"A Symphony of the Word" | A Short Guide to Pope Benedict XVI's Apostolic Exhortation "Verbum Domini" | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight | December 21, 2010"A Symphony of the Word" | A Short Guide to Pope Benedict XVI's Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight | December 21, 2010


When chosen as pontiff on April 19, 2005, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was the oldest man elected pope in nearly 300 years and the first German in 500 years. Of greater significance was the fact—not often noted or analyzed in-depth—that Pope Benedict XVI was the first biblical theologian to ever sit in the Chair of St. Peter. Yet, as Dr. Scott Hahn notes in the opening chapter of Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Benedict XVI (Brazos, 2009), the pontificate of Benedict XVI, "to a degree not seen perhaps since the medieval papacy of Gregory the Great, has borne the stamp of a distinctive biblical theology."

While the lengthy and prolific pontificate of Benedict's predecessor and close friend John Paul II produced a remarkable number of major documents addressing many crucial issues, none of those documents were solely focused on the Bible, its interpretation, and its place in the Church. Now, in the fifth year of his pontificate, Benedict has written a major document about Sacred Scripture. It is the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini (also available in PDF format from the Vatican site), on the "Word of God in the life and mission of the Church," which was presented on September 30, 2010, the memorial of St. Jerome, and made public on November 11th.

The Genesis of Verbum Domini

Dr. Michael Barber, Professor of Theology, Scripture and Catholic Thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University (San Diego), has noted on his blog, "The Sacred Page", that Benedict XVI's "clear focus on Scripture has been manifest throughout his papacy." He points out that the Year of St. Paul (2008) was marked by a prolonged and consistent emphasis on Scripture, notably within the many audiences the pope dedicated to the writings and theological thought of the Apostle Paul. The Holy Father's best-selling book, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, addressed methods of interpreting Scripture and reflected at length on life and teachings of Jesus Christ. (Two more volumes are yet to be published, one on Christ's Passion and Resurrection and another on his birth and infancy.)

In October 2006, Benedict XVI chose the topic, "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church," and in April of 2007 he announced a synod in which the bishops would meet together to discuss the nature of Scripture and its role in the Church. The Lineamenta (draft guidelines) for the 2008 Synod of Bishops stated that the "purpose of this Synod is primarily pastoral, namely, spreading and strengthening encounters with the Word of God ..." It listed as objective the following: "to help clarify the basic truths of Revelation as the Word of God, Divine Tradition, the Bible and the Magisterium, which prompt and guarantee an authentic and effective living of the faith; to spark an appreciation and deep love of Sacred Scripture so that 'the faithful might have easy access" to it; to renew listening to the Word of God, in the liturgy and catechesis, specifically through lectio divina, duly adapted to various circumstances; and to offer a Word of consolation and hope to the poor of the world."

It also mentioned the aim of fostering "a proper approach to biblical hermeneutics and to correctly direct the process of evangelization and inculturation. It also intends to encourage ecumenical dialogue, which is closely linked to listening to the Word of God and to promote an encounter and dialogue of not only Christians and Jews but also those engaged in interreligious and inter-cultural dialogue." With those goals in mind, the Twelfth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops met at the Vatican from October 5-26, 2008. Benedict writes in the Introduction that Verbum Domini is his response "to the request of the Synod Fathers to make known to the whole People of God the rich fruits which emerged from the synodal sessions and the recommendations which resulted from our common endeavour" (par. 1).

The Structure of Verbum Domini

Verbum Domini consists of an introduction (pars. 1-5), three major sections (pars. 6-120), and a short conclusion (pars. 121-124). The first part, "Verbum Dei", or "The God Who Speaks" (pars. 6-49), delves into a number of interrelated theological principles and concepts, beginning with the observation that "The novelty of biblical revelation consists in the fact that God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us" (par. 6). Topics addressed include the nature of God, the cosmic dimension of his word, the Christology of the word, Tradition and Scripture, man's response to the Word of God, faith and reason, Scripture as the soul of sacred theology, the state of biblical studies and interpretation, the unity of Scripture, false interpretations of Scripture, the Bible and ecumenism, and the saints and the interpretation of Scripture. This first section alone is a major document in its own right.

