When I ask most people, even Catholics what is meant by Divine revelation, they usually get around to equating revelation with the Bible. Now that is not wholly wrong. But Divine revelation is far more than a book, more than ink spots on paper.
Post Benedict has just issued the Post Synodal Exhortation, Verbum Domini: The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I have just begun to read it, but, even early on there is much to consider. I want to present a paragraph to you and then comment on it. In this paragraph the Pope reminds us that Revelation transcends the pages of a book and that the Word of God must be read and understood in the light of the Tradition from which it emerged:
While the Christ event is at the heart of divine revelation, we also need to realize that creation itself, the liber naturae is an essential part of this symphony of many voices in which the one word is spoken. We also profess our faith that God has spoken his word in salvation history; he has made his voice heard; by the power of his Spirit “ he has spoken through the prophets.” God’s word is thus spoken through the history of salvation and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. Then too, the word of God is that word preached by the Apostles in obedience to the command of the Risen Jesus: “ Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation ” (Mk 16:15) The word of God is thus handed on in the Church’s living Tradition. Finally, the word of God, attested and divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. All this helps us to see that, while in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a “ religion of the book ”:Christianity is the “ religion of the word of God ”, not of “ a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.” Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable. (Verbum Domini # 7)
I can be noted that Pope Benedict distinguishes stages to Revelation. The word of God is more than a Book. A book is one manifestation of it, but the sacred page is not alone the word of God. Lets look at the stages the Pope describes, all of which are revelatory and aspects of the word of God:
- Creation itself – the text says, creation itself, the liber naturae is an essential part of this symphony of many voices in which the one word is spoken. Even before one human word is spoken or written, creation itself discloses and reveals God. Scripture itself affirms this. For example: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world (Ps 19:1-4). St. Paul also says, For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made (Rom 1:19). Thus even before a human word is uttered or written, God’s own work of creation witnesses to his existence, power, order and divinity. Creation is part of this one Word uttered by the Father. We hear it in many voices but it is one Word. Creation, part of the word in itself, also becomes the theatre, or stage, upon which and within the other stages of revelation are manifest.
- Historical event – the text says, We also profess our faith that God has spoken his word in salvation history; Thus the next stage or facet of Revelation, of the word is historical event and our experience and interpretation of it. Before anything could be written it had first to happen and be experienced.
- Interpretation and proclamation – the text says [God] has made his voice heard; by the power of his Spirit “ he has spoken through the prophets.” God’s word is thus spoken through the history of salvation and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. Then too, the word of God is that word preached by the Apostles in obedience to the command of the Risen Jesus… Once something happens and is experienced it is interpreted and proclaimed. The Pope writes of prophets (beginning with Moses and extending down through Malachi) who proclaimed what God had done. But their interpretation was not merely a human one. The Pope is clear to state our belief that God’s Holy Spirit inspired and guided the prophets. As we say of the Holy Spirit in the Creed : He has spoken through the prophets. So, event, salvation history, interpreted and understood by the Prophets under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the next stage or facet of Revelation. Now the greatest event of Salvation History is surely the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. This point too is made in Scripture: In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. (Heb 1:1-4). And like the Prophets of old the apostles experience, interpret by the Holy Spirit, and proclaim these events as the word goes forth from them.
- The Handing on (Traditio) – the text says, The word of God is thus handed on in the Church’s living Tradition– The collected expereinces of how God has acted and the inspired and an authentic understanding of them is collected, repeated and handed down through the generations. This process had occured beginning in Old Testament times, but continues on through the death of the last apostle. Notice we have not yet mentioned a book, (though the Old Testament writings came into written form before the death of the last apostle) for the Church’s reception of the Word of God involves more than a written document, but, more widely, the sacred deposit of memory of how God has acted and what he has said, and the authentic interpretation of those events and spoken words of God. It is this whole reality that makes up the “traditio” (what is “handed on”). Without this, events, and the understanding of those events would remain locked in history and unavailable to our corporate memory and experience. St Paul affirms this sacred Tradition when he says, I handed on to you what I myself received…. (1 Cor 11:23). And again, So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thess 2:15). Hence, note that Paul binds them not only to what is written but to the traditions which also were taught by word of mouth. The Word of God which is handed on (traditio) transcends merely what is written.
- The written stage – the text says: Finally, the word of God, attested and divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. Note that the Pope uses the word “finally” to describe the written stage. The word “scripture” means, “something “scripted,” or “written.” This writing down or scripting of the Sacred Tradition is most blessed indeed but, as we shall see, Scripture is not meant to eclipse or wholly replace the living Tradition of the community which God inspires to make this recording of their memories of how He has acted and what He has said. Notice that Pope Benedict is clear to say that this written stage, this attestation, is divinely inspired. Hence we can be confident that there is no error of fact or teaching about any matter of faith or morals in Scripture. But like any written text, it must be interpreted. Words are analogical, they represent what happen, they are not WHAT happened, they represent what happened. Words often fall short or need to be interpreted. Hence the Scriptures cannot be divorced from the community through who God inspired the text or from the Sacred Tradition of which the text is a part.
This then leads to an important conclusion in the paragraph: All this helps us to see that, while in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a “ religion of the book.” Christianity is the “ religion of the word of God ”, not of “ a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.” Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable.
Of this concluding part of the paragraph I need say little more except to end where we began. The Word of God is more than ink spots on the pages of a book. The Word of God is Jesus Christ and he is alive and active in his Church. While formal revelation ended with the death of the Last Apostle, Jesus Christ continues to guide and protect his Church, his Body in understanding the Word he has proclaimed in creation, in what we have experienced in salvation history, received through the prophets and apostles and handed down through the generations, what we have also written as a part of that font of holy Tradition. The Word is not dead and mute on the pages of a book, but alive and active in his Church and guiding us to a deep and rich understanding of what he gave to his Apostles and prophets and they handed down to us. The Word of God is more than a book.
This Song says (in Latin)
Verbum Caro factum est. Habitavit in nobis (The Word became flesh & dwelt among us)
Notum fecit Dominus, salutare suum (The Lord has made his salvation known)
Prope invocavit me, Pater meus es tu (Near is He who calls me, You are my Father)