The Church Precedes The New Testament

So far, we have been dealing with rather dry material. We have seen how the Old Testament books came to be collected into one volume; now it remains to see how the Catholic Church also composed and selected and formed into another volume the separate books of the New Testament.

1. Now you will remember what I said before, that the New Testament was not, any more than the Old, all written at one time, or all by one man, but that at least 40 years passed away between the writing of the first and the writing of the last of its books. It is made up of four Gospels, 14 Epistles of St. Paul, two of St. Peter, one of St. James, one of St. Jude, three of St. John, together with the Apocalypse of St. John, and the Acts of Apostles by St. Luke, who also wrote the third Gospel; so that we have, in this collection, works by at least eight different writers; and from the year that the earliest book was composed (probably the Gospel of St. Matthew) to the year that St. John composed his Gospel, about half a century had elapsed. Our Blessed Lord Himself never, so far as we know, wrote a line of Scripture – certainly none that has been preserved. He never told His Apostles to write anything. He did not command them to commit to writing what He had delivered to them: but He said, “Go ye and teach all nations,” “preach the Gospel to every creature,” “He that heareth you heareth Me.” What He commanded and meant them to do was precisely what He had done Himself, namely, deliver the Word of God to the people by the living voice – convince, persuade, instruct, convert them by addressing themselves face to face to living men and women; not entrust their message to a dead book which might perish and be destroyed, and be misunderstood and misinterpreted and corrupted, but adopt the more safe and natural way of presenting the truth to them by word of mouth, and of training others to do the same after they themselves were gone, and so, by a living tradition, preserving and handing down the Word of God as they had recieved it, to all generations.

2. And this was, as a matter of fact, the method the Apostles adopted. Only five out of the twelve wrote down anything at all that has been preserved to us; and of that, not a line was penned till at least 10 years after the death of Christ, for Jesus Christ was crucified in 33 A.D., and the first of the New Testament books was not written till about 45 A.D. You see what follows? The Church and the Faith existed before the Bible; that seems an elementary and simple fact which no one can deny or ever has denied. Thousands of people became Christians through the work of the Apostles and missionaries of Christ in various lands, and believed the whole truth of God as we believe it now, and became Saints, before ever they saw or read, or could possibly see or read, a single sentence of inspired Scripture of the New Testament, for the simple reason that such Scripture did not then exist. How, then, did they become Christians? In the same way, of course, that pagans become Catholics nowadays, by hearing the truth of God from the lips of Christ’s missionaries. When the twelve Apostles met together in Jerusalem and portioned out the known world among themselves for purposes of evangelization, allotting one country to one Apostle (such as India to St. Thomas), and another to another, how did they propose to evangelize these people? By presenting each one with a New Testament? Such a thing did not exist, and, we may safely say, was not even thought of. Why did Our Lord promise them the gift of the Holy Ghost and command them to be “witnesses” of Him? And why, in fact, did the Holy Ghost come down upon the Twelve and endow them with the power of speaking in various languages? Why but that they might be able to “preach the Gospel to every creature” in the tongue of every creature.

3. I have said that the Apostles at first never thought of writing the New Testament; and neither they did. The books of the New Testament were produced and called forth by special circumstances that arose, were written to meet particular demands and emergencies. Nothing was further from the minds of the Apostles and Evangelists than the idea of composing works which should be collected and formed into one volume and so constitute the Holy Book of the Christians. And we can imagine St. Paul staring in amazement if he had been told that his Epistles, and St. Peter’s, and St. John’s and the others would be tied up together and elevated into the position of a complete and exhaustive statement of the doctrines of Christianity, to be placed on each man’s hand as an easy and infallible guide in faith and morals, independent of any living and teaching authority to interpret them. No one would have been more shocked at the idea of his letters usurping the place of the authoritative teacher, the Church, than the great Apostle who himself said, “How shall they hear without a preacher? How shall they preach unless they be sent? Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” The fact is that no religion yet known has been effectually propagated among men except by word of mouth, and certainly everything in the natural and spiritual position of the Apostles on the one hand, and of the Jews on the other, was utterly unfavorable to the spread of Christianity by means of a written record.

