A review of Knecht’s Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture
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What is the difference between the story of David and Goliath, and Jack and the Beanstalk?
More importantly – how do we convey that difference to children?
If the difference is merely that the Bible story is true, then in what sense is it different from any other historical battle? There must be something more to it than that, otherwise we wouldn’t all be telling it to children.
And again, how do we convey this difference to them?
This is the important question.
I think many of us can remember being told stories from the Bible as children, and being left bewildered by some of them.
The other day, I was looking at a picture-book depicting Samson fighting a lion, and I imagined reading it with a child’s eyes. I’m afraid that I don’t know what a child is supposed to take from a story that abruptly ends with Samson eating the honey which he found in the lion’s carcass – especially when it’s told in a such a way that the moral seems to be that Samson didn’t tell his parents where the honey came from.
Do we just tell our children these stories – including maybe Abraham and Isaac, and Jonah and the Whale – and hope that they will work out the deeper meanings themselves?
Are we even confident that we know these deeper meanings ourselves?
For example, if we were to have the full story of Samson (instead of the absurd picture-book abridgement I just mentioned) do we know why Samson’s strength disappeared when Delilah cut his hair?
Would we be able to explain this in a way that has some interest, or relevance to our children? Can we explain it in a way that helps them understand something important about Christ Our Lord?
Some Protestant books for children do this – although aside from anything, their doctrinal points and emphases prevent them being an option for Catholics.
But if we cannot explain them in these ways, they will remain nothing more than picturesque children’s stories or fairy tales.
What might parents need?
All in all, teaching children about the Bible can be a challenge – especially if our own knowledge isn’t up to scratch.
There will always be a need for beautiful picture-books. But parents need to know what these stories mean, and how to explain them. What parents might really need – for educating themselves as well as their children – is a teaching aid containing a selection of important stories of the Old Testament and the Gospels, split it into manageable sections, with an appropriate level of sound, orthodox commentary and explanation, linked in an intelligent way to the catechism and to Catholic doctrine.
Luckily for us, this resource already exists.
Let’s be clear: this is not a seminary textbook, nor is it a picture-book. It is a serious resource for helping parents and teachers discharge their duties – and also for personal study.
Reviewing a book like this is a little outside of our usual remit – but Knecht’s text raises interesting points about the relationship between Holy Scripture and the catechism, and between the remote and the proximate rule of faith.
But first, a little about these interesting publishers themselves.
But Saint Austin Press are releasing some really important books soon, some of which are included in our reading list and have been unavailable for a long time (unless you have hundreds of pounds to spend per book). I am very excited about their upcoming releases, and it is worth supporting them now.
Saint Austin Press is an English publishing house, which was founded in 1996 by Ferdi McDermott, intending to bring back some of the titles that had gone out of print, after publishers like Sheed & Ward and Burns & Oates had been sold to bigger concerns. Robert Asch, a convert from Judaism, joined as editor a few years later. For a time, they published many excellent books on theology, literature, philosophy and history.
Following something of a hiatus, their publishing restarted in 2021 – focusing on good quality hardbacks, intended to last.
Their design philosophy is similar to that of Baronius Press, which I have discussed before when reviewing their Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent. A representative of St Austin’s Press said to me in conversation, that if a book is worth printing, it’s worth binding it properly, making it look good and having it last properly. Their website says, in words which are self-evidently true:
“The unique joy of owning, holding and reading beautiful printed editions will, we hope, inspire many generations to re-discover the richness and beauty of the Catholic faith and cultural tradition.”
Although I like having nice books for their own sake, I want my children (and perhaps even their grandchildren) to be able to benefit from them. Books should inspire us to read them.
Traditional materials and elements are important means for this: beautiful endpapers make a difference, as do head and tail bands. Saint Austin Press have executed this very well for their edition of Knecht.
But the really important point, uniting aesthetics with practicality, is the binding.
Like the Roman Catechism which I reviewed from Baronius Press – and all Baronius Press books – their books are all Smyth-sewn (with the temporary exception of the current run of their Butler’s Lives of the Saints). Smyth-sewn books have the text-block sewn together in a particular way: groups of folded pages are stitched together, and these are in turn sewn together to form the book. Sewn books open naturally and lie flat, unlike those which just use glue. This makes a very great difference when it comes to reading, and even more for study and writing.
These days, the glue used by self-publishing companies seems to be of better quality than the type many mainstream publishers used to use, meaning that the spines seem to stay intact without creasing, and the pages aren’t falling out – but we haven’t yet seen whether they will stand the test of time. At any rate, nothing beats a properly Smyth-sewn book. It is very sad that this now seems to be a luxury.
