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TOWARD THE SYNOD OF BISHOPS
from issue no. 06/07 - 2008

The Word of God: bloodshed that speaks


“If one says: Word of God, the formula can convey an intellectual idea. But if we say that it is blood speaking, one understands that it isn’t a matter of a discourse, of a reasoning”. An interview with the Jesuit Cardinal Albert Vanhoye


Interview with Cardinal Albert Vanhoye by Gianni Valente


Cardinal Albert Vanhoye

Cardinal Albert Vanhoye

The Synod on the Word of God is approaching. What does a great biblical scholar such as yourself expect?
ALBERT VANHOYE: Fifteen years ago, when I was President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, we studied the interpretation of the Bible in the Church. We carried out a review of all the methods and approaches used to approach the biblical text. But that was a task undertaken entirely from the point of view of exegetical science.
In the Synod there’s a different perspective. There will be the opportunity for a lot of thinking about how the life and mission of the Church find support and nourishment in the Word of God.
In your opinion, what may a Synod of this kind suggest to the whole Church?
VANHOYE: The instrumentum laboris expresses it very well: the Word of God must not be identified with the Bible. At the time of Saint Paul there was nothing written of the New Testament. But Saint Paul was aware of preaching the Word of God, and congratulated the Thessalonians because they had received the message proclaimed by him not as human speech, but as the Word of God that works in those who believe.
The Word of God is a living thing, the Bible is a written text. It has special importance because it is an inspired text. But our faith is not a religion of the Book, it is not a biblical religion. Our faith is a religion of the Word of God alive, welcomed, that sets us in personal relationship with Jesus Christ and, through Christ, with God the Father.
“Word of God, final and definitive, is Jesus Christ”, is written in the first part of the instrumentum laboris of the Synod. Some pages of your confrère Henri de Lubac come to mind...
VANHOYE: De Lubac wrote that in Jesus Christ God made His Word short, He abbreviated it. The Word was shortened. The Bible is not a collection of philosophical and theological treatises, it is not a didactic-symbolic discourse for acquiring a set of eternal religious verities. The Bible tells of God’s initiative to enter into contact with men, in our history. That’s why the Incarnation of Christ is the “summary” of the whole Word of God. Which does not make other inspired words unnecessary, but does define their exact sense. The Word of the Old Testament takes its meaning precisely because of its relationship with Jesus Christ. Now we read the Old Testament enlightened by the coming of Christ and from what He does. As Jesus himself says, in the Gospel of John: “You examine the Scriptures believing them to have eternal life; well, it is precisely they that bear witness to me”. This is seen in the apparition to the disciples of Emmaus: Jesus explains everything in the Old Testament regarding His person and His mystery. The expression of the Epistle to the Hebrews is also stimulating where it is said: by now it is blood that speaks, “with voice more eloquent than that of Abel”. The Word of God has become blood shed. It speaks of an offering of love that overcomes all obstacles to love. If one says: Word of God, the formula can convey an intellectual idea. But if we say that it is blood speaking, we understand that this doesn’t have to do with a discourse, a reasoning.
St. Augustine says: “From the Lord comes Scripture. But it has no human interest, unless Christ is recognized there”. Instead it seems that the reading of Scripture is of itself the source of the beginning of faith. Do you become Christian because you read the Bible?
VANHOYE: It can happen that reading the Bible becomes an occasion which stirs faith. I am thinking of the Church in Korea, where the Christian faith arrived through the initiatives of some intellectuals who were interested in the Bible, and then received the gift of faith, without there being the intervention of missionaries. These met with the Christian faith on the occasion of a contact with the Holy Scripture, and afterwards went to seek missionaries to set up the Church. But it is clear that at the beginning of the life of faith there is neither reading the Bible nor the work of missionaries. There is the action of the Spirit, which can make use of everything: the missionaries, the reading of the Word of God but also of means and opportunities seemingly more distant and random. It’s usually the testimony of life that attracts to the faith. Then there is also need of the living Word to explain Who it is who draws to Himself through the testimony.
Those who insist on the Word of God often seem to entrust everything to competence regarding the Sacred Scripture. As if the best thing would be for all the faithful to become exegetes, biblical scholars.
VANHOYE: The purpose of the Church is certainly not to make of every single Christian a scholar of the Word. It is necessary that some people take that on, because the Bible needs to be studied in a way that is up to the level of the culture of the time. What instead the next Synod may encourage – and I hope it does – is personal contact with biblical texts, contact which should be as objective as possible, not left to the imagination of each.
Your training took place during the years in which even in the Catholic ambience the ressourcement, the return to biblical-patristic sources, opened the path of a renewal that was to lead to Vatican Council II. What do you recall of that period?
VANHOYE: For me personally, direct contact with the Bible was facilitated by the fact that as a young religious I was professor of Classical Greek at higher level. That allowed me direct contact with the New Testament. And I was passionate about the Gospel of John, who reveals the person of Jesus. That was my “strong” experience, rather than contact with other exegetes or other authors. At that time there was still a certain remove from the biblical text, for several reasons. In particular, reading the Old Testament was discouraged because there are very realistic stories found there, which are in themselves scandalous. Now contact with the Bible is much easier. There are editions made for readers who have no special competence. Tools that help to enter the text. And then there are biblical groups, some people learn Hebrew so as to have direct contact with the original text… In short, it’s another situation entirely.
Details of the frescos of the apse of the Church of San Silvestro in Tivoli, Rome. Above, on the central axis of the drum the Incarnate Word appears in the arms of the Virgin Mary and, above, the Lamb  with a cruciform halo who sheds blood from his side, 
an image of the sacrifice of the Cross; on the left, John the Baptist who points to the Lamb, on the right, John the Evangelist with the ornamental scroll that carries the beginning of the Prologue of his Gospel

