moral musings

The Critical Meaning of the Bible

It needs to be underlined that the use of Scripture in doctrinal statements composed by church authorities in a pre-critical period may not be read as the answer to historical-critical problems raised subsequently. It has been affirmed by the Roman Doctrinal Congregation that doctrines enunciated by the magisterium  solve only certain questions and are sometimes phrased in the changeable conceptions of an epoch. That must be remembered when we relate such doctrines to modern biblical questions. Tridentine statements that Christ instituted seven sacraments (DBS 1601) and that the apostles priests (DBS 1752) represent an interpretation of the general thrust of the whole NT for the life of the Church. They do not and will not answer historical-critical questions such as: Did the historical Jesus have a clear idea of sacrament? In his earthly life how many of what we call sacraments did he consciously envision? Before his death did Jesus actually utter the words “Do this in commemoration of me” (missing in Matthew’s and Mark’s account of the Last Supper) or is that a post-resurrectional interpretation of the primitive churches known to Luke (22:19) and Paul (1 Cor. 11:25)? Did the Jesus of the earthly ministry think of any of his followers as cultic priests and did he think of the Eucharist as a sacrifice? These questions are best answered, not by citing church doctrine phrased by people who were neither asking nor answering them, but by studying the Gospels historically and seeking to pierce behind the professions of early faith to the circumstances of Jesus’ ministry and his world view. Even if many of them are answered in the negative, however, this does not mean that the subsequent Roman Catholic Church was wrong at Trent in insisting that its doctrines of seven sacraments, Eucharistic sacrifice, and priestly ordination were a valid interpretation of Scripture – an interpretation of what by symbiosis Scripture had come to mean in church life, but not necessarily an interpretation of what it meant in the mind of those who wrote the pertinent passages.

 Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible pp. 40-41


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