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The Body of Christ

Addresses and Papers Delivered at the Fifth Annual Catholic Conference
Buffalo, N.Y., October 28th to 30th, 1930.

Auspices of the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests.

Milwaukee: Morehouse
London: A. R. Mowbray, 1930.

IV. The Scriptures of the Body of Christ

Rector, St. Thomas' Church, Toronto, Ont.

ON FIRST SIGHT our title appears a little difficult. The general subject for this Congress is "The Church, the Body of Christ," and if we read our title in this paper with an understanding mind, it becomes "The Scriptures of the Church," or, better still, "The Sacred Writings of the Church." In these modern days it is very necessary to emphasize the union between the Scriptures and the Church. For there are so many self-styled "Bible Christians" who find all that they desire for the genesis and maintenance of the Christian life in the pages of the Sacred Writings except the central truth of all, that our Incarnate Lord founded His Church on His Apostles to perpetuate His work of salvation through His Name. The Catholic clings to the Church and the Scriptures; the non-Catholic presses his Bible to his heart but declines even a bowing acquaintance with the Church.

Yet, if truth be told, the Bible is meaningless apart from the Church. Christianity originated in a country which already possessed a Holy Book. This collection of sacred writings, which we know today as the Old Testament, was the object of great reverence on the part of the whole Jewish nation. As the Law, it was the highest and the supreme authority for every faithful Israelite. Through these writings the voice of God Himself was heard. They were the revelation of God's will and purpose for His chosen people. They were given to God's ancient Church, the people of Israel, to be their guide and inspiration in the way of righteousness. Even our Lord Himself accepted their authority. He abrogated many false interpretations of the Law but He would not annul the ancient Scriptures. "Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil" (St. Matthew 5: 17). Jesus and His disciples paid due respect and reverence to the Holy Book which they had inherited from their forefathers.

But the Scriptures of the Body of Christ are the New Testament. The ancient Church of Israel possessed its Holy Book, and, similarly, in the process of time, the Church of Christ received its collection of sacred writings, named in distinction from the ancient Scriptures the "New Testament." The writers of the Old Testament were men who were members of God's ancient Church of Israel, inspired by the Holy Ghost to set down God's revelation of Himself and His nature to His children, and the record of God's dealings with His sons both in prosperity and in adversity. Similarly, the New Testament is a collection of books written by men who were members of the Church of Christ, and who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, were led to record for posterity the salient points in the life and teaching of their Divine Master and the subsequent history of the growth of His Church in the world, both in its labors for the salvation of souls and also in its conflict with heathenism and the powers of evil. The New Testament is the record of the Father's love as revealed in Jesus Christ; of the Son's obedience even unto the death on the Cross; of the power of the Holy Ghost sent by the Risen and Ascended Christ to be the indwelling life of the Church, and to bring thousands of erring souls into the one fold where "there shall be one flock and one Shepherd."

The New Testament was written by those who were members of the Body of Christ. It was written from within the Church, not from outside its borders. In a little book recently published, Dr. Goudge, the Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, writes: "It was the Church which gradually formed the Bible; it was written by her members and for her members, and apart from the Church's life it cannot rightly be understood." [The Church and the Bible, p. 1.] It is the product of men to whom the Jesus who died on Calvary and is alive for evermore was the vital principle both of life and experience.

Its contents were written for a definite purpose. In the early days of the life of the Church it would have been deemed quite unnecessary to commit anything to a written form. The Second Coming of the Lord in glory was thought to be close at hand. St. Paul and the believers of his time expected to see the day in the near future when they would be caught up to meet the returning Lord in the air. There was no time, no thought, for any transcription of their faith for the benefit of posterity. The Kingdom of God was at hand. But as time passed, and the Lord delayed His Coming, and some of the eye-witnesses of the work of Jesus Christ were passing from the scene, there grew up the natural desire to have some authoritative record of the contents of the Saviour's life and work. Hence arose the Synoptic Gospels, and, later, as a corollary to these three, the Gospel according to St. John. The book of the Acts was a sequel to the Gospel according to St. Luke, giving the early history of the Church, as it made its way in the world, with special reference to the labors of St. Peter and St. Paul. The Epistles (some of which are the earliest documents in the New Testament in point of time) arose from certain definite needs. They were in the truest sense letters, called forth to deal with some special emergency. It is a common mistake, even today, to regard them as "literary efforts, as dogmatic pamphlets, as theological declarations, each one supplementing the other to form a great, complete system." [The New Testament in the Light of Modern Research, Deismann, p. 30.] They were meant for instruction and counsel, but they were never intended to form a compendium of Christian theology.

Nor does our present New Testament include the whole of the output of Christian writings in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic period. The history of the formation of the Canon of the New Testament must be perfectly familiar to the large majority of Christian people, but it is essential to emphasize that it was the Church which possessed the authority to declare which of the writings of its members should be given a place in the Canon of the New Testament, and which, on the other hand, should be excluded. If there had been no Church to make this selection and to authorize the elevation of this collection of writings to an equality with the ancient Scriptures, there would be no New Testament at all. The Scriptures of the Body of Christ were written by the members of that Body, and it was the Church which made the collection of sacred writings and elevated them to the dignity of the New Testament.