Bible Stories and the Catechism
So much for publishers, and the externals of the books. Who was Knecht, and why is this book interesting?
Friedrich Justus Knecht (1839-1921, ordained 1862), an auxiliary bishop towards the end of his life, spent much of his priesthood working as a teacher and administrator in the diocesan school system. He had an active role in the Catholic resistance to Bismarck’s Kulturkampf – which was the “cultural struggle” between the Church and Prussian state over things like education and ecclesiastical appointments. This educational background is what makes this book so useful.
The first pages reproduce some of the international episcopal approbations which the book as received. The approbation from Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster, England, contains several useful points, which I have rendered in bold:
“We strongly recommend Bishop Knecht’s Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture. It contains an Appendix, called a Concordance of Scripture Aids to the Catechism, by reference to which the teacher will find himself in possession of Holy Scripture to illustrate every part of the Catechism. The work has gone through 19 editions, and is the most complete and the most valuable book for its purpose in any language. The English translation has been exceedingly well done, and is preceded by a Preface by the Rev. M. Glancey, of the Diocese of Birmingham, in which there are valuable hints on teaching Holy Scripture in combination with the Catechism.”
There are many other episcopal approbations along the same lines.
Knecht’s good sense as an educator shines through in this text, which is primarily a catechetical resource. Calling it a “commentary” is perhaps misleading, as this calls to mind more systematic works like the Catena Aurea, or Cornelius à Lapidé’s Great Commentary, or something more modern like Orchard’s Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture.
Click to expand: Commentaries on Holy Scripture (including UK links)
St Thomas Aquinas – Catena Aurea (and for UK readers). 4 vols, line-by-line commentary on the four Gospels from the Fathers of the Church, assembled by St Thomas Aquinas and translated by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Published by Baronius Press.
St Thomas Aquinas’s scriptural commentaries are being published by the Aquinas Institute in English and Latin. Here are some of the options below – they are online here, and it is possible to buy single volumes of the commentaries below:
These systematic commentaries are important works, but not everybody can read that sort of thing, and not everybody wants to: and they are unlikely to help with the education of children.
Knecht’s book is a different genre altogether. In better days, it would have been a text suitable for schools (both for teachers and learners) – but the state of religious education today makes it a useful resource for both adults and children. There is no shame in this for us: it is the reality which we have inherited, and it’s our job to respond accordingly.
Genre, method, structure
But how is the genre different from the commentaries mentioned?
For a start, it does not provide commentary on the whole of Sacred Scripture, but on what was once called “Bible History”. This was a subject taught in catechism classes and at Catholic schools. Today this term may suggest archaeology, critical studies on authorship, and so on. We might be more likely to call this subject “Bible stories”.
The foundation of the text is Schuster’s Bible History. Schuster’s work was itself a popular text in its own right, used in Catholic schools and translated into eighteen languages. This gives Knecht’s book nearly 200 chapters, covering stories and events from the Old and New Testaments. Here are the contents pages:
We can see from this foundation that Knecht’s book could really be called “a practical commentary on bible stories.” Focusing on stories, it does not contain a great deal on things like the psalms, the epistles, or the wisdom literature. However, the teaching method allows points from more doctrinal texts (like the epistles) to be worked into the stories themselves.
The book can be read and studied by older children, but really it is based around a particular method of teaching, which we can summarise like this:
- Narrative: telling the story, and making it come alive. The preface, by Fr Glancey, has strong words against children first encountering these stories from a book. “It is essential,” he says, “that the first impression should be a good one. If the child fails at first to catch the points of interest, it is bored by the story ever afterwards.”
- Explanation: “A story well told is half explained,” Fr Glancey tells us. We can make sure we do this properly by understanding the story ourselves – a key reason for Knecht’s footnotes and commentary.
- Repetition: the learners tell the story themselves, either from reading the text or even committing the text to memory.
- Commentary: after the learners understand the main points of the story, the events and the actors, we can teach them the deeper meanings. This is aimed at showing that each text is not just a nice story, but rather a revelation from God, teaching us something about him, containing both dogmatic and moral truths.
- Application: each story ends with a few practical points and questions, which illustrates to the learners that these stories from thousands of years ago have an interest, relevance and importance for their own lives today.