The second part is "Verbum in Ecclesia", or "The Word of God and the Church" (pars. 50-89). Its primary focus is "the relationship between Christ, the Word of the Father, and the Church", which is "a living relationship which each member of the faithful is personally called to enter into" (par. 51). Here the theological teachings of the first section are applied to the life and worship of the Church. Important topics discussed include Christ's presence in the Church, the Word of God in the liturgy, the Word of God and the Eucharist, the lectionary, the ministry of the readers in liturgical celebrations, the importance of homilies, the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick, the liturgy of the hours, the importance of silence, liturgical music, catechesis, vocations, the role of the laity, marriage and family life, lectio divina, and Marian prayer.

The final section is titled "Verbum Mundo", or "The Church's Mission" (pars. 90-120). Whereas the second section discussed the Word of God in the Church, this section focuses on the Church's missionary work and her proclamation of the Word of God in the world. "The Synod of Bishops," writes Benedict, "forcefully reaffirmed the need within the Church for a revival of the missionary consciousness present in the People of God from the beginning" (par. 92). Topics include the responsibility of the baptized to proclaim the Word of God, the necessity of missionary outreach, the new evangelization, the nature of Christian witness, Christian service, commitment to justice, reconciliation and peace between peoples, practical charity, migrants, suffering, the poor, protection of creation, the value of culture, education, art, social communication, inculturation, translating the Bible, interreligious dialogue, and religious freedom.

Introductory and Concluding Touchstones

Although Verbum Domini's Introduction and Conclusion are relatively short, they highlight some essentials words and ideas that are carried throughout the apostolic succession and set the stage, so to speak, for the three major sections.

One of those words is "encounter". In the opening paragraph, Benedict writes that the Synod of 2008 "was a profound experience of encounter with Christ, the Word of the Father, who is present where two or three are gathered in his name (cf. Mt 18:20)." And, in the next paragraph: "There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10)." In the final paragraph, he writes: "May every day of our lives thus be shaped by a renewed encounter with Christ, the Word of the Father made flesh: he stands at the beginning and the end, and 'in him all things hold together' (Col 1:17)." A consistent point of emphasis throughout Verbum Domini is that Christianity is first and foremost a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, and that reading and meditating on the Word of God is an essential way in which that encounter takes place.

Secondly, the Prologue to John's Gospel is a guide and touchstone for the entire document. In order to show "that the Bible may not be simply a word from the past, but a living and timely word," Benedict writes, "I would like to present and develop the labours of the Synod by making constant reference to the Prologue of John's Gospel (Jn 1:1-18), which makes known to us the basis of our life: the Word, who from the beginning is with God, who became flesh and who made his dwelling among us (cf. Jn 1:14). This is a magnificent text, one which offers a synthesis of the entire Christian faith" (par. 5). Each of the three main sections is introduced with quotes from the opening chapter of the Fourth Gospel: John 1:1,14; 1:18, and 1:12. These in turn point to the intimate relationship between Sacred Scripture, the written word of God, and Jesus Christ, the Word of God. The Conclusion then brings this connection full circle, stating, "The Prologue of John's Gospel leads us to ponder the fact that everything that exists is under the sign of the Word. The Word goes forth from the Father, comes to dwell in our midst and then returns to the Father in order to bring with him the whole of creation which was made in him and for him" (par. 121).

