The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers
New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925
Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.
What Is the Bible?
THE REVEREND WILLIAM PITT McCUNE, Ph.D.
Rector of St. Ignatius' Church, New York City
ONE SUNDAY not long ago, a little band of Anglicans found themselves, as sometimes happens, in a place where Anglicanism was not. And confronted with the choice of Romanism or Lutheranism, or saying their prayers in their rooms, or, worse yet, saying no prayers at all, they went to Low Mass in a little Roman church. There, in the course of the liturgy, the Gospel was read, first in Latin and then in German, and as it was read the people, of whom there were many, old and young, listened attentively and eagerly. Later in the morning, driven by that thirst for sight-seeing which knows no day of rest, the same little band found themselves in the midst of a Lutheran service. In a huge building fifteen or twenty elderly people were labouring through a hymn. As it ended a preacher appeared in the pulpit and gave out a text, whereat a goodly part of his audience, including the entire Anglican delegation, fled.
Now all this, of course, is of no consequence whatever, a mere traveller's tale, which should never have [110/111] been inflicted upon this audience, if your committee had not inflicted upon me the very pointed question, What is the Bible? Because as I have pondered this question there has become entangled with it in the mazes of my mind the other, which assailed me at the time, and has pursued me ever since. Why did the Bible, as read in the Gospel, have power to attract and hold the people, but no such power in the text and sermon?
There was, to be sure, the difficulty of language, but that factor was not very different in the two services. The majority in both congregations heard the Scriptures read in a tongue understanded of the people; for the minority, the only difference between the two was whether the obstacle was double or single, since neither Latin nor German is native to most Anglicans.
Perhaps relative length was more important. The Gospel in the Mass was brief; the text of the sermon was briefer yet, but the discourse which followed threatened to be long. How long it was, I shall never know.
But more potent, I am sure, was the fact that in the Mass the Gospel was read without comment. The word of God—and those people very evidently believed it to be so—was allowed to speak for itself. In the sermon it was smothered and silenced by many words of man. All this leads me in passing to plead for more services among us in which the Bible is read without comment. "In Holy Week," a wise priest once said to me, "I try to let the Scriptures speak for themselves." I have tried it, and I venture to urge the experiment upon all of you, in Holy Week and at other seasons. We need, priests, and people [111/112] alike, more reading of Scripture and less talking about it.
It is, however, no mere series of readings from the Bible that I have in mind. That was one trouble with the sermon and the service which it followed, compared with the Gospel and the Mass. In the service the Bible was isolated, without context or background. One man read it and discussed it, while others listened, or did not listen. In the Mass, the Gospel, as part of a corporate act of worship, was common property. One man told the good news, but only as a messenger, and he told it to all. The Bible stood forth as a portion of the Church's heritage, and an element in her life. And for that reason it was no longer dull and feeble, but quick and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword.
It was a reminder of what we all need to bear in mind, and to impress upon others, that the Bible is the Church's book. The fact has been stated many times, but cannot be stated too often. Among other statements I choose one, made recently by an eminent layman in England. (I refer to Lord Halifax). Since this Congress is primarily for laymen, I make no apology for quoting lay authority. "We point out," he says, "that there was a time when there was no Bible, and that it was only as years went by that the different books of the Bible were put together, and accepted by the Church as a single whole. The teaching contained in those books was the expression of what constituted the tradition of the Church, and it was the same authority which determined the Canon of Scripture, and (since no Scripture is of private interpretation), its rightful meaning." [Reunion and the Roman Primacy.]
 That is true. No student of the Bible, or of history, will deny the first assertion, that the Church preceded and produced the Bible. It is so, whether we consider the Jewish Church and the Old Testament, or the Christian and the New.
If you doubt it, you have only to open your New Testament, to the book which is generally reckoned the earliest in the collection, the first of them all to be written, and you will find St. Paul beginning his letter to the Thessalonians with these words: "Paul and Silvanus and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ." [I. Thessalonians 1.1.] There you have it. The Church is in existence, established and recognized, before Epistles and Gospels are written. They are written in the Church, and by the Church, and for the Church.
If further proof is needed, read St. Luke's preface to his Gospel, with its unmistakable reference to the tradition and faith of the Church. His history of our Lord and of the Apostles, Gospel and Acts alike, rest upon the foundation of "those things which are most surely believed among us," [Luke 1.1.] and he dedicates the books to Theophilus "that thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed." [Luke 1.4.]
Doubtless Lord Halifax's second assertion, that the Church determines not only the Canon of Scripture but its rightful meaning, will not command such general assent. But that is the Catholic claim. It always has been, and must be so now. And the clearer we make it, among ourselves, and to outsiders, if they [113/114] care enough about us to ask what we believe, the better for all concerned. The familiar formula holds good: "The Church to teach, the Scriptures to prove." Or, to quote a more accurate and adequate expression of the same truth, by one whom we are glad to acknowledge as friend and master, Dr. Francis Joseph Hall: "The Church to teach and define, the Scriptures to confirm and illustrate." [* Authority, Ecclesiastical and Biblical, p. 68.]