Now clearly for younger children, one needs to use common sense and adapt this method – perhaps quite considerably. Knecht’s book is primarily for teaching older children – nonetheless, even for younger children, it’s a good resource to help adults clarify the meaning of essential points in their own mind. In that sense, it can be used in private before turning to picture-books, songs, and other more age-appropriate means.
Bible Stories and the Rule of Faith
Teaching Bible stories together with doctrine and practical points can work to the advantage of all three. As I said before, sometimes bare, unexplained and unapplied bible stories can be bewildering. But this is not surprising, since the Scriptures themselves were not given to us to be the proximate rule of faith, let alone to our children. Fr Glancey writes in the preface:
“Bible History is not the foundation on which religious instruction rests, nor the centre round which it revolves, nor the goal towards which it tends. Our religion centres in our faith, which is not a condensed extract from Bible History, but comes from the Church. Not Bible History, then, but the teaching of the Church must, on Catholic principles, be at once the beginning, middle and end of religious instruction.”
However, if we take a catechism – starting at the beginning and working through – then doctrine and practical matters can wind up being separated and being equally bewildering, especially for younger learners. Fr Glancey suggests that, if we teach a child with a standard catechism and stick rigidly to the order in which it is written, then the transcendence of God is treated very separately to more practical things, such as making a good confession or the daily rule of life. This is right and proper in a theology manual, and perhaps for older learners: but is it the best way, or the only way, of teaching younger ones?
Click to expand: Catechisms (including UK links)
Smith – The Teaching of the Catholic Church. Arouca Press: Hardback Vol. I and Vol. II (UK readers Vol. I and Vol. II). Paperback Vol. I and Vol. II (UK readers Vol. I and Vol. II) Second-hand in both one or two volumes.
De Zulueta – Letters on Christian Doctrine: Vol. I, Vol. II and Vol. III (For UK readers: Vol. I, Vol. II and Vol. III). Written for laymen, and with many interesting practical applications that are not found in other similar texts. Internet Archive (Vol. I, Vol. II and Vol. III)
Fr Connell’s New Baltimore Catechism 3 (and for UK readers). Do not be put off by the smelly word “new.” Fr Francis Connell is superb, and this 1949 version improves some of the shortcomings of the original, and brings expressions in line with very clear papal teaching, such as Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi.
St Peter Canisius – A Small Catechism for Catholics (and for UK readers). Not really advanced, but historically interesting. Recently translated by Ryan Grant, this work by the Jesuit Doctor of the Church is an important historical document, sometimes called the first Catholic Catechism – although we can see other early works below.
St Robert Bellarmine – Doctrina Christiana: The Timeless Catechism of St. Robert Bellarmine (and for UK readers). Another translation by Ryan Grant, from another historic text, from another Jesuit Doctor of the Church.
- Bishop Edmund Bonner – An Honest Godley Instruction. A foundational text written by a bishop who repented under Queen Mary, returned to the Catholic Church and died a confessor under Elizabeth I (1556)
- Fr Laurence Vaux – A Catechisme of Christian Doctrine (1567)
- Fr Diego de Ledesma – The Christian Doctrine (1573)
- St Robert Bellarmine SJ – A Shorte Catechisme. This consists mostly of restored woodcuts. (1614)
- Fr Henry Turberville – The Douay Catechism, or An Abridgement of the Christian Doctrine. Very polemically ordered towards catechising Catholics against Protestantism, with many Scripture references and details on the Mass. (1649)
- Fr Thomas Vincent Sadler – The Childes Catechism. Written for parents. (1678)
- An Abridgement of Christian Doctrine. A synopsis of the Douay Catechism. (1759)
- The Catholic Christian Instructed. A longer, very annotated work with a lot of focus on worship and the sacraments. (1737)
- The Grounds of Catholick Doctrine. A simple Q&A catechism based on the Tridentine Profession of Faith (1752)
- The Most Rev. Dr James Butler’s Catechism. Approved for national use by all of the Irish bishops, serving Irish Catholics for 150 years at home and in Canada and the USA. (1775)
- The Catechism Ordered by the National Synod of Maynooth. (1884)
- The Shorter Catechism Extracted [from the above]. (1891)
- Fr Andrew Donlevy – The Catechism, or Christian Doctrine, By Way of Question and Answer. The oldest major Irish catechetical manuscript. (1742)
- Fr Thomas Burke OP – A Catechism Moral and Controversial. Written for more advanced audiences, with practical and apologetic notes. (1752)
- St Thomas Aquinas – The Catechetical Instructions. An arrangement of other Opuscula in catechetical form. (ca. 1260)
- Archbishop John Pecham (of Canterbury) – Ignorantia Sacerdotum. Product of the Council of Lambeth. (1281)
- Quinque Verba – pocket manual to “remedy the ignorance of simple priests.” (1300)
- William of Pagula – Oculus Sacerdotis – a chapter, frequently excerpted and circulated at the time, from Pagula’s large guide for priests. (1320)
Other texts have not been confirmed, but the following are mentioned on the website. They may be intended for publication, or just for the online database.
