Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dr. Scott Hahn and Fr. Pacwa Discuss Verbum Domini

Download Benedict XVI's Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini here

Major themes of Verbum Domini (from the Divine Life Blog)

by Eric Sammons

Verbum Domini covers a large number of topics, but what are the major themes of this document? Broadly, I would say that there are four:

1) The life-changing reality of the “Word of God”
One of the most common misconceptions about Christianity is that is a “religion of the book”, i.e. that the Bible is the basis for our entire religion. The Catholic Church has always denied this, and does so explicitly in this document:
While in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, 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’ (VD 7, quoting St. Bernard of Clairvaux).
The “Word of God” cannot be limited to simply Sacred Scripture, as it encompasses far more than that. Verbum Domini breaks it into three separate – but interrelated – realities:
  • Jesus Christ: First and foremost, the Word of God is the eternal Son of God who became incarnate as Jesus Christ
  • Word preached by the Apostles, i.e. the Church’s living Tradition
  • Sacred Scripture
This is not just an obscure theological point, but is foundational for everything the Church teaches in regard to a proper understanding of the Scriptures. We must understand that the Word we follow is Jesus Christ, and we are drawn to him by both Tradition and Scripture. Trying to isolate only one part of the multifaceted Word – like “sola scriptura” does – ends up ultimately deforming the Word and making it more susceptible to misinterpretation.

2) Scripture should lead us to an encounter with Christ
Anyone who is familiar with Pope Benedict’s pontificate knows the emphasis he has placed on “encountering Jesus Christ”. He has emphasized again and again that an encounter with Christ is the central mystery of the Christian faith – everything, literally everything, revolves around it. As Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “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” (DCE 1, quoted in VD 11).

Verbum Domini reiterates this emphasis and notes the importance of Scripture in instigating and deepening our encounter with our Lord. As the beginning of the document explains, we believe in a God who speaks a Word, and we are responsible to respond to that Word in our own lives. Scripture is a primary way to hear that Word spoken by God.

3) Scripture must be read and interpreted within the context of the Church
The key difference between Catholic and Protestant Scripture interpretation is that Catholics are insistent that the Bible can only be truly understood within the context of the living Church. The Bible was written within the Church, for the Church and was compiled by the Church, so trying to understand it outside the Church is simply infeasible. The same Spirit which inspired the Sacred writers and guided the Church to gather together those writings into one “Bible” also directs the Church in her interpretation of the Scriptures.

This is true beyond just the obvious “biblical interpretation cannot contradict Church teaching”. Another example that Verbum Domini emphasizes is the importance of the liturgy for interpreting Scripture. Many of the New Testament documents were originally written to be read within a liturgical setting (for example, Paul addressed most of his letters to “the church in…”, thus assuming that they would be read when the local church gathered, i.e. in the liturgy). As Verbum Domini notes, the liturgy is the “privileged” setting for reading the Bible. It is not just one of many settings, but should be the primary place where Scriptural interpretation takes place. This goes against most modern thought, which believes the only place to interpret the Bible is either in an academic ivory tower or in the confines of one’s own home. Like everything related to the Faith, the Church understands that Scriptural interpretation is a communal affair.

4) Scripture should inform and be foundational to all aspects of the Church’s ministry
The entire third section of this document goes into some detail of the importance of Scripture permeating every aspect of the Church’s work. This begins with evangelization, which is the preaching of the Word. I loved this description of evangelization that Verbum Domini offers:

“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 flows” (VD 93).

Evangelization is not teaching the Faith or explaining the Faith or defending the Faith – it is preaching the Word and allowing that Word to lead the other to an encounter with Him who is the Word. How can the Word be preached without recourse to the written Word of God? Thus, Scripture forms a foundation for all evangelical work of the Church.

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