Classes commenced this week and I'm getting myself all geared up to read all sorts of great stuff this semester. Before I dive into all that though, I did realize that I had meant to share some thoughts about one of my summer reading projects.
I had seen that a new post-synodal apostolic exhortation was out entitled Verbum Domini or “The Word of the Lord” towards the end of last spring. This means it’s the Pope kind of summing up the thoughts of a large group of bishops which meet to discuss and provide teaching for the Church on important issues every couple years. I saw a copy of it in the bookstore at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in DC before I flew out for France and of course couldn’t resist the temptation to buy it. I didn’t actually start reading it until near the end of my time in Paris, but when I did, I remembered why I often find reading theology to be so fulfilling. Despite its systematic layout, it addresses so many important points and thinks to address issues that I wouldn’t have even thought of. My copy is now full of underlined words and occasional exclamation points. In an effort to share this joy with you, I’ve gone through and quoted some of those underlined parts in the hopes that maybe you’ll be persuaded to read the exhortation (and Scripture!!).
On definitions of the Word of God
“They rightly referred to a symphony of the word, to a single word expressed in multiple ways: ‘a polyphonic hymn.’ The Synod Fathers pointed out that human language operates analogically in speaking of the word of God.” (12) (all page numbers are from the booklet published by Paulist Press)
We can speak of Christ Himself as the primary manifestation of the Word of God, the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. The Apostolic preaching, the living Tradition of the Church, and Sacred Scripture, inspired in both the Old and New Testaments also form elements of this polyphonic hymn, which we refer to as the word of God.
“All this helps us to see that while in the Church we greatly venerate the Sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’: Christianity is the ‘religion of the word of God,’ not of ‘a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.’ Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, receive, and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable.” (14) (underlining mine)
Seeing these words on paper led me to reflect in at least three different directions at once. For one, Islam traditionally understands Christians and Jews to also be “people of the book”, which gives us a sort of legitimacy, showing a fidelity to God’s revelation at least in as much as we have had access to it in corrupted form. Instead of responding by going straight to the issue of textual integrity (although that’s important), a response based on this teaching can say that Christians never were “people of the book” in the same way. We are not centered around God’s teaching in one book in one language, but around the revelation of God most fully in Jesus, and still present with us in a myriad number of ways including Scripture. (the polyphonic hymn!)
Also, might it be easier for Pentecostals to swallow this than other evangelicals? One of the books I’m going to read this semester is called “A Problem of Presence” and apparently recounts the experience of an African Pentecostal Church which began to make a point of embracing the word of God available directly to them through the Holy Spirit over the seemingly much more remote and dead words available in Scripture. Needless to say, this is an outlier, but I think it’s still safe to say that Pentecostals in general have benefitted by recognizing a broadening of the presence of the word of God in their lives beyond Scripture without cutting themselves off from Scripture.
“To use an example, we can compare the cosmos to a ‘book’—Galileo himself used this example—and consider it as ‘the work of an author who expresses himself through the ‘symphony’ of creation. In the symphony one finds, at a certain point, what would be called in musical terms a ‘solo,’ a theme entrusted to a single instrument or voice which is so important that the meaning of the entire work depends on it. This solo is Jesus….He is the center of the cosmos and of history, for in him converge without confusion the author and his work.” (23)
“Here the words of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: ‘All divine Scripture is one book, and this book is Christ, speaks of Christ, and finds its fulfillment in Christ.’” (62) YES!
“…it is important that the faithful be taught to acknowledge that the root of sin lies in the refusal to hear the word of the Lord, and to accept in Jesus, the Word of God, the forgiveness which opens us to salvation.” (41)
“As the cross of Christ demonstrates, God also speaks by his silence.” (34)
“God’s silence prolongs his earlier words. In these moments of darkness, he speaks through the mystery of his silence. Hence, in the dynamic of Christian revelation, silence appears as an important expression of the word of God.” (35)
The Holy Spirit
“Just as the word of God comes to us in the body of Christ, in his Eucharistic body and in the body of the Scriptures, through the working of the Holy Spirit, so too it can only be truly received and understood through that same Spirit.” (27)
“Here too we can suggest an analogy: as the word of God became flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the same Spirit.” (32)
“Mary is the image of the Church in attentive hearing of the word of God, which took flesh in her. Mary also symbolizes openness to God and others; an active listening which interiorizes and assimilates, one in which the word becomes a way of life.” (43)
“Saint Jerome recalls that we can never read Scripture simply on our own. We come up against too many closed doors and slip too easily into error. The Bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God can we truly enter as a ‘we’ into the heart of the truth that God wishes to convey to us. Jerome, for whom ‘ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ,’ states that the ecclesial dimension of biblical interpretation is not a requirement imposed from without: the Book is the very voice of the pilgrim People of God, and only within the faith of this People are we, so to speak, attuned to understand Sacred Scripture. An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church.” (47)
“The ‘literalism” championed by the fundamentalist approach actually represents a betrayal of both the literal and the spiritual sense, and opens the way to various forms of manipulation, as, for example, by disseminating anti-ecclesial interpretations of the Scriptures. ‘The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human…for this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various human periods.” (69)
“A notion of scholarly research that would consider itself neutral with regard to Scripture should not be encouraged. As well as learning the original languages in which the Bible was written and suitable methods of interpretation, students need to have a deep spiritual life, in order to appreciate that the Scripture can only be understood if it is lived.” (74)
“All this can only strengthen our conviction that by listening and meditating together on the Scriptures, we experience a real, albeit not yet full communion;” (71)
So true. We should be doing it more.
“Every liturgical action is by its very nature steeped in Sacred Scripture.” (85)
“A faith-filled understanding of Sacred Scripture must always refer back to the liturgy, in which the word of God is celebrated as a timely and living word: ‘In the liturgy the Church faithfully adheres to the way Christ himself read and explained the Sacred Scriptures, beginning with his coming forth in the synagogue and urging all to search the Scriptures.’” (86)
“The relationship between word and sacramental gesture is the liturgical expression of God’s activity in the history of salvation through the performative character of the word itself. In salvation history there is no separation between what God says and what he does.” (88)
The word of God and the world
“The Synod of Bishops forcefully reaffirmed the need within the Church for a revival of the missionary consciousness present in the people of God from the beginning.” (139)
“Whoever claims to have understood the Scriptures, or any part of them, without striving as a result to grow in the twofold love of God and neighbor, makes it clear that he has not yet understood them.” (154)
“The inculturation of God’s word is an integral part of the Church’s mission in the world, and a decisive moment in this process is the diffusion of the Bible through the precious work of translation into different languages.” (167)
The document actually made reference to the need for Bible translation at multiple points, lamenting that not all people yet have access to the Scriptures in their own languages. Having spent so much time around Bible translators, this quite predictably warmed my heart. Maybe the next 20 years will see an increase in Catholic-Protestant cooperation in regards to Bible translation?
One encouraging discovery from my time in France was the “traduction oecuménique de la Bible”—a French translation of the Bible that appeared to be fairly popular from my perusal of religious bookstores. It consulted Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox scholars throughout its translation process. Another part in Verbum Domini recommended that this sort of endeavor happen more often. The need may not be as great or the end results as strongly felt in the English language Bible market, where any new single translation would have to work hard to make a dent, but if one translation was endorsed by the US Catholic bishops, and got the marketing power in evangelical markets that the NIV and ESV have benefitted from, we could all be reading the same translation…which could be cool.
Enough rambling, though. We should all be reading Scripture more, reading it humbly, and praying while we do so. Pray that I commit to doing exactly that.