- Doulye – A Brief Instruction. (1604)
- Perry – A Full Course of Instructions for the Use of Catechists.(1847)
- Gaume – Catechism of Perseverance (1849)
- Fr F.X. Weninger SJ – Manual of the Catholic Doctrine (1867)
- Baltimore Catechism (1891)
- Thomas J. O’Brien – An Advanced Catechism of Catholic Faith and Practice (1902)
- Deharbe’s Large Catechism (1921)
- Bishop Hay – Abridgement of Christian Doctrine (1800)
By contrast, teaching the stories together with doctrine allows the events of Scripture to throw light on doctrinal truths, and vice versa:
“They become invested with a concrete form, are clothed with flesh before our eyes.”
Knecht’s book has a different end in view. For the stories, the preface writes:
“Bible History is not to be read, as too often it is, merely as a story-book; [but rather] to be studied, not on its own account, but because it imparts life and vigour, picturesqueness and comprehensiveness to religious instruction; because it elucidates, proves, enforces and illustrates the truths that go to make up religious instruction.”
But in order for Bible stories to achieve this end, Knecht says:
“[They must be] taught in the closest connexion with the Catechism […] Catechism and Bible history must mutually interpenetrate, for only in this way is a systematic course of religious instruction possible.”
This is made clear in the book’s comprehensive catechetical index – which also makes it a good resource for teaching through the liturgical year or for sacramental preparation.
My Personal Use
This Lent, I found it a useful resource for illustrating points about Easter, referring to Moses, Pharoah, the plagues, the angel of death, the Passover, the blood of the lamb, and a redemption into freedom through water – an incomplete freedom, still needing the true redemption from sin, as the Golden Calf illustrates.
I found it a useful resource to clarify points in my own mind before attempting to teach anything.
The Exodus narrative (like others) comes divided into manageable sections, each with a range of possible teaching points. The points of the story are ordered towards their fulfilment in Christ and what this may mean, practically, for each young soul.
As I’ve mentioned, Knecht gives a lot of detail in his notes: teachers and parents can use their discretion so as to satisfy advanced learners, and avoid overwhelming younger ones. If parents and teachers have discretion and can tell stories well, then perhaps this book can be used for a wider age range than one might think – especially if combined with good picture-books, songs and so on.
The Practical Commentary on Holy Scripture‘s strength is that the text is ecclesial, according to the mind of the Church. As the preface says, “Catechism and Bible History must go hand in hand, but Catechism must be in the van. Catechism is the guiding principle, and Bible History is the handmaid.”
This is not – of course – to say that a mere catechism has a greater authority than the written Word of God. But there should also be no need for us to argue over whether the Scriptures were given to us as our own personal, proximate rule of faith. Rather, the relationship described has the teaching of the Church as our proximate rule of faith – in that it makes present to us the remote rule of faith – Scripture and tradition – in an infallibly safe way.
Glancey ends his preface as follows:
“I will only add that it is indispensable to every teacher who would be abreast of his work. To priests it will be most useful, not only in the school, but also in the pulpit, as it supplies most suggestive material for courses of sermons. And I make bold to affirm that no one, be he priest or teacher [or parent?], can take up without profit this excellent manual, not the least merit of which is that it has imparted a thoroughly religious character to the teaching of Bible History.”
So how do we teach children the difference between fairy tales and Bible stories? Don’t expect children to just know the difference. We need to educate ourselves and make these things real to them – and we are unlikely to do this with picture-books alone.
Congratulations to Saint Austin Press for making this text available in such a fine edition.
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 Lenten Letter 1903. Herbert Cardinal Vaughan, included in Friedrich Justus Knecht, A Practical Commentary on Sacred Scripture, Saint Austin Press, 2021, p v. Available from Amazon US, Amazon UK and Saint Austin Press.
 Fr Glancey’s Preface, in Knecht xix
 Ibid. xix
 Ibid. xiv
 Ibid. xv
 Ibid. xv-xvi
 Ibid. xvi
 Ibid. xvi
 Ibid. xxii