Sunday, March 28, 2010

What is Meant When Catholics Refer to Scripture (in a Limited Sense) as a "Dead Letter"? (Not What Many May Think!)

By Dave Armstrong (3-28-10)

This all started in comments on my blog from one "Ronnie": an anti-Catholic Protestant apologist. Here are some of his words (in blue) from a previous combox:

Protestants are daily defending Holy Scriptures against Catholics who treat it as any other book. The claim it is dead, confusing, and impossible to understand is part of the typical Catholic apologetic arsenal on the net. Have you defended Scriptures against those charges often? Well, we do it almost on a daily basis. (3-30-10)

I was only repeating what I have read Catholics say on the internet on a number of occasions. . . . In case you didn’t know I used to spend almost 6 days a week debating Catholics on a number of prominent boards. Most of the time it was defending the Scriptures against the most scurrilous charges. I’ve seen Catholics that will not stop at no level to denigrate the Scriptures if it helps to prop up the infallible church. Now you can act all shocked and demand all details, but this came from discussions on a number of forums all on the internet. . . . However, I did do a quick search on the internet and found this in less than 10 seconds:
The Scriptures indeed is a divine book but it is a dead letter, which has to be explained, and cannot exercise the action which the preacher can obtain.

Our Priesthood, by Rev. Joseph Bruneau, S.D.D., p 155, B. Herder Company, 1911 ("nihil obstat" by M.F. Dinneen, S.S.,D.D. -Censor deputatus, "imprimatur" by James Cardinal Gibbons -Archbishop of Baltimore, "Re-Imprimatur" by Michael J. Curley -Archbishop of Baltimore). ]

...(The Bible is) A dead and speechless book.

[Bertrand L. Conway,
Question Box, p 67, The Columbus Press, 1913.]

The simple fact is that the Bible, like all dead letters
, calls for a living interpreter.[The Faith of Millions, by Rev. John A. O'Brien, Ph.D., LL.D., p 155, published by Our Sunday Visitor, Huntington, Ind., 1938, ("nihil obstat" by Rev. T. E. Dillon-Censor Librorum and "imprimatur" by John Francis Noll, D.D. -Bishop of Fort Wayne). ]

We confess that the Holy Scripture is imperfect, and a dead letter
, until it is explained by the Supreme Pontiff, and allowed by him to be read by the laity.

[Roman Catholic Confessions for Protestants Oath, Article XXI, (Confessio Romano-Catholica in Hungaria Evangelicis publice praescripta te proposita, editi a Streitwolf), as recorded in Congressional Record of the U.S.A., House Bill 1523, Contested election case of Eugene C. Bonniwell, against Thos. S. Butler, Feb. 15, 1913.]

It is the Church, the holder of Tradition, that gives life to the
dead letter of Scripture. Experience shows that it is only in the life of the Church, the Bride of Christ, that Scripture, divinely inspired as it is, becomes 'living and effectual, and more piercing than any two-edged sword' (Heb 4:12)

[-A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture [edited by Dom Bernard Orchard] , 1951 (pg 2) ]

(3-30-10 on my blog)

The phrase "dead letter" usually means that words on a page ultimately have to be interpreted (as Scripture itself says many times). The above examples were not intended to deny biblical inspiration or to "run down" the Bible. Some of the quotes above even mention inspiration in the same context:

The Scriptures indeed is a divine [i.e., inspired] book but it is a dead letter, which has to be explained, . . .

the dead letter of Scripture. . . . Scripture, divinely inspired as it is, . . .
"...(The Bible is) A dead and speechless book." Bertrand L. Conway, Question Box, p 67, The Columbus Press, 1913.

