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Sacred Scripture As Nourishment for the Christian Faith
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It is an open secret to all of us that although the Bible has always had an honored position in the Catholic Church nevertheless, since the Second Vatican Council, there has begun what can only be described as a Biblical renaissance in Catholic Christianity; and we are just at its first streaks of dawn.
Let me paraphrase what the Council tells us about the Bible as a context for the topic "Sacred Scripture as Nourishment for the Christian Faith". It is a challenge. The Council tells us that the Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the Eucharistic Body of the Lord. Why so? Because especially in the Sacred Liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful two kinds of Bread of Life, one from the table of God's Word, and the other from the table of Christ's Body.
We might reread and perhaps rediscover how, in the sixth chapter of Saint John's Gospel, Jesus speaks of Himself as the Bread of Life in two senses: He is our food for the faith, and He is our food in the Eucharist. The Church has always held that the Sacred Scriptures, together with Tradition, are the supreme rule of faith because they are inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing. That "once and for all" is not a passing phrase.
They consequently impart the Word of God without change. They make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound today in the words of the prophets and the apostles. They spoke then, but in the eternal today of God's intention, they were meant to be heard now. We should, therefore, honor and use the Scriptures with the highest reverence because in them the Father Who is in Heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them. Let us always keep the Biblical Word of God and the Eucharistic Word of God co-related; they form one sacred deposit of the Word of God committed to the Church.
What is the particular influence of the Word of God expressed in human language? The force and power contained in the Biblical Word of God is so great that it stands as the support and source of energy for the Church; the strength of faith for her children; food of the soul; and (as we are now especially considering), quoting the Vatican Council, "the pure and permanent source of the spiritual life."
With these unmistakable recommendations of the Bible, is it any wonder that we should want to learn all we can about the Scriptures and want to make them our own as much as possible? If they are the pure and permanent source of the spiritual life, who would not wish to have easy access to the treasures they contain in order to nourish his spiritual life? All of this has been propaedeutic.
My purpose in this chapter will be to do just two things: First of all, to briefly explain that the Old and New Testaments are not two Bibles, one archaic and the other current, but one revelation; and then to comment on the fact that the Bible is not only, though certainly, a source of instruction, but it is also a principal fount of our religious inspiration.
As Christians we naturally come to separate the Bible into two parts, one which we call new and the other - coining a word - we call old. This is legitimate in the sense that there was a period before which Christ was physically conceived and born. And there is, of course, the period since, corresponding then to B.C. (before Christ) and the other A.D. (anno Domini, the year of the Lord). I don't know why we shifted languages:
But the better we understand the Bible, the clearer it becomes that the Scriptures are one single continuum. They are one revelation from the same Holy Spirit Who is, because He is God, timeless. He has insights, into God's Being, His providence and His expectations of man that cannot and should not be dated. We do not date God. When He speaks, He speaks as the Eternal One.
Thus the call of Abraham, the Exodus, the Decalogue, the Psalms, and the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah are no less meaningful today than they were when the events took place or when the words were spoken or written. In fact they should be more meaningful and pertinent now, provided we change our perspective, that though they were written then, they were meant for all times, because since the Exodus, the Decalogue, the Psalms and the great prophets, there has been an unfolding in salvation history. And as a consequence, we can now better understand what the psalmist meant or the prophets foretold when they wrote or prophesied, because although it was meant to be something which was revealed once, it can be better and ever more clearly and deeply understood. You see, this is not the word of man - this is the Word of God.
The correct Catholic understanding of the two Testaments is that they complement one another. If we more frequently think of the New as complementing the Old, it is equally true the other way around. For example, Matthew simply assumed that what we call the Old Testament was perfectly understood. Again, these two Testaments interpret one another and together they form one great revelation of God to man, spelling out in written form what God wants the human race to know, respect and respond to, until the end of time.
Therefore, as we begin to reflect on the Old Testament and ask God to enlighten us, we see that the events are patterns, as it were, of our own spiritual journey. Years ago, I read in Augustine that there is in the life of all of us, in greater or lesser measure, a "being sold to the Egyptians into slavery". There is a "Joseph" too, about all of us and so, far from looking upon this being sold into slavery to the Egyptians as something bad, we should rather look upon it as a great opportunity: What we tend to see as a misfortune, God (provided we think His thoughts) intends to be the source of our greatest grace. How many times I have comforted myself with that thought during my various "enslavements in Egypt":
As we now know from the unfolding of what happened, the providence of God is clearly seen. Had there been no Joseph in Egypt, if the famine had not occurred, Joseph's father and brothers would not have gone to Egypt and would not have been, as Joseph had been before them, enslaved by the Egyptians. The brothers sold Joseph, but in time all the family of his father Jacob was enslaved too. That also is a lesson.
