BIBLE (from biblion, a letter or paper, and that from biblos, the inner bark of papyrus). A name given to the sacred books of the Israelites and the Christians. In itself “Bible” might mean a book of whatever kind, just as its synonym “Scriptures” (graphai) means originally writings of any sort. Gradually the Israelites who spoke Greek employed the word “Bible” as a convenient name for their sacred books. Thus the Greek translator of Ecclesiasticus, writing soon after 132 A.C., mentions the law and the prophets and the rest of the Bible (ta loipa ton biblion); and a similar instance might be quoted from first Machabees. Our Lord and his disciples received the Israelitic collection of the sacred books with the same reverence as the Israelites themselves, and gave it the title usual at the time — viz. “the Scriptures.” But after an interval there came a change. The Apostles and their disciples wrote books professing sacred authority. These writings appeared in the latter half of the first century, and were quoted within the Church with the same formulas — “it is written,” etc. — which had been used before to introduce citations from the law and the prophets. These books of Christian authorship were called, first of all, “the books” or “scriptures of the new covenant,” and from the beginning of the third century, the shorter expression “new covenant” came into vogue. In Chrysostom and succeeding writers we find “bible” (biblia) as the familiar term for the whole collection contained in either “covenant,” or, as we should now say, in the Old and New Testaments.
Here we take for granted that the Bible consists of a number of inspired books, contained in the Vulgate translation and enumerated by the Council of Trent; and we proceed to treat of its authority, its interpretation, and of its use among the faithful.
1. The Church holds that the sacred Scripture is the written word of God. The Council of Trent, “following the example of the orthodox Fathers, receives with piety and reverence all the books of the Old and New Testament, since one God is the author of each.” These words of the council, which are an almost verbal repetition of many early definitions, separate the Bible utterly from all other books. Of no human compositions, however excellent, can it be said that God is its author. And the divine origin of Scripture implies its perfect truth. “We know for certain,” St. Irenaeus argues, “that the Scriptures are perfect, since they are spoken by the Word of God and by the Spirit.” Some few Catholic theologians have, indeed, maintained that the Scriptures may err in minimis — i.e. in small matters of historical detail which in no way affect faith or morals. Nor in doing so do they contradict any express definition of Pope or council, though such an opinion has never obtained any currency in the Church. But of course the modern Protestant theories which reduce the historical account of the Bible to mere myths, or again which, while they allow that the Scripture contains the word of God, deny that it is the written word of God, are in sharp and obvious contradiction to the decrees of the Church.
2. The Church, then, affirms that all Scripture is the word of God, but at the same time it maintains that there is an unwritten word of God over and above Scripture. Just as Catholics are bound to defend the authority of the Bible against the new school of Protestants who have come to treat it as an ordinary book, so they are compelled to withstand that Protestant exaggeration, on the other side, according to which the word of God is contained in Scripture and in Scripture alone. The word of God (so the Council of Trent teaches) is contained both in the Bible and in Apostolical tradition, and it is the duty of a Christian to receive the one and the other with equal veneration and respect. The whole history and the whole structure of the New Testament witness to the truth and reasonableness of the Catholic view. If our Lord had meant His Church to be guided by a book and by a book alone, He would have taken care that Christians should be at once provided with sacred books. As a matter of fact He did nothing of the kind. He refers those who were to embrace His doctrine, not to a book, but to the living voice of His apostles and of His Church. “He who heareth you,” He said to the apostles, “heareth me.” For twenty years after our Lord’s ascension, not a single book of the New Testament was written, and all that time no Christian could appeal, as many Protestants do now, to the Bible and the Bible only, for the simple reason that the New Testament did not exist, and the faithful were evidently called upon to believe many truths for which no strict and cogent proofs could be brought from the pages of the Israelitic Scriptures. Further, when the writings of the New Testament were issued, they appeared one by one, in order to meet special exigencies, nor is the least hint given that the Apostles or their disciples provided that their writings should contain the whole sum of Christian truth. St. Paul wrote to various churches in order to give them instruction on particular points, and in order to preserve them from moral or doctrinal errors to which they were exposed at the moment. Far from professing to communicate the whole circle of doctrine in a written form, he exhorts his converts in one of his earliest epistles, to “hold the traditions which” they had learned, whether by word or by “his epistle,” a few years later he praises the Corinthians for keeping the traditions (paradoseis) as he delivered them, and towards the close of his life, he warns St. Timothy to keep the “deposit” of the faith (paratheken), without a syllable to imply that this deposit had been committed to writing. So, with regard to the Gospel records, St. John expressly declares that they were from the necessity of the case an incomplete account of Christ’s life. The Christians who lived nearest to Apostolic times believed, as the Apostles themselves had done, that Scripture is a source, but by no means the only source, of Christian doctrine. Tertullian constantly appeals to the tradition of the Apostolic Churches, and lays down the principle on which all his arguments against heresy turn — viz., that the Apostles taught both by word and by letter. A little before Tertullian’s time, St. Irenaeus actually put the imaginary case that the Apostles had left no Scripture at all. In this case, he says, we should still be able to follow the order of tradition, which [the Apostles] handed down to those into whose hands they committed the Churches.
