Twelve Key Themes in Verbum Domini

“A Symphony of the Word” | A Short Guide to Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini | Carl E. Olson | Ignatius Insight | December 21, 2010

An apostolic exhortation such as Verbum Domini cannot (and should not) be conveniently summarized or “Cliff noted”. But the following observations will hopefully aid readers in seeing and appreciating some—certainly not all—of the fundamental themes and points of emphasis within the document.

Called to share in divine life: It is striking that the opening paragraphs of each major section contains a reference to God’s invitation for man to share in the divine life. At the heart of that divine life, Benedict notes, “there is communion, there is absolute gift. …. God makes himself known to us as a mystery of infinite love in which the Father eternally utters his Word in the Holy Spirit. Consequently the Word, who from the beginning is with God and is God, reveals God himself in the dialogue of love between the divine persons, and invites us to share in that love” (par. 6; cf. par. 9). This truth is presented even more strongly at the start of the second section: “Those who believe, that is to say, those who live the obedience of faith, are ‘born of God’ ( Jn 1:13) and made sharers in the divine life: sons in the Son (cf. Gal 4:5-6; Rom 8:14-17)” (par. 50). And, from the third section: “The word of God has bestowed upon us the divine life which transfigures the face of the earth, making all things new (cf. Rev 21:5)” (par 91).

Divine dialogue: God has initiated dialogue with man because of his love for him. As we’ve already seen, this is because the Triune God is a God of “dialogue”; that is, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are continually speaking to one another in perfect, self-giving love. “In this vision every man and woman appears as someone to whom the word speaks, challenges and calls to enter this dialogue of love through a free response. Each of us is thus enabled by God to hear and respond to his word. We were created in the word and we live in the word; we cannot understand ourselves unless we are open to this dialogue” (par. 22).

Incarnation and Christology: At the heart of this divine dialogue is “the heart of the world” (par 83), the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. “God’s word is thus spoken throughout the history of salvation, and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God” (par. 7). The Christian faith “is not a ‘religion of the book’: Christianity is the ‘religion of the word of God’, not of ‘a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word'” (par. 7). Benedict writes of a “Christology of the word” and reflects at length on the meaning of the communication of the eternal Word into time and space: “His unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity” (par. 11).

Encounter and relationship: The words “encounter” and “encountering” appear over forty times in Verbum Domini; they summarize, in many ways, the core of Benedict’s explanation of the relationships between God and man and man and the Word of God. Quoting from his 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Benedict states that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction” (par. 11). And: “The whole history of salvation progressively demonstrates this profound bond between the word of God and the faith which arises from an encounter with Christ. Faith thus takes shape as an encounter with a person to whom we entrust our whole life” (par. 25).

Similarly, the word “relationship” appears over sixty times, often to express in some way the intimate communion given by God through Jesus Christ and Scripture: “The mystery of the Covenant expresses this relationship between God who calls man with his word, and man who responds, albeit making clear that it is not a matter of a meeting of two peers; what we call the Old and New Covenant is not a contract between two equal parties, but a pure gift of God” (par. 22), and, “The relationship between Christ, the Word of the Father, and the Church cannot be fully understood in terms of a mere past event; rather, it is a living relationship which each member of the faithful is personally called to enter into” (par. 51).

Unity of salvation history: God’s plan of salvation, Benedict explains, is one of unity: from the unity of the one God comes forth “the unity of the divine plan in the incarnate Word…” (par. 13). The first creation, which took place through the eternal Word is closely related to the new creation established through the Incarnate Word: “Calling to mind these essential elements of our faith, we can contemplate the profound unity in Christ between creation, the new creation and all salvation history” (par. 13).

Unity of Scripture: There is an “intrinsic unity” within the Bible: “In the passage from letter to spirit, we also learn, within the Church’s great tradition, to see the unity of all Scripture, grounded in the unity of God’s word, which challenges our life and constantly calls us to conversion. Here the words of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: ‘All divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfilment in Christ’.” (par. 39). Benedict notes that although the Bible consists of many different books written by many authors over the course of centuries, “the person of Christ gives unity to all the ‘Scriptures’ in relation to the one ‘Word'” (par. 39).

Covenant and communion: These two concepts have been at the center of Benedict’s theological writings dating back to his earliest writings, as a young priest, on St. Bonaventure and St. Augustine. To enter into the covenant is to enter into communion; covenant is rooted in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christ’s sacrificial death establishes both covenant and communion: “In this great mystery Jesus is revealed as the word of the new and everlasting covenant: divine freedom and human freedom have definitively met in his crucified flesh, in an indissoluble and eternally valid compact” (par. 12). Having entered the covenant through baptism, we grow in it through hearing and obeying the word of God: “Listening to the word of God introduces and increases ecclesial communion with all those who walk by faith” (par. 30), and “… 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” (par. 86).

