Verbum Domini (3)

At the end of the last post on Verbum Domini, I asked, “How to convince them {people today} that reality is actually found in Scripture? How to convince people that nature is not simply cruel and purposeless and that winning is not found in the one who dies with the most toys? Benedict to my mind is making all of the right connections, but how can Scripture be brought to life for those for whom it means nothing or for those who know nothing of it?” Many of the suggestions that are made (see the comments for Verbum Domini (2)) focus on clearing away the modern debris from the study of the Bible, which is often seen as the domain of the biblical scholar, – the creation of the debris that is, not clearing it away – and returning to a simpler, perhaps more naïve, reading of the Bible. In some ways I agree with this stance. Ben F. Meyer wrote, “Professional interpreters appear to differ markedly from common-sense readers and, on technical aspects of interpretation (use of linguistic, philological, historical resources), they do. In other respects, however, e.g., encounter with the text, report on encounter, critique of truth and value, the superiority of the professionals is random and unreliable” (Critical Realism and the New Testament, 28). So, there is no question for me that technically excellent biblical scholarship can miss the religious point of the text. Yet, I only agree somewhat with the stance that if we only returned to a pre-modern view of the Bible we would be much better off; while the professionals, of which I am one, can miss the point, it is also amazing how much of the Bible has been opened up through biblical scholarship. To cite only two examples: we understand much better Jesus’ Judaism and his place within it and the sorts of churches Paul started in a variety of Greco-Roman cities and the social and cultural background of these churches and cities. These two complexes of historical realities can give genuine insight into specific passages and general realities of the New Testament texts.

It is also the case that there is no way to turn back the clock on historical consciousness, the knowledge that every person is shaped by the age in which he or she exists. We cannot escape the desire and need to know the history of the biblical texts. The biblical authors were shaped by their own historical periods, but so, too, are biblical readers. The Church cannot turn its back on historical understanding, nor can it leave the fields of historical research to skeptics and those who do not believe in the divine character of Scripture. As such it is important for biblical scholars to make clear the historical nature of the text and its context(s). It is also true that the historical reality of Israel and Jesus’ incarnation, at the appropriate time, the right time, the fulfillment of the age,  shapes the Bible as a historical reality which must be understood in context…and yet, the Bible is also the Word of God and within and outside the Church it must be promulgated as such even when accounting for its historical context.


Yet, the questions still lingers, how to create the relationship of love with the Bible? How to create a bridge over centuries and millennia so that readers can enter into relationship with the God who loves us? The Pope writes,

“In all of this, the Church gives voice to her awareness that with Jesus Christ she stands before the definitive word of God: he is “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17). He has given creation and history their definitive meaning; and hence we are called to live in time and in God’s creation within this eschatological rhythm of the word” (29-30).

This powerful phrase, the “eschatological rhythm of the word,” calls us out of only living in a historical time and into the rhythms of eschatology or, we might say, eternity. Historical understanding of the biblical text should not create debris but clear a path to enable us to enter into a relationship with what is eternal, and that is the Word of God, primarily Jesus Christ himself but also the teachings contained in the Bible which call to us no matter in what age we were born. They call me the same way they called my grandparents and my great-grandparents and so through the generations. And many people think it ought to be a simple task to create reverence and love for and understanding of the Scriptures; a snap of the fingers and all swoon under the mesmerizing sway of the Scriptures, but it is not so. Many outside of the Church and many inside of the Church have had “a failed contact” with the Word of God. Last night I spoke with a friend who left the Church years ago, who was raised in and confirmed in the Church, but has not been back for over ten years. He talked about hearing readings in Church and wondering, “who are the Galatians and what does it mean to me?”

“Access to the Gospel is not to be taken for granted. Nothing guarantees it. It is helped or hindered in accord with humanly generated conditions. Millions live without the slightest contact with Church or gospel. Again, many have made failed contact, owing to misunderstanding, deliberate or indeliberate, or to superficiality, vacillation, immersion in anxiety or pleasure (Mark 4:14-19; Matt. 13:19-22; cf. Luke 8:12-14)” (Ben F. Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship, x-xi).

