A revolution has taken place in the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of the Bible. As a result, the life and mission of the church have been transformed. Biblical stories and themes formerly unknown have become familiar. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. While the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century championed biblically based preaching and teaching (sola scriptura), the Roman Church focused on traditional doctrine and insisted that its leaders alone were authorized to interpret the Bible. It was not until Pius XII’s encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu” (“On Promoting the Study of Sacred Scripture,” 1943) that a dramatic change in church teaching on the Bible was launched. Considered the Magna Carta of the biblical movement, this document inaugurated a new era in Catholic life.
The Second Vatican Council spearheaded a marvelous revitalizing of the Bible in the church. Many of the council participants frequently attended private lectures given by prominent biblical scholars. The Book of the Gospels was solemnly enthroned at the beginning of many general sessions. In 1965, “Dei Verbum” (“The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”) opened the door to critical approaches to biblical interpretation. It was almost as if the Bible had been rediscovered, and those engaged in Bible study found new meaning in their religious tradition. The study of the Bible became exciting, and this excitement responded to a profound hunger in the people of God for the word of God. In a matter of decades, the hundreds of years of unfamiliarity with the Bible were quickly spanned and many Roman Catholics became as biblically astute as their Protestant sisters and brothers.
While the first five chapters of “Dei Verbum” were theological in character (see “The Gift of the Word,” Richard J. Clifford, S.J., Am. 11/11), the final chapter was pastoral in focus. It sought to release the Bible from the shadows in which it had been confined and to place it firmly in the hands of the Christian faithful (No. 22). The Bible was now to be considered the very soul of theology (No. 24). Priests, deacons and catechists were to receive solid biblical training, because preaching, catechetics and all forms of instruction were to be rooted in the word of Scripture (No. 25). Individual study, which for centuries had been forbidden, was now strongly encouraged (No. 25). A revolution was taking place, not only in the hallowed halls of theological institutes, but in the pews of neighborhood churches and in the lives of ordinary Christians.
This biblical revolution became apparent in various ways. Women and men in the stories of the Bible were no longer regarded as merely eccentric figures from a bygone age who made compelling characters for Hollywood movies. They were now appreciated as people called to be faithful to God in their own lives, and thus could be considered as plausible models for contemporary believers. For example: Moses was heralded as a leader who was willing to relinquish his own future rather than see his people perish (Ex 32:30-32), and the wise woman of Tekoa was praised for placing herself in jeopardy when she surreptitiously led King David to see the error of his ways (2 Sam 14:1-20).
Another important theme was covenant, with its sense of personal commitment of both God and human beings. Associated with this theme are the technical yet tender words: “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Ex 6:7; Jer 31:1), words that continued to describe believers’ own relationship with God. The communal dimension of covenant called people to responsibilities they had for each other. Care for the needy was recognized as an act of justice required of all believers rather than charity performed out of the largesse of some. The spirit of biblical theology began to take root in the lives of many people.
A Biblical Exhortation
In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI convened a synod of the bishops of the world to discover how effective “Dei Verbum” had been in the life and mission of the church. The preparatory document acknowledged that “many positive things have clearly taken place in the People of God.” It further stated “[s]ome things, however, pose problems or still remain an open question” (italics in original). Two issues surfaced of great concern: 1) the large percentage of Catholics who still know very little about the Bible and 2) the allure of various forms of relativism. This preparatory document urged all believers to pursue greater understanding of the church’s teaching concerning Scripture and knowledge of appropriate interpretive methods.
Two years after the close of the synod, on Sept. 30, 2010, the feast of St. Jerome, the patron of biblical studies, Benedict XVI issued his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, “Verbum Domini” (“The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”). In it he states that the synod was convened “to review the implementation of the council’s directives, and to confront the new challenges which the present time sets before Christian believers.” The exhortation has three parts. The first part simply lays out contemporary understanding of biblical revelation, our response to that revelation and methods of interpretation. The other two parts treat the word of God in the church and in the world, respectively. Since liturgy is considered the privileged setting for encountering the word of God, great care is taken in developing this perspective. The urgent need to prepare ministers of the word in order to fulfill this responsibility is also considered. The third part of the document discusses the church’s mission to proclaim the word of God to the world. It sketches this mission as encompassing, in particular, young people, migrants, the poor, those who suffer in any way, the protection of creation and interreligious dialogue. It is clear from “Verbum Domini” that the word of God resides at the heart of the church’s life and mission.
The effectiveness of the word of God in the life and mission of the church is in great measure dependent on those involved in biblical ministry. Scholars, preachers and teachers are charged with the task of uncovering the meaning of the Scriptures and bringing that message to life in contemporary situations. The exhortation insists that they must be properly prepared for this.