The Jewish people were not used to it, and the Gentiles could not have understood it. Even Protestant authors of the highest standing are compelled to admit that the living teaching of the Church was necessarily the means chosen by Jesus Christ for the spread of His Gospel, and that the committing of it to writing was a later and secondary development. Dr. Westcott, Bishop of Durham, than whom among Anglicans there is not a higher authority, and who is reckoned, indeed, by all as a standard scholar on the Canon of Scripture, says (The Bible in the Church – pp. 53 and following): “In order to appreciate the Aposolic age in its essential character, it is necessary to dismiss not only the ideas which are drawn from a collected New Testament, but those also, in a great measure, which spring from the several groups of writings of which it is composed. The first work of the Apostles, and that out of which all their other functions grew, was to deliver in living words a personal testimony to the cardinal facts of the Gospel – the Ministry, the Death and the Resurrection of Our Lord. It was only in the course of time, and under the influence of external circumstances, that they committed their testimony, or any part of it, to writing. Their peculiar duty was to preach. That they did, in fact, perform a mission for all ages in perpetuating the tidings which they delivered was due, not to any conscious design which they formed, nor to any definite command which they recieved, but to that mysterious power…The repeated experience of many ages has even yet hardly sufficed to show that a permanent record of His words and deeds, open to all, must co-exist with the living body of the Church, if that is to continue in pure and healthy vigour.” And again: “The Apostles, when they speak, claim to speak with Divine authority, but they nowhere profess to give in writing a system of Christian Doctrine. Gospels and Epistles, with the exception, perhaps, of the writings of St. John, were called out by special circumstances. There is no trace of any designed connection between the separate books, except in the case of the Gospel of St. Luke and the Acts (also by St. Luke), still less of any outward unity or completeness in the entire collection. On the contrary, it is not unlikely that some Epistles of St. Paul have been lost, and though, in point of fact, the books which remain do combine to form a perfect whole, yet the completeness is due not to any conscious co-operation of their authors, but to the will of Him by whose power they wrote and wrought.”

What a contrast there is, in these clear words of the great scholar, to the common delusion that seems to have seized some minds – that the Bible, complete and bound, dropped down among the Christians from Heaven after the day of Pentecost; or, at the least, that the Twelve Apostles sat down together in an upper room, pens in hand, and wrote off at a sitting table all the Books of the New Testament! And allow me to give one more short quotation to drive home the point I am laboring at, that the written New Testament could never have been intended as the only means of preaching salvation. “It was some considerable time after Our Lord’s Ascension” (writes the Protestant author of Helps to the Study of the Bible, p.2), “before any of the books contained in the New Testament were actually written. The first and most important work of the Apostles was to deliver a personal testimony to the chief facts of the Gospel history. Their teaching was at first oral, and it was no part of their intention to create a permanent literature.” These, I consider, are valuable admissions.

4. But now, you may say, “What was the use of writing the Gospels and Epistles then at all? Did not God inspire men to write them? Are you not belittling and despising God’s Word?” No, not at all; we are simply putting it in its proper place, the place that God meant it to have; and I would add, the Catholic Church is the only body in these days which teaches infallibly that the Bible, and the whole of it, is the Word of God, and defends its inspiration, and denounces and excommunicates anyone who would dare to impugn its Divine origin and authority.

I said before, and I repeat, that the separate books of the New Testament came into being to meet special demands, in response to particular needs, and were not, nor are they now, absolutely necessary either to the preaching or the perpetuating of the Gospel of Christ.

It is easy to see how the Gospels arose. So long as the Apostles were still living, the necessity for written records of the words and actions of Our Lord was not so pressing. But when the time came for their removal from this world, it was highly expedient that some correct, authoritative, reliable account be left of Our Lord’s life by those who had known Him personally, or at least were in a position to have first-hand, uncorrupted information concerning it. And this was all the more necessary because there were being spread abroad incorrect, unfaithful, indeed altogether spurious Gospels, which were calculated to injure and ridicule the character and work of Our Divine Redeemer. St. Luke distinctly declares that this was what caused him to undertake the writing of his Gospel – “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a narration of the things that have been accomplished among us.” (Luke 1:1). He goes on to say that he has his information from eyewitnesses, and has come to know all particulars from the very beginning, and therefore considers it right to set them down in writing, to secure a correct and trustworthy account of Christ’s life. So St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John penned their Gospels for the use of the Church, the one supplying often what another omits, but yet none pretending to give an exhaustive or perfect account of all that Jesus Christ said and did, for if this had been attempted, St. John tells us, “the whole world would not have contained the books that would be written” about it. The Gospels, then, are incomplete and fragmentary, giving us certainly the most important things to know about Our Saviour’s earthly life, but still not telling us all we might know, or much we do know in fact now and understand better, through the teaching of the Catholic Church, which has preserved traditions handed down since the time of the Apostles, from one generation to another. These Gospels were read, as they are now among Catholics, at the gatherings of the Christians in the earliest days on the Sundays – not to set forth a scheme of doctrine that they knew already, but to animate their courage, to excited their love and devotion to Jesus Christ, and impel them to imitate the example of the Beloved Master whose sayings and doings were read aloud in their ears.

