Cardinal Kurt Koch


1. The centrality of God’s Word in the life of the Church

“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body”[2]. With these words the Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on Divine Revelation, “Dei verbum”, expresses the fundamental importance of God’s word in Sacred Scriptures in the life of the Church. It is no coincidence that this important statement is linked to the liturgy, the privileged place where the word of God is proclaimed. This underlines the close link between the proclamation of God’s Word and the Eucharist, between the table of the Word and the table of Christ’s body. This inseparable bond was reflected during the Second Vatican Council by Sacred Scripture being placed at the center of St. Peter’s Basilica for veneration during the Eucharist, which was celebrated at the beginning of every main session. In this way, the centrality of God’s word in the life of the Church was visibly communicated to believers.

Sacred Scripture is the foundation of the Church’s teaching and preaching, and their ongoing renewal. A brief look at Church´s history shows that the Church has in critical situations always reminded itself that the proclamation of God’s word must take first place in the life of the Church. Let us here recall Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, the two founders of the mendicant orders. Their primary objective was not to found a new order but to renew the Church inside out by using the Gospel as their foundation. By endeavoring to live according to the Gospel “sine glossa”, with the people of God consequently being renewed from within, they left their stamp on the Church to the effect that the true reformers of the Church and society are the saints who are inspired and led by the word of God.

Or take Charles Borromeo, the great Archbishop of Milan. Upon taking office in this north Italian city, he diagnosed the absence of sermons as one of the most widespread and serious failings of the clergy. He saw apostolic proclamation as the main purpose of his mission as Archbishop, and, more specifically, the need “To be witnesses, to proclaim the mysteries of Christ, to preach the Gospel to every creature”[3]. Borromeo also knew that the proclaimer first had to be the recipient of God’s word and had to allow himself to be touched by it. Because anyone wanting to witness to God’s word has to be familiar with the Word before proclaiming it.

The Second Vatican Council, whose objective was also a renewal of the Church from within, belongs to this same tradition of Church´s renewal, where the primacy of God’s word in the life of the Church has been brought to bear again and again. The Council has above all given expression to the fundamental significance of God’s word in the life of the Church by devoting one of the major constitutions to divine revelation. In the dogmatic constitution “Dei verbum”, the Council set forth the Church’s teaching on divine revelation and how it is handed on “so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love”[4]. It is therefore not surprising that this Council was quite emphatic in stressing that the proclamation of God’s word occupies “an eminent place” among a bishop’s principal duties: “For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old”[5]. The Council defines both the Bishop and the priest primarily on the basis of their ministry to God’s word and not their sacramental ministry. This is evident in the liturgy for a bishop’s consecration, with the rite where the Gospel is placed on the candidate’s head during the preface to consecration, as a symbol of the burden he will have to carry: “The burdened person thus becomes the bearer of God, a person carrying His living Word Jesus Christ”[6].

Ever since the Second Vatican Council underlined the eminent significance of the word of God in the life of the church in general and in the mission of the bishop and the priest in particular, popes have not tired of again placing the proclamation of the Gospel at the center of church life. In his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii nuntiandi” in 1975, Pope Paul VI discerned the Church’s most fundamental identity in its evangelic activity: “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize”[7]. In his Apostolic Letter “Novo millennio ineunte”, which Pope John Paul II wrote at the close of the Jubilee Year 2000 and in which he presented a pastoral program for the Church at the beginning of the third millennium, he initiated a comprehensive new-evangelization program to be undertaken with fresh enthusiasm, placing particular emphasis on the need to listen to and proclaim the word of God: “this is surely a priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium”[8]. In order to make the primacy of God’s word in the life and mission of the Church the center of attention, Pope Benedict XVI dedicated the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2008 to the theme “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”. He followed up on the outcome of this synod in his post-synodal exhortation “Verbum Domini”, stating that “There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God, the God who speaks to us and shares his love so that we might have life in abundance”[9]. And in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii gaudium” of 2015, Pope Francis invited the church to “a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come”[10]. 

