The Bible, the Church, and the Holy Spirit

I came across this post on The Evolution of the Bible – and the Evolution of Us today that fits neatly into a conversation I had the other day:

Nineteenth-century source criticism was all about trying to uncover the various layers of Amos (and every other book of the Bible). The idea was to isolate the “true” historical Amos underneath the edits and redactions made by future generations compiling his spoken oracles into a single volume. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the problem lies in the assumption of those earliest scholars – the notion that the “true” Amos was more valuable than the rest because it was more historically accurate. That’s very modernist, and it’s very unfair to the text. We have the canonical version of Amos for a reason, however the evolution took place.

In the words of a rabbi I spoke to a few years ago, “We believe we have the Bible that God wants us to have.”

Michael Gorman makes a similar point in his book Apostle of the Crucified Lord when he notes that not only writing, but also editing, collecting, and canonizing the scriptural texts are elements of the natural human process through which Christians believe the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was at work. (p 90)

As a Catholic, the way I think about this is that the Bible and the Church condition each other. Both are witnesses to the same experience. The authors, revisers, redactors, editors, and canonizers of the scriptural texts were members of the church, acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And those two clauses — “members of the church” and “acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” — are two aspects of the same event. I think that often, when we say that the human authors of the bible were “inspired by the Spirit,” we have this unspoken picture that each individual author went off into a cave somewhere with nothing but parchment, pen, and prayer, stayed there till they were done writing what the Holy Spirit was whispering into their ears, then came out and presented the resulting scriptural text to the church.

But if you think about it, this is nonsense. Who are Christians, after all? Members of Christ’s body, the church: baptized into the community, sealed by the Holy Spirit, formed and nourished by the community gathered in prayer to preach and reflect on scripture and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The people who produced the Christian Bible were shaped by the church community… which was shaped by scripture and sacrament. It’s a circle, with the Holy Spirit breathing through all of it.

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3 Responses to The Bible, the Church, and the Holy Spirit

  1. Theophrastus says:

    Do we really have a canonical version of the Bible? I think not. We have different New Testaments (Textus Receptus, Westcott-Hort, etc.); different Old Testaments (Masoretic Text or Septuagint? Which Septuagint [they vary tremendously]? Deuterocanon in or out? Whose deuterocanon — Eastern or Roman?), different Vulgates, etc.

    Was the Holy Spirit at work in the editing of the NA27? This seems a little harder to believe. But let’s assume we go with that. Isn’t the Holy Spirit also active with Bible translators? So, is the KJV inspired after all? How can we know when the Holy Spirit is present in the making of a translation? (For example, we might feel the Holy Spirit was active with St. Jerome, but not with notorious hate-monger Robert Sungenis in his Catholic Apologetics Study Bible.)

    If the Holy Spirit is at work in making different Bibles, was Vatican II’s Dei Verbum flawed in venerating the original language texts over traditional versions (such as the Vulgate)?

    Of course, nineteenth century source criticism was primarily a German Protestant effort. It’s anti-Semitic overtones are well-known, but as Amy-Jill Levine has pointed out, anti-Jewish tirades were often a code language for attacks on Catholicism (Catholicism shares analogous views about the integrity of Scripture and an inclusive notion of “Sacred Tradition” akin to the Jewish notion of “Oral Torah.”) In nineteenth century Germany, it was much easier for Protestant scholars to attack the Jews rather than make anti-Catholic remarks.

    • Thanks for this comment, Theophrastus. Indeed the question of a single canonical version of the Bible is not nearly as clear as we used to think it was. But the idea of canon is still meaningful and helpful in determining the set of texts with which one is in conversation. Indeed, your comment underscores the very close relationship between church and bible that I was trying to bring out.

      How can we know when the Holy Spirit is involved in a translation? I think this answer to this is the same as the answer to how can we know when the Holy Spirit is at work in an ecumenical council: we can only know after the fact, by its fruits.

      (Woops, I am out of time just now but will come back later to comment on Dei Verbum.)

    • To continue…

      I think that canonization is a significant “moment” in the life of a text, and that there is a difference between the process by which a living text is composed, edited, and revised prior to canonization, and the process by which critical editions of ancient texts are constructed post-canonization. The process of canonization is the process by which the community of faith discerns and declares that this text is a privileged and normative witness to God’s self-disclosure.

      Was the Holy Spirit at work in the editing of the NA27 and the translation of the KJV? I would say, yes, but not in the same way in which the Spirit was at work in the (pre-canonization) composition of these texts. “Inspired” is one of those words that can indicate varying amounts of authority.

      Dei Verbum chapter III addresses the topics of the inspiration and interpretation of scripture. Although the document has little to say on the specific subject of translation, the principles of interpretation by means of attention to literary forms and historical/cultural context, as well as “to the content and unity of the whole of scripture” and “[t]he living tradition of the Church” (III.12), apply pretty well to translation, which inevitably requires interpretation.

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