On the Synergy of Sacred Scripture – A Reflection on the Pope’s Teaching in the Post Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini

In the past few days we have reviewed how a humanist group has misused Scripture in an Ad campaign designed to ridicule faith in God. In their human kindness they have chosen the Christmas season to do this. Their misuse of Scripture centers on pulling individual verses from the Bible and posting them out of context and apart from the wider Biblical tradition that often clarifies, balances or distinguishes them.

Pope Benedict recently spoke to this very problem in his Post Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini. His main point is that individual verses of Scripture must be understood in relation to the whole of scripture, not isolated from it. I’d like to quote a couple sections of the exhortation so we can learn from the Pope an important lesson about Scriptural interpretation.

From letter to the deeper spirit and meaning of the text – In this first quote the Pope makes reference to the literal sense or meaning of a text. Literal here signifies what a text is saying in the literary sense, not necessarily that it should be understood without any symbolic or figurative meaning, not that it cannot have an analogical, allegorical,  or spiritual meaning. The “literal” sense emphasizes what the text is saying, its sentence structure, its grammar, its basic message. However, understanding what the text is merely saying is not enough. We must move on to understand what the text means at a deeper and wider level than its mere literary meaning. The letter must give way to the deeper spiritual meaning. And here is where the Pope picks up:

In rediscovering the interplay between the  different senses of Scripture  it thus becomes essential  to grasp the passage from letter to spirit…..This progression  cannot take place with regard to an individual  literary fragment unless it is seen in relation to  the whole of Scripture. Indeed, the goal to which  we are necessarily progressing is the one Word.  There is an inner drama in this process…. Saint  Paul lived this passage to the full in his own life.  In his words: “ the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life ”  (2 Cor 3:6), he expressed in radical terms the significance of this process of transcending the letter  and coming to understand it only in terms  of the whole…… We know that for Saint  Augustine too this passage was at once dramatic  and liberating; he came to believe the Scriptures  – which at first sight struck him as so disjointed  in themselves and in places so coarse – through  the very process of transcending the letter which  he learned from Saint Ambrose in typological interpretation,  wherein the entire Old Testament is  a path to Jesus Christ. For Saint Augustine, transcending  the literal sense made the letter itself credible, and enabled him to find at last the answer  to his deep inner restlessness and his thirst  for truth. (Verbum Domini, 38)

Hence, to grasp the letter of a text (i.e., what is this text saying) is important because it lays out the data before us. But the next necessary step is to move from letter to spirit so that, by God’s grace and the instruction of the Church we are able to increasingly grasp what the text really means, not merely what it is saying. The Pope is clear to point out that movement from letter to spirit cannot happen if a text is isolated from the whole of Scripture.

But Scripture is not considered only in terms of the whole, but also in terms of its direction or goal. And this goal is Christ. Hence as St. Ambrose taught Augustine and we are reminded by Pope Benedict: the entire Old Testament is  a path to Jesus Christ. Thus we look back to and interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ. God dealt with ancient Israel in stages where he increasingly led them away from barbarity and incivility by the Law and prophets. In these Last Days he speaks to us through his Son and seeks to perfect us even further through his grace. So, each passage or verse of Scripture must be understood in relation to not only the whole of scripture but also its place in the “trajectory” of Scripture.

Thus, what our humanist friends did in the Ads we have discussed was an inauthentic use of scripture. It is not possible to simply yank a verse out of thin air then say, “See here! Look at what they believe.” Or “Look at what their holy book says!” For example, in quoting from 1 Samuel as they did wherein God seems to command genocide, or to quote Leviticus, that those guilty of homosexual acts are to be stoned to death, in doing this our humanist critics fail to see where these texts are on the trajectory of Scripture or how they relate to the whole of it. We have come a long way as God’s people from the time of such cruelties. God has led us in this manner. The committing of genocide is unthinkable today given where God has led us. And, although homosexual acts are still spoken of as sinful at every stage of revelation, the death penalty for sexual sins has been set aside by Jesus own example (e.g. John 8).

