The Beauty, Majesty, and Awe of God’s Revelation
Note: The following remarks are adapted from Dean Brian T. Kelly’s report to the Board of Governors at its October 2014 retreat meeting. They are part of an ongoing series of talks about why the College includes certain authors in its curriculum.
At the beginning of the school year, President McLean spoke to the students, and especially the freshmen, about why we study Sacred Scripture. He pointed out that theology as a science depends on God’s revealed word for its very starting points. The Bible is an important source of the revelation necessary for the science of Sacred Theology. Dr. McLean also told the students that reading the Scriptures carefully would stir up in them a sense of wonder about theological matters; it would whet their appetites to learn about the Trinity, the Sacraments, the Incarnation, and more. Today I want to supplement Dr. McLean’s comments by talking about how we read the Bible.
During the Freshman Year we read nearly all of the Bible, omitting only the two books of Chronicles, in our normal discussion mode. In order to accomplish this feat, we have to proceed with some haste, but we are not aiming to plumb the depths of each individual text. If we were to read just the Gospel of John, for example, at the pace that that text merits, we could spend the whole year or longer. Our goal, however, is more modest: to make an intelligent first reading of Sacred Scripture, familiarizing students with its length and breadth, so that they can formally begin the study of Sacred Theology in their Sophomore Year.
Some might judge the Discussion Method as inappropriate for Sacred Scripture, and I would agree that it is not a good way to arrive at a more advanced and authoritative reading. It is, however, extremely helpful for achieving the intelligent first reading that we seek. Moreover, because the Discussion Method actively engages the mind of the student, it is ideal for stirring up a sense of wonder and personal involvement in the word of God.
When studying the Bible during the Freshman Year, we make no appeal to St. Thomas Aquinas, to the Catechism, or to any other magisterial document. This pedagogical approach may seem strange, given our institutional and personal commitments to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, but we are not leaving these sources of wisdom aside out of disrespect. It is just that, because we are attempting to make only an intelligent first reading of the Sacred Scriptures — and not a more advanced analysis — we need not yet seek the aid of more advanced thinkers and teachers. Instead we ask the students to listen carefully to what the books are trying to express, in the books’ own words.
It is only through the magisterium that we receive the Bible as the revealed word of God; otherwise we could only grasp it as an accidental collection of works written at different times by different authors, sometimes with very different ends in mind. But to undertake the task of Sacred Theology, it is helpful to begin with the Bible itself. Indeed, when Holy Mother Church teaches, a very important part of what She is doing is unfolding the import of Scripture to us, the faithful. Thus to read the Catechism, or any other magisterial documents, it is very helpful to have first read the Holy Scriptures.
How does this play out in class? When we read the Gospel of Luke, for instance, the tutor might ask, “Who is Jesus?” The answer is not always immediately apparent. Is He a prophet? Is He a madman? Is He divine? Is He merely human? These are questions that arise and are not always easy to lay to rest. With the Catechism in hand, we could rattle off an answer immediately. From the careful reading of Scripture, part by part, we work up more slowly to a definitive conclusion.
It is also worth noting that our students are not finished with the Bible after Freshman Year. At the beginning of Sophomore Year, St. Augustine, in his On Christian Doctrine, helps to teach them how to make a more penetrating reading of the Scriptures. For the rest of their time here, they pursue this deeper understanding through theological treatises by Church fathers and doctors, especially St. Thomas Aquinas.
In order to make a good beginning in their Freshman Year, it is important for our students to get past a facile understanding of the Bible based on authority. They must push themselves to wrestle with God’s word and engage themselves personally in the pursuit. This often makes for a challenging transition. To help students adapt to the discipline of giving their own reading of the text under consideration, we begin the year with two texts that defy pious but shallow interpretations: Ecclesiastes and Job.
The tutor might begin the first discussion by reading the text where the Preacher says, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” and asking what he means by that. Invariably a student will offer that the Preacher is saying that it is futile to place your hopes in this world; that perfect peace and justice will only come in the next life. At this suggestion the tutor, or sometimes another student, will ask if the first student has a text to support the view that the Preacher is pointing to the next life. In fact, it is not clear from the book itself that the author is even aware that there is life after death. He says, “The dead know nothing and they have no more reward … their love and their hate and their envy have already perished … there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (9:5-6, 10).
It is difficult to truly read the Bible without moving past the saccharine. The students are fairly quickly confronted with difficult and sometimes shocking scenes or actions. For example, on some occasions God tells the Israelites to conquer a foreign nation and to “kill everything that breathes.” Exodus 21 seems to allow a father to sell his daughter into slavery. Deuteronomy 21 commands that rebellious children should be stoned to death before the elders of the city. These passages are hard to read and to square with the balloons-and-butterflies vision of Jesus. I remember one student, horrified by the commanded genocide, arguing, “This is not my God. This is not the Christian God.” This was a genuine cry of frustration from a devout Catholic wrestling with the profundity and difficulty of the sacred text.
Old and New
After working our way through some difficult parts of the Old Testament, we start at the beginning and read the Pentateuch. Through these first five books of the Bible, many of the elements of salvation history are brought to the fore: creation and corruption, good and evil, sin and righteousness, faith and obedience, treachery and idolatry, and the awesome power of God, Who is and Who is jealous. The nation of Israel is separated and dedicated to the Lord. Covenant and family, sacrifice and atonement, priesthood and prophecy, justice and mercy — these are some of the topics that the Pentateuch confronts us with and, by the end, students have followed the thread of a significant portion of the story.
We then dance back and forth between the Old and the New Testaments. This juxtaposition is fitting because the two are essentially connected and continuously shed light upon each other. On its own the Old Testament is like a riddle to which the New Testament provides an answer. As St. Augustine says, “The New Testament lies hidden in the Old, and the Old is unveiled in the New.” The discipline of the Old Law is ordered to prepare for the freedom of the New. The various kings, prophets, and priests of Israel are to pave the way for the dawning of the age of redemption at the hands of the one Who is most powerfully priest, prophet, and king.
This connection between the Old and New Testaments helps to underscore the importance of reading the entirety of Scripture. Without reading the whole it is difficult to assess the argument that is embedded in the Bible.
Put one way, the argument is this: A collection of writings of a motley assortment, written over thousands of years by different men in different locations in different languages, has been gathered together and called one book. They are not merely one as a collection is one, but as though they have the same author. The claim is that they are by different authors, but also one author.
It is obviously believable that these writings are by different authors, but is it believable that they are also by one divine author? Here is an argument from the text itself: read it and see for yourself if it hangs together as a complete whole. By requiring our students to read the whole of Scripture in a limited span of time, i.e., when the various parts can be relatively fresh, we put them in a position to make a personal assessment of this claim.
Pascal puts the argument a little differently. He calls the books of the Old Testament the “oracles.” They are written prophecies that foreshadow Christ. Why should we accept that Christ is who He says He is? One reason is the testimony of the oracles. The oracles point to Him as God and savior. Pascal also contends that the oracles are especially worthy of being believed in this regard because they were written and maintained by a nation that rejected Jesus.
In sum, by reading nearly all of Scripture, we give freshmen a rough sense of the whole that allows them to see the big picture and the unity of the Bible. It also prepares them to make a beginning in Sacred Theology, the queen of the sciences. This experience tends to draw our students into an immediate and personal encounter with the beauty, majesty, and awe of God’s revelation of Himself.