Verbum Domini: Interpretation within the Church

Column Kieran Fenn fms Articles 29 to 39 Interpretation begins with faith, on the part of those who wrote in the past and those who interpret, teach and receive in…


Kieran Fenn fms

Verbum Domini: Interpretation within the Church Archdiocese of WellingtonArticles 29 to 39
Interpretation begins with faith, on the part of those who wrote in the past and those who interpret, teach and receive in the present. All four groups have to be believing Christians, participating in the faith-life of the community. Scripture is the word of God conveyed to us through human words. We can never read scripture simply on our own. The bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The study of the sacred page should be the very soul of theology. This should lead to a renewed interest in sacred scripture, a growth in the study of the word of God. The synod Fathers expressed heartfelt gratitude to the many exegetes and theologians as well as to the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, noting their Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993), a fine study of the recent methods and approaches to interpreting the bible.

The bible is not a single book, but a collection of literary texts composed over the course of a thousand years or more, and its individual books are not easily seen to possess an interior unity; instead, we see clear inconsistencies between them. This was already the case with the Bible of Israel, and all the more so when, as Christians, we relate the New Testament and its writings as a kind of hermeneutical (applied) key to Israel’s Bible, thus interpreting the latter as a path to Christ.

A comparison of the order of books in the Hebrew and Christian Bible illustrates the last point. The prophets serve as reminders to covenant faithfulness, holding second place to Torah or Pentateuch in the Hebrew Bible. In the Christian Bible they come last and are interpreted as pointing to the coming of Christ. Take the suffering servant songs of Isaiah, the two psalms (22 and 69) or Zechariah 9-13 for features used in the telling of the Passion. These are texts well known to the writers of the four gospels who interpret the death of Jesus through the Old Testament lens along with what they heard from witnesses, for it is likely that no evangelist was an actual eyewitness.

Articles 39-43
A good point is made that the New Testament itself does not use the term ‘scripture’ but always ‘the scriptures’, with both testaments being seen in their entirety. The New Testament itself acknowledges the Old Testament as the word of God. ‘Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew and the Holy Land is the motherland of the Church’ (Propositio 52). Continuity and discontinuity as well as fulfilment and transcendence mark the relationship. ‘The New Testament is hidden in the Old and the Old is manifested in the New’ (Augustine).

I once came across the question, ‘If Jesus and Mary had been proclaimed as Jews, would the holocaust have happened?’ One only needs to point out the centuries of persecution supported and justified by appeal to the scriptures. Why did it take until 1973 for Geza Vermes to write a fine study entitled Jesus the Jew?

The ‘dark texts’
There are ‘dark passages’ in the bible, which contain violence and immorality, a reminder that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.

Bible revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, whether collective or individual. This becomes God’s way of training the people in preparation for the gospel. It would be a mistake to neglect those scriptural texts that seem problematic. Correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of acquired expertise to see these passages in a historical-literary context and within a Christian perspective.

Scholars and pastors have a responsibility to help all the faithful to approach these difficult passages through sound interpretation. I like to use the image of a child growing up. A child’s image of God changes significantly through life as the child grows in faith and experience. From the warrior God with a strong right hand who delivered Israel from Egypt, to the God of tender love and remembrance who carves our name on God’s hand, to the mother who never forgets the child of her womb, is the journey of faithful Israel.

There are many violent texts, yes, but we should not hide behind any veil of hypocrisy. Our own age is every bit as violent, whether it be ‘smashing little ones against a rock’ in destruction of the unborn or waging wars against our neighbours for their resources or their territory.

Articles 44-49
The text goes on to examine two important issues, fundamentalism and ecumenism. Literalism fails to respect the authenticity of the sacred text, a betrayal of both the literal and spiritual sense. It refuses to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, making itself incapable of accepting the full truth of revelation. It treats the text as though it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit.

Biblical studies have a critical role to play in ecumenical dialogue aimed at the full expression of the unity of all believers in Christ. We remember Christ’s prayer that all his disciples might be one. Listening to and meditating on the scriptures together is to experience a real, albeit not yet full communion. The most profound interpretation of scripture comes from those who let themselves be shaped by the word of God through listening, reading and assiduous meditation.

Closing comment
In light of the last recommendation I wish to endorse the Bible Society of New Zealand’s Old Testament programme, E100 and the exciting new production, Essential Jesus, that can be done individually or in an ecumenical group. Look out for it or contact