The Role of Scripture in the Life and Teaching of the Church

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2010 »Volume 47 2010 Number 2 »The Role Of Scripture In The Life And Teaching Of The Church

Arturo M. Bastes, SVD


The Word of God and Sacred Scripture

The recent 12th Ordinary Synod of Bishops held in Rome last October 2008 is entitled, “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”  What does the phrase “Word of God” signify?  The Lineamenta of the 12th Ordinary Synod rightly describes the term “Word of God” as a symphony that unites and comprises different but interrelated theological voices.

  1. In revelation, the Word of God is the eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, the Son of the Father, the basis for intra and extra communication of the Trinity.
  2. Therefore, the created world, the extra communication of the Trinity, which “tells of the glory of God” (Ps 19:1) can be called God’s Word.  A Latin American theologian calls creation as the first book written by God.
  3. But the Word of God par excellence is Jesus Christ, the ultimate and definitive Word.  God’s Word became incarnate according to St. John’s statement, “The Word became flesh” (ho logos sarx egeneto,Jn 1:14), which is rightly called the heart of the Christian faith, the summit of the Prologue of St. John, a poetic and theological jewel of the Holy Bible.
  4. In view of the Word who is the Son-become-flesh, the Father spoke in ancient times through the prophets and later through the apostles, who by the power of the Holy Spirit, continued to proclaim Jesus and his Gospel.  Thus, what the prophets and the apostles proclaimed in the past is also called the Word of God.
  5. Sacred Scripture, under divine inspiration, unites Jesus-the-Word to the words of the prophets and apostles.  In containing the Word of God written under divine inspiration, the Holy Bible can truly be said to be the Word of God.  This is the second book written by God after creation.
  6. The Word of God, which becomes good news in Jesus Christ, becomes part of the apostolic preaching and continues through the ages in two ways which are visibly and inextricably interconnected.  One is the dynamic flow of a living tradition, manifested by all that the Church is, that is, through worship, doctrine, and the Church’s life.  So tradition is but the identity of the Church.  The other way is Sacred Scripture, which by virtue of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, preserves in written form the unchanging character of the original and constitutive elements of this living tradition.  Thus is it clear that from the point of time Tradition, as the Word of God, is earlier than Scripture and it is also clear that from the point of content, Tradition is fuller than Scripture.  But neither can contradict the other!
  7. But the Word of God is not locked away in writing.  The Church, the “trustee” of the treasure of revelation, has the responsibility to proclaim the Word in the world.  In this way, the Word continues to move ahead through preaching and other forms of pastoral service promoting the values of the gospel.  Thus, what the Church continues to proclaim today in her task of oral preaching under several forms can also be called the Word of God.

Hence, there are seven possible meanings of the phrase “Word of God.”  The topic of our present article is the Word of God as understood in no. 5, Sacred Scripture, meaning the inspired Word of God, written by human beings under the influence of the Holy Spirit in concrete historical and cultural circumstances during which these human authors lived.  The other name for Sacred Scripture is the Holy Bible.

The Sacred Scriptures and the Canon

Christians from the beginning accepted the Jewish Scriptures, which are divided into three collections:  the Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses (Torah), the Prophets (Neviim) and the Writings (Chetuvim).  Hence, the Hebrew Bible is called Tanach.  Jesus himself accepted the Jewish Bible.  The collection of the Torah and the Prophets was already definite during the New Testament times but the collection of the “Writings” was not yet final.  In fact the status of some of the “Writings” remained under discussion till the third century A.D.

The Church became free in making its own decision on the final list or canon of the Old Testament when the Jews closed its canon toward the end of the second or early third century A.D.  (The claim that the Jewish canon was closed at Jamnia or Jabneh or Jabneel, a town near the Mediterranean, West of Jerusalem, where a “council of Rabbis” took place, is today a controversial issue.)  The Jews in Palestine rejected the deuterocanonical books found in the Greek translation or the Septuagint.

In the Eastern Church, led by Origen (ca. 185-253), there was an attempt to conform to the Hebrew canon, which admits only the protocanonical books but despite this move, Christian authors there continued the custom of the New Testament writers, by using also the deuterocanonical books.  In the Western Church, led by Augustine (354-430), the traditional use of the “deuterocanonicals” or the wider collection of “Writings” continued.  Thus, the Council of Hippo (383) and other local councils in the West adopted the same position.  Their canonical acceptance of the deuterocanonical books was based on the constant use of the Church which predated the closure of the Hebrew canon.

Thus, Catholics and Orthodox Christians (with some variations) accept the deuterocanonical books as they appear in the Septuagint (Greek) as part of the Old Testament Bible.  Six ancient testimonies are worth noting for the gradual formation of the canon of the Bible:  the Muratorian Fragment (second century), the oldest document available; St. Cyril of Jerusalem (348); Council of Laodicea (360); St. Athanasius (367); the Plenary Council of all Africa in Hippo, Carthage (October 8, 383); and the Decree of Gelasius 492-496.  It took a long time for the Church to make the final decision which books belong to the OT and NT canon.  It was in the year 170 that Melito of Sardis spoke of the “Old” Testament, inferring that there was a “New” one in existence.

In view of so many apocryphal books, the criteria for choosing which books belong to the canon of the New Testament were three: a) fidelity to the Tradition (paradosis, what was handed on), which, though spoken or written by human beings, was considered “not as human word but as what it really is, God’s word” (1 Thess 2:13).  The “tradition” was essentially centered on handing on all that Jesus Christ was and all that he meant in God’s saving plan for the world:  his teaching, life, death, resurrection, and the outpouring of the Spirit; b) apostolic origin:  the writing had to be recognized as coming from the apostles or apostolic times, that is, from the apostles themselves or their disciples; c) general acceptance by the churches, evidenced especially in liturgical use, which proved that these writings were life-giving for communities and individuals.

The Ecumenical Council of Florence, whose object was reunion with the Greek Church (which was requesting help from the West against the Turks), gives a complete canon of Sacred Scriptures of the OT and NT on February 4, 1442.  The Ecumenical Council of Trent confirmed on April 8, 1546 the definition of the whole canon of Scripture made by the Council of Florence.  The complete list and order of the books in the Latin Vulgate (46 in the OT and 27 in the NT), sanctioned by Trent, is the one used by Catholic editions of the Holy Bible today.  With the solemn definition of the Council of Trent, it has become a dogma of the Catholic Church that we have to accept these books in their entirety as sacred and canonical:  “If anyone does not accept these books in their entirety with all their parts as sacred and canonical, as they have been traditionally read in the Catholic Church, and found in the ancient Latin Vulgate, and knowingly and deliberately disregard the traditions mentioned above, let him be anathema.”

