Sunday, August 03, 2008

Not just How, but also Why

Hugo of the Seventh-day Adventist to Roman Catholic blog reflects a bit on the Catholic Church's authoritative decision concerning which books would comprise the Old and New Testaments, making up the "Bible" as we know it today. Most Christians accept that the Holy Spirit was involved, although the key attribute for Catholics is that the process was guided by both Tradition and Church Authority. We have records, for example, from the regional councils of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397-419 AD), as well as the later confirmations such as that of the Council of Trent (1546 AD) concerning the accepted books. When I approached this from a Protestant perspective, I found a lot of folks to be dismissive about the origins of the Bible -- some even assuming that the Bible more or less fell out of the sky in its present form (and in English). Others simply ignored the fact that the Catholic Church had anything to do with it. But all of that aside.

The question of how the Bible, and the books that comprise it, came to be is an interesting one, but I find that an even greater question, often left out in contemporary apologetics, is Why? Why did the early church go through the trouble? After all, the Church existed for decades before many of the Gospels and letters that would comprise the New Testament were ever written. Why these letters, as well as a formal recognition of what books would comprise the Old Testament, were debated, bound together in codices, and eventually canonized authoritatively by early councils and confirmed by bishops is inextricably linked to the Catholic Church's ancient liturgical heritage. That is, to understand why, one must also understand the role the Scriptures played in early Christian and Jewish liturgical worship.

To my delight, I found that Scott Hahn treats the question of why very well in his book, Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word in the Liturgy. He summarizes the answer to the question very well in Ch. 8:
The liturgy is, once again, where the early church kept the scriptures. Indeed, the books we know as the New Testament were canonized not so much for devotional reading -- which was rare in those days before the printing press -- but for liturgical proclamation. The liturgy is where most exegesis took place through much of the patristic era. The controversy over which books should be included in the Bible was, to a great extent, a running argument over which books could be read during the Mass. As Justin Martyr said in 155 AD, one of the principle parts of the liturgy was the reading of the prophets and the "memoirs" of the apostles.
Absolutely! And though the Church today, of course, encourages regular private study of the Scriptures, the Church considers that their special and proper place is within the context of liturgical proclamation, where they are, as it were, actualized. Of course, we see this connection in some of the ancient conciliar canons regarding the authoritative list of books. The Council of Carthage, for example, prefaces the canon regarding the accepted books by first asserting:
That besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture. But the Canonical Scriptures are as follows...
The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the importance of the Scriptures in the life of the Church, particularly within the liturgical context, in Ch. 6 of Dei Verbum:
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles.

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