My ways are not your ways

In 2 Timothy 3:16–17, St Paul tells us that, “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice: That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” What does it mean to say that Scripture is inspired? The First Vatican Council is very clear about two things it does not mean. It does not mean that Scripture is approved by the Church. The Church recognises Scripture because it is inspired; not the other way around. It also does not mean that it merely contains Revelation without error. It does indeed contain Revelation without error, but that in itself would not suffice to say that Scripture is inspired. It is inspired because God wrote it. God is the principle author of Scripture. He used the human author as His instrument, an instrument He created and fostered for this very purpose and then, as the perfect artist, caused His instrument (making full use of all the particularity of that instrument which He put there for that purpose) to commit to writing everything He wished to write and nothing else. (Dei Verbum, §11)

This is why all Scripture is profitable or useful (ὠφέλιμος); because God wrote it. He knows every occasion on which and every person by whom it will be read or to whom it will be read, and so He is able to address each of them and ensure that every one of them is profited by it. I, or more likely St Thomas Aquinas or St Augustine, might conceivably be able to compile a book containing Revelation without error, but to write something always profitable is quite beyond me or any creature. Surely though, as St Peter observes, there are in Scripture “certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest … to their own destruction” (2 Pt 3:16). How then can all Scripture be profitable? We must distinguish between hearing and overhearing God’s word. Our Lord said “”If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:38). But what of those who come to Him not because they are thirsty but out of hostility or for earthly gain? What of those who seek to justify themselves, or to add to our take away from the word of life? The word of God is a double edged sword and it shows forth the secret thoughts of the heart. “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39–40)

How are we to avoid merely overhearing God’s word? It is simple. The Scriptures are a treasure entrusted to His Church, from which we may draw continually in private reflection but we are also commanded by God and His Church to attend the liturgy every Sunday. We are invited to do so every day and, if we are bound by religious vows, we are commanded to do so every day. The reading of God’s word in the Divine Office and in the Holy Mass is prescribed by the law of the Church enacted by the successors of the Apostles to whom it was entrusted (2 Tm 2:2). The monk, living and breathing the Psalms and bound to the Matins readings and many many hours of lectio divina every week, is immersed in the Scriptures. And as he imitates the angels, so should the faithful imitate him. God Himself has invited or commanded us to be present and listen to His word and when He speaks directly from His human lips we stand to attention to hear the words of our King. “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord” (Dei Verbum, §21), but we do not genuflect to the text of Scripture; rather we receive the word proclaimed as the voice of God.

But how can Scripture always be profitable when its contents are so scandalous? Are its pages not filled with polygamy and genocide and incest and brutality? True we need not suppose the Lord approved of all the deeds of Lot and his daughters, or the more alarming activities of the sons of Jacob, but the extermination of the Canaanites is commanded by God (Deut 20:16–17; 1 Sam 15:2–3), slavery is allowed for by the law of Sinai (e.g. Ex 12:44; 21:2ff; 21:20–32; Deut 21:10–14), that same law demands the execution of those who pick up sticks on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36) and that, if the daughters of priests engage in prostitution, they are to be burned alive (Lev 21:9). Is this not reminiscent of ISIS or the mobs now demanding the genocide of the Israelis with their cries of “from the river to the sea”?

I once found myself arguing with some Mohammedans at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park and they demanded of me whether Jesus or Mohammed most resembles Moses and whether, if the latter, the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15–19 of another prophet like unto Moses should not be taken as predicting the coming of Mohammed and the rise of Islam? One might reply that this prophet was to arise from the among the Israelites, not the Ishmaelites, and if he was to resemble Moses, one might expect him to perform many miracles (unlike the author of the Koran); but certainly, the society demanded by the Torah seems superficially to resemble that mandated by Sharia more than any shaped by the Gospel. From this fact, especially as capital and corporal punishments, laws against blasphemy and sodomy, and the notion that fornication and adultery are unlawful have perished from western society, a new Marcionism has arisen, setting up the New against the Old Testament, effectively denying the inspiration of the latter, deeming its prescriptions “pedagogical”, as if genocide and slavery could somehow be a helpful stage on the path to secular democracy and universal human rights.

Both the path of ISIS and of the Marcionites subjects the word of God to human reason, emptying the Cross of Christ of its power (1 Cor 1:17). They cannot accept that God is more unlike than He is like anything we say of Him. They despise Augustine’s warning “If you understand, it is it not God”. They have built their golden calf and they call out to their followers “This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Ex 32:4)

How can it be shocking that God slew the Canaanites but not that He slew the Egyptians? How can it be shocking that God permitted slavery in Israel but not that He made the earth yield thistles and briars to every generation from Adam to the last of the elect? Why do the deeds of the Old Covenant trouble us but not the terrible sentence, “many are called but few are chosen”? (Mt 22:14)

In 1302, Boniface VIII defined:

“Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins, as the Spouse in the Canticles proclaims: ‘One is my dove, my perfect one. She is the only one, the chosen of her who bore her’ (Cant 6:8), and she represents one sole mystical body whose Head is Christ and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor 11:3). In her then is one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph 4:5). There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide — i.e. Noah — and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed.”

This truth is far more shocking than anything contained in the five books of Moses. The God of the Bible, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is shocking.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts. And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.”

Isaiah 55:1–11

Every human being who has ever lived or will ever live will die. Man’s nature is not such as to be able to sustain in being the union of body and soul indefinitely without divine help. For all that, his intellectual soul is incorruptible and its proper object is “quiddities abstracted from the material conditions of individuality”. To put it more simply, man is supposed to be alive. The separation of body and soul is unnatural and yet he lacks the resources to prevent this separation in his own nature. Death is penal. God executes every human being who has ever lived or will ever live and, in the eastern Mediterranean in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC, He used the Israelites to do it. He did not permit this to them as part of their general law it was a specific command for the foundation of the land of Israel. No human being has the right to take a human life; it is only as God’s instrument by revelation, or as the wielder of the temporal sword, that such power exists. As Augustine explains:

“The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorises killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of most just reason.”

City of God, 1:21

Death is man’s lot, it is the just vengeance of our Creator. He withheld from us the means of avoiding it when He fashioned our nature, and He will not furnish them to a delinquent people. But to those who embrace His holy and life-giving Cross, “death is no longer terrible”. (St Athanasius, De Incarnatione)

Every human being who has ever lived was, or is, a slave. All our economic relations are fashioned out of slavery, we who eat bread by the sweat of our brows. Our reason is enslaved to our passions, all who are enslaved to the prince of this world, not having passed through the sacred font, and many others who have sold themselves back to him.

Death and slavery are our lot and only Christ can deliver us from them. His word is our emancipation it thunders though heaven and earth. “Amen, amen I say unto you, that the hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live.” (Jn 5:25)