1. Holy Scripture or the Bible consists of seventy-two books, which were written by men inspired by God, and under the guidance and influence of the Holy Ghost. These seventy-two books are recognized by the Church as “the Word of God.”
The Holy Ghost inspired in a very special way the writers of Holy Scripture; He moved them to write, and guided and en lightened them while they were writing (Cf. 2 Tim. iii. 16; Matt. xv. 3; Mark xii. 36). The Council of Trent and the Vatican Council have expressly declared that God is the Author (auctor) of Holy Scripture. St. Augustine says: “It is as if the Gospels were written down with Christ’s own hand.” “The writers of Holy Scripture,” says St. Laurence Justinian, “were like a musical instrument on which the Holy Spirit played.” Yet they were not mere passive instruments; each writer brings his own personal character with him into what he writes. They are like a number of painters, who all paint a building which they see in the clear daylight, quite correctly, but yet with a great many points of difference, according to their respective talent and skill. Hence it follows that there are no errors in Scripture. We must not look to the individual words, but to the general sense. We must not take offense at popular expressions which are not scientifically correct, as when the motion of the sun, sunrise, and sunset, are alluded to. Moreover, since the Bible contains the Word of God, we must treat it with great reverence. Thus the people always stand up when the Gospel is being read at Mass; oaths are taken on the book of the Gospels; in Mass the deacon approaches the book of the Gospels with incense and lights. The Council of Trent imposes special penalties on those who mock at Holy Scripture. The Jews had the greatest reverence for the Scriptures and the precepts therein contained.
The seventy-two books of Holy Scripture are divided into forty-five books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven of the New. They are moreover divided into doctrinal, historical, and prophetical books.
Old Testament. The historical books comprise (1), The five books of Moses, which contain the early history of man, the lives of the patriarchs, and the history of the Jewish people up to the time of their entrance into the Holy Land. (2), The books of Josue and Judges, which relate their conquest of Palestine and their struggles with surrounding nations. (3), The four books of Kings, which recount their history under their kings. (4), The book of Tobias, which gives an account of the life of Tobias and his son during the captivity. (5), The books of the Machabees, which relate the oppression of the Jews under Antiochus, etc. The doctrinal books comprise the story of Job, the Psalms of David, the Proverbs of Solomon, and the books of Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus. The prophetical books comprise the four greater prophets, Isaias, Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Daniel, and the twelve lesser prophets, Jonas, Habacuc, etc.
New Testament. The historical books are the four Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles. The doctrinal books are the twenty-one Epistles, including fourteen of St. Paul’s epistles. The prophetical book is the Apocalypse of St. John, which tells in obscure language the future destinies of the Church. Most of the books of the Old Testament were originally written in Hebrew, most of the New in Greek. The Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate is an amended version of the translation made by St. Jerome about A.D. 400. The Vulgate is declared by the Council of Trent to be an authentic rendering of the original.
The most important books of Holy Scripture are the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. The four Evangelists relate the life and teaching of Our Lord; the Acts of the Apostles recount the labors of St. Peter and St Paul.
The writers of the Four Gospels are called the four Evangelists. Two of them, St. Matthew and St. John, were apostles, St. Mark was a companion of St. Peter, and St. Luke of St. Paul on his apostolic journeys. St. Matthew’s gospel was originally written in Hebrew, for the benefit of the Jews of Palestine. He shows how Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament, and proved Himself to be the true Messias. St. Mark wrote for the Christians of Rome and shows Christ to be the Son of God. St. Luke wrote for a distinguished citizen of Rome, named Theophilus, in order to instruct him in the life and doctrine of Christ. We owe to St. Luke many details about Our Lady, and many parables not given by the other Evangelists. St. John wrote his gospel in his old age, to prove against the heretics of the time that Jesus Christ is truly God. He quotes chiefly those sayings of Christ from which His divinity is most clearly proved. The Gospels were probably written in the order in which they stand; St. Matthew wrote about A.D. 40, St. Mark and St. Luke some twenty-five years later, St. John about A.D. 90. The four Gospels were collected into one volume in the second century.
It can be proved from internal evidence that the Gospels were written by disciples of Christ, and narrate what is true. We can also prove from the oldest copies, from translations, and from quotations, that no change has been made in them since they were first written. The Gospels are therefore genuine, worthy of belief, and incorrupt.
On reading the Gospels we recognize at once that they were the work of Jews. The writers introduce Hebrew expressions (Luke viii. 14; John xvii. 12). They wrote before the destruction of Jerusalem, as we gather from their intimate acquaintance with the city. If they had written in the second century, they could not have possessed this knowledge. Their style shows that they were unlettered men. The vividness of their descriptions proves them to have witnessed the scenes and events they describe. The testimony of the most ancient Christian writers, and the consent of the churches also prove the genuineness of the Gospels. The truthfulness of the Evangelists appears in their quiet and passionless manner of writing; they do not conceal their own faults, and narrate what they knew would expose them to persecution and danger of death; they all draw the self-same picture of Christ, though writing in different places and to various readers; the apparent discrepancies disprove any sort of conspiracy among them or any copying from one another. Lastly, it would be impossible to invent such a lofty type of character as that of Jesus Christ. The Gospels have not been in any way altered in the course of time. The earliest copies and translations agree with our present Bibles, e.g., the Syrian translation (called the Peshito), which dates from the second century, and the Latin (called the Halo), which dates from A.D. 370, besides numerous copies of the original text dating from the fourth century onwards. During the first two centuries the Scriptures were read every Sunday in the various Christian churches and were most carefully guarded. We also find a mass of quotations in the early Christian writers, which prove their text to have been identical with our own. The Old Testament has always been most jealously guarded by the Jews, who in their reverence for it counted the very letters. There is, moreover, no doubt that God watched over the integrity of Holy Scripture, and would no more have allowed the early centuries alone to profit by it, than He would have created the sun for the first generations of men only.
