We have established that Scripture shows us Jesus. But why does that matter? As I have written earlier, the purpose of Scripture is to inspire belief, to reveal God’s justice and to call us to holiness in faith. But, as I’ve hinted, there is indeed more. The purpose of Scripture is also love, and before moving on to explore tradition, we should look at this more closely.
To do so, the great spiritual master St. Augustine can help us, and in an interesting way. To think about how we relate to God, he asks us to think of ourselves as exiles, hopelessly lost and lonely for home. “Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home,” he wrote. Imagine, he said, that “we felt wretched in our wandering, and wishing to put an end to our misery, determined to return home” (“On Christian Doctrine,” No. 1.4.4). That, Augustine said, is what it’s like for humans after the fall. We’re miserably estranged from God and lost. This sets up a simple question: How do we get back?
St. Augustine’s answer was simple. Imagine we’re on the road home, but the road is “blocked, as if by a thorny ledge,” he said. What would be more merciful, then, than for someone to clear the road for us, opening a path? That’s what Jesus did, Augustine said; he forgave our sins, and he himself became the path back home. We’re lost, and Jesus helps us get home. But getting back to God is not a journey involving physical distance or travel; it’s a spiritual and moral journey. This road Augustine is talking about is not a physical road, not a road “from place to place.” Rather, it’s a “road of affections” — that is, a road of loves (“On Christian Doctrine,” No. 1.10.10). Jesus comes to us, Augustine said, lives among us and forgives us. He shows us the way to go and gives us the means to return to God by showing us how to love and live rightly.
Jesus quite simply shows us how to love and how not to love; he shows us through his love what it means to be fully human. And, through his passion (which we’ll talk about later), Jesus gives us the means to imitate him and walk with him back to God, to “our native place.”
Which is what happens when we discover Christ in Scripture — we see Jesus and learn how to love as he loves. That is, the whole purpose of Scripture is the “love of Being” — the love of God and neighbor we discover in Jesus. That’s the purpose of “the whole temporal dispensation,” the point of all truth, all knowledge, and all that’s contained in Scripture: to teach us how to love (“On Christian Doctrine,” No. 1.35.39). That is, in the story of Jesus of Nazareth — in his life, death and resurrection — we see what it means truly to love. Specifically put, we see what it means to give up our will to God’s will as he gave up his will to his Father in Gethsemane. We see what it means to forgive like he forgave. And we see what it means to be holy like his Father is holy. To learn how to love like this is to experience what we call “salvation.” But, of course, Jesus not only shows us how to love, he enables us and gives us the grace to love. (This we’ll talk about later when we talk about the sacraments.)
Given all of that, Scripture is a tutorial in love, yes, but it is also more. To explain what I mean by that, I should say clearly what we’ve only hinted at thus far: that the reading or hearing of Scripture is a mystical experience. Scripture not only shows us who Jesus is, it genuinely introduces us to Jesus. Encountering Scripture is not like reading a novel, a biography, or a textbook. The difference is that Christ comes to you in Scripture through worship or through personal reading. The belief of the Church is that in such moments we encounter not just a historical record but a “living transmission” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 78). We believe that when one genuinely hears Scripture, it’s a moment of a personal encounter.
This belief is ancient. Origen, for example, said that “If the Scriptures are true,” then Jesus speaks “today too, in our congregation … not only in this congregation, but in other gatherings, and in the whole world” (“Homilies on Luke,” No. 32.2). There’s a contemporariness to the Christ we meet in Scripture. Among the earliest Christians, it was understood that Jesus was genuinely present in the community — especially when the Gospel was being announced. Early Christians, for instance, would likely have thought the old evangelical acronym “WWJD?” to be heretical. Never was it a question of what Jesus “would” do as if he wasn’t present. Rather, it was always a question of what Jesus “is” doing. His presence was never doubted. Never was there any sort of wistfulness that longed for the days when Jesus “was” present.
Early Christians knew that Jesus was present in word and sacrament, and that’s what we Catholics still believe: that the “Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit remains present and active in the Church” (Catechism, No. 79). This, of course, is simply biblical belief in the Jesus who is the same yesterday, today and forever — the Christ whose mind we’re able by grace to make our own (Heb 13:8; Phil 2:5).
But if Christ is present among us today, then why do we need Scripture to discover the real Jesus? Why can’t we just intuit the truth of God? Why can’t we just close our eyes and think of Jesus? Why do we need oral and written communication, all these ancient texts? Why can’t we simply conceive God and commune with him wordlessly?
Again, St. Augustine — who clearly thought a lot about this — helps us think this through. “The scriptures,” he wrote, “employ no manner of speaking that is not in common human usage — they are, after all, speaking to human beings” (“The Trinity,” No. 1.23). The Scripture, he said, makes use of created things like words — “like children’s toys” — to help us learn how to seek what is above created things, “step by step as best we can” (“The Trinity,” No. 1.2).
Anyone who’s read poetry or a love letter understands this. It’s lovely how Augustine thought about it. He didn’t view Scripture merely scientifically or historically or even as mere literature. Rather, he understood that as humans — material and spiritual beings who speak — God lowered himself to speak on our level, with words, images, beauty and flesh, so that we could see the divine in and beyond material things. Angels, being purely immaterial and spiritual, do not need words to commune with God; humans, however, do. We, being material and spiritual creatures, need words and images to encounter God. That’s how God meets us where we are. It’s why ours is a religion of incarnation and Scripture.
The Second Vatican Council summed this up wonderfully: “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (Dei Verbum, No. 13). In other words, we have Scripture because we’re human; and God knows how to talk to humans — with words we understand.
So, Scripture, in the Christian sense, are the texts of the Old and New Testaments, believed by the Church to be the authentic and living witness of God’s saving work in history. Scripture witnesses to our belief that Jesus is the perfect work of God’s salvation. But it’s more than that. In reading Scripture, we encounter Christ in a mystical way, not merely in a historical report. Although there is indeed historical fact in the Bible, the Christ we encounter in Scripture is not merely a historical construction or even a purely literary construction. Rather, Jesus is mystically present in the event of hearing or reading Scripture itself — a “living transmission.” To put it simply, it’s the Body of Christ speaking.
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.