Verbum Domini was Pope Benedict’s response to the Synod of Bishops’ discussion on: “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”
That a world-class biblical theologian sits on the chair of Peter as Pope is an extraordinary event in the history of the Catholic Church. The writings of Pope Benedict XVI continually manifest his devotion to the word of God and its eminent place in the Church. In them, you find detailed explanations of the science of biblical interpretation; the relationship between historical research and a hermeneutic of faith; and how the Scriptures are received as the divinely inspired word of God within the heart of the Church’s life.
Verbum Domini is an expansive, all-encompassing text (Libreria Editrice Vaticana from the Vatican Press edition has close to 200 pages, including 382 footnotes!). The cumulative effect leaves the reader with the impression that Pope Benedict is very confident in approaching the inspired word of God. He appears to be very much at home in dealing with this complex, and often misunderstood subject. His confidence is reflected in the depth of his explanation of the theological principles of biblical interpretation, especially regarding the relationship between the Church and the written word of God. Moreover, it is apparent in his far-reaching knowledge of various theological matters, intimately related to the word of God. In this way, he not only clearly and profoundly explains the vital principles of understanding God’s word, but he presents how it penetrates and forms other areas of the Church’s life: her liturgy and her mission. You might say that the Pope’s understanding of the word of God is authentically “catholic” regarding his teaching on the subject, in an all-encompassing, multi-dimensional approach.
Purpose of Verbum Domini
Pope Benedict XVI’s long awaited Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, was promulgated on the memorial of St. Jerome, September 30, 2010, (released November 11, 2010). It was written as a response to the Synod of Bishops while discussing: “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” October 5-25, 2008. The bishops’ intention was to gather, examine more fully, and make known, to the whole People of God, the “rich fruits” which were born from the Synod’s study of the word of God in the life and mission of the Church (§1; 121.1).1 This included highlighting certain “fundamental approaches to a rediscovery of God’s word in the life of the Church as a wellspring of constant renewal.” The aim of the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation was identical to the Synod’s purpose, in renewing “the Church’s faith in the word of God,” (§14) and to “become increasingly familiar with the sacred Scriptures” (§121.1).
This Apostolic Exhortation is not only rooted in the Church’s tradition on biblical matters, as expressed by the Church Fathers and Doctors, and in the liturgy. But, it particularly builds upon the many interventions of the Church concerning biblical interpretation, over the last century, starting with the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus in 1893.
Following the encyclical letters by Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), and Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), a culmination of the Church’s biblical theology was reached in the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum (1963). As is suggested by the similarity of the Apostolic Exhortation’s title (Verbum Domini) to Dei Verbum, it is precisely this milestone text that the Synod and Verbum Domini have as their mutual point of reference. Verbum Domini is in full continuity with Dei Verbum, seeking as its goal, to explain the Vatican Council’s document more fully.2 By further reflecting on the theme of God’s word, it hopes to “review the implementation of the Council’s directives, and to confront the new challenges which the present time sets before Christian believers” (§3.2).
The scope of Verbum Domini is extensive, as it concerns the fifty-five propositions of the Synod Fathers. The document consists of: (1) Verbum Domini; (2) Verbum in Ecclesia; and, (3) Verbum Mundo. The heart of the Pope’s exhortation lies in Verbum Domini, the lengthiest section, which contains an overview of the vital theological principles for the document as a whole. Both Verbum Domini—how the Church lives with the word of God; and Verbum Mundo—how the Church relates to the world through the word of God; are mostly concerned with applying the principles discussed in Verbum Domini. The distinctive themes I am proposing here are mainly presented within this first section, although, they run like a thread through the entirety of the exhortation.
Three distinctive, inter-penetrating themes run through the whole of Verbum Domini, namely: (1) the word of God as testimony, and the testimony to the word of God; (2) the mystery of covenant dialogue—God speaking to his children and responding to their questions; and, (3) the ecclesial hermeneutic of faith.
In general, Verbum Domini is a testimony to the Scriptures as the divinely inspired word of God, grounded in a series of testimonies given by Jesus, the Scriptures, and the Apostles. Jesus himself, the incarnate Word, gave the primordial testimony to God: “Christ himself is the faithful and true witness … it is he who testifies to the Truth (cf. Jn 18:37)” (§98.1).3 In a similar manner, the sacred Scriptures—the written word of God—testify to the incarnate Word as the one who is equal to God, having life in himself, as the Father has life in himself (see Jn 5:39, 46; 5:18, 26). In turn, the Apostles and disciples testify to the incarnate Word of God according to his command: “you … are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27; also 19:35). “You shall be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8; see 2:32; 3:15; etc.). To underscore this apostolic mission to witness on the behalf of the incarnate Word, Verbum Dominiquotes 1 Jn 1:1-3, which runs as a central thread through the entirety of the Apostolic Exhortation:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
Within this series of witnesses, and, specifically, in line with the testimony of the Apostles, the Synod Fathers desire to personally testify to the Word of God. At the heart of the Pope’s exhortation, is the invitation to believe in the testimony given by many—from St. John the Apostle to the Synodal Fathers themselves—to the person of Jesus, the Word of God (Jn 1:1) and the Word of life (1 Jn 1:1).