Taken in isolation, this sounds terrible. He, too, means it in the sense of "dead letter" or, in other words, being unable to interpret itself in all cases. So he wrote:

How indeed could a dead and speechless book, that cannot be cross-questioned to settle doubts or decide controversies, be the exclusive and all-sufficient teacher of God's revelation. (p. 67)

He was not denying its inspiration at all. He asserts it twice on the previous page (66). On the next page, he cites the Bible itself, saying that it is difficult to interpret (citing 2 Peter 3:16 and Acts 8:30-31). In my own copy of the newer version of the same book (1929), the author spends three and a half pages in three sections (pp. 64-67) talking about biblical inspiration. The newer version of the above section mentions "the inspired Scriptures" in the previous sentence, and continues:

The Bible itself is but a dead letter calling for a divine interpreter; it is not arranged in systematic form like a creed or catechism; it is often obscure and hard to be understood, as st. Peter says of the Epistles of St. Paul (2 Peter 3:16; Cf. Acts 8:30-31). (p. 76)

It's amazing what a little bit of context will do, isn't it? There is no denial of biblical inspiration at all (that was left for Protestant liberals to do after they became disenchanted with Lutheranism and Calvinism in the late 18th century). All Catholics are saying is that the Bible needs to be interpreted. Since it says this about itself, it should be a completely uncontroversial claim. But so it is, because of the unbiblical doctrine of sola Scriptura.

The Online Etymology Dictionary states: "Dead letter is from 1703, used of laws lacking force as well as uncollected mail." Enforcement of laws is analogous to necessary interpretation of Scripture. The truth can be sitting there, even inspired, but unless it is applied (interpreted, made binding where necessary) it has no "force." That's why Paul lays such a huge emphasis on tradition and the Church, rather than on Scripture alone, as I demonstrated in my last post.

When I said Catholic treat the Bible as any other book I didn’t mean that in the absolute sense. Because I know in a sense it is like any other book. It has written words that you need to read in context of the letter and the time in which it was written, etc. However, I was speaking of like any other book, in that they think the book is dead or a dead letter without an infallible interpreter. The Scriptures tell a different story. They are “God speaking”. They are “active and alive”, they “discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” they are “spirit and life”, and they “accomplishes what God desires”. This not dependent on the interpretation of the magisterium, but the Spirit of God. (3-31-10)

When John Calvin refers to the views of some on Scripture being "dead" and a "dead letter," he refers to the Libertines (Inst., I, 9:1, 3) and the arguments he makes as a retort, Catholics would agree with.

Martin Luther argues similarly to Calvin (and we agree with him for the most part). When he argued against those who see Scripture as a "dead letter" it is against the Protestant "fanatics" -- not Catholics. He writes:

Although the letter in itself does not give life, yet it must be present and heard and received, and the Holy Spirit must work through it in the heart, and the heart must be preserved in faith through and in the Word.

(cf. similar commentary by Luther; drawn from another source)

Thomas Henry Louis Parker, in his book, Calvin: an introduction to his thought (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) writes:

It is true that Scripture can be a dead letter, a letter that kills (2 Corinthians 3:6); but it is dead and death-dealing precisely when it is separated from the grace of Christ and is a mere sound in the ears, leaving the heart untouched. (p. 27)

This is curious that you would claim to agree with Calvin as Calvin is saying something different than the quotes I provided from Catholic sources that you agreed with. From the Catholic perspective it seems the necessary condition to make the Scriptures alive is the interpretation of the magisterium. Calvin is agreeing with my critique of this position even though his target is different. He is essentially saying you cannot separate the word of God(i.e. Scripture ) from the Spirit of God as the libertines were trying to do. Likewise, Catholics call it a dead letter without the infallible interpreter. Calvin and I would say the word of God and Spirit of God are “joined together with an inviolable bond” and therefore the word is always alive accomplishing what God pleases. Jesus himself said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (3-31-10)

And again, we see many other Protestants saying basically the same thing:

The "word" that makes Christian ordinances valid is not the past utterance of God alone, which may remain a dead letter, preserved in the oracles of Scripture or the official forms of the Church, but that word alive and active, re-spoken and transmitted from soul to soul by the breath of the Holy Spirit.

(Marcus Dods et al, An Exposition of the Bible, Vol. VI: Ephesians - Revelation, Hartford, Conn.: the S.S. Scranton Co., 1903, p. 93)

I am not arguing that the Scriptures are a dead letter that somehow 'become' the Word of God in a moment of revelation through the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, as some neo-orthodox have argued. These scholars, in my view, have confused the origin of the Scriptures (inspiration) with the spiritual recognition of the Scriptures (illumination). Rather, I hold that the Scriptures are objectively the Word of God, whether or not any individual has come to the place of recognizing them as such. Nevertheless, neither the origin nor the function of the Scriptures can be properly articulated outside of the context of the work of God the Holy Spirit.