The reading of Holy Scripture is permitted to Catholics, and is very profitable to them; but the text used by them must have been authorized by the Pope, and must be provided with explanatory notes.
In Holy Scripture we learn to know God aright; we see His omnipotence (in creation and all the wonders narrated in the Bible), His wisdom (in guidance of individuals and of the whole human race), His goodness (in the Incarnation and the sufferings of Our Lord). We have in the saints, and above all in Jesus Christ, glorious examples of virtue to incite us to the like. “The Bible,” says St. Ephrem, “is like a trumpet that inspires courage into soldiers. It is like a lighthouse, which guides us to a safe haven, as we sail over the perilous sea of life.” It also warns us against sin, shows its awful con sequences, as in the story of the Fall, of the Flood, of the cities of the plain, of Saul, Absalom, Judas, Herod, etc. It contains all that is profitable to man, and a great deal more than can be found elsewhere. It is like an overflowing well that can never be exhausted. There is always something new to be found in it. But he who desires to understand and profit by it, must have something of the spirit with which the minds of its writers were full; else he will never penetrate beneath the surface, or arrive at its true meaning.
The reason why we are not permitted to read any version of the Bible that we choose is (1), Because the unaltered text and true explanation of it are only to be found in the Catholic Church. (2), Because the greater part of it is very difficult to understand.
It is only to the Catholic Church, i.e., to the apostles and their successors, the bishops, that Our Lord has promised the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Hence the Holy Scripture, out of which the Catholic Church draws her teaching, cannot possibly be altered or corrupted. Heretics have on the other hand sometimes changed the meaning of particular passages in their own favor, or have omitted whole portions if they did not please them. Thus Luther rejected the epistle of St. James, because the apostle says that faith without works is dead. The difficulty of understanding Holy Scripture is a further reason for the Church’s restrictions. How few there are who can honestly say that they thoroughly understand the epistles that are read at Mass and these are chosen for their simple and practical character. St. Peter himself says (2 Pet. iii. 16) that in the epistles of St. Paul there are some things hard to be understood, and that the unstable would pervert these to their own destruction. St. Augustine says: “There are more things in the Bible which I cannot understand than those I can understand.” The prophetical books are specially obscure. Hence the necessity of an authentic exposition of the Bible. Heretics often give half a dozen different meanings to the same passage. The Catholic Church is the authority that God has appointed to explain Holy Scripture; for to her the Holy Spirit has been given. The child brings the nut that has been given it to its mother to be cracked; so the Catholic comes to the Church for the explanation of the Bible. This is why only Bibles with explanatory notes are allowed to Catholics.
2. The truths of divine revelation, which have not been written down in the pages of Holy Scripture, but have been transmitted by word of mouth, are called Tradition.
The apostles received from Our Lord the command to preach, not to write. Their writings are concerned more with the doings than with the teaching of Christ, hence their instructions on points of doctrine are very incomplete. They themselves say that there is much that they have delivered to the faithful by word of mouth (2 John 12; 1 Cor. xi. 2; John xxi. 25). Accordingly we are referred to Tradition. It is by Tradition that we know that Our Lord instituted seven sacraments. It is by Tradition that we are taught that there is a purgatory, that Sunday is to be kept holy, and that infants are to be baptized. It is Tradition which teaches us what books belong to Holy Scripture, etc. Tradition comes down to us from the time of the apostles. Just as those who follow up the course of a stream gradually draw near to the fountain-head, and thus discover how far the water flows, so we can search out the historical sources of the teaching of the earlier centuries of the Church, and arrive at her true doctrine. Every doctrine that has always been believed in by the universal Church, comes down to us from the apostles. If there fore there is any doctrine of the Church that we do not find in Holy Scripture, we shall find it in the stream of Tradition, and shall be able to trace it up to the first ages of Christianity.
The chief sources of Tradition are the writings of the Fathers, the decrees of Councils, and the Creeds and prayers of the Church.
The Fathers of the Church were those who were distinguished in the early ages of the Church by their great learning and holiness. Such are St. Justin, the philosopher and zealous defender of the Christian religion (A.D. 166), St. Irenseus, Bishop of Lyons (A.D. 202), St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, etc. Many of these were disciples of the apostles, and are termed apostolic Fathers, as St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (A.D. 107). The Doctors of the Church were those who in later times were distinguished for their learned writings and their sanctity. There are four great Greek Doctors, Saints Athanasius, Basil, Gregory, and John Chrysostom; and four Latin, Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Pope Gregory, called Gregory the Great. In the Middle Ages there were four other great Doctors of the Church, St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure. Among the most distinguished Doctors of later times were St. Francis of Sales, Bishop of Geneva, and St. Alphonsus Liguori. We shall speak hereafter of the decrees of Councils and of Creeds as the sources of Tradition. The prayers of the Church are to be found primarily in the Missal, but also in other books used in the administration of the sacraments and other rites of the Church. Thus we find in the Missal prayers for the dead, whence it follows that the Church teaches their efficacy.
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