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Scripture and Catholicity

From a provocative lecture by Oliver O’Donovan, that Byron helpfully points us to:

“No collective spiritual exercise, no sacrament, no act of praise or prayer is so primary to the catholic identity of the church gathered as the reading and recitation of Scripture. It is the nuclear core. When Paul instructed his letters to be passed from church to church and read, it was the badge of the local church’s catholic identity. This is not to devalue preaching, praise, prayer, let alone sacramental act; these all find their authorisation in reading. As we know from St Thomas Aquinas, the act of breaking bread and sharing wine is not a eucharist unless the narrative of the institution at the Last Supper is read.”

~ Oliver O’Donovan, The Reading Church: Scriptural Authority in Practice”

Quite a claim if you ask me. Indeed, quite a distinctly Protestant claim, at least in sentiment. What might it mean to consider the public reading of Scripture as the primary mark of catholicity? Food for thought.


  1. Evan wrote:

    It’s interesting that you find the claim distinctly Protestant, considering he cites Thomas on the Eucharist as historical precedent.

    Not that I’d disagree with you on its Protestantism, but simply on its distinctiveness as such.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  2. robert wrote:

    I’m not sure how Protestant it is. If it said “affirmation of Scripture” or “affirmation of the meaning of Scripture” rather than “the reading and recitation of Scripture” I’d certainly agree. Simply reading and reciting Scripture (communally) without comment or explication–swimming in it–is a sacramental act, one very foreign to (low church, at least) Protestantism.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I think its the inference he’s making from his citation to Thomas that’s more “Protestant.” I just don’t see a Roman Catholic saying that the public reading and recitation of Scripture is more central to the church’s catholicity than the eucharist.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  4. adhunt wrote:

    Wow, I’m normally right there with O’Donnovan but I fundamentally disagree. “They devoted themselves to “the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers

    Sounds like table fellowship (ie-the eucharist) was at the very least immediately present to “teaching;” which was not even yet “scripture” in any sense.

    Christians are centered around the Word AND Sacrament.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  5. Bobby Grow wrote:

    I understand what you’re getting at with your point on scripture and Protestantism, Halden.

    As a low church Protestant, the ‘sacrament’ of reading the Word is probably the most central component of the Protestantism I have experienced . . . of course it’s not framed as sacramental, as such, but you know . . .

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink
  6. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Woops, this was not intended as a direct reply to adhunt . . . it’s just a general reply.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Nathan Smith wrote:

    If you look at how low protestant churches structure their worship services, it becomes clear that the sermon is the nuclear core, so scripture could only hold that position insofar as it is used in sermons. I agree, there is an important distinction between the reading of scripture and the exposition/affirmation of scripture as it relates to protestantism.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Geoff wrote:

    I still wonder if catholicity might not be something else even, since scripture has differing contents among different local (regional) churches. I am thinking of some of the eastern churches who have differing canons, as well as the Roman church whose canon contains more OT books. So, scripture itself means something different. Perhaps catholicity in terms of practice is constituted by intentional adherence to Jesus as Lord together. So perhaps, simply the gathering together to affirm Jesus’ Lordship. I think the gospel that Jesus is Lord, rather than somebody else, is prior to scripture in terms of the constitution of the church as church.

    The big problem for making the public reading of scripture as the mark of catholicity, which seems to mean, the mark of being a part of the church, is that no church extant prior to the writing of the first New Testament document was a church, unless we’re willing to posit this doctrine as only applying to the current existence of the church. So, for the normative condition of the church, scripture reading constitutes catholicity. But even then, we deny catholicity to those with little access to scripture (no translations in their tongue) or who like low church folk, spend much time in private reading of scripture, but publicly only have sermons and hymns to explain scripture.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    The only thing distictively Protestant about this is the insistence on emphasizing one aspect of an organic complex of interrelations at the expense of the whole. And thus was I baited into response.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    Correct. It is the liturgical reading (and chanting and singing) of scripture that is relevant here, ie the liturgy of the Word, and as you’ve said, this is foreign to most Protestants.

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  11. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden asked:

    . . . What might it mean to consider the public reading of Scripture as the primary mark of catholicity?

    I think it might throw us back to the time of the Patristics when the church was ‘catholic’ (i.e. before the ‘Great schism’ and the Protestant Reformation, and Catholic ‘counter-Reformation’), when the church still believed that the source of unitive witness was found in the scriptures; it might become the tangible ‘symbol’ of what it means to be ‘filled with the Spirit, and that the church catholic recognizes the only ‘means’ for this kind of unity is to be so filled. It also might throw us forward realizing that eschatological hope is a shared reality between the church militant and church triumphant; as we both are oriented around the ‘Word that endures forever’ . . . it is in this corporate proclamation of the Word that we identify with all the saints from all ages who walk by faith, as we, together, by the Spirit, boldly point to the One beyond ourselves (but not without)!

    That might make absolutely no sense, but I thought I would give it a shot . . . ;-) [I think it's a great question, Halden].

    Friday, May 22, 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink
  12. roger flyer wrote:

    Any reductionist tactic to make an argument for ‘such and such’ as the primary mark of catholicity is arbitrary and ultimately misguided.

    Here’s a heretical idea: There has never been any visible ‘catholicity’ of the church. We just can’t accept it. We hate mystery.

    So if the mark isn’t the Eucharist or reading of the ‘word’, it’s speaking in tongues, or serving the poor, or honoring the tradition, or the impassioned defense of ‘orthodoxy’.


    Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  13. Aaron R. wrote:

    This proposition doesn’t make any sense, because the New Testament did not even *EXIST* when Christianity was founded. I would certainly say the eucharist is much more central.

    Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink
  14. Chris Donato wrote:

    O’Donovan might be guilty of overemphasizing written words on paper (or papyri, if you prefer). But surely the recitation of the ‘word’ (i.e., the story of Jesus and its attendant ‘Old Testament’ back-stories), prior to its being inscripturated, still served as the nascent church’s nuclear core.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    I think that can be affirmed, but only in an unexclusive sense. I think most of the problem people have with the passage is the odd impulse to try to cut between the Liturgy of the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Word, both of which involve the ritual recitation of Scripture.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  16. Chris Donato wrote:

    Does Augustine’s notion of the sacraments as the word made visible have any bearing here?

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink

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