Sacred Scripture is of fundamental importance also on the way to ecumenical reunification of Christian believers. It becomes visible when one considers that the church schisms in the western Church in the 16th century began with a controversial reading and interpretation of God’s word, and “in a certain sense, extended into the Bible itself”[11]. But within the ecumenical movement there is now an awareness that the schisms, too, can be overcome only through a common reading of Sacred Scripture. In this context, for example, we have received a big gift in the form of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” which was ratified in Augsburg in 1999. While it is this doctrine which is largely responsible for the schism of the Western Church, it appears that there is meanwhile far-reaching ecumenical consensus since both Protestants and Catholics hold to the testimony of the New Testament. The act of listening together to the word of God bears great potential for the ecumenical reunification of Christian believers. If we want to again find the unity in the faith which makes us one, we must together listen to the word of God of which Sacred Scripture testifies.


2. Understanding and interpreting Sacred Scripture

In this larger context one needs to pursue the question of how the Bible is viewed, read and interpreted in both the tradition and  the present within the Catholic Church. This question is best answered with the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, “Dei verbum”, which the deceased Cardinal Carlo M. Martini acknowledged as “possibly the most wonderful document of the Council”[12]. The third chapter, which deals with “divine inspiration” and the “Interpretation of Sacred Scripture”, alludes to two basic tensions which characterize the life of the Church with God’s word and which we will now examine more closely.


a) Historical exegesis and interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the spirit of the Church

The first basic tension is clearly expressed in Article 12 of “Dei verbum”, where it says: “Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words”. These words highlight the challenge and the fundamental significance of the historical method of scriptural interpretation as an indispensable part of exegetical efforts. On the other hand, we are reminded of the actual theological dimension of scriptural interpretation and are instructed that “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written”. In concrete terms this requires us to correctly determine the meaning of Sacred Scripture so that “no less serious attention” is “given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking into account the living tradition of the whole Church along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith”. This basic tension actually gives rise to the twofold character of Sacred Scripture, that it is the word of God, while being aware that is was uttered in and through the words of human beings, with these words containing God´s living word to mankind.

The question then is how to reconcile both methods of interpretation. In accordance with its own rules, the historical-critical exegesis is concerned with what the biblical writers intend to express, with the source and the oldest state of a text, and therefore also has to stand up to the unfamiliar nature of historical texts. On the other hand, the interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the spirit in which it was written considers Sacred Scripture as an integral whole in God’s great historical struggle with mankind and in the human being’s search for God. Closely linked to this is a second difference: historical scriptural interpretation involves the individual exegete’s search for the authentic meaning of a biblical text, and trying to bring his efforts into critical correlation with the consensus of the exegetes. But in the case of interpretation of Sacred Scripture in the spirit in which it was written, it is primarily the Church community which interprets Sacred Scripture. It does this in the life context of the Church’s entire tradition, which, while reaching beyond Sacred Scripture, revolves around it as its centrality because Sacred Scripture, according to its true nature, is itself tradition. In this context, the Constitution of Divine Revelation defines the exegete’s task as working “toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature”[13].

Despite these fundamental differences, both approaches to interpretation belong together in a constant tension. This point was already emphasized by the great medieval theologian Hugh of Saint-Victor, rightly described as the “second Augustine”, when he warned of a twofold danger. He used a metaphor to describe one danger: theologians would behave like scholars of grammar who do not know the alphabet. The other danger is that one concentrates only on the alphabet and loses sight of the beautiful harmony of grammar. An important concern of the Council’s Constitution of Divine Revelation is the need to overcome both dangers, and the perception of the second basic tension discerned by the Constitution, which is linked to the first and is also explained in Article 12 of “Dei verbum.”    


b) Scientific exegesis and theological interpretation of Sacred Scripture

On the one hand, this Article confirms the necessity for the historical-critical method whose key features are briefly described and educed from the fact that the outworking of God’s plan of salvation of which Sacred Scripture testifies really is true history and not mythology, and therefore has to be considered with serious historical methods. On the other hand, the Constitution of Divine Revelation also calls for a theological scriptural interpretation which assumes the unity of Sacred Scripture. In concrete terms, this means that every biblical text needs to be read in the relation with the whole Sacred Scripture, right up to the most ancient unity of Old and New Testament, or more precisely, of the “library of God’s people, Israel and the Church”[14]. This points to a method which is today described as “canonical exegesis”, but whose core can be traced back to Johann Sebastian Drey, founder of the Catholic School of Tübingen in the 19th century: “While interpretation always first commences with individual texts, its objective is to bring about an understanding of the whole… A whole is here first the individual section of a book, then the book itself, thereafter all the writings of a biblical author, and finally the whole Bible itself as canon. One can see how canon here occurs as a necessary idea”[15].

