Scripture Is a Unique Word

This Word of God continues the creativity of our Creator.

There is a tendency to reflect on Scripture as if it is “just” another word in the marketplace: one word among many, competing, like each one does, for our limited attention; but I want to make a plea for reflecting on Scripture as a unique word: a word which comes from God: a word which is different from its very origin, and not because of a pronouncement that has been made. In other words, this word of God, “clothed in the flesh of human experience,” is a word which expresses the creativity of the Creator; indeed, it is a word which is an instrument of the creativity of the Creator. The word, then, of Naaman the leper (2 Kgs 5: 1-19), is capable of illuminating my life and, in so doing, bringing me closer to the mysterious action of God within it. Thus, just as Naaman had to come to the river Jordan for a “type” of baptism, so I had to come from trying to understand myself in the categories of reason, and plunge into the mysteries of faith. And, in plunging into the waters of baptism, I had to uncover the pride and sin symbolised in the “wealth” of human garments, and the leprosy which these things concealed. So, what is this word of God which is capable of revealing man in the mystery of Christ and His Church? In this article, I want to reflect on the “ingredients” which make the word of God a truly unique word: a word “wrought” out of the creativity of our Creator: a word which, therefore, continues the creativity of our Creator.

Presupposing the gift and task of faith, theology arises when “faith seeks understanding” (St Anselm); and within that gift and task of faith lies Scripture: “God speaks to [us] … in human words” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] §101). A key text for the person who wants to know how theology and scripture work together, is the Second Vatican Council’s document on the word of God, the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum” (DV). On the one hand, the Council says that the “study of the sacred page” should be the very soul of sacred theology (DV §24). On the other hand, Sacred Scripture is compared to the Incarnation (DV §13). Thus the Fathers of the Council have planted us firmly amidst the works of God and, furthermore, in the midst of the great analogy at work in the Second Vatican Council: the mystery of the Incarnation (cf. Lumen Gentium §8, Gaudium et Spes §22 and Ad Gentes Divinitus §10 and 22). It is as if we are being taught to understand salvation in terms of the mystery of our Saviour, Jesus Christ; indeed, the beginning and end of all our activity is to put people in intimate communion with Jesus Christ (cf. Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae §5). Clearly, then, if the mystery of Christ is central to the history of salvation, it is certainly central to our understanding of the mystery of Scripture.

The following discussion has been divided into five parts. Dei Verbum on “The nature of Scripture (I)” is followed by a consideration of the relationship between “Divine Inspiration and Revelation (II).” This leads to “Time and the Sense of Scripture (III),” and then on to “Exegesis (IV).” Finally, the last section is on “The intention of the author (V).”

I.  The Nature of Scripture

Scripture may be likened to the incarnation: “the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men” (DV §13). Similarly, just as the Incarnation of the Son of God was brought about by the Holy Spirit, so the Holy Spirit is the principal author of Scripture; and, just as the Incarnation took up human flesh, so the word of God takes up what pertains to human authorship: to the powers of human communication (cf. DV §11-12). Thirdly, “the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (DV §11). Fourthly, Dei Verbum also says: “the interpreter of sacred Scriptures, if he is to ascertain what God has wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of their words” (§12). Finally, Scripture does not stand alone but is “part” of a three-part gift to us: “in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others” (DV §10).

II.  Divine Inspiration and Revelation

We are called upon to study the whole nature of literary composition, from the origin of an idea (cf. Ps. 139:4), to its position in the liturgical canon, taking account of any and every legitimate factor which contributes to the whole. Pope John Paul II says: “None of the human aspects of language can be neglected” 1 For God “knows the thought which is still unformed and the word which is still unuttered,”2 as he does every nuance of a word3 and every variety of culture which is, as it were, prepared to contribute what it can to the manifestation of his Word4 Thus, one could say the following concerning the nature of inspiration: that inspiration is involved in the entire human process qua process5, from originating “idea”6 and the circumstantial facts7 to which it is related by way of a response, to the redaction of the final text, and its acceptance into the canon of the Church.

The term, “Revelation,” however, can be applied in three ways to the Sacred Scripture. Firstly, Christ is “the sum total of Revelation” (DV §2). Therefore, each and every one of the many and various ways in which God has spoken is not just prophetic but prophetic of the Son (cf. Heb 1:1-2; and cf. DV §4). Secondly, Revelation refers to that order of its content8 which is by definiton beyond the capacity of, but ordered to9 the unaided reason of the author (cf. DV §6). Thirdly, while there is an order of knowledge which can be naturally known to man, yet, these same things can also be revealed to man: “that those things, which in themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error” (ibid).  A word or a deed of God is by definition a revelation of its divine author (cf. CCC §236); and a word or a deed which does not have God as its author is not a revelation of God.

