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The Whole Bible Is Inspired
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Why Should Christians Read the Old Testament?
Fulfilling My Commitment
Rules Versus Spirit
Why the Threefold Sign of the Cross?

Q: My son, a sophomore at a Catholic high school, has a very hard time accepting the Old Testament in general. He believes many of the stories, beginning with the Creation story and including Noah’s ark, the parting of the Red Sea and others, to be implausible as historical fact.

Frankly, I have some sympathy for his critique of the Old Testament. Still, stories such as David’s seem to have profound insight into the human condition and our relationship to God. How should I help my son sort this all out? I could use some help, too.

A: Your son is finding teen faith a little harder than that of his childhood. You are finding your adult faith more challenging than your teen faith. Both challenges are to be expected.

Your son’s question involves history. Polytheism, belief in many gods, was presumed in the ancient world to be true. The Old Testament presents itself as God’s self-revelation within human history. It helps us understand the one God and the divine plan for the world. The great danger was that the Hebrew people to whom the first revelation is directed might simply add the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to all the other gods they knew. Biblical prophets constantly pointed out this danger. The New Testament continues God’s unique self-revelation.

Is the Bible simply the written transcript of what your son might have captured if he had been present with a videocamera during the events described? That is one type of reporting, what we tend to think of as the whole truth. Is the Bible fundamentally God’s unfolding self-revelation? That’s where a more complete sense of truth is found, including meaning.

Take an example close to home. If your son asked you and your wife to write out descriptions of the time when you asked her to marry you, would you and your wife include the same details? Even if the accounts differ on some minor details, wouldn’t the heart of both descriptions be true?

Let’s apply this example to the Creation story, cited by your son. In fact, the Book of Genesis presents two Creation accounts. The first one (1:1—2:4a) describes the creation of the world in six days and God as resting on the Sabbath. The second one (starting at 2:4b) describes the creation of Adam and Eve in greater detail. These two accounts even use different Hebrew words for God.

Because the final editor of the Book of Genesis included both accounts, we can conclude that this editor understood them as telling us something very valuable about Creation—without either one being an eyewitness account. The world comes from a single source and not, as some pagan creation stories assert, the competition between a good god and an evil god.

Questions about the Bible’s accuracy depend on recognizing what the Bible is (God’s self-revelation in human history) and what it is not (an encyclopedia of science, history, etc.).

The introductions and notes in the New American Bible and in the New Jerusalem Bible are excellent and should help you and your son understand what the writers were doing in the stories about Noah’s ark, the crossing of the Red Sea and similar passages.

Your son finds the New Testament easier to understand and to accept than the Old Testament. O.K., but God couldn’t reveal everything at once. Belief in one God, for example, needed to be firm before the Incarnation or the Trinity could be revealed. It helped that sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple preceded Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross.

God apparently wanted a group of monotheists to whom God’s Son could break the news that God is truly Father, Son and Holy Spirit—but not three gods. The Book of Jonah shows dramatically that God loves gentiles as well as Jews.

God’s covenant with the Jewish people has never been revoked, and Christians cannot discard the Old Testament. God is the author of the entire Bible, even if God worked through many human writers.

Fulfilling My Commitment

Q: After 16 years of being an usher at my parish, I have resigned because of nervous tension and other good reasons. I feel guilty, however, because not long ago I renewed my pledge to offer this service.

A: There are many ways that you can share your time, talent and treasure with your parish. Because you no longer feel comfortable with ushering, that does not mean that you cannot offer some other service to your parish. Its bulletin is probably the best indicator of ways you could serve.

Q: When I read the Old Testament, it seems to be highly “rules-based,” unlike the New Testament, which strikes me as much more “spirit-based.” Why is that?

A: Yes, there are many rules in the Old Testament. There are also rules in the New Testament—God’s spirit permeates both Testaments.

Belief in one God was very much a minority position in the ancient world (see the first Q & A in this column). Pagan gods are pretty much like humans, for example, in terms of jealousy. These gods simply had more power to carry out their plans—usually in conflict with other deities. Pagan gods expected an occasional sacrifice from their worshipers but little in the area of moral conduct.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has a strong sense of justice and thus gives rules to ensure that the rights of all people are respected, especially widows and orphans (see the regulations in Deuteronomy, Chapter 26).

Establishing and reinforcing belief in a single God was an uphill struggle; many Old Testament rules were intended to help the Israelites make a clean break from the common wisdom of their pagan neighbors.

Christians no longer follow many Old Testament rules (such as the dietary laws, Temple sacrifices and the obligation that males be circumcised) and have reinterpreted other rules (regarding Sunday instead of Saturday as the Lord’s day). Christians continue to follow the Ten Commandments and some other Old Testament rules.

The New Testament, however, has its share of rules. For example, the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46 describes the need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. In Luke 16:19-31, the rich man is condemned for ignoring the needs of Lazarus.

In Colossians 3:12-14, St. Paul writes: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”

Rules can protect relationships. In his book Orthodoxy, the British author G.K. Chesterton writes, “If we wish to protect the poor, we shall be in favor of fixed rules and clear dogmas. The rules of a club are occasionally in favour of the poor member. The drift of a club is always in favour of the rich one.” Although following Jesus does not make us members of a club, I think Chesterton’s observation describes why the New Testament includes rules.

One of the earliest heresies in Christianity is named after the second-century Roman priest Marcion, who felt the Old Testament and New Testament referred to very different gods—a justice-driven God versus a mercy-driven God. Marcion felt that the New Testament made the Old Testament superfluous.

Although Christians officially rejected these assertions, Marcion’s objections have lived below the surface for many Christians. Such a viewpoint fails to recognize both the Old and New Testaments as gifts from God.

Q: Before the priest or deacon reads the Gospel at Mass, he announces, “A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Matthew” [or the other Gospel writers]. He and the congregation make the Sign of the Cross on the forehead, lips and heart. Why?

A: When the Prophet Isaiah was called by God to preach to the Hebrew people, the prophet responded, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (6:5). One of the seraphim touched a burning ember, taken from the altar in the Temple, to Isaiah’s lips as a sign of cleansing.

The gesture you described says, in effect, that the Good News of Jesus Christ should affect all our thoughts, words and actions, represented here by our minds, lips and hearts, respectively.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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