Ranking God’s Word

28 Sep

Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught,
either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
~ St. Paul to the Thessalonians

A former student of mine is thinking of becoming a Catholic, and she had a question for me. “I don’t understand the deuterocanonical books,” she ventured. “If the Catholic faith is supposed to be a fulfillment of the Jewish faith, why do Catholics accept those books and the Jews don’t?” She’d done her homework, and was troubled that the seven books and other writings of the deuterocanon had been preserved only in Greek instead of Hebrew like the rest of the Jewish scriptures – which is part of the reason why they were classified, even by Catholics, as a “second” (deutero) canon.

MTE5NTU2MzE2MTcyNDg2MTU1My student went on. “I’m just struggling because there are a lot of references to those books in Church doctrine, but they aren’t considered inspired Scripture. Why did Luther feel those books needed to be taken out?” she asked. “And why are Protestants so against them?”

The short answer sounds petty and mean, but it’s true nonetheless: Luther jettisoned those “extra” Old Testament books – Tobit, Sirach, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the like – because they were inconvenient. The Apocrypha (or, “false writings”), as they came to be known, supported pesky Catholic doctrines that Luther and other reformers wanted to suppress – praying for the dead, for instance, and the intercession of the saints. Here’s John Calvin on the subject:

Add to this, that they provide themselves with new supports when they give full authority to the Apocryphal books. Out of the second of the Maccabees they will prove Purgatory and the worship of saints; out of Tobit satisfactions, exorcisms, and what not. From Ecclesiasticus they will borrow not a little. For from whence could they better draw their dregs?

However, the deuterocanonical literature was (and is) prominent in the liturgy and very familiar to that first generation of Protestant converts, so Luther and company couldn’t very well ignore it altogether. Consequently, those seven “apocryphal” books, along with the Greek portions of Esther and Daniel, were relegated to an appendix in early Protestant translations of the Bible.

Eventually, in the 19th-century sometime, many Protestant Bible publishers starting dropping the appendix altogether, and the modern translations used by most evangelicals today don’t even reference the Apocrypha at all. Thus, the myth is perpetuated that nefarious popes and bishops have gotten away with brazenly foisting a bunch of bogus scripture on the ignorant Catholic masses.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with, it was Luther and Calvin and the other reformers who did all the foisting. The Old Testament that Christians had been using for 1,500 years had always included the so-called Apocrypha, and there was never a question as to its canonicity. Thus, by selectively editing and streamThomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale_1805_croppedlining their own versions of the Bible according to their sectarian biases (including, in Luther’s case, both Testaments, Old and New), the reformers engaged in a theological con game. To make matters worse, they covered their tracks by pointing fingers at the Catholic Church for “adding” phony texts to the closed canon of Hebrew Sacred Writ.

In this sense, the reformers were anticipating what I call the Twain-Jefferson approach to canonical revisionism. It involves two simple steps.

  • Step one: Identify the parts of Scripture that you find especially onerous or troublesome. Generally, these will be straightforward biblical references that don’t quite square with the doctrine one is championing or the practices one has already embraced. Mark Twain is the modern herald of this half of creative textual reconstruction: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me,” Twain wrote, “it is the parts that I do understand.”
  • Step two: Yank the vexing parts out. It’s what Thomas Jefferson literally did when he took his own Bible and cut out the passages he found offensive – a kind of “scripture by subtraction” in the words of religion professor Stephen Prothero.

The reformers justified their Twain-Jefferson humbug by pointing to the canon of scriptures in use by European Jews during that time, and it did not include those extra Catholic books – case closed! Still unconvinced? Today’s defenders of the reformers’ biblical reshaping will then proceed to throw around historical precedent and references to the first-century Council of Jamnia, but it’s all really smoke and mirrors.

The fact is that the first-century Jewish canon was pretty mutable and there was no universal definitive list of sacred texts. On the other hand, it is indisputable that the version being used by Jesus and the Apostles during that time was the Septuagint – the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures that included Luther’s rejected apocryphal books. SCORE: Deuterocanon – 1; Twain-Jefferson Revisionism – 0.

But this is all beside the point. It’s like an argument about creationism vs. evolution that gets funneled in the direction of whether dinosaurs could’ve been on board Noah’s Ark. Once you’re arguing about that, you’re no longer arguing about the bigger issue of the historicity of those early chapters in Genesis. The parallel red herring here is arguing over the content of the Christian Old Testament canon instead of considering the nature of authority itself and how it’s supposed to work in the church, especially with regards to the Bible.

Jesus - Mat 11,28I mean, even if we can settle what the canon should include, we don’t have the autographs (original documents) from any biblical books anyway. While we affirm the Church’s teaching that all Scripture is inspired and teaches “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings” (DV 11), there are no absolutes when it comes to the precise content of the Bible.

Can there be any doubt that this is by God’s design? Without the autographs, we are much less tempted to worship a static book instead of the One it reveals to us. Even so, it’s true that we are still encouraged to venerate the Scriptures, but we worship the incarnate Word – and we ought not confuse the two. John the Baptist said as much when he painstakingly distinguished between himself, the announcer, and the actual Christ he was announcing. The Catechism, quoting St. Bernard, offers a further helpful distinction:

The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living”.

Anyway, with regards to authority and the canon of Scripture, Mark Shea couldn’t have put it more succinctly than his recent response to a request for a summary of why the deuterocanon should be included in the Bible:

Because the Church in union with Peter, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) granted authority by Christ to loose and bind (Matthew 16:19), says they should be.

Right. The Church says so, and that’s good enough.

For it’s the Church who gives us the Scriptures. It’s the Church who preserves the Scriptures and tells us to turn to them. It’s the Church who bathes us in the Scriptures with the liturgy, day in and day out, constantly watering our souls with God’s Word. Isn’t it a bit bizarre to be challenging the Church with regards to which Scriptures she’s feeding us with? “No, mother,” the infant cries, “not breast milk! I want Ovaltine! Better yet, how about some Sprite!”

Think of it this way. My daughter Margaret and I share an intense devotion to Betty Smith’s remarkable novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It’s a bittersweet family tale of impoverishment, tragedy, and perseverance, and we often remark how curious it is that Smith’s epic story receives so little attention.

I was rooting around the sale shelf at the public library one day, and I happened upon a paperback with the name “Betty Smith” on the spine. I tookbetty-smith a closer look: Joy in the Morning, a 1963 novel of romance and the struggles of newlyweds, and it was indeed by the same Smith of Tree fame. I snatched it up for Meg.

The other day, Meg thanked me for the book, and asked me to be on the lookout for others by Smith. “It wasn’t nearly as good as Tree,” she said, “and I don’t expect any of her others to be as good. But I want to read everything she wrote because Tree was so wonderful.”

See, she wants to get to know Betty Smith because of what she encountered in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And all we have are her books and other writings; Betty Smith herself is gone.

But Jesus isn’t like that. We have the book, yes, but we have more. We still have the Word himself.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

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One Response to “Ranking God’s Word”

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  1. Ranking God’s Word | One Thousand Words a Week - September 28, 2014

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