The Body of Christ communicates scripturally. This is how Christ speaks and is presented to the world and to individuals so that the whole world might hear the summons of salvation (cf. Dei Verbum, No. 1). To encounter the Scripture rightly is to encounter Christ, to hear that summons clearly as a loving call to faith. What the Scripture does, to put it simply, is to introduce us to the real living Christ, the lover Christ.
But it’s important that the one we encounter is truly the scriptural Christ because we often like to choose our own Jesus. Why? We like the Jesus we like, often manufacturing a deity within our own realm of comfort. We either want a Jesus who doesn’t get onto us very much, who affirms us all the time; or conversely, we want a Jesus overly harsh, always punishing, judging and convicting, always beating us down. In different ways and for different reasons, we create these fictitious caricatures in our minds and call them “God,” worshipping these false images of Christ.
This has always been a danger. Such was Ludwig Feuerbach’s famously haunting suggestion, that God is merely “the dream of the human mind,” merely our own human power magnified and projected onto an image we call “God” (“The Essence of Christianity,” Prometheus, $13.99). That’s the mistake, that although God made us in his image, we so often try to remake God in ours.
We choose either an overly liberal Jesus or conservative Jesus, a Marxist or capitalist Jesus, a Republican or Democrat Jesus, a pacifist Jesus or a militaristic Jesus. Sometimes we’re a bit more sophisticated about it, seeking a “historical” Jesus; or, like when scientists create “scientific” images of what they think Jesus really looked like, we try to find some sort of empirical Jesus. Or, we choose a Jesus comfortably culturally recognizable, looking like us, such as the print of Warner Sallman’s Jesus, which hung in many American homes in the 20th century. It’s a famous image, and not bad in itself, yet Sallman’s Jesus certainly is an American Jesus, not so much a Middle Eastern Jesus. And clearly, that’s because we often make Jesus into an image we want, because we like to choose our own Jesus.
Now on one level, this is normal and not entirely wrong. But we should be careful about it. Because whatever Jesus we choose for ourselves, it must be the Jesus who is consubstantial with the Father, who has become incarnate within history, and who is present even today among his people in the Church, in the sacraments, and in the Scripture. This is the Jesus who saves — not the Jesus we create for ourselves. That’s why it’s important that in a market full of almost innumerable Jesuses to choose from, we should choose well — opting for the real Christ and not just the one we want.
This is why we Catholics insist — as we do in the Nicene Creed — that the Christ we believe in is the Christ discovered in the New Testament “in accordance with the Scriptures.” We take this phrase from Paul. The Christ he preached is the Christ who died for our sins and rose from the dead “in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). Certainly, this phrase, as it’s used now, includes the New Testament; that is, the Christ according to the Scriptures is also the Christ described in the Gospels and also the rest of the New Testament. However, as Paul used the phrase, he meant the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul was saying that to discover and understand the real Christ, one must encounter Jesus first within his Jewish context — in light of the covenants, the Hebrew prophets, and Hebrew imagination as a whole. It’s an interpretative lens we find throughout the New Testament.
For instance, that’s what Mark was doing at the beginning of his Gospel, pointing immediately to the prophets: “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,” he writes (Mk 1:2). Also, in Luke, Jesus himself asked to be understood in light of Hebrew religious imagination — in light of Moses and the prophets. Walking beside the travelers to Emmaus, Luke writes, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (24:27). And in John, too. “For if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me; because he wrote of me,” Jesus said (5:46).
This is what we mean — at least at first — by saying that the Christ we believe in is “in accordance with the scriptures.” We mean that we believe in the Jesus we discover always within his Hebrew context. Not only do we read about him in the Scriptures of the New Testament — his words and deeds — we also understand him in light of and as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. We believe in the Jewish Jesus, the promised Messiah.
This is exactly how the Catholic Church understands the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. As Dei Verbum teaches, the purpose of the Old Testament is “to prepare for the coming of Christ” by means of prophecy and typology (No. 15). For example, Jesus in the Gospels is repeatedly portrayed in a Moses-like fashion — delivering truth on a mountain, feeding wandering masses in the wilderness, and so on— inviting us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18:15, which — by the way — was the substance of Peter’s first preaching (Acts 3:20-23). The Hebrew Scriptures not only reveal God and teach us the ways of God, they also prepare us to recognize the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. The Old Testament gives the story of Jesus its most fundamental web of meaning. This, as I said, is what we fully mean by saying we believe in Christ “in accordance with the scriptures” — not just what we learn of him from the New Testament but also what we understand of him in light of the Old Testament.
And it is this Christ — the Christ “in accordance with the scriptures” — that’s normative for Christians — not the Christ of mere history or scientific conjecture or personal preference. Ultimately, that’s because encountering Scripture is — as we’ll see — a mystical event and not an encounter with some dead and rather conflicted historical record or some compromised cultural artifact. It’s an encounter with the living Christ. This, by the way, is also why fundamentalism, which is a way of reading the Scriptures that is so mistaken the Catholic Church literally calls it “intellectual suicide,” is wrong (“The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd., $20).
For fundamentalism suggests that a person can read the Scripture without the mediation of the Church and that the truth of the Scripture depends not upon the charismatic witness of believers but upon the absolute historical factuality of texts — texts that should supposedly be read literally in all details. This is to privilege a rather modern and scientific view of truth impossible to obtain and never genuinely entertained by the Catholic Church nor by any Christian, for that matter, prior to the modern age. But, as we’ll see, that’s only one problem with fundamentalism. The graver problem is that it misunderstands that one must always encounter the genuine Christ within the communion of believers, best within the communion of the Church and the Church’s tradition. We will touch on this more soon when we explore apostolic tradition.
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.