Bible open to Psalms. Image credit: Marcos Santos, Brazil (marcos_bh, stock.xchng).Inspiration, then, directs us to every activity which is relevant to human communication; revelation, on the other hand directs us to what is intrinsically, and of itself, a word or a deed of God. Inspiration, therefore, is intrinsic to what makes a word of man the revelation of God. Thus, divine inspiration and revelation are the beginning and the end of a process by which what begins in God is made manifest in human words. Finally, whereas human activity and divine inspiration are two orders of activity and knowledge,10 Scripture is “the words of God, expressed in the words of men” (DV §13).

III.  Time and Sense in Scripture

St. Thomas Aquinas says there are two things which can order time and sense in Scripture. The first is that “human minds, existing in bodies, know first the natures of material things, and by knowing the natures of what they see, derive some knowledge of what they cannot see” (STh I.84.7); and the second is that “nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense” (STh I.1.10).  St. Thomas’ texts give rise to a general impression that there is a movement throughout the whole of Scripture, from a physical-historical event to its spiritual interpretation (cf. DV §2): from creation to salvation. This is not to deny spiritual interpretation in the earlier work, nor historical fact in the later; rather, it is to indicate that revelation works through the natural order of human understanding, and the developmental character of that understanding through time—both the individual time of a person’s life and the entire history of the human race (cf. CCC §684). An instance of this general movement, which may take many re-readings, or relectures, is the progressive disclosure that the promise of land to Abra[ha]m “for his offspring” is a figure of the promised land of heaven (cf. Heb 9:15).11

IV.  Exegesis

In a restricted sense, the fundamental task of exegesis seems to be that of establishing the first and, as it were, foundational sense of Scripture. This is traditionally known as the “literal sense” and “is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation”: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC §116, quoting STh I.1.10 ad 1). But, it should also be added that the spiritual sense is no less a task for the exegete:  One must be able to show that it is a sense “willed by God himself,” a spiritual meaning “given by God” to the inspired text (EB §552-553). Determining the spiritual sense, then, belongs to the realm of exegetical science.12 Thus, one can conclude that determining the spiritual sense of Scripture must pass by way of determining the literal sense of Scripture; and, secondly, that there is a task of demonstrating the unity-in-diversity of the different senses of Scripture.

The aforementioned definition of the literal sense does not directly refer to the sacred author’s intention. Therefore, it is necessary to make an explicit connection between the author’s intention and the literal sense, provided there is no presupposition13 which would oppose the literal sense the human author intended, to that of the intention of the Holy Spirit. For, it is precisely the sense that the human author actually accomplishes,14 which is the sense that the Holy Spirit actually accomplishes and which is, therefore, intrinsically ordered to the Scripture as a whole.15 The literal sense is, then, “The sense which the human author directly intended and which the written words conveyed.16 Thus, the literal sense directs us to consider the things which humanly contributed to the formation of the written work, while at the same time the written word of God is not reducible to the human elements of its formation. Finally, it would follow from this that if one can rightly understand the written text, then one is literally reading the realization of what the Holy Spirit and the human author17 intended.

In complementary contrast to “diachronic” exegesis, which takes account of the historical process through which a text comes to exist and is transmitted, is that of “synchronic” exegesis which takes account of all that is characteristically literary in the word of God: “one which has to do with their language, composition, narrative structure and capacity for persuasion.”18   These two methods are themselves taken up into what is not really a third method so much as an activity of searching the Scriptures in such a way as to read, and re-read,19 one word of God in the light of another.20 Thus, the preliminary work of ascertaining a particular author’s intention is at the same time complimented by the dialogue between authors: “the aim of which is to go beyond the historical conditioning so as to determine the essential points of the message.”21 This process is called “actualization,” seeking to know the significance of these Scriptures “for men and women of today.”22  However, in so far as actualization involves “the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture,”23 it is clearly of use to us all.

Pope Benedict XVI has commented on such a methodology: “Theological interpretation of Scripture, then, means this: not only to listen to the historical authors and their concurrent or conflicting messages, but also to search for the one voice in the totality of the texts, to search for the inner identity that sustains and unites this totality. A merely historical methodology, as it were, tries to single out specific facts neatly at the historical moment of their origins, thus isolating such a moment from all the rest, and fixating it in its time. Theological interpretation, in contrast, while not disregarding this endeavour, goes further: the historical moment does not exist in isolation; indeed, it is part of a whole; it can be understood correctly only against the background, and in the context of, the whole. So, the methodology here is really very simple: Scripture interprets ScriptureScripture interprets itself.  Listening to Scripture’s own interpretation through Scripture itself is a characteristic property of this encyclical.  There is no attempt to explain the biblical texts in their individual moments through outside sources that may add much historical flavor, but no deeper understanding. Rather, the encyclical tries to let the biblical texts speak entirely on their own, in their multi-voiced diversity, and so it searches for an understanding from their inherent relationships.”24

