Why We Do Not Have the Writings of Jesus
A profound answer from centuries ago to a appearingly benign question.
Many in the secular community paint all Christians with a broad brush. Therefore, what they say about evangelicals they also say about all Christians even Catholics.
There is a fundamental doctrine separating the two forms of mainstream Christianity. Three centuries before Martin Luther created this separation and more a half-millennium before the rise of evangelicalism, St. Thomas Aquinas cites why it is important.
The earth-shattering impact of a seemingly benign question
In his Summa Theologica, book three, the philosopher saint addresses the benignly appearing question of why Jesus did not put any of his teachings to writing.
Understand the importance of that question for us today. Catholics believe in scripture and tradition. Evangelicals and other Christians, drawing from Martin Luther, believe in scripture alone. They do not believe in drawing on tradition. Other faiths such as Unitarian-Universalists who can trace their existence back to the puritans reject the bible as the sole source of direction and open themselves also to non-Judeo-Christian texts and philosophical treatises.
Catholics believe that all our teachings must be rooted in scripture but they develop over the history of Christianity.
An ancient answer from two powerful Catholic philosophers
Aquinas, in his explanation, cites St. Augustine who lived almost one thousand years earlier. They both address the significance of the last line of the Gospel of John. The gospel author explains that Jesus did and said so many things there is not enough space in the world to record all of those accounts.
John’s gospel explains everything we need to know about Jesus’ teachings are not contained in the Bible.
John wrote allegorically, according to St. Augustine. He taught the lack of space was not in the world but in the ability of the people to comprehend Jesus’ words and share them. This means our understanding of Jesus’ message grows and deepens over time, dare I write-evolves. Aquinas and Augustine warn:
if Christ had committed His doctrine to writing, men would have had no deeper thought of His doctrine than that which appears on the surface of the writing. (STh., III q.42 a.4: “I answer that . . .”)
Many of the questions people have on Bible teaching especially the many times they ask ‘why’, the contemporaries of Jesus listening to his teaching clearly would have asked as well.
If Jesus’ hypothetical secretary wrote down his every word including the answer to questions many would ask, His message would be set into stone but frozen at a superficial level, according to both Aquinas and Augustine. This would create Catholic fundamentalism.
Jesus’ words set in stone is not a good thing
If I restrict my understanding of my role as a disciple to just the written pages of the Bible then I will never fully understand or embrace the true teaching of Jesus which is too profound to be limited to the written pages. As per St. Augustine, each era comes to a deeper understanding of the meaning of the word of God building upon the comprehension of the previous generation. None of this can be done when we limit our understanding to just what is written between covers of any Bible.
One of the oldest images for the Church is that of a tower. Ancient writers represented each believer as a stone in this structure same structure. Towers by definition grow upon the foundation of previously laid stones. Therefore, the tower grows generationally as construction continues.
This reflects the Catholic position of scripture and tradition. Both forms of Christianity will grow in their understanding but Catholicism is not limited by the sola scriptura doctrine of Martin Luther and his successors through the ages to today. Rather, it is set to explore the deepening understanding of the profound teaching of Christ through prayer and the wisdom of the saints.
This is why our prayer is so important because through it we can take our confusion to the Lord and ask to understand His words to the deeper level.
We need to pray to understand virtue
I criticized the writings of an archbishop several times, and in several venues when he corrected others. He taught them that we must pursue virtue. That is true to a point but according to Catholic teaching, it is impossible to live it fully if we do not pray. I am sure his invitation to pray was implied, it just was not expressed. This means it is not the one who pursues virtue who comes to comprehend Christ, it is the one who prays seeking to understand why one should pursue virtue of any type in the first place who will discover Him.
Therefore, it is the person who feels most alienated from Christ who prays to understand his teachings that will eventually discover their true meaning, learn of them and embrace them. This is why prayer is so important and why rooting my faith only in the words of the Bible without pursuing any deeper understanding will not lead me to a life-giving way of living my faith. It may explain why so many feel alienated from their original Christian faith.
Prayer, helps us to be in communion with He who is not just wise but is the incarnation of wisdom. Our communion with him leads us to understand the truth to a far more profound level than all that is written can ever deliver. Our continued prayerful communication will lead us to grow to a deeper knowledge day by day, week by week and year by year. What we learn builds upon what we gain through books alone of all types even if we study them all. This is the meaning of not reducing our faith just to what is written and seeking in prayer to understand what Christ teaches us to truly believe.
Pope Francis admonishes all Catholics of the importance of prayer and warns:
Spirit-filled evangelizers are evangelizers who pray and work. Mystical notions without a solid social and missionary outreach are of no help to evangelization, nor are dissertations or social or pastoral practices which lack a spirituality which can change hearts. These unilateral and incomplete proposals only reach a few groups and prove incapable of radiating beyond them because they curtail the Gospel. What is needed is the ability to cultivate an interior space which can give a Christian meaning to commitment and activity. Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervour dies out. Evangelii Gaudium #262
His call was to let prayer challenge us to break out of understanding Jesus’ words superficially as if they were made in stone. Obviously, Aquinas and Augustine understood almost eight hundred and nineteen hundred years ago respectively how destructive to Jesus’ disciples such petrified understanding of His’ teachings would become.
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