Clearly, from the Catholic point of view, Scripture and Tradition should fit together, work together for the sake of presenting, without error, the “mystery of Christ,” so that all people might hear the “summons to salvation” (Dei Verbum, No. 1). The purpose of the Scripture is to show us Jesus, to teach, to sanctify, to change us.
The Church we’ve been talking about is the Catholic Church, the Scripture is the canonical Scripture, the Tradition is apostolic tradition centered on Peter. These are real things, not just ideas. And that’s because all of it points to the real Christ — who isn’t just a concept either. Rather, he’s a Christ we can see, whom we can touch and even taste.
Which brings us — to conclude our discussion of the Scripture and Tradition — to the final purpose of it all. And that is, simply, the vision of Christ. That’s what encountering the Scripture through Tradition within the communion of the Church does for the believer: it offers the vision of Christ. Such is what we mean when we talk about the “mystery of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 80). That’s the event of revelation. And again, that’s a real encounter, a real vision. And that’s because it’s a sacramental vision, Eucharistic and holy.
Firstly, what we mean here is that the vision of Christ is granted in the Eucharist. We see this in Luke’s Gospel, in the story of the risen but hidden Jesus who walks and talks with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Starting with “Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures,” Luke writes. Which causes the men to desire this mysterious figure. “Stay with us,” they beg him. It’s a prayer that gathers the three around a table. And there, Luke says, “they recognized him” in the breaking of the bread (Lk 24:25-32). Jesus opened Scripture to them, so they would see him in the Eucharist. This is what Scripture does: it helps us recognize Christ in the Eucharist. We see in this story the basic twofold shape of the Mass — the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Liturgy of the Word, we hear the Scripture proclaimed and preached. In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we encounter Jesus just as these two men did in the breaking of the bread. Our eyes are opened, and we recognize him.
For the present purpose, we should notice that this twofold pattern of Word and Eucharist is found throughout Christian history. In the writings of St. Justin Martyr, for instance, we find a description of the Eucharist as celebrated in Rome in the second century, and, in it, we see the same pattern found in Luke is the same found in the Mass today. “And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen” (“First Apology,” No. 62). That’s the same pattern as found in Luke 24. That’s the Catholic Mass today. The Scripture helps us see Christ in the Eucharist. That ultimately is what the Scripture is for. It’s to help us find Christ and to receive him — in the Eucharist.
But the vision of Christ given us through the Scripture is not just Eucharistic. It’s not just about seeing Jesus. It’s also about seeing like Jesus. It’s about seeing the world through the eyes of Christ. If you think about it, that’s what the Revelation to John is. Swept up in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, John heard a voice, “Write on a scroll what you see” (Rv 1:11). The Scripture not only helps us see Jesus, it also gives us a way of seeing, a way of looking at the world and at history much the same way John saw the world in the vision given him at Patmos.
But it’s not a way of seeing in some sort of silly magical sense. Rather, I mean what David Bentley Hart, a Orthodox theologian, means. He said, “the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days” (“The Doors of the Sea,” No. 61). That’s what it means to have the vision of Christ, to see all things as Jesus does. Being people of faith, seeing Jesus, formed in the idioms of Scripture and in the rhetoric of the word of God, it transforms the way we view things. It helps us see things differently, at a different angle — from a spiritual and ultimate perspective.
The Scripture is its own idiom, training believers to see the world a certain way. And that’s because the Scripture itself describes reality in a certain way. Scripture gives us a new way of seeing — the vision of Christ, seeing like Jesus. This actually is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, that the purpose of the revelation of God in Christ is “to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature” (Dei Verbum, No. 2). That is, the purpose of the Bible is not to explain the universe scientifically, to be for us some sort of cosmic manual. Rather, the purpose of the Bible is to show us God’s heart, his salvation; and from that, to see everything else differently.
What I mean by this different way of seeing — given through the Scripture — we see most clearly in the lives of the early Christian martyrs. In them, we see powerfully what Christians look like when they see the world with the eyes of Jesus. As when martyrs like the priest Pionius — as so many others did — rejected pagan gods for the “God who is almighty … who made the heavens and the earth and all the things that are in them … the God we know through Christ his Word” (“The Martyrdom of Pionius,” No. 8). These people saw things differently. “Why do you rush towards death?” Pionius was asked. “I am not rushing towards death, but towards life,” he answered. Because in Christ he saw things in a radically different way — the way Christ does. Such is the moral and spiritual result of being a scriptural person. It gives us the eyes of martyrs.
But, of course, there’s even something more. When you become a scriptural person, Christ becomes visible in you. That is, people see Jesus in you. Again, we can see in the martyrs what I mean. We see this in St. Blandina, a second-century Christian slave who, in her dying moments, looked like Christ to her brothers and sisters. As the account of her martyrdom reads: “Blandina was hung on a post and exposed as bait for the wild animals that were let loose on her. She seemed to hang there in the form of a cross, and by fervent prayer she aroused intense enthusiasm in those who were undergoing their ordeal, for in their torment with their physical eyes they saw in the person of their sister him who was crucified for them, that he might convince all who believe in him that all who suffer for Christ’s glory will have eternal fellowship in the living God” (“The Martyrs of Lyons,” No. 1.41). Blandina believed in Jesus and loved him and knew him because she responded to the Gospel that was delivered to her. And in that love, she followed Jesus, obeyed him and lived like him. She saw the world as Christ did. And for her, that meant she had to go to the amphitheater and die. But in her faithfulness and adherence to God’s word, not so much intellectually but in love, she died brutally. But those who saw her saw Jesus. They saw Christ in the “person of their sister.” Which is the final result — this side of heaven — of being a person shaped by the Scripture. For Christ to become visible in you. If you want to be a scriptural person, that’s the goal. To be that sort of person who sees Jesus, sees as Jesus; and then by grace, to be the sort of person in whom others see Jesus. Which, of course, is to become a saint.
And that’s how we Catholics view the Scripture.
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.