The richness of the biblical message is not diminished but rather underlined in those instances where both methodological approaches for reading and interpreting Sacred Scripture complement and challenge one another. But in those places where both methods are no longer mutually productive we see a deep rift opening up between the historical and theological interpretation of Sacred Scripture, which presents a big pastoral problem. This is reflected in the frequently bemoaned helplessness in the preparation of sermons, and in the difficulty experienced in achieving impartiality when exercising the lectio divina as a spiritual reading of Scripture. For the life and mission of the Church it is therefore imperative that the dangerous dualism of exegesis and theology is overcome and that both methods of scriptural interpretation required by the Constitution of Divine Revelation are taken seriously: “When exegesis is not theology, Sacred Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and vice versa; when theology is not essentially interpretation of Sacred Scripture within the Church, then this theology no longer has a foundation”[16].

We need to look at this problem more thoroughly[17]. The methodology of historical-critical exegesis substantiates that it considers Sacred Scripture a book of the past, which deals with past events and interpretations. The word of God then primarily appears as a word of the past which has to be interpreted in a historical context – something which is certainly necessary for an understanding of Sacred Scripture. Because a believer must want to listen carefully to what the text is actually saying in order to grasp its true meaning. However, in cases where historical-critical exegesis is used and therefore absolutized as the only method for understanding Sacred Scripture, we encounter the problem already pointedly observed by Pope Benedict XVI in one of his former essays: “To simply encase God’s word in the past is to deny the Bible as Bible. An interpretation of Sacred Scripture that is concerned merely with a historical approach, with things past, leads with inner consequence to a denial of canon, and in this respect to a denial of the Bible as Bible”[18].


3. Sacred Scripture and the Church

On the other hand, truly accepting canon as canon means reading the word of God over and beyond its historical moment, to encounter the word of God not only as a Word enacted in the past but as a Word given by God through man in days long past to mankind of all times as His present Word and therefore to perceive the people of God as the actual author in the various authors. This automatically raises the question of the relationship between Sacred Scripture and the Church.


a) Sacred Scripture in the realm of the Church

It is assumed that already the genesis of Sacred Scripture is an expression of the Church’s faith and that the Bible is a book of the Church that had its origin in Church tradition, and is passed down through it so that the coming-into-being of Sacred Scripture and the origin of the Church are to be seen as a single event. Because without the believing Church there can be no talk of “Sacred Scripture”. Without the Church the Bible would be no more than a historical collection of writings which evolved over one thousand years. From this collection of literature, the Bible became “one book”, as “Sacred Scripture” with its twofold entity of Old and New Testament only through God’s wandering people in the world’s history. Sacred Scripture is a single book because it evolved entirely through the people of God and because the author of the Bible is consequently the people of God themselves – first Israel and then the Church, as the New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink points out: “Sacred Scripture is not a package of 73 books which was later tied up, but was rather something which grew, like a tree. At the end, entirely new branches were grafted into the tree: the New Testament. But these branches, too, draw their sustenance from the sap of the one tree and are supported by its trunk”[19].

The question of biblical canon should also be reconsidered in light of this close link between Sacred Scripture and the Church. A look at ecclesiastical history shows that while canon did not simply fall into our laps, it did not subsist before the Church came into being, but originated within the Church: “Together with the assertion  that the formation of canon should intentionally serve to maintain the unity of the Church’s teaching and set it apart from the diverse and contradictory nature of Hellenistic philosophy, this all shows that the formation of canon is an intentional creation of the evolving Church”[20]. In an intense struggle, the evolving Church found the authentic expression and model for its own faith in the various books, so that there could be no canon without the faith of the evolving Church.[21]