Access to the Gospel cannot be taken for granted because it depends to such a large extent on those who bear it and bear witness to it. People want to blame biblical scholars and biblical scholarship, and each can take their fair share of the blame – and I will take mine too – but this is too easy as a solution, as if biblical scholarship were to disappear and access to the truth of the Gospel would suddenly be granted to all who opened its pages. Bad biblical scholarship exists as does good biblical scholarship, and to the extent that bad biblical scholarship blocks “the flow of meaning and extinguish(es) the light of truth” (Meyer, xi) it must be countered with good biblical scholarship, but the problems run deeper in an age that looks not to reality but to virtual reality for answers.  Our culture is out of tune with the Scriptures and the responses to this must be deep and varied, but ultimately the only response that counts is the one that makes it clear that living with the truth of the Bible is transformative and life-changing.  I think most Christians refuse to see themselves as a part of the problem. It is easy to blame others, especially “biblical scholars,” but no theological discipline can outweigh the witness of people living out the Gospel in their daily lives. On the other hand, Christians who do not live their lives according to the Gospel give an equally powerful witness that the Bible is not to be taken seriously.

The task of the Church and its members is far more significant than the work of any theologian in making the Scriptures known and loved, as Verbum Domini here relates:

“Finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the Spirit descended on the Twelve gathered in prayer with Mary on the day of Pentecost (cf.2:1-4), and impelled them to take up the mission of proclaiming to all peoples the Good News. The word of God is thus expressed in human words thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit. The missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit are inseparable and constitute a single economy of salvation. The same Spirit who acts in the incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Virgin Mary is the Spirit who guides Jesus throughout his mission and is promised to the disciples. The same Spirit who spoke through the prophets sustains and inspires the Church in her task of proclaiming the word of God and in the preaching of the Apostles; finally, it is this Spirit who inspires the authors of sacred Scripture” (33).

If the Scriptures are unbelievable to many perhaps it is because they cannot overcome the unbelievability of its witnesses; if the truth of the Bible was being lived out by those who claim it is the Word of God then no amount of bad biblical scholarship could withstand the power of this reality. The Spirit is no different today and no less present than it was in Jesus’ ministry, or when it fell upon the Twelve, or when the inspired authors penned the writings that comprise the Bible. If people do not see the Spirit in the Scriptures today, could it be that we are to blame? 

John W. Martens 

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

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7 years 11 months ago
I have nothing to add, but I do want to express my gratitude for this blog.  It's been very helpful for me.  I agree, we (Catholics/Christians) can be our own worst enemies sometimes, by our own inadequate knowledge of the Bible, arrogance and condescending attitude towards those we  deem "less than..."  The bottom line is how authentically do we live out the Gospel in our daily lives!?  We have to marinate Verbum Domini in our being so that with the help of the Holy Spirit we can begin to transform our lives and ourselves.  Then as the poet Mary Oliver wrote:  God, once he is in your heart, is everywhere-  so even here among the weeds and the brisk trees.

P.S.  I rather like your using latin words.  It puts everyone on the same page.  Using the vernacular can be cumbersome as it can lead to more misunderstanding.  English is not just English, there is English in the UK, American English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Indian English,  etc. etc. etc.
7 years 11 months ago
How about starting this understanding of scripture and the writings of people like the pope by not using latin names for things!! What is the english translation of verbum domini?  Something God, I guess. And no, I do not have a latin dictionary. This same issue comes up with the names of encyclicals.  Why not use english?  I find it very off putting; those in the know can understand what the theme of something is but not the pew sitters. We dont matter. 
Marie Rehbein
7 years 11 months ago
One thing that I find interesting and helpful in keeping the Bible meaningful is the juxtaposition of the various texts as they are assembled for the three liturgical cycles.  I wonder sometimes, though, as a regular church-goer, whether it isn't time for a fourth cycle.  Is there any reason a fourth could not be developed and added to the liturgy, John?
Sarah Hennessey
7 years 11 months ago
I am curious about what you mean by: 

"Our culture is out of tune with the Scriptures..."

Because of the natural changes in time and context?  Because they are so often liminal instead of a regular part of daily life?  Or are you suggesting it is because the culture is not living in the Spirit which first drew forth the Scriptures?
Marie Rehbein
7 years 11 months ago
John, I was addressing you, but maybe the Holy Spirit was suggesting a cycle with the Gospel of John - it didn't strike me that my comment could be interpreted that way, until I reread it in response to your asking.
David Jackson
7 years 11 months ago
One area that has not come up in this discussion is the lack of good biblical education on the part of the clergy.  Many priests had poor teaching in the seminary.  Many priests have not had any good biblical continuing education.  My own experience (I studied for an M.A. in scripture at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago) is the great gulf between the scripture I was taught int the seminary (1963-67) and what I learned at CTU (1981-82).  Having taught various courses in Scripture since my M.A. studies I find eyes open, attentive and enthusiastic about the scriptures and scripture study.
Juan Lino
7 years 11 months ago
A wonderful post and series John - bravo! 

