Tag Archives: inerrancy

Other Gospels?

10 May

apocryphal gospelsAs my deacon cohort just wrapped up an introductory course on the biblical and theological foundations of our faith, I thought I would tackle a question on the Bible: A couple Catholic school teachers recently asked me how much weight we should give, if any, to the “other gospels” out there, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

Usually when I’m asked about “apocryphal” works, it’s in connection with defending the authenticity of the so-called “deuterocanonical” books of the Old Testament, which truly are part of the Bible.

Now, however, instead of explaining why certain Old Testament books are in, I’m being asked why certain alleged New Testament books are out.

First, let’s be clear that the four Gospels that the Church does accept as “canonical” (i.e., part of the Bible) the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As such, we accept that they are inspired by God and thus free from error. Here’s what Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation had to say about them:

“It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior.

“The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John [citing St. Irenaeus].

“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1)” (nos. 18-19).

All that is well and good, but what about the dozens of “other gospels” that the Church considers apocryphal? For that matter, what does “apocryphal” mean in this context?

Generally, “apocrypha” refers to writings that, under the guise of divine inspiration, approximate the style and content of biblical books. One common feature is that they purport to have the authority of a patriarch or prophet (Old Testament) or apostle (New Testament) as a means of demonstrating their credibility.

The Church, which defined the New Testament canon in the early centuries of Christian history, rejected these pseudo-gospels as lacking authenticity and reliability, thus determining that these books should not be considered part of the Bible.

Some apocryphal gospels seem to represent sincere attempts to supplement what we know about the hidden life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, which receives but sparse attention in the canonical Gospels. However, these works contain pious fabrications and legends that are not the “Gospel truth.”

Most of the better-known non-canonical gospels, though, were produced by the various branches or schools of Gnosticism, a heresy that flourished in the second and third centuries. These spurious gospels are unreliable historically and theologically, despite their popularity these days in religious fiction (e.g., The Da Vinci Code) and among some heterodox pop theologians. These pseudo-gospels were written long after the “real” Gospels and were never considered canonical, in part because of their decidedly anti-Christian character.

Indeed, the Gnostic “gospels” are not really gospels at all in the sense that Christians understand them. Christ preached a Gospel of “good news,” while Gnostics view their knowledge as something to be kept hidden. As evidenced by the lives of the early Christians, the followers of Jesus were called to be a city on a hill and a lamp on a stand (cf. Mt. 5:14-16), not a hidden cult for the intellectual elite.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the various versions of the Gospel of Thomas, among others, contain bizarre statements that at times contradict basic Christian beliefs.

In never taking seriously these spurious writings, the Church was certainly not trying to suppress some secret text as part of a conspiracy or power struggle. It has been said that these are “the gospels the Church left behind,” but it would be more accurate to call them “the gospels that left the Church behind.” Gnostics used Jesus as a “teacher” that conformed to their beliefs. They did not recognize Him for who He was or who He claimed to be.

I’ve declined to go into specific texts of the apocryphal gospels, such as the accounts of Jesus’ animating clay pigeons for sport as a child, or His alleged denial of the reality of sin. Rather than focus on these texts, I think it’s far more important for us to meditatively study the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, through the sacred liturgy and personal prayer, rather than waste our time on counterfeits.

St. Therese of Lisieux beautifully sums up the role of Scripture in the life of a Christian:

“But above all it’s the Gospels that occupy my mind when I’m at prayer; my poor soul has so many needs, and yet this is the one thing needful. I’m always finding fresh lights there; hidden meanings which had meant nothing to me hitherto.”

The Book of God

1 Apr

Sisters win!In our series on the documents of Vatican II during this “Year of Faith,” we have spent some time examining Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. This pivotal conciliar document has called Catholics to draw more effectively upon the life-changing power of Sacred Scripture.

The success of my daughter Sr. Evangeline and her team of sisters on The American Bible Challenge has given our culture a wonderful witness of how Catholics—and all people!—should come to know and venerate Scripture as God’s love letters to us.

And yet, Dei Verbum is not simply about the Bible. The title of this document itself is instructive. The Council Fathers did not call it Dei Librum (“Book of God”) but Dei Verbum (“Word of God”). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us why this distinction is important:

“The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, open our minds to understand the Scriptures” (no. 108, footnotes omitted).

For All the Saints

One of the principal themes of the Second Vatican Council was the universal call to holiness. The renewal of the Church hinges on the ongoing sanctification of all her members. This is the work of God, but all the faithful must be personally engaged in the process.

Dei Verbum takes us to the point of entry into this new life in Christ Jesus. It comes down to the “obedience of faith” that we give to God as He reveals Himself to us (DV, no. 5). As our Lord Himself says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28).

It is the great mission of the Holy Spirit, the “soul of the Church,” to reveal Christ to us and bring us into communion with Him and all His holy ones. As St. Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 12:3). The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and to the entire Church surely includes the singular blessing of Sacred Scripture, but encompasses the totality of what Christ bequeathed to His Church, including the sacred liturgy. In this regard the Holy Spirit “is the Church’s living memory” (Catechism, no. 1099), making present and effective in our lives the saving work of Christ. Dei Verbum therefore affirms that Sacred Tradition and Scripture are bound closely together and flow from the same divine wellspring, which is none other than the Holy Spirit (no. 9).

Bible Christians

While Catholics do not limit God’s self-revelation to the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”), we must affirm with St. Jerome that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

The fact of the matter is that Catholics have not been well “versed” in Sacred Scripture. Surely, Catholics know much more of the Bible than we think we do–to the extent we’ve stayed awake at Mass and catechism class. Still, we experience something of an “inferiority complex” when it comes to the Bible. When challenged on the more controversial aspects of our faith with the dreaded “Where in the Bible . . . ?” questions, we are needlessly bewildered and intimidated.