(A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage, Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008, p. 29)

Therefore, Scripture (graphe) remains a dead letter (gamma) unless the Spirit of Christ intervenes (2 Cor. 3:14-17 . . .).

(Johan Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1980, p. 121)

The Bible and the Church must correspond in order to a living Christianity. This can be accomplished, not be regarding the Bible as a dead-letter, a canon of law, a quarry for dogma, but as a divino-human organism filled with the divine grace and the energy of the divine Spirit, which will show its efficiency when apprehended and used by a living faith and a progressive and aggressive church. The Bible is full of light, but the illumination of the Spirit alone can disclose it. The Bible is a storehouse of treasures of doctrine and of life, of which as yet the Church, after nearly nineteen centuries, has but a very inadequate conception.

(Charles Augustus Briggs, in The Presbyterian Review, Vol. V, New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1884, p. 388)

[see also Protestants Christopher Elwood and Ron Hill, Calvin for Armchair Theologians (p. 51) ]

Catholics are not saying anything all that much different. Here is what we teach:

Filled with a new spirit, which has been poured into us by the incarnate Word, we have to adore God in a new way. We have to listen to the Spirit of truth, the life-giving Spirit, who pulls us away from the dead letter. Henceforth we ourselves must live "not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. . . . It is the spiritual understanding that makes the spiritual man, the new man, the free man. Let us, then, reject fleshly servitude as we read Scripture, and let us rather embrace the understanding that liberates.

(Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis: the Four Senses of Scripture, Vol. I, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998, pp. 259-260)

For the Spirit -- never separated from Christ -- is the sovereign Lord of tradition (both of its content and of the act of communicating it), just as he is Lord of Scripture (which remains a dead letter apart from him) and most definitely Lord of ecclesial office, which we have just described as a prominent form of charism.

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-logic: Vol. III: The Spirit of Truth, translated by Graham Harrison, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005 [from 1987 German], p. 319)

111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."

The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.

113 2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church").

(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition)

[See also Catholic George Henry Tavard]

We place more authority in the teaching function and interpretive prerogatives of the Church, but most Protestants also have creeds and confessions and some strong sense of a teaching church (albeit not an infallible one). They have boundaries, too. We see that especially in the Briggs citation not far above. A Calvinist can't deny TULIP and expect to be accepted in good standing in a Reformed congregation. In most instances he will be asked to leave if he is obstinate. He interpreted Scripture wrongly, according to that belief-system and whatever local authority is enforcing it. Lutherans are famous for catechisms. Luther wrote two himself. Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion was supposed to serve a similar function.

Since the Catholic Church only infallibly interprets very few biblical passages (just seven), practically speaking, the differences between a Catholic reading Scripture and a Protestant are not that great. Both need to be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, have faith that what they are reading is inspired revelation, and be willing to follow what the Bible teaches (doctrinally and morally). The Catholic simply subjects his private judgment to that of the Church, in the case that they disagree with each other.

1 comment:

Ben M said...

Now here’s one for ya...!

Napoleon’s curious view of the Bible.

Safe bet there’ll be no fretting about him believing the Bible a “dead letter” - he believed it a “living being”!

In a conversation with General Bertrand at St. Helena, Napoleon said:

“The Gospel is not a book; it is a living being, with an action, a power which invades everything that opposes its extension. ... I never omit to read it, and every day with the same pleasure."

The French has:

"L’Evangile n’est pas un livre, c’est un être vivant, avec une action, une puissance, qui envahit tout ce qui s’oppose à son extension. ... je ne me lasse pas de le lire, et tous les jours avec le même plaisir."

Other English translations have:

“The Bible is no mere book, but a Living Creature, with a power that conquers all that oppose it....”
Various sources.

Reference [no preview]: Napoleon's argument for the divinity of Christ and the Scriptures: in a conversation with General Bertrand, at St. Helena , Published by the Military-Post Library Association, 335 Broadway, New York., [187-?].