Details of the frescos of the apse of the Church of San Silvestro in Tivoli, Rome. Above, on the central axis of the drum the Incarnate Word appears in the arms of the Virgin Mary and, above, the Lamb with a cruciform halo who sheds blood from his side, an image of the sacrifice of the Cross; on the left, John the Baptist who points to the Lamb, on the right, John the Evangelist with the ornamental scroll that carries the beginning of the Prologue of his Gospel

You were chairman of the Biblical Commission in the years in which an important document on the interpretation of the Bible in the Church was prepared. Where, inter alia, there was an openness to the historical-critical method.
VANHOYE: If the Gospel is not a mythical tale and has to do with history, the tools of historical investigation may be legitimately applied to it. They must be applied. The Bible is an ancient document, which must be studied with modern scientific instruments, and this is not only legitimate, it is necessary. Otherwise contact with the Bible is not up to the level of knowledge and capability of today. But it is true that in the historical-critical method there are sometimes trends that have a sort of “sterilizing” effect on the text.
For example?
VANHOYE: In 1988 Cardinal Ratzinger gave a talk in New York criticizing the theoretical assumptions of Bultmann and Dibelius, and the historical-critical method in general in so far as it seeks to pen the text in a narrow cage, levelling it and making it a pure product of the conditions and circumstances of the time. That is what I mean by “sterilization”. Just as the study of sources or more exactly of the so-called “layers” can become sterilizing. It seems that for some scholars exegesis consists in distinguishing different successive layers: to take two verses and assign them to one source, take another two and assign them to another source, and so on. For some texts it may be useful. But more often than not, instead of providing live contact with the text it makes for a kind of dissection, of the kind performed on corpses. And it makes one lose contact with the stream of life that manifests itself in the text. In short, the historical-critical method is necessary, but it must not be conceived in too narrow a fashion. If we have a text before us, we have to take it and interpret it for what it is.
Did the historical-critical method, precisely because of this latent “dryness”, not finish by losing ground even among the scholars?
VANHOYE: The Germans have a tendency to consider everything from the historical point of view... To tell the truth, the historical-critical method has been going in recent years in a direction in some sense contrary to its primary orientation. The latest stage is the Wirkungsgeschichte, which means the “history of the effects” of a text. One is not limited anymore to the text considered at the time of its production, but it is also considered in connection with the effects that this text has produced. For example, the relationship between some texts of St. Paul – with the insistence on the justification that comes from faith – and the emergence of the Reformation. Other texts, such as the Canticle of Canticles, have had effects on the mystical and spiritual life. This shows that a text has the ability to inspire thought, emotions, affections. And in the light of these effects the text is also better understood.
Opponents of the historical-critical method often insist on the spiritual meaning of the Scriptures. In the present cultural context, is there not a risk of “going beyond” the data and making the Bible the great symbol of the religious path of humanity?
VANHOYE: The instrumentum laboris also noted “the emergence of gnostic and esoteric forms in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and of religious groups standing to themselves within the Catholic Church”… There is a danger of taking the text as a pretext for ideas, reflections, emotions, thoughts, without docility to the data of Scripture. When he began his lectio divina Cardinal Martini explained that before everything comes a careful, precise lectio: I read the text and I follow the text, I do not go beyond. This docility towards the text is the only basis for all meditation, contemplation, subsequent practical applications. The Word of God wants to be accepted as authoritative word, which brings us something, it is not simply a pretext for digressions of all kinds.
Also in the wake of the commercial success of the various Dan Browns, some popular works have returned to dealing with the relationship between the “historical Jesus” and the “Jesus of faith”. Does it make sense, according to you, to try to “reconstruct” the historical Jesus regardless of how Jesus presents Himself in the Gospels?
VANHOYE: Just a few days ago I saw another book about Jesus in which the Spanish author claims to abide strictly by data and scientific conclusions, avoiding anything that has to do with the supernatural dimension. You can always make this distinction: if one wants to study the Jesus phenomenon solely from a historical-scientific perspective it can be done. From a scholarly point of view it is always possible to take a very limited perspective, but it’s necessary to know already in advance that the conclusion also will be unilateral and limited, because the phenomenon, the data will not be known for what it is. Such an approach should never claim to determine whether or not Jesus is the Son of God.