Return to the Old Testament
One issue that is developed at great length in “Verbum Domini” is the role of the Old Testament in the lives of contemporary believers. For many people the Old Testament is still unfamiliar, even uninviting literature. For them, some of the stories appear to be implausible, and the way God is portrayed is often troubling. This signals the need for theologians and pastoral ministers to make known the riches found in the Old Testament. This need has been clouded by the practice of some who refer to the First Testament as the Hebrew Scriptures, distinguishing it from the Second Testament or Christian Scriptures. This distinction is erroneous, because the Christian Scriptures include both the Old and the New Testaments. Furthermore, the Catholic Church chose the Septuagint, or Greek version of the Old Testament, which includes certain books and passages preserved in the Greek but not in the Masoretic text or Hebrew version.
Despite statements found in both “Dei Verbum” and “Verbum Domini,” many Catholics still believe that the religious teaching found in the Old Testament has been superseded or replaced by New Testament theology. In other words, they maintain that the Old Testament has little or no religious value for Christians. “Verbum Domini” counters this thinking when it insists that “we must not forget that the Old Testament retains its own inherent value as revelation, as our Lord himself reaffirmed (cf. Mk 12:29-31).” The church has always officially resisted supersessionist thinking. This false opinion was condemned in the second century, when a bishop named Marcion first advanced it. Contrary to any form of Marcionism, “Verbum Domini” discusses the relationship between the testaments (Nos. 39 and 40) and then presents aspects of Old Testament theology that continue to hold importance in the lives of Christian believers (No. 41).
Much Old Testament teaching has become part of the church’s teaching. This is clear from a brief look at three themes from the Old Testament: the spirituality found in the psalms, justice as proclaimed by the prophets and the tenderness of God toward his people.
Spirituality of the psalms. Even people who identify themselves as nonreligious know and are often moved by some of the profound sentiments expressed in the psalms. The words “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I lack.... Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Ps 23:1, 4) have given comfort to many who are crushed at the death of a loved one. In times of trial, people pray, “Deliver me, Lord, from the wicked; preserve me from the violent” (Ps 140:2). Who has not cried “Hallelujah” at times of great joy and triumph, even without realizing that this word, which begins and ends each of the last five psalms in the Psalter, means “Praise YHWH”? These few examples demonstrate how the psalms, the prayers that originated with the ancient Israelites, continue to be the prayers of Christians today. The psalms are a major component of the Liturgy of the Hours, the official public prayer of the church. They express the aspirations and feelings of the human heart, not simply the religious teaching of one people. The more one immerses oneself in these prayers, the more one comes to know the people from whom they originated, for the major theology of ancient Israel is found in the psalms. Finally, we should not forget that the psalms were Jesus’ prayers as well.
Justice in the Prophets. The teachings of the prophets frequently stem from the concept of covenant, the legal form of agreement that came to describe the binding relationship between God and the Israelites. The people’s failure to heed their social responsibilities was met with condemnation from a prophet and a demand for some form of redress. The prophets do not condemn money in itself, but rather the exploitation of the powerless. Amos (2:6-7) denounces the people of the north:
[T]hey hand over the just for silver,
And the poor for a pair of sandals;
They trample the heads of the destitute
Into the dust of the earth,
and force the lowly out of the way.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry with a reference to Isaiah in which the prophet addresses the needs of the dispossessed: “to bring glad tidings to the poor…let the oppressed go free” (Lk 4:18-19; see Is 61:1-3). Contemporary forms of liberation theology that champion gender, racial, ethnic, political or economic rights ground their demands for justice, as did Jesus, in the teachings of these prophets. The fundamental tenets of Old Testament religion are thought, by some, to be found in this simple yet profound statement of the prophet Micah (6:8):
What the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice and to love goodness,
And to walk humbly with your God.
Tenderness of God. The Old Testament contains many rich images of God. Among them are creator (Eccl 12:1), warrior (Ex 15:3), rock (Ps 18:3), judge (Ez 18:30), eagle (Dt 32:11) and fortress (Ps 59:17). Some of these characterizations seem harsh and demanding; others are gentle and caring. Unfortunately, many people are familiar only with the harsh images. Still, in several places God is described as profoundly and compassionately loving. Hosea draws on family relationships to describe this divine love: “When Israel was a child I loved him” (11:1). And God’s love, as Isaiah describes it (49:15), surpasses even the devotedness of a mother for her child:
Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness
for the child of her womb? Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.
Perhaps the most startling statement is a simple declaration of love: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jer 31:3). The divine passion expressed in these few words is mind-boggling. However, it was not unknown to Jesus who, in the story of “The Prodigal Son” (Lk 15:11-32), describes such loving sentiments in his portrayal of the compassionate father.
“Dei Verbum” launched a new age for Catholic believers, and “Verbum Domini” followed the direction it had set. Pope Francis has embraced many of the matters found in these statements in his recent apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World”). We have yet to plumb the depths of this latest teaching and to discover the role to be played by the biblical tradition in this new pastoral initiative. But it is already clear that by opening the treasures of the Scriptures for the entire Catholic community, the church’s revolutionary teachings on the Bible have revitalized its life and mission and continue to do so. They make it possible for Catholics to become acquainted with the deep and challenging religious message found in both testaments of the Bible and to have their lives transformed by it.