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What About the Scriptures?

In 01 Essential Background on 2012/02/26 at 9:11 AM

Athanasius said: “No one who reads the Scriptures can plead ignorance of the facts as an excuse for error.”  In 367 Athanasius was the first to declare the twenty seven books of the New Testament a Canon binding on the whole Church, but it was not conclusively settled until the synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (419) in the time of Augustine.

In his epistles to Timothy, Paul explicitly states all the books of the Bible are inspired by God and are therefore of great help in evangelization. The New Testamentʼs later books, particularly the Epistles of St. Paul, show also that the Church from the beginning struggled against erroneous doctrine being introduced. St. John (1 John 4:2-3) wrote specifically against the Docetist heresy which claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human, to suffer, and to die;  that He really was a pure spirit in human garb.  St. Paul and St. Jude struggled against emerging Gnosticism, the elitist, hyper-spiritual heresy emphasizing secret revelations (1 Tim 6:20-21)

As the Church spread through the vast Roman Empire, confusion in doctrine became more common.  For as the Gospel was proclaimed along the trade routes, its bearers often encountered pagans unfamiliar with the Jewish roots of Christian faith. And as time went by the culture, language and customs from the time of Jesus became more and more remote.  Doctrine was essential and not incidental to Christianity; these problems, therefore, created a crisis.   The Fathers preached, wrote and celebrated the liturgy in a manner to make the Person of Jesus Christ central.  They faithfully presented Him, His word and miracles, his suffering, dying and rising.

The Early Church Fathers firmly believed that fidelity and devotion to Jesus Christ would guarantee the accuracy of their teaching.  Most people were illiterate.  Those who were not generally could not afford to buy copied manuscripts.  So the first generations of Christians absorbed the Gospel through the liturgy of the Church and the homilies of their local bishop.  St. Paul in Romans 10:17 said, “Faith comes by hearing.”  The early Christians revered as Fathers those from whom they heard the Word. The Fathers saw themselves commissioned as transmitters of the Gospel (Good News of Christ) in the form they had received it: aurally by listening to the teachings of the Apostles.  Later, the Gospels were passed on in written form.

Clement of Rome wrote to the Corinthians: The Apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Christ therefore was was sent forth by God, and the Apostles by Christ.  Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God.” Ignatius of Antioch advised Polycarp: “Do not let yourself be upset by those who seem to be very reliable and yet put forth strange teachings. . . . Stand your guard, like an anvil under the hammer. The mark of a good athlete is to win despite taking blows.  Accept trials of all kinds for Godʼs sake, and we will be accepted by Him. Be even more diligent that you are now.”

The Fathers showed faithful devotion to Scripture. Augustine said that “reading Scripture is like reading letters from another world, letters from our Father and from our fatherland.” Ambrose said the Bible was ”the feast of wisdom and the individual books were the various dishes.” Jerome wrote: “To be ignorant of Scripture is to be ignorant of Christ”  He counseled: “Read the divine Scriptures very often. Learn what they have to teach,  keep a firm hold on the word of faith which accords with doctrine, so as to be able to exhort others with sound doctrine and win over your opponents.”

Practically every page of the Church Fathers’ own writings (homilies, letters, theological and catechetical injunctions) are filled with quotations from both the Old and the New Testament, indicating that they wanted all to know as much as possible of the Scripture and for none to be ignorant fo them. Vincent of Lerins maintained: “Religion, of its nature, must be passed on in its entirety to children with the same fidelity as it has been received by the parents themselves; we have no right to take religions and do with it what we will; rather, it is we who must follow wherever religion leads us.” Gregory the Great commented that “what is Holy Scripture if not a kind of letter from almighty God to his creature. Therefore, please study and reflect on the words of your Creator every day. Learn what the will of God is by entering deep into the words of that God. . . . No one can be saved who has not first believed, therefore, it is the task of the pastors and bishops to preach the Gospel of God to all men. In this way they carry out the Lordʼs command: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation.”

Lastly, the Fathers discerned in the Scriptures two levels of meaning: the literal and the spiritual. They acknowledged that each text told a literal truth, describing a historical event, person, or precept, and, at the same time, proclaimed a moral or spiritual truth essential to Christian behavior.

Meditating on the Word of God and reflecting on our experience in the light of Faith both deepen understanding of revealed Truth.  The essential meaning of the Truths of the Faith does not change.  It cannot: Because God Himself does not change, neither does He contradict Himself.

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