Lecture by Fr Henry Wansbrough at The Gift of Scripture Launch

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This is the lecture delivered by Father Henry Wansbrough at the launch of The Gift of Scripture at the British Library on 18 November 2005.

This day marks an important fortieth anniversary. Forty years ago today there took place in Rome an event which will always be important for me personally, and which I may without exaggeration say has marked my life. Those who have read the Foreword to The Gift of Scripture, and certainly their Eminences who wrote it, will be thinking I am referring to, and perhaps even a little overplaying, the publication of the Conciliar decree on Revelation, Dei Verbum, promulgated on 18th November, 1965. However, on that day, in another part of the Vatican, another event was taking place: I was sitting my final examination for the Licence in Sacred Scripture. I dare to mention this comparatively trivial event because the examination itself marks how far we have come since then. The exam was in biblical history. Biblical history was, for this purpose, divided into 30 periods, of which one was to be set for the 3-hour exam, written of course in Latin. It was received wisdom that one of those subjects could not be set and need not be revised. Accordingly, I revised only the 29 other topics, and inevitably found myself obliged to write for three hours on the one I had not revised: ‘The historical and geographical order of the ministry of Jesus’. Presumably candidates were expected to harmonise the divergent chronologies of the gospels, to describe the routes taken by Jesus on his journeys, the order in which his miracles occurred and the exact location on the hill above the Lake of Galilee where he preached the Sermon on the Mount. To complete the picture of how far we have come I dare also to say that a few days previously I had lunched at the English College with the Bishops assembled for the Council. In the course of the lunch my episcopal neighbour remarked, ‘Oh, you are a student of the Bible, are you? I suppose that means you don’t believe in it.’ In the 40 years which have passed since the promulgation of Dei Verbum we have come a long way, both in the academic approach to the Bible and in the value we put upon it. In both those ways I think I may say without exaggeration that The Gift of Scripture marks a coming of age.

Such an assessment demands some detailed praise for the document, and it is my pleasure to give this. First I would say that it is a highly Catholic document. It is built on and really grows out of authoritative Catholic teaching at four levels. These authorities are not merely frequently quoted, but do genuinely inform the thinking.

1. The full magisterium of the Church in the form of the Council decree on Revelation and Papal Encyclicals.

2. Documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the historical truth of the gospels, on the interpretation of the Bible and 27 quotations from the latest document on the Jewish people and their sacred scriptures in the Christian Bible.

3. Two addresses of Pope John Paul II.

4. The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

This is a comprehensive range of Catholic documentation, authoritative, academic and pastoral, and the thought of the document genuinely grows out of them. But the document is also catholic in another most important sense, ecumenical. From the beginning of the concept of this teaching document ecumenical representatives have been closely involved, and the agreed statements between Catholics and Anglicans, and between Catholics and Methodists are quoted from the first few paragraphs. One of the joys of biblical study has been that confessional boundaries play little part, and it is especially good to see this put into practice in an official teaching document of the Church. Particularly encouraging is the handsome admission of the debt to Christian scholars of other traditions than Catholic, and to Jewish scholars, when Catholic biblical scholarship was as it is delicately understated ‘hesitant about the wisdom of modern biblical methods’ (#82). The reference is, of course, to the gagging of biblical scholarship in the Catholic Church with almost the solitary exception of Baron von Hügel in this country in the first half of the twentieth century, between the Modernist Crisis and Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. As my opening story shows, Catholic biblical scholarship, and indeed Catholic use of and reverence for the Bible, hung well behind that of our non-Catholic contemporaries. After Divino Afflante Spiritu there was a good half-century of catching up to be done. Only after that can this document say, confidently and fairly at the beginning of the twenty-first century, that the Catholic Church ‘offers a valuable and distinctive contribution to the continuing work of scholarship and of biblical formation’ (#82). It was only after this catching up that the Bishops, led and inspired, I would like to say in honour of his memory, by our beloved Jack Brewer, Bishop of Lancaster, were ready to follow up their teaching document on the Eucharist, One Bread, One Body, with another on the other great source of nourishment for the Church, the Bible.

