Pope Benedict XVI captured the attention of the world last month — and held it for weeks — with an offhand comment made to a reporter about a peculiar point of sexual morality. Meanwhile, the same man released a 200-page letter to the Church about the topic nearest to his heart. And hardly anyone noticed.
At the Nov. 11 press conference releasing the letter, Verbum Domini, Archbishop Nikola Eterović described the Holy Father as “the Pope of the Word of God.”
The archbishop is right. Verbum Domini is Latin for “The Word of the Lord,” and that phrase could arguably stand as the theme not only of Benedict’s pontificate, but his life’s work as a theologian. Indeed, never before has the Church seen an accomplished biblical theologian elevated to the chair of St. Peter. We may be too close to the situation to see how blessed we are.
The word of God is Pope Benedict’s highest priority, as he recently set it out for the world’s bishops: “Leading men and women to … the God who speaks in the Bible: This is the supreme and fundamental priority of the Church and of the Successor of Peter at the present time.”
And you can see that commitment in various ways. He declared a year devoted to St. Paul the Apostle. In his “spare time,” he has completed a two-volume account of the Gospel accounts of Jesus. He summoned a synod of bishops to consider the word of God in the life and mission of the Church. He himself took an active part in the synod, making incisive and insightful interventions. Afterward, he took two years to produce a post-synodal document — the most important document on Scripture produced by the magisterium in nearly half a century.
In the context of such words and such actions, we can discern the value and importance of Verbum Domini. It’s a manifesto of sorts, indeed the interpretive key to the Holy Father’s mind and heart, intentions and deeds. In the first part of the document, he develops the analogy between the incarnate Word and the inspired word, how both are fully human and fully divine. He declares that “The divine word is truly expressed in human words.” For that reason, the Bible is an “altogether singular” book — the only book authored by God himself.
Only when we understand Scripture’s divine authorship are we truly equipped to read the sacred page or hear it proclaimed. The New Testament itself declares all Scripture to be inspired — literally, “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). Inspiration, says the Pope, “is clearly decisive for an adequate approach to the Scriptures and their correct interpretation. … Whenever our awareness of its inspiration grows weak, we risk reading Scripture as an object of historical curiosity and not as the work of the Holy Spirit.”
By acknowledging the divine origin of the Scriptures, we have the key to understanding them. Revelation is complete since the death of the last apostle, but, in another sense, revelation is ongoing. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the divine word is still present and active in our midst. Pope Benedict quotes the great St. Jerome, who said: “We cannot come to an understanding of Scripture without the assistance of the Holy Spirit who inspired it.” The reading of the Bible, like the writing of the Bible, is truly a collaboration between God and man.
And the collaboration is not just between the Spirit and the human authors, but between the Spirit and the Church. The Holy Father insists that the Bible’s true home is in the Church — and, specifically, in the liturgy. He points out that this is not an idea we impose on Scripture, but is evident in the biblical books themselves. The books of the New Testament, from the Acts of the Apostles through Revelation, describe a Church already well established, with a developed ritual life. It was in the midst of that liturgy that the first Christian congregations encountered the Scriptures of the Old Testament. It was for proclamation in the liturgy that the books of the New Testament were written.
But those books were not yet known as “the New Testament.” No, what the first Christians knew as the New Testament was the Eucharist, which Jesus himself called the “new testament” (or “covenant”) in his blood (see Luke 22:20). Jesus established the New Testament when he instituted the Eucharist and said “do this in remembrance of me” — not “read this” or “write this.” And the apostles went forth and celebrated the New Testament everywhere they went. Not half of them wrote books, but all of them went forth and celebrated the Eucharist.
Indeed, the Eucharist was celebrated as a sacrament for many years before the books we know as the New Testament were written. The 27 books of the New Testament weren’t complete until the end of the first century, and then they were not called the “New Testament” till the end of the second century. The documents only gradually took that name, again because of their liturgical proximity to the Eucharist. They were the only books approved to be read in the Mass, and they were “canonized” for that very reason. In sum, the New Testament was a sacrament at least a generation before it was a document.
No wonder Pope Benedict can say: “A faith-filled understanding of sacred Scripture must always refer back to the liturgy.” He makes so bold a statement about this relationship that I must quote it at length:
Word and Eucharist are so deeply bound together that we cannot understand one without the other: The word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist. The Eucharist opens us to an understanding of Scripture, just as Scripture for its part illumines and explains the mystery of the Eucharist. Unless we acknowledge the Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist, our understanding of Scripture remains imperfect.
The Bible is not merely informative, the Holy Father goes on to say, but “performative.” It leads us to an action: the Eucharist, which is transformative.
Though the Bible can and should be studied, it is, first and foremost, to be proclaimed and interpreted in the context of liturgical worship. The Bible is at home in the Church, and especially at Mass, where we encounter it in its richness and we ponder it in the homily and in our prayer. “The primary setting for scriptural interpretation,” says the Pope, “is the life of the Church.”
Benedict makes these connections between the divine and the human, uniting what scholars and skeptics are prone to divide. In this letter he lives up to the origins of the word “pontiff.” Our English title comes from the Latin word for bridge-builder. In Verbum Domini, we find him making connections on every page: between the Old Testament and the New Testament, faith and reason, Scripture and theology, Scripture and Tradition, the Bible and the Church, and Scripture and liturgy. Yes, these may be studied intensively in separate academic disciplines, but we must always remember that they coexist in an integral way in the Church, the household of God.
Joseph Ratzinger spent a lifetime in theology laboring for a renewal of biblical theology in the Church. As Pope Benedict XVI, he has stepped up those efforts and asked each of us to reclaim our focus on our biblical heritage. In Verbum Domini, he shows us how.
Scott Hahn, founder of the St. Paul Center for
Biblical Theology (online at SalvationHistory.com),
teaches Scripture and theology at Franciscan University and St. Vincent Seminary.