Strange and Very Long Quote of the Day: Hermann Sasse

In another context we have shown how this psychological misunderstanding of the Biblical inspiration by Hellenistic Judaism has deeply influenced the early church and how even still Augustine tries to apply this idea of prophetic inspiration and of a divine book produced by such inspiration to the Bible.  It is one of the great tragedies of the history of the Church that the early Fathers, and even still Augustine, instead of taking the doctrine de Sacra Scriptura from the Scriptures themselves approached the problem with a preconceived idea of a divine book which must bear all the marks of a book claiming divine origin, a most perfect book without what our human mind would call “error,” without contradictions, a book whose divine origin can and must be recognised by any unprejudiced reader.  For everybody can see the perfection of the Bible, e.g., if he observes how all prophecies of the Old Testament have been fulfilled in the New.  “How is not He to be regarded as God whose prophets have not only given the congruous answer on subjects regarding which they were consulted at the special time, but who also, in the case of subjects respecting which they were not consulted, and which related to the universal race of man and all nations, have announced prophetically so long time before the event those very things of which we now read, and which indeed we now behold?”  (De consensu evang. I, 19 quoted from Nicene and Postnicene Fathers VI, p. 88).

This view of prophetic inspiration which puts the Biblical prophets into one category with the pagan prophets and sibyls is untenable.  The inspiration of Isaiah is something quite different from the inspiration of the Sibyl of Cumae whom Augustine regarded as a true prophetess.  If this is so, then the psychological explanation of inspiration which Augustine gives and which he has left to future centuries up to our time must be abandoned.  All these venerable pictures in which the relationship that exists between the divine and the human author is described and which go back to Augustine and Gregory the Great — head and hands, author and secretaries, the amanuenses even as pens (calami), the process of inspiration as “suggerere” or “dictare” etc. — must be seen as what they are: attempts to understand psychologically what no psychology ever can grasp. …

This understanding of the inspired Bible as the Scriptures in which God, the Holy Spirit, testifies to God, the Son, frees us from many a false understanding of inspiration.  Men of the 16th and 17th century who thought of books and their authors in terms of Humanism were embarrassed by what seems to be the very bad Greek of some of the New Testament writings.  A perfect book must be written in a perfect, flawless language.  The apologists of all times since Origen’s “Against Celsus” have had to defend the Bible against those who found in it moral deficiencies, inaccuracies, contradictions and errors.  The Church Fathers as well as the medieval and modern theologians were confronted with the fact that the story of creation cannot be understood in terms of natural science.  The conviction is growing that the time has come when the Church has to give up definitely the well-meant attempts to reconcile the first chapter of the Bible with “modern” science.  Since theology moves very slowly, “modern” science proves in each case to be the science of yesterday.  The church has defended the geocentric view of the world when it long since has become obsolete.  It has accepted the heliocentric view when the centre had already moved to the centre of our galaxy and from there to other galaxies.  How detrimental to the Christian faith this has been is now generally recognized.  The rapid development of modern physics has led to serious warnings on the part of Roman theologians as well as such an outstanding leader of conservative Reformed theology as Professor Berkouwer against the repetition of the great mistakes made in the case of Galileo and on other occasions.  It may be a heroic act of faith to accept the story of creation as a substitute for a scientific view of the origin of the universe, but to demand that from a Christian means to excommunicate all scientists who in firm belief in their God and Saviour do the work of their calling which is based on the dominion over all the earth given to man by his creator.  How many souls have been lost through the failure of the Church to do justice to the facts established by solid research, by experiment and observation?

We have shown on another occasion what we could learn in this respect from the Fathers of the Church. This does not imply any denial of a dogma of the Church.  Neither the creation of the world “out of nothing” is abandoned, nor the special creation of man and the fall of the first man as an historic event.  What must be admitted by the Church is that the Bible in speaking of such things uses a language different from ours.  It speaks to men of very ancient times in a way which was even by the Church Fathers felt to be very old and simple.  How could men of such times have understood a story of creation told in the terminology of Aristotle or Augustine, let alone of 20th century science which probably will be obsolete in another century?  This is what Chrysostom has called the “synkatabasis” (“condescensio”) of God.  “Behold the condescension of the Divine Scripture, see what words it uses on account of our weakness,” he says commenting on Gen. 2:21 (Migne SG 53, col. 121, comp. col. 34f., 135; vol. 59, col. 97f.).  In a similar way Jerome and other Fathers have solved the problem.  If we say that, we do not think that the way of thinking and speaking in those very early times was inferior to ours.  It was different, but we would by no means dare to say that our scientific view of the world gives us a deeper insight into the nature of the world.  They were very far from our rational thinking.  They saw realities which we no longer see, just as primitive people to-day still observe things which we no longer perceive.  What they said about such realities must not be regarded as myths, though it sometimes may remind us of the language of mythology, the reason being that pagan mythology is a deteriorated and paganized echo of such wisdom.