The document is also comprehensive in that it ranges widely over the history of the Church. To begin with, the first Papal quotation is from Pope John Paul’s allocution Ecclesia in Europa, reminding the reader that, at any rate ecclesiastically, Britain is part of Europe. Secondly, hardly have we turned the first page when Ireland is linked to England by St Patrick’s use of the Bible in the earliest exstant ‘documents which have survived in these lands’, closely followed by St Ninian for Scotland. Both of these made their contributions to the culture which produced those visual treasures, the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, of which we shall no doubt soon hear more. The authors might have added that the earliest complete Latin Bible MS surviving anywhere in the world, the Codex Amiatinus, was penned in St Bede’s monastery. Then a further link to Europe in St Boniface’s mission to Germany. How apt! The letters of that great missionary are full of his love for the Bible, his persevering request in old age for a large-print Bible to be sent from Winchester for his lectio divina in the badly-lit motels of the Rhineland, his pestering the monks of Jarrow for a copy of the commentaries of Bede on the Bible. The comprehensiveness of the range of The Gift of Scripture is important, with its survey of use of the Bible by such great exegetes as Jerome, Chrysostom and Origen. One of the primary achievements of the Vatican Constitution on Divine Revelation was to overcome the dichotomy between scripture and tradition, by insisting that scripture must be viewed through the lens of the tradition of the Church.

The document is not only catholic; it is also courageous. There has been sufficient confidence to admit that the Bible contains difficult, even shocking and scandalous passages. ‘The narratives [of the entry into Canaan] raise serious theological questions. God is presented as commanding the Israelites to annihilate their enemies by inflicting the “ban” or “curse of destruction”.’ (#32). Of the psalms, too, ‘some contain the language of hatred and violence’ (#39). In the New Testament also some passages in the Pauline writings suggest a subordinate role for women (#66). It is acknowledged that these biblical passages have been used in comparatively recent history to justify the subjection of women to men or, worse, the violent maltreatment of whole races, or in the Holy Land itself the expropriation of groups of the ancient population.

The passages, particularly in Matthew and John, which have been used throughout the Christian history to justify persecution of the Jews, do not go unmentioned (#59). Such misuse of the Bible is, from the beginning, related to ‘fundamentalism’, a refusal to see scripture in its development and an intransigent disregard of the diversity of views expressed, ‘thus making absolute what is a partial and incomplete understanding within scripture’ (#19 also 13). The individual difficulties are faced squarely by putting them in the context of the whole Bible. Revelation is a gradual process and must be viewed diachronically, so that a more primitive state of mind gives way to a fuller understanding: ‘such texts come from particular social and religious settings and must be read in the context of the whole of scripture, and particularly in the light of the testimony of the gospels to Jesus’ own inclusive attitudes and behaviour’ (#66).

Paradoxically, it seems to me that the reading of and meditation on biblical passages about cold-blooded slaughter of prisoners, cries for brutal vengeance and callous oppression of the weak is still a valuable reminder that such primitive instincts remain part of human nature today.

Thirdly, the document is confident. A ridiculous headline appeared on 5th October in The Times over a rather good article, ‘Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible’. The headline at any rate served usefully in bringing the teaching document to the attention of the wider public through a little flurry of TV and radio exposure. As Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Satanic Verses attest, there is no way of increasing sales as effective as putting a book on the Index of Forbidden Books. The headline relied on selective quotation. The quotation, ‘We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision’, was only explanatory of the previous sentence, ‘We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other secular matters’, that is matters other than the truths written down for the sake of our salvation. The Catholic church has of course not abandoned one iota of its claim to the truth of the Bible; it has merely focused what sort of truth and where in the Bible such truth is to be found. The study of literary genres encouraged by the Church (#19) has in fact enabled scholars to see that religious teaching in the early chapters of the Bible is expressed under the guise of historical writing. These chapters are no more historical writing than is Little Red Riding Hood; the truths they convey are wholly different. So, referring to the first 11 chapters of Genesis, The Gift of Scripture affirms ‘though they may contain some historical traces, the primary purpose was to provide religious teaching’ (#28). It follows this up with a neat little list of the important and profound truths on the dual human condition of dignity and of failure which are taught in these chapters. In all these ways the reader of these chapters is led to a deeper self-knowledge, and to a richer understanding of the personal relationship of dependence on the source of all being. I only regret that some loss of nerve led to the inclusion of ‘though they may contain some historical traces’. There is no suggestion of ‘historical traces’ in the passage of the Pontifical Biblical Commission document cited as authority for this qualification.

So much for the treatment of the beginning; the treatment of the end is equally confident. Since that important iconoclast John AT Robinson coined the phrase ‘a three-decker universe’ (and before that) Christians have been mocked for the naivety of biblical expectations of last trumpets, stars falling from heaven and gigantic cube-shaped new cities (14,000 miles cubed, according to Rv 21.16) with jewelled gates and no sunlight. The Gift of Scripture asserts firmly, ‘Such symbolic language must be respected for what it is, and is not to be interpreted literally.

