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Sacred Scripture

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Understanding the Bible Series:
Sacred Scripture and Tradition - Part 1

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

In order to appreciate the reason why we’re going into this course, we should, we should read and reflect on the 13th Chapter of Matthew’s 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 I’m 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 people’s 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 people’s 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. I’ve 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, ‘don’t be a child, you’re 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, that’s why I’m 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 I’ve 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, we’d 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 don’t 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 God’s 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, that’s 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 God’s special supernatural illumination.

Then the ancient patriarchs—especially 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 I’m afraid many Catholics don’t know. That’s 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.” Rome’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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. We’ve come even, can you imagine, we’ve even come to identify intelligence with literacy, what madness. I’ve said this before but I like to keep repeating it, the most dangerous people on earth are educated ignoramuses. And there are plenty who’ve 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 God’s revealed Word, He was God’s 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 writing—Sacred 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 don’t write anything? Oh that’s 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 God’s 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, I’m 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 what’s 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 don’t 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 I’ve told my students, God made sure, first of all, that there was a language with a vocabulary so the Bible could be written. That’s where the alphabet was discovered, in the Mideast. For thousands of years, we don’t know how many, the human race did not have an alphabet. The one billion or more people in China still don’t 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. What’s 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 God’s 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 bible—Who 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 I’ve been asked whether the young Christ child ever cried. On theological grounds I’m 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 God’s necessary will? God’s 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 that’s enough, I’ve 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, there’s 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 we’re just saying, everything within the Godhead is utter, absolute, infinite necessity. However, and thank God for this however—did the world always exist? Did the world always exist? So God’s 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 don’t have to believe it, we know it, I don’t 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 don’t 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 we’ve tried this, our pro-life organization, Eternal Life in chosen cities in the country will have a telephone arrangement, I’m 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. Here’s what I’m 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 want—main reason for having a mind. Then knowing what God wants we have a will. What’s 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

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