In fact, there is plot upon plot upon plot which speaks to our lives, once we see that in the so-called Old Testament God's Word is as new as this morning! To go on. Finding themselves in Egypt as slaves, Yahweh sent them a deliverer. Had there been no Joseph and no slavery among the Egyptians, there would not have been a need for a Moses; no Moses and there would not have been a deliverance; no deliverance, and there would have been no Exodus; no Exodus, and there would have been no Sinai, with God's great Covenant: "I have delivered you from the slavery of the Egyptians. Now I want you, as your Deliverer, to serve Me." Then, there would have been no Promised Land.
And we could go on and on. Do you see how this Old Testament is a paradigm for now? All of this points up to the fact that God wants the whole of the Scriptures to remain as a permanent record of God's revelation to the whole human race - that is why He made sure it was in writing.
But besides being a unitary revelation, this Biblical God's-speaking-to-us is not only to be for our instruction, but also for our inspiration. Let me first make some very simple observations. No single area of mankind's religious possessions, certainly no single aspect of the Christian religion, has been more carefully scrutinized, more widely publicized, and more studiously analyzed than the Bible. This is good. But it can also create a problem.
A safe estimate is that there have been, especially in recent decades, ten times as many books and monographs written on the written Word of God as on all other phases of the Christian religion put together. Roman Catholicism, with its renewed emphasis on the Bible (which by the way antedates the Vatican Council by generations), has become part of this learned preoccupation. As one who has been teaching Sacred Scripture I can assure you, it is a very learned preoccupation and much to the good. But a caution must be made. It is quite possible to read the Scriptures in such a way as to get lost, and some have literally lost themselves in the forest of erudition and have failed to see the inner spirit of the Bible.
There is, after all, such a thing as what I call "biblicism", an over-emphasis on biblical structure; on historical places, dates, events and names; on linguistic exegesis; until your head begins to ache and you put the Bible aside as a source of educated anxiety. One result can be that those who frequently use the Scriptures, like priests and religious, will be misled by the erudite, learned side of the Bible, and miss the main reason why God gave us the Bible - not only for the learned and educated but, especially for the simple of heart. In a word, He has given it to us as our inspiration.
We might well ask, then, "How do instruction and inspiration differ in our use of the Bible?" We cannot divorce the two, as though the Bible should not be, and ought not remain a source of our instruction as well as our inspiration. Especially using it in our prayers, in the Divine Office, in hearing the Word of God at Mass, in reading the Word of God in our spiritual reading, the Bible should mainly be a source of our inspiration. How do the two differ?
First of all, instruction is mainly directed to the mind, whereas inspiration is principally directed to the will. Instruction seeks to enlighten; inspiration seeks to motivate. Instruction is concerned to inform; inspiration is concerned to form! Why do I bring this out? Precisely to point out that no matter what we use - here, the inspired Word of God - it is true that we find what we are looking for. And if our incentive in using the Scriptures is to find there instruction for the mind, we shall. There is much to enlighten us. But if, along with that and especially beyond that, we look to be inspired, to be moved, to be inflamed, we will find that too.
How are the Scriptures a source of profound inspiration? They are and God intends them to be, our inspired motivation particularly in three ways. First, it is mainly in the Scriptures that we learn why God put us into this world: He put us into this world that we might possess Him in the next world. That is the end, the purpose, the goal of all biblical motivation. God made us for Himself.
Second, in the Scriptures we learn what we are to do to reach this goal of our destiny. What is it? It is to observe the Covenant. If there is one "biblical word" it is Covenant. What is this covenant? It is a contract that God makes with His chosen ones: "I have made you for Myself and you will reach Me provided in this world you serve and love Me."
Finally, in the Scriptures we also learn, and thereby are motivated, how we are to use the world in which we live. We have been given one great gift by God; we have been gifted with our liberty so that we might choose wisely, among the many creatures which envelop us like the atmosphere, those which under God's gracious inspirations we know will lead us to our destiny. And we are to sacrifice, not use, or give up, some creatures that may be ever so pleasant. This is the biblical "how" from Genesis to the Apocalypse. We are to choose those things which, enlightened by grace, we see will lead us to God even though they may be painful; and we are to give up, or sacrifice, those other creatures that would not lead us to God, no matter how pleasant they are.
It is up to us, then, having been both instructed and inspired by God's revealed Word to do what God wants His chosen ones to do - to choose what will lead us to Him even though the choice may mean, as it often does, sacrificing the most pleasant creature of our lives, namely ourselves. Conditioned on that choice, God will be true to His inspired Word and He will bring us to that destiny which the Scriptures promise us will be ours where there will no longer be sorrow and suffering, but only joy and peace that no one will ever take from us.
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