In this next passage the Pope emphasizes the ultimate unity of all Scripture in the Person of Jesus Christ. All the Scriptures find their ultimate unity and meaning in him. This is done is at least three ways. Continuity, wherein Jesus affirms and brings forward Old Testament teachings and understandings, deepening them and fulfilling their meaning in a fairly straight-forward way. Discontinuity, wherein Jesus fulfills Old Testament texts in a paradoxical way (especially by suffering and dying) and sets aside certain or replaces certain Old Testament practices or understandings (e.g. the antitheses of Matt 5, the canceling of dietary laws in Mk 7:19). And Fulfillment wherein he transposes ancient texts and practices to a higher thing (e.g. the passover meal now becomes the Eucharistic Banquet). The Pope writes:

In the passage from letter to spirit, we also  learn, within the Church’s great tradition, to see  the unity of all Scripture, grounded in the unity  of God’s word, which challenges our life and constantly  calls us to conversion. Here the words  of Hugh of Saint Victor remain a sure guide: “ All  divine Scripture is one book, and this one book is  Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in  Christ ”. Viewed in purely historical or literary  terms, of course, 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…..which nonetheless  are seen in their entirety as the one word of God  addressed to us. This makes it clear that the person  of Christ gives unity to all the “ Scriptures ”  in relation to the one “ Word”….(Verbum Domini,  39).

Moreover, the New Testament itself claims  to be consistent with the Old and proclaims that  in the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Christ the sacred Scriptures of the Jewish  people have found their perfect fulfillment. It  must be observed, however, that the concept of  the fulfillment of the Scriptures is a complex one,  since it has three dimensions: a basic aspect of  continuity with the Old Testament revelation, an  aspect of discontinuity and an aspect of fulfillment  and transcendence. The mystery of Christ stands in  continuity of intent with the sacrificial cult of the  Old Testament, but it came to pass in a very different  way, corresponding to a number of prophetic  statements and thus reaching a perfection  never previously obtained. …The paschal mystery  of Christ is in complete conformity – albeit  in a way that could not have been anticipated –  with the prophecies and the foreshadowings of  the Scriptures; yet it presents clear aspects of discontinuity  with regard to the institutions of the  Old Testament.Verbum Domini, 40).

  Three essential keys to interpretation – Thus Scriptural interpretation for a Catholic must admit of a careful sophistication wherein an individual passage is seen in its relationship to three things:

  1. The whole of Scripture
  2. Its place on the overall trajectory of Scripture
  3. Its relationship to the Person and Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.

Surely too an appreciation of the genre and basic literary devices like hyperbole, metaphor, simile, analogy and so forth is also essential. Since the Scriptures are a Church Book, one would also never presume to read them apart from the beliving community or in opposition to the magisterium.

If we fail to do this we risk not only misinterpreting Scripture but also of getting stuck in some of the difficult or problematic texts of the Old Testament especially. We have seen in the first quote above how St. Augustine overcame his own difficulties in the regard by focusing on Christ and seeing everything in relation to him.

Help for the Dark Passages of Scripture – In the last two days one of the conversation threads has focused on the problematic texts of the Old Testament wherein God called for a “Ban” wherein every living human being, and every animal in a given town was to be killed. Texts like these shock us, and they should. But we must also remember they are very early in the trajectory of Sacred Scripture and such practices were discontinued by God as he led his people away from brutality and instructed them through the prophets to act with justice and learn of mercy. Here too the Pope comments on this “Dark Passages:”

In discussing the relationship between the  Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also  considered those passages in the Bible which,  due to the violence and immorality they occasionally  contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it  must be remembered first and foremost that biblical  revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan  is manifested progressively and it is accomplished  slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.  God chose a people and patiently worked  to guide and educate them. 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,  without explicitly denouncing the immorality of  such things. This can be explained by the historical  context, yet it can cause the modern reader to  be taken aback….In  the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets  vigorously challenged every kind of injustice  and violence, whether collective or individual,  and thus became God’s way of training his people  in preparation for the Gospel. So it would a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture  that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should  be aware that the correct interpretation of these  passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired  through a training that interprets the texts in their  historical-literary context and within the Christian  perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical  key “ the Gospel and the new commandment  of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery  ”. (Verbum Domini 42)

Conclusion – And thus the Pope instructs us on the careful, nuanced and sophisticated care that Catholics must bring to Scriptural reading and understanding. Simple proof texting can have a place in setting forth teachings. But generally we ought to be careful of pulling out “one-liners” to illustrate complex theological teachings. The use of Scripture as a foundation of doctrinal teaching is proper and essential  but we must be careful to be sure the passages are used authentically, in proper relation to the whole of scripture, its trajectory and ultimate relationship to Christ. Scripture has a sacred synergy which is not usually well served by a simplistic singling out of the Sacred text.

