Who Really Wrote Holy Writ?

“Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.” —Dei Verbum

Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles”
Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632), “Saint Paul Writing His Epistles” (photo: Public Domain)

If the Council Fathers were right in telling us that the Bible belongs to God, and that on every page he speaks to us, sending out communications beneath the breath of the Holy Spirit, how should we respond? As privileged recipients of a Word entrusted to his Bride, the Church, what attitude ought we to have in hearing or reading this Word? Here we are, eavesdropping, as it were, on a conversation that has been going on from all eternity, and because the exchange is among the three divine persons on whom our salvation happens to depend, how best may we receive it?

Surely the only finally appropriate attitude to take is one of discipleship, not scholarship. However necessary it may be to master a myriad of technical details about the text — the precise meaning of words, for instance, transcribed from ancient tongues — in terms of the finality of motivation in approaching the text, primacy belongs to the disciple. To one whose mind and will have been fortified with a faith attuned to hearing exactly the Word who was in the beginning and without whom there could not be a beginning. One’s whole attitude, in other words, must be that of complete docility before Christ, who alone is Master and Teacher. The true disciple of the Lord, therefore, does not set about trying to dominate the Book, forcing it onto some Procrustean Bed of his own devising. Rather one is to remain with perfect receptivity before the self-revealing Word of God himself. 

Do not confuse docility, however, with servility, as though one were required to check one’s intelligence in the cloak room before sitting down before the Book. Reason is not the enemy of faith, but its handmaid. Remaining simple and childlike before the text — not childish and infantile — with eyes wide open to take in all that has been revealed, is the only way forward. Otherwise, the text will refuse to yield its secrets, leaving the mystery either undiscovered or, and this is far worse, completely blown apart. In fact, the whole point of the exercise is to integrate the two, both discipleship and scholarship, so that they move in tandem, neither one lording it over the other.

The philosopher Etienne Gilson provides a wonderful and instructive example of how this works. The triumph of the Gothic, which became a lance aimed at the heart of God, could only have been, he tells us, “the happy result of piety joined to geometry.” Leave one or the other out, and there is no cathedral.

Perfect mastery of the text, in other words, is a matter of both learning and love; of reverence for what you have received coupled with an aim to understand what you reverence. Only the man moved by love is likely to learn things that are truly important to him. “Rome was not loved because she was great,” Chesterton reminds us. “She was great because she was loved.” It is, by the way, a principle applicable to almost anything worth knowing or doing, from playing the piano to baking a pie to tossing a frisbee. Love what you do and learn all that you can about the thing that you love. In other words, enter as deeply as you can into the thing itself, allowing the sheer otherness of it to instill its meaning into your mind and heart.

“The first criterion of success in any endeavor,” declared W.H. Auden, “is intensity of love, or, less pompously, love.” To appreciate a work of art, of beauty — and the Christ shown to us in the Scriptures is supremely, stunningly beautiful — one needs to approach it much like a piece of stained glass window, which means from the inside, from the angle of the artist who fashioned it. Stand on the outside, straddling the pavement, and the work will appear pallid and opaque, boring and dull. But the moment you step inside, encountering the work as though for the very first time, with a sense of childlike wonder and amazement, you will all at once be struck by the sudden dazzling display of light and color, of clarity and proportion, the sheer radiance of the scene will overwhelm and, yes, stupefy the soul.

In short, we must become, as Jesus himself advises, like little children, overflowing with fresh and continuous delight. “The child,” exults Chesterton, “sees the world in the light of an eternal morning … which has a sort of wonder in it as if the world were as new as the child itself.” And the thing that renders so wonderful the experience of childhood, he concludes, “is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world.” 

What counts is the wonder. Before anything else one must allow oneself to be ravished, swept away by the encounter with existence, with the Christ figure who, like an athlete, may be seen running through all the pages of his Book. It is as though, once again, one were to see the world as if it had just been made. 

“At a certain historical moment,” writes Luigi Giussani, “one man, Jesus of Nazareth, not only revealed the mystery of God but identified himself with it.” And because every word of Holy Writ will testify to that fact, we must love and esteem the Book he wrote.