The Church, then, is prior to the New Testament. The Church herself gave birth to the New Testament; the sacred writings were the result of travail in her womb. As the mother is older than her child, so the Church is older than her sacred book: the Gospel is older than the Gospels. So Christianity is in its origin not a religion derived from a sacred book, but a religion which produced and antedated its sacred writings. In opposition to the many thousands of Christians who base their religion on their interpretation of the New Testament, the Catholic looks behind the sacred writings to their authoritative source, the Church of the living God, endued with the life-giving Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

The Church, then, comes before the Bible. The Church was in existence and at work before a line of the New Testament was written. This leads us to our second point, that the New Testament bears witness to the already existing life of the Church. But it must be remembered that such witness is largely casual. Bishop Talbot of Pretoria dwells forcibly on this point. "Of that Body (that is, the Church), its form and ordering and regulation, we know little relatively to the desire of knowledge of later generations, burdened with ecclesiastical controversy. The evidence that exists consists of incidental reference in the course of the Epistles and the Acts. There the references never carry with them explanations. That they are so allusive seems to imply that the thing alluded to is too well known to need explanation." [The Mind of the Disciples, p. 153.] A little later on he writes, "So the New Testament tells us little of the steps by which the Church found itself and attained to working order. Rather, a body is abruptly introduced which, while immature and at its earliest development, has already an established and assured method and practice." [The Mind of the Disciples, p. 155.]

This point must constantly be borne in mind: the New Testament is by no means an apologia for the Church. But at the same time it is inevitable that the Church should form its background and that the daily life of the Church should be easily recognized in its pages. No artist paints a picture without some sort of background to throw into relief the main subject of his canvas, and even the fragmentary pictures of our Lord's earthly life which form the Gospels are rich in the unconscious presentation of the familiar background which is contemporaneous with that portrait and its authors, the Evangelists. Surely every student of the New Testament is willing to agree that the Gospel stories are not plain records of the sayings and deeds of Jesus, but are the interpretation of those words and deeds in the light of the greater knowledge which has come with the passing of years and the experience of the Christian life. Indeed, the Gospel according to St. John is scarcely intelligible otherwise. The book of the Acts is an historical record; it sets forth the progress of the Church in the early years of its existence. But underlying the main theme and almost incidental to it, we may find, quite clear and distinct, the unconscious witness to the expanding and developing life of the Church of God.

So, too, with the Epistles. If they were written, each with a definite purpose in view, to meet certain difficulties which had arisen within the boundaries of the Church, nevertheless they are full of casual references to the life of the Christian community. For example, the Epistle to the Galatians was written to offset certain Judaistic influences which threatened the freedom of the Church, and, in his endeavours to avert this evil, St. Paul gives us a lengthy autobiographical passage which is of great value in its witness to the extension of the Church through his missionary efforts. Again, the Epistle to the Ephesians contains the working out by St. Paul of that conception of the Church as "The Body of Christ" which supplies the title for this Congress, but incidentally we discover, in our perusal of that Epistle, a certain lack of unity and concord among the members of the Church in Ephesus, and some practical injunctions for their common life in the fellowship of the Church. Once more, whatever we may think of their authorship, the Pastoral Epistles are full of instructions and recommendations for the well-being of the Christian body in those districts over which St. Timothy and St. Titus had the oversight under St. Paul. But these suggestions would be meaningless without the proper background of a Church life which is an accepted fact.

In no part of the New Testament do we discover a reasoned defense for the existence of the Church. That was taken for granted. The Church founded by our Lord on His Apostles is a living organism rapidly undergoing the process of organization through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No one thought of disputing this fact or of the necessity of defending or elucidating its truth.

Naturally we can find no clear-cut statements in the New Testament upon which to base irrefutable arguments with regard to such fundamental questions in the life of the Church as the origin and the authority of its Ministry, or the course of Sacramental development. Nor are there any clear indications of a definite liturgical worship on which we may base our later and more detailed public services. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that it was not the purpose of the Apostolic writers to present a rationale of their faith or their practice as followers of Jesus Christ. They were concerned with certain details which demanded attention, or with certain individual souls who needed counsel and advice. They had no thought, and certainly no expectation, that they were writing for posterity. This explains the casualness of their reference to those matters which we should consider to be of vital importance. To us these questions of Worship, the Ministry, and the Sacraments are all-important. To the early Christians, of course, they were of equal importance, but they were equally well known, and there was no need to write at length upon matters which everyone accepted and which no one dreamed of questioning. We have only to realize the casual nature of the witness of the New Testament writers to these three points to recognize their complete indifference towards any attempt to set forth any presentation of their faith in an ordered and well-balanced form.