Sacred Scripture, as a compilation of the different writings, is the work of Church tradition; a constitutive element in this process was also the exceptional significance of the Roman episcopal see. In this respect, historical sources tell us that the recognition of Rome as “the criterion of the true Apostolic faith” is older “than the New Testament canon, than <Scripture>”[22]. The relationship between Sacred Scripture and the Church as creator, tradent and exegete of biblical canon can therefore be explained as follows: on the one hand, Sacred Scripture is not without and not against the Church, it is Sacred Scripture only in the church. The Church, on the other hand, in order to be and continue as the Church, must hold fast to Sacred Scripture as the reality wherein the faith of the Church is expressed in a binding manner. The church is not above the word of God, but serves it, as expressly stated in the Council’s Constitution of Divine Revelation[23]. In reflecting on the relationship between Sacred Scripture and the Church one discovers the Church’s innermost nature, that it is “not immanent in itself, but that the quintessence of its being is to be found in that which does not belong to it, and rather in that what it has received” [24].


b) The word of God and the other constitutions of the Church

Sacred Scripture is and remains only a living book with its people as subject who receive and internalize it; and vice versa, the people of God cannot exist without Sacred Scripture because it is their basis of existence, their vocation and their identity. The question of the relationship between Sacred Scripture and the Church can therefore only be answered if it is considered against the background of the four basic elements of the nascent Church which are part of its characteristic features.

As already described above, the first basic element is the formation of scriptural canon, a process which, although for the most part completed towards the end of the second century, extended well into the following centuries. It was historical circumstance that the literature which we today call the “New Testament” was selected from a myriad of other literary texts, that the Greek canon of the Jewish Bible, the “Old Testament”, was joined to the “New Testament” and both Testaments together made up “Sacred Scripture”. This shows that the definition of biblical canon is an achievement of the early Church, and that the establishment of biblical canon and of the structure of the early Church are basically two sides of the same process.

When it selected the texts which were later recognized by the Church as Sacred Scripture, the early Church used a criterion which it called regula fidei, that is, rule of faith. It is a brief summary of key contents of the Church’s faith which, while not yet defined in detail, was given its structure by the liturgy used for various baptismal confessions of the early Church. The rule of faith was expanded through the various conciliar definitions in which the early Church´s struggle to identify a distinct form that sets Christianity apart other beliefs took concrete shape In this respect, the fundamental creeds of all Christianity are the second constant of the early Church, and they constitute “biblical <hermeneutics>, the key extracted from the Bible which enables the latter to be interpreted according to its spirit”[25].

The reading of Sacred Scripture and the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed were in the early Church primarily liturgical acts performed the by community gathered around the resurrected Lord. The early Church thus also created the basic forms for the Christian church service, as both a lasting foundation of the life of the church and as a reference point for every liturgical renewal. The earliest description of Eucharistic liturgy, provided by St. Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century, already includes the key elements which have remained unchanged in all major rite families and with which we are still familiar today. As the church service is the most important occasion when the Bible is read, the word of God is proclaimed and the Christian faith is presented, the liturgy is one of the basic elements of the Church and constitutes an important locus theologicus, which in the tradition of the Church has been expressed with the wisdom that the law of prayer is also the law of faith: “lex orandi – lex credendi”.

In the early Church, the presence of God’s word, interpreted according to the regula fidei and proclaimed at church service, is primarily reflected in the witness of this word. This is because the word of God and the personal witness of this word go hand in hand, since the witness feeds on God´s word und lives for it, while God´s word operate through the personally responsible witness. This is why, in the early Church, the conviction of the apostolic succession within the episcopal ministry has emerged, whose duty is to faithfully pass on the word of God and the apostolic tradition.[26] The post biblical letter of Clement of Rome serves as an excellent testimony in this regard. It was written on 96 A.D. in Rome., the city which was soon to become the leading community in the West, and was addressed to the congregation in Corinth, an early Pauline congregation to which the letter was regularly read at the service. For this reason, the letter almost acquired “canonical status”[27]. It tells us something quite extraordinary: long before the process of creating the canon in the Church – in the West and the East – was completed, there was only one order – an episcopal order – of ecclesiastical ministries, and the proclamation of God’s word and its authentic interpretation were tied to the episcopal ministry. In this regard, the “development, theological substantiation and institutional strengthening of the episcopal ministry” must be seen as “one of the most important outcomes of the post apostolic developments”[28].


c) The word of God in Scripture, tradition and episcopal teaching office

The canon of Sacred Scripture, rule of faith, basic form of church service and apostolic succession in the episcopal ministry are the four tenets of the early Church. They show that Sacred Scripture cannot be extracted from the overall structure of ecclesial faith, but that Sacred Scripture is to be interpreted and understood in this context. In the Catholic Church, this is the task of the magisterium, or episcopal teaching office. It is responsible for assuring the intactness, identity and integrity of Sacred Scripture in the Church. Aware that the Gnostics were using so called “apocryphal” texts for their own purposes, already Irenaeus of Lyons made the “preservation of apostolic tradition without inventing scriptures” one of the main duties of the episcopal ministry[29].