We need, I repeat, to make that clear. Doing so will rid us of many difficulties, and help in solving many problems. It will prevent us, first of all, from making a wrong use of Scripture. Now please don't misunderstand me. I am not seeking to forbid, or even to limit, free inquiry. I recall a sentence of Milton's pleading for such liberty: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for not without dust and heat. [*Areopagitica.]
In Protestant days I admired that extravagantly, and I still admire it. I yield to no one in my admiration for cloistered virtue in things moral and spiritual, but in things intellectual there is much to be said for dust and heat. And my acquaintance with men and women in our cloisters leads me to think that they agree with me, and have no intention or desire to avoid the rigours of study.
Let them, and us secular clergy, and you seminarians—yes, and you laymen and laywomen, too—become acquainted, if we will, with modern criticism of the Bible. Investigation of sources and authors [114/115] and dates need have no terrors for us. Such questions are not de fide. I am not dismayed, or even seriously, disturbed, when I learn that scholars doubt whether Isaiah wrote all of the book which bears his name. My trust is not in Isaiah, nor yet in Deutero-Isaiah. I believe in God the Father, of whom both speak lasting truth. Nor does my faith crash in ruins, if I come to suspect that St. Paul did not write the Epistle to the Hebrews, or St. Peter the second letter which bears his name. I believe in God the Son, to whom even anonymous and pseudonymous books may bear witness. And let us suppose for the sake of argument that it were proved—which it is not—that the Fourth Gospel is not the work of John, the son of Zebedee. I believe in God the Holy Ghost, who might speak through John the Apostle, or John the Elder, or still another John, if the critics unearth or invent more. And not all the critics, by any means, are iconoclasts. Scholarship is not invariably in conflict with tradition. Recent works on the New Testament show a decided tendency to revert to older, more conservative views. The time is past when the majority of its books may be airily dismissed as second century documents.
We may, then, read modern criticism of the Bible, but that does not mean that we are to accept all its conclusions. If we keep even a portion of our wits about us, we shall not do this, since we shall soon discover that no two authorities agree. In this as in other things, the choice is Catholicism or chaos. And, so, venturing into the labyrinth, let us not lightly throw away our clue: "The Church to teach." And, holding fast to that, we shall not wander from the way into strange paths.
 We shall not, for example, use the Bible as a textbook in geology. It is not the Church's business to teach geology, or anthropology, or astronomy, or any other science. She has never done so, as a body, and when individual members have ventured on the task, they have done so without her authority, and certainly without benefit to her cause. Her Scriptures were not given for that purpose, and have not been used for that end.
Nor is their function literary. I must confess to a certain weariness in hearing the Bible praised as literature. That does not mean that I do not recognize it as such. And I not only deplore, but marvel at the complacency of those who pride themselves on a knowledge of other literatures, but wink at ignorance of this, who would be chagrined, for example, at confusing Aeschylus and Euripides, but think it rather a joke to get Amos mixed up with Hosea. But just as those prophets would not have been exactly flattered at being assured that they had turned out a very pretty book apiece, so it is no great tribute to the Church to tell her that her Scriptures are good literature. She does not set them forth as such.
She does not use them to teach literature, any more than natural science. She uses them for one purpose, and one purpose alone—to teach religion. And not religion in general, but religion in particular, one and only one, the religion of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and the faith of his Church.
That is what the Bible is. It is the record of the revelation of God in his Incarnate Son. The Bible itself makes that quite clear: "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days [116/117] spoken unto us by his Son." [Hebrews 1. 1-2.] The Church uses those ringing words from the Epistle to the Hebrews to point out the truth concerning her book. When she bids us read them from the altar each Christmas Day, she is reminding us that Christ is the key to the Scriptures, as to all things. They are to be read in the light of the Incarnation, and only so will they be rightly understood. The revelation has been gradual and varied. It is not complete and clear until the Word is made flesh. The Old Testament, in St. Augustine's phrase, is patent in the New; the New Testament is latent in the Old. [Quaest. in Exod., 73—quoted by F. J. Hall, Authority Ecclesiastical and Biblical, p. 252] But both tell of our Lord, and their true meaning is in him, and in him alone.
The Church, in her use of Scripture, teaches us this. She sets them before us in their true proportion and right meaning. Never for a moment are we allowed to forget our Lord. He is everywhere in Office and Liturgy. I am not sure that I should assert as much of all the lectionaries set forth among us. But in the Church's ancient, universal utterances there is no uncertain sound. Are the Psalms sung in choir? They tell of him. Is the Gospel proclaimed from the altar? The good news is of him. Which of us, in some blessed moment has not found it so? It may have been on a Christmas night, or an Easter morning. It may have been yesterday at the High Mass in the church. It may, thank God, be any time, when the living word is read from an altar, where dwells the living Christ, and is known to be in very truth the word of God.