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Understanding the Bible Series:
Importance of Understanding the Bible - Part 2

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

(PART II, continued)

So the Scriptures tell us what we know about God, need to know Who God is, what He wants. And this needless to say, is the hard part of Sacred Scripture, as you will see before this course is over. Oh what learned discourses can be made on the Bible but the bottom line is what does God in the Bible tell us He wants us to do? Then once we know what He wants us to do, another hard part, then to do it. So much for number two. Who God is, what He wants and how we are to please Him. But watch this, between two and three the Bible tells us not only what God wants us to do, under pain of sin, the Scriptures also tell us what God would, would want us to do, what would please God even though we would not commit a sin if we did not do it.

I came back from Washington at 11:00 last night, I worked till 12:30 this morning to prepare class, I got up early enough to spend three hours in preparation and I don’t believe that my coming to Ann Arbor is binding for me under sin. And I trust you can say the same about yourselves, thanks for coming in this inclement weather. I said a prayer, ‘Lord I hope somebody shows up’. Thanks for coming.

III. Why is it Important to Understand the Bible?

We’re asking ourselves, not even taking a pause, we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why is it important for us to understand the Bible?’ But I repeat, not to understand about the Bible, but to know the Bible; what God has revealed.

The Scriptures are a/the mainstay for our worship of God. Through the Bible we see that God wants us to adore Him, thank Him, beg for His mercy and ask Him for what we need. If there’s one thing that stands out from the first to the last book of the Bible it is the need we have to pray. So much so that based on our knowledge of Scripture we can say for certain who is going to heaven and who will go to hell, infallible certitude. Those will who go to heaven, who pray, those who are going to go to hell who don’t pray. As I told the atheist, Dr. Paul Van Buren, remember, when I debated with him at the University of Michigan here in Ann Arbor, “Dr. Van Buren, you don’t have to believe me, because you don’t believe in God but I believe. Unless you believe in God and therefore pray”, you don’t pray unless you believe in God, “Dr Paul Van Buren”, I told the whole audience “you’re not going to go to heaven you’re going to go to hell.” I didn’t have to use any profanity just some simple theology. Remember Pascal, French philosopher’s famous wager, ‘all right, all right there are people who have all kinds of arguments against the existence of God but says Pascal, it isn’t good logic suppose, just suppose, at least you can say this, there might be a God, would you admit that?’ ‘Yes, there might be a God.’ ‘Well, my friend if then there is a God and there is a heaven and a hell, it’s not even, well, smart gambling.’ That doesn’t mean that we are to just pray to a God who might exist but it does not make sense to be a professed atheist and above all not to pray because the Bible from beginning to end insists, is what God mainly wants from His creatures. Our principle responsibility as rational beings is to pray.

IV. Sacred Scripture Provides Us with the Mysteries that We are to Grow in Understanding Through Prayer and Putting into Practice What We Believe

Even as I look at this lineup of the classes we’ve got, 1-4-7-9 classes, I think to myself, “Oh no, nine classes on Sacred Scripture”. The least that any approved seminary, Catholic seminary in the world, may give, the least, is four semesters on Sacred Scripture, that’s the least. There’s no way we can possibly, I don’t say cover everything there is to be known about Scriptures but my hope is to at least share with you certain bedrock principles in understanding the Bible that we need. And here it is to know that the Scriptures contain revealed mysteries.

And here this supernatural revelation—What God has supernaturally, call it miraculously communicated to the human race in the two ways that we described. Contains, the content of this revelation both in Sacred Tradition and for our purpose in Sacred Scripture, the contents is bifocal. So supernatural revelation contains strict mysteries and what they call naturally knowable truths. In the Bible therefore we find many things that the human mind could and indeed should know even apart from its being supernaturally revealed by God.

The Existence of God

God can be known from reason alone. The basic obligations of the Ten Commandments, we are told not to lie. Stands to reason society would be impossible unless we trusted people when they speak to us. If I couldn’t trust what another person telling me that it is the truth, in other words, that the person’s speech corresponds with the mind why bother listening to anybody. And if I know that I don’t want others to lie to me my reason tells me I should not lie to others.

