Fishers of Men

\”Come, follow me,\” Jesus said, \”and I will make you fishers of men.\”


A Basic Lecture for Students in Non-Catholic Colleges and Universities
General Editor
Joseph M. Wyss, O.P., S.T.Lr. Ph.D.
By Rev. Benjamin J. Bonneprise

Fr. Bonneprise is a priest of the Superior, Wisconsin diocese. He is presently an assistant at St. Mary’s, Hurley, Wisconsin.

A. The importance of clearly understanding this relationship.
Many Catholic students are confused about the relationship of the Bible to the Catholic Church. As a result, their appreciation of both Church and Bible is lessened. A proper understanding of this relationship, however, has a threefold value: first, an apologetical value, i.e. that the Catholic Church is the religion of Christ can more easily seen; second, an ecumenical value, i.e. that we have the Bible in common with our Separated Brethren; third, a liturgical value, i.e. that the Catholic student realizes why the Bible is so important in the public liturgy of the Church and in his own personal religious life.
B. This relationship of the Bible to the Catholic Church is one of dependency.
The Bible depends upon the Church as regards its origin, its completeness (as a source of divine revelation) and its interpretation. The Bible is a book given to us, and interpreted for us, by the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body.
A. The Church forms the “Canon” of Scripture.
1. We may view the Bible in two ways: (a) as a true and reliable historical document written by well-informed and trustworthy men and coming to us today substantially the same as when it was written; b) as a written account of divine revelation having more than human value because it was written under the special influence and inspiration of God, i.e. “that he so moved the human authors to write and so assisted them in writing that they conceived in their minds and faithfully wrote and expressed aptly, and with infallible truth, all that he intended, and nothing else.” (John L. McKenzie, The Two-Edged Sword, p. 8.) Thus each book of the Bible has double authorship: God and the human author. Here we consider the Bible in this latter sense: i.e. as inspired writings containing revelations of God to man.
2. The Catholic Church fulfilled her right and duty of telling us which ancient writings were written by God’s inspiration. It was necessary that the Church do this. Many non-inspired writings were being circulated among Christians and non-Christians; disputes arose among some individual Christians as to which writings were of God and which were of purely human authorship.
3. The Church compiled a list or collection of inspired writings. When we speak    of the “Canon” of Scripture, we refer to that official collection of books determined for us by the unerring Church as having been written under God’s inspiration and direction.
4. This official list of inspired writings was first drawn up by the Church in the Council of Hippo in Africa in 393 A.D. In later centuries and in subsequent Councils, the Church reaffirmed her belief especially at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) as to which ancient writings are of an inspired nature.

5. This decision of the Church was the result of long study, investigation and the unfailing guidance of the Holy Spirit. By it, the Church officially declared what had been her unofficial belief from the beginning.

6. The Church did not make inspired writings out of non-inspired writings. She simply stated a fact in an official way, i.e. that certain books had been written under the divine influence of God.

7. This declaration of the Church that certain books are divinely inspired constitutes the sole authority for the universal belief of both Catholic and non-Catholic in their inspired nature. Once the authority of the Church is rejected, there is no solid foundation for anyone to hold to the inspired nature of all or any of those writings which now constitute the Bible.

8. It is believed that some inspired writings of both the Old and New Testaments were lost prior to the determination of the Canon. If so, they at least served a temporary usefulness for the Church.

9. We still possess non-inspired writings of Old and New Testament times dealing with Old and New Testament matters. The technical term given to these writings by the Catholic Church is “apocryphal” writings; churches of our Separated Brethren often call them “pesudepigraphal” writings. Most non-inspired writings were written by anonymous authors; they are similar to canonical books either in title or content and were considered as sacred and inspired books by some of the early Fathers of the Church; they were never admitted, however, by the universal Church to have both divine and human authorship. If we consider the many lacunae, especially in the New Testament life of Christ, it is understandable that early authors would try to supply details (sometimes fictitious) for the edification of the faithful. (These writings are listed in Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church under “Apocryphal New Testament” and “Pseudepigrapha.”)
B. The Content and Formation of the Old Testament.
1. Some writers group the Old Testament writings into the threefold division of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Others group them into historical, didactic (instructive) and prophetical books.

2. At the time of Christ, two canons of the Old Testament were in existence, the Palestinian and the Alexandrian Canon. The former numbered only thirty-nine (39) books while the latter possessed seven (7) more books. These additional seven writings are: Judith, Tobias, 1-2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and parts of Daniel and Esther. These can be remembered by “J. T. McWeb.”

