The Sacramentality of Scripture: “Dei Verbum” and the Biblical insights of Joseph Ratzinger
We gather tonight for a great purpose—and I certainly don’t mean the delivery of my remarks. Our great purpose is to launch a lecture series that will culminate in the celebration of an auspicious event: the golden anniversary of “Dei Verbum,”the Dogmatic Constitution that almost wasn’t.
It was almost something rather different, called by a radically different name.
In the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council, the preparatory commission had drafted a document titled “De Fontibus Revelationis.” Many people expected it to be whisked through the approval process shortly after the council began. And why not? The drafters represented a variety of theological and exegetical viewpoints, and they had achieved an admirable consensus on a number of controversial points. The draft did what the drafters thought a council document should do. It prescribed rules, and it issued condemnations. It hewed to the manualist tradition that had defined the mainstream since the Counter-Reformation.
“De Fontibus” was sent out to the bishops in August 1962, in anticipation of the council’s inauguration in October. But a funny thing happened on the way to the council. On October 10, 1962, the very day before the council’s solemn inauguration, a young German peritus, Father Joseph Ratzinger, presented his analysis of “De Fontibus” in a lecture to the German-speaking bishops. His critique was even-toned, fair-minded, thorough—and devastating.
The problems he identified were not tonal or stylistic. They were theological and doctrinal. He argued that the schema had absolutized the manualist tradition. It had confused propositions about revelation with the content of revelation. It represented not abiding truths of faith, but rather the peculiar characteristics of post-Reformation polemic.
Father Ratzinger’s lecture made a profound impression on the bishops. The 16-page text was circulated widely and became the basis of Cardinal Josef Frings’ November 14 oral intervention at the beginning of the debate about “De Fontibus.” From the discussion that followed came “Dei Verbum,” the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which in its final form fulfilled all the prescriptions of Father Ratzinger.
Father Ratzinger recast the discussion in terms of sacramentality. Through the council and after the council, he would continue his reflection on this foundational point. The culmination of that reflection would indeed be magisterial. What the young theologian had begun in the shaping of “Dei Verbum” would find fulfillment in the seasoned pope’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini”—which speaks at length about the “sacramentality of the word.” The same document tells us that the “New Testament…presents the paschal mystery as being in accordance with the sacred Scriptures and as their deepest fulfillment.”
It is in the paschal mystery that humankind encounters this God—present in history, present in liturgy, present in the church. Present in the word; present as the Word.
Tonight I would like us to celebrate "Dei Verbum" by considering the Word’s sacramentality, in the spirit of Benedict XVI. Perhaps we can begin by reconsidering some basic terms, in the spirit of young Joseph Ratzinger.
A New Covenant
Let’s begin with the term New Testament. The phrase “New Testament” appears six times in the documents that were eventually brought together as the biblical New Testament. What did the first Christians mean by this term? What did Jesus mean the one time he used it? Since there was no book by that name, both Jesus and his early followers must have meant something else. But what?
The word we render as “testament” is, in Greek, diathēkē and in Hebrew berith. Both diathēke ̄ and berith may be rendered more accurately in English as “covenant” rather than as “testament.” In ancient cultures, both words denoted the legal means by which kinship was extended to an individual or group. To the Jews of Jesus’s time, a covenant created a family bond where none had existed before. Marriage was considered a covenant, as was adoption.
How do we explain the preponderance of the English term “New Testament” rather than “New Covenant”? The distinction appears only in Western translations, which have been influenced by the Old Latin and the Vulgate. Seeking an equivalent for berith or diathēkē in Roman culture, Latin-speakers found nothing exact and settled on the Latin word testamentum, a word often associated with bequests—“my last will and testament.”
It is inexact; for in the culture that extended from Jeremiah to Jesus a covenant accomplished more than any testament could. In fact, a covenant was that culture. It was the bond that constituted Israel’s law, liturgy and life.
In all of Jesus’s sayings, we find just one instance when he used the phrase we translate as “New Testament,” and he used it to describe neither a will nor a book, but rather a sacramental bond.
Saint Paul provides the earliest historical record of the event, perhaps twenty years after the fact, in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “In the same way [Jesus] also [took] the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’” (1 Corinthians 11:25, my italics).
What Jesus is doing, and commanding those present to “do...in remembrance,” is obviously very important. His words convey the deepest solemnity, and he speaks them in the gravest context: the ritual sacrificial meal of the Passover, at the beginning of his sacred Passion.
Covenant and Sacrifice
The language with which the biblical New Testament presents the “New Testament” bespeaks a certain sacrificial character. Sacrifice is the primary function of priesthood, after all. Jesus’s death was the once-for-all sacrifice (Romans 6:10 and 1 Peter 3:18), the singular, unrepeatable sacrifice of the New Covenant. All Christians in every age have agreed upon this point. But it is useful for us to ask why this is so. What made Jesus’s crucifixion a sacrifice?