The Word of God and the Beginning of the Church

When the apostles, commissioned by the Risen Christ, started to preach the Word of God, that Word was understood as kerygmatic, whose kernel is the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In the history of the emergence of the gospels, the first story the apostles told to their audience was simply the death and resurrection of Jesus as found in the passion and resurrection narratives of the four gospels.  From the death and resurrection stories they started to recall backwards what happened during the ministry of Jesus while he was alive.  So there was a calling to memory, though not in perfect or exact chronological order as found in modern historical records, of the deeds, the sayings, the parables and miracles of Jesus, to which they were eye-witnesses.  This became the pattern of the three Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

St. John proclaimed the words and deeds of Jesus even more profoundly.  What we hear or read in John are not Jesus’ actual words.  In John what we hear or read is what Jesus meant by the words He spoke.  It is the fruit of John’s deep meditation of the original words of Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew and Luke still moved their story of Jesus backward.  That is why we have the Infancy Narratives, celebrated liturgically during the Advent and Christmas seasons.  In the Infancy Narratives, which is more theology than history, they already proclaim in summary form the whole story of Jesus:  that from the very beginning of his life on earth, Jesus was the Messiah, the one prophesied of old, the Son of David, born of the Virgin Mary.  They treasure the importance of the Old or First Covenant, whose books are accepted as truly inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Without the Old Testament which prophesied about Jesus, we would not be able to comprehend the full significance of the New Covenant or New Testament.  Since Jesus is the fulfillment of the First Covenant, the Second or New Covenant cannot be fully understood without the Scriptures of Israel, God’s first chosen people.  Hence, at the very beginning of its life the Church accepted the Scriptures of Israel as an indispensable treasure for its nourishment and full comprehension of Jesus as the Messiah prophesied of old.

However, John expanded the Gospel not only to Jesus’ beginning on earth but even to his eternal origin, a beginning beyond time, in the bosom of the heavenly Father, who spoke and begot the Word, his only begotten Son.  In the beginning was the Word—Logos in Greek and Davar in Hebrew.  So the Fourth Gospel clearly proclaims:  the Word is the ground of all reality, the ultimate cause of everything that was, is and will be, including the ecclesia (Church) of Jesus.  St. John no doubt made a reference to the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, which reports that God spoke and because God spoke everything came to be.  “And God said, Let there be light.  And there was light.”  If God had not uttered a word, nothing could have existed, everything would have remained what the Hebrews call tohuwabohu, the Hebrew image of absolute nothingness!  Thus, John expanded this teaching by saying:  “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God… All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be…”

The logos of John is a Greek word that has a host of meanings: from the profoundest significance of reason, ultimate cause, foundation or basis, or study to the most banal thing as the invoice or receipt of a market purchase.  It means in fact a whole heap of completely divergent things.  But why did John use this word which has a great variety of meanings?  If he wanted to simply signify the spoken and creative Word of God, there is a Greek word which is very apt for that, rhema.  If John wanted the meaning “Wisdom,” he could have chosen a more appropriate and clear Greek word such as sophia.  Perhaps his purpose is to give us the widest possible view of reality because the Logos connotes something basic and fundamental, being the ontological ground of all reality.

St. John the Evangelist, schooled in both Hebrew and Greek thought, wants to stress that the ontological/metaphysical basis of any existence is rooted in the Word of God.  Hence, a disconnection with God’s Word means falling back to non-existence, because it loses the ground of all being.  A disconnection with the Word of God means to lose the sense or meaning of life because only the Logos can give life (zoè) and light (phōs), the highest values of our human existence.  A disconnection with the Word of God means a rejection of the Incarnate Word of God, who reveals to us the identity and the glory of the Father, all the works of the Father in the “economy of salvation.”  Hence, in order simply to be and to continue in being, to grow to the fullness of being, anything, any happening, including the ecclesia of Jesus, must maintain a concrete and living connection with this Word of God.  Hence, the Church is born of the Word of God.  Its existence comes from the Word of God and the reason for its existence or mission is the Word of God.

Fr. Antonio M. Pernia, the Superior General of the Society of the Divine Word, made a beautiful intervention during the Synod on the Word of God last October 2008, which for me hits the nail on the head regarding the relation of the Church to the Word of God and vice versa.  He wished to emphasize the centrality of the Word of God in the mission of the Church.  He wished to do so by offering a reformulation of the title of the section of Part III of the Instrumentum Laboris by saying not just “The Word of God in the mission of the Church” (as if the Word of God is one element among others in mission), but “The Word of God is the mission of the Church” (implying that the Word of God is everything that mission is about).

The idea of Fr. Pernia is based on Vatican II’s assertion regarding the Trinitarian origin of mission (Ad Gentes, 1-2, 9).  The vision here is of the Triune God as communion and dialogue between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This inner communion or dialogue overflows into—or better, embraces—creation and history.  Mission, then, is the Triune God’s ongoing dialogue with the world and with humanity, a dialogue that invites and draws humanity into full communion with the divine community.  The primary agent of God’s ongoing dialogue with the world is the Word of God himself.  Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is God’s Word to humanity.  He is God’s dialogue with the world.  The Divine Logos is God’s dia-Logos with the world.

The Church exists in order to collaborate with God’s ongoing dialogue with the world.  Thus, before it is an activity of the Church, mission is, in the first place, an attribute of God.  As theologians today say, there is Church because there is mission, and not vice-versa. The Church exists for mission. The Church exists in order to be the instrument of God’s dialogue with the world.  The Church is at the service of the Word of God.  It is the reason of its being, the sustenance of its life, the heart of its activity.

It is clear, then, that the mission of the Church, born of the Word of God, is also truly the Word of God.  That is why in the nascent primitive Church, the ministry of the Word was such a central preoccupation of the apostles that no activity of the Church, be it sacramental, liturgical, social, moral, catechetical, pastoral, etc. could be undertaken without this effective link with the Word of God.

The Central Role of the Bible in the Church’s Life and Teaching

It is very clear then that the role of the Bible, the inspired Word of God of both Old and New Testaments, is central to the birth, growth, life, teaching, and the whole mission of the Church.  The two disciples on the way to Emmaus heard the Scriptures explained to them, before Jesus broke the bread.  The Word is to be proclaimed, responded to, and accepted before any sacramental action can be meaningfully celebrated.  Before the pagan eunuch coming from Ethiopia received the waters of baptism from Philip (see Acts 8:26.41), they first “celebrated” the Word of God.  The eunuch, fascinated by the Hebrew Scriptures, was reading Isaiah 53:7-8, without understanding what he read.  When the meaning of the OT text was expounded by Philip in the context of the passion and resurrection of Jesus, the Ethiopian eunuch was enlightened, his faith was awakened, and the dialogue of the pagan and Philip, centered on the Word of God, led to the full faith and conversion of the Ethiopian.  It ended with the eunuch’s asking for the sacrament of baptism.  These two biblical stories illustrate very clearly the role of Sacred Scriptures in eliciting faith that makes any sacramental celebration an opus operantis, not merely an opus operatum.

