How apropos. Tim Jones offers “Thought Experiment 451” on Jimmy Akin’s blog today.
In his book Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury imagined a tyrannical, all controlling government with absolute power over the media and a deep animosity toward the written word… toward books. In this future society, people get all their information through state run radio and television, and books are prohibited. Those who secretly keep books are arrested, and all books are burned.
Let’s say that this actually comes about. Imagine that some future world government is completely successful in eliminating all books – including all copies of the Bible. Let’s add to Bradbury’s vision the proposition that this government also completely destroys all personal computers and, of course, the Internet.
Now the Bible exists only in the minds of those who know and remember it (this is actually an element of Bradbury’s story, too. The main character meets a kind of secret society, where people keep entire books alive in their heads, having memorized them verbatim). The Church goes underground, once again, her sacraments performed only in secret.
Imagine further that this oppressive regime is toppled, and that the Bible can once more be printed with freedom. The Underground Church comes out of hiding and coordinates an effort to begin printing and distributing the Bible again. The text (in several translations) is re-assembled from the memories of many people, and checked against the memories of many other people. It wouldn’t even take that long… a surprising number of people have committed whole books to memory in real life. Huge numbers of people can recite from memory individual chapters and passages.
The thought experiment is this; what authority – if any – would this new Bible have? Where would this authority come from, as far as future generations are concerned? It would be based, not on a constant, uninterrupted written tradition, but on oral tradition. Later readers, in asking how they could be sure this was the authentic text, would have to be content with the answer of the current generation…”Trust us”.
From a Catholic perspective, of course, the answer would be that this Bible would have precisely the same authority it always had, that is, the testimony of the Church (that’s all of us) that this is the Real Thing. In the long run, this is the only assurance we have to begin with. In order for there to be Holy Books, there must be a group, a society – a Church – that testifies “these are the Holy Books, and they are authentic”. When the original autographs of the Bible texts were first preserved, copied and passed on, the only assurance people had that these books were indeed authoritative and correct was the word of the Church – those who had been taught the Apostles doctrine. Letters that made the rounds during the early Church were not all assumed to be authentic and trustworthy, unless they were verified by the testimony of the Church and compared against what was already known to be the sound doctrine of the faith… in other words, they had to be in line with the Tradition handed on through the Apostles.
This is reflected in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, where that church is warned, ” not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come.”. Later in that same chapter, they are reminded “… brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”. Paul later writes to Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it”. So, the authority of the teaching is based on Who it comes from, and not whether it is written or oral.