One should however also add that the ecclesial teaching office, with exegesis in mind, has in the past too often gone too far in the area of certainty of faith, thereby undermining its credibility.[30] This has taught us that today the ecclesial teaching office must leave Science sufficient scope in issues of diversity and space in the interpretation of historical texts. But this does not mean that the ecclesial teaching office would have nothing more to say in the matter of scriptural interpretation, especially where this is directed against the Church and its creed. On the contrary, the teaching office has the obligation to ensure that the interpretation of Sacred Scripture is performed in the service of the Church´s faith. In this regard, the teaching office can of course not simply act according to formal principles; its scriptural interpretations should rather be based on the content of Church’s creed. In this service, the ecclesial teaching office is supported by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which in 1993 published its groundbreaking document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”.

The same applies analogously to the relationship between Sacred Scripture and church´s tradition, or between the exegesis of Sacred Scripture and its interpretation in the history of its impact, as underlined by the Council’s Constitution of Divine Revelation: “There exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture”[31]. Sacred Scripture cannot be considered without tradition, tradition cannot be considered without the Church and the Church cannot be considered without the other two. From a Catholic viewpoint it is not possible to separate Sacred Scripture from the Church by pursuing the “sola scriptura” principle, a fact which is underlined by the results of exegetic and historical research on Scripture and tradition, as Joseph Ratzinger points out: The Catholic Church “does not recognize a Word which is independent of the Church, more or less hypostatical. It is rather the Word which lives in the Church, just as the Church lives from the Word – an interdependent relationship” [32]. Nor does the Catholic Church deny the judgmental function of Sacred Scripture in the Church. The Constitution of Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council assumes a multidimensional interaction of Sacred Scripture, tradition and the Church, which is why we can join Henri de Lubac in his assertion that: “Nothing would therefore contradict the spirit of this Constitution more than a kind of hostile competition between Scripture and tradition as if one were to take from the one that which is given to the other. Never has a Council text presented the principle of tradition so clearly in terms of its scope and complexity; never before has Sacred Scripture been given so much space”[33].


4. The word of God as a person, as tradition and as Scripture

This broader context raises the fundamental question of the understanding of God’s word on which the Catholic view is based. A brief look at the contemporary ecclesial and theological landscape shows that there are two juxtaposing approaches to answering this question. One advocates immediately identifying the word of God with Sacred Scripture, resulting in a certain hypostasis of the word of God, as mentioned above. The other approach assumes a fuller understanding of God’s word and emphasises that the word of God is primarily not scripture but a personal reality, that Jesus Christ Himself is the living word of God. On this basis, the word of God precedes Sacred Scripture and is primarily a Person, namely the Son of God made flesh. God has revealed Himself through Him; and Sacred Scripture authentically testifies to, and communicates this revelation.

The second approach is the Catholic view, which is clearly expressed in Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation “Verbum domini”. This is particularly evident in the fact that in the exhortation, the term “Word of God” is understood by analogy, as “a symphony of the word”[34]. The Exhortation assumes that the God revealed in the Bible is a God who speaks, then describes the cosmic dimension of the Word in which all that is, has its origin and that, and then moves on to the fundamental Christological significance of the word of God which became flesh and is given to the Church through the working of the Holy Spirit. It is only then, in this broad context of the outworking of God’s plan of salvation, that the exhortation speaks of the presence of God’s word in the apostolic tradition of the Church and in Sacred Scripture.

