Sunday, January 31, 2010

Regarding References

One of the curious Protestant habits which I've noticed has vanished from my vocabulary since my conversion is the tendency to include the book, chapter, and verse when quoting Scripture.

I remember when I first started going to Mass after having made the decison to become Catholic, and like any dutiful Christian, I took my Bible along with me. For those Catholics who may not be familiar with Protestant worship services, any time the Scriptures are read, the reader will usually say something like, "Please open your Bibles to I Corintians 13, verses 1 to 13." One then hears about five seconds of tissue-thin pages rustling before the reader begins.

In the Catholic lectionary, which is the big book containing the Scripture readings for each day's Mass, the text prompts the reader instead to announce, "A reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians." And that's it. So when it came time for the Word to be read aloud at my first Mass, I dutifully had my Bible ready to look up the chapter and verse to follow along, but was left scrambling to find the passage from memory. Little did I know that at the back of the church there is usually a supply of Missals which have all the readings, along with their specific references in Scripture, for churchgoers to follow along.

But getting back to my original point: it almost seems to be a point of pride for Protestant Christians to announce the references of their Bible quotations in their discussions with each other. Rarely have I encountered a doctrinal debate where the debaters look up each others' references on the fly. So in looking back at when I used to do this, and looking at how some of the Protestants in my current circles do this, I must wonder why.

The only conclusion I can come to, and I point the finger at myself in this as well, is that giving the Bible reference in a verbal discussion announces to your listener that you really know your Bible. And not in a subtle way; it's not as though, like Jesus, I was amazing those who heard me expound the Scriptures. Instead, by saying things like, "Paul said in I Cor. 13:1 that if he speaks eloquently but without love, he is a clanging gong," I was subconsciously broadcasting my intelligence and my wisdom and my holiness. Of course, in the grand scheme of things this means that I was actually broadcasting my foolishness and my insecurity. Like a clanging gong.

It bears mentioning that I am referring here only to verbal communication. In written communication one does have the opportunity to consult the references given to support a position on a certain doctrine, and can thus prepare a response against those references. But the staccato machine gun method of spouting off chapters and verses in a verbal discussion is pointless and even arrogant.

When Jesus quoted Scripture he did not do this. When on the cross he cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" he did not preamble it with, "Like the Psalmist said in Psalm 22, verse 1..." On the contrary; the written Word of God was so deeply internalized for Christ, the incarnate Word himself, that it was supremly natural for him to use it to express his deepest emotions.

That is the calling of every Christian, and I call out my fellow Catholics on this especially. Think of what you do just before the Gospel is read at Mass: you trace a cross on your forehead, on your mouth, and on your chest. As you do this, you say a silent prayer: "May the Word of God be on my mind, on my lips, and in my heart."

Absorb the written Word of God. Live it; breathe it. But don't feel the need to add footnotes to your conversations when you speak it.


  1. Jesus came from an oral tradition with a large illiterate following. Bible verses, had there been a widely accepted verse annotation method at the time, would have been pointless.

    The Protestant use of bible verses likely stems from the move to promote personal study (having verse references is helpful for this), have the spiritual discourse in the language of the audience (would be pointless without this), and the enlightenment ideal that one should think for themselves (hence be able to fact check what has been said).

    Also, as you point out in the side bar of your blog, Catholicism strongly promotes the oral tradition passed on by the church, and the Protestant tradition strongly favours the authority of the written word. The resulting differences in how scripture is referenced/used are hardly surprising.

    Warnings against being pretentious are important, but the correlation to the use of scripture references seems weak.

  2. I agree that chapter & verse references are a good thing to have in written debates and in situations where the faithful are following along in their own Bibles. But I've seen too many people spout off references outside of this context, and it smacks of pride.

    I will also take issue with your point that encouraging people to think for themselves is a good thing. I do this tongue in cheek, for if you are a Protestant , then a belief must be founded in Scripture before you may adhere to it. And there is nowhere in Scripture where we are encouraged to think for ourselves.

    To be sure, Scripture has lots of examples of people who tried to impose on the Divine Order their own take on things: Gen 3:6, Gen 16:4, Gen 32:1, Num 12:1-2 & 8-10, Num 20:10-11, Jud 16:16, I Sam 28:7, II Sam 11:6... this is a very long list which could go on and on. And it's a list of mistakes.

    On the flip side, the Bible frequently demonstrates that believers need a divinely-appointed human authority to help them understand the written Scriptures and therefore the mind of Christ (2 Chr. 34:19-21, Luke 24:25-27, Acts 8:30-31, II Thess. 2:15, II Thess. 3:6).

    Note that if you concede that point and follow it to its logical conclusion, and if are sincere in your desire for Truth, you will end up Catholic.

  3. I think you envision me taking a Protestant vs. Catholic side in my comment, which wasn't the intent. I just wanted to suggest other plausible reasons for the difference in scripture reference usage other than pride. I can't argue with your perceptions, but it isn't something I've perceived.

    I'm glad you take issue with the ideal that people should think for themselves, which is why I didn't claim it was a good thing. In fact, it seems a lot of the weaknesses in the protestant faith stem from following what is in many senses a humanist movement.

    However, while I agree with your point, I'm still not convinced that following your point to its logical conclusion will render me a "big C" Catholic. I'd be interested in hearing your perspective on how this rules out other Christian denominations, including others that stress the importance of apostolic succession.

    Thank you, by the way, for taking the time to provide a comment that was solidly backed up by scripture references (don't worry, I don't think it's hypocritical) and well thought out.

  4. Well, Jonathan, I live and breathe Protestant vs. Catholic (that's kinda the whole point of my blog), so I trust you'll forgive my projection. No offense was intended.

    When I looked at the question of the trustee of divine authority and discovered that Scripture pointed at a verbal and a written source, it was a quick sequence of events that led me to Rome. The Anglican Church quickly ruled itself out as the regent of Divine Tradition, as it began primarily when its founder objected to the standard of marriage and found that the political environment was ripe for secession.

    The next stop on my journey backwards through history was looking at the Orthodox churches, but the lack of the Petrine line was the main stumbling block for me, as Scripture is very clear on Peter's prominence. Wikipedia actually has a pretty good summary of it:

    No other denomination dares to plant a flag with both the Keys of Peter and the denial of Sola Scripture on it. It was almost like I toppled down a chute when I looked sincerely at the question of authority. It was a quick ride and I had stopped before I knew I had started.

    If not Rome, then who would you suggest maintains the living Tradition?


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