Now the Old Testament contains a great deal of what we call naturally knowable truths, like for example, that there is only one God, life of polytheism all around the Jewish people. The New Testament also, but less so, the New Testament is mainly God revealing not naturally knowable truths but what we call strict mysteries. When then in the Scriptures we find, and it’s especially the New Testament, when we find what are called strict mysteries, what do we mean? We mean those truths revealed by God that are rationally inconceivable before revelation, rationally inconceivable before revelation; and rationally incomprehensible after revelation. These words are just bedrock Catholic theology. A strict mystery, and the New Testament is filled with strict mysteries, a strict mystery is a revealed truth/truths rationally inconceivable before revelation and rationally incomprehensible after revelation. Name a few strict mysteries. Well, the basic strict mystery is the Holy Trinity. There’s only One God but three Individuals. God is three individual Persons, He’s Infinite but there are not three gods. What’s a strict mystery? That God became Man, spoke with human lips, ate our food, breathed our air, slept, how I like this, and got tired, thanks Lord. It’s a strict mystery of how that Man, how we can say that Child in Mary’s arms on Christmas morning was a Creator. And is therefore rationally inconceivable before being revealed, and once being revealed you can know something about it but you cannot know everything about it which is the theological definition of comprehension. Comprehension means full understanding. That is why as I tell people, heaven must be eternal, it will take that long to learn all there is about God, it will just go on and on and on and we’ll never get bored. So there are strict mysteries and we’ll find them as we’ll see in Sacred Scripture.

Oh let me give you one more, oh I hope you’ll appreciate this, and that’s the next course, Christian marriage is a strict mystery. That’s good theology. Rationally inconceivable before, before revelation, and as so many husbands and wives have told me, and rationally incomprehensible. We can laugh can’t we, because we have the faith. Without faith in the Christ Who unites these two people, that He the living God gives them, two selfish human beings, that kind of love, that they would even, I don’t say, live with one another, even stand one another. I don’t say for a week or a month or six months but a whole lifetime. More of that on the next course.

V. Sacred Scripture Gives Language of Prayer

The Sacred Scriptures gives us much of the language of our prayer. The Psalms alone are an ocean of prayer of praise of the divine majesty. So much of our prayer is even literally the words of the scriptures, the sentiments, the words and that for the best of reasons because the most important and I wish to repeat and thus emphasize, our most important responsibility on earth is to pray. And pray not just by vocalizing words and being still in the posture of prayer, the essence of prayer is the submission of the will to God. And good theology, you are praying by being here and I trust I’m praying by speaking to you. It’s our wills submitting themselves to the will of God, that is the essence of prayer.

VI. Sacred Scripture in Both the Old and New Testaments is the Revelation of Jesus Christ

Sacred Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments, and I use the word ‘in’, I could have said ‘are’, I want to emphasize however the singular noun, is the revelation of Jesus Christ. In other words, Christ is indeed the Word of God, or if we wish, the enfleshment of God. That’s what incarnare means, to enflesh. Christ is the Incarnation of God. But Christ is enfleshed not only in His human body but also in the human words that God used to manifest Himself to the world in Sacred Scriptures. And this theme, by the way, runs very deep in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for which by the way I’m signing a contract to finish a handbook on the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be finished by the end of this year, in only a hundred thousand words. The one thing that I want to bring out in the handbook, this Catechism brings out in a way that for over four centuries, we Catholics have not realized it, or maybe did not know it but because of such preoccupation with the Scriptures by those whom we call Protestants, that Catholics have in some ways shied away from the Bible and have not as deeply penetrated into the meaning of the Bible as say, our fore bearers did before the so-called Protestant Reformation. The Bible is the word of God and therefore, lowercase the word ‘word’ but it is the enfleshment of God in human, call it bodily language which we can read with our eyes. In other words, God is revealing Himself in Sacred Scripture but watch it, that ‘is revealing Himself’ is not just a piece of rhetoric, it is not only the Bible was written or was revealed, sure the Sacred Scriptures were revealed to the inspired writers so they would write what God wanted them to write, but every time we use our bodily eyes to read that bodily perceptible word found in Sacred Scripture. This is what Christ meant when He said I will send you, remember, the Holy Spirit who will enlighten you. And we sure need enlightenment because the words of the Bible are not just words of another book it is God Who Is, and watch this, is, present tense, is revealing Himself. And depending on the faith with which we read the Scriptures, there’s no such thing as say, a needless rereading of Scripture. Every time we read we get more light and more light so much so that Thomas Aquinas had, what shall I call it, the nerve, the audacity to say, the Scriptures are quasi sacramentum octavum, like an eighth sacrament. By definition a sacrament gives grace just by being received. So the Scriptures give grace just by being read. You read the Sacred Scriptures and Christ Himself assures us His Holy Spirit will enlighten us. Read it again, He enlightens us again. And as St. Ignatius tells us and tells us to tell others so I’m telling you, never do speed reading of the Bible. Give the Holy Spirit a chance, don’t rush Him. Let me read what I’ve got here, no wonder St. Jerome declared that, I quote, “To be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ.” And that includes the Old Testament so much so that I’m afraid many people are at least wondering if not scandalized, ‘oh no all this Old Testament, first reading the Book of Baruch I didn’t even know there was a Baruch’ and now we find it in the reading at Mass. Every thing that God has revealed in the Scriptures is all, so our faith tells us, about Jesus Christ. In other words, either by anticipation, or by narration, or by recollection, or by constant inspiration about Jesus Christ.