Pope Benedict’s invitation extends to belief of the testimony given by these many others to Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, presented in the written word of God, the New Testament (see §2). The witness of the Holy Father, and the Synod Fathers, to the truth of the inspired word of God, is rooted in the Apostolic witness to the incarnation of the Word of God. The Pope, in commenting on John 1:14, writes: “The apostolic faith testifies that the eternal Word became one of us. The divine Word is truly expressed in human words” (§11.2). To achieve the purpose of the Synod “to renew the Church’s faith in the word of God” (§14), the Pope refers to the “countless testimonials” that were given, during the synodal assembly, to the truth of the Scriptures as the word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit (see §98.1). He calls men to have trust in the reliability of his testimony, and the testimony of the Church—given time and time again—throughout history. At one point, he offers a hymn of praise for the witness of the martyrs, both past and present (§98.2).
Such a testimony is decisive for anyone approaching the word of God. By trusting in these testimonials of the Church, a believer becomes part of the living subject in the sacred Scriptures, namely: the People of God, the Church. Believers experience Sacred Scripture being alive in the People of God. “As such, it is important to read and experience sacred Scripture in communion with the Church, that is, with all the great witnesses to this word, beginning with the earliest Fathers up to the saints of our own day, up to the present-day magisterium” (§86.2).
The invitation to trust the countless testimonials of the Church is also an invitation to witness. Encouraging the faithful to this mission, Pope Benedict emphasizes the intrinsic relationship between the communication of God’s word and Christian witness: “this reciprocity between word and witness reflects the way in which God himself communicated through the incarnation of his Word. The word of God reaches men and women ‘through an encounter with witnesses who make it present and alive’” (§97.1). The testimony of Scripture is linked to the testimony given by the lives of believers. “Christian witness communicates the word attested in the Scriptures. For their part, the Scriptures explain the witness which Christians are called to give by their lives. Those who encounter credible witnesses of the Gospel thus come to realize how effective God’s word can be in those who receive it” (§97.2).
The Pope turns to the famous maxim of St. Augustine, which addresses this general theme of Verbum Domini: “I would not believe the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church led me to do so” (§29.2).4
Mystery of Covenant Dialogue: God Speaks to His Children and Responds to Their Questions
The essential content of the testimony of Verbum Domini is that God himself speaks in history to his children, responding to their questions. Arguably, this is the central theme of this Apostolic Exhortation, expressing the sheer novelty of Christian, biblical revelation: “God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires with us” (§6). This dialogue is rooted in the eternal, trinitarian dialogue between God and his Word—the eternal, personal Word, Jesus Christ. This eternal dialogue expresses the communion of love that lies at the heart of divine life, communicated to the world through the Word that God speaks through the Holy Spirit. The Word opens up this communion so that we can respond with a similar word of love, allowing our participation.
In Verbum Domini, the Pope draws our attention to the various ways in which God speaks his Word. He does so in creating the world, through the inner call within the heart of man, and throughout salvation history—the “word of the Lord” came to Abraham [Gen 15:1; cf. 22:18], to Moses and Israel, and to the prophets. Most of all, the trinitarian God speaks through his Son, the incarnate Word, the definitive Word of God (John 1:14; Heb 1:1-2). Pope Benedict commenting on Jn 1:18, writes: “Jesus of Nazareth is, so to speak, the ‘exegete’ of the God whom ‘no one has ever seen’” (§90). The incarnate Word knows the Father, hears his voice, keeps his word (Jn 8:55), and speaks only what the Father has told him (Jn 17:8). “In a perfect way, he hears, embodies and communicates to us the word of God (cf. Lk 5:1)” (§12.2). The Father’s word, that Jesus hears and keeps, becomes Jesus’ very own word, especially in the “word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18), which is the new covenant (§12.3). The authentic and definitive meaning of this word is manifested in the mystery of the resurrection. In this way, the beauty of the inner logic and unity of God’s plan, in this speaking of his word, has been fulfilled by the incarnate Word, Jesus the Christ: Jesus has died and has risen “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). In Christ, creation, new creation, and salvation history are unified; they are all one Word.
