Prof. Alexander M. Schweitzer: Towards a new biblical season – Observations on the document “Verbum Domini” 

A. Introduction. Why a Synod on the Word of God? “There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance” (VD 2).

What is a “post-synodal apostolic exhortation”? It is the final document summing and rounding up a Synod of bishops’ work on one important theme. Written by the Pope but based on the propositions the synod has submitted to him.

What is a Synod of Bishops?
It is the highest advisory assembly for the Pope.

Why was the theme “Word of God in the life and the mission of the Church” chosen for the Bishops’ synod in 2008?
In the Catholic Church there were 400 years of “hibernation” with regard to the use of the Bible. Since the counter-reformation in the 16th century the Bible was more or less banned from the houses and closed in the narrow shrine of academic theology, magisterium and a use in liturgy – but in Latin! A turn came only with the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) which postulated an “easy access to the Sacred Scripture” for all. The key document here is Dei Verbum the constitution on Divine Revelation. Since then a true biblical spring occurred in the Catholic Church and the document Verbum Domini is the culmination point of this journey. In Verbum Domini Pope Benedict elaborates a sort of a road map which might be relevant not only for the Catholic Church alone. The document constitutes a milestone in the growing sensibility of the Catholic Church for the recognition of the dynamic power of the Scriptures for the renewal of our Christian communities.

B. Impulses from Verbum Domini

1. “Biblical inspiration of all areas of the life of the Church”
This key expression reflects the changing attitude within the Church with regard to the Scriptures: from "biblical apostolate" to "biblical pastoral ministry" and finally to "biblical inspiration of all areas of the pastoral life and mission of the Church". A new threshold has been crossed. As in Jeremiah, where the law is no longer to be written on tablets of stone but on the hearts of flesh of the faithful, the Sacred Scriptures are not to be written only on paper, but in the minds and memory, in the heart and soul of the faithful; the Scriptures are to be allowed to enliven and to inspire the “anima”, the soul, the principle and force of life itself of the Church, of all communities and of all of the faithful and thus become the life giving Word of God. Concretely, this implies, for example


▪ that the Bible becomes a primary reference on all levels of the Church (small Christian communities,  parishes, dioceses, Bishops' Conferences ...)

▪ that all areas of the life, commitment, mission of the Church be renewed through the Biblical dynamic not as some external force but as a throbbing life line active within and nourishing the organism interiorly.

▪ that the methods both of reading the Scriptures and of biblical formation in general must be critically evaluated and perhaps readjusted.


2. Reading the Bible as Verbum Domini” – a life-giving Word of God
Our own reading of the Scriptures often tends to instrumentalize them, using, misusing and even abusing them to further our own positions and judgments. “Fundamentalist and purely spiritualistic interpretations of the Scripture are an ever-growing phenomenon in almost all Churches. Biblical pastoral ministry has an urgent task in this field in countering a fundamentalist reading of the Word that builds walls of separation and discrimination. Along with this, we need to highlight the plurality that is a characteristic feature of the Bible: plurality of world-views, of interpretations of sacred texts, of theologies, of ecclesial structures.” (cf. VD 44)


We need contextual hermeneutics, “letting the echoes and resonance of the various religious traditions, scriptural or otherwise, enrich our experience of the Word, mysteriously present in our world.” It is also necessary to read the Scripture within the context of the life of the contemporary reader: The Bible is the book of life in as much as it deals with life in all its manifestations. God has given us two sacred books: that of creation and history, and that of the Bible. […] The Bible has “to be re-read in the light of new circumstances and applied to the contemporary situation…”.


The Bible, in its canon as well as individual books, is a pluralistic phenomenon, an outstanding example of unity in diversity, a symphony of many voices. While not all the different ways of reading the Bible are equally apt, no one method fully captures the richness of the meaning of the Scriptures. Therefore a plurality of methods and approaches is needed which “contribute effectively to the task of making more available the riches contained in the biblical text.” (IBC Introduction)


Further, “Reading the Bible and celebrating the Word in community: The Bible is the book of the community, an expression of its faith experience, and meant for building it. “The Scriptures, as given to the Church, are the communal treasure of the entire body of believers”. “All the members of the Church have a role in the interpretation of Scripture”.

3. Inculturation


An "inculturated" reading presupposes a respectful and in-depth encounter with a people and its culture and starts with the translation of the Bible into the language of the people, to be followed by interpretation which then leads to the formation of a “local Christian culture, extending to all aspects of life.” (cf. VD 114)


Another aspect of an inculturated reading: Christian communities must read the Bible from the perspective of the poor. “There is reason to rejoice in seeing the Bible in the hands of people of lowly condition and of the poor; they can bring to its interpretation and to its actualization a light more penetrating, from the spiritual and existential point of view, than that which comes from a learning that relies upon its own resources alone” (cf VD 107).

