The first misunderstanding which should be avoided is that of identifying Revelation with Scripture. This identification would involve the statement that the instrument by which God has chosen to manifest himself is Scripture. Thus our relationship with God would coincide with our relationship with a book, even if one admitted that this relationship were mediated by the Holy Spirit. Another version of the same misunderstanding lies in the identification of the Word of God with the Bible. It is possible that at the outset, or so it is argued, things did not happen in this way (we may think of the apostles and their relationship with Jesus), but the disappearance of Christ from the earthly horizon is said to have opened up the path to the written word, which was destined to recreate the image of Christ in the reader (with the help of the Holy Spirit). There is nothing further from the true nature of Christianity, as it has presented itself in history, than this reduction to the written word. What, then, is Revelation? What part does Scripture play in it? I will try to answer these questions by referring to the dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, of the Second Vatican Council.
I will begin by calling attention to a fact which is in itself significant. The first chapter of Dei Verbum [numbers 2-6] has as its title ‘The Nature of Revelation’. In this chapter the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council sought to show what Revelation is; what its true nature is. Well, no mention is made of Scripture. One has to wait for the second chapter, ‘The Transmission of Divine Revelation’ [DV, 7-10], for it to come into play. For Dei Verbum, therefore, Scripture does not form a part of the ‘nature’ of Revelation but, rather, it forms a part of the ‘transmission’ of Revelation: Revelation should be identified with the event of the self-manifestation of God in history, which in Christ, the mediator of all Revelation, reached its fullness [DV, n. 2]. Indeed, throughout this Constitution the phrase Verbum (with a capital letter) Dei, the Word of God, is limited to the identification of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. To allude to Scripture, on the other hand, the Second Vatican Council employs this phrase without capital letters both in the singular [cf. DV, n. 21 and 24; in DV, n. 10 the phrase refers to both Scripture and Tradition together] and in the plural [DV, n. 13], or with other phrases such as locutio Dei [DV, n. 9]. In this way, the Second Vatican Council defends the true nature of Revelation and thus Christianity: in history it presents itself as a living event, threaded through with ‘intimately connected events and words’ [DV, n. 2], a Fact in history that brings into play the reason and the freedom of man, as is proper with all facts of relevance that enter his horizon. And as a simple written document cannot do.
What, therefore, is Holy Scripture? What relationship does it have with Revelation? We will try to discover its nature by employing a first definition: Scripture is the written and inspired testimony of Revelation. We will analyse the categories implied in this first approximation. First of all, Scripture presents itself as ‘testimony’ of Revelation. It refers back everything to events in history which are read as divine interventions, events that are received by witnesses and which remain in history only because of testimony. This dynamic applies both to the Old and to the new Testaments, and I will now illustrate this with reference to a number of examples.
In the books of the Old Testament there is a fact that permeates all its pages – the miraculous liberation from Egypt. This exceptional fact is treated differently according to the book concerned. In the Book of Exodus it is narrated not in an ‘aseptic’ form but as a fact interpreted as a gesture of YHWh, which is therefore announced and proclaimed [Ex 14:30: ‘Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians’]. The Book of Deuteronomy, for its part, presents itself as a reflection on the liberating event that established a relationship and created a special dynamic. The reference to the liberation from Egypt (a noun that appears fifty times in this book!) becomes the foundation of every exhortation [Dt 15:15: ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt , and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today’]; of every law [Dt 6:20-21: ‘When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, and the Lord bought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand’’]; of every celebration [Dt 16:1: ‘Observe the month of Abib and keep the Passover to the Lord your God; for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night’]; of every moral gesture [Dt 8:11-14: Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day; lest when you have eaten and full…then your heart6 be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’]; and of every memory [Dt 26:5,8: ‘A wandering Aramae was my father; and he went down into Egypt…and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’].
A Great Event
However the event of the liberation of Israel from Egypt is not testified to only as a tale, a law and a celebration in the Pentateuch or Torah. In the prophetic books it becomes the gesture of love that establishes the matrimonial covenant between YHWH and his people, a gesture to which a Prophet refers in order to exhort Israel to return to its lost loyalty [Os 2,14-15: ‘Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her…And there she will answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt’; Jer 2,2: ‘Thus says the Lord, I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’]. The exodus from Egypt also becomes the image used by the Prophets to proclaim a new liberation, a new covenant [Is 11:11, 15-16: ‘In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time, to recover the remnant which is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt…And the Lord will utterly destroy the tongue of the sea of Egypt, and will wave his hand over the River with his scorching wind, and smite it into seven channels that men may cross dryshod. And there will be a highway from Assyria for the remnant which is left of this people, as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt’; [Jer 31:31-32: ‘Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke , though I was their husband’].