On a closely related note, the Introduction opens with a quote from 1 Peter: "The Word of the Lord abides for ever. This word is the Gospel which was preached to you." The word of God has been preached to us, it has been given to us, it is the gift of God to man. The verb "proclaim" appears several times, stressing God's initiative in reaching out to and communicating with humanity. Then, in the conclusion, Benedict accentuates the need for man to hear God's word and to respond to his gift: "Our own time, then, must be increasingly marked by a new hearing of God's word and a new evangelization. ... Following the example of the great Apostle of the Nations, who changed the course of his life after hearing the voice of the Lord (cf. Acts 9:1-30), let us too hear God's word as it speaks to us, ever personally, here and now" (par. 122). This is brought home beautifully in the final words of Verbum Domini, quoting from the final words of the Bible: "The Spirit and the bride say: 'Come'. And let everyone who hears say: 'Come!' 'The one who testifies to these things, says: "Surely I am coming soon!". Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!'". (Rev 22:17, 20).

Twelve Key Themes in Verbum Domini

An apostolic exhortation such as Verbum Domini cannot (and should not) be conveniently summarized or "Cliff noted". But the following observations will hopefully aid readers in seeing and appreciating some—certainly not all—of the fundamental themes and points of emphasis within the document.

Called to share in divine life: It is striking that the opening paragraphs of each major section contains a reference to God's invitation for man to share in the divine life. At the heart of that divine life, Benedict notes, "there is communion, there is absolute gift. .... God makes himself known to us as a mystery of infinite love in which the Father eternally utters his Word in the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Word, who from the beginning is with God and is God, reveals God himself in the dialogue of love between the divine persons, and invites us to share in that love" (par. 6; cf. par. 9). This truth is presented even more strongly at the start of the second section: "Those who believe, that is to say, those who live the obedience of faith, are 'born of God' ( Jn 1:13) and made sharers in the divine life: sons in the Son (cf. Gal 4:5-6; Rom 8:14-17)" (par. 50). And, from the third section: "The word of God has bestowed upon us the divine life which transfigures the face of the earth, making all things new (cf. Rev 21:5)" (par 91).

Divine dialogue: God has initiated dialogue with man because of his love for him. As we've already seen, this is because the Triune God is a God of "dialogue"; that is, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are continually speaking to one another in perfect, self-giving love. "In this vision every man and woman appears as someone to whom the word speaks, challenges and calls to enter this dialogue of love through a free response. Each of us is thus enabled by God to hear and respond to his word. We were created in the word and we live in the word; we cannot understand ourselves unless we are open to this dialogue" (par. 22).

Incarnation and Christology: At the heart of this divine dialogue is "the heart of the world" (par 83), the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. "God's word is thus spoken throughout the history of salvation, and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God" (par. 7). 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'" (par. 7). Benedict writes of a "Christology of the word" and reflects at length on the meaning of the communication of the eternal Word into time and space: "His unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity" (par. 11).

Encounter and relationship: The words "encounter" and "encountering" appear over forty times in Verbum Domini; they summarize, in many ways, the core of Benedict's explanation of the relationships between God and man and man and the Word of God. Quoting from his 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict states that "being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction" (par. 11). And: "The whole history of salvation progressively demonstrates this profound bond between the word of God and the faith which arises from an encounter with Christ. Faith thus takes shape as an encounter with a person to whom we entrust our whole life" (par. 25).

Similarly, the word "relationship" appears over sixty times, often to express in some way the intimate communion given by God through Jesus Christ and Scripture: "The mystery of the Covenant expresses this relationship between God who calls man with his word, and man who responds, albeit making clear that it is not a matter of a meeting of two peers; what we call the Old and New Covenant is not a contract between two equal parties, but a pure gift of God" (par. 22), and, "The relationship between Christ, the Word of the Father, and the Church cannot be fully understood in terms of a mere past event; rather, it is a living relationship which each member of the faithful is personally called to enter into" (par. 51).

