In the famous scene of Christ’s temptation by the devil in the desert (see Mt 4:1-11), the evangelist Matthew notes that each time the Lord is tempted, he refutes Satan with a passage from Scripture (see Mt 4:4, 4:7, 4:10). However, what is also interesting is that for the second temptation Satan himself uses Scripture to back up his proposal:
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone’” (Mt 4:6; quoting Ps 91:11-12).
It is clear that Satan is knowledgeable about Scripture, and in fact, because of his suprahuman intelligence, it is safe to say that the devil knows the Bible better than any Scripture scholar who ever lived, or ever will live.
Vast knowledge of the Bible, however, does not guarantee a loving relationship with God; as Shakespeare noted in “The Merchant of Venice”: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
Thus are exposed the power and the dangers of the Scriptures. Intimate knowledge of their pages can lead to a deep encounter with the Lord — and abuse of them can lead to a rejection of God’s loving care. It is with this knowledge that the Catholic Church in the modern era has repeatedly called on Catholics to properly read and interpret the Scriptures. The latest effort by the magisterium to do this is Pope Benedict XVI’s recent apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”), a follow-up document to 2008’s Synod of Bishops on the Bible.
Verbum Domini covers a wide array of topics, but what are the major themes of this document? Broadly, there are four:
One of the most common misconceptions about Christianity is that it is a “religion of the book” — that the Bible is the basis for our entire religion. The Catholic Church has always rejected this notion, and does so explicitly in this document:
“While in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, 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’” (No. 7, quoting St. Bernard of Clairvaux).
The “Word of God” cannot be limited to simply Sacred Scripture, because it encompasses far more than that. Verbum Domini breaks this Word into three separate — but interrelated — realities:
◗ First and foremost, the Word of God is the eternal Son of God who became incarnate as Jesus Christ (see Jn 1:1-14).
◗ The Word preached by the Apostles — that is, the Church’s living Tradition.
◗ Sacred Scripture, which is the Word of God written.
This is not just an obscure theological point, but is foundational for everything the Church teaches in regard to a proper understanding of the Scriptures. We must understand that the Word we follow is Jesus Christ, and we are drawn to him by both Tradition and Scripture.
Trying to isolate only one part of the multifaceted Word — as in the sola Scriptura approach taken by most Protestants — ultimately deforms the Word and makes it more susceptible to misinterpretation.
Anyone who is familiar with Pope Benedict’s pontificate knows the emphasis he has placed on “encountering Jesus Christ.” He has stressed again and again that an encounter with Christ is the central mystery of the Christian faith — everything, literally everything, revolves around it. As he wrote in his 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), “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” (No. 1).
Verbum Domini reiterates this emphasis and notes the importance of Scripture in both instigating and deepening our encounter with the Lord. As the beginning of the document explains, we believe in a God who speaks a Word, and we are responsible to respond to that Word in our own lives. Scripture is a primary way to hear that Word spoken by God.
In context of the Church
The key difference between Catholic and Protestant Scripture interpretation is that Catholics insist that the Bible can only be truly understood within the context of the living Church. The Bible was written within the Church and for the Church, and was compiled by the Church, so trying to understand it outside the Church is simply infeasible. The same Spirit that inspired the sacred writers and guided the Church to gather together those writings into one “Bible” also directs the Church in her interpretation of the Scriptures.
This is true beyond just the obvious maxim that “biblical interpretation cannot contradict Church teaching.”
Verbum Domini also emphasizes the importance of the liturgy for interpreting Scripture. Many of the New Testament documents were originally written to be read within a liturgical setting — for example, Paul addressed most of his letters to “the church in …”, assuming that they would be read when the local church gathered — in the liturgy.
As Verbum Domini notes, the liturgy is the “privileged” setting for reading the Bible. It is not just one of many settings, but should be the primary place where scriptural interpretation takes place. This goes against the modern thought that the only place to interpret the Bible is either in an academic ivory tower or in the confines of one’s own home. Instead, the Church’s understanding is that scriptural interpretation — like all aspects of the Faith — is a communal affair.
Tie to Church ministry
The entire third section of the document goes into some detail on the importance of Scripture permeating every aspect of the Church’s work. This begins with evangelization, which is the preaching of the Word. Particularly astute is this description of proclaiming the Christian message:
“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 flows” (No. 93).
Evangelization is not teaching the Faith or explaining the Faith or defending the Faith — it is preaching the Word and allowing that Word to lead the other to an encounter with him who is the Word. How can the Word be preached without recourse to the written Word of God? Thus, Scripture forms a foundation for all the evangelical work of the Church.
Verbum Domini makes clear that Sacred Scripture is at the center of all theological understanding of Church teaching as well as at the center of all evangelical work undertaken by the Church.
Catholics would do well to read this important document, along with other magisterial writings on the Bible, and take those teachings with them as they themselves dive into the living waters of the Sacred Page.
Eric Sammons writes from Maryland. He is the author of “Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew” (OSV, $14.95).