You hint at a very important hazard I've often "intuited", that we can, in some sense, turn the Scriptures themselves into an idol.  I am saying this because, IMHO, it seems to me that one function (if not the primary function) of the Scriptures is to draw us into the experience of a totalizing relationship with a Being whose nature is gratuitous and unconditional love. For that reason, I always try to keep in mind that the experience - that is the encounter - came before the written text and that that’s what I want, the encounter.

I thus think that an immersion in the Gospels - and I mean to the point of memorizing them - is vital because the allow us to recognize when Christ is present in our life.  By that I mean, if Christ is a Living presence in reality now (as the first witnesses claimed and we believe) then the signs of His presence will be eerily similar to the signs we see in the Gospels – after all, Christ did not have a personality transplant did He?
Again, a great series!
7 years 11 months ago
And thank you for your comment.  Looking forward for more!
7 years 10 months ago
I’m a non-academic who became fascinated with the Bible about 20 years ago, when I took a three-year Bible Study course with a small group of people in my parish that I had conned into doing it with me.  It was written by the theology faculty at the University of the South and distributed through Loyola University of Chicago.   
Since then, I’ve read many books and have facilitated parish level Bible Studies.   Being an engineer has helped immensely.  I guess my interest in the Bible comes from my engineering mindset in which I see something and then want to figure out how it “works”.
As an engineer, I must humbly admit that I do not have more than a high school education as far as the humanities are concerned.  And so I am amazed at what I have learned about ancient religions, cultures, languages, literatures, and histories.  A seminal book for me was Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth.”  From that book I learned that a story does not have to have happened in order to tell a truth.  That was huge for me.    
I’ve found in my parish that the Little Rock program that I facilitate does not avoid these “sensitive” issues, yet still and always presents the Scriptures as the Word of God.  Struggling with such issues and understanding the Bible as the Word of God are NOT incompatible with one another.  In our Bible studies, the purpose is NOT to “debunk” the Bible, but to accurately show it as the human product it really is.  Although the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that does NOT mean that it’s some kind of Magic Book that floated down from heaven on a satin pillow surrounded by choirs of angels singing hymns.  I’ve learned that the Bible is as fully human as Jesus is.  And it seems to me that to see that and to come to know it by struggling through a good Bible study program is part and parcel of becoming a Biblically literate Christian who has encountered the Scriptures on its terms, not our own. 
 “Devout” parish-level Bible study programs seem to deliberately avoid these issues completely.  That is not being truthful about the Bible to a group of people who are asking to be educated about the Bible.  That is showing a complete lack of faith in a people of faith.   
I think two things are necessary for a Christian to be literate in the Bible:  knowing the Bible, and knowing about the Bible.  Both are necessary.  
George Trejos
7 years 10 months ago
Thank you for a timely and provocative article.  Soon most of us will be signed with ashes and admonished to''be faithful to the Gospel''.  Sadly those are empty words for the majority of Catholics.

My experience has been that few Catholics actually own Bibles or if they do, they serve merely as ledgers for family births, baptisms, marriages or funerals. The Church bears some responsibility for this in not promoting  strongly enough the ownership of bibles and their reading and reflection to enrich us with its sacramental graces.  Rather the chief emphasis is on our 7-fold sacraments, esp. the Eucharist. It is easy to understand this historical stance which sought to distinguish us from our Protestant brethen with their prime emphasis on the Bible.

We need to move beyond that point to recognize that grace also flows from the scriptures and God encounters us there individually, outside of our communal worship.  I would welcome a renewed emphasis by the Church this Lent to promote that families/individuals acquire Bibles and use them to feed on ''every word from the mouth of God'' that Jesus deeds as necessary as bread. The role of scriptural scholars is to make this a guided journey.  
Aloysia Moss
7 years 10 months ago
a short response in lower case since i broke my arm yesterday .  what  i have seen at the parish level using little rock is some catholics are deeply into fundamentalist beliefs regarding sacred scripture and they are positive that is catholic understanding .   these folks mostly drop out .


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