Faith: The necessity and nature of faith is discussed many times throughoutVerbum Domini: “‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) must be our response to God who reveals. By faith one freely commits oneself entirely to God … It is the preaching of the divine word, in fact, which gives rise to faith, whereby we give our heartfelt assent to the truth which has been revealed to us and we commit ourselves entirely to Christ …” (par. 25). Faith requires both internal choice as well as external communion; it is not merely a matter of private belief: “Christ Jesus remains present today in history, in his body which is the Church; for this reason our act of faith is at once both personal and ecclesial” (par. 25). The Mother of God is the crowning example of a disciple who responded perfectly in faith: “In our day the faithful need to be helped to see more clearly the link between Mary of Nazareth and the faith-filled hearing of God’s word” (par. 27).

Interpretation of Scripture: An obvious subject, clearly identified by the Pope as a “major theme” (par. 29). Without faith, he strongly states, it is impossible to rightly interpret the Bible. “The intrinsic link between the word and faith makes clear that authentic biblical hermeneutics can only be had within the faith of the Church, which has its paradigm in Mary’s fiat” (par. 29). The Bible is the book of the Church, and so it must be read with the heart and mind of the Church: “The Bible is the Church’s book, and its essential place in the Church’s life gives rise to its genuine interpretation. … The Bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God can we truly enter as a ‘we’ into the heart of the truth that God himself wishes to convey to us” (pars. 29, 30). This major section on interpretation and biblical theology (pars. 29-49) is one that should be studied and mined for many years to come.

The Saints: Paragraph 48 of Verbum Domini says, “The interpretation of sacred Scripture would remain incomplete were it not to include listening to those who have truly lived the word of God: namely, the saints.” This is not, of course, mere lip service, for the entire apostolic exhortation is an example of how to draw upon the wisdom of the saints, doctors, and mystics. Benedict quotes often from St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory the Great, and many others. Of these, St. Jerome is given special mention (par. 72).

Lectio divina: The “prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture” is encouraged, with “particular reference to lectio divina” (par. 86), which is “divine” or “holy” reading of the Bible. This approach to Scripture, Benedict states, “capable of opening up to the faithful the treasures of God’s word, [and] also of bringing about an encounter with Christ, the living word of God.” He then reviews the basic steps of lectio divina (par. 87).

Mission and testimony: The third part of Verbum Domini is a clear and strong call for all Christians to be witnesses to their faith in Christ. “It is our responsibility to pass on what, by God’s grace, we ourselves have received” (par. 91) and “the Church’s mission cannot be considered as an optional or supplementary element in her life” (par. 93). The source for this is the word of God; a timeless example is the Apostle Paul, whose life “illustrates the meaning of the Christian mission and its fundamental universality” (par. 92). This section contains one of the most beautiful and powerful sentences of the entire text: “It is not a matter of preaching a word of consolation, but rather a word which disrupts, which calls to conversion and which opens the way to an encounter with the one through whom a new humanity flowers” (par. 93).

Sidebar: The Historical Size and Context of Verbum Domini:

Benedict XVI’s previous post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (February 22, 2007), on the “Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission”, was a notably large document, nearly 32,000 words in length and with 256 footnotes. Verbum Domini is even larger, consisting of some 41,000 words and 382 footnotes, making it an admittedly daunting document for many readers. To put that in some perspective, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (April 17, 2003) was about 18,000 words in length and had 104 footnotes. Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation is less than 6,000 words long and has 41 footnotes. Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on biblical interpretation, Divino Afflante Spiritu (September 30, 1943), is less than 11,000 words long, with 48 footnotes.

The relatively low-key reception of Verbum Domini should not obscure its importance, both within Benedict’s pontificate and in the larger scope of papal and conciliar documents about Scripture. It has been over a half century since a pope issued a major document on biblical studies: Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, presented on September 30, 1943. That document commemorated Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical,Providentissimus Deus (“On the Study of Holy Scripture”), issued on 1893 and marking the start of a new era in biblical interpretation and scholarship among Catholics. Leo XIII also established the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1902.

The most recent major magisterial text addressing the Church’s teaching about Scripture was Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, issued November 18, 1965. It is worth noting that a young priest and theological expert from Bavaria, Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, was involved in the drafting of that document, one of the most important to come from the Council. Not surprisingly, that vital document is mentioned prominently in Verbum Domini: “Beginning with the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII, we can say that there has been a crescendo of interventions aimed at an increased awareness of the importance of the word of God and the study of the Bible in the life of the Church, culminating in the Second Vatican Council and specifically in the promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum. The latter represented a milestone in the Church’s history… Everyone is aware of the great impulse which the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum gave to the revival of interest in the word of God in the life of the Church, to theological reflection on divine revelation and to the study of sacred Scripture.” (par. 3).

(This article originally appeared in December 12, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper in a slightly different form.)