Kieran Fenn FMS
The role of the Holy Spirit
After reflecting on God’s final and definitive word to the world, the synod turned to the mission of the Holy Spirit, without which there can be no understanding of Christian revelation. Irenaeus describes the relationship of Son and Spirit as ‘the two hands of the Father’.
The attentive reader of the gospels notes the work of the Spirit in the conception of Jesus, in the beginning of his mission, at his baptism, in his actions and teaching. In the Gospel of John, Jesus clearly relates the giving of his life to the sending of the Spirit upon those belonging to him (Jn 16:7). Acts depicts the Spirit as the driving force in the mission of proclaiming to all peoples the good news. It is this same Spirit that inspires the authors of sacred scripture.
What the synod has highlighted here is the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church and in the hearts of believers in relation to sacred scripture. The word of God comes to us in the body of Christ, in his Eucharistic body and in the body of the scriptures, through the working of the Holy Spirit. An ancient prayer in the form of an epiclesis (calling down from on high) invoked the Spirit before the proclamation of the reading:
Send your Paraclete Spirit into our hearts and make us understand the scriptures the Spirit inspired; grant that I may interpret them worthily, so that the faithful assembled here may profit from them.
Not only are we reflecting on the Spirit behind the inspiration of the scriptures but also the Spirit within the scriptures as the driving force in the life of Jesus and his church. Scripture has been defined as the ‘word of God in the words of human beings’. We need to remember that the Spirit did not turn the authors of the sacred texts into a quill or its more modern equivalent, typewriter or computer. The understandings of the day with regard to creation and even personal limitations in worldview or character are not removed from what is written. In facing this issue, the highest biblical authority in the church, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, states ‘The books of scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred scriptures’. (Dei Verbum 11).
The statement is important because there are many issues that a careful reader can find. Was Jesus six hours on the Cross (Mark 15:25) or three (John 19:14), or do we recognise that the truth important for salvation is that he was on the cross? How did Judas die? Suicide (Mt 27:3-10) or falling from a great height (Acts 2:18)? Clearly my salvation does not depend on such an issue and we should be comfortable in allowing the evangelists to tell their own story of Jesus for their own community, even if they end up giving us three versions of the last words of Jesus on the cross!
Tradition and scripture
Tradition of apostolic origin is a living and dynamic reality that makes progress in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit. This is not to change an abiding truth but to provide growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on (cf Dei Verbum 7). It is the living tradition that is essential for enabling the church to grow through time in the understanding of the truth revealed in the scriptures as the word of God.
How important it is for the people of God to be properly trained to approach sacred scripture in relation to the church’s living tradition and to recognise in them the very word of God. A beautiful analogy is drawn between the word of God which became flesh and the word which became a book.
This is a key concept, decisive for an adequate approach to the scriptures and their correct interpretation. Sacred scripture is the word of God set down in writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. One is to recognise the full importance of the human author who wrote the inspired texts and, at the same time, God as the true author. This leads to the link between inspiration and the truth of the scriptures.
I recently came across the following comment in the Vatican II Weekday Missal (1975). ‘As the Pontifical Biblical Commission noted in 1948, the early chapters of Genesis are not objective history. They are written primarily to teach a religious lesson’.
One only has to read what then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote on Genesis to see that creationism, literalism, and fundamentalism are far removed from a Catholic position on scripture. Sadly, the missing truth in the debate between ‘Intelligent Design’ (or creationism as it is often termed) and evolution is the brilliance of a God who creates things that keep on creating themselves. The extreme evolutionist sees a creation without God; the extreme creationist sees a God without evolution; both are poorer for the loss.
It is sometimes said that all scripture is inspired but not all is revealed. This applies particularly to the differing creation accounts in which the sacred authors describe the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of creation, God’s powerful purpose for the world and its creatures, including humans.
‘The text is not an abstract statement about the origin of the universe but a theological and pastoral statement addressed to a real historical problem’ (Brueggemann) and that problem is identified by using the tools of scientific, linguistic and historical analysis of the text (cf Divino Afflante Spiritu #35).
I was pleased to find in the text of Verbum Domini the historical-critical approach described as ‘indispensable’ and ‘a constitutive dimension of the Christian faith’ (#32).
Verbum Domini: the God who speaks