Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Sweet are Thy Words

The Bible lesson by Gerrit Dou

by Peter A. Kwasniewski

Let me begin with a massive understatement: the Bible is not an easy book, and few, too few, are Catholics who make the study of it a regular part of their spiritual lives. Indeed, before we even delve into it, we are confronted by the fact that the Bible is really many books of many different styles, periods, and particular purposes, so just opening it anywhere and starting to read will not prove the best approach for most of us. Because it was written under the inspiration of the one God, however, the Bible is also fundamentally one book: it deals with the one history of salvation for mankind and it has one goal in view—the knowledge and the love of God, leading to an ever more perfect union with Him. Since, as the Church teaches, “the ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the very soul of sacred theology,”1 there is nothing more important in theological studies and in our lifelong education as Catholics than turning and returning to the revealed Word. We must therefore regularly set apart time for this task—or, as the saints see it, this great privilege—of reading the only words that have God as their primary author.

Why read the Bible and make it a familiar companion? There are two kinds of answers to this question. One is merely human—a literary, sociological, or cultural answer. It’s good to be familiar with the Bible stories, they have formed Western culture, they are eloquent and moving, they illustrate the great problems of human existence. This answer is really beside the point, because all great literature does this; one could make exactly the same argument for reading Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare. Moreover, as both Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome observed long ago, the Bible is not always, at least for most of us, a “delightful” reading experience, the way poetry tends to be. It is full of perplexing obscurities, remote historical details, repetitions, seeming contradictions, not to mention brutalities and sensualities of a most unedifying nature, such that even the stuffed new Lectionary does not attempt to include them. It demands of us much effort if we are to crack the shell and reach the meat inside.

The other answer is that of faith. We read Scripture because it is what the Church claims it to be—God’s word, true and trustworthy, showing us the path of life, revealing to us something of who God is. In this respect it is unlike any other book we have. The Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas is well worth studying and one can easily devote one’s entire life to mastering its contents. But note how Saint Thomas says in the very first question of the Summa that all his efforts are placed at the service of sacra doctrina, the “holy teaching” that God Himself communicates to us through Scripture and Tradition, safeguarded and handed down by the Church. Saint Thomas had no illusions about the relative importance of his secondary text to the one and only primary source. If God had wanted to reveal either the Summa theologiae or the Catechism of the Catholic Church on Mount Sinai or, some centuries later, on the mount of the beatitudes, He could very easily have done so. The fact that He did not should make us wonder why He persists in speaking to us through so complicated an instrument.

In the end, therefore, it is really the conviction of faith that moves us, or should move us, to take up this book and persevere in reading it. Scripture rewards diligence (meaning, from the Latin diligere, a free and serious love), and it opens itself only to those who show their perseverance.

In What Spirit We Should Read

Scripture itself expresses well the spirit we should ask the Lord to give us as we strive to read and understand His words. The longest and most elaborately crafted Psalm is 119 (Vulgate 118), a hymn in praise of the law of the Lord and a plea for the grace to live according to it. The Psalm again and again mentions “thy word(s),” as in these verses:
11 I have laid up thy word in my heart, that I might not sin against thee.
16 I will delight in thy statutes; I will not forget thy word.
17 Deal bountifully with thy servant, that I may live and observe thy word.
25 My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to thy word!
103 How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
105 Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
130 The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.
160 The sum of thy word is truth; and every one of thy righteous ordinances endures for ever.
Echoing verse 160 above, Jesus prays to His Father: “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17). The prophet Jeremiah perfectly captures the appetite that we should have for this sanctifying and truthful word: “When I found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the happiness of my heart, because I bore your name, O Lord, God of hosts” (Jeremiah 15:16). In his second letter to Saint Timothy, Saint Paul discusses the important role that the “sacred writings” will have in the lives of those who strive to “live a godly life”:
All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:12-17)
Old Woman Reading a Lectionary by Gerrit Dou