The one spoken Word of the triune God is handed on in the Church, in the form of preaching and writing, through the action of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth (John 15:26). “The word of God is thus expressed in human words, thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit” (§15.2). Authentic understanding of the word of God only occurs through the Spirit of God (Jn 14:26; 16:13), who has inspired it. Pope Benedict explains, through the use of analogy, the relationship of the word of God, expressed in human words, to the one spoken Word of the triune God: the written word of God is rooted in the eternal Word of God. The one, incarnate Word is inseparable from the word, preached by the Apostles, that is handed on within the Church’s living tradition. In this manner, Christianity is not a “religion of the book,” but a “religion of the word of God … of the incarnate and living Word” (§7.2). When a believer reads the written word of God, he encounters a person—Jesus, the incarnate Word—not merely an idea, philosophy, or moral code.
God the Father is the origin and source of this one Word. Benedict highlights how “God, the source of revelation, reveals himself as Father and brings to completion the divine pedagogy, which had previously been carried out through the words of the prophets, and the wondrous deeds, accomplished in creation, and in the history of his people and all mankind” (§20.2). The Trinity thus speaks to the children of God through the Word; the Father communicates his Word to us in human words through the action of the Holy Spirit.
Essential to the dynamics of God’s spoken Word, is our response to him. Not only does Sacred Scripture reveal that the triune God speaks to his children, but that God enables his children to speak with him. It draws each person into a covenantal dialogue with God himself by teaching us both how to speak with him and how to respond to him through“the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26). Because “we were created in the word, and live in the word,” (§22.1; also §50), we are fulfilled by listening and responding to it. “The word of God, in fact, is not inimical to us; it does not stifle our authentic desires, but rather illuminates them, purifies them and brings them to fulfillment” (§23.1). The reception and response to the word of God is transformative; through it a believer becomes a child of God (Jn 1:12). “Here we can glimpse the face of the Church as a reality defined by the acceptance of the Word of God” (Jn 1:14) (§50).
Biblical Interpretation: Ecclesial Hermeneutic of Faith
Another great theme that Verbum Domini addresses is biblical interpretation. In taking up the all-important question of how we can understand the word that God speaks to his children, this third theme manifests how our three themes are so closely related, and how they interact with and affect each other. Pope Benedict is very clear that what is at root in biblical interpretation is the acceptance of the faith-filled testimonies to the word of God, given by the Church, from the first Apostles to the Synod Fathers.5 for my portrayal of Jesus is that I trust the Gospels . . . I believe that this Jesus—the Jesus of the Gospels—is a historically plausible and convincing figure.”] The interpreter arrives at an authentic and full understanding of the word of God, wherein God speaks to his children and responds to their questions, through the obedience of faith to the Church’s testimony. This hermeneutic of faith grounded in an “ecclesial spirit” (§47.2) is the foundational criteria Verbum Domini posits for guiding biblical interpretation (see §29.1-2).
Benedict claims that an authentic understanding Sacred Scripture essentially involves “faith-filled contact with the word of God” (§104.2). Echoing the words of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas, the Pope insists: “without faith there is no key to throw open the sacred text” (§29.1).6 Such contact overcomes the danger of a dualistic split between science and faith, and biblical exegesis and theology, that is caused by a secularized hermeneutic (see §35.1). He is convinced that faith is not opposed to a scientific, reasoned study of history, but rather includes the historical dimension since “the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14) in a particular period and place in history. 7Unity and right order between historical-critical methods and the hermeneutic of faith can, and must be, achieved for a correct interpretation of God’s word. In this way, the “faith-filled interpretation of sacred Scripture,” taking place within the Church’s tradition, is the true response to a fundamentalist approach. It recognizes the historical value of the biblical tradition, while not ignoring “the human mediation of the inspired text and its literary genres” (§44).
Although each believer is encouraged to read the word of God and appropriate it personally, one must avoid being closed off to the ecclesial community through an individualistic approach. The relationship between the word of God, faith, and the Church is key for Pope Benedict. He repeatedly claims that “a communal reading of Scripture is extremely important, because the living subject in the sacred Scriptures is the People of God, it is the Church … Scripture does not belong to the past, because its subject, the People of God, inspired by God himself, is always the same, and, therefore, the word is always alive in the living subject” (§86.2).8 author does not speak as a private, self-contained subject. He speaks in a living community, that is to say, in a living historical movement not created by him, nor even by the collective, but which is led forward by a greater power that is at work . . . The Scripture emerged from within the heart of the living subject—the pilgrim People of God—and lives within the same subject . . . On the one hand, this book—Scripture—is the measure that comes from God, the power directing the people. On the other hand, though, Scriptures lives precisely within this people, even as this people transcends itself in Scripture. Through their self-transcendence (a fruit, at the deepest level, of the incarnate Word) they become the people of God. The People of God—the Church—is the living subject of Scripture; it is in the Church that they words of the Bible are always in the present.” ] Therefore, “the sacred text must always be approached in the communion of the Church” (§86.2). That is, “ultimately, it is the living Tradition of the Church which makes us adequately understand sacred Scripture as the word of God” (§17.3).