What has the New Testament to say about the conduct of public worship? Strangely enough, all that the New Testament writers leave us are certain quotations which scholars have declared to be fragmentary portions of an early liturgical worship. There is no attempt to describe the offering of the Eucharist as it was celebrated, let us say, at Corinth or Rome. The references to the gathering together of the Christian converts for the "breaking of bread and the prayers" are meager in the extreme. Yet we would not deny that public worship and the celebration of the Liturgy have been outstanding features in the life of the Church from the beginning of its existence. Our difficulty is to prove very much from the pages of the New Testament whose references to such matters are (to say the least) casual and not informative. For every Christian for whose benefit the Apostles or Evangelists wrote had received proper catechetical instruction and had also been a recipient of the Church's Sacraments. They were perfectly familiar with the conduct of public worship. Why then should the writers of the New Testament repeat what was well known to their readers, or explain those references which not one of their hearers would fail to understand? The New Testament is not a manual of Liturgies. It merely presents to us what we should expect to find in its pages, certain fragmentary references to the corporate worship of the Church, inasmuch as such worship forms part of its daily life.

Or consider the question of the Ministry. How many of us would be glad to turn to some work of St. Paul's so that we could say: "Here is what the great Apostle himself wrote concerning the origin of the Apostolic Ministry and the functions which are to be exercised by Bishops, Priests and Deacons"? Or better still, to be able to find certain words spoken by our Blessed Lord in which He definitely appoints the threefold office in the Ministry and ordains men to their God-given work. If we could point to some such passage in the New Testament and definitely claim Scriptural authority for the Catholic Ministry, a knotty problem would never have arisen. But because the early Church had no conception of any other sort of Ministry, and because, in all probability, its organization and authority were only in process of crystallization, we can merely discover certain allusive passages in the New Testament whose interpretation is far from being clear and beyond dispute, but depends largely on the preconceptions under which we approach these texts. But again, we must remember that no author in the New Testament even dreamed of the necessity of writing an apology for the Ministry as it was familiar to all Christian people. It was so familiar, not only to themselves but also to their hearers, that there was no need to do more than make certain casual references to it or to its functions, which are overshadowed by the main purpose of their writing.

So also with regard to the Sacraments. There was no controversy or doubt in the minds of the early Christians concerning their sacramental religion. Baptism was the only known method of entrance into the Christian body; Communion was the normal experience of every member of the Church. St. Paul in his first Epistle to the Corinthians is compelled to treat with certain abuses which had crept in, certain abuses which had grown up in connection with the Eucharist, and incidentally he gives us some definite teaching concerning the worthiness or unworthiness of the recipient; but we look in vain for such teaching on the Eucharist as we should rightly expect to hear from the pulpit of every Catholic church today. For, again, if the New Testament is not a manual of Liturgies nor a primitive Ordinal, we need not expect to find that it is a primer of Church doctrine concerning the Sacraments; it is in reality but a fragmentary study of the difficulties of early Church life. Perhaps this truth is most clearly illustrated in the New Testament references to Confirmation. These are read at every administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation in our Church. But surely we realize, as we listen to them, that they are entirely inadequate as a basis for our teaching on the necessity for Confirmation. Yet here we find casual allusions to this practice, and to most of us the very casualness of their reference assures our minds of the universality of their practice.

Those of us, then, who turn to the New Testament in the expectation that we shall find in its pages full authority and full directions for public worship or the Ministry or the sacramental life are doomed beforehand to a complete disappointment. We are approaching the sacred writings without an intelligent understanding as to the circumstances under which they were written. Let us say it again: the purpose of the New Testament is not primarily apologetical, but rather it is essentially pastoral, the work of many shepherds who desire to lead their sheep to the fountain of living waters and the pastures of the blessed.

Two truths have been once more brought before our minds with regard to the Scriptures of the Body of Christ. First, that the Church antedated the New Testament and was, indeed, the author of this collection of sacred writings. Secondly, that these writings in turn bear a very real, if incidental, witness to the life and existence of the Church itself. We who are Catholics do not ignore our New Testament. To us it is truly the Word of God, and if we are not blind to the results of a sane and healthy criticism, it is not because we count the New Testament of little value, but because we are certain that a deeper and wider knowledge of its contents and its history will lead us back more faithfully to that great and glorious Catholic Church which is the mother of us all. "The Church witnesses to God and attracts men to her fellowship, while as yet they know little of the Bible; and the Bible witnesses to God and impresses men with its divine character, while as yet they know little of the Church. The two support one another like the sides of an arch. Each rests upon firm ground of its own, but each is immeasurably strengthened by the presence of the other." [The Church and the Bible, Goudge, p. 2.] "We cannot live without the Church. Nor can we live in the ever-deepening knowledge of our Lord and Saviour without the New Testament. Let us take to ourselves those words which St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, his dear son in the faith: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Tim. 3: 16, 17).

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