A Word of Life, Bread for the Soul

All of Scripture is based on the experience of the Holy by the Holy. Its overriding goal is that we, joining the saints of the old and new covenants, should likewise enter into communion with the living God. It was written by those who became saints for those who are now striving to become saints. Scripture speaks everywhere about vice and error, but it positively teaches only virtue and truth, which it receives directly from the source. As Saint Peter writes in his second epistle:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. … You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. (2 Peter 1:16, 19-21, 2:1-2)
This passage also begins to teach us about the need for an authorized, trustworthy interpreter of the holy writings, if they are to be a “lamp shining in a dark place,” rather than the false teaching and false prophecy that brings “swift destruction” and discredits the “way of truth.”

Consider, in conjunction with the foregoing text from Saint Peter, the following text from the first epistle of Saint John:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
What Saint John is concerned to deliver is not bits of ephemeral information, a beautiful story or lyric; he is neither a modern journalist nor a novelist-poet. John heard, saw, and touched Jesus, and reclining at table against His breast, He received the ineffable gift of the Lord Himself in the most holy Eucharist. The next day he stood beneath the gibbet of the cross and watched the same Lord spill His Blood in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. Two days later, John and Peter saw the empty tomb. That evening, the Lord newly risen from the dead stood before ten of the apostles locked in the upper room and said, “Peace be with you,” showing them His pierced hands and side. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands . . .” It was out of these unforgettable, life-changing experiences that the beloved disciple, aided by the Spirit of truth, was able to draw forth his Gospel, Epistles, and Apocalypse.

Like all who follow the apostles, Saint John did not merely hear a word of life, He fed upon the ever-living Word of God and was transformed into a living image of Him. Jesus says: “I am the living bread come down from heaven . . . He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:51, 56). Jesus did not come to bring us a message; He came to give us Himself. The good news is that “God so loved the world that He gave us His only-begotten Son.” In its origin, in its content, and in its purpose, therefore, Scripture is given to us for our salvation; it orients us toward Christ, teaches us about Him, urges, reproves, and consoles, all for the sake of furthering this communion with the Word-made-flesh. It is truly a great mercy that, as our Lord said, we are not left orphans—in any way. We are given infallible teaching to nourish our minds and guide our steps; we are given direct access to the eternal High Priest, who stooped to the nothingness of our flesh in order to raise us up to His divine glory; we are given the perfect gift that encompasses all gifts, the Holy Spirit. We are given all that we need to be holy: not slaves trembling in fear, but friends of God, purified of all that is not pleasing to Him. “Blessed be the Lord our God, for He has come to His people and set them free . . . that being delivered from the hand of our enemies we may serve Him without fear, holy and righteous in His sight all the days of our lives” (Luke 1:68, 74–75).2

Saint Anthony Reading by Marcantonio Bassetti

Six Important Truths about Scripture

In conclusion, I would like to leave the reader with helpful points of orientation that I found some years ago in the work of a now-forgotten French Dominican, Fr. Chifflot.3 This balanced and traditional exegete presents six important truths about Scripture that serve as reliable principles for us while we study the sacred page.

1. The Bible is a sacred history. It is not metaphysics; it is a history, the history of a people. But as its protagonist is the Eternal One, it is necessarily unlike any secular history. It is the history of a “love affair” between the Infinite and the Finite. And so it evokes all the grandeur and beauty of God and all the misery, horror, desperation, and darkness of fallen man.

2. The Bible is a promise. The People of God has a history, and it is a forward-moving history, a journey towards a goal, a promised land. It is a book of hope which springs from past deliverance and longs for future fulfillment. There is thus always a tension in the text; it is not “merely” about the past, nor is it simply “news” about the present, or “predictions” of the future. It is about all time in its purposeful movement—the past and the future breaking into the present, the present stretching towards eternity.