  • What is the Bible?

  • What is Sacred Scripture and how does it differ from Sacred Tradition?

  • And what is the role of the Church in the preservation, interpretation and application of the Bible or Sacred Scripture to our daily lives.

What I will do just briefly in the next few minutes is say a word about each of these three categories.

What is the Bible?

I thought I’d be safe and just quote from the modern Catholic Dictionary. What is the bible?

The Bible is the collection of books accepted now by Christian churches, inspired, as an inspired record of revelations made to mankind by God about Himself and His will for men.

And even though the feminists went over the manuscript I’m so pleased to see, either they left the word man or had to change it back to man. Let me tell you, in going over the translation of Cardinal Law, which you know the Holy Father did not accept, of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I cannot tell you what happens to the faith once you remove the masculine gender where the, imagine the Holy Spirit inspired the evangelists to use the masculine gender, and we now in the enlightened 20th century are going to improve on the Holy Spirit.

So what is the Bible? As we will, the whole Christian world does not agree on what belongs to the Bible. And just for the record, the text of the bible used by Cardinal Law and his translators is the Episcopalian bible, the Revised Standard Version, we trust Catholicized. Nevertheless, it is the text translation used by the British and more specifically by the Anglican Communion.

In general, therefore, the Bible is, what those who call themselves Christian, believe God has inspired certain people to write in such a way that God is the Author of what we call the Bible. And as you know the word bible literally means, the book, the book. And we must say God provided for the invention of printing and beyond that, the invention of writing anticipating that the Bible would be written. He wanted to make sure that what He said would be in written form.

How Does Sacred Scripture Differ From Sacred Tradition?

We’ve talked about this just to isolate it. In general therefore God reveals Himself in two ways, through inspired persons and that is Sacred Tradition, through inspired writings and that is Sacred Scripture. In other words, Sacred Tradition is what we learn about God and His will from persons, not through what they wrote but how they lived and what they said and the two most important persons in human history who are the principle channels of God’s revelation through Sacred Scripture are Jesus and Mary, neither one of whom wrote anything that we call Sacred Scripture. But surely their lives and their words are a source of divine revelation to the human race until the end of time.

And finally we ask,

What is the Role of the Church in the Preservation, Interpretation and Application of the Sacred Scriptures to Our Daily Lives?

In one word, that role is indispensable. As I told my confreres in the faculty at Lutheran School of Theology, where I taught for seven years, they would argue, “you Catholics always, ‘the Church says this, the Church says that’, we have the bible”. So I’d ask them, “Where’d you get the bible?” “From the Holy Spirit.” “Thanks, how do you know what belongs to the bible?” “What do you mean?” And I’m sure I’ve said this to some of you already, “how many gospels?” They were insulted, “How many gospels? Four gospels.” “How many gospels were originally written?” “Four” They did not know, honestly, these are doctors in theology. So I ticked off about 10 names of the 25 gospels that existed in the early Church, somebody had to decide which are the four genuine gospels. My problem, when I, don’t say, debate, when I dialogue with Protestants is to practice Christian charity.

We’ll take a fifteen minute break. How about a Latin break? In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto sicut erat in principio, et

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

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