The Double-Edged Sword
If you visit the Basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome, in the middle of the courtyard in front of the Basilica, you will see a huge marble statue of St Paul holding in his left hand a book symbolising his epistles which are included in the New Testament, and in his right hand a long double-edged sword. One reason for this is that he was martyred by the sword around 64 AD because he refused to offer incense to the false Roman gods. To have done so would have broken the First Commandment. The second reason is found in today’s Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12-13), traditionally regarded as having been written by St Paul. Therefore the words, “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely” refers to revelation as a whole and particularly Sacred Scripture, but it can also refer to Our Lord Himself, the Word made flesh. This is an interesting image with God’s Word piercing and cutting to the very depths of our souls. A similar image is used in the book of the Apocalypse (1:6), where Christ appears with a sword in His mouth. This is a metaphor for the spoken word of JESUS because every word that He uttered is the living and active word of God. He is the Word made flesh Who speaks the word to us.
The Bible is the inspired word of God, but this doesn’t mean God dictated every word. The books of the Bible were written by many different people such as Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, David, Matthew, Paul, John and so on. These authors made full use of their own faculties and powers to write exactly what God wanted. But they wrote according to their own times and cultures, using their own literary styles and expressions. But God is the true author because the writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
If God is the author, it follows there can be no error in the Scriptures because God cannot lie. He is Truth. But this doesn’t mean we read everything in the Bible literally. The account of Creation in Genesis, for example, is not a scientific text book. The Song of Songs is a love poem, not to be read historically. So in attempting to overcome difficulties we mustn’t follow false paths. Seeming contradictions are resolved when passages are interpreted in their proper context.
So how are we to interpret the Bible correctly? It has to be read within “the living tradition of the whole Church” (CCC #113) because there are many difficult things to understand. St Peter recognised this in his second epistle when he wrote, “There are passages in them difficult to understand, and these like the rest of Scripture, are twisted into a wrong sense by ignorant and restless minds, to their own undoing” (2 Peter 3:16). There are many things in the Bible which can be understood in different ways, and we need only look at the thousands of different Christian denominations each claiming their interpretation to be the correct one to show that we need an authoritative interpreter. That interpreter is the Catholic Church to whom Christ said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). If we keep these principles in mind, we will discover, as St Paul did, that, “The word of God is something alive and active” and that “it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely.” That is, it is not merely a book, but as the Word of God the Scriptures are alive, energetic, effective and life-giving.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC