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
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
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
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
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
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.
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