To those formed by millennia of Christian tradition, the idea seems self-evident. But to a first-century Jew it would have seemed unthinkable. Sacrifice was permitted in only one city, the holy city, Jerusalem; yet Jesus was crucified outside the city walls. Sacrifice could be offered in only one place in that holy city, in the Temple, on the altar, by a priest from the tribe of Levi; yet Calvary was a hill far from the Temple, and it had no altar and no offering priest.
To even the most careful observer, the crucifixion of Jesus would have appeared to be a profane event, a fairly unremarkable Roman execution. A sympathetic soul might have judged Jesus’s death to be an act of martyrdom, like the deaths recounted in the histories of Maccabees (see 2 Maccabees 7), but not a sacrifice.
Some years ago, Joseph Ratzinger made a similar observation:
How could it ever occur to anyone to interpret the Cross of Jesus in such a way as to see it as actually effecting what had been intended by the cults of the world, especially by that of the Old Testament, by what had often been dreadfully distorted in them and had never been truly achieved? What opened up the possibility at all of such a tremendous reworking of this event, of transferring the whole of the Old Testament’s theology of worship and the cult to this apparently most profane occurrence? . . . Jesus himself had told the disciples about his death and had interpreted it in terms of prophetic categories.
What made Good Friday’s death a sacrifice, then, was the offering Jesus had made—in explicitly sacrificial terms, during his Last Supper with his disciples. There he made an offering of “body” and “blood.”He declared it to be his “memorial,” a term (in Greek, anamnesis; in Hebrew, zikkaron) associated with the Temple’s sacrificial liturgy. And he identified his action in terms of prophetic categories, most explicitly the “new covenant” of Jeremiah’s oracle.
For Ratzinger, this detail of the biblical record is the key to the church’s theology of the Eucharist:
the interpretation of Christ’s death on the Cross in terms of the cult...represents the inner presupposition of all Eucharistic theology . . . An event that was in itself profane, the execution of a man by the most cruel and horrible method available, is described as a cosmic liturgy, as tearing open the closed-up heavens—as the act by which everything that had hitherto been ultimately intended, which had been sought in vain, by all forms of worship, now in the end actually comes about.
It is, moreover, what makes the New Testament what it is. Ratzinger says: “Here, with unique clarity, we encounter what is specific to the New Testament, what makes it new in comparison with the previous covenant history, which thus becomes the Old Testament.”
In the text of the New Testament, then, the phrase “New Testament” denotes not a text, but an action—not a document, but a sacrament.
The Word Inspired
Not a document, but a sacrament. The biblical testaments are not reducible to words. They are, however, identifiable with the Word. In the New Testament we see that there is a close relationship between the pages of Scripture and the person of Jesus. We call them both by the same word, which in Greek is Logos and in English, Word. Scripture is the Word inspired; Jesus is the Word Incarnate (see John 1:1; Revelation 19:13). In the Bible, the divine Word is expressed in human language; in Jesus, the divine Word takes flesh in human nature. The two mysteries illuminate each other.
It is Jesus who sets the standard for what the church believes and teaches about the Bible. It’s Christ’s vision of the Bible that determines how Christians view the Bible. He is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). By his teaching and example, the Word made flesh shows his followers how to understand the Word made Scripture.
In the Gospels, Jesus appeals often to the sacred texts of the Old Testament. He does so in his preaching, in his private temptations and in dialogue with opponents. He always acts and thinks in accord with biblical revelation. He quotes the texts of the Old Testament at least forty times throughout the four Gospels. But this figure fails to do justice to his devotion, since countless other times he alludes to the biblical writings in more subtle and sophisticated ways—adopting their vocabulary, using their images, expounding their themes. It is no exaggeration to say that the mind of Jesus was saturated with the teachings and concerns of the Scriptures.
His most basic conviction was that Scripture had its origin in God. For Jesus, the words of the Bible are the words of his Father; and so its written assertions are nothing less than divine assertions preserved in readable form. Since Scripture communicates words that come from God, it lays down inviolable standards that must never be ignored or transgressed. Jesus states in John 10:35 that “scripture cannot be broken.”
The question will then arise: If Scripture comes from God, and if its teachings have divine authority, does it follow that Scripture is divinely truthful? Jesus’s answer, which emerges from the Gospels, is an emphatic yes. Consider his “high priestly prayer”in John 17:1–26. Petitioning the Father on behalf of his disciples, he states: “thy word is truth”(John 17:17). Such an assertion would be deprived of meaning if in fact the written Word of God were tainted with misinformation.
