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BY MARK SHEA
correctness won’t save you.
St. James warns pithily that
theological correctness is not a ticket to heaven when he writes: “You believe
that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” (James
2:19). He gets that pithiness from his cousin and Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, who
“Not every one who says to me,
‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my
Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we
not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty
works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them,
‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Obedience to God, not mighty works
— including mighty works of correct theology — is what will save us.
That means that, as important as a
correct understanding of who Jesus is, it’s not enough. After seeing Jesus
clearly in Scripture, we have to make it our business to walk in his way. It’s
not enough to know about Christ: We have to be like him.
For this reason, the Church has
always looked in Scripture not merely for images of Christ, but for images of
discipleship to Christ. That is, it has always seen in Scripture a moral sense that shows us pictures of
how the Christian life is supposed to look.
Of course, much of the moral sense
is not exactly mysterious. Scripture is replete with examples of straightforward
natural law such as “You shall not kill” and “You shall not commit adultery.”
In addition, it has moral teaching that is not merely natural but supernatural,
such as the command to love not simply friends, but enemies as well. All such
didactic teaching is available to anybody able to read or listen to plain
English (or Greek and Hebrew, as the case may be).
But in addition to the plain
didactic moral teaching of the Bible there are other ways in which the moral
teaching is communicated to us.
Scripture is filled with imagery
as well as words. Jesus, for instance, gave us not a discourse on servant
kingship but an icon when he wrapped
a towel around his waist, took a basin and washed the filthy feet of the
apostles. He gave us a picture.
The Holy Spirit does the same as
he inspires the Old Testament.
Instead of homilies about the
triumph of the faithful weak over the powerful of this world, Scripture shows
us David and Goliath. The Temple
becomes, for Paul, an image of the human body that must be kept holy and
undefiled. Warfare in the Old Testament (such as the conquest of the seven
nations of Canaan by Joshua) becomes an image
of our struggle to conquer the seven deadly sins under the command of our new
captain, Jesus. Physical beauty and ugliness become symbols of moral beauty and
One of the difficulties with the
moral sense of Scripture is that it is emphatically an example of the fact that
revelation in Scripture is not static but developing.
Israelites commit acts that are
clearly incompatible with the full revelation of Christ and the developed
teaching of the Church. The psalmist praises anybody who will smash a
Babylonian baby’s head against a rock in vengeance for the sufferings of Israel in Babylon.
David promises to abstain from vengeance on his enemies, but then tells Solomon
to rub them out after he dies.
There are three wrong ways to cope
with this problem: Ignore texts you don’t like, spiritualize the literal sense
of the texts out of existence and try to subordinate the New Testament to them.
A wiser approach, I think, is to
recognize that biblical revelation is an unfolding revelation. The Old
Testament writers are growing in understanding.
Some talk, early on, as though
there is no afterlife (for instance, Ecclesiastes). Others have a murky notion
a sort of dim underworld. The revelation of heaven, hell and purgatory doesn’t
become clear till the revelation of Christ. Likewise, the understanding of
punishment for sin tends to precede the understanding of mercy for sin. David
and the psalmist know something of justice. It’s just that they don’t know
That’s partly why Christ has come:
to utter mysteries hidden since the foundation of the world and to make it
possible for us to live those mysteries. For without revelation, 99% of us
would never dream of loving our enemies. And without the help of the Holy
Spirit, those who did would find it impossible to do.
Likewise, without revelation, we’d
be as clueless about heaven, hell and purgatory as the author of Ecclesiastes.
But we are not without that revelation, as we shall discuss next week.
This column is part 4 in a series.
Mark Shea is senior content editor