3. The Catholic Church accepted the Alexandrian Canon of the Hellenistic Jews (The Septuagint Greek Version, begun about 250 B.C.) as divinely inspired and complete.  The New Testament authors quote predominantly from this version; St. Augustine says it received Apostolic approbation, and by far the majority of Latin and Greek Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries accepted it.
4. The incomplete Palestinian Canon of the Old Testament is generally that of modern day Jews and churches of our Separated Brethren; often, however, the “J. T. McWeb” books are added as an appendix to their editions of the Old Testament.
5. The seven (7) books lacking in the Palestinian Canon are called “deuterocanonical” by the Catholic Church, whereas non-Catholic churches call them “aprocryphal” since they do not accept them as written under the inspiration of God.
C. The Content and Formation of the New Testament.
1. The New Testament consists of four (4) gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, twenty-one (21) epistles and the Apocalypse (or Revelations).
2. The Mystical body, the Church, existed for about ten years before the New Testament was begun; about sixty-five years before it was completed, and about three hundred and sixty years before the Canon of the Old and New Testament was determined. (For additional information see A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. by B. Orchard et al.)
3. All the authors of the New Testament inspired writings were members of the ancient, apostolic Catholic Church.
4. Although various books of the New Testament were either rejected or called into question by some of the Reformers, the present day New Testament of non-Catholic churches has the same number of books as have we. Current differences between Catholic and non-Catholic editions of the New Testament are not too great. Actually, the non-Catholic New Testament is simply the New Testament translated by non-Catholics.

“It is the teaching of the Church that the Old Testament Scriptures were transferred to her ownership by Christ himself in view of her position as the ‘Israel of God’ and the heir of the OT promises; and that the New Testament Scriptures being written within the Church by some of its members for the benefit of all (or more precisely, within the society of the Catholic Church by Catholics and for Catholics), are likewise her exclusive property, of which she is the absolute Owner, Guardian, Trustee and Interpreter.” (Ibid., p. 8.)

The Making of the New Testament

1 A.D. – the life of Christ begins.

33 – Christ gives birth to his Mystical Body at his death and the Holy Spirit begins to live within it on Pentecost Sunday.
42 – St. Matthew begins the New Testament by assembling his gospel.
52 – St. Mark writes his gospel.

63 – St. Luke writes his gospel.

52-97 – during this span of years the New Testament Epistles, Acts of the Apostles and Apocalypse were written.

97 – St. John completes the N.T. with his gospel.
393 – the inspired writings were scattered about the Christian world but never assembled into one book. At the council of Hippo, the Church determines which of these writings are inspired by God, assembles them into a book or “Bible” and thus the Canon of Scripture is formed . . . for both the Old and New Testament.

397 – The Council of Carthage reaffirms the decision of Hippo.

1452 – with the invention of printing the Bible becomes more available to the literate people of the time.

1546 – The Council of Trent again officially and finally reaffirms the Canon of Scripture.
A. Christ established his Mystical Body at his death.
1. Christ gave birth to his Mystical Body, the Catholic Church, at his death upon the Cross. The Holy Spirit, the soul of the Church, began to live within it on Pentecost Sunday. With this infusion of divine life, the Church began to actively propagate itself throughout the world.

2. Christ the divine founder of his Church had given it the fullness of divine revelation of truths, the seven Sacraments, divine authority and infallible protection. From the beginning, the Mystical Body had been an external visible society, a living functioning organism, preaching revealed doctrine, administering the sac­raments, sanctifying souls.
B. The Church transmits the doctrine of Christ in an oral manner.
1. Christ neither wrote out his divine revelations for the Church, nor commanded his apostles to do so; he did, however, command them to preach his gospel by word of mouth. “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to all creation.” (Mark 16, 15.)
2. In the beginning, the entire message of Christ was unwritten. A full generation or more of Christians lived and died before the evangelists even began to write their gospel accounts. The Church diffused the message of Christ (the “good tidings”—gospel) almost exclusively by word of mouth. The early Christians called this method the oral “catechesis” -the oral re-echoing of the message of Christ. (Guiseppe Ricciotti, The Life of Christ, p. 92.)
3. With the rapid spread of the Church and the rise of false teachings, there arose the necessity to put in writing some of these oral teachings of Christ.

4. Perhaps brief accounts of the life and words of Christ were written prior to the writing of the four evangelists. They may have used these fragmentary writings to a greater or lesser degree. The accounts of the four canonical authors is also brief and fragmentary, but they are completely reliable treatments of the life and works of Jesus Christ; this is because they were written under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

5. It is important to note that the written gospel was not intended to be a substitute for the oral gospel but to make its transmission easier and more rapid. It is also important to remember that, though the writings are four, their source is one, and that was the unwritten gospel.

6. Nothing of the written gospel could contradict the unwritten gospel-the oral catechesis. Some written treatments of the life and works of Christ did contradict the oral catechesis and hence were judged non-inspired by the Church.