This Catholic view of God’s word is also based on a specific understanding of the revelation of God. Rather than simply referring to the sharing of divine truths, this is about the personal-historical God´s action and therefore a real, personal and communal event: “Revelation, in the Christian realm, is not a system of sentences but a historical, and, for the believer, an ongoing event of a new relationship between God and man”[35]. When God revealed Himself in history, ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ, this is more than the written. God’s revelation precedes Sacred Scripture and “is found in it, but is not simply identical with it”[36]. The revelation of God is more than its material principle, which is Sacred Scripture; it is “life, which dwells in the Church and brings Scripture alive while illuminating its hidden depths”[37]. Accordingly, Scripture and tradition are not, as has traditionally sometimes been maintained, the two sources of revelation; they are the historical  communication vehicles of revelation, as Joseph Ratzinger stated on the eve of the Second Vatican Council: “Scripture and tradition are actually not the sources of revelation; the revelation, the speaking of God is the unus fons, from which the two streams Scripture and tradition flow forth”[38].

The significant conclusion is that the Christian Faith does not recognize either inlibration or inverbation, while professing the incarnation of the Son of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity is not a book religion, like Judaism and in a different way, Islam; it professes a person in whom the divine source of all reality is manifest and revealed as love. In this fundamental sense, Christianity is therefore an inner friendship relationship with Jesus Christ as the living Word of God, without which the Bible is only paper. The Catholic New Testament scholar Thomas Söding summarizes the quintessence of Christian faith in a nutshell: “The Christianity has a Sacred Scripture but it is not a book religion. At the heart of Christianity is man: Jesus of Nazareth. Through Him humanity is joint with divinity, and God with mankind”[39].


5. Living with Sacred Scripture

Sacred Scripture is indispensable for recognizing and becoming acquainted with Jesus Christ as the living Word of God, a precept succinctly expressed by St. Jerome, the great exegete in the time of the Church fathers: “The man who does not know Scriptures does not know the power and wisdom of God. Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ” [40]. The question of who is Christ and the question of how Sacred Scripture should be read are inextricably linked. If Jesus Christ is the living Word of God and interprets Himself in the words of Sacred Scripture, so to speak, one has to familiarize oneself with Sacred Scripture to know Christ. Conversely, Scripture remains meaningless without personally encountering Christ. Scripture only speaks to one if one lives in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the faith communion of the Church.

The way in which we use the Bible is therefore a decisive factor. Because we can ultimately find in the Bible only what we are looking for. If we do not look for anything in the Bible, we will not find anything in it. If we only look for historical events, then this is all we will find. If we look for God in the Bible, we will find Him there, as the poet Heinrich Heine noted in a perceptive remark: “Rightly do men also call it (i.e. the Bible) the Holy Scripture; for he that has lost his God can find Him again in this Book, and towards him that has never known God it sends forth the breath of the Divine Word”.

The breath of the Divine Word also has the power to bring together those who listen to the Word. This power is clearly evident in Luke’s account, where many people are gathered around Jesus while His mother and brothers are waiting outside, wanting to see Him (Lk 8, 19-21). Jesus uses this situation to talk about His true relatives, those who are not simply identical to His biological relatives. Because Jesus’s true relatives, His mother and brothers, “are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice”. Jesus’s words embody the quintessence of the Church’s community of faith. It is hearing and putting into practice the word of God which provides the basis for being in communion and even in a relationship with Jesus. The impact of hearing and acting on the Word is to draw us closer to Christ: the true family of Jesus is the group of disciples and consequently the Church, as a result of hearing the word of God.

If all the emphasis is placed on hearing God’s word, we are entreated that this Word precedes us and comes to us, and that we must first receive and accept it. It was mostly St. Paul who repeatedly pointed this out as an elementary principle for Christian living by emphasizing that he himself had not invented the core truth of the Christian faith, but that he could only, and wanted to, pass on what he had received (1 Cor. 15, 3). This standpoint is also an important component of the term “revelation”. Since a revelation which is not accepted cannot be revealed to anyone, the term “revelation” implies that there must be a person who hear and receive it, as the first sentence of the Constitution of Divine Revelation indicates: “Dei verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans”. God’s revelation therefore has a specific objective, targeting those with a willing ear to hear the word of God.