In the letter to the Hebrews, we read:  “Indeed, God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.  It penetrates and divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12).  It is helpful for us to realize that in the Semitic mentality (which was the manner of thinking of most biblical authors), the word Davar in Hebrew was considered to be a real thing which dwells inside a person and that it goes out from that person when spoken or written and then lodges within the person to whom the word is addressed.  It will have an effect on that person in accord with the spiritual force of the one who speaks it.

For example, after Isaac had pronounced his word of blessing on Jacob, Esau, the rightful heir, came to Isaac and asked for his father’s blessing of the firstborn.  But Isaac had already spoken that blessing to Jacob and hence, had no longer the power to call back the word he had spoken to Jacob. The word of blessing already left him and had transferred to Jacob where the word is already lodged in.  Once the word had gone out of his mouth, it could no longer return because it is a reality that exists now independently of the original speaker.  Like the sacramental word, the biblical word, when it is read or listened to with our responsiveness in faith, has a similar effect.  Whenever a biblical passage is read and heard, God’s self-revelation becomes closer to us. There is no medium/instrument that is more effective for us to know who God is than the words in the Bible.  The Church is so cognizant of this power of the Word that it cannot do any liturgical celebration without first listening to the Word of God enshrined in the Bible.

Hence, for the Catholic Church, the Bible is the Word of God, a source of revealed doctrine and a part of the rule of faith.  The faith of the Christian Church is based on two important fountains of God’s self-revelation:  the Bible and Tradition, which is the living teaching authority of the Church as it has existed from its foundation by Jesus Christ.  However, it is the Church alone which has the authority to define the Bible as the Word of God and to determine the canon of the sacred books from her Tradition.

The Early Church and the Holy Bible

The Church is the “trustee” of the Word of God because to her is entrusted the treasure of divine revelation or the “deposit” of faith.  Thus, she alone is empowered by the Holy Spirit to provide a true understanding or interpretation of God’s Word, which is supreme rule of her faith, its life-giving power and grows with the reflection and study of believers, always with the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit.  As the first step, we have seen that already in the early period, it was the early Church which defined for the faithful which books were canonical or inspired, distinguishing them from others, even highly esteemed writings such the Didache tōn apostolōn (The Teaching of the Apostles) and the “Shepherd of Hermas.”

St. Gregory the Great in his letter to Theodore (June 595), the physician of the emperor, called the Scripture “a letter from God.” 

 What is sacred Scripture if not a letter from the omnipotent God to his creature?  Certainly if your Excellency resided anywhere else and received a written communication from an earthly emperor, you would not keep still, you would not rest, nor close your eyes in sleep, if you did not know the content of what the earthly emperor had written.  The King of heaven, the Lord of the human race and of angels has sent his letters to you so that you might live.  Nevertheless, illustrious son, you neglect to read them fervently.  Seek, therefore, I beg you, to meditate every day on the words of your Creator.  Learn the heart of God in the words of God, so that you long more fervently for eternal things, and so that your mind may be inflamed with greater desire for the joys of heaven….1

In 789 the Council of Reisbach (Bavaria, Germany) urged bishops to see that their priests “read and understand the Sacred Scriptures” and in 813, the Council of Chalon-sur-Saône stressed the same for the bishops themselves, who were to be “assiduous in reading and searching thoroughly into the mysteries of God’s words.”

When the faithful, including priests and bishops, were exhorted at this early period of the Church to meditate on and to explain the Bible, it became necessary for the Church to deal with the question of the meaning and giving interpretation to the biblical text.  For example, Pope Gregory the Great wrote a letter to Leander in 594 regarding the senses of Scripture.  Based on the Bible itself, both New and Old Testaments, interpreters distinguished two main meanings:  the literal and the spiritual.  The literal sense was found in the words themselves following commonsense rules of interpretation.  The spiritual sense was based on the unity of God’s plan.

A contemporary of St. Augustine, John Cassian discovered three uses of the spiritual sense among the ancient Egyptian monks:  a) in the allegorical sense, they found a deeper understanding of people and events in the Old Testament by recognizing their full significance in Christ (see 1 Cor 10:2); b) in the moral sense, the way that what was reported in Scripture should instruct us how to live (see 1 Cor 10:11; Heb 3:1-4:11); c) in the anagogical sense, they saw the eternal significance of events and realities (see Apoc 21:1-22:5).

The patristic period of interpreting the Bible may seem without scientific foundation to modern exegetes but the great merit of the Fathers of the Church is that they had a natural and unreflective appreciation of the role of literature—particularly a classic literature, which the Bible certainly is.  Literatures are formative of a people on the cultural and religious level.  An exegete once told me that although the Fathers of the Church used methods different from the modern historical-critical method, he was surprised to find out that the Fathers reached the same conclusion as he does using the modern method of exegesis. 

Ancient Heresies and the Correct Interpretation of the Bible

Heresies, which threatened to destroy the Christian Church at an early age, gave impetus to the Church’s authority in the correct interpretation of the bible.  Among the heresies at the time was Gnosticism.  It was the most dangerous inner threat to the integrity of the Christian faith because it was so appealing to the mind of the ancient world and because it could appear to be really Christian.  Heretics argued that the language, if not the spirit, of Gnosticism entered into the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul and John’s Gospel.  Gnostics called attention to Paul’s antithesis of flesh and spirit (see Rom 8:4-5) and to his “principalities and powers” who are “world rulers of the present darkness” (Col 2:15; Eph 6:12).  The Johannine concept of the preexistence of Christ (see Jn 17:5) also lent itself to Gnostic use.

If Gnosticism had prevailed, it would have destroyed Christianity by absorbing Christ into a secret/exclusive system of “knowledge” (gnōsis in Greek).  The historic roots of the faith would have been wiped out.  There was no real incarnation or resurrection of Jesus.  God the Father of Christ was not the creator god of the OT.  The life of the spirit had nothing to do with the life of the flesh.  The only escape from flesh to spirit was through secret “knowledge,” known only to a few.  In this way the Christian Church would have become nothing more than a secret society with an exclusive lodge.

Gnostic elements played a strong part in the life and work of Marcion, a famous heretic who removed the OT from the list of the biblical books.  He lived in the middle of the second century, the critical time of the Church because of the Gnostic heresy.  His main teaching was that the creator god of the OT had nothing to do with Christ or the High God who begot him.  He considered the creator god as an incompetent troublemaker who was responsible for humanity’s fall into sin.  The law of the OT was well meant but wrongly applied with impossible demands.  Christ abolished this law and along with it the whole OT.  Then he revealed the unknown High God.  Marcion took his theme from his “hero,” St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:4:  “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.”  He subjected the Bible to a radical surgery.  He totally wiped out the OT.  The letters of Paul, which he expurgated, and the Gospel of Luke, which he “purified,” comprised his New Testament.