Christ firmly believed that the Old Testament “must” be brought to fulfillment in him, especially in the events of his suffering, death and Resurrection; for the Scriptures had determined in advance that he should be handed over to enemies (Matthew 26:54), “reckoned with transgressors” (Luke 22:37), lifted up on the Cross (John 3:14) and brought through suffering into glory (Luke 24:25–26).
All of this takes on greater significance when we consider that Jesus’ whole mission was “to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:37) and to enable his disciples to “know the truth” by sticking to his word (John 8:31–32). He claims for himself a personal veracity that, for anyone else, would be outrageous and just plain crazy. Not even the prophets of Israel, who spoke by the Spirit of God, could make such all-encompassing claims for their teaching.
The authority and reliability of God’s Word in Scripture stands or falls with the authority and reliability of God’s Word Incarnate. The two are inseparably united at the deepest level.
Jesus’ perspective on Scripture was immediately taken up as the perspective of the early church. There is no clearer statement than Paul’s affirmation in 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The crucial expression of the passage is “inspired by God,” which in Greek is the compound adjective theopneustos, meaning “breathed by God.” As God breathes life into his human creation (see Genesis 2:7), so he “breathes forth” the Scriptures.
So much for the divine source of the Scriptures, but what about the historical process by which they are produced? Saint Peter speaks of this when he declares: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God”(2 Peter 1:20–21). Peter is anxious to deny that biblical prophecy is a strictly natural phenomenon, as though the prophets of Israel communicated only what they imagined the future would bring. Peter counters such mistaken notions with the conviction that every prophecy of Scripture comes about by a supernatural operation of the Spirit.
Speaking through Texts
God speaks directly to his people through the biblical texts. Regardless of when the books of Scripture may have been written, the speech of God travels the ages to address the present situation of the faithful. An example of this appears in Hebrews 3:7, where the Holy Spirit is said to speak the words of Psalm 95:7–8 to believers in the first century. The passage is put forward as immediately relevant to the original recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews, not because the ancient psalmist had this community in mind when he wrote, but because the Spirit “says” (present tense) what the Psalm says in the here and now. The voice of the human author had long since fallen silent, and yet the voice of God, proceeding from eternity, is contemporary with every generation that encounters his Word.
What we find in the New Testament is confirmed clearly and unambiguously by the earliest Fathers of the Church, from Clement of Rome and Irenaeus to Jerome and Augustine. There are no statements to the contrary, either in the New Testament or in the earliest mainstream traditions. So we are left to conclude that historically the Christian perspective on the Bible is unbroken. From Jesus to the apostolic Church to the pastors and theologians of the second century there is full unanimity of conviction on Scripture’s divine origin, divine authority and divine truthfulness. This doctrine echoes down to modern times, from the First Vatican Council to the Second Vatican Council, and in many statements by the popes.
It is no surprise, though, that some people find it difficult to embrace the “high view” of Scripture. These claims on faith are unverifiable from a scientific standpoint, and they seem improbable from a rational standpoint. To put it bluntly, the written Word of God strikes some people as too human to be divine. Intellectuals throughout history have thus faced the scandal of the Bible and chosen to reject it. In this way too the inspired Word treads the path of the incarnate Word and reflects the same mystery.
Scripture will always be a reflection of the Word made flesh. The perfect sinlessness of Jesus is comparable to the perfect truthfulness of the Bible. Jesus was despised as an uneducated and ordinary man claiming to wield divine authority. The Scriptures bear the image of this crucified Messiah. For the texts of the Bible, by presenting their mighty claims in such modest garb, are offensive to human pride and draw the contempt of the sophists of every age.
Yet they draw the humble seeker. As Saint Paul put it, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). The Bible is not just authentically human, but sometimes scandalously human. Scripture has a tendency to speak in one place of God having human feelings such as wrath (see Romans 2:5), and then elsewhere to say that he is a pure spirit (see Isaiah 31:3; John 4:24). Many have scorned these as the crude and confused conceptions of an uncultivated people. One could also point to Scripture’s unpolished diction, a feature that has always put off educated minds with more refined literary tastes. And its penchant for hyperbole and poetic license fails to captivate those who think that the Bible should speak only with scientific exactitude. Still more scandal arises from the alleged discrepancies that make the Bible appear inconsistent with itself, with the documents of ancient history, and with the findings of modern science.
The question is whether these humble aspects of the Word should stand as barriers to our acceptance of its supernatural authority and reliability.
They should not. In fact, I would say that the way the Bible communicates is perfectly harmonious with the mystery of Christ himself. The same rationale that underlies the Incarnation of the Eternal Word also informs the inspiration of the scriptural Word. Neither is intelligible except as an instance of divine condescension—God stooping down, like a father, to address his children.