C. Divine Tradition is defined.
1. The divinely revealed teachings of Christ which were not committed to writing but continued to be taught in an oral manner by the unerring Church are called the truths of divine tradition.
2. Divine tradition (the oral catechesis, or unwritten gospel) is prior in time and dignity to the written word and certainly more complete. Many things of the original vocal transmission were not included in the four canonical gospels.
3. Divine tradition, though it started by vocal transmission, soon found its way into writing.  Many truths of divine tradition were incorporated into the writings of the Fathers of the Church, decrees of Councils, Creeds of the Church, liturgical prayers and art. We must note, however, that the early: Fathers of the Church, unlike the authors of the New Testament, were not guided by divine inspiration, but they are witnesses to the unerring belief of the Church. From Pentecost Sunday onward, the Holy Spirit lives in the Mystical Body, and gives to it infallible and unerring guidance, so that it can preserve and transmit without error the original deposit of divine truth.
4. The New Testament Epistles are simply “letters” of SS. Peter, Paul, James, John and Jude, to individual converts or groups of converts. These letters were intended to supplement the oral teachings these converts had received, to extend greetings, to encourage, to correct abuses, to admonish. They like the four gospels, contain a fragmentary treatment of divine revelation; they were not intended to encompass all of divine revelation or to be a studied, well worked-out, logically developed theological or philosophical treatment of Christian doctrine.
5. The conclusion to the above is this: the New Testament is not and never was intended to be the sole source of Christian truth. It is not and never .was intended to be a replacement of the oral gospel but a jotting down of some of the more salient points. We need both the orally transmitted doctrinal traditions of the Church as well as the inspired writings of the New Testament.
6. Tradition, as just explained, is called divine tradition—those revealed truths of Christ preserved by the living voice of the Mystical Body. This is something very different from family traditions and customs, something different also from ecclesiastical traditions and customs which are the result of long standing practices and experience of the Church.
A. The Bible needs an interpreter.
1. Although the Bible is inspired of God, it is nevertheless, only a book. As such, it is a non-living thing; it needs a living interpreter and teacher.
2. The Bible is, further, a most difficult book, unintelligible and meaningless to many. It is like a difficult textbook in need of a teacher.
3. The Bible is the inspired Word of God; but unless the Bible has an unerring interpreter, the inspired Word of God cannot be of too much value to us.
B. The opinion of some: let the individual interpret the Word of God as he likes.

1. One school of thought is that the individual should be free to interpret the Bible as he himself thinks best.
2. Many people have done just that. The result, however, has been chaos. Many different understandings of the Word of God have resulted; different theological systems have been spun from these different interpretations, and a multiplicity of Christian denominations have arisen, all differing because of their various interpretations.
3. Individual interpretation of Scripture has resulted in endless strife, bickering and Christian in-fighting.  Rather than unite Christians into a brotherhood, the Bible has become a launching pad for division.
4. Some claim that the Holy Spirit enlightens each reader to understand correctly the written Word of God. If this were true, each reader, it seems, ought to come up with an identical interpretation because all would have been helped by the same divine Person, the Holy Spirit.
C. The position of the Catholic Church is that she herself, with God’s help, is the infallible interpreter of the written Word of God.
1. The Church does not think that each individual can claim infallibility for himself in understanding the Word of God; she does hold, however, that there must be one infallible interpreter of God’s word to us.
2. This infallible interpreter, the Church says, is herself. Here we must recall that all the authors of the New Testament were Catholics, that the Church, under God’s direction, determined which writings of both the Old and New Testament were inspired by God, and that the Church is the “pillar and ground of truth” for all men. And since the Mystical Body is the extension of Christ throughout time and space, Christ through his Mystical Body, lives in our midst, administers to our spiritual needs, and teaches us in an unerring fashion his own revealed teachings.

“If it (The Bible) were merely a human book, philological and historical scholarship would suffice to discover and set forth its meaning. But the Bible is more than a human book; it is a divine book having God for its author. God produced it by giving the supernatural charisma of inspiration to certain writers, and willed their inspired writings to belong to the deposit of truth which is the teaching Church’s spiritual patrimony, to be administered by her for the religious enlightenment and eternal salvation of souls. The Church is, therefore, the supreme interpreter of the sacred volumes.” (A Catholic Commentary, p. 9.)

3. The Fathers of the Church often express the thought, that since God has delivered the Scriptures to the Church, we must follow her as our certain guide and teacher in scriptural matters.
4. In the first Vatican Council, the Church speaks of her role as scriptural teacher: “In matters of faith and morals which belongs to the building up of Christian doctrine, that sense is to be considered the true sense of Sacred Scripture which our Holy Mother the Church has held and holds. It is her prerogative to judge of the true sense and interpretation of Holy Scriptures. Consequently no one is permitted to interpret Sacred Scripture contrary to this sense or contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers.” (Ibid., p. 10.)
5. All this is not to say that the Church has a ready-made explanation for each passage of Scripture. In point of fact, she has pronounced authoritative judgment on very few texts of Scripture.