As a reaction, in order to protect the faith, the Church condemned the errors of Marcion as attested in four ecclesiastical documents:  the Letter to St. Dennis, Bishop of Alexandria (262); the Council of Constantinople in 553; the Council of Braga, Portugal, in 563.  Moreover, the First Council of Toledo (Spain) in the fifth century affirmed that God is the author of both the Old and New Testament books.  Canon 8:  “If anyone says or believes that there is one God of the Old Testament and another of the gospels, let him be anathema…”

The early Church held the firm conviction that the Bible was part of a tradition and could only be properly understood within the tradition from which it came.  A basic function of apostolic authority within the Church was to ensure the continuance of that tradition.  But tradition itself was wider and superior to the authority of the Church.  Anyone who separated biblical texts or books from this tradition would not be able to get inside them.  Thus, within the Catholic tradition, Christianity did not look on itself as a “religion of the book” but as a religion of the Word of God, present through the power of the one and same Spirit both in the book and in the life of the Church.  The central belief of Christianity is not anchored on a book but on the Word Incarnate, God-made-man.  Here is the marked difference of Christianity from other “religions of the book.”

The Early Church and the Versions of the Bible

Realizing the great importance of the role of Sacred Scripture in its life and mission, the early Church saw to it that the Bible should be translated to languages that people can understand.  So there was already an effort to make the inspired Word of God accessible to the faithful in the vernacular at this period.  Latin became the official language of the Western Church, whose capital was Rome, the seat of Peter, the Prince of Apostles.  But at the beginning of the spread of Christianity, Greek was the common language of the early Church, as it was the common language of the Roman Empire.  That is why the books of the New Testament were written inkoinè (common Greek).  Gradually, Latin replaced Greek as the lingua franca of the Empire.  Thus, Latin versions of the Bible were made when there was a felt need to make the Bible available to a growing number of Christians of the empire who did not know Greek.  Since many Christians were at that time very eager to read the Bible in the language they could understand, Old Latin versions came about from different places of the Empire.  Probably the Old Latin versions came from North Africa, Gaul or North Italy.  There were at least two text types of the old Latin version, the African and the European.

Unfortunately, the old Latin version was very poor.  It was made from the Septuagint by translators who were not educated men, who produced one of the greatest monuments of vulgar unlettered Latin of the period.  Thus, something had to be done to change the situation in order to make the Bible accessible to as many people as possible in the language they could understand.  In 382, Pope Damasus entrusted Jerome with a revision of the gospels.  By good fortune, Jerome employed relatively good Greek texts.  Being an educated rhetorician, Jerome used a language that combined popular speech with correct but relaxed Latin prose.  Jerome left Rome in 384 after the death of Pope Damasus; his departure from Rome was responsible for his failure to revise the other NT books.  The famous Latin Vulgate, which contains all the books of the NT, is attributed to Jerome since 450, but only the gospels were certainly revised by him; all the other books of the New Testament were revised by unknown authors.

Jerome went to Palestine from Rome, finally settling in Bethlehem, and there he resumed the study of Hebrew, which he had begun when he lived as a monk near Antioch for a few years prior to 379.  At Caesarea he discovered the famous library of Origen and the text of the Hexapla.  He was so stirred by the superiority of this text that he revised several books of the OT according to the Hexapla.  But a great disaster happened:  all of the Hexapla except one book was lost or stolen!  So this caused Jerome to abandon the revision of the Old Latin with the help of the Hexapla and to translate the Old Testament entirely from the original Hebrew text!  A blessing in disguise!  He translated the Hebrew Bible between 390 and 405 but left the other deuterocanonical books (written in Greek, the Septuagint) in the Old Latin, the form in which they still appear in the Vulgate.

Jerome did the translation of the OT from Hebrew to Latin as a private enterprise, unlike his work on the gospels, which he had been commissioned to do by Pope Damasus.  At the start it was received with considerable opposition; but Charlemagne’s scholar, Alcuin, perceived its superiority over other existing OT translations and promoted it among both the Church authorities and the people.  Due to Alcuin’s efforts the work of Jerome, both of the New Testament and the Old Testament, became the undisputed possession in the Latin Church.

The Vulgate of Jerome had the singular honor of being declared by an ecumenical council (Council of Trent) as the “authentic” text to be used in the Latin Church (April 8, 1546).  The authenticity which the Council intended was “juridical,” not critical.  This means that the Vulgate is authenticated by its long use in the Church as free of error in faith and morals and is therefore a safe source of Catholic doctrine.  Its use was prescribed in public ecclesiastical acts, especially in the liturgy.  The acceptance of the Vulgate, promoted by Alcuin, throughout the Latin Church made this work of St. Jerome very important in the history of the Bible and of theology in the Church.  It is right to say that Jerome is the greatest biblical scholar of all times; no man before him or among his contemporaries and very few men for many centuries were so well qualified to do this great work.  Single-handedly he translated the whole Hebrew Bible to Latin!  He had no benefit of a Hebrew grammar and dictionary as we have them today.  Without critical training, he had an excellent feeling for what is the best Hebrew manuscript.  The influence of the Latin Vulgate had been simply enormous.  The Anglo-Saxon translations were made from it; even Wyclif’s English version and others like that of Coverdale.  The religious and theological terminology of the languages of Western Europe had been in great part derived from or influenced by the Vulgate.  Familiar words in theology such as justification, sanctification, salvation, regeneration, election, reconciliation, satisfaction, sacrament, communion, congregation, orders, penance, and priest come from the Vulgate.

Besides the Latin Vulgate, there were many ancient versions of the Bible being produced in the East, a proof that the early Church was busy in promoting Sacred Scriptures among the masses, for example, the various Syriac and Coptic versions.  It is to be noted that the care of the early Church to translate the Bible into languages people could understand was motivated by various reasons.  First, for use in the liturgy.  No liturgical services could be celebrated without the Liturgy of the Word.  Second, for teaching the faith, either as simple catechism for the general faithful or for theological discussions in higher schools of learning.  Sacred Scripture and Tradition were the main practical “sources” for the exposition of the doctrines of Christ and the Church.  Third, for devotional purposes such as the Lectio Divina practiced by the monks and nuns in monasteries.  This ancient form of devotional use of Scripture is being encouraged by Church authorities today.

The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation

The 16th century Reformation of the Church in the West was a “protest” against some beliefs and practices of the Medieval Church usually with an appeal to Scripture.  Hence, it is known as the “Protestant” Reformation.  The social and educational conditions of the age and the commanding leadership of Martin Luther plus the dedicated services of many competent scholars and organizers made the “reformation” possible.  The Church abuses connected with penance and indulgences offered the point of departure in 1517 when Luther publicly broke away from the Catholic Church.  The Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, etc.) were gifted scholars, versed in the Bible and the Church Fathers and the writers of pagan antiquity.  Although the Bible had been much utilized in medieval theology, it had been so generally interpreted as to avoid calling in question the prevailing ecclesiastical practice or tradition.  The Reformers presented the Holy Bible as the exclusive norm of belief and worship and did away with “tradition.”  Their battle cry for reform is Scriptura sola, the Bible alone!

