The Vatican Files N. 4

Article by   July 2011
Word of the Lord and/or Word of the Church?
The Bible in a recent papal pronouncement

[Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series on Roman Catholicism in the 21st century. A new entry in the series should follow every three weeks].

The Bible is central in the long-standing controversy between the Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholicism. So any pronouncement coming from the Pope on the topic is to be read carefully by all those who live a Bible-centered faith. The pronouncement we are talking about comes after a specific Synod that took place in 2008 when Roman Catholic bishops discussed the following issue: "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church". After synods discuss, it is customary for the Pope to issue a written document which summarizes the gist of the proceedings and states them authoritatively. This is also the case of the 2010 Post-Synodical Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (VD, the Word of the Lord) by Benedict XVI.

The document recalls the RC teaching on the Bible as it has been articulated and taught in  the XX century. In particular, VD acknowledges the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (God's Word) as the paramount doctrinal reference for the Roman Catholic theology of the Word of God and sees itself in total continuity with the Council. What is most interesting is the relationship between the Word and the Bible that is envisaged by VD.

To start with, VD claims that the Word of God "precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word" (17). VD claims that the Bible is the Word of God in the sense that it contains the Word. There is the Bible and there is also a further word beyond the Bible that makes the Bible not sufficient on its own. What is at stake here is not the divine inspiration of the Bible (which VD firmly affirms), but the sufficiency of the Bible and its finality.  For Pope Ratzinger, the Bible is the Word of God in some sense, but the Word of God is bigger than the Bible. The latter contains the former. 

For Protestant readers especially, a comment is here in place. Liberal theology has developed its own theology of the Word whereby the relationship between the Word and the Bible is thought of in dialectical and existential ways. In other words, for some versions of liberal theology, the Bible is a (fallible) testimony to the Word and it becomes the Word of God, if it ever becomes so, when the Spirit speaks through it. Now, the RC version of the Word-Bible relationship is articulated in a different way. The premise is the same (i.e. the Bible contains the Word), but the outworking of the Word comes through the tradition of the RC Church. The gap between the Word and the Bible is not existential but ecclesial. The Church is the cradle of the Word, both in its past and written form (the Bible) and in its on-going utterances (Tradition). In this respect, Benedict XVI writes: "The Church lives in the certainty that her Lord, who spoke in the past, continues today to communicate his word in her living Tradition and in sacred Scripture. Indeed, the word of God given to us in sacred Scripture as an inspired testimony to revelation, together with the Church's living Tradition, it constitutes the supreme rule of faith" (18). The Bible is upheld, but the Bible is always accompanied and surmounted by the wider, deeper, living tradition of the Church which is the present-day form of the Word. Amongst other things, this means that the Bible is not sufficient in itself to give access to the Word and is not the final norm for faith and practice. The Bible needs to be supplemented by the Catechism of the Catholic Church which is "a significant expression of the living Tradition of the Church and a sure norm for teaching the faith" (74).

Thus VD maintains a dynamic view of the Word whereby the Bible is a divinely appointed container of the Word. Yet the final reference point of the Word is the Church from which the Bible comes from and through which the present-day Word of God resounds. 

Lots of questions arise from the painted picture by VD which is totally coherent with Vatican II and indeed the Council of Trent. Since VD is not a systematic treatise, but rather a written exhortation, only few points are dealt with in terms of explaining how the Church relates to the Word. 

Firstly, the role of "private revelations" (e.g. Marian visions and on-going revelations accredited by the RC Church). Beside the Bible, they "introduce new emphases, give rise to new forms of piety, or deepen older ones" (14). Private revelations are the basis for the Marian cults of Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorie, for example. For Evangelicals, these cults cannot be squared with basic Biblical teaching, yet the normative point for "private revelations" is the Church's tradition, not the Bible alone. For RC, basing the faith on the Bible is important, yet inconclusive. There are further standards for spiritual discernment that go beyond Scripture.

Secondly, the "eccesial" reading of the Bible. According to VD, Scripture must never be read on one's own. Reading must be always an "ecclesial experience", i.e. something done in communion with the Church. The issue at stake is not only methodological, as if private readings were to be replaced by study groups at a parish level presided over by a priest, but also hermeneutical. "An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church" (30). Reading the Bible needs to be an exercise done in accordance with the institutional church, both in its forms and outcomes. Apparently, there is much wisdom in these statements, especially considering the real risks of fancy, individualistic, awkward interpretations by isolated readers of the Bible. Yet, there is something missing here. For a Church that has forbidden for centuries the reading of the Bible in vernacular languages, it is at least unfortunate that not a single word of repentance is offered. For a Church that has prevented the people from having access to the Bible until fifty years ago, it is at least puzzling that not a single word is spent to underline the Church's need for self-correction and vigilance. Moreover, if reading the Bible must always be done under the rule of the institution, what happens if the institution itself is caught in error, heresy or apostasy? How does the Spirit correct a sinful church if not by the biblical Word? In the history of the Church, the teaching of the Bible had to sometimes be played against the institutional church and against its consensus. Only a self-proclaimed indefectible Church can ask total submission to "the watchful eye of the sacred magisterium" (45) without having a final, ultimate bar. Here at stake is the question: Who has the final word? The Bible or the RC Church? Since the Church is "the home of the word" (52), VD responds: the latter!

Thirdly, the practice of Biblical interpretation. A properly defined RC reading of the Bible requires the acceptance of the unity of the whole of Scripture ("canonical exegesis"), as well as obedience to the living Tradition of the whole Church and the combination between the historical-critical and the theological level of interpretation (34). The RC Church fears two extremes: On the one hand it fears the critical arrogance which severs the Bible's unity and rejects its divine origins; on the other, the fundamentalist approach which offers "subjective", "arbitrary", and "anti-ecclesial interpretations" (44). Two brief comments are possible. 1. In the public opinion, Benedict XVI is often depicted as a champion of the "spiritual" reading of the Bible (e.g. his acclaimed book Jesus of Nazareth, 2007). Yet VD readily acknowledges the benefits of historical-critical methods (32) while rejecting their extreme claims when they are contrary to "theological" considerations. Though not himself a liberal, Ratzinger does not belong to the same typology of Biblical conservative scholarship that can be found in Evangelical circles. Any simplistic overlap muddies the waters. 2. Fundamentalism is not defined in any way, yet is the recipient of strong criticism. No reference to fundamentalist literature is offered but instead negative statements are made as far as the dictation-theory is concerned, or the lack of appreciation of Biblical language as being conditioned by times and cultures. Who on earth believes that the Bible was mechanically dictated or that its language is an angelic reality? The impression is that VD plays against a straw man here.

Fourthly and finally, the liturgical context of a proper approach to Scripture. Reading the Bible as an ecclesial experience means that it needs to occur in a liturgical context set forth by the RC Church. "The privileged place for the prayerful reading of sacred Scripture is the liturgy, and particularly the Eucharist, in which, as we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament, the word itself is present and at work in our midst" (86). The hearing of God's Word is fruitful when certain conditions are present: the administration of the Eucharist (54) and other sacraments (61), the Liturgy of the Hours (62), the practice of gaining indulgences (87), and recital of the Holy Rosary (88). According to VD, the Bible can never be alone, but must always be surrounded by ecclesiastical paraphernalia which inform, direct and govern Biblical reading and interpretation. In so doing, the Bible is never free to guide the Church, but always conditioned by some extra-biblical practices of the Church. 

The papal pronouncement encourages the reading of the Bible and this is good news. The fundamental question remains: Whose word is the Verbum Domini? The Bible's and/or the Church's?
 

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