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Ronald D. WitherupSeptember 29, 2008

The Synod on the Word of God is truly a monumental event for the church. Now that the final agenda for the synod is available with the publication in May of its working document (called in Latin an instrumentum laboris, IL), it is useful to consider how the agenda can help implement the church’s most important modern doctrinal teaching on the Word of God, the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum, 1965, DV).

Comparison and Contrast

Whereas DV is a constitution promulgated by an ecumenical council, with consequent formal authority in the church, IL is a nonauthoritative working document for a synod of representative bishops, meant to be a guiding statement, not a definitive product.

IL is about five times as long as DV and consists of eight chapters, divided into introductory sections, three major divisions and a conclusion. The history of DV shows that it was to a considerable degree a compromise document hotly debated among the bishops at Vatican II. IL, on the other hand, was prepared by the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops based upon input solicited from the world’s bishops after the publication of the lineamenta, an early draft of the synod’s agenda, in April 2007. Just as DV might be called a product of collegial consultation with the world’s bishops, IL too is the result of a collegial polling of the world’s bishops to help refine the synod’s agenda. In fact, the introduction to IL by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, general secretary of the synod, highlights certain groups that were consulted in preparing the document, including bishops of both Eastern and Western rites, the Roman Curia and the Union of Superiors General. Unlike DV, however, in which one can often detect the influence of experts who gave advice to the bishops during the council, it is not known what experts may stand behind IL. In fact, it is unclear whether the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the church’s expert consultative body on Scripture, had any input at all.

Both are rich and inspiring documents. The IL is so lengthy, though, that I will not be able to do justice to it in such a short article. Nonetheless, some observations can be made with brevity.


Before addressing the content of IL in relation to DV, a word about context is essential. DV was promulgated more than 40 years ago, and stands as the church’s most important modern statement on divine revelation since the First Vatican Council. The goal of DV was to foster a proper understanding of God’s Word in modern times, with a view to promoting more accessibility to and familiarity with the Word of God in the church and the world. In other words, it was a refined theoretical document with an eminently pastoral goal.

IL specifically draws attention to the fact that although many more people read the Bible now and the church has made more explicit use of the Word of God in its life and liturgy, nonetheless there is a lack of familiarity with DV itself and a less than complete use of the Bible in people’s ordinary lives. In this sense, IL’s intense pastoral goal is evident. Unlike DV, which for the most part placed the pastoral dimensions of the Bible in its last chapter on Scripture in the life of the church, IL has specific pastoral recommendations at the end of every chapter or major section. This technique causes a certain amount of redundancy, but one cannot miss the desire to promote the overt pastoral application of Scripture in the life of the church. The title of IL confirms this: “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”

IL also draws attention to other contextual influences. There is concern about the ongoing gap between biblical scholars and nonspecialists, who often do not have access to current research in a digestible format. Moreover, the influence of secularism and religious and cultural pluralism sometimes interferes with healthy encounters with the Scriptures, and some desire to have the Scriptures’ message of liberation be more explicit in helping to alleviate poverty and suffering.

The context of IL is thus more concretely pastoral than DV, but both share a focused desire to make the Word of God a genuinely fruitful encounter with the God of revelation.

Intersections of Dei Verbum and the Instrumentum

By my count, IL quotes or cites DV some 65 times in the text and twice in the notes. The titles of the three main sections of IL also indicate a close relationship to DV: Part I: The Mystery of the God Who Speaks to Us; Part II: The Word of God in the Life of the Church; Part III: The Word of God in the Mission of the Church.

This outline follows the basic pattern of DV, which moves from an analysis of divine revelation to the impact of that revelation in the life and mission of the church. The movement is outward. One receives the Word of God as an act of personal communication from a God who desires to share himself with the world, but who also invites the church to share this revelation with others by its life and mission.

Most important is the common starting point of the two documents. God’s revelation to humanity is of primary importance. God initiates a dialogue by means of this gracious and mysterious gesture. Both documents quote Heb 1:1-2 (among other significant passages), which emphasizes Jesus Christ as the primary way in which God has spoken definitively. Both documents are centered on God’s revelation through Christ and develop this through pneumatological and ecclesiological perspectives. The view is profoundly Trinitarian. The Bible, God’s Word inspired by the Holy Spirit, is a message from God, mediated through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who is the precious embodiment of this sacred communication. IL also quotes DV (No. 2) in noting that God speaks to humanity as “friends.” This highlights one of the aspects of DV that was so remarkable, namely, that God’s self-revelation is nothing less than the mysterious, invisible God of all creation seeking to make himself known within the world, in the arena of human history. This highly personalized view of revelation in DV helped counterbalance previous propositional views of revelation predominant at the Council of Trent and Vatican I.