Tragically, there are millions of Catholics raised since the mid-20th century in this country who have left the Church. Many, for one reason or another, have simply abandoned all religious practice, as the poor formation many Catholics have received has proven to be no match for the relentless secularism of our society. Some, however, have met “Bible Christians” who have found in these biblically hapless Catholics easy targets for their proselytism.

In my own life–despite 12 years of Catholic school–I found myself as a young adult woefully ignorant of Christ. Scripture was not a priority in our home and was not convincingly proclaimed at school or at Sunday Mass. Our beautiful, large, family Bible was used mostly to keep important documents and newspaper clippings flat (because of its size), and safe (because no one would ever think of opening it).

Even as the Holy Spirit was gently leading me home in the 1980s, it was difficult to find sound Catholic materials on Scripture. The first book I picked up discussed how St. Paul didn’t write many of the Epistles the Church attributes to him. The second book said we had to focus on the human Jesus and proceeded to explain away the miraculous occurrences in the Gospels. The third book went so far as to deny the Resurrection, saying that it wasn’t a historical event, but basically, “It’s the Church’s story and we’re sticking to it.” These were all considered mainstream “Catholic” books that I later encountered, among others, in seminary. No wonder we’re confused!

While there’s much more work to be done today, the climate is already subtly but unmistakably changing. My kids (not just Sr. Evangeline!) and their friends not only know the Catechism, but are quite at home–where they should be–in the Bible, and in fact have more of it memorized than I do. The Liturgy of the Word–not just at Mass, but also in other sacramental celebrations and the Liturgy of the Hours–now receives greater attention. The faithful are exposed to more of the Bible than before, and in its natural habitat to boot: the sacred liturgy. Catholics in unprecedented numbers are engaged in life-changing Bible studies. Catholic apologetics, thanks to Karl Keating, Pat Madrid, and so many others, has undergone a remarkable renaissance, such that Catholics are increasingly able to explain the biblical basis of our beliefs. Continue reading

Vatican II on the Word of God

11 Mar

Pope with Book of GospelsIn my last post, I offered some reflections on how Catholics approach Scripture, calling to mind Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). This particular document is one of the four central “constitutions” promulgated at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Given its significance, I thought that before we move on to the next conciliar document I would offer this “top ten list” of key teachings found in Dei Verbum.

The entire document is rich (and it’s by far the shortest of the four constitutions!), but I have found these particular passages especially enlightening as the Church boldly proceeds with a “new evangelization.” The texts in bold italics are direct quotes, with footnotes omitted.

(1) God’s Self-Disclosure

Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. . . . He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind (no. 6).

Dei Verbum affirms, with Vatican I, that we can know God’s existence and other religious truths through the use of reason. However, in addition to truths “which totally transcend” human understanding, divine Revelation conveys truths already accessible to human reason so that everyone can know the truth with ease, certitude, and the absence of error (cf. Catechism, nos. 37-38).

(2) Tradition!

[T]he apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (no. 8).

Apostolic tradition includes everything that contributes to the holiness of life and increase in faith of the People of God. The Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, and all that she believes.

(3) Deposit of Faith

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church (no. 10).

The Church stresses the unity of the Word of God, as both Scripture and Tradition flow from the same divine wellspring (no. 9).

(4) Role of Magisterium

[T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (no. 10).

Further, this teaching office is not above the Word of God. The Magisterium serves the Word of God, teaching only what has been handed on. The Magisterium listens to the Word devoutly, guards it scrupulously, and explains it faithfully in accordance with her divine commission. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium draws from this one deposit of faith everything which the Church presents for belief as divinely revealed.

(5) Inerrancy of Scripture

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (no. 11).

This section has been a point of controversy, as the Church’s traditional understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture has come under attack in recent decades, and this particular passage can seem ambiguous on the point. Is Scripture without error (“inerrant”) generally (but properly understood, see no. 6), or is it without error only on matters concerning our salvation?

This controversy can’t be resolved here, but in favor of the former interpretation, DV 11 does footnote sources such as Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus that set forth the traditional teaching. In addition, in Latin, the “for the sake of salvation” (causa salutis) is a genitive of purpose. The grammatical construction conveys purpose or motive (why do we have Scripture?), not a limitation upon “that truth.”

(6) Literary and Historical Criticism

However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words (no. 12).

This passage illustrates the Church’s balanced approach that recognizes not only God’s authorship of Scripture, but also the contribution of the human authors, including their historical and cultural context. The use of human sciences only creates difficulties when scholars adopt unscientific presuppositions that contradict the faith (e.g., miracles are impossible) and treat Scripture as merely an ancient human writing.

(7) Incarnation of the Word

In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men (no. 13, quoting St. John Chrysostom).

Our God has come looking for us, and He reaches out to us, using our mode of communication!  By “condescension” we mean that God reaches down to us as a Father gets down to be on the level of his child, so that he can embrace him and raise him up.

(8) Role of Old Testament

God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New (no. 16).

This beautifully summarizes our approach to reading the entire Bible, not just the New Testament.

(9) Centrality of the Four Gospels

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1) (no. 19).

The Church unhesitatingly asserts the historicity of the Gospels. They are reliable accounts of the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should frequently meditate on these four books.

(10) Ignorance of Scripture Is Ignorance of Christ

Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy (no. 25, quoting St. Augustine).

This is related to no. 22, which provides that “easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” Vatican II exhorted all the Christian faithful, especially religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:8), taking to heart St. Jerome’s famous expression: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Paragraph 25 urges us to immerse ourselves in Scripture, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine Word, or through devotional reading, or through classes and Bible studies, all with the approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church. We are reminded that prayer must accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together. For as St. Ambrose wrote, “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.”