While the entire Bible was the arsenal of the Reformers in assailing the Catholic Church, it was from the Pauline letters that they drew their most effective arguments.  The doctrine of justification by faith is rooted in Paul’s thought, as is that of the priesthood of all Christians.  A new stress was laid by all Reformers upon exegetical preaching, and this was received with keen attention by hearers who were devout readers of the Bible.  The Reformation brought a new dimension to the religion of the common people.  The Reformers made the Bible more accessible to the people by translating it into the vernacular and by using the vernacular in their own form of worship.  By spreading the Bible to the people, the Reformation made every man and woman a potential participant in its Bible-centered theology.

Indeed, because of the Protestant Reformation, the canonical Scriptures had never before been so intensively studied and so exclusively employed as the basis of Christian thought and action.  The intensive study of Sacred Scriptures among Protestant scholars would pave the way for the modern scientific study of the Bible such as textual criticism and the historico-critical method in general, whose initiators were exclusively Protestants.  Later on, Catholic authorities would not only permit but encourage and even urge all serious students of the Bible to use these modern exegetical methods for correctly interpreting the inspired Word of God.  In this sense, the Reformation was a “blessing in disguise.”  God writes straight in crooked lines!  Thus, through the Reformation the Holy Bible became very accessible to the Christians belonging to the Protestant or Evangelical Churches.  Moreover, their biblical movement was the start of doing biblical studies in a truly scientific manner.

The Ecumenical Council of Trent was convoked to deal with the critical situation caused by the Reformation.   It covered a long period: 1545-47, 1551-52, 1562-63 (a period of 18 years with several interruptions).  It dealt with a whole range of subjects that had been raised by the Protestant Reformation covering doctrinal, pastoral, and disciplinary matters.

Among the most important decisions of this Council concern those regarding Sacred Scripture and Tradition.  The Protestant Reformers had excluded the deuterocanonical books of the OT as part of the canon and started to call them “apocryphal.”  They followed the Jews in their rejection of the additional books of the Septuagint written in Greek, which the Catholic Church from the beginning accepted as inspired with the name “deuterocanonical.”  The Council of Trent also reaffirms the “unwritten traditions”:  “…The Council knows that this truth and way of life is contained in written books and unwritten traditions that have come down to us either as received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or as transmitted from hand to hand (see 2 Thess 2:14) from the Apostles themselves under the direction of the Holy Spirit.”2

On June 17, 1546 the Council of Trent issued the decree, Super Lectione et Praedicatione (Session V, Second Decree) on the Study and Teaching of the Bible.  I find this surprising decree a proof that the Catholic Church has always officially promoted Sacred Scriptures among the faithful, for the Council of Trent itself was encouraging a thorough study of Sacred Scriptures among the Catholics of every state and rank, that is, the clergy, the religious, and the laity.  However, it is not known how this decree was effectively implemented.  Among others the Council insisted that in churches where there were benefices or endowments destined as stipends for lecturers in sacred theology, the bishops and other authorities were obliged to use the fruit of these funds to pay the person who gave lectures on the Bible.  The Church authorities were mandated to appoint and give pay to qualified teachers who would teach the Sacred Scriptures to the religious, priests, and seminarians and even the laity.  

This nice decree urging the people to read and study the Bible could have been more effectively implemented had not the Council of Trent imposed very strict norms regarding the publishing of the Bible.  Translations of the Bible into the vernacular were not to be permitted unless approved by the Apostolic See and published with notes taken from the Fathers of the Church.  The only Bible readily available to Catholics was the Latin Vulgate.  But how many people at that time could read and understand Latin?

Indeed, in the wake of the Reformation which lent too much freedom to people in the individual interpretation of the Bible, Church authorities became wary in making the Scripture generally accessible to the Catholics lest the faithful fall into heretical doctrines and veer away from the traditional teaching of the Church.  The Catholic Church became more and more defensive on account of the Protestant attacks against traditional teaching. An example is Pope Pius VI’s brief, Divina (September 20, 1779), which condemned and prohibited a German book with the title, Neuer Versuch über die Weissagung vom Emmanuel, by Johann Lorenz Isenbieh.

On account of the fear that the people might misuse the Bible as the Protestants were doing, three popes excoriated the Protestant Bible Societies which translated the Bible to the vernacular, published them and distributed them to the people free of charge, even to the uneducated.  Pope Pius VIII on May 24, 1829 wrote an encyclical letter, Traditi Humilitati, warning the faithful of the great danger created by the Sectarian Bible Societies.  Pope Gregory XVI wrote a long encyclical letter, Inter Praecipuas, dated May 8, 1844, which vehemently condemned the Sectarian Bible Societies “which were set up first in England and then spread far and wide like an army on the march.”  Pope Pius IX wrote an encyclical letter, Qui Pluribus, on November 9, 1846, another vehement condemnation of Bible Societies. 

These are samples of Church pronouncements that illustrate the defensive position of the Catholic Church against the Protestants resulting in the relative inaccessibility of the Holy Bible among Catholics.  But it is wrong to say that the Church totally “hid” the inspired Word of God from the faithful, for there was a clear mandate of the Council of Trent that the Bible must be read and studied by the faithful of every state and rank.  Indeed, the Supreme Pontiffs and the bishops, in general, wanted to follow the clear mandate of the Council of Trent.  But since they were overcautious lest the simple faithful fall into error by interpreting the Bible in their own way, the mandate was not effectively implemented resulting in the so-called “Babylonian Captivity of the Bible” among Catholics for several centuries from the time of the Reformation until the recent pre-Vatican II Council period.

In view of the “danger” of the Bible falling into the hands of the faithful, the Catholic Church had at this time an effective substitute for the clear instruction of Christian doctrine:  the distribution of catechetical books with the question-and-answer format such as the famous Baltimore Catechism of the American Catholic Church.  I know of a certain congregation of religious sisters whose apostolate was to teach catechism to the people in the villages.  A certain nun of this congregation discovered that the people of a Philippine village were in possession of copies of Bibles given free to them by the Protestants.  She was shocked at the number of Bibles the people got.  So she collected them and burned them in public.  As substitute she gave them copies of the Catholic catechism.  When Vatican II decreed the wide accessibility of the Bibles to the faithful, this particular nun, who burned Bibles, got “converted” and became an ardent biblical apostle.  She later said that for setting the Word of God on fire, she would have to go to purgatory.  But I think that she is now in heaven because she was just following the spirit of the time.

Catholics of the Philippines and other Catholic nations are said to be “sacramentalized” but “not evangelized.”  There is a truth to this statement and the reason is that the Word of God has been kept too long far away from them.