18 Replies to “On the Synergy of Sacred Scripture – A Reflection on the Pope’s Teaching in the Post Synodal Exhortation Verbum Domini”

  1. A Catholic “Study” style of bible such as the NAB (New American Bible) provides the interpretation of scripture in footnotes. This is very helpful because the footnotes explain the relationship of a particular reading to another reading in another book of the bible. It will compare a new testament reading from Matthew to a reading in the book of Acts, or to an old testiment reading. In the beginning of the Bible it has a section called: How to use this Study Bible. It has resources such as ‘Reading Guides’ found in front section for each book. The guides helps lead the reader through the structure and basic message of the book. The Study Bible also has ‘The Articles’ which explain the Roman Catholic view of Scripture and the meaning of bibical inspirition. It’s section on ‘History and Archaeology’ offer a overview of major periods of bibical history. This type of bible makes the interpretation without struggling on your own to try and figure out what it means. This style of bible makes one reading harmonize with the others so the ‘Story of the Event of Jesus’ is played out before you like a master playwright.

    Pope Benedict the XVI-th’s book titled, “Jesus of Nazarath” is an easy reader, and gives a real basic understanding of Christ’s mission. The book deals in “Christology”, the person and work of Jesus. The book puts a face on God. The book tells the story of the person Jesus, intertwined with scripture for an easy understanding of what Jesus was accomplishing during His mission on earth. This book is almost like having a personal encounter with Christ.

    Regarding our Humanist adversary, remember what Jesus taught us when He said: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Mt. 5:44-45).

    Msgr. Pope, your web site, and Catechism of scripture has been like a “Lamp unto my feet, and a Light unto my path; Psalm 119:105 (there I go with those one liners, LOL (laugh out loud)).”

    1. Thanks for these remarks. I will say though, I have come to be very troubled by the footnotes in the NAB. We have discussed that on this blog before. At any rate I am always most grateful for your contributions here!

      1. Very helpful article. I’m curious why you are troubled by the footnotes? Do you think they detract from understanding the truth of Scripture? What would you say to a fundamentalist Christian who discards the opinion of the Pope and does not accept Catholic tradition including other saints like Ambrose and Augustine?

  2. Ok Msgr Pope, I need help with the term “trajectory”. Is Jesus Christ the ULTIMATE trajectory. I could pose some other questions about this word but I better keep it simple. Trajectory?.

    1. Jesus is the destination, not the trajectory, which is the path taken through Salvation History toward Jesus.

      Upon eating the Fruit, man fell further and further away from God. The journey back to God, which culminated in Christ, was a long and arduous journey, but that journey followed a specific path, a trajectory.

      Some moments in Salvation History are closer to Him, but in some moments, mankind is pretty far away, mankind is savage and has some pretty twisted ideas about God, as in the times of polytheism and human sacrifice. And God deals with man as he existed in that particular period of history, just as any father deals with his teenaged kids differently than he treats his toddlers. To fully understand a given passage or chapter or book, one cannot read it in isolation, but must know the underlying and overall contexts, that is, where in that moment in Salvation History, where along that journey, that trajectory leading to Christ, that it takes place.

    2. A trajectory is the full course of something and the direction in which it is headed. Bender is right Jesus is the destination. The historical journey of God’s people toward him is the path or trajectory on which God leads us.

  3. As a former Protestant who spent many years in various denominations and fairly recently came into the Catholic church, I understand and agree with what you’re saying. And looking back, I wonder why it took me so long to see it!

    Part of that of course was being what I considered a “Bible Christian” and having many false ideas about what the Catholic church believed and taught, therefore resisting anyone who would try to correct me until I met someone who was just as persistent as I was. And in looking back I can see that I bought into the various misinterpretations and misunderstandings of Scripture that Protestant denominations were founded on.

