Language and Truth (Part I)
by Dennis McInerny
Language is one of our most precious possessions, and, like many other of our precious possessions, we have, alas, learned how to subject it to considerable abuse. Why is language so precious? Because it is the principal means by which we come to know the full truth of things. Language was created to be the bearer of truth. What a profanation of language, then, if it is used for any other purpose than that for which it was created!
People sometimes wonder why St. Thomas was so uncompromising in the stern attitude he took toward lying. The explanation for this is quite simple: seldom has there lived a man with a greater respect for the truth than Friar Thomas of Aquino. For him, nothing was more important than the truth because he knew that, ultimately considered, the truth is not simply something; it is the supreme Someone, for God is Truth. Truth, then, is divine, and the Word that Truth speaks is divine, and in that eternal locution Love is eternally made present. The profoundest and richest of truths is the mystery of the Holy Trinity, in which, in a sense, all things are encompassed and explained.
There is a veritable war being waged against language today. It is a war that has been going on for better than 200 years, and at the moment things are not faring especially well for language. Because the very purpose of language is to be a bearer of truth, it is really truth which is the enemy this war seeks to destroy. And that is what makes this war an especially unholy one.
The war against language, at least in its modern version—which in historical terms may be considered to be its most serious version—can be said to have begun in the late eighteenth century, with the attacks launched against the integrity of the language of the Bible. This was done within a movement known as the Higher Criticism, which prided itself on being seriously “scientific,” and made much use of what was called the “historical method.”
Whatever positive aspects might be cited with regard to the Higher Criticism, say in the form of certain purely technical approaches it took toward the interpretation of literary texts, there is no question but that its dominant effects were pervasively and destructively negative. That is explained by the basic attitude which this movement took toward the Bible.
All the books that have ever existed in the world, that now exist, or that ever will exist, can be divided into two categories: there is the Bible in one category, and there are all the rest of the books in the other. The Bible, in other words, is literally unique, sui generis, and the obvious reason for this, of course, is that it is the inspired word of God. However it would need to be qualified, the statement that “God is the Author of the Bible” is foundationally and incontestably true.
If any scholar comes to the serious study of the Bible without a lively sense that he is dealing with the most special book in the world, without, that is, regarding it as the inspired word of God, then that scholar, whatever might be his learning in other respects, is burdened with a completely incapacitating ignorance. He is simply blind to the true identity of the object of his study. He would be like Christopher Columbus on his first voyage into this hemisphere, thinking he was exploring the Indies when in fact it was the Americas he was dealing with.
But the proponents of the Higher Criticism did not get the true identity of the Bible wrong through an honest mistake. They had a very definite agenda in mind. They deliberately set out to show that the Bible, though perhaps deserving of special status as a book, was not to be regarded as divinely inspired. These men took a purely naturalistic approach toward Sacred Scripture, completely stripping it of the specialness owed it because of its supernatural origins.
For the Higher Criticism, the Bible was not something that came down from high; it came up from below, was solely the product of human imagination, as reflective of human desires and elevated aspirations. The Bible, for them, was to be recognized as just another form of mythology. The stories in the Bible were not to be taken as literally true, and certainly not those stories that have to do with miracles. The Higher Critics became past masters at explaining Biblical miracles by explaining them away, by transforming them into anything else but miracles.
One of the principal projects of the Higher Criticism was the “de-mythologization” of the Bible, which was simply a process by which the supernatural was reduced to the level of the natural. The principle result of the attention the Higher Critics gave to the New Testament in particular was the denial of Christ’s divinity. They created the specious distinction between the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of faith.” According to this distinction, the historical Jesus was a man who was born in Palestine during the reign of Caesar Augustus, and who lived and taught there for some thirty-three years. But that was exactly what he was—a man and no more.
The Jesus of faith, the Jesus who has come down to us through the medium of the movement called Christianity, that is to say, the Jesus who is regarded as divine and as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, that Jesus is no more than an invention of his followers—sincere people, no doubt, devout and touchingly enthusiastic, but severely deluded. In the end, for the Higher Critics, Jesus of Nazareth was an essentially good man, perhaps, but he certainly was not the eternal Son of God and the Redeemer of the world.
The basic message of the Higher Critics was that the language of the Bible is not to be trusted. The book does not say what it seems to say; it does not mean what it purports to mean. But are the Higher Critics themselves above criticism? Not at all. Actually, the radical flaws of the whole approach of the Higher Criticism were there to be seen and pointed out right from the beginning. But many highly placed intellectuals became quite enamored of the movement, and chose to be blind to its flaws, with the result that the Higher Criticism proved to be very influential, especially within Protestant circles. In fact, one of the chief causes of the secularization of the mainline Protestant denominations, which is now quite evident, was the influence of the Higher Criticism. With its emphasis on sola Scriptura, Protestantism was particularly vulnerable to the repercussions of a concerted effort to undermine the integrity of the Bible.
Today the radical flaws of the whole Higher Critical approach to Biblical studies are being systematically exposed by the impressive work of a growing cadre of competent scholars who, by and large, come out of the Evangelical Christian tradition. One of the ironies of the current situation is the fact that Catholic Scriptural scholarship, which for years showed itself to be healthily resistant to the seductions of the Higher Criticism and the so-called historical method, has now, sadly, succumbed to them. This turn of events is comparable, in its comic dimension, to what happened with those Catholic theologians who decided to jump on the bandwagon of Marxism after all its wheels had fallen off, and the rest of the world was finally recognizing the utter fraudulence of this philosophy. When Catholic scholars choose to put more emphasis on being scholars than on being Catholic, they are fated to dedicate themselves to lost causes. Shall we call it poetic justice?
This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of the North American Fraternity Newsletter. To receive our free monthly newsletter by mail, please visit our subscription page.