Church Pronouncements on Scripture before the Second Vatican Council

Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893) is the first real Catholic encounter with a vigorous Protestant biblical criticism.  Biblical criticism raised many problems about biblical inerrancy in matters both of natural science and of history.  If the Bible is inspired, how come that it contains a lot of “errors” in science and historical facts?  Pope Leo XIII, a learned and humanistic man, took a somewhat nuanced stand despite the dangers of the time. Providentissimus Deus inaugurated a new era in Catholic biblical studies.  Here the Pope presents a plan for biblical studies under suitable, well-trained professors, who must study Oriental languages and the art of criticism.  The Pope rightly observes that in describing the world of physical nature, the sacred authors did not formally intend to teach natural science.  God spoke to men in the way they could understand.  Leo XIII gives a celebrated description of inspiration:

  By supernatural power God so moved and impelled the human authors to write—he so assisted them when writing—only the things he ordered and only those things that the human authors rightly understood and then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words, and with infallible truth.3

Pope Pius X’s Pascendi Dominici Gregis was issued on September 8, 1907, in refutation of the errors of the Modernists in biblical matters:  on the origin and nature of the Sacred Books.

Pope Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus was issued to commemorate the 15th centenary of the death of St. Jerome, September 15, 1920.  In it, the Pope compares modern views with those of Jerome.  He briefly commends those who use modern critical methods in their biblical studies.  As Jerome insisted, all biblical interpretation rests upon the literal sense, and one must not think that there is no literal sense merely because a thing is said metaphorically.

Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu brought in an absolutely new climate of change in biblical studies of the Catholic Church.4  Here, from the point of view of biblical scholarship, the pope does not introduce anything completely new because they were already found in Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus and other church documents.  But he insists on them as key points for explicit biblical pursuits to be done in the Catholic Church.  He insists that the exegete must be principally concerned with the literal sense of the Scriptures.  He must also search out and expound the spiritual sense, provided it is clearly intended by God.  The Fathers of the Church ought to be studied more assiduously.  The exegete in particular ought to endeavor to determine all he can about the sacred writer:  his character and circumstances, the age in which he lived, his written or oral sources, and the forms of expression he employed.  History, archaeology, the study of literary forms, and other auxiliary sciences cannot be neglected without serious detriment to Catholic exegesis.  This emphasis on recognizing different literary forms is the greatest single contribution of this encyclical.  Formerly, too many books of the Bible were thought to be history in the strict sense; now it could be shown that many of these books were not history at all or were history in a broader and less technical sense.

Pope Pius XII said that there are but a few texts of the Bible whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church or about which the teaching of the ancient Fathers is unanimous.  This statement had encouraged Catholic biblical scholars to pursue their studies in an atmosphere of freedom!  Indeed the pontificate of Pope Pius XII inaugurated the greatest renewal of interest in biblical studies that the Catholic Church has ever seen.  Scholars call Divino Afflante Spiritu of 1943 a magna charta for biblical progress in the Church.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission

The Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) was established by Pope Leo XIII in his apostolic letter, Vigilantiae, dated October 30, 1902, for the purpose of the promotion of biblical studies and their protection from error.  It was to consist of a council of members drawn from the College of Cardinals and assisted by consultors selected from reputable biblical scholars from every nation.  Pius X in his apostolic letter, Scripturae Sanctae, dated February 23, 1904, granted the Commission the faculty of examining candidates and conferring degrees in Sacred Scripture.  From 1905 to 1915 the Commission published 14 responses, for as a general rule, the Commission speaks only in answer to questions.  At this time Catholic biblical studies had been affected by Modernism and the 14 responses were directed against these errors.

The Commission’s decisions were of a prudential nature, that is, its assumption was that the traditional opinions had a right of possession until the opposite was solidly proved.  Today there is more tolerance in the Catholic Church between opinions than there was in the first part of the 20th century.  In 1948 the Commission’s famous reply to Cardinal Suhard of Paris about the first eleven chapters of Genesis shows that it was not content merely to condemn opinions, but to promote the understanding of the Bible in conformity with the original purpose Leo XIII gave it—a function which it is carrying out admirably till the present.

The Bible and the Second Vatican Council

The importance of the Second Vatican Council regarding Sacred Scripture cannot be overestimated.  Its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, is the synthesis and distillation of what the Church through its authorities, scholars, and theologians had been discussing in the past seven decades before Pope Paul VI approved this monumental document on November 18, 1965, exactly 72 years after the appearance of Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus, the first Catholic document that seriously addressed questions on the Bible that had been raging for years in the Church.

Dei Verbum’s Chapter VI, “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church,” effectively ended the long “Babylonian captivity of the Bible” in the Catholic Church. The mandate states in paragraph 22:  “Easy access to sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.”  This startling statement and the whole paragraph are hailed as the most novel feature of the whole Dogmatic Constitution.  It is the first time that the Catholic Church has officially urged a genuine accessibility of the Bible to all the Christian faithful.  Chapter VI of Dei Verbum is called the magna charta of the Catholic biblical apostolate.  It signaled and inspired the start of the biblical pastoral ministry which had characterized the post-Vatican II Church in a magnificent way, paving for the unity of all Churches through the power of the Word of God.  Indeed, we are privileged to witness this great rebirth of the love for Scripture among all Christians.

One of the great theological merits of Dei Verbum is that it clarifies and restates the ancient doctrine of the Church that there are not “two sources” of revelation but only one, namely, God, who reveals Godself and God’s plans.  The expression “two sources” is wrong; in fact both the Council of Trent and Vatican Council I state that there is only one source of revelation with two modes of transmission, written (Bible) and oral (Tradition).  Moreover, God is not totally “unknown” to men and women even without the privilege of receiving an explicit divine revelation, for God has also revealed and continues to reveal God’s self to all human beings in nature, in history and by the light of human reason.  Our Christian faith is but the climax of a divine revelation which began long before human history and was always available everywhere to all people then and now (see Jn 1:9; Acts 14:17).  Our God is a revealing God because God is a loving God!  Revelation is an attribute of God’s very self!

Central to Dei Verbum is its approach to the question of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium:  “Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others” (cf. Chapter II, no. 10). However, it insists that the teaching authority of the Church is not superior to the Word of God but it is only its servant and teaches only what has been handed on to it.

The paramount importance of the Holy Bible in the life and teaching of the Church is reflected in six other documents of the Second Vatican Council besides the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.  The Dogmatic Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) stresses the greatest importance of Scripture in all the liturgical celebrations of the Church (see 7, 24, 35, 51, 52, 90, 91, 92).  Outside of Dei Verbum, this document has the most number of references to Sacred Scripture among all other Vatican II documents.  The others are the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio, 21); the Decree on Priestly Formation (Optatam Totius, 16); the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to other Religions, mainly in regard to the Jews (Nostra Aetate, 4); the Decree on the Pastoral Role of Bishops (Christus Dominus, 14, 16); and the Decree on Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis, 6).

The Holy Bible in the Post-Vatican II Period

As a result of the restructuring of the whole Roman Curia by Pope Paul VI after Vatican II in his Apostolic Letter, Pastor Bonus (1971), the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) was also reorganized.  The Pope mandated (article 55 of Pastor Bonus) that the Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission should function as subsidiaries of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to be presided over by the Cardinal Prefect of the same Congregation.

