Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about the authority of Scripture and how the church has disagreed about the role that tradition and the Catholic Magisterium have in forming the doctrine of the church. I made particular reference to the teaching of the Catholic Magisterium and they differed with the magisterial Protestant Reformers. The main reason I wrote that particular piece was to show one of the reasons why I was not a Catholic. Another reason I wrote was to show that one could hold to the final authority of Scripture without holding to the typically fundamentalist views of the Bible many conservative Catholic apologists accuse Protestants of holding to even when they clearly deny these views. My blog was not meant to be a polemic against Catholics, or even Catholicism, even though I am not persuaded by the Catholic argument at all. It was meant to be more of a confession about my own journey and understanding than anything else. It was a type of statement that very simply stated why I remain where I am in terms of the church. Most readers understood that point and responded accordingly. But some wanted to show me why I was wrong and convince me that only the Catholic Church understood this matter of authority correctly. (I am fully aware of the logic involved—two contradictory views cannot both be right. One is wrong or both are wrong but both cannot be right at the same time! It could be, however, that neither has the whole truth thus neither is quite right, at least not yet. This should lead toward a different way of doing doctrinal disagreements, one that I do intend to foster by my writing.)
Today, I want to comment on the Scripture again. This time, however, I want to show how much we have in common as Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians when it comes to actually using the Scriptures in our lives. I have in mind today the power of the Word. All Christians, from antiquity to the present, have agreed (or should agree) that the Scripture has an inherent Spirit-given power that can be acknowledged and celebrated by everyone who loves the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here is a way of seeing this simple point from a Catholic perspective, that of the famous Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was a French monk and the founder of the Cistercians. He wrote:
When you see a soul which, having left all, cleaves unto the Word with every thought and desire; lives only for the Word, rules itself according to the Word and becomes fruitful by the Word—which is able to say with St. Paul, “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain”—then you may have assurance that this soul is a bride wedded to the Word.
St. Bernard wrote this in a sermon he preached on The Song of Songs.
Think about this quote for a moment. This respected Catholic monk is urging every believer to conform every thought and desire to Scripture. He adds that real assurance comes from being wedded to the Word of God as a bride to her husband. In case you protest, he is using Word here not as simply a synonym for Jesus, the true and eternal Word, but for the Word revealed in the written apostolic Scripture.
The most famous of all Catholic theologians, and perhaps the most brilliant theologian in the history of the Christian Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, said: “I am a man of one book!”
And one of my favorite modern Catholic writers, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), wrote about Scripture:
Anyone entering the sphere of radiance of the divine word is held fast by it; he knows from experience that this word not only communicates knowledge about God, but—hidden within the God of the letter—actually has divine qualities; in itself it is an overpowering manifestation of God’s infinity and truth, his majesty and love.
French Cistercian abbott Andre Louf, a Catholic writer on prayer that I value very highly, wrote in Teach Us to Pray (1992): “The heart of man was made to receive the Word, and the Word adapts itself to the dimensions of the human heart.”
And St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), a holy teacher of the Catholic faith, wrote: “But it is especially the Gospels which sustain me during my hours of prayer, for in them I find what is necessary for my poor little soul. I am constantly discovering in them new lights, hidden and mysterious meanings.”
This has been my experience as well, especially in the last two decades of my life.
A recently discovered Catholic teacher who has helped me a great deal is David Steindl-Rast. Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk and profound spiritual writer, says, “Responsive reading is the form the Bible gives to our basic religious quest as human beings.”
Let me ask you, Protestant or Catholic reader both: Do you value the Scripture in this way? Have you tasted of the power of Holy Scripture and do you meditate upon these writings day-by-day and read them to gain the knowledge of the true love of Jesus? While you debate and read apologetics about Scripture and Magisterium do you treasure the writings? Do they take you to Jesus?
You know what—we may disagree (and we will likely continue to disagree) about the exact way we understand the role Scripture plays in defining the authority of the church on earth but we plainly can and do agree that the role Scripture should have in changing our lives is direct and powerful. This is why a real ecumenist says, “We can do these two things together: pray and read the Scripture and we must do them both more and more.”
This is why missional-ecumenism can celebrate this reality—when we read and study Scripture privately, but especially together, we open a door to amazing insights and truths that can transform us—Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox—without leading any of us to compromise our basic convictions about the church.
William Johnston, the author of one of my favorite books on mysticism rightly concludes:
For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power of the word of God is so great that it remains the support and energy of the Church, the strength and faith of her children, the food of the soul, the pure and perennial source of spiritual life.