Two weeks ago I wrote a little about a seminar group I am taking in which we are using the poetry of George Herbert as a way of explaining to a generation unfamiliar with it, something about Christianity. Today we were dealing with poems on the themes of death and faith, and this brought them – and us – up against the idea of atonement. The concept of a God of wrath was one with which they had some familiarity, and the discussion went along lines about how hard they found the ideas of Herbert. So, in Faith they were quite expecting the litany of things which man thought would save him, and couldn’t, to end with him being condemned to hell, and were shocked by the lines:
I owed thousands and much more: I did beleeve that I did nothing owe, And liv’d accordingly; my creditor Beleeves so too, and lets me go.
How on earth, they wondered, could that be? If, as was the case, Herbert was saying that nothing we could do could secure our own salvation, how was it that God forgave us? One young man asked how that could be squared with the idea he had picked up from the media that very few souls would be saved? How, he asked, could that be aligned with what the Bible said?
That led us into a discussion about how the Bible should be read and what it was for? This mapped onto parts of the discussions we have been having in the comments boxes with our welcome new commentator, pancakesandwildhoney. Jesus did not write a book; there is no reason to think he could not have done if he had so wanted, but he chose not to; he founded a Church. That Church was the body which established what was and was not scripture. That is not to say that the Church wrote Scripture, but it is to say it told us what Scripture itself cannot – what the Canon is, and, indeed, that there should be a Canon. None of this is clear from Scripture.
The Catholic view is that the Scriptures are best read within and interpreted within the Tradition of the Church. We are, after all, a fallen race. We can all, like Adam and Eve, pluck the fruit of the tree of life – in this instance, the Bible – and claim that we are authorised to know its meaning. We can even, as our friend Bosco does, claim that because we are ‘saved’ we have a unique insight into what Scripture means, even though we did not establish the Canon, and have no way outside of the history of the Church of establishing what it is. Our prideful ways are such that we can think we know better than the Church.
Bosco is fond of saying that the Catholic Church says that only Catholics will go to Heaven, and it matters not how many times we quote various documents, he insists that medieval documents trump them; not that he is the only one here of that view. But St John is clear – Jesus’ sacrifice is for all who will receive Him by faith, in their hearts with thanksgiving. Or, as Herbert puts it:
A peasant may beleeve as much As a great Clerk, and reach the highest stature. Thus dost thou make proud knowledge bend & crouch, While grace fills up uneven nature.
The idea of God as love was clearly something new to the class, as was the notion that God wants everyone to be saved, and the rejection, when it takes place, is not God rejecting us, but us rejecting Him. As one young woman said to me after class, that has made her ‘think again’. Education is about helping people think, so that seemed a good thing. It will be interesting to see how they are feeling when we reconvene next Friday.