The first important document published by the restructured PBC is The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, published on November 18, 1993 to coincide with the centennial anniversary of Providentissimus Deus and the 28th anniversary of Dei Verbum.5  It is a long document of more than 280 paragraphs.  The first part “Methods and Approaches for Interpretation” and the second part “Hermeneutical Questions” are useful for scholars who are acquainted with philosophical theories of hermeneutics and details about different methods of biblical exegesis.  Part Three, “Characteristics of Catholic Interpretation,” is very relevant for today’s Bible study groups.  It deals with interpretation in the biblical tradition, re-readings, relationships between the Old and the New Testaments, interpretation in the tradition of the Church, the task of the exegete, and the relationship of exegesis with other theological disciplines.  Part Four, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Life of the Church,” deals with the “actualization” or practical application of the inspired Word of God in the life of the Church.  It gives guidelines for the use of the Bible in the pastoral life and ministry of the Church.  It treats of the principles of biblical actualization, methods and limits, inculturation and the practical use of the Bible in the liturgy, Lectio Divina, pastoral ministry, and ecumenism.

One of the happy results of Vatican Council II is the intensification of ecumenical endeavors in the biblical apostolate.  In 1968 the International Biblical Alliance and the Pontifical Secretariat for Christian Unity jointly published an important document:  Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in the Translation of the Bible.  In accord with those principles, there was already an official Catholic collaboration in 133 undertakings of the translation of the Bible in various parts of the world.  What a stark contrast and a 180-degree change of attitude of the Catholic Church towards all non-Catholic Christians that prevailed during the Reformation Period and the ensuing 400 years!  Several among the 56 Biblical Societies belonging to the United Bible Societies (UBS) have started to cooperate with Catholics in the distribution of the Bible.

For the first time the Catholic Church has appreciated the work of the Bible Societies, condemned by three popes in the past.  The Pontifical Secretariat for Christian Unity issued a statement “Ecumenical Collaboration on the Regional, National and Local Level” on February 22, 1975.  The statement says:  

Bible Societies are a meeting place for a very large number of Christians.  Their aim is the translation and distribution of the Scriptures, and a very great variety of Christian communities can cooperate in this important work…. The World Catholic Federation for the Biblical Apostolate (today called Catholic Biblical Federation) was founded to promote in each Bishops’ Conference an organization that can help to coordinate Catholic cooperation with Bible Societies and offer to priests and to the faithful all the helps necessary for the understanding and use of the Sacred Scripture.6

Note the big role given to the Catholic Biblical Federation (CBF) in today’s biblical pastoral ministry.  I have the privilege of serving the CBF for more than seven years as moderator of the Executive Committee, which governs this federation between the Plenary Assemblies.  Because its work is highly ecumenical in character, it is under the care of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.  On November 15, 1987 the Secretariat (at this time it was still named “Secretariat”) for Promoting Christian Unity and the United Bible Societies jointly issued a revised version of the 1968 Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in the Translation of the Bible.  The new document is now called Guiding Principles for Interconfessional Cooperation in Translating the Bible.

During the celebration of the Synod on the Word of God in Rome (October 2008) the Catholic Biblical Federation and the United Bible Societies (UBS) issued a Joint Statement on Partnership in Biblical Ministry.  This statement was signed by His Eminence Cardinal Walter Kasper, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, His Excellency Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, the President of the Catholic Biblical Federation, and the Rev. Dr. Miller Milloy, the General Secretary of the United Bible Societies.  I had the joy of attending the official signing of the document in the context of a press conference organized by the Office of the Vatican Press, headed by Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ.

The statement narrates the history of the happy collaboration of the Catholic Church with Protestant Churches after the promulgation of Dei Verbum.  It affirms the centrality of the Word of God in our common Christian faith.  It includes “Purpose Statements” of both UBS and the CBF.  What is very new is contained in the “Principles of Collaboration.”  The UBS declares that

something more than an inter-confessional translation of the text itself should be part of their service to the Churches if they are to take seriously the need to have people engage with the message of Scripture.  Therefore, Bible Societies’ services to the Catholic Church may now include the provision of Bible editions in which the books are presented in the order of the Catholic biblical canon, and in which helps for readers to gain understanding of the meaning of the text reflect the Catholic Church’s teaching and tradition.7

The question regarding the Bible’s relationship to other Sacred Scriptures, especially of Asia, was being raised after Vatican II.  If the Holy Spirit was active in other religions, could not one see also the same Spirit acting in some way on their sacred books?  Could this be called “inspiration”?  In consequence, could these “sacred” books also be used in Christian worship?  In 1994 the Congregation of Divine Worship answered this question in a statement concerning the inculturation of the liturgy:  “Whatever their ethnic or cultural origin, Christians have to recognize the promise, the prophecy and the history of their salvation in the history of Israel.… Holy Scripture must not be replaced by any other text, no matter how venerable it may be.  Likewise the Bible is the indispensable source of the liturgy’s language, of its signs, and of its prayer especially in the psalms.”  The phrase “any other text” includes other Christian texts (e.g., the beautiful “Imitation of Christ”) as well as non-Christian (the Koran or the Vedas, etc…).8

The International Theological Commission published a document called “Christianity and World Religions” in 1997.  It states that “the Sacred Books of the different religions, even when they form part of an evangelic preparation, cannot be considered equivalent to the Old Testament which is the immediate preparation for the coming of Christ into the world.”  Regarding “inspiration,” the Commission says that “although one cannot explicitly exclude any divine revelation in the composition of these books (of other religions), it is much more fitting to reserve the qualification ‘inspired’ to the books of the Canon.”

The Special Synod of the Bishops of Asia held in May 1998 (which I attended as one of the 13 delegates of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) expressed its great esteem for the spiritual values of the great Asian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam.  It also cited with great appreciation the ethical values in the customs and practices found in the teachings of the great Asian philosophers, which promote natural virtues, as well the beliefs and religious practices of indigenous tribal people.  However, the Synod insisted that “The Word of God should have a central place in our lives and should nourish us spiritually.  The Bible is not an ordinary book but rather the living voice of the living God who calls us every day to carry out his plan for our lives and our world.”9

One of the great concerns of Pope John Paul II is to codify the work of liturgical translations done over the past years after the promulgation of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium.  On March 28, 2001 the Congregation on Divine Worship issued the instruction, Liturgiam Authenticam, which was approved by Pope John Paul II.  It has a long section that deals with translations in the Bible for use in the liturgy of the Latin rite.  The important instruction is:  “The original text as far as possible must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses.  Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of various vernacular languages is to be sober and discrete.”10   Because it concerns the Latin Rite, the biblical text to be used is the Nova Vulgata, for it was important that a common text be used.