3. There is a controversy no less vital between Catholics and Protestants as to the interpretation of Scripture. A popular Protestant theory makes it the right and the duty of each individual to interpret the Bible for himself and to frame his own religion accordingly; the Catholic, on the contrary, maintains that it belongs to the Church, and to the Church alone, to determine the true sense of the Scripture, and that we cannot interpret contrary to the Church’s decision, or to “the unanimous consent of the Fathers,” without making shipwreck of the faith. The Catholic is fully justified in believing with perfect confidence that the Church cannot teach any doctrine contrary to the Scripture, for our Lord has promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. On the other hand, Christ has made no promise of infallibility to those who expound Scripture by the light of private judgment. St. Peter tells us distinctly that some parts of the New Testament are hard to understand. Moreover, the experience of centuries has abundantly confirmed the Catholic and disproved the Protestant rule of interpretation. Unity is the test of truth. If each man received the Holy Ghost, enabling him to ascertain the sense of the Bible, then pious Protestants would be at one as to its meaning and the doctrines which it contains, whereas it is notorious that they have differed from the first on every point of doctrine. The principle of private judgment has been from the time it was first applied a principle of division and of confusion, and has led only to the multiplication of heresies and sects, agreed in nothing except in their common disagreement with the Church. Nor does the authority of the Church in any way interfere with the scientific exposition of Scripture. A Catholic commentator is in no way limited to a servile repetition of the interpretation already given by the Fathers. He is not, indeed, permitted to give to any passage in Scripture a meaning which is at variance with the faith, as attested by the decision of the Church or the unanimous consent of the Fathers. But he may differ as to the meaning of passages in Scripture, even from the greatest of the Fathers; he is not bound to consider that these passages necessarily bear the meaning given them by general councils in the preambles to their decrees; he may even advance interpretations entirely new and unknown before. When, for example, God is said to have hardened Pharao’s heart, a Catholic commentator cannot infer from this that the book of Exodus makes God the author of sin, but he may, if he sees cause, give an explanation of the words which differs from that of St. Augustine or St. Thomas, or, indeed, from that of all the Fathers and Doctors of the Church taken together.
4. We now come to the use of the Bible, and the Catholic principles on this head follow from what has been already said. It is not necessary for all Christians to read the Bible. Many nations, St. Irenaeus tells us were converted and received the faith without being able to read. With out knowledge of letters, without a Bible in their own tongue, they received from the Church teaching which was quite sufficient for the salvation of their souls. Indeed, if the study of the Bible had been an indispensable requisite, a great part of the human race would have been left without the means of grace till the invention of printing. More than this, parts of the Bible are evidently unsuited to the very young or to the ignorant, and hence Clement XI. condemned the proposition that “the reading of Scripture is for all.” These principles are fixed and invariable, but the discipline of the Church with regard to the reading of the Bible in the vulgar tongue has varied with varying circumstances. In early times, the Bible was read freely by the lay people, and the Fathers constantly encouraged them to do so, although they also insist on the obscurity of the sacred text. No prohibitions were issued against the popular reading of the Bible. New dangers came in during the middle ages. When the heresy of the Albigenses arose there was a danger from corrupt translations, and also from the fact that the heretics tried to make the faithful judge the Church by their own interpretation of the Bible. To meet these evils, the Councils of Toulouse (1229) and Tarragona (1234) forbade the laity to read the vernacular translations of the Bible. Pius IV. required the bishops to refuse lay persons leave to read even Catholic versions of scripture unless their confessors or parish priests judged that such reading was likely to prove beneficial. During this century, Leo XII., Pius VIII., and Pius IX. have warned Catholics against the Protestant Bible Societies, which distribute versions (mostly corrupt versions) of the Bible with the avowed purpose of perverting simple Catholics. It is only surprising that any rational being could have thought it possible for the Holy See to assume any other attitude toward such proceedings. It is right, however, to observe that the Church displays the greatest anxiety that her children should read the Scriptures, if they possess the necessary dispositions. “You judge exceedingly well,” says Pius VI., in his letter to Martini, the author of a translation of the Bible into Italian, “that the faithful should be excited to the reading of holy Scriptures: for these are the most abundant sources, which ought to be left open to every one, to draw from them purity of morals and of doctrine. This you have seasonably effected by publishing the sacred Scriptures in the language of your country, .... especially when you show that you have added explanatory notes, which being extracted from the holy Fathers preclude every possible danger of abuse.”
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