Reading the Bible according to the Tradition makes clear that some things that might seem contradictory are actually complementary. For example, the Epistle of Saint James seems to go against the Epistles of Saint Paul on the subject of justification. But if one read the texts well, according to Tradition, we see that there is no contradiction, for Saint James also the works that justify are the work of faith. Being docile to the reading of the Bible within Tradition helps this sobriety, this wisdom
The Church has always recognized the historicity of the Gospels and Catholics have made the most of the various clues that can confirm it. Sometimes even in a naive or ideological fashion...
VANHOYE: In France I would explain to my students that the Gospels do not give us photographs, they give us paintings. Photography is more accurate. But it cannot express an overall spirit, as a painting can. The Bible itself teaches us not to be literalists: on very important issues it gives us two different versions. A striking example is the word of Jesus over the chalice. According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus taking the chalice said: “This is my blood of the covenant, shed for many”. According to Luke and Saint Paul, however, He said: “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you”. They are different formulas, even though there are common elements. A fortiori, for so many other less important things differences exist between the Gospels, that correspond to the orientation of each of them. So it is wrong to want to take from one Gospel or another some elements to make a story that would be more “faithful” and complete. Each Gospel has its own orientation. That of Matthew is an ecclesial Gospel, which offers us great discourses of Jesus. That of Mark is the Gospel of the event, of the impact of the event. That of Luke is the Gospel of the disciple who sees things in personal relationship with Jesus… Each Gospel has its inspiration, which involves differences in many details. It is a richness, but it is clear that from the material point of view it places us in embarrassment if we engage in battle to demonstrate beyond all doubt the historical incontrovertibility of all that is narrated in the Gospels.
At the Council, in the debate on the sources of Revelation that led to the Council Constitution Dei Verbum, there were heated exchanges during the debate on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. What remains now of those disputationes?
VANHOYE: Now there is greater stress on patristic exegesis. The École biblique of Jerusalem has the great project for a Bible commented in both scholarly and patristic fashion… One sees that people feel the inadequacy of the purely scholarly approach. And consider that to understand the Bible well in all its richness it’s necessary to be immersed in the current of Tradition. Which liberates one especially from unilateralism and false dialectics, such as those that set the literal sense against the spiritual sense. Reading the Bible according to the Tradition makes clear that some things that might seem contradictory are actually complementary. For example, the Epistle of Saint James seems to go against the Epistles of Saint Paul on the subject of justification. But if one reads the texts well, according to Tradition, we see that there is no contradiction, for Saint James also the works that justify are the work of faith. Being docile to the reading of the Bible within Tradition helps this sobriety, this wisdom.
You said in an interview that it is healthy to escape from the temptation to “prop on” the biblical text assumptions that Tradition came to later. Can you clarify what you were referring to?
VANHOYE: It’s always useful to distinguish. The Word of God is alive, is in a current of life. But it is always useful to distinguish what is within the text at the beginning and what Tradition legitimately added. Take the theme of the ministerial priesthood. In the New Testament, no apostle is called a priest. The title of priest is only given to Levite priests or pagan priests. But the Church, as early as the second century, attributed the title of sacerdos to the bishops. This is not based directly on the Bible, but corresponds to a new idea of the priesthood expressed precisely in the Epistles of Saint Paul. In the Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul defines his ministry in a way that corresponds to a new concept of the priesthood. He says that his ministry is the sacred work of annunciation, so that the Gentiles become an offering pleasing to God, sanctified in the Holy Spirit. This formula defines the Christian priesthood. Now there is a growing resistance to the use of the priestly vocabulary. They do not want to talk anymore about priestly ordination, they prefer presbyterial ordination… This is a material fidelity to the New Testament that is not a fidelity of spirit.
The frescoed apse of the Church of San Silvestro, situated in stupendous medieval Tivoli , goes back in all probability to the years between the end of the XII and the beginning of the XIII century. The fresco of the apsidal bowl, according to many experts, 
traces from the iconographic point of view the lost mosaic  of the ancient apse of the old Vatican Basilica. Almost all the critics date the frescos of San Silvestro back to the same workshop (the so-called First Master or the Master of the Apocalypse) that also frescoed a large part of the crypt of the Cathedral of Anagni