In addition to the “law of condescension” in the Bible we must take in account what we could call the “law of parallels” in Holy Scripture.  As we find in the Hebrew language the parallelismus membrorimi in poetic and prophetic texts, so we find the strange fact that almost every important event is told several times and always with variations.  There are two stories of creation.  There are all the other parallels in the Pentateuch, due to the different sources.  We have two great histories of Israel, one written from the prophetic, the other from the priestly point of view.  In the New Testament even four lines run parallel in the Gospels.  What does it mean that we have parables and other sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, even the Lord’s Prayer and the eucharistic words in various forms?   Two baptismal formulas also appear in the New Testament.  This must have a meaning.  How easy would it have been for the Church to agree, on one Gospel or to create an official harmony of the Gospels.  Why have all attempts at such a harmony failed?  The Church of Syria which used the Diatessaron became heretical and its return to orthodoxy coincided with the return to the Four Gospels.  The Gospel Harmonies created in the 16th and 17th centuries, or those to be found in some Catholic Bibles, have proved to be failures.  The picture of Jesus which they give is always unrealistic and lifeless, so when, e.g., a twofold cleansing of the Temple is assumed or even several healings of the same person.  No-one has been able to harmonise the apparent “contradiction,” regarding the chronology of the Passion and of the events of Easter.  But are these real contradictions? If we compare paintings of the crucifixion by four great painters, who would find “contradictions” and “errors” in them?  Have not Grunewald and Durer seen more than a photograph could show?  The strange idea of the sacred history which underlies the apologetic attempts to harmonize all differences goes back to an age which no longer was able to understand the biblical idea of history.  Neither the Jewish rabbis nor the Fathers of the Church nor their pagan adversaries like Celsus and Porphyrius have been able to think in terms of history.  This is to a large degree due to the fact that Greek philosophy had no understanding of history.  What we have to learn again is to measure Biblical history by its own standards.  Instead of asking whether a certain narrative corresponds to our standards, we should ask: Why did the Biblical writer tell events and record words just the way he did it?  Luke, e.g., was a critical historian who evaluated his sources (1:1ff).  Why has he given, or inserted, in Acts three reports on the conversion of Paul which are not in full agreement?  He must have been aware of this.  Instead of finding fault with his method and accusing him of errors we should rather ask: What was his intention when he wrote these passages?  Why did he not regard as intolerable contradictions what later centuries have called that?  The great concern of the Church in factual historical truth is deeply rooted in the Bible.  How carefully are the events in the history, of salvation dated (e.g., Is. 6:1, Amos 1:1, Luke 3:1, 1 Cor. 15:1ff.) lest anyone might deny the facts.  The words “under Pontius Pilate” belong to the Nicene Creed just as “according to the Scriptures.”  What, then, is factual historical truth for the holy writers?  This is one of the great problems which Biblical theology has to investigate and to answer.  It cannot be answered by the statement that “truth” in the Bible has a deeper and more comprehensive meaning than “veritas” with Aquinas (Summa th. I qu. 16 “De Veritate”).

However, biblical truth cannot be without what we understand by propositional truth, because otherwise the revelation of the Bible would become myth. All creeds of the Church from the first creedal statements of the New Testament present facts (see 1 Cor. 15:lff.).  Without this factual, dogmatic character, Christianity would become a mystery religion.  How and why the holy writers transmit to us one truth in several parallel records and what the variety means, this is one of the foremost problems of biblical hermeneutics.  It is a most comprehensive question, for the fact also that the New Testament knows and uses two “Old Testaments,” the Hebrew and the Greek, comes under the “law of parallels.”

Whatever the answer to these questions may be, one thing Christian theology can never admit, namely, the presence of “errors” in the sense of false statements in Holy Scripture.  The holy writers may have used, as they actually have, sources, traditions, methods of a pre- scientific historiography, literary forms of the ancient Orient which we do no longer possess.  Their language may be figurative, their narratives sometimes bordering on legend and poetry or even using such forms of expression.  Yet all this has been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  In a way that is and always will remain inscrutable to human reason these truly human writings are God’s Word.

The inspiration of Holy Scripture has often been understood as an analogon to the incarnation.  It seems that this view is becoming more and more the common possession of Christendom, especially since it has been introduced into Roman Catholic theology and approved by the encyclical of 1943.  To the dilemma formulated by Paul Claudel, “either the Bible is a human work . . . or else Scripture is a divine work,” Steinmann (op. cit. p. 14) has rightly replied: “One might as well say: Either Jesus Christ is man or he is God.”  We cannot go into this theological problem here.  The time may come when the christological decision of Chalcedon will become the pattern of a solution of the doctrine of Holy Scripture and its inspiration.  

Between the Monophysitism of Fundamentalists who failed to understand the human nature of the Bible and the Nestorianism of modern Protestant and Anglican theology which sees the two natures, but fails to find the unity of Scripture as a book at the same time fully human and fully divine, we have to go the narrow path between these two errors.  But we must never forget that the Chalcedonense has been authoritatively explained in the doctrine of the “enhypostasia.”  The human nature has its “hypostasis” in the divine.  So Holy Scripture is first of all and essentially God’s Word.  The human word in the Bible has no independent meaning.  What would the books of Samuel and even the epistle to the Romans mean outside the Bible?  God has given us these writings as His Word.  What is Holy Scripture without its content, Christ?” “Tolle Christum e scripturis, quid amplius invenies?” as Luther wrote against Erasmus “Take Christ out of the Scriptures, what remains?”  As we humbly bow before the mystery of the incarnation of the Eternal Word, so we accept in great humility the mystery of Holy Scripture as the written Word of God in which the Father through the Holy Ghost testifies to Christ: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.”

—”Inspiration and Inerrancy—Some Preliminary Thoughts”

(Boldfaced emphasis mine)


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