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The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925

Philadelphia: Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

Reading the Bible by Books
Columbia University

THE Catholic religion calls for a larger use of the Bible in common worship than is demanded by other religious habits. Above all in the Liturgy, and also in the offices, the Bible is used both largely and widely. Every Catholic is compelled to see its cardinal importance in prayer and praise and instruction. Instead of being complacent at this heritage, he is expected to use it himself, to carry it into his own private religious life, and to enrich by it his personal influence. There are two typical ways in which the Bible should thus be appropriated by every layman: the first, intensive, meditation; the second, extensive, the reading of the Bible by books.

The Church asks of us such consecutive reading of the Bible as we give to the reading of other books that seem to us important for the understanding of our lives. Nor is there any other way of comprehending the Church history of the Bible, its revelation of the progressive redemption of mankind, its significance for the redemption of our own society. Without such habitual holding of our minds to the revelation of the coming of the Kingdom, we must often be unready to do a layman's part. To read a book as a whole, and then another book as a whole, is the way to grasp the mind of the Church and to bring our own minds to bear in the Church of to-day.

[119] This layman's work does not demand criticism, whether higher or lower, whether biblical or literary. The Church does not summon us all to literary criticism, to the appraisal of the literary art with which the sacred books were composed. That may, indeed, transpire incidentally; but appreciation of the literary art of the Acts or the fourth Gospel is not our task. What we must seek is the message, that is, the ideas and their progress. Our task is to use our minds in learning the mind of the Church. Inspired by God the Holy Ghost to choose certain books, the Church has given them to us as revealing the truth committed to her, and the ways of making it prevail. Wherein, asks Hugh of St. Victor in his "Lore of Teaching," is man like God? He answers: In contemplation of truth and in the exercise of power for good. To read the Bible by books is to contemplate truth by following its revelation stage by stage, to learn what power for good we have received, that we may guide our lives and help to redeem our world.

As the reading of the Bible by books does not ask us to be literary critics, neither does it ask us first to master many books about the Bible. We are already prepared by our Catholic life. Why, for instance, were the Psalms carried over from Jewish into Christian worship? Because they are not limited to the lyric expression of single Jews long ago. That, indeed, is the least important thing about them. They were found to be expressive, first, of all Jews, then of all men answering God; and that is an important aspect of the inspiration of the Bible. But a Catholic has no need to learn this from some book on the Psalms; he has learned it from the Church use of the Psalms themselves. So he has learned from [119/120] the Advent antiphons the clue to the Prophets. The Church that gave us the Bible often shows us how to read it. Let us not be like those impatient people who wish to be literary at second hand. The books and articles designed to tell such people what they ought to say about authors whom they have not read should be sufficient warning. Instead of cheaply and rashly using such tags and labels on the Bible, let us read the Bible itself.

Reading the Bible by books, while it raises questions that should lead us to our pastors and our publishers and to the public library, will often itself answer the questions that are most important. If some men now calling one another hard names in the "Fundamentalist" controversy had first read the Bible instead of reading about it, their zeal might be more according to knowledge. Apparently some zealots who have lately declared the theory of evolution to be incompatible with the Bible have read neither the one nor the other. What we really need to read about the Bible, will transpire best from reading the Bible itself so soon as we seriously read it by books. You need not be an archaeologist to be thrilled by the Book of Esther; you need only to read it at a sitting. If you have not done so, you have cheated yourself of an onward movement that is both dramatic and also deeply significant of God's working through faithful individuals to redeem his whole people.

No Catholic has the right to say: "I can't do that. It is beyond me. I believe the Church; but I am no theologian. I am too busy at making a living. I must let the professors and the parsons do it for me." Neither parsons, nor even professors, can do much [120/121] for people who will not work for themselves. But the work will seem possible to any one who will begin the New Testament at the beginning, and devote to it a half hour's consecutive reading, with pencil and paper to fix his attention, every day for ten days. After that he is not likely to need any persuasion. He will already have so much reward that he must go on.

The first written words of the New Testament are the two brief apostolic letters to the Thessalonians. Any one who will read I. Thessalonians through without haste, but without interruption, can then, by glancing over it again see that its thought progresses in four stages. In the opening chapters the apostle rejoices at the growth of the Thessalonians in faith, love, and hope as springing from a ministry thereby shown to be divine. In the fourth chapter he exhorts them, as they have received, so to abound more and more. Passing in the same chapter to another aspect of the divine life in man, he tells them, in the third place, that the second Advent is alike for the faithful living and for the faithful departed. He closes, in the fifth chapter, with a summary of the office of priest. The last words are the apostolic benediction; and the second epistle, written shortly afterward, is a corrective postscript.

These four stages grow out of a thought which the apostle plants as a seed in the very first verse, "the Church of the Thessalonians in God." Here is the Church before the New Testament; and here is revealed an influence essentially different from the influence of Socrates through the writings of Plato. It is expressed more amply in verse 5: "Our gospel came not in word only, but also in power." It runs through the epistle, and through later epistles. It [121/122] becomes a poem in those opening words of the fourth gospel which lead up to the great text, "As many as received him, to them gave He power to become the Sons of God." Here in these simple words to the Thessalonians the first words of the New Testament, written before the Church had selected the New Testament, is the message of the Church and the New Testament alike: life, life from life, personal life from personal life, our life from the life, eternal life begun now and focused beyond the grave.

Such reading of the brief letters to the Thessalonians prepares as nothing else can for the ampler and more specific carrying out of this constant theme in later epistles. One can hardly approach I. Corinthians without remembering that this single epistle contains the Canon of the Mass, the great praise of love read from the altar on the Sunday before each Lent, and the eloquent summary of the resurrection read in the burial office. It contains them in that order. To consider the order of the whole epistle is to see how the Mass fulfills the idea of life stated in I. Thessalonians, and how the teaching of Holy Orders and of the resurrection in that epistle is here carried further. For the Corinthian factions are condemned as contrary to the true doctrine of Holy Orders; and it is in that connection that the apostle utters the Catholic words: "Your faith should stand not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." Then personal purity is enjoined not merely because Corinth was proverbially lax, but because it is prerequisite to the next proposition, that public intercourse with the world should be guided by the missionary principle of love to others. Public worship is then regulated by authority and brought to its center in the Mass. From this center radiate [122/123] the following gifts of the Spirit; and so we are brought to the resurrection. As the life, the power, taught in I. Thessalonians is here defined, so the words which the apostle solemnly repeats from the Liturgy and fixes there, so the test of "discerning the Lord's body," prepare for the liturgical echoes in Hebrews. Similarly Galatians prepares us to grapple with one of the most profound books of the Bible, the philosophy of history set forth stage by stage in Romans.

On a larger scale the progress of salvation, the working out through chosen men of that salvation which is at once accomplished in the person of our Lord, and always progressing through his saints in heaven and on earth,—that progress of salvation revealed by the New Testament as a whole, can be grasped only by mastering the epistles as books. It cannot be had from detached texts. Thus is to be begun the history of the Church. All the perennial struggles of the Church are here, the divine and the human aspects of Holy Orders, the doctrine and the practical working of grace in the sacraments, the deviating pressure of the world and the divine recovery, the practical morals of Christians in a worldly society, the power to become sons of God integrating Jews with Gentiles and Greeks with barbarians, the eternal life shared now with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, and attaining by perseverance the vision opened to St. John. It is all here; and we should master it as a progress, both for our own progress and for our brethren and companions' sake. Catholics of all men, because their vision is historic, need to master the Church history of the epistles and the Acts. To do so, we must read them by books.

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