Thus, divine accommodation is not primarily a matter of the human dimension of revelation limiting the divine but of the divine making known and being rendered comprehensible through the human. The Word Incarnate accomplished this by the assumption of a human nature; the Word inspired achieves this by making use of simple human language. The challenge is to keep the full reality in view as we interpret the Bible. Even when God packages his perfection and power in lowly tangible forms, we must not allow their sensible exterior to blindfold us to their supernatural interior.
The supreme example of divine condescension is the Son, who “emptied himself” to become a man (Philippians 2:7). The Eternal Word accepted the limitations and weaknesses of the human condition. The weaknesses apparent on the surface of Jesus’s historical life do not cancel or diminish his unseen perfection.
The same is true of the written Word of God. Despite its concrete expression in human language—even plain and sometimes imperfect language—it does not cease to be the divine speech of God. The Word Incarnate was intensely human, yet he never sinned. So too the Word inspired is intensely human, yet it never errs. Once again it is Jesus who is the key to understanding the mystery of Scripture as simultaneously human and divine, as imperfect in appearance but perfect in reality.
Why should God express himself and his will in the humble letter of the Bible? My own conviction is that it invites reason to embrace the knowledge of faith, and that it confronts pride with a summons to intellectual humility.
The humility of the Word first of all represents a challenge to the supremacy of reason in our understanding of reality. We are prone to forget that reason has limitations. The unaided intellect is incapable of demonstrating the mysteries of faith, and is at best erratic in discerning and interpreting the presence and actions of God in history. This is a serious handicap when it comes to interpreting the Bible. I’m not saying that we should retreat into pious credulity in our study of Scripture, but rather that we should avoid the irrationality of pure rationalism. Reason functions properly when we accept its limitations and acknowledge that there are questions it cannot answer.
We have only to turn to the Gospels to see what this means in practice. Jesus embodies the response of personal humility that the form of the written Word requires. Hearing the Scriptures as the voice of the Father, he allowed himself to be formed by its message in all aspects of his human life. He lovingly fulfilled his commitments as a devout Jew. He followed the rhythms of life and the dictates of the Hebrew Scriptures as proclaimed in the weekly synagogue liturgies and the yearly Temple festivals. His comprehensive familiarity with the biblical writings bears witness to his full participation in the religious observances of his people. Even at the point of agony and death, the memorized words of the Psalter fall from his parched lips (Mark 15:34 = Psalm 22:1; Luke 23:46 = Psalm 31:5). Everywhere his attitude toward the Scripture is one of docility and total adherence to its authority and truth.
This is remarkable considering that Christ is the Word of God begotten from eternity (John 1:1). He is the full disclosure of God in the world, the living sacrament of the kingdom of God, which he proclaims. Jesus’s submission to the Bible can only be called an act of extreme humility. It is a profound gesture of self-abasement for the Word made flesh to surrender himself in reverent obedience to the Word made Scripture. And yet it is entirely in keeping with his character. Jesus is, after all, the Eternal Word who entered time in a manger, suffered on a cross, and gave himself as common bread.
For those of us who read the Bible, responding to the humility of the biblical Word means imitating the incarnate Word in all of this. His example suggests it, and his very words demand it: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
Loved, Known, Consumed
Thus Jesus presents himself in word as in the manger, as on the cross, as on the paten. He presents himself not so much to be studied as to be encountered—to be loved, engaged, known, consumed.
The Second Vatican Council emphasized that these should not be separate or unrelated actions: “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.”
We began this evening’s consideration with a story of young Father Ratzinger. We returned later to the insights of a mature Cardinal Ratzinger. Now let us go back to him in the least fallible phase of his amazing life—his years as Pope Benedict XVI. It is then—with the 2008 Synod on the Word of God and his subsequent apostolic exhortation "Verbum Domini"—that the seeds that he planed at the Second Vatican Council in "Dei Verbum" came to full flourishing.
In "Verbum Domini" he introduced that rich phrase “the sacramentality of the word,” drawing upon Pope John Paul II, who had spoken of the “sacramental character of revelation.”
Pope Benedict went on to say:
The sacramentality of the word can thus be understood by analogy with the real presence of Christ under the appearances of the consecrated bread and wine. By approaching the altar and partaking in the Eucharistic banquet we truly share in the body and blood of Christ. The proclamation of God’s word at the celebration entails an acknowledgment that Christ himself is present, that he speaks to us.
Benedict emphasized that the document is ordered to the sacrament. The word of life leads us to the bread of life: “‘from the two tables of the Word of God and the Body of Christ, the Church receives and gives to the faithful the bread of life.’ Consequently it must constantly be kept in mind that the word of God, read and proclaimed by the Church in the liturgy, leads to the Eucharist as to its own connatural end.”
Which is our end—and a good place for our ending tonight.