Unity of salvation history: God's plan of salvation, Benedict explains, is one of unity: from the unity of the one God comes forth "the unity of the divine plan in the incarnate Word..." (par. 13). The first creation, which took place through the eternal Word is closely related to the new creation established through the Incarnate Word: "Calling to mind these essential elements of our faith, we can contemplate the profound unity in Christ between creation, the new creation and all salvation history" (par. 13).

Unity of Scripture: There is an "intrinsic unity" within the Bible: "In the passage from letter to spirit, we also learn, within the Church's great tradition, to see the unity of all Scripture, grounded in the unity of God's word, which challenges our life and constantly calls us to conversion. Here the words of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: 'All divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfilment in Christ'." (par. 39). Benedict notes that although the Bible consists of many different books written by many authors over the course of centuries, "the person of Christ gives unity to all the 'Scriptures' in relation to the one 'Word'" (par. 39).

Covenant and communion: These two concepts have been at the center of Benedict's theological writings dating back to his earliest writings, as a young priest, on St. Bonaventure and St. Augustine. To enter into the covenant is to enter into communion; covenant is rooted in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christ's sacrificial death establishes both covenant and communion: "In this great mystery Jesus is revealed as the word of the new and everlasting covenant: divine freedom and human freedom have definitively met in his crucified flesh, in an indissoluble and eternally valid compact" (par. 12). Having entered the covenant through baptism, we grow in it through hearing and obeying the word of God: "Listening to the word of God introduces and increases ecclesial communion with all those who walk by faith" (par. 30), and "... one must avoid the risk of an individualistic approach, and remember that God's word is given to us precisely to build communion, to unite us in the Truth along our path to God" (par. 86).

Faith: The necessity and nature of faith is discussed many times throughout Verbum Domini: "'The obedience of faith' (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) must be our response to God who reveals. By faith one freely commits oneself entirely to God ... It is the preaching of the divine word, in fact, which gives rise to faith, whereby we give our heartfelt assent to the truth which has been revealed to us and we commit ourselves entirely to Christ ..." (par. 25). Faith requires both internal choice as well as external communion; it is not merely a matter of private belief: "Christ Jesus remains present today in history, in his body which is the Church; for this reason our act of faith is at once both personal and ecclesial" (par. 25). The Mother of God is the crowning example of a disciple who responded perfectly in faith: "In our day the faithful need to be helped to see more clearly the link between Mary of Nazareth and the faith-filled hearing of God's word" (par. 27).

Interpretation of Scripture: An obvious subject, clearly identified by the Pope as a "major theme" (par. 29). Without faith, he strongly states, it is impossible to rightly interpret the Bible. "The intrinsic link between the word and faith makes clear that authentic biblical hermeneutics can only be had within the faith of the Church, which has its paradigm in Mary's fiat" (par. 29). The Bible is the book of the Church, and so it must be read with the heart and mind of the Church: "The Bible is the Church's book, and its essential place in the Church's life gives rise to its genuine interpretation. ... 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" (pars. 29, 30). This major section on interpretation and biblical theology (pars. 29-49) is one that should be studied and mined for many years to come.

The Saints: Paragraph 48 of Verbum Domini says, "The interpretation of sacred Scripture would remain incomplete were it not to include listening to those who have truly lived the word of God: namely, the saints." This is not, of course, mere lip service, for the entire apostolic exhortation is an example of how to draw upon the wisdom of the saints, doctors, and mystics. Benedict quotes often from St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory the Great, and many others. Of these, St. Jerome is given special mention (par. 72).

Lectio divina: The "prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture" is encouraged, with "particular reference to lectio divina" (par. 86), which is "divine" or "holy" reading of the Bible. This approach to Scripture, Benedict states, "capable of opening up to the faithful the treasures of God's word, [and] also of bringing about an encounter with Christ, the living word of God." He then reviews the basic steps of lectio divina (par. 87).