3. The Bible is the book of Christ. The written word of God is about the personal Word of God, Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, who breaks into history as the Messiah or Anointed One. Saint Jerome famously says: “To be ignorant of Scripture is to be ignorant of Christ.” Pope Leo XIII adds: “In its pages His Image stands out, living and breathing; diffusing everywhere around consolation in trouble, encouragement to virtue and attraction to the love of God.” Blaise Pascal likewise speaks of “Jesus Christ, whom both Testaments concern: as the expectation of the Old, as the model of the New, and as the center of both.” As Saint Augustine says, the Old Testament is the New Testament hidden under a veil, while the New is the Old now made manifest. This being so, the Old Testament is thoroughly Christian, because it tells of the preparation of the chosen people for their Messiah, their unconquerable Davidic ruler. Since Christianity is the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, all that belonged to the Jews now belongs by right to us, including the Hebrew Scriptures. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum expresses these points beautifully.4

4. The Bible is the book of the Church. The Church opens the Bible for us. As Dei Verbum teaches:
There exists a close connection and communication between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while Sacred Tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity . . . Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. . . . [T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [Magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.5
History has borne abundant witness to this last claim: wherever the authority of the Catholic Church has been assailed or rejected, the authority of Scripture has grown progressively weaker, in some instances disappearing altogether. Conversely, wherever Scripture is accepted as divine truth, there is an awareness, bright or dim, of some supernatural reality called “the Church,” and a desire to belong to it, as if implicitly recognizing that a book by itself doesn’t make a religion. John Henry Newman made a similar observation in regard to Marian devotion, saying in his Letter to Pusey that, as a matter of historical fact, wherever the cultus of the Virgin Mary was abandoned, sooner or later faith in the very divinity of Christ was abandoned. Because of the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation, Mother and Son can never be parted, no more than Father and Son.

5. The Bible is a mirror. It holds up to us a mirror that reveals who we are, where we have come from, what we are destined for. It is a sword that penetrates the secret places of the heart: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

6. The Bible is the book of prayer.6 The Bible is full of prayer; it is about men of prayer and their faithful worship, as well as men who are unfaithful and idolatrous. It shows us the pattern of life and the false paths of death. It gives us the words of so much of our liturgy. The Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours consist chiefly of psalms, canticles, and short readings; the traditional Roman Missal is shot through with Scriptural verses from Introit to the Last Gospel. Unlike the new Lectionary, a repository of artificially segmented texts, and unlike the new Missal, a stripped and shivering product of rationalism, the great Missale Romanum is a living testament of Tradition, saturated with Divine Revelation, resonant, fragrant, irreducibly complex, united to the Word of God as bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh. Traditional Catholics have no need to feel “left out” of the movement to “recover” the Bible, for our Faith was already there, and it goes deeper than the moderns. Generations upon generations have been nourished and informed by the Word of God expressed with vibrant diversity and density in the liturgy itself, in architecture and the other plastic arts, in sacred music and religious hymns, in Catholic culture and its customs. Wherever the traditional Faith has been strong, the Bible has received the devotion its holy content deserves, the veneration its saving message demands. Now that our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI is leading the way with a genuine reform of the Church, let us not fail to do our part to live a genuinely traditional Catholic life—not the truncated version that modernity sought to produce from the Enlightenment to the present, but the robust life of Faith practiced by our ancient and medieval forefathers, rooted in the Word of God and the Sacraments of the Church.


  1. CCC 132, citing DV 24. [back]

  2. Zechariah is speaking here of servile or slavish fear, not of the filial or reverential fear that suits a child in relation to his parent and, all the more, a creature in relation to its creator. [back]

  3. T.G. Chifflot, O.P., Water in the Wilderness, trans. Luke O'Neill (Herder and Herder, 1967), 55-78. [back]

  4. See Dei Verbum, 14-16. [back]

  5. Dei Verbum 9-10; cf. the opening paragraph of Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus. [back]

  6. See Chifflot, pp. 75-76. [back]

[Dr. Peter A. Kwasniewski is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming. The present article, "How Sweet are Thy Words," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Fall 2009), pp. 6-9, and is reprinted here by kind permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060, and the author.]