Vatican Files no. 20

Article by   May 2013
"The Word of God Precedes and Exceeds the Bible:" Pope Francis on Scripture and the Church

After a couple of eventful months surrounding the Vatican, the time has come to shift into a more routine mood. Pope Francis has attracted a lot of attention from the media and has sent various messages of change and renewal. After the initial surprise, the various Vatican departments are coming to terms with a less pompous papacy, and the Pope himself is beginning to shape his own views on a number of open issues that are on the Vatican agenda.

The first weeks of the new papacy were marked by what seemed new and extraordinary, but now the Popes has begun to do what a Pope in Rome normally does - residing over different liturgical events, receiving international delegations, meeting with bishops from around the world, speaking at various occasions, etc. The normal pace of the papacy is beginning to emerge. After using more "pastoral" language in his first homilies that almost everybody seemed to like, the more theological bent of Francis's thought is coming through as he has more opportunities to deliver speeches of various forms. One of his first opportunities was a speech he gave on April 12th to the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission convened in the Vatican to discuss the theme "The inspiration and the truth of the Bible". Below is a summary of Francis' address and a few remarks on this very important subject for all Christians in general, and for Evangelicals in particular. 

The Non-Identity Thesis

After commending the Commission for the choice of the topic, the Pope highlighted the nature of Scripture and its relationship to the Word of God. The Bible, according to Francis, is "the testimony in written form to the Word of God". Scripture is not associated with the Word of God on a one-to-one basis, but is rather perceived as a witness to something co-inherent, yet different. Following this comment, the Pope adds that "the Word of God precedes and exceeds the Bible". In other words, the Pope does not endorse an identity view between Scripture and the Word but supports a dynamic view of the relationship between the Word of God and the Bible whereby Scripture witnesses to a Word that is before and beyond the Bible. The Word is present in the Bible but not confined to it. The Word is spoken and told by the Bible but the two do not coincide, being that the Bible is only a (partial) witness to the (fuller) Word. According to this view, what the Bible says is what the Word says, but what the Word says is not necessarily what the Bible says.

Francis rightly recognizes that the center of the Christian faith is a "person" and not a book, i.e. the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. Yet the inference is that "the horizon of the divine Word (i.e. Jesus Christ) embraces Scripture and extends over it". In a rather technical language, Francis goes on to say that the Bible is the "canonical memorial that attests the event of Revelation". The sentence needs some theological unpacking but it is clear that the "memorial" language coupled with the notion of "attestation" support the view that there is a gap between the Bible and the Word of God. There is nothing original in this account; it has been the theological standard of the Word advocated by the Catholic Church since Vatican II.

Scripture is Subject to the Church 

Once the identity between the Word and the Bible is refused and substituted with the dynamism of a "living" Revelation that exceeds the Bible, there stems the need for an arbiter that is able to recognize the living Word in and beyond the Bible. While Protestant Liberalism submits the Bible to the final judgment of conscience or reason, Roman Catholicism believes that the Magisterium of the Church has ultimate authority over Scripture. This is what Pope Francis believes as well. In quoting Vatican II (which is actually a quotation of Vatican I), he says that "all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God" (Dei Verbum, 12). 

Of course, here Francis is recalling the Roman Catholic view that there is a profound unity between Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church, to the extent that one cannot be pitted against the other two and vice versa. The critical point here is that the Magisterium represents the only "living" voice of the Word, and its interpretation of Scripture is what really matters and what finally counts. So, instead of letting Scripture speak to the Church and over the Church by the Spirit, the Church is the only authorized voice of the Word which is witnessed in Scripture, and which also extends beyond it. Again, the Pope quotes Vatican II (which in turn quotes the Council of Trent) when he says that "it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence" (Dei Verbum, 9).

There will be other times when Pope Francis will address theological issues to express his views. However, this speech to the Pontifical Biblical Commission is an indication of the fact that the Pope will presumably not bring change to basic doctrinal issues and that he is rather conservative in his Roman Catholic theological outlook. Actually, the emphasis and tone of the speech seem to be willing to draw a line between what the Roman Catholic Church believes and the "Scripture Alone" principle of the Protestant faith.

Leonardo De Chirico lecturer in theology at IFED (Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione) in Padova, Italy, and editor of the theological journal Studi di teologia. After twelve years of church planting and then pastoring a Reformed Baptist church in Ferrara, since 2009 he is involved in a church planting work in central Rome. He has degrees in history (Bologna) and theology (ETCW, Bridgend, UK). His PhD was obtained from King's College, London, and subsequently published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Frankfurt-Oxford: Peter Lang 2003).
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