    You hit the nail on the head with “Three essential keys to interpretation”. And the lack thereof begins in Sunday school with the stories of Moses in the Bulrushes, David and Goliath, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, and so on even into the New Testament with the miracles of Jesus, for example. Nowhere along the way do these stories get tied into the whole of Scripture, their place on the overall trajectory of Scripture and their relationship to the Person and Paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, so adults are left with isolated Bible stories.

    Once a pastor friend of mine jokingly said, “Pick a verse and build a church” but there were serious undertones and he no longer is a pastor. I was also told at one time when I was working with children and using the Psalms as models of worship that they were “Old Testament and we are a New Testament church.”

    As I continue on my journey in the Catholic church I am truly grateful to the Magisterium and the Catholic Catechism – trustworthy guides! My only regret is that it took me so long to cross the Tiber!

  4. >>>Their misuse of Scripture centers on pulling individual verses from the Bible and posting them out of context and apart from the wider Biblical tradition that often clarifies, balances or distinguishes them.

    Ironically, the “humanists” are reading scripture like “fundamentalists” (as Fr. Barron notes). Yves Congar has been really helpful for me in understanding how to interpret scripture. He mentions sacred liturgy as foundational:

    “Used alone, the Bible might produce a Christian of the Puritan tradition, an individualist and even a visionary. The liturgy, however, is the authentic method instituted by the Church to unite souls to Jesus. The sort of Christian produced by an enlightened and docile participation in the liturgy is a man at peace and unified in every fiber of his human nature, by the secret and powerful penetration of faith and love in his life.”

    This other quote has been very helpful to me as well:

    “Tradition is not disjunctive; it is synthesis and harmony. It does not skirt around the subject, isolating a few texts, but on the contrary operates from within, linking the texts to the center by situating the details in relation to the esssential.”

    Excellent article. I pray that we are on the verge of a time of renewed love for and investigation of Sacred Scripture. One of my prayers for Advent has been to have a renewed thirst for encountering God via scripture.

    I’d also recommend a very insightful article at the website Called to Communion on the concept of The Divine Metaphor.

    Great stuff from both you and Fr. Barron.

  5. Your recent posts have been very helpful in understanding the logical errors of the atheists. This post and the UTube video are a good summary of how Catholics interpret the Bible. It is helpful not only in dealing with the atheists but in dealing with fundamentalist Christians.

    One area you alluded to in a previous post is epistemology. I looked at the Wikipedia material about it, but found it confusing. If you ever have the time to elaborate on that branch of philosophy many of us might find it beneficial.

  6. How much does a gallon of gasoline cost in the United States?

    That should take care of the blasphemous billboards.
    Go ahead: Cleanse the temple.


    1. And if you have legal concerns, just consider fire the ultimate expression of Free Speech.

      No-one can deny that that would be a statement.

  7. @Gabriel:
    IMO we are supposed to pray for those who harm us, not set them (or their property) on fire.

  8. I want to make sure that I was not misunderstanding Fr. Barron. Was he saying in this clip that the Siege of Jericho was not a event that happened within history? He seems to make this statement with much confidence as if it could not be real because God would not do such a thing. I am not saying that applying this event in a spiritual way to each person regarding sin is not good, I just don’t understand how he can just white wash the whole event away; maybe he should share the evidence for such a thought. I don’t even see the need to try to make this supposed “problem” go away. The comment flirts with the idea that we should just preach the good part (love) and leave the punishment of sin out of it. No where does it say in the Book of Joshua that God did not love any of the people that lost their lives and it surely does not speak of what happened to them after bodily death. I think most people that get hung up on such “bad” stories in the Bible tend to only focus on bodily death and forget that spiritual death is greater, and no one knows that except God and those already in Heaven.


    1. No I don’t think Fr. Barron is denying that the Ban texts were not historical fact. However, for Christians today we read them in an allegorical sense: that we should make no compromises with evil. What was once lived by the ancients as an actual or literal command to carry out the ban still apllies to us today. Not literally in that we can kill others, but allegorically, in a spiritual sense and we, by God’s grace totally defeat the power of evil in us.

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