Since the primary setting for the word of God, in its written form, is the faith life of the Church, who is herself led by the Holy Spirit, then, it can be concluded that “the primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the Church” (§29.2; emphasis original). This is a fundamental criterion of biblical hermeneutics since it “is something demanded by the very nature of the Scriptures and the way they gradually came into being” (§29.2).9
Benedict is careful to point out that the Church is not an requirement placed upon the word of God from the outside, but rather the word of God arises from the very heart of the Church—it is the very word spoken by the Church herself. Building upon this he writes: “the Bible is the Church’s book, and its essential place in the Church’s life gives rise to its genuine interpretation” (§29.2). He concludes, “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 himself wishes to convey to us” (§30.1).
This has significant ramifications for one who seeks an authentic understanding of the word of God, by following the Word in sharing in the life of the Church. The Church is the “home of the word,” (§52.1) and as such the Scriptures are intimately related to the Church’s spiritual life, in her sacramental and prayer life. A hermeneutic of faith, working within an “ecclesial spirit,” is needed to carry out the study and interpretation of the word of God. This includes developing scholarly abilities and a deep spiritual life of prayer. The Eucharistic liturgy, which is the source and summit of the Church’s life, “is the privileged setting in which God speaks to us in the midst of our lives; he speaks today to his people, who hear and respond” (§52.1). “A faith-filled understanding of sacred Scripture must always refer back to the liturgy” (§52.2). 10
In addition, interpretation of the word of God includes “listening to those who have truly lived the word of God: namely, the saints” (§48.1). The Pope remarks that “holiness, inspired by the word of God, thus belongs in a way to the prophetic tradition, wherein the word of God sets the prophet’s very life at its service. In this sense, holiness in the Church constitutes an interpretation of Scripture which cannot be overlooked” (§48.3). Saints, and those following Christ with authentic devotion (especially expressed in chastity, poverty, and obedience) become “a living ‘exegesis’ of God’s word” (§83.1). Benedict refers to the writings of Origen who was convinced that “the best way to know God is through love, and that there can be no authentic scientia Christi apart from growth in his love” (§86.1).
Pope Benedict sums up this central theme of Verbum Domini through the inspiring and beautiful thought of St. Ambrose, “when we take up the sacred Scriptures in faith and read them with the Church, we walk once more with God in the Garden” (§87.3).11
The great worth and importance of Verbum Domini lies in the strength of its testimony to the Scriptures as the divinely inspired word of God. This includes a penetrating explanation of the key hermeneutic principles already given by the Second Vatican Council’s Dei Verbum: the principle of the Church as the living subject, from whom and for whom, the word of God has been written, and the principle of faith which, not only grounds itself in history and takes up the scientific study of history, but also holds fast to the Church’s testimony that God has spoken to his children within history in the word of God.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2010). ↩
- This Apostolic Exhortation is permeated by the thought of Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum. It references this text a total of thirty times. ↩
- When the term “word” is capitalized, it signifies Jesus Christ as God’s eternal Word. When “word” is not capitalized, it is used to signify sacred Scripture – the written word of God. This follows the convention of the Vatican’s English translation of Verbum Domini. ↩
- Contra epistulam Manichaei quam vocant fundamenti, V, 6: PL 42, 176. ↩
- Pope Benedict gives concrete expression to this conviction of faith in the first part of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), xxi. After giving a detailed account of his methodology he remarks, “The main implication of this [i.e., of his methodology ↩
- See St. Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Prol.: Opera Omnia, V, Quaracchi 1891, pp. 201-202;; see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 106, art. 2. ↩
- This point is succinctly expressed by Pope Benedict XVI in his Jesus of Nazareth, xv where he writes: “it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchange symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnatus est—when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.” ↩
- In Jesus of Nazareth, xx–xxi the Pope explains this vital point of the Church as the living subject of the Scriptures: “The [biblical ↩
- In a similar manner, the Pope, in the second part of Jesus of Nazareth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), xv, roots his argument for the hermeneutic of faith in the very nature of the Scriptures: scholarly exegesis “must recognize that a properly developed faith-hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limits, so to form a methodological whole.” ↩
- The liturgy can very well be the source for the title of this Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, since it is identical to a concluding statement given by the lector after the Scripture Readings (“verbum Domini”; “the word of the Lord”) in the liturgy. ↩
- Epistula 49, 3: PL 16, 1204A. ↩