6. The Church’s judgment on the sense of scriptural texts related to Christian faith and morals matures but slowly, under the guidance and working of the Holy Spirit.
7. A decisive judgment of the Church is made only after much study and research by dedicated theologians and scholars, and a consideration of the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

8. For this reason the Church actively promotes scientific biblical research. Far from inhibiting its scholars, the Church gives them much freedom to pursue investigation which will lead to further advance in scriptural understanding.  And so while the Church cannot hold to individual infallible interpretation, the individual scholar certainly can be most helpful to the Universal Church in arriving at a correct and infallible interpretation.

9. Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter, Divino Afflante Spiritu, said that we should not look askance upon those biblical scholars who work courageously for interpretation of God’s Word which will be acceptable both to the Church and to the “conclusions of the secular sciences.” (Ibid., p. 10.)

10. With the advancement of biblical archeology and related sciences, infallible individual interpretation becomes progressively less tenable. No individual can possibly acquire adequate knowledge for the definitive interpretation of all of scripture. No individual has sufficient knowledge of the original languages, Oriental mentality, pagan cultures, geography, the contemporary political, juridical, religious and cultural thinking. Furthermore, no individual receives unerring assistance from the Holy Spirit, as does the Church, Christ’s Mystical Body. But the Church, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is greatly assisted by the contribution of each scholar for a better understanding of God’s written Word.
A. Understanding the dependence of the Bible upon the Church has apologetical value.

1. A person looking for the true religion of Christ will not be satisfied with just a book—even if it be an inspired one. He will want to know and be a member of that Church which is responsible for giving the world this book. Once a person realizes that the Bible depends upon the Church in its origin, for its completion and interpretation, he will see that he cannot embrace a church which bases its beliefs and practices upon the Bible alone. Conversion to the Church, the Mother of the Bible, should be apparent as a logical necessity.
2. Reflecting upon the dependence of the Bible upon the Church should help a person to see that no book regardless of its merits can stand alone. A living voice, a functioning Church, has got to bring its message to life, to impress and inspire all those willing to listen.
B. Understanding the dependence of the Bible upon the Church has ecumenical value.
1. Although many things may divide Christians, all of us do have an important thing in common—the Bible. With the Bible in common, we have a splendid basis for ecumenical endeavors. It is true that many of our Separated Brethren may not advert to the fact that the Bible is a Catholic product; still, it is important that they be well grounded in Scripture. An awareness of the dependence of the Bible upon the Church may gradually develop. And even if it does not, still, for the individual, his life will be much more Christian and God-like if he knows and tries to live by the New Testament.

2. Great credit is due to the biblical scholars among our Separated Brethren. Both in the past and in the present, some of the brighter lights have been men, not of our faith, who have contributed much to the better understanding and appreciation of the written Word of God. This has been reflected both in non-Catholic liturgy and in the laymen’s familiarity with the Bible.

3. The spirit of cooperation between Catholic and non-Catholic scholars is clearly evident today. On the practical level, this cooperation has resulted in vernacular translations of God’s written Word which are very similar to one another.
4. Since the Bible is really the Church’s own book, we can now understand the past and present concern of the Church in providing readable translations of God’s Word for all people. Today the Bible is more accessible to men than it has ever been in the past; still, great efforts continue to improve and update translations and to translate the Bible into more and different kinds of languages.
C. Understanding the dependence of the Bible upon the Church has liturgical value.
1. Many Catholics may not realize how much the Bible is in one way or the other used in the mass, the sacraments, the, divine office of the priest and the short breviary for the laity. Many others may not understand why it is used so much. Some Catholics still feel uncomfortable using the Bible, others may not understand why it holds a legitimate place in their religious life. Understanding the dependence is important because it helps a person to realize that the Church is using her own book in her liturgy.

2. A more intelligent participation in the Biblical liturgical services of the Church should result from the liturgical revival of Vatican II. This in turn, ought to stimulate our Catholic laity to personal study and reading of the inspired writings, so long neglected by so many.

  • Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953.
  • Grollenberg, O.P., Luke, Atlas of the Bible, Nelson, New York, 1956.
  • McKenzie, S.J., John L., The Two-Edged Sword, Bruce, 1956.
  • Montague,]ames R., The Apocryphal New Testment.
  • Ricciotti, Guiseppe, The Life of Christ.
  • Steinmueller, John E., A Companion to Scripture Studies, Vol. I.

Published previously by THE PRIORY PRESS.


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