This deeply Christological orientation shows itself in other ways. IL quotes St. Bernard, for instance, that the Incarnation is the center of the Scriptures (IL, I.1.B). It also repeats the oft-quoted dictum of St. Jerome, as does DV, that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The primary setting for this encounter with Christ is the church’s liturgy, where Word and sacrament meet. The IL emphasizes the dual aspects of “hearing and proclaiming the Word of God,” a repetition of DV’s own teaching about the importance of the liturgical setting for the Word of God.

At times IL does not so much deepen the insights of DV as reiterate them. One important example of this is the discussion of the complex relationship between Scripture and Tradition (IL, I.2.A.; see DV, Nos. 9-10). This is one of the thorniest problems to arise from DV. On the one hand, the relationship between Scripture and Tradition has been an important and distinctive Catholic principle since at least the patristic era. On the other hand, how this relationship works has never been definitively explained. DV acknowledges this principle explicitly and IL repeats it, yet neither resolves the issue of how they operate together concretely. Church Tradition interprets Scripture, guaranteeing its authenticity, yet does so as the “servant” of the Word, not its master. Perhaps this will be one of the themes the bishops will discuss at the synod.

When it comes to pastoral application, IL makes specific recommendations—for example, to those who fulfill various offices in the church, like bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, various ministers of the Word, religious and seminarians, and to laypeople. As one might expect of a document intended to promote discussion, IL often goes far beyond DV in making observations or recommendations of this kind. It notes, for instance, the need for improvements in the design of the Lectionary and in seminary instruction on preaching the Word, as well as the need for creative use of newer methods of communication and media (like CD’s, DVD’s, the Internet). The IL even suggests, tentatively, that the Word of God could be better understood at Mass “if the lector made a brief introduction on the meaning of the reading to be proclaimed.” This is occasionally done in some parishes, but it requires extra training of lectors, something the document also encourages.


As much as IL makes use of DV’s primary teachings, there are some noteworthy divergences. One is the synod document’s consistent call for a reappropriation of the ancient prayerful meditation of Scripture called lectio divina. This term appears some 30 times in IL, and two large sections are devoted to an explanation of the practice (II.4 and II.5). Although IL gives some preference to time-tested monastic practices of lectio divina, it does not affirm any one method as predominant, and it acknowledges equally the value of both personal and communal exercise of this devotional practice. Clearly IL sees this as one of the most pastorally important ways to promote Scripture.

IL also mentions the danger of fundamentalism, something not explicitly addressed in DV. It warns that fundamentalism “takes refuge in literalism and refuses to take into consideration the historical dimension of biblical revelation.” This echoes the warning issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993). It is clear from the context, though, that the target of this warning is certain Christian “sects” that view the Bible in a literalistic fashion that does an injustice to its historical context.

Another divergence is in reference to the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation that has been characteristic of most 20th-century exegesis, both Catholic and Protestant. In DV this method is more implicit than explicit. The council fathers noted the importance of using every possible scientific means to study Scripture and also adopted a nuanced view of how the Gospels came into being in three stages and thus do not reflect “history” in the absolute sense, but DV does not discuss the methodology explicitly. IL, on the other hand, mentions historical criticism by name three times, each time favorably. But it also emphasizes that this can never be the sole method of exegesis; it needs to be supplemented by other methods designed to lead to the deeper, more profound meanings of the Word of God that nourish and strengthen one’s life.

This acknowledgement of historical criticism is important because this is a particularly neuralgic point in current biblical studies. Some blame this method for discouraging use of the Bible for spiritual enrichment or for undermining people’s faith in the Scriptures as historically accurate. Basically, IL is not offering anything new here. It is merely suggesting what other church documents have done since at least 1943 when Pope Pius XII’s famous encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu encouraged Catholic scholars to use all available means to study Scripture and help people learn its message. Historical criticism, properly applied, is still essential, though it cannot give the last word on any given meaning of a biblical passage.

The Work of the Spirit

The IL is indeed a rich document. We have barely scratched the surface here of what it offers the synod participants, who in any case will have three weeks to discuss its contents at length. The synod’s goals—to foster a better familiarity with DV, promote more frequent use of lectio divina and increase the impact of the Word of God in pastoral ministry—are all admirable. Whether they will be attained by the synod’s reflection remains to be seen. I fear that IL’s length, its considerable repetition and its often formal language, typical of so many official church documents, may discourage many from studying it or using it for their own reflection. While one wishes that some direction had been given on key issues like theories of inspiration or the relationship between the Word of God and Tradition, IL generally provides a fruitful orientation that can enrich the implementation of DV in the life of the church.

Some people have been worried that the synod will be used as an opportunity to backtrack on the advances made in Catholic interpretation of the Bible since Vatican II. That may be a danger, but IL’s use of DV suggests to me that this is not likely to happen. One hopes that the Holy Spirit, so evident at Vatican II, will continue to move among the synod participants and breathe new life into the church’s appropriation of God’s inviting, comforting and challenging Word.

From the archives, the editors and "The Council and the Word."

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