Pope John Paul II had promulgated the Nova Vulgata in his apostolic constitution, Scripturarum Thesaurus, dated April 25, 1979.  He mentions that Pope Paul VI had been led to set up before the end of the Vatican Council II a special commission to do a revision of the famous Vulgate of St. Jerome with the aid of modern critical apparatus in view of using the new Latin text for the liturgical books of the Latin Rite.  The work was completed during the pontificate of John Paul II.  The new Vulgate will be a reference for translations into modern languages for liturgical and pastoral use.  Because in the past the Church considered the old edition of the Vulgate to be adequate and sufficiently able to give the word of God to Christians, the new Vulgate can easily be used for the same purpose today.  On January 21 1981 the Congregation for Divine Worship issued the new Lectionary for the readings at Mass (new Editio Typica) which adopted the Nova Vulgata as the received Latin text for liturgical use of the Roman Rite. This is a very useful document for the ministers of the Word at Mass.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission on May 24, 2001 issued a document entitled “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.”  This document is a significant source for students of the Bible and theology because it outlines the principal theological themes in the two testaments and highlights similarities and differences.  It asserts that we Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one.  However, we need to recognize also that the Christian and Jewish readings are bound up with the vision of their respective faiths, of which the readings are the result and expression.  Hence, we Christians are not bound to read the Old Testament as the Jews do.

The Pontificate of Pope John Paul II was highly biblical.  This Pope wrote so many documents that include references to the importance of the Bible, in a manner never done by any pope before him.  He can be considered the champion for the Bible in the modern Church, for besides commissioning the Vatican dicasteries to issue instructions that contain biblical matters, he personally wrote (and spoke) of many topics that have special relevance to the Bible.  Biblical references abound in at least 25 of his writings and speeches.

As Cardinal, Ratzinger was President of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and hence also President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.  He admitted that the Church could learn from its past mistakes regarding its norm of biblical interpretation.  He said that the Magisterium overly exaggerated the area of certainties that the faith can guarantee.  Thus, the Magisterium should no longer impose norms on the exegetes from above, but the exegetes are the expert ones who should determine the criteria that indicate the way for a fitting interpretation of a special book in the Bible.  “Faith and science, magisterium and exegesis are no longer opposed as worlds closed in on themselves.”11   Historical research and Lectio Divina need not be separate worlds.

Likewise as Pope Benedict XVI he exhorted the theologians and the exegetes to be more appreciative of one another’s works and not to run counter to one another’s opinions to the detriment of the harmony of the faith.  Exegetical results should not be a hindrance to the deepening of theological arguments based on the Church’s constant tradition.  Each theological enterprise should help the others to make the faith clearer to the people.  He gave this exhortation during the 12th Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Word of God.

I was present in the special audience given to the participants of the First International Biblical Congress held in Rome, where the Pope gave his first formal address on the Holy Bible at Castel Gandolfo on September 16, 2005.  This congress was organized by the Catholic Biblical Federation and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum.  An interesting statement of the Pope was:  “The Church does not live on herself but on the Gospel, and in the Gospel always and ever anew finds the directions for her journey… The Church knows well that Christ lives in the Sacred Scriptures… The Church and the Word of God are inseparably linked. The Church lives on the Word of God and the Word of God echoes through the Church, in her teaching and throughout her life.”12

On November 6, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI in his Angelus message reminded the people assembled in the Piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome that on November 18, 1965, Vatican Council II approved Dei Verbum 40 years ago.  He encouraged again the appreciation of the Sacred Scriptures and the practice of Lectio Divina.

On April 27, 2006 Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in their current work on a document concerning the Bible and morality, which was begun during the pontificate of his predecessor.  He condemns the errors of “secular morality” which advocates that human person as a rational being not only can but must decide freely on the value of his behavior.  “This erroneous conviction is based on the presumed conflict between human freedom and every form of law.”13

The greatest “biblical” achievement of Pope Benedict XVI is his convocation of the 12th Ordinary Synod of Bishops whose theme was “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.”  It was held in Rome from October 5 to 26, 2008.  I had the honor to attend it as a Synod Father, one of the five delegates of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to this Synod.  The Pope himself admitted that he was inspired to convoke this Synod by the great work of the Catholic Biblical Federation, which had been requesting for this ecclesial event for many years.  During the Synod on the Word of God, Pope Benedict XVI said to Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, the President of the CBF:  “This was your Synod—the Synod of the Catholic Biblical Federation.”  Of the 55 propositions approved by the Synod Fathers, only two got a unanimous approval.  One is proposition no. 43 which cites the good work and importance of the CBF.  The Catholic Biblical Federation is planning to organize the Second International Biblical Congress after the publication of this post-Synodal Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI.


In this brief article we have examined the role of Sacred Scripture in the life and teaching of the Church from the earliest times till the present.  Being the inspired written Word of God, Scripture is the soul not only of theology or of all pastoral activities but of the being itself of the Church, whose vocation is to listen to God and to proclaim God’s message to the whole world.  Whatever the prophets, our Lord himself, and his apostles have taught and said for our salvation needs to be written down to keep the memory of God’s words and deeds alive for all people and for all times.  We have seen that the written Word of God was alive in all stages of the Church’s growth:  its inception as a nascent ecclesial community, the flourishing era of the Fathers, the golden Middle Ages, the difficult period of the Reformation down to our times, when we are enjoying the privilege and mandate of making Scriptures accessible to all the faithful and to all men and women of good will in a limitless way.  The more we understand the role of the Word of God in our Christian life, the more ardent must we become to help it run more swiftly and effectively everywhere and most importantly to make it dwell in the hearts of all people!



1.;Letter to Theodore the Physician of the Emperor,” Monumenta Germaniae Historica (T. I. Berolini, 1887), 345-346.

2. Jacques Dupuis, ed., The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, no. 210, Sixth Revised and Enlarged edition (Bangalore, India: Theological Publications in India, 1996).

3.;Providentissimus Deus,” n. 125, Enchiridion Biblicum (1965), 58.

4.;Divino Afflante Spiritu,” no. 565, Enchiridion Biblicum (1965), 227.

5. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome: Librería Editrice Vaticana, 1993).

6. Excerpts from “Ecumenical Collaboration on the Regional, National and Local Level,” Service d’information 26 (1975); 8-34.

7.;CBF and UBS Joint Statement on Partnership in Biblical Ministry,” Dei Verbum Bulletin, no. 88/89 (2008): 35.

8.;Christianity and World Religion,” International Theological Commis-sion, no. 92 (1997).

9.;Excerpts from the Final Message of the Special Synod of the Bishops of Asia,” no. 5, L’Osservatore Romano, 13 May 1998.

10.;Liturgiam Authenticam,” no. 20, AAS (2001).

11.;Pontifical Biblical Commission Centenary of its Establishment,” L’Osservatore Romano, 30 October 2002.

12.;Pope Benedict XVI’s Address to the Participants of the Dei Verbum Congress,” Special Audience in Castelgandolfo, 16 September, 2005.

13.;Benedict XVI’s Address to the Plenary Session of the PBC,” L’Osservatore Romano, 12 April 2006.

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