In Sacred Scripture, Mary is the icon for the readiness to receive God’s word in the life of a Christian believer and of the Church. Mary is the woman who took up the word of God within her without reservation to give it to the world, and who pondered in her heart every word that came from God also after the birth of the Word of God. It is predominantly St. Luke the Evangelist who portrays Mary as a ready listener for God’s word, as reflected above all in three biblical passages:

At the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus, the Bible says that Mary was greatly troubled at the angel’s greeting and “wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Lk 1, 29). The word used by Luke for “wondered” points to the Greek for “dialogue”. Luke thereby expresses the fact that Mary enters into a personal and intimate dialogue with the word of God which she encounters, that she conducts a quiet dialogue with him and fathoms the deeper meaning of this Word.

Mary responds in similar fashion in the Christmas story after the shepherds adored the Christ child lying in the crib: “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Lk 2, 19). Mary translates the Christmas experience to the Word and immerses herself in the Word, so that it can germinate in her heart.

In Luke’s Gospel, we encounter this imagery a third time with the account of the twelve- year-old Jesus in the temple: “His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Lk 2, 51). The impact of these words comes from the preceding sentence: “They did not understand what he was saying to them”. With these words Luke wants to say that God’s word cannot always immediately be understood even by people who are believers and thus open to God, and that Mary exercises patience and humility to first take into her heart what she did not understand, for this to be absorbed and inwardly digested by her.

These three accounts tell us that Mary was open to the word of God, which she had adopted and with which she felt at home. This attitude makes Mary the archetype and primordial form of the Church, or more precisely, “The Church in its origin”[41], which is shaped by those “who hear God’s word and put it into practice”. Mary does not therefore have to straddle the Christian denominations; on the contrary, she is a helpful companion on the way to Christian unity, which is granted to us only if we listen to God’s word together. As archetype of the Church, Mary shows us, by way of example, how we Christians should respond to the word of God in the Church.

This also applies to a second important figure in Sacred Scripture, John the Baptist. He is described in the New Testament as “voice”, while Christ is referred to as the “Word”. This relationship of Word and voice is a perfect example for illustrating the Christian response to God’s word: the voice, which conveys a word from one person to another is a passing phenomenon, while the Word remains. In the same way, in the Church’s community of faith the human voice has no other purpose than to communicate the word of God; thereafter it can, and must, once again withdraw so that the Word remains the center of attention.

All of us, whose service consists of spreading the Bible and its transforming and liberating message which offers Life, are called to be voices for the preceding word of God. But we can only be credible voices for God’s word if we are ourselves at home in God’s word, which we encounter in Sacred Scripture. The Church fathers likened this feeling at home in God´s word to a spiritual Eden, through which one can stroll with the living God and marvel at the beauty and harmony of His plan of salvation. The annual retreat, for which you, the Directors of the American Bible Society, have gathered in Rome is also an invitation to take such a stroll with God and His living Word. Let me wish you all the best and God’s blessing for your retreat.




[1]  Conference at the annual retreat of the Board of Directors of American Bible Society in Rome, 30 October 2018.

[2]  Dei Verbum, 21.

[3]  Zit. bei G. Alberigo, Karl Borromäus. Geschichtliche Sensibilität und pastorales Engagement (Münster 1995) 39-40.

[4]  Dei verbum, 1.

[5]  Lumen gentium, 25.

[6]  J. Haas, Christus-Träger Kardinal Julius Döpfner. Kardinal Joseph Ratzinger erinnert an seinen Vorgänger als Erzbischof von München (Eichstätt 2005) 6.

[7]  Paul VI., Evangelii nuntiandi, 14.

[8]  Johannes Paul II., Novo milleniio ineunte, 40.

[9]  Benedikt XVI., Verbum Domini, 2.

[10]  Franziskus, Evangelii gaudium, 1.

[11]  J. Ratzinger, Die erste Sitzungsperiode des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils. Ein Rückblick (Köln 1963) 60.

[12]  C. M. Martini, Die Bischofssynode über das Wort Gottes, in: Stimmen der Zeit 133 (2008) 291-296, zit. 291.

[13]  Dei verbum, 12.

[14]  Th. Söding, Gotteswort durch Menschenwort. Das Buch der Bücher und das Leben der Menschen, in: K.-H. Kronawitter / M. Langer (Hrsg.), Von Gott und der Welt. Ein theologisches Lesebuch (Regensburg 2008) 212-223, zit. 216.