Mission and testimony: The third part of Verbum Domini is a clear and strong call for all Christians to be witnesses to their faith in Christ. "It is our responsibility to pass on what, by God's grace, we ourselves have received" (par. 91) and "the Church's mission cannot be considered as an optional or supplementary element in her life" (par. 93). The source for this is the word of God; a timeless example is the Apostle Paul, whose life "illustrates the meaning of the Christian mission and its fundamental universality" (par. 92). This section contains one of the most beautiful and powerful sentences of the entire text: "It is not a matter of preaching a word of consolation, but rather a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion and which opens the way to an encounter with the one through whom a new humanity flowers" (par. 93).

Sidebar: The Historical Size and Context of Verbum Domini:

Benedict XVI's previous post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (February 22, 2007), on the "Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church's Life and Mission", was a notably large document, nearly 32,000 words in length and with 256 footnotes. Verbum Domini is even larger, consisting of some 41,000 words and 382 footnotes, making it an admittedly daunting document for many readers. To put that in some perspective, Pope John Paul II's encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17, 2003) was about 18,000 words in length and had 104 footnotes. Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on divine revelation is less than 6,000 words long and has 41 footnotes. Pope Pius XII's encyclical on biblical interpretation, Divino Afflante Spiritu (September 30, 1943), is less than 11,000 words long, with 48 footnotes.

The relatively low-key reception of Verbum Domini should not obscure its importance, both within Benedict's pontificate and in the larger scope of papal and conciliar documents about Scripture. It has been over a half century since a pope issued a major document on biblical studies: Pope Pius XII's encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, presented on September 30, 1943. That document commemorated Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Providentissimus Deus ("On the Study of Holy Scripture"), issued on 1893 and marking the start of a new era in biblical interpretation and scholarship among Catholics. Leo XIII also established the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1902.

The most recent major magisterial text addressing the Church's teaching about Scripture was Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, issued November 18, 1965. It is worth noting that a young priest and theological expert from Bavaria, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, was involved in the drafting of that document, one of the most important to come from the Council. Not surprisingly, that vital document is mentioned prominently in Verbum Domini: "Beginning with the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII, we can say that there has been a crescendo of interventions aimed at an increased awareness of the importance of the word of God and the study of the Bible in the life of the Church, culminating in the Second Vatican Council and specifically in the promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum. The latter represented a milestone in the Church's history... Everyone is aware of the great impulse which the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum gave to the revival of interest in the word of God in the life of the Church, to theological reflection on divine revelation and to the study of sacred Scripture." (par. 3).

(This article originally appeared in December 12, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper in a slightly different form.)

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

The Ten Commandments and the Gospel | Carl E. Olson
Benedict and the Eucharist: On the Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis | Carl E. Olson
"A Word Addressed by God to His People": Benedict XVI and the Interpretation of Sacred Scripture | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Introduction to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's God's Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office | Peter HŸnermann and Thomas Sšdin
God, The Author of Scripture | Preface to God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology | Fr. Dominique BarthŽlemy, O.P.
Going Deeper Into the Old Testament | An Interview with Aidan Nichols, O.P.
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue | From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | From You Can Understand the Bible | Peter Kreeft
Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
The Divine Authority of Scripture vs. the "Hermeneutic of Suspicion" | James Hitchcock

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com and moderator of the Insight Scoop blog.

He is the co-author, with medievalist Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (Ignatius, 2004). Known for his knowledge of Evangelical and Fundamentalist beliefs about the end of the world, he has written over two dozen articles about Bible prophecy, the belief in the "Rapture," and Left Behind books. His recent book, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers (Ignatius Press, April 2003) is the result of years of research on the topic; it was recognized by the Associated Press as one of the best religious titles of 2003.

He writes a weekly Scripture column, "Opening the Word", for Our Sunday Visitor, is a contributing editor to This Rock magazine, and and has written for numerous Catholic periodicals. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.

Carl resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their three children, two cats, and far too many books and CDs. Visit his personal web site (still stuck in the middle of a major overhaul) at www.carl-olson.com.

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