We should not expect to discover in this book details about the end of the world’ (#69). To vary the imagery slightly, every teenager lives in the slightly nervous expectation that in the final volume Harry Potter will kill Voldemort. Every Christian lives in the secure conviction that the great prostitute will be destroyed and the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb will be the Temple in the city. The only important difference lies in the certainty and in the source of this certainty, not in the mode of expression. One mode of expression uses the picture-language popular in the first century, the other uses the picture-language popular in the twenty/twenty-first century.

This approach to the beginning and end of the Bible is thoroughly praiseworthy. I would have been glad if the same approach had been applied more explicitly than it is to other books of the Bible. Differences between the literary methods used and those of the present day could profitably have been more clearly spelt out. The historical books of the Bible are not of course written in the style of academic historical analyses two or three thousand years later. The stories of the patriarchs are folk history, intended to explain the origin of a people and the complexities of its way of life. On the other hand, books like Tobit and Jonah (which both earn a week’s exposure in the Lectionary) appear to be historical when in fact they convey their message through fiction, satire and humour. The brilliantly-told story of the Acts of the Apostles, read right through the Easter season, uses all the techniques of the popular histories and novels of its day. A judgement on levels of comprehension to be presupposed for the document is difficult, and the readership envisaged must be far wider than the circle of those assembled here today. However, without spiralling into a vortex of academic obscurity, it might have been possible to challenge the reader more severely.

At this stage of the launch of the document I should explain its arrangement. There are two preliminary sections. Part One, entitled ‘Hearing the Word of God’, sets out the Catholic view of the place of scripture in God’s self-revelation to human beings, its relationship to the other ways in which the Holy Spirit guides and enlightens the People of God, the living tradition of the Church and the magisterium. Part Two, ‘Understanding the Word of God’, outlines how this word has been and should be received, how it should be read and understood, the importance of inspiration and the dangers of fundamentalism. The third and the fourth part, respectively ‘Reading the Old Testament’ and ‘Reading the New Testament’ work through nearly all the books of the Bible. These introductions to the various books are theologically very rich, a page or two alerting the reader to themes and aspect of the books which should claim attention. One of the most apt correctives is on the prophets: the insistence that they ‘do not so much foretell the future as speak with devastating clarity about the realities they see around them’ (#34). In an older style of exegesis the prophets were treated largely as a quarry for photographic anticipations of future events, particularly concerning the messanic fulfilment in Christ. The prophets provided a sort of anticipatory reflexion into which the reality would slot when the messiah came. Now we see the prophets as teaching for their own time, normally a message which is unwelcome in a fallen and self-seeking world (whence a valuable section on the suffering of the prophets), but enriching the understanding of the relationship between God and the Chosen People in a way which will reach its fullness in the messiah. The text is indeed ‘often richer than the author’s intention’ (#20), but any further sense must be considered secondary and posterior to the prophet’s teaching for his own contemporaries. Nevertheless, this understanding of the prophets contributes valuable insights for the understanding of Christ. In many other ways also these outlines of teaching will make useful reading for anyone, yes, anyone embarking on a course of liturgical or devotional reading of that book. It will make the teaching document useful to keep at one’s side for reference.

The fifth and final part is more practical, concerned with the use of scripture, its necessity in initial catechesis, its enrichment in the catechesis of preparation for the sacraments, its breadth in the new arrangements of the lectionary, its use in the context of school and family celebrations. Reminders are also given of ways in which the honour in which the Word of God is held is to be expressed in liturgical arrangements. The recommendations made here touch the inspiring use of the Bible in liturgies of the Word. In areas like Africa and Australia, to mention only two English-speaking continents, where parish communities are so far flung that weekly eucharistic celebrations are impossible even among the most devoted Catholics, the People of God come together regularly to meet the Lord and be nourished in the sacrament of the Word.

This part of The Gift of Scripture begins with the reminder, ‘Read as the heart of the living Tradition of the community of faith, these Scriptures provide guidance on countless contemporary issues: the rights and responsibilities of the human person, the value of human life from conception to death, the need to protect the created world, the search for lasting justice and peace for all peoples'(#70). Yes, the Lord may speak to us directly, as he did to St Anthony of the Desert when his ear rang with the words, ‘Sell all you have and follow me’, or to St Augustine in that wonderful passage of the Confessions 8.12, when he heard the child at play cry ‘Tolle, lege’. He took up the Bible and his eye fell on ‘No orgies or drunkenness, etc; let your armour be the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rm 13.13-14). More often, however, it is in the repeated and meditative reading of the Bible that the Lord speaks to us. The Bible does not give easy answers; easy answers are the quest of the fundamentalist . It cannot be treated as a mechanical search-engine for answers to contemporary moral and religious questions. It feeds the mind and the heart, forming in the reader the mind of Christ. Food needs to be digested before it gives energy. This teaching document will be an invaluable aid to the digestion process.