Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Thoughts from a Benedictine on the Sacramental Nature of Scripture

Today in the mail, I received a book called "Meeting Christ in His Mysteries: A Benedictine Vision of the Spiritual Life" by Gregory Collins, OSB. While I was skimming through parts of it this evening, I noticed a passage entitled "The Sacramental Mystery of Scripture." 

Since I wrote a blog post on that same subject a few months ago (http://benedictinelutheran.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-sacramental-quality-of-reading.html), I have been thinking about how viewing Scripture as a sacrament cuts through the tired debates about the Bible that seem to be largely driven by American Protestants.  Conservative American Protestants demand allegiance to a belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.  Liberal American Protestants are all over the map on how to view Scripture, but are united in their opposition to believing that it is inerrant and infallible.

Here is a quote from the book which offers some support to what I think is a better way to think about Scripture - the way that Scripture has been traditionally viewed throughout the history of the Church before the recent American debates came along:

"Because Christianity is an historical religion based on the real incarnation of God in time and space, the Catholic and Orthodox churches do not accept a fundamentalist reading of the Bible.  Scripture mediates God's word in the most privileged way. It is the written record of God's living voice and a constant source for the church not only of life and consolation but also of challenge and rebuke. But the written text cannot simply be identified in a simplistic way with the Word as such, any more than the flesh of Christ may be simplistically described as 'God' in an absolute sense: by analogy with Christ's humanity, human words are joined to the Word and become transparent to the divine."  (p. 65)

Luther's view of Scripture as being like a cradle that holds Christ would seem to be consistent with this approach, which is beholden to neither fundamentalism nor modern skepticism.  Instead of aligning himself with modern American Protestants at either end of the spectrum, then, I think Luther would by sympathetic with this sentiment from the 20th century Benedictine theologian, Dom Odo Casel (quoted in the book at page 63):

"The fathers, with the light of faith to guide them, saw everywhere - in the law, the prophets, the acts of Old Testament kings and saints, here more clearly, there less - the figure of Jesus, glowing in the half-darkness, until it emerges in the gospel's brightness.  What the ancients gradually and wearily came to was as clear as the noonday when the world's own light shone: the keys to all mysteries were in Christ; when this unfailing instrument, the key of David, is put to the explaining of Scripture, the whole beauty, depth, and clarity of Christian allegory is seen for what it really is in the liturgy.  Its heart is the redeeming work of Christ and everything we read and pray in these texts points to that."


  1. I have been thinking about your post, wondering if I could add anything to the "conversation." In the past, I have spent a little time studying traditional Kabbalah which teaches that the Torah -- the letters themselves -- have power and meaning. I think there is something to that. Is that what you are hinting at by calling the Scripture a "sacrament"? (The Catholic Church, through Aquinas, specifically defines "Sacraments.")

    We can see that Luther's 16th-century view of Scripture is much closer to the Catholic view than many modern-day Protestants: Fundamentalists and even the ELCA. I am convinced that God is offering us an opportunity to come together. Last night I read Stephen's speech -- the part about "always opposing the Holy Spirit." (Acts 7:51) Stephen was trying to show the Jews how God was moving his people forward. How does doctrine develop? How do the People of God move forward? These are my questions.

  2. Thanks for your comments and questions. I don't know much about Kabbalah so I can't comment on whether or not their view is analogous to viewing Scripture as having the qualities of a sacrament.

    I view Scripture as being a visible and tangible thing which mediates God's grace to us, so in that sense, it is similar to the Augustinian definition of a sacrament. Words are ordinary things, but when used in Scripture, they bring the Word of God - Christ - to us. Similarly, bread, wine, and water are ordinary, but when they are used for sacramental purposes, they become holy things that bring the presence of God to us.

    As I indicated in my post, I believe this view of Scripture might help cut through the seemingly endless debates in Protestantism about the nature of Scripture. The bread and wine used for communion may not be perfectly made, and the water used for baptism might not be pure, but that does not affect the sacramental grace given to us. Similarly, the words of Scripture need not be perfect in a grammatical or scientific sense in order to convey the message of God's grace to us.

    By the way, as I am writing this, I am watching the World Youth Day Prayer Vigil with Pope Francis - it is beautiful.