[Paragraphs 96-100 are summary statements and require no further commentary.] We begin a new section of the Catechism entitled “God Comes to Meet Man,” an exploration of the communication process involved in the texts of sacred scripture. Paragraph 101 assumes a core truth from the Catechism [paras. 198-199], one might say the core truth, that God created us gratuitously, freely, and lovingly, with no advantage to his own perfect being.
Para. 101 indicates that, having created us, God wishes to communicate. The content of his communication is simple and diverse. There is the obvious question of why God went to the trouble in the first place to create and then to converse. In the New Testament, 1 John 4 does its best to answer the question, though all human language about God’s intentions will suffer from the limitation trying to penetrate the unknowable. 1 John 4:7 states: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.” The author of this New Testament letter argues persuasively that the reason for creation and the content of God’s communication is love.
A perfect love brings a perfect happiness; the generosity of God can be described as forming creatures who can aspire to and even experience what God has enjoyed from the beginning. This generosity is carried forward and communicated by God’s giving up his own identity. St. Paul, in Philippians 2, crafted the poetic language of God’s speaking in action: “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
That God created us for ultimate happiness--“eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love him”—is well established in the Scripture. Para. 101 moves on to the next theological hurdle, the fact that God speaks to us in human words. Jesus, who is fully human as well as fully divine, suffered the limitations of space and time just as all humans do. The same is true with God’s words, which come down to us “in every way like human language,” as our paragraph puts it. Discerning God’s language and putting it in human idioms will always be a struggle for the Church on so many levels, and the matter of the sacred books—their composition and inspiration—was a preoccupation of Christianity for several centuries.
Of this we can say with certainly: The Bible, God’s revered text of conversing love, did not arrive in one complete package at one specific time. In fact, there is no complete original bible on the face of the earth. Scrolls and fragments exist around the world, from the Vatican Library to the Smithsonian/Freer Museum in Washington, D.C. The study of God’s Word, then, requires both a faith in the content of the texts and scrupulous study to insure the accuracy of the translation. This should not overly disturb anyone; as the Catechism explains, the “words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language.” The Bibles in our homes or on our mobile devices are, in most cases, the most accurate translations available in 2017.
That said, since the third century the Church has enjoyed the confidence of the Holy Spirit to speak definitively of which books belong in the canons of the Old and New Testaments. The determining factor appears to have been the experience of the local churches, where selection of texts for usage in the liturgy gradually whittled down to the selection of books in our Bible today. In the days long before missals, calendars, and lectionaries came into common use, local churches exercised freedom in selection of the Eucharistic Scripture readings. It was not until the fifth century that an “official” translation of the Bible appeared, St. Jerome’s Vulgate Latin translation [from the Latin vulgus, “common,” as in legible to common people.] It is unfortunate that the Latin word vulgus evolved into the English word vulgar.
But no one in Jerome’s day would have said that the Vulgate was a perfect rendering. Jerome’s contemporary Augustine wrote with some exasperation, “And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS [manuscript] is faulty or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it . . . I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine.” A millennium later, the Catholic Renaissance scholar Erasmus—possibly the greatest linguist the Church ever produced--pointed out an “inconvenient truth,” specifically that Jerome’s Vulgate was a translation from Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. At the height of the Reformation, Erasmus’ efforts to correct Jerome’s venerable text from these multi-lingual documents were not appreciated by the Catholic Church, which was under assault by Luther and others for “unbiblical practices.” Roman Catholicism maintained the Vulgate as the translation for use in the Mass until 1970.
Para. 101 is a reminder of the mystery and the complexity of the divine “other-worldly” entering the finite world of human complexity, including the very texts of revelation. We can be comfortable about two things: first, the books we see in our Bibles contain the entire body of what we need to know and believe in order to understand and respond to God with love. Textual studies of the Bible will continue long after our deaths to insure greater clarity for faith, preaching, and reflection.
Second, the Catechism summarizes the direction of God’s revelation, “in the condescension of his goodness.” The gestures of creation, revelation, and most of all, the sending of his Son, are extensions of his pure love. We labor to understand, and even more so to imitate, but the heart of the message is God’s desire is the happiness of his created children.