My algebra textbook in ninth grade had an answer key in the back that enabled me to check my answers upon completing my homework assignment. Most of the time, the answer key simply served to verify that in fact I had arrived at the correct answer.
Sometimes, however, the answer given in the book was different from my answer. What did I do?
I realized that 99.99 percent of the time the book was right. The book didn’t have to change I did. I would rework the problem a little more carefully and eventually I would discover my error and correct it. There were still times that I didn’t get the right answer. In those cases I had to admit that maybe I didn’t quite understand the material well enough and needed to consult the teacher. I had a fundamental trust in the reliability of the answer key, as I was humble enough (barely) to recognize that the professional mathematicians who wrote the book were probably right, and I, a cocky adolescent, was probably wrong.
In a very real sense, God’s Word is our answer key, providing answers to our most basic, essential questions. Who made us? What is the purpose of our existence? What good must we do to attain eternal life?
I must admit that every so often there was a typo in the answer key of my algebra book, and I would proudly point it out to my teacher and classmates. But God’s Word is even more reliable. It is utterly free from error. God can neither deceive nor be deceived. His Word will not lead us astray. And that’s not all. We have the best of teachers, Mother Church, to ensure that the Word of God is faithfully communicated through all ages.
Do we take time each day to open the Bible, the written Word of God? Do we listen attentively to God’s Word proclaimed to us in the liturgy? Do we take the time to consider whether our actions are in accord with God’s plan for our lives? Do we accept the role of the Church to authentically interpret God’s Word?
Like the algebra student, there are various approaches we can take to the Word of God. There are, of course, students who are not motivated to learn algebra and don’t bother to do the assignment, let alone check their answers in the back of the book. Sadly, in the classroom of life, there are many who are indifferent to the Word of God. We need to fervently pray that they may have the grace of conversion, that the Lord will inspire them to discover “the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8).
Then there are those who do the assignment and maybe even check their answers in the back of the book on occasion. There’s no problem as long as the answer key agrees with their answers. However, when there’s a discrepancy, they too easily assume the book is wrong, or at least that their answer is equally valid.
This points to an analogous problem in the Church today. Many who consider themselves Catholics believe they are justified in rejecting those teachings they don’t agree with. Often there is an inadequate understanding of the Church’s teaching, and unfortunately the Church’s teaching on issues such as contraception or homosexuality is caricatured in the media. Yet even the most honest and well-researched disagreement with the Church on an issue of faith or morals is problematic, because it involves replacing God’s laws with our own private judgment.
The antidotes to this problem are faith and humility. We all need to pray for an increase in faith. Faith means that we accept God’s Word not necessarily because we naturally agree with it, but because we accept the authority of God as the source of all truth. The virtue of humility, on the other hand, inclines us to recognize not only our God-given dignity and talents, but also our personal limitations and our need for divine wisdom and grace.
At the other extreme, there are those who short-circuit the educational process by looking up the answers and copying them down without learning and understanding the material. I had classmates who would take this a step further. They would look up the answer and then work backwards so that it would look like they actually solved the problem when they hadn’t. While the problems with these approaches are rather obvious, at least my classmates correctly identified the source of the right answers.
When it comes to God’s Word, we can be tempted to take similar approaches. These approaches are rightly criticized as being fundamentalist (inadequately taking into account the complexities of the human condition and the fact that revealed truths are at the same time “mysteries” of faith) and proof-texting (taking God’s Word out of context and improperly using a passage as a shortcut to defending our understanding of the Church’s teaching).
In a secular age characterized by what is sometimes called a “crisis of faith,” the affirmation of trust in the authority of God’s Word manifested by these approaches can be refreshing and praiseworthy. Yet in the end faith is not about knowing the right answers, but about growing in our relationship with the living God. He wants us to ponder the mysteries of faith in imitation of our Blessed Mother, using our intellect and will in cooperation with divine grace to wrestle with real-life difficulties. As St. Augustine said, I believe that I may understand.
Those who simply look up the answers in the back of the book not only cheat themselves, but also aren’t much help when it comes to teaching others. And so for us to participate most fully in the “new evangelization,” we must personally appropriate the truths of our faith and in word and action bear effective witness to the hope that is within us.
In approaching Scripture, we must avoid the pervasive skepticism and doubt that poison many biblical materials today. This theological skepticism has its roots in 19th-century biblical scholarship, but also draws upon contemporary secularizing tendencies. The answer is not fundamentalism, or a rejection of the various scientific tools that give us important new insights and which have the full blessing of the Church. Rather, the appropriate response is a fundamental trust in our Lord Jesus Christ and in His Church, especially when we are tempted to doubt.
St. Augustine, one of the most brilliant theologians in the history of the Church, aptly summarizes the humility and reverence we should have before the Word of God:
On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty [a defective copy of the Bible], or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand.
May God’s Word be a light for our paths (Ps 119:105) and draw us all more deeply into the heart of His family, the Church.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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