[15]  J. S. Drey, Kurze Einleitung in das Studium der Theologie mit Rücksicht auf den wissenschaftlichen Standpunkt und das katholische System 1819, § 160, in: M. Kessler und M. Seckler (Hrsg.), Theologie, Kirche, Katholizismus. Beiträge zur Programmatik der Katholischen Tübinger Schule (Tübingen 2003) 261.

[16]  Benedikt XVI., Reflexionen zur Bibelexegese. Intervention an der Bischofssynode am 14. Oktober 2008, zitiert in: Verbum domini, 35.

[17]  Vgl. B. Körner, Die Bibel als Wort Gottes auslegen. Historisch-kritische Exegese und Dogmatik (Würzburg 2011).

[18]  J. Cardinal Ratzinger, Perspektiven der Priesterausbildung heute, in: Ders. u. a., Unser Auftrag. Besinnung auf den priesterlichen Dienst (Würzburg 1990) 11-38, zit. 28.

[19]  G. Lohfink, Bibel ja – Kirche nein. Kriterien richtiger Bibelauslegung (Bad Tölz 2004) 117.

[20]  I. Frank, Der Sinn der Kanonbildung (Freiburg i. Br. 1971) 204.

[21]  Vgl. Th. Söding, Einheit der Heiligen Schrift? Zur Theologie des biblischen Kanons (Freiburg i. Br. 2005).

[22]  J. Kardinal Ratzinger, Zur Gemeinschaft gerufen. Kirche heute verstehen (Freiburg i. Br. 1991) 65.

[23]  Dei verbun, 10.

[24]  Dei verbun, 10.

[25]  J. Ratzinger – Benedikt XVI., Jesus von Nazareth. Zweiter Teil: Vom Einzug in Jerusalem bis zu Auferstehung (Freiburg i. Br. 2015) 117.

[26]  Vgl. K. Koch, Die apostolische Dimension der Kirche im ökumenischen Gespräch, in: Communio. Internationale katholische Zeitschrift 40 (2011) 234-252.

[27]  Clemens von Rom, Epistola ad Corinthos. Übersetzt und eingeleitet von G. Schneider (Freiburg i. Br. 1991) 34.

[28]  E. Dassmann. Ämter und Dienste in den frühchristlichen Gemeinden (Bonn 19949230.

[29]  Irenäus von Lyon, Adversus haereses 4, 32, 8.

[30]  Vgl. J. Cardinal Ratzinger, Kirchliches Lehramt und Exegese. Reflexionen aus Anlass des 100-jährigen Bestehens der Päpstlichen Bibelkommission, in: Communio. Internationale katholische Zeitschrift 32 (2003) 522-529.

[31]  Dei verbum, 9.

[32]  J. Ratzinger, Das geistliche Amt und die Einheit der Kirche, in: Ders., Das neue Volk Gottes. Entwürfe zur Ekklesiologie (Düsseldorf 1969) 105-129, zit. 106.

[33]  H. de Lubac, Die göttliche Offenbarung. Kommentar zum Vorwort und zum Ersten Kapitel der Dogmatischen Konstitution „Dei verbum“ des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils (Einsiedeln 2001) 251.

[34]  Benedikt XVI., Verbum domini, 7.

[35]  J. Ratzinger. Das Problem der Dogmengeschichte in der Sicht der katholischen Theologie (Köln und Opladen 1966) 19.

[36]  J. Kardinal Ratzinger, Aus meinem Leben. Erinnerungen (Stuttgart 1998) 84.

[37]  J. Ratzinger, Bemerkungen zum Schema „de fontibus revelationis“ (1962), in: R. Voderholzer – Ch. Schaller – F.-X. Heibl (Hrsg.), Mitteilungen Institut Papst Benedikt XVI. 2 (Regensburg 2009) 36-48, zit. 41.

[38]  Ebda. 37.

[39]  Th. Söding, Gotteswort durch Menschenwort. Das Buch der Bücher und das Leben der Menschen, in: K.-H. Kronawitter / M. Langer (Hrsg.), Von Gott und der Welt. Ein theologisches Lesebuch (Regensburg 2008) 212-223, zit. 219.

[40]  Hieronymus, Prolog zum Jesajakommentar, in: PL 24, 17.

[41]  J. Cardinal Ratzinger / H. U. von Balthasar, Maria – Kirche im Ursprung (Einsiedeln 1997).