The frescoed apse of the Church of San Silvestro, situated in stupendous medieval Tivoli , goes back in all probability to the years between the end of the XII and the beginning of the XIII century. The fresco of the apsidal bowl, according to many experts, traces from the iconographic point of view the lost mosaic of the ancient apse of the old Vatican Basilica. Almost all the critics date the frescos of San Silvestro back to the same workshop (the so-called First Master or the Master of the Apocalypse) that also frescoed a large part of the crypt of the Cathedral of Anagni

How can this distinction be applied to the issue of the Primacy? The Orthodox, even those most involved in ecumenical dialogue, will not deal with the problem from the exegetical point of view.
VANHOYE: One sees in all the Gospels and in the Epistles of Saint Paul that Peter received a special mission. It’s really impressive, for example, to review the scene of the vocation of Peter. There are at least four people, in addition to Jesus, in that scene: Andrew and Peter, James and John. But Jesus only addressed Peter.
Disputes between “creationists and “evolutionists” in the United States have again brought up the subject of the inerrancy of the Sacred Scriptures. What do you think?
VANHOYE: Inerrancy was well defined in Dei Verbum, with that phrase, very subtly shaded, which says that it touches all the things that God wanted to disclose for our salvation. God did not wish to reveal whether the earth is flat or round and whether or not it rotates around the sun. The Bible doesn’t present a creation theory. It affirms that God is creator, and then presents the creation in an imaginative way. There is no scientific theory about creation in the Bible. I am always struck that the Dei Verbum used that formula: “The truth that in view of our salvation God decided to comunicate to us”. It could have simply talked of salvific truth. But such an expression would have led to thinking of a series of religious formulas. But the truths that are communicated to us in Sacred Scripture in view of our salvation are also facts, such as the birth of Jesus, the Crucifixion and apparitions of the Risen Christ.
You said that Cardinal Ratzinger was very respectful of the work of the Biblical Commission, even when it made much of, in the document mentioned, the historical-critical method, about which the Prefect of the former Holy Office had publicly expressed his objections.
VANHOYE: The position of the members of the Biblical Commission was that the historical-critical method did not depend on the theoretical-philosophical assumptions of Bultmann and Dibelius. It is inevitable that all scholars adopt their own assumptions. But we should not confuse method and assumptions. Catholic exegetes can adopt the method, without assuming the naturalistic-historicist presuppositions of the founders of the method.
Now Ratzinger has become Benedict XVI. And he has written the first part of a book about Jesus that closely questions the research of biblical scholars and exegetes. What impact will this particular situation have on the Synod?
VANHOYE: It is clear that the Pope during his theological training was uncomfortable with the historical-critical method, as it was used in Germany. His perspective is much more positive: to look for the deep current of Revelation, to focus on the life of Jesus and not become embroiled in endless discussions about minor details or conflicting interpretations. It is a much more “nutritious” approach for the faith and Christian life. Of course, he said so himself, his infallibility is not involved in the book about Jesus. That is the work of a professor become pope. The Synod will have no difficulty with this situation. The Pope is a bishop who contributes to the life of the Church. With all his intellectual and affective capacities.


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