V. The author’s intention

It would seem to follow from the logic of the last section that it is necessary to determine the author’s intention in order to establish the literal sense of Scripture. Now, whatever will elucidate the circumstances of the text is, together with the text itself, what will contribute to understanding the author’s intention as it is embodied in the literal sense of Scripture. Furthermore, it is the intention of the author which unifies the circumstantial evidence concerning the text and the text itself. This rests on the principle that evidence, of whatever sort, only makes sense in relation to some whole of which it is a part,25 and the “whole” of which it is a part is, in this case, the manifest intention of the author as it is expressed in the fact of what is written.Therefore, one could almost say that the text itself is a kind of criteria by which to discern the “relevance” of the extra-textual evidence to it.26

Conclusion

On the one hand, there are a number of tasks to balance; and, therefore, the question arises of a common work, and the part that each one of us has in that work. On the other hand, if an introduction is to lead within, when what is “within” is so extraordinarily connected to what is “without,” beginning is more akin to awakening a holy wonder at the God who condescends to speak to us (cf. DV §2). In other words, while it is true that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (cf. St. Jerome, quoted in DV §25); it is also true that ignorance of Christ is ignorance of man (cf. Gaudium et Spes §22). Thus, like Naaman, we cannot know who we are “in Christ” if we do not come to the unique waters of the river Jordan: the historically written word of Scripture which is, yet, the waters of life.

Let us give the last word to Dei Verbum: “This economy of Revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other. As a result, the works performed by God in the history of salvation, show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain. The most intimate truth which this revelation gives us about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of Revelation.”(2)

  1. Article 8 of his: “Address On the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (April 23, 1993) and published as part of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s book on The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Vatican translation, (Sherbrooke: Editions Paulines, 1994).
  2. Rev. W. E. Addis, The Psalms, (cxxxix) p. 395 of A Commentary on the Bible, A. S. Peake et al, (London: Thomas Nelson And Sons, Ltd.).
  3. Cf. Pope John Paul II, A Catechesis on the Creed, (General Audience, Janurary 3, 1990).
  4. Cf. Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, Ad Gentes Divinitus § 9 and 22, (Dublin: Dominican Publications et al, gen. ed. A. Flannery, revised edition, 1992).
  5. Cf. Fr. J. Redford, Theology of Revelation, Book 1, (Birmingham: Maryvale Institute, 1990), 80-83.
  6. J. L. McKenzie SJ, Dictionary of the Bible, (London: Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1965), 392.
  7. Fr. J. Redford’s MA in Catholic Theology course notes on The Letter to the Hebrews, 9: “Biblical Introduction should enlighten us regarding those circumstances which occasioned the writing of that particular text of scripture.”
  8. Cf. Dei Filius §3015.
  9. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Theo-Logic: On the Work as a Whole,” Communio, Vol XX, No 4, (Winter 1993), 623-624.
  10. Dei Filius §3015.
  11. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pt III, A, 1, 86-87.
  12. Pope John Paul II, Address on the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (23 April, 1993) art 5.
  13. Cf. Ibid, art 4.
  14. Cf. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pt II, B, 1, 78.
  15. It is beyond the subject of this article to discuss the possibility of errors of fact; but suffice it to say that facts are mediated by the natural subjectivity of the person who is using them and this could be a reason for apparent divergences in extramental fact. Nor is it possible to go into the Aristotelian-Aquinas doctrine of ‘Substantial Change’ (cf. A. Robinson, Substantial Change, 771-772 of Vol XIII, New Catholic Encyclopedia) which now informs my view of the ‘one thing’ that Scripture is.
  16. R. E. Brown, The Literal Sense of Scripture, art 9, p. 1148 of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, R. E. Brown, et al, (London: Geoffrey Chapman Ltd, 1990).
  17. Firstly, the Holy Spirit and a human author are together, authors of the text. Secondly, there is a possibility that any particular piece of Scripture may in fact have more than one author (R. E. Brown, The Literal Sense of Scripture, art 10, p. 1148 of New Jerome Biblical Commentary).
  18. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 31.
  19. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Pt III, A, 1-2, 86-90.
  20. Ibid, Pt IV, A, 2, 115.
  21. Ibid, Pt IV, A, 1, 114.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid, Pt IV, A, 2,  115.
  24. Ratzinger, Introduction, I, 1, 12-13, to Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater.
  25. Cf. P. Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, (Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1993), 28.
  26. Ellingworth, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 3.
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avatar About Francis Etheredge

Francis Etheredge, and his wife Catherine, have eight children, plus two in heaven. In response to a “prompt” to pray for family-friendly work in front of the Blessed Sacrament on a regular basis, three months later he obtained the post of Graduate Assistant at the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England (www.maryvale.ac.uk). He currently works, in a principally administrative role, with the following two courses: the BA Applied Theology, Diaconal Program; and the Research Degree Program.

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