When I saw the announcement that the 2008 Synod of Bishops will focus on Sacred Scripture, I thought: “Didn’t the Church just issue a major document on that recently?” It turns out that the document I had in mind was issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission fifteen years ago, in 1993. Does that qualify as recent? Tempus fugit.
The earlier document, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, was an outstanding exposition of the Bible as the Church’s book, a book that can be understood only in the context of the Church and her authority. The 2008 Synod will attempt to carry this a step further by having the world’s bishops reflect on how to foster prayerful reading, deep understanding, and faithful proclamation of the Word of God. The outline, or lineamenta, for this year’s topic was released at the end of last year’s Synod: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church.
The final results, which will be written up and published some months after the 2008 Synod is held in October, can’t come too soon. Modern Biblical scholarship has had an unfortunate tendency to reduce the meaning of Scripture not only to the literal sense but to whatever aspect of the literal sense is thought to have been widely understood in the culture of the time in which it was written. So much for reading the Old Testament as a book which points to Jesus Christ. So much for seeing connections and themes which persist from one book to another even though the human authors never knew each other. So much for the authorship of the Holy Spirit, Who presumably had all times and all peoples in mind. And we might as well forget altogether the various spiritual senses, discarding the allegorical (typical), tropological (moral) and anagogical (eschatological) meanings contained in God’s richly layered Word.
Happily, in recent years interest has been growing in reading Scripture again as the Fathers read it, not abandoning modern critical methods but integrating them into a much larger and more spacious vision. The most fundamental fact of Biblical exegesis is that it is impossible to comprehend Scripture without Faith. We need Faith in the Father as the One with an eternal Plan, Faith in the Holy Spirit as the ultimate author, and Faith in the Son as the author’s subject. We also need Faith in the Church as the authoritative body to which Scripture has been entrusted, because the Church alone possesses the magisterial power of the Blessed Trinity to ensure that we know what books make up the inspired text and, when confusion arises, what the inspired text means and does not mean.
Apart from such Faith, Scripture is dead. With even a little Faith, it becomes a living book, speaking to us here and now, across the ages, teaching us about our relationship with God. So I look forward to the work of the 2008 Synod. Indeed, the Synod’s secretary-general, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, says that the Church will make use of the Synod to fight “Biblical illiteracy” among Catholics, and notes that the Synod discussions are intended to have a “pastoral and missionary character”, especially in light of the current Year of St. Paul.
Clearly it is time to read Scripture with fresh eyes and fresh energy: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, and that preacheth peace: of him that sheweth forth good, that preacheth salvation, that saith to Sion: Thy God shall reign!” (Is 52:7)
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