When elected pontiff on April 19, 2005, three days after his 78th birthday, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the oldest man elected pope in nearly 300 years and the first German in 500 years. But of greater significance was the little noted fact that Pope Benedict XVI was the first biblical theologian to sit in the Chair of St. Peter.
As Scott Hahn notes in “Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Benedict XVI” (Brazos, $21.99), the pontificate of Pope Benedict, “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 Pope Benedict’s predecessor and close friend Pope John Paul II produced a remarkable number of major documents addressing many crucial issues, none were solely focused on the Bible, its interpretation and its place in the Church. Now, Pope Benedict has written a major document about Sacred Scripture. It is the postsynodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”), which was signed on Sept. 30, the memorial of biblical translator St. Jerome, and made public Nov. 11.
Michael Barber, professor of theology, Scripture and Catholic thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, has noted on the blog The Sacred Page that Pope Benedict’s “clear focus on Scripture has been manifest throughout his papacy.” He points out that the Year of St. Paul, which ran from June 2008 to June 2009, was marked by a consistent emphasis on Scripture, notably within the many audiences the pope dedicated to the writings and theological thought of the apostle Paul.
The pontiff’s best-selling book “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration” (Doubleday, $26) addressed methods of interpreting Scripture and reflected at length on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. (Two more volumes are yet to be published, one on Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, scheduled for a 2011 release, and another on his birth and infancy.)
In April 2007, Pope Benedict 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 listed as objectives 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 circum-stances; and to offer a Word of consolation and hope to the poor of the world.”
Verbum Domini consists of an introduction (Nos. 1-5), three major sections (Nos. 6-120) and a short conclusion (Nos. 121-124).
The first part, Verbum Dei, or “The God Who Speaks” (Nos. 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” (No. 6).
This first section alone is a major document in its own right. 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.
The second part is Verbum in Ecclesia, or “The Word of God and the Church” (Nos. 50-89). Its primary focus is “the relationship between Christ, the Word of the Father, and the Church.” 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 — or “divine reading,” a way of praying through contemplation on Scripture — and Marian prayer.
The final section is Verbum Mundo, or “The Church’s Mission” (Nos. 90-120), which focuses on the Church’s missionary work and her proclamation of the Word of God in the world.
Topics include the responsibility of the baptized to proclaim the Word, the necessity of missionary outreach, the new evangelization, the nature of Christian witness, Christian service, commitment to justice, reconciliation and peace, 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.
Although Verbum Domini’s introduction and conclusion are relatively short, they highlight some essential 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, Pope Benedict writes that the 2008 synod “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 (see 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 (see 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).”
‘Encounter’ with Word
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.
Second, 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,” Pope Benedict writes, “I would like to present and develop the labors 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 (see Jn 1:14).
“This is a magnificent text, one which offers a synthesis of the entire Christian faith,” Pope Benedict writes.
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” (No. 121).
On a closely related note, the introduction opens with a quote from the First Letter of 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 is the gift of God to man.
Hearing God’s voice
The verb “proclaim” appears several times, stressing God’s initiative in reaching out to and communicating with humanity. Then, in the conclusion, Pope 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 (see Acts 9:1-30), let us too hear God’s word as it speaks to us, ever personally, here and now” (No. 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!’” (Rv 22:17,20).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of ignatiusinsight.com and is OSV Newsweekly’s Scripture columnist.
Historical Context (sidebar)
The relatively low-key reception of Verbum Domini should not obscure its importance, both within Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate and in the larger scope of papal and conciliar documents about Scripture. It has been nearly 70 years since a pope issued a major document on biblical studies: Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, presented on Sept. 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. Pope Leo 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 Nov. 18, 1965. It is worth noting that a young priest and theological expert from Bavaria, Father 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. 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” (No. 3).
Pope Benedict XVI’s previous post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (“The Sacrament of Charity”), was a notably large document, nearly 32,000 words in length 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, which was released on Sept. 30, 1943, is less than 11,000 words long with 48 footnotes.