If to encounter the Church is to encounter the Body of Christ — that is, to encounter Jesus intimately and individually but within the fellowship of other believers — then…
If to encounter the Church is to encounter the Body of Christ — that is, to encounter Jesus intimately and individually but within the fellowship of other believers — then to encounter the Church is, in a sense, a personal encounter. Indeed, as this series has treated several times, the Church is a communion and sacramental mystery. It’s something both visible and invisible, hierarchical and charismatic, always an encounter with Christ in Trinity. Still another aspect of encountering Christ in the Church is in the Scripture and in tradition.
Now, in short, the mystery is simply this: Since the Church is the Body of Christ, that same body of Christ speaks to us in the Scripture and in Tradition. That is if encountering the Body of Christ is like a personal encounter, then the way that body communicates is like personal speech. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church means, calling Tradition — always connected to the Scripture — a “living transmission” (No. 78). And this living communication of the Body of Christ is what we intend to explore.
But first, a simple question: What is the Scripture for? John, at the end of his Gospel, helps us begin to think of an answer. There is much that Jesus did, the evangelist says, that is “not written in this book.” However, what is recorded in the Gospel is written: “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31). We see here a simple twofold purpose to the Scripture. First, the point of the Scripture is to hear about, read and encounter Jesus so that you can believe in Jesus — not Jesus merely historically as some ancient figure, but as the Messiah, the Christ. This leads to the second point of the Scripture: that once one believes in Jesus, then that person has “life in his name.”
Belief and salvation
Another way to think about this question is to look at what Paul wrote to Timothy. “But you,” Paul writes, “remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it, and from infancy you have known sacred scriptures.” Here, Paul exhorts Timothy not simply to remember what he learned through reading the Scripture but also to remember through whom he learned it — perhaps a nascent appeal to what we’d later simply call Tradition. But that aside now, the purpose of the Scripture is clear: the reason Paul asks Timothy to remember the Scripture is because the Scripture is “inspired by God” and capable of giving the person who remembers it “wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Again, like John, the purpose of the Scripture is salvation. But it’s also “useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3:14-17). So, the purpose of the Scripture is not only to provoke belief — to make the person who encounters it wise for salvation through faith in Christ — it’s also meant to teach and equip the believer to do good works. The purpose of the Scripture, therefore, is more than spiritual or intellectual, it’s also moral.
Belief, salvation and holiness
Another way Paul puts it, in his letter to the Romans, is to say that the Gospel (in its unwritten proclamation, but also presumably in its written form) is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek” (Rom 1:16). As he told Timothy, and just as John wrote at the end of his Gospel, here Paul says basically the same thing: that the first purpose of the Scripture is to inspire belief in Jesus necessary for salvation. But, also notice here, Paul’s evangelical order of proclamation: “for Jew first, and then Greeks.” Whenever he traveled to a new city, he usually preached first in the Jewish synagogue, and only after he was rejected, did he preach to non-Jews.
Also in Romans we learn something else about the purpose of the Scripture. “For in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith,” Paul wrote (Rom 1:17). Now this is an enigmatic, much debated line, so what might it mean? First, it seems Paul is telling us that in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God reveals to us his justice. For that’s what God’s righteousness is, his justice — which is interesting, because the Gospel is the story of a God who loves the world so much, he sent his Son to die for it and forgive it (cf. Jn 3:16). God’s story of justice is a story of mercy. As Paul says later in Romans, rather bluntly: Christ died for the “ungodly” (Rom 5:6). Interestingly, if this is an account of justice, it’s radically unlike our conventional notions of justice. Unlike other accounts of justice, attributing punishments and rewards to either the guilty or deserving, God’s justice is different — it’s merciful. It rewards the undeserving simply through faith. God’s justice is forgiveness. Which seems to be another purpose of the Scripture: to show us what that strange justice looks like.
Belief, salvation, holiness and mercy
But we should also note the beautifully curious phrase, “from faith to faith.” Paul says the revelation of the Gospel is “from faith to faith,” but what does that mean? Many interpretations have been given. I personally prefer the interpretation of Karl Barth, the great Protestant theologian. “To those willing to venture with God, He speaks,” Barth wrote about this mysterious line (“The Epistle to the Romans,” Oxford University Press, $19.95). That is, the revelation of the Gospel is not the transmission of some dry dogmatic or metaphysical treatise. The Scripture is not some cosmic owner’s manual. The Bible does not possess the pretensions of science. It’s never claimed to describe the world with scientific precision. Rather, more beautifully, the Scripture simply tells the story of God, Israel, Jesus and the Church. It is not a position paper for the disinterested; rather, it’s like personal communication — “from faith to faith” — a word of love for those who through love search for God. And this is a really important point, for it’s only when we grasp that the Scripture is best approached in faith as an act of love that we experience the purpose of the Scripture as something that inspires belief and which can become the means of salvation and holiness.
Think of it this way: A young man is romantically interested in a friend of a friend, but he’s not yet met her. So, he goes to his friend to ask about her. If the friend were to answer him by describing the woman’s height and weight, blood type, tax bracket and so on, we would all understand that that’s weird and creepy. That’s not the sort of information that’s important in this circumstance. Rather, his friend — if he’s normal — is going to say something like, “Oh, she’s great! Brilliant! She’s beautiful, with a great sense of humor. You’ll love her.” Now, both types of discourse are true (the woman’s height and weight and blood type are indeed facts that are real and, in some circumstances, do matter), but only one type of speech is going to make the young man fall in love with her. Now, the Scripture is like the second type of speech. It’s like someone coming alongside you saying, “Here’s this God, he’s great. He’s done all this great stuff. You’ll love him.” The Bible makes no pretensions about being a scientific textbook; it never has. Nor has the Church ever thought of it in those terms. Rather, it’s “from faith to faith.” Which also teaches us something about the purpose of Scripture, and that it is to tell us about God, but in a certain way — personally, like love.
Belief, salvation, holiness, mercy — in love inspiring faith
To encounter the Scripture is to encounter, in a sense, the body of Christ speaking. And thinking of it as speech, we can think of it like speech between lovers, speech that not only informs but which also inspires faith and hope — all of which flowers as salvation. This fits with our understanding of the Church as the body of Christ. The Church is communion, organism, body, bride; and when this organism speaks, the living Christ speaks — speaking that’s scriptural. It’s like speech establishing a relationship, not merely delivering data. It’s speech that shares Christ and creates communion.
Which, you’ll remember, is exactly how John puts it in his first letter. The “word of life” — that is the word “from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we looked upon” — is shared with others for the sake of fellowship, “so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father,” John writes. Notice that this is a written invitation: “We are writing this so that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1:1-4). Earlier we looked at this passage to see how the communion of the Church spread interpersonally and apostolically. Here we simply notice that it’s also “writing.” That is, the expansion of communion depends upon a mode of communication that is not just oral but also clearly written. This, along with all we’ve just mentioned, is also what the Scripture is for: the growth of the Church.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.