We should cultivate the prayerful reading of the Scripture: “The Bible as Word of God can only be welcomed if we approach it also as the Church’s basic source of prayer and if we cultivate the prayerful reading of Scripture”. Among the many forms of the prayerful reading of the Scripture is the ancient practice of Lectio divina. (cf. VD 86)

4. Formation

The question of biblical formation is a theme which deeply marked the Bishops’ Synod and which runs through Verbum Domini like a golden thread. Formation has not only to do with becoming knowledgeable about the Scriptures, their composition, their relation to history, their reception, the philological and literary issues. Formation does not only entail learning methods of reading, analyzing, understanding and "actualizing" (applying) them in our daily lives. Formation means first of all learning to listen, both to the Scriptures and to the voices of the human beings of our planet. Formation means knowing the Scriptures from inside, it means coming to appreciate them as old friends who have shared our lives, it means coming to love them as words of a person who dialogues with us, with whom we may dialog. (cf. VD 27)

5. The Bible as the great code for cultures

The Synod Fathers greatly stressed the importance of promoting a suitable knowledge of the Bible among those engaged in the area of culture, also in secularized contexts and among nonbelievers. Sacred Scripture contains anthropological and philosophical values that have had a positive influence on humanity as a whole. A sense of the Bible as a great code for cultures needs to be fully recovered. (cf VD 110)


The Bible has performed a generative function for Western culture through a presence such as could provide a kind of iconographic “lexicon”, a kind of matrix on which to draw. Not for nothing did Chagall affirm that the biblical pages are “the multi-colored alphabet of hope into which for centuries painters have dipped their paintbrushes”.


“The Holy Scriptures are the universe within which Western literature and art operated up until the 18th century, and to a large extent they continue to function in this way”. This statement from the famous essay The Great Code of Northrop Frye (1981) on the relationship between Bible and literature registers a matter of fact that is readily accessible to anyone who scours the cultural history of the West: for centuries the Bible has been the immense lexicon or iconographic, ideological, literary repertoire which has been drawn on constantly for inspiration, both at the learned and at the popular levels. In the wake of stimuli coming from philosophy (e.g. Gadamer) and from theology (e.g., von Balthasar), the scholarly world has begun to appreciate the crucial importance for the understanding of the Bible not only of the Author but also of the Reader, that is, the theological, spiritual and artistic Tradition that has been generated by Scripture. We need to keep this dimension of the Bible up, especially on the background of the globalised, secularized, overlapping and seemingly limitless cultural realities of our times. May I just remind us of the great man of the Word, as he was praised on the occasion of his death on 1 September, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. He was never tired to remind and invite us to see the Bible as the great codex of cultures and he realised this in his own diocese and constituencies in many ways.

C. Verbum Domini and UBS

The impulses of Verbum Domini are encouraging and challenging. The aim to inspire all aspects of Christian life and to adopt a variety of approaches in translation and publication are very much in line with the UBS ethos and concrete work. By way of offering most various types of high quality translations (based on original languages, preferably a functional-equivalent but in some cases also academical-literal translations, attempting to meet the needs of specific audiences) and the great variety of publishing forms and formats (digital, print, with notes, without notes, simple, noble, Braille other VIP) UBS contributes to this plurality which potentially meets people where they are (culturally, technically, intellectually, economically, demographically) and which can be a remedy against the threats of fundamentalism.


Lectio divina, which is mentioned often in VD and which has an own chapter (cf. VD 86) as an “embedded”, “prayerful” reading of the Bible is an eminent means to achieve a contextual hermeneutics, a life-relevant approach. Quality, variety of approaches, reading helps, prayerful reading etc. help to avoid a crude Biblicism, i.e. an absolutisation of the book.

The variety in approaches is also a prerequisite for inculturation and are expressed e.g. in the translation method, i.e. the question whom to involve in the translation process, how to bring together the input and experience  by the community / target group / audience a translation is made for and the exegetical/theological/linguistic expertise.


We also embrace the invitation to see the Bible as a great code for cultures. While UBS puts itself at the service of individual Churches and also of the unity between churches (cf. double definition of UBS’ interconfessional character), we are very much aware of the “global dimension” of the Bible as a book of foundational values transcending the sphere of institutional churches. We invest in literacy programmes, inter-religious, inter-discipline projects, art projects, we are recognised by UNESCO.

UBS also draws encouragement also from the fact that Verbum Domini explicitly recommends the collaboration of the Catholic Church with the Bible Societies. It does this in the context of contemplating the urgent need of complete Bible translations of many local Churches and recommends to “increase the number of translations of sacred Scripture and their wide diffusion. ... And this should be done “as much as possible in cooperation with the different Bible Societies.” An encouragement, indeed, and a liability.

D. Conclusion

“There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance”: This is our common Christian goal and Verbum Domini offers amazing insights, testimonies and impulses in this regard. This document can challenge us, certainly United Bible Societies, and encourage us in our work. With the Synod Fathers and with the Pope I would like to express the “heart­felt hope for the flowering of a new season of greater love for Sacred Scripture on the part of every member of the People of God”. (VD 72)


Short summary of the lecture in Finnish Ecumenical Council 12th October 2012

Prof. Alexander M. Schweitzer, United Bible Societies

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