Well, now, what I said about the Gospels is equally true of the Epistles, which make up practically the whole rest of the New Testament. They were called into existence at various times to meet pressing needs and circumstances; were addressed to particular individuals and communities in various places, and not to the Catholic Church at large. The thought furthest from the mind of the writers was that they should ever be collected into one volume and made to do duty as a complete and all-sufficient statement of Christian faith and morals.

How did they arise? In this natural and simple way: St. Peter, St. Paul and the rest went forth to various lands, preaching the Gospel, and made thousands of converts, and in each place founded a church, and left priests in charge, and a bishop sometimes (as, e.g., St. Timothy in Ephesus). Now these priests and converts had occasion many a time to consult their spiritual father and founder like St. Paul, or St. Peter, or St. James, on many points of doctrine or discipline, or morals; for we must not imagine that at that date, when the Church was in its infancy, things were so clearly seen or understood or formulated as they are now. It was, of course, the same Faith then as always; but still there were many points on which the newly made Christians were glad to consult the Apostles, who had been sent out with the unction of Jesus Christ fresh upon them – points of dogma and ritual and government and conduct which they alone could settle. And so we find St. Paul writing to the Ephesians (his converts at Ephesus), or to the Corinthians (his converts at Philippi), and so on to the rest (14 Epistles in all). And for what reason? Either in answer to communications sent to him from them, or because he had heard from other sources that there were some things that required correction in these places. All manner of topics are dealt with in these letters, sometimes in the most homely style. It might be to advise the converts, or to reprove them; to encourage them or instruct them; or to defend himself from false accusations. It might be, like that to Philemon, a letter about a private person as Onesimus, the slave.

But whatever the Epistles deal with, it is clear as the noonday sun that they were written just at particular times to meet particular cases that occurred naturally in the course of his missionary labors, and that neither St. Paul nor any of the other Apostles, intended by these letters to set forth the whole theology or scheme of Christian salvation any more than Pope Pius X intended to do so in his Decree against the Modernists, or in his Letter on the Sanctification of the Clergy. The thing seems plain on the face of it. Leo XIII writes to the Scotch Bishops on the Holy Scriptures, for example; or Pius X to the Eucharist Congress in London on the Blessed Sacrament, or publishes a Decree on Frequent Communion; or, again, one of our Bishops, say, sends forth a letter condemning secret societies, or issues a pastoral dealing with new marriage laws – are we to say that these documents are intended to teach the whole way of salvation to all men? That they profess to state the whole Catholic creed? The question has only to be asked to expose it’s absurdity. Yet precisely the same question may be put about the position of St. Paul’s Epistles. True, he was an Apostle, and consequently inspired, and his letters are the written Word of God, and therefore are a final and decisive authority on the various points of which they treat, if properly understood; but that does not alter the fact that they nowhere claim to state the whole of Christian truth, or to be a complete guide of salvation to anyone; they already presuppose the knowledge of the Christian Faith among those to whom they are addressed; they are written to believers, not to unbelievers; in one word, the Church existed and did it’s work before they were written, and it would still have done so even though they had never been written at all. St. Paul’s letters (for we are taking his merely as a sample of all) date from the year 52 A.D. to 68 A.D.; Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven, leaving His Church to evangelize the world, in 33 A.D.; and we may confidently assert that the very last place we should expect to find a complete summary of Christian doctrine is in the Epistles of the New Testament.

There is no need to delay further on the matter. I think I have made it clear enough how the various books of the New Testament took their origin. And in so explaining the state of the case, we are not undervaluing the written Word of God, or placing it on a level inferior to what it deserves. We are simply showing the position it was meant to occupy in the economy of the Christian Church. It was written by the Church, by members (Apostles and Evangelists) of the Church; it belongs to the Church, and it is her office, therefore, to declare what it means. It is intended for instruction, meditation, spiritual reading, encouragement, devotion, and also serves as proof and testimony of the Church’s doctrines and Divine authority; but as a complete and exclusive guide to Heaven in the hands of every man – this it never was and never could be.

The Bible in the Church; the Church before the Bible – the Church the Maker and Interpreter of the Bible – that is right. The Bible above the Church; the Bible independent of the Church; the Bible, and the Bible only, the Religion of Christians – that is wrong. The one is the Catholic position; the other the Protestant.

God Bless BJS!!

Taken from Where We Got The Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church by RT REV HENRY G. GRAHAM I am not the Author merely the distributor.


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