This year’s Bible Sunday (July 13) message from the Regional Biblical Commission speaks of seeking the evergreen priceless treasure in the Bible.
Seeking the Treasure
Who can decide or guarantee the authenticity of the correct interpretation of the Scriptures? Down through the centuries, people from various Christian denominations and religions and even atheists have offered many versions of interpretation of the Scriptures. Is interpretation of the Scriptures a personal matter based upon personal inspiration and claiming it as “Holy Spirit- inspired messages” or as “messages from Christ himself”? Should the Bible and its interpretation be “updated”, “rewritten” or “re-interpreted” according to modern changing situations, in line with contemporary human thinking so as to make it “relevant” and “acceptable” to the present human diverse life styles and needs? Is interpretation a matter of Gnosticism or relativism or scholasticism or secularisation or subjectivism? As a response, the 2013 Bible Sunday message explained “THE SENSES OF SCRIPTURE IN INTERPRETATION”.
Now who has the authority to interpret the Scriptures and guarantee the authenticity of the interpretation? Is the Bible alone sufficient? For this purpose, the 2014 Bible Sunday message focuses on the relationship between the Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium or Teaching Office of the Church.
Need of a Guide to seek the Treasure
In Luke 24:25-27, 44-47 the Risen Christ Himself explained and interpreted to the two disappointed disciples on the way to Emmaus and His Apostles, the events happening to Himself from the Law of Moses and the writings of the Prophets. In Acts 8:26-40, an Ethiopian Eunuch on his way home after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, was reading Isaiah about the Suffering Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 53:7-8). Now Philip, led by the Holy Spirit, approached him and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How could I unless I have someone to guide me?” Philip then began to explain the Good News of Jesus to him. The response was immediate. The Eunuch asked to be baptised there and then.
Jesus, at the Last Supper, told His disciples, “I still have many things to say to you but they would be too much for you to bear. However when the Spirit of truth comes, He will lead you to complete truth. He will glorify me, since all He will reveal to you, will be taken from what is mine. He will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you” (John 14:26; 16:13-14.). And before His ascension, the Risen Christ told His Apostles to remain in Jerusalem and said; “You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and then you will be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:4,8)
Just as our Lord Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit came down upon the early Church and Peter gave the first inspired preaching explaining the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The response was overwhelming! 3000 people were baptised that very day! Since then the Holy Spirit has been with the early Church, inspiring and guiding it in its faithful “witness to Jesus beginning from Jerusalem, to Samaria, Judaea and to the ends of the world” just as Jesus has instructed in Acts 1:8. The same Holy Spirit continues to lead and guide the same Church of Christ built on the Rock, Peter, and ensuring that it faithfully hands down the same Gospel message as it has received from the Apostles in such a way that it remains intact, unchanged but remains always relevant and effective in each succeeding generation (cf 1 Thessalonians 1:2-5; 2 Timothy 3:14-17). This remains so because God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. (CCC 74; Dei Verbum Ch 2 No.7)
What is the Treasure?
When Christ the Lord commissioned the Apostles to preach to all people that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, He gave them this assurance: I am with you always; yes to the end of time (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:20). This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing. ( DV 7).
But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place” (cf 1 Timothy 4:14). The Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, exalted the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they had learned either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (Jude 1:3) (DV 8).
Jesus Himself has warned His Apostles, “If any one says to you, “Lo, here is the Christ” or “There he is” do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:23-24). And Paul, in his letter to the Galatians said, “I am astonished that you are so quickly turning to a different gospel. There are some who trouble you and want to pervert the Gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6-12; Jude 4). Hence, the exhortation in Hebrews 13:8-9; “Jesus Christ is the same today as He was Yesterday and as He will be for ever. Do not let yourselves be led astray by all sorts of strange doctrines.”
Now the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture) or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the Magisterium or the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome (CCC 85; DV 10).
This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit. It draws from the one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. By adhering to this heritage, the entire holy people – united to its pastors – remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42) (DV 10).
In Acts 15:1,5 some Jewish Christians insisted that in order to be saved, Christians of gentile origin should first observe the Law of Moses and be circumcised. This “theological” crisis resulted in the first big meeting of the Church leaders in Jerusalem. This meeting to resolve the crisis helped the early Church to understand the meaning of salvation in relation to faith in Christ Jesus and the Law of Moses – a point Paul explained and expounded well in his letters to the Galatians and especially to the Romans.
The subsequent meetings of the Church leaders down through the different periods of history demonstrate the significant role of the Magisterium or the Teaching Office of the Church especially in defining the essence of Faith and in dealing with the many theological and scripture-related issues raised by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other Reformers. The Magisterium of the Church has made many clear definitive statements of Faith and has proclaimed some important dogmas. These dogmas are not new revelations; neither are they in conflict with the Gospel messages in the Scriptures. All that God wants to reveal has reached its climax and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. After Jesus Christ, there is no more new public revelation. The statements of Faith or Dogmas only highlight certain aspects of Faith which are already there for emphasis with greater clarity.
