As I shared in a previous blog, for the past few weeks I have been working through “Verbum Domini” (Pope Benedict’s post-synodal exhortation offered at the close of the synod of bishops gathering last fall focusing on the word of God in the life and mission of the Church). It is a wonderful document and it is giving me much to reflect upon. One of the themes that finds expression again and again throughout the exhortation is the indispensable role of the Church community itself in the authentic interpretation of Scripture.
I would like to bring this theme out by quoting two passages that can (in some ways) be seen as in a dynamic tension with one another. The first has to do with the error of the fundamentalist approach to Scripture and the second brings out the role of the community. The quotes are found below under their appropriate heading:
The fundamentalist interpretation of sacred Scripture
The attention we have been paying to different aspects of the theme of biblical hermeneutics now enables us to consider a subject which came up a number of times during the Synod: that of the fundamentalist interpretation of sacred Scripture. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in its document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” has laid down some important guidelines. Here I would like especially to deal with approaches which fail to respect the authenticity of the sacred text, but promote subjective and arbitrary interpretations. The “literalism” championed by the fundamentalist approach actually represents a betrayal of both the literal and the spiritual sense, and opens the way to various forms of manipulation, as, for example, by disseminating anti-ecclesial interpretations of the Scriptures. “The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human … for this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods”. Christianity, on the other hand, perceives in the words the Word himself, the Logos who displays his mystery through this complexity and the reality of human history. The true response to a fundamentalist approach is “the faith-filled interpretation of sacred Scripture”. This manner of interpretation, “practised from antiquity within the Church’s Tradition, seeks saving truth for the life of the individual Christian and for the Church. It recognizes the historical value of the biblical tradition. Precisely because of the tradition’s value as an historical witness, this reading seeks to discover the living meaning of the sacred Scriptures for the lives of believers today”, while not ignoring the human mediation of the inspired text and its literary genres…
The role of community in authentic interpretation of Scripture
In this regard, however, one must avoid the risk of an individualistic approach, and remember that God’s word is given to us precisely to build communion, to unite us in the Truth along our path to God. While it is a word addressed to each of us personally, it is also a word which builds community, which builds the Church. Consequently, the sacred text must always be approached in the communion of the Church. In effect, “a communal reading of Scripture is extremely important, because the living subject in the sacred Scriptures is the People of God, it is the Church… Scripture does not belong to the past, because its subject, the People of God inspired by God himself, is always the same, and therefore the word is always alive in the living subject. As such, it is important to read and experience sacred Scripture in communion with the Church, that is, with all the great witnesses to this word, beginning with the earliest Fathers up to the saints of our own day, up to the present-day magisterium”.
For this reason, the privileged place for the prayerful reading of sacred Scripture is the liturgy, and particularly the Eucharist, in which, as we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament, the word itself is present and at work in our midst. In some sense the prayerful reading of the Bible, personal and communal, must always be related to the Eucharistic celebration. Just as the adoration of the Eucharist prepares for, accompanies and follows the liturgy of the Eucharist, so too prayerful reading, personal and communal, prepares for, accompanies and deepens what the Church celebrates when she proclaims the word in a liturgical setting.
There is much to reflect upon in these two passages. I find the recognition of the fundamentalist interpretation making itself “incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation” due to its refusal to acknowledge the historical character of biblical revelation to be very compelling. This is probably because I once witnessed this incapability on display.
A few years ago I was pastor to a Catholic Church in a small town. The town was full of churches, many of which were fundamentalist. Every Christmas the churches would put out their nativity scenes for all to see. One Christmas one of the larger downtown churches did not put out a nativity scene but simply a crib with a babe in it and a large depiction of an open Bible behind the crib. That was all – no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds, no angels, no animals – just an infant alone in a crib in the dead of winter. Every time I drove by the display I felt like I should call the Department of Child Services!
Now, to give the church credit, I do see the message that they were trying to make about the centrality of God’s word. But, it was an approach to Scripture that missed the mark. The understanding of Scripture behind that lone crib was an expression of a theology incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation and therefore unable to accept the radical closeness of the divine and the human which is at the heart of the Christian revelation. The nativity scene intimately demonstrates the closeness of the divine and human that we have in Jesus Christ. The eternal Word did not come into the world self-sufficient but rather emptied himself and became a helpless infant in need of a mother, an earthly father, care and protection. In need of our help! The nativity scene is the very proclamation of the incarnation!
The error of fundamentalism is a denial of the incarnation.
This denial of the incarnation is also a denial of the church. If we cannot even acknowledge the intimate union of the divine and the human in Christ then how can we ever acknowledge the value of the Church and the graced interaction of the divine and human in the Body of Christ? Fundamentalism refuses to acknowledge how it was the early Christian worshipping community itself and its experiences that formed what we now know as Sacred Scripture. God does not disdain “the human mediation of the sacred text…” God is not jealous. Human mediation in no way denies the glory of God – in fact it reveals it enfleshed!
Because the fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture is anti-incarnational it is therefore anti-ecclesial. Everything devolves to a personal interpretation.
“Verbum Domini” calls us to the richness and beauty of an authentic approach to Scripture which is an approach grounded in the incarnation and in communion with the Church