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October 31, 2012
John Bergsma’s new introduction to the Bible is concise and accessible, with a humorous touch.

There is a lovely early American hymn entitled “Fulfillment” that begins,

See how the Scriptures are fulfilling,
Poor sinners are returning home;
The time that prophets were foretelling,
With signs and wonders now is come.
The gospel trumpets now are blowing
From sea to sea, from land to land;

Much of the exuberance of the early Christians stemmed from the extraordinary realization that the Scriptures had been fulfilled within their lifetimes and in their sight (one is tempted to say, right under their noses).  Their exuberance is present in Peter’s speech to the crowds on Pentecost, when he points out Christ’s fulfillment of the promises given to David with a chain of references to the Prophet Joel and the Psalms (Acts 2:14-36); it’s also present in Paul’s speech in the Synagogue in Antioch, where Paul shows that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel from Moses to David (Acts 13:13-41). Christ’s words in Matthew 13:17 nicely capture the bewilderment of the early Christians that so many of their fellows remained unmoved: “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” 

The message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures was the bedrock of the early Christian mission to the Jews and the source of much of their energy. That exuberance has continued to be vital force in the Church ever since. But the message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures has been obscured in recent years. The modern methods of interpreting the Bible, often subsumed under the heading of “the historical-critical method,” have given us many good things. We know more about biblical times, the languages of the Bible, the natural and architectural environment of the Bible, etc., than we ever have before.  At the same time, those discoveries have been bought at a price. The historical-critical method proceeds by breaking up the Bible into its constituent parts, examining texts and parts of texts for their source, form, and context. The underlying assumption of most historical-critical scholarship is that, not only can we not rely on the divine inspiration of Scripture to provide unity to the Bible, but even the individual books and parts of individual books are the result of random, subrational processes. We cannot, therefore, find unity in the books of the Bible even on the human level. The result is that, when the unity of the Bible is denied, so also is its intelligibility. It is no wonder so many contemporary people find Christianity unbelievable when a large percentage of those who spend their lives studying the Bible think that it is unintelligible.

Fortunately, the consensus among modern interpreters of the Bible is not total: there are dissenting voices who think that the balance of the evidence tells in favor of the unity of the Bible. Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth volumes are one very fine example. The work of Anglican New Testament scholar N.T. Wright is another example on the scholarly level. But popular-level treatments of the unity of Scripture often seem to settle for pat answers to difficult questions and to rest too easily on the surface. Of course, a book about a difficult and controverted topic like the unity of Scripture that seeks to tackle the subject with genuine theological acumen while remaining accessible to a general audience faces an uphill climb.

It is a climb that John Bergsma makes with grace, humor, and a deft touch, articulating profound theological truths about Scripture in ways that are concise, yet avoid being pat. In Bible Basics for Catholics, the veteran professor of Scripture from the Franciscan University of Steubenville takes as his focus the biblical theme of covenant. He identifies seven covenants in the Old Testament associated with seven mediators. Six of the covenants are announced in the Old Testament and the seventh—what Bergsma calls the “Eucharistic Covenant”—is the covenant made by Christ in the New Testament. Displaying his abilities as an skillful teacher, Bergsma uses amusing stick-figure sketches that sum up each covenant and provide easy-to-remember touchstones throughout the book. 

In proceeding through all seven covenants, Bergsma illuminates what the Fathers of the Church called God’s divine pedagogy: the way in which God gradually educates and forms his people in preparation for the definitive encounter between God and men in Christ. Bergsma moves from the Adamic Covenant in Eden to the breaking of that covenant through sin and its consequences. The consequences of sin make it necessary for God to establish subsequent covenants. Each succeeding covenant, in turn, builds, augments, and expands on the preceding covenant. Bergsma’s skill is in evidence as he unfolds the wisdom, logic, and unity of the Old Testament covenants in their responses to sin. But Bergsma is equally adept in pointing out the ways in which human beings fail to live up to each covenant. The failure of human beings to be faithful to God through the Old Testament covenants points to the final need to strike at the root of the problem itself: the sinful human heart. The covenant Bergsma discusses last in the Old Testament—the New Covenant mentioned especially in Jeremiah and Ezekiel—is really the expectation of a covenant: the preceding five covenants all failed due to sin. The New Covenant, it becomes clear even in the Old Testament, aims to give man a new heart, which is free from sin and therefore receptive to God’s grace.

Bergsma’s final chapter is dedicated to the definitive covenant of Christ, the Eucharistic Covenant. He explains, once again with clever sketches, how the Eucharistic Covenant fulfills and completes the covenants announced in the Old Testament by pouring the Holy Spirit out on Christ’s followers through the sacraments, which are empowered by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. In doing so, Bergsma is able to draw out the deliberate intention of the authors of the books of the New Testament to show that Christ brings to fulfillment all of God’s work with human beings in the Old Testament. Even better, Bergsma is able to show in concrete terms how life in the Church participates in the definitive covenant of Christ. In the Bible study world, Protestants who are, at best, low-church still tend to dominate. Bergsma’s ability to link Christ and the Church in the fulfillment of the Old Testament is entirely welcome: the Church, Bergsma shows, is the whole point of salvation history and the way in which human beings are incorporated into God’s saving work effectively and definitively.

Some readers may find Bergsma’s perkiness flippant or his stick-figure sketches annoying. Teachers ought to be aware of their students to determine whether Bergsma’s style will be off-putting. But, as Bergsma himself points out, God condescends humbly to divest himself of his divine glory to become man and allows his Word to be put into a book composed of human words. There’s no reason, absolutely speaking, why Bergsma’s chosen methods are inappropriate. Further, Bergsma makes frequent references to Catholic pious customs and the liturgy. This is a strength for Catholics wanting to understand how their own practices are rooted in Scripture, and might be quite useful for the interested non-Catholic, especially one who has a pretty good scriptural foundation; but it also might prove confusing or disorienting in some ecumenical settings. One could also take issue with Bergsma’s decision to focus on covenant as the lens through which to view the whole Bible. There are, after all, other themes of importance (creation and new creation, for example) equally useful for showing the unity of the Scriptures and teaching the basics of salvation history in the Bible. In itself, however, the theme is an excellent one at the heart of the biblical narrative and proves to be accessible for beginners. The book is best suited for high school teachers or Church Bible study groups, or for busy Catholics who would like to know more about the Bible as a whole, although it may also have some limited utility for introductory classes on Scripture for college freshmen.

Without an appreciation of the intelligibility and unity of the Bible, history appears random and God’s salvation of men seems unlikely, uncertain, or impossible. The theme of fulfillment of the Scriptures is especially important now, during the Year of Faith and as the Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome is just completed. The last lines of the stanza from the hymn above refer to the fruit of the fulfillment of the Scriptures: “God’s Holy spirit down is pouring / And Christians joining heart and hand.” As St. Jerome pointed out, ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. If Catholics are to strengthen their own faith and share it with others, they need the knowledge of Christ that comes through Scripture. John Bergsma’s book is a good place to begin. 

 

Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History, by John Bergsma.

Ave Maria Press, 2012, 180 pages.  Paperback: $14.95.
 
About the Author
Thomas P. Harmon 

Thomas P. Harmon is assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
 

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