The Apostles’ Creed that contains the 12 articles of Faith is the living testimony to “what the Church is and believes” as it has been handed down through the centuries since the Apostolic times (DV 8). This Tradition which comes from the Apostles, develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in the understanding and the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.
So Sacred Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local Churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of the Sacred Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium (CCC 83). Jesus spoke of the difference between the Sacred Tradition and “the traditions of the elders” or “human traditions” as promoted by the Pharisees (cf Mark 7:1-13). However He told the crowd and His disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do and observe what they tell you but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they do” (Matthew 23:2-3). The distinction between essence and accidents, or between subjective and objective has to be clarified so that we do not confuse personal interpretation with official Church interpretation of the Scriptures, or situational applications with official Church teachings, or private revelations with Official Public Revelation.
Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are two distinct modes of transmission. But both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring – the same deposit of Faith, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. Sacred Scripture is the Word of God consigned to writing under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, while Sacred Tradition or the Apostolic Tradition takes the Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it, preserve this Word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known (DV 9). Through this Sacred Tradition, “the Church – in her doctrine, life and worship – perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (CCC 78; DV 8)
Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed (DV 9). The conclusion of the Gospel of John says, “There were many other signs that Jesus worked in the sight of the disciples but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God and that believing this you may have life through His name” (John 20:30-31).
The Church entrusted with the Treasure
The Scriptures should be read and interpreted within “the living Tradition of the whole Church” because Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records. The Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (CCC 113).
Therefore, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence (CCC 80-82; DV 9).
“It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” (CCC 95; DV 10)
The Church founded on Peter, the Rock has been authorised by Jesus Himself who said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go! Make disciples of all nations, baptise them and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you” (Matthew 28:19; John 20:21). Peter was given personal assurance at the Last Supper by Jesus Himself, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). In John’s Gospel, he was personally told three times by Jesus Himself after His Resurrection, to “Feed my lambs! Look after my sheep! Feed my sheep!” Peter was thus entrusted and continues to be entrusted with the responsibility of the Good Shepherd (John 21:15-19). He handed down this pastoral responsibility to his successor. This handing down continued from one successor to the next in the Church until today. This explains the source and authority of the teaching office of the Church of Christ built on Peter, the Rock, and his unique status as Pope in this indispensable Office (Matthew 16:18-19).
For over 2000 years now, the Church Of Christ built on the Rock, from its “first” Peter to its “266th Peter” – Pope Francis, has been in possession of this same priceless Treasure (the deposit of Faith) and continues to faithfully hold fast, preserve and hand it down to its succeeding generations (CCC 76, 84; 2 Thess. 2:15; Jude 1:3). Despite the many generations of changes and even uncertainties in the Church and in the world at large, this priceless Treasure remains intact in the Church, maintaining its priceless purity and stays evergreen without losing its eternal value (DV 10). The value or the worth of this treasure, unlike the stock market, does not diminish or increase according to human evaluation or assessment. Instead of being changed by the changing events in world history, it has changed and will continue to change, effect and shape world events and human history.
Wisdom 7:27 may shed some light on this unchanged changer or unmoved mover; “Although Wisdom is alone, she can do everything; herself unchanging, she renews the world, and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls, she makes them into God’s friends and prophets.”
In the same way, though the Church’s official interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures or the official teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not change in essence, it remains forever relevant and effective in shaping world events and human life (CCC 84). This priceless Treasure, that is, the deposit of Faith entrusted by Christ to His Apostles can be described in one Word, namely, Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1; Luke 1:1-4; John 1:1-5; 20:31; Hebrews 1:1-2). And Paul said in more specific terms, “We preach the message of the Cross – Christ crucified – the power and wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:1-5).
Since the Apostolic times, this One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church supported by its two pillars, that is, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, remains faithfully firm on the One Foundation – Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:12) and as the branches remain faithfully in the vine, it has been bearing fruit in plenty and fruit that will last (John 15:1-17).
Enjoy the Treasure
2 Timothy 3:14-17 sums up well this special relationship between the Magisterium of the Church, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition:
“You must keep to what you have been taught (Tradition) and know to be true; remember who your teachers were (the magisterium) and how, ever since you were a child, you have known the Holy Scriptures – from these you can learn the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be upright. This is how someone who is dedicated to God becomes fully equipped and ready for any good work.”
Sharing the Treasure
1. What is the difference between Bible Sharing and Bible Study? How are they related to one another?
2. In your experience, what difficulties do most people have in understanding what they read in the Bible during their personal prayer or study?
3. What are the dangers of personal free interpretation alone without the guidance of the Teaching Office of the Church?