Whose Book Is It Anyway?

Let us love the truth set out in the Scriptures, and ignore the fixations of those who would separate us from Christ.

Hans Adolf Hornemann (1866–1916), “In the Scriptorium”
Hans Adolf Hornemann (1866–1916), “In the Scriptorium” (photo: Public Domain)

What is the basic truth about the Bible? Is there something we need to know in order, not just to read it, but to reverence what we read? Some primary point to justify the aura with which pious souls have surrounded it from the first moment of its appearance in the life of the Church? It is bad enough when people will not read it, but far worse when they have no reverence for what they read. So, is there a reason to read it? 

The answer is Yes. But the reason is no longer so obvious to great numbers of people who once believed it. Believed what? That the source and authorship of the Bible is God himself. That in a most sublimely mysterious way, God actually wrote the whole blooming book. The Bible, therefore, is not our book about God; still less is it our book about ourselves. It is rather God’s book about God and ourselves in relation to him. He’s the central character in the story. Not only is he the teller of the tale — he is the subject of its telling. If we figure at all in the story, and doubtless we do, we nevertheless remain fairly tangential to its telling. And so, given its essential autobiographical slant, we mustn’t take ourselves too seriously.

“I am he who is,” says God to St. Catherine of Siena, “you are she who is not.” If God shows so little hesitancy in calling out a saint and Doctor of the Church — the patroness of Italy, no less, who hesitated not at all in telling great big cardinals and popes what to do — how much more must we disabuse ourselves of vain and empty pretension?

So, yes, God is the author of Holy Scripture. He is solely responsible, therefore, for authenticating the meaning of the text.

“There is no way of ‘backing’ or ‘underpinning’ the text of God’s word with another text,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, “and giving it another background in the hope of making it more easy to read and more comprehensible. God’s word must interpret itself and wishes to do so.”

And that is because, once again, it is his text. Both his word, and his will, are given concrete expression, outfitted with a body possessing weight and extension, which thereupon, with sheer blazing sacramental light, shines through every page. Why else would we speak of the Scriptures as sacred and inspired? If it is not God making himself known, really and palpably present on the page, then there is no reason to reverence the page. It is no less profane than any other page taken from a literary construct purchased and read. Unless it is the Uncreated Word himself, speaking through the medium of human language, then the medium has nothing terribly interesting or relevant to say. 

How fortunate we are to have a God who knows how to write perfectly straight lines with crooked pencils, to quote a wonderful Portuguese proverb. And, as always, it will be God telling us his truth. Whose strategy, as the poet Emily Dickinson implies, is that of irony. “Tell all the truth,” she advises, “but tell it slant—

Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The truth’s superb surprise
As lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Does God then become paper? Is that how it works? Are we to pick up the paper, then, pressing it tightly against the heart, whereupon we commence speaking to it? Only in a pantheistic universe might we do that, one in which God, collapsing into the cosmos he created, becomes entirely indistinguishable from it. Only if he were to cease being God, no longer the one who stands in complete, effortless transcendence to the world he made. But, as in the order of sacrament, in which the grace of God enters into the grit, so perfecting its nature as to turn it into a launching pad for glory, the words on paper really do represent — or, more precisely, re-present — the mind and will of God himself. The words signify, they sign-post, the self-utterance of God’s own Word, to which we draw near in order to hear, and thus to heed, the voice of the living God.

However hidden and disguised in the vesture of human sign and symbol, God’s Word speaks to us, telling us all that we need to know. Remaining, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8). What this means, of course, is that today we see God as he really is — he who comes among us in the form of his Incarnate Son — only if we understand and see him in the context of who and what he was yesterday. And, at the same time, we see and understand in the Christ of both yesterday and today, the eternal and unchanging Christ. The same Christ: yesterday, now, and forever.

In his book A New Song For The Lord, Joseph Ratzinger puts it this way:

We will have to listen to the sources which, by bearing witness to the origin, correct our present age when it gets lost in its own fantasies. This humble submission to the word of the sources, this willingness to let our dreams be snatched away from us and to obey reality is a basic condition for true encounter. Encounter demands the asceticism of truth, the humility of hearing and seeing which leads to the authentic grasping of the truth.

And so let us try and love the truth set out in the Scriptures by Christ, by the One who is Truth, more than the fantasies and fixations of those in the culture who would separate us from Christ. Put simply, we must love the truth more than ourselves.