of the Bible is not the human author. However the
human author is not a mere I dont mean this negatively, a mere secretary.
In other words, God enlightens the people to know what He wants them to learn
but then He guides their minds and their wills in such a way that what God wants
to be written is written but without in any way denying or excluding the human
qualities and even human limitations of the human author except for one limitation,
whatever God inspires the human authors to write He makes sure that what they
say is always the truth. Whatever words they choose, for example, for St.
John, when under divine inspiration he wrote his Gospel and spoke from beginning
to end about life. And had Christ Himself, remember, I Am the Way, the Truth
and the Life. John was protected from using any other except one word in Greek.
And there are about five standard words in Greek for life. But only one word
means, that life, which in the Greek vocabulary before Christianity was the
life of the gods, spelled z-o-e, zoe. So God therefore made sure not
only that what He, God wanted to express but was expressed in the very words
that God made sure the sacred writer would use. And over the years especially
in teaching Scripture or in teaching Divine Revelation Ive told my students,
God made sure, first of all, that there was a language with a vocabulary so
the Bible could be written. Thats where the alphabet was discovered, in the
Mideast. For thousands of years, we dont know how many, the human race did
not have an alphabet. The one billion or more people in China still dont have
an alphabet. So God, therefore made sure, first of all, there was a vocabulary
so that words could be written. And then God waited two thousand years, of
course He planned everything and made sure there was a Socrates and a Plato,
an Aristotle and a Herodotus and Phocylides the great writers of the Greek world
before Christ to produce the most perfect language ever spoken by man. Whats
that? Greek, first century Greek. So that then God in inspiring the writer
would have a rich vocabulary to choose from. All of this goes into this what
we call supernatural revelation.
If then, to summarize, if then the one who communicates Gods revealed word
is inspired both by God to know what it should communicate, then is further
inspired by God to communicate as God wants that person to communicate, I repeat
down, down to the last syllable, then that communication of revealed truth we
call Sacred Scripture.
Finally number 2.
II.Why is it Important to Understand the Bible?
Sacred Scriptures are a mainstay of our knowledge of God. In other words,
in fact I think I should remove a mainstay, it is the mainstay of our
knowledge of God. The three things we learn about God from the bibleWho God
is, What God wants, and how we are to please Him.
1. Who is God?
God is the One Who loved us so much He became a child. Over the years Ive
been asked whether the young Christ child ever cried. On theological grounds
Im not sure, but I think He did. If He wept at the grave of Lazarus, we may
assume He would also cry as an infant. So, Who God Is, and that is the most
important thing we need to know in life, who is God.
2. What God Wants?
What a difference, a person can learn so much about who God is but forgets
that God has a will and just for the record. God has two forms from our perspective
of will. God has a necessary will and God has a free will. What is Gods necessary
will? Gods necessary will is a will that God as the Holy Trinity possesses.
The three Persons of the Holy Trinity exercise no choice, no freedom, in say,
the mutual love of one another. Everything within the Trinity is always done
necessarily. The First Person, say, we believe from all eternity has been generating
the Second Person. Now thats enough, Ive been generating for millennia,
no more. Except that I am saying it in class that would be blasphemy. Everything
within the Trinity is utterly, absolutely necessary. When we say that God is
an necessary Being we mean as you know not only, that God is necessary not only
to make sense of this world, theres no way we can make sense of the world without
God. But God is necessary because He cannot not exist, there must be a God.
But God is further necessary, as were just saying, everything within the Godhead
is utter, absolute, infinite necessity. However, and thank God for this howeverdid
the world always exist? Did the world always exist? So Gods necessary will
is necessary by definition and God need not have, otherwise we would be contradicting
His nature, God need not have created any being outside of Himself. To know
that is to know the first most fundamental truth of our faith. Nothing, nothing
except God must exist. Whatever else exists, and we dont have to believe it,
we know it, I dont have to make an act of faith that I exist, I know it. But
I have to make an act of faith to believe that I dont have to exist. Only
God need exist. Why then does God exist? Because He uses free will in exercising
His love toward beings who did not yet exist. And that is the fundamental reason
why contraception is such a grave sin. This coming October 7th,
first time weve tried this, our pro-life organization, Eternal Life in chosen
cities in the country will have a telephone arrangement, Im to give a lecture
in Detroit, in different cities my voice will be amplified, I will be giving
a lecture to as many cities will buy into the system and the benefactor behind
this lecture wanted me to speak on contraception. He chose some subjects, I
chose some. Heres what Im going to speak on at 7:30 Eastern Standard Time,
October 7th, 7:30 p.m. On Contraception and Eternal Death, Contraception
and Eternal Death, sponsored by Eternal Life. This is not a clever phrase,
believe me. So what God wants. He wants us to use our free will to, well,
conform with His will. The main reason we have a mind is to find out what does
God wantmain reason for having a mind. Then knowing what God wants we have
a will. Whats the main reason for having a will? To do what we know God wants
us to do.
Copyright © 2005 Institute on Religious Life
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon
gave to the Institute on Religious Life
Institute on Religious Life, Inc.
PO. Box 410007
Chicago, Illinois 60641