The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits. (James 3:17)
As you hopefully recall, we have for a few weeks now concerned ourselves with this “wisdom from above,” the supernatural knowledge that we have received from God, Who has revealed Himself to us.
He has revealed Himself in order to save us, in order to give us peace. He has revealed Himself to the deepest part of every individual human heart, the part that responds with the self-abandonment of faith. And He has revealed Himself to a people, the People of God.
The Old Testament has a lot of pages, not all of which make for easy reading. One fact emerges from just about every page, however: God’s designs for fulfilling His loving will require the establishment of a holy community.
With whom did the Creator of heaven and earth make the ancient covenant? With the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—a cohesive group, a collection of tribes, a nation, a people. The Bible contains books written by God and books written by Jews, and dang it! if they aren’t the same books.
In the fullness of time, God became a Jew and fulfilled all His mysterious and wonderful old Jewish books. He made a New Covenant by shedding His own Precious Blood for the entire human race. The new Israel, like the old one, lives as a people, as a group, as a holy nation. This new people also has holy books. The newer books are considerably fewer, shorter, and more readable than the old ones.
But that’s beside the point right now. All the sacred books, old and new, have a few crucial things in common: #1: The entire Bible is made up of the particular books that belong properly to a people. The sacred books only make sense in this communal context.
Did the Jews of old write down absolutely everything that pertained to their life together as a people? No. When it comes to the unwritten tradition of the People of God, we can start just with this: Which book of the Old Testament contains a list of all the books of the Old Testament? Ahhh…none. In fact, nowhere in the books of the Bible can the diligent reader find a list of all the books that belong in the Bible.
In the Old Covenant, in order to listen to the correct books, you had to go to the synagogue or the Temple and take part in the ceremonies presided over by the rabbi or priest.
In the New Covenant, we, too, need to read and re-read all our holy books in order to avoid becoming lost in life. Without constant interaction with these books, we fall out of the People of God and into God-only-knows what. And, just like the Jews of old, we need something in addition to the physical books themselves. We need the ceremonies and the living authority of the leaders of our people. The Bible contains the message of divine revelation. That message lives because the books of the Old and New Covenants are part of something bigger: they are a part of the on-going life of the People of God.
Which brings us to crucial thing #2: The books of the Bible are both by us and for us—the “us” being the People of God.
This means that, on the one hand, we can read these books and basically understand the plain sense of the text. We read passages aloud together here in church; we basically understand. Everyone can—indeed, everyone must—read and understand the Bible.
That said, anyone who has ever taken the trouble actually to try to read the entire Bible knows that: if it’s just “me and my Bible,” there are a daggone lot of things that I really can’t understand. For one thing, none of these books were originally written in any language that any of us use. The Bible was written in the human languages of people who lived long ago on the other side of the world. In order to read these books at all, we need the help of translators, who put ancient Hebrew and Greek into English for us.
Everyone who can should spend as much time as possible alone with a Bible. Great things happen when we do that. But whenever I read my Bible, I have to remember: I am not really “alone” at all. When I read the Bible, I am in the company of: God, the human being who originally wrote these particular words down, all the other human beings who have been involved in collecting and preserving the books of the Bible, and all the other human beings who have spent their labor to put the whole thing into my language.
Which brings us to crucial thing #3: God wants us to know Him personally. To bring that about, He surprisingly decided to have human beings write things down for us to read as the sacred Word. He did not inscribe the Bible with His own finger. If we want to know what God intends to say to us in the Bible, we have to focus first on what the human beings who wrote the books intend to say. The divine author of the sacred books affirms what the human authors affirm.
Next week I’ll try to explain this a little more and then wrap up this series on Vatican II’s teaching on Divine Revelation.