The memory of the great liberating event also permeates the book of prayers of Israel, the Psaltery, and is thus a basis for its praises: Ps 81:10: ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide. and I will fill it’; Ps 136:11-12: and brought Israel out from among them, for his steadfast love endures for ever; with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, for his steadfast love endures for ever’. And sapiential reflection attributes to mysterious Wisdom, which was generated by YHWH before the creation [cf. Ps 8:22-25], the miraculous actions that took place in Egypt [Wis 10:18: ‘She brought them over the Red Sea, and led them through deep waters’].
In the books of the New Testament the reference to certain facts to which testimony is given is, if this possible, even clearer. The whole of this corpus can be seen as great testimony to the exceptional Fact of the Incarnation. The Evangelist John and his school present their work (the Gospel, the Letters and the Apocalypse) through this key category: ‘This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true [Jn 21:24]; ‘that which we have seen and heard we also proclaim to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete’ [1 Jn 1:3-4]; ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant Jon, who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw’ [Ap 1:1-3].
Continuing with the elements of the definition offered above, it should be noted that the testimony offered to us by Scripture is not just any kind of testimony: this is ‘written’ testimony and different from that channelled by Tradition (oral preaching, institutions, lives and worship). As a result, we have here testimony that could (and should) be subject to the laws of literary criticism. Amongst its virtues stands out that of fixity and duration over time. This is a normative document by which we measure all the flections that tradition undergoes during its history. Its authentic interpretation is intimately bound up with the living Magisterium of the Church [DV, n. 10], which is always historically located.
However, we are not dealing here with just any kind of written document. The books of the New Testament, for example, are different from very many other writings that bear witness to the Christian Fact (we may think here of the apocryphal gospels or works such as the Didachy). Scripture is testimony ‘inspired’ by Revelation. For this reason, one can say that it is the Word of God: composed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, its author is God, and this is a category which, because of the law of incarnation, can also be applied to hagiographers [DV, n. 11]. The dogma of inspiration assures us of the substantial truth of written testimony, a fundamental fact in the salvific function of this document. The normative character of this testimony here encounters its ultimate foundation.
Once the testifying character of Scripture, and thus its absolute reference to the Fact of Revelation, has been established, it is advisable to explore the nature of the tie which in the dynamic of transmission maintains inseparably linked the two poles of Revelation and Scripture. Indeed, in the communication in time of revealed truth, that is to say in the transmission of Revelation, the will of God has wanted to involve that human response that we call faith. This response is generated and supported by the same event of Revelation, which solicits the freedom of man and expands his reason in order to receive it. There does not exist, therefore, an objective revelation opposed to a subjective revelation, because revelation is read through the eyes of faith: ‘the Word of God wants to be from the outset fertile in the fertility of the believer and wants to include in its form of calling on every man, always and already, the form of response of man to God’ (1). The Second Vatican Council itself recognised this when it located faith in the first chapter of Dei Verbum [DV, n. 5], namely as a part of the ‘nature of Revelation’. For this reason, we can state that faith makes its recognition the forms of its manifestation. Well, both the testimony of Tradition and that of Scripture are expressions of faith, expressions by which the truth manifests itself. We can thus understand that the testiomony of Scripture is not an absolute that is ‘extrinsic’ to the event of Revelation but, rather, is required by that very event.
After the Last Supper
Let us now dwell upon the case of the New Testament. The writings of the New Testament are a part of the testimony of the Holy Spirit and at the same time they are testimony of the faith of the apostles [cf. DV, nn. 11, 17-18]. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council talks about a dual paternity as regards Scripture: the divine and the human [DV, n. 11]. Even though it is possible to distinguish these two realities, it is not possible to separate them without causing grave injury to notions such as inspiration and faith. In dwelling upon the polar character of this unique testimony – Scripture – we can better understand the intrinsic value of this testimony for the form of Christ.
The statement that both the books of the Old Testament and the books of the New Testament were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has a solid foundation both in Scripture itself (2) and in the Tradition of the Church (3). This inspiration forms a part of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. This testimony, in its turn, is neither merely exterior nor added to the form of Revelation in Christ. The unity of the triune God ensures that both the testimony of the Father and the testimony of the Holy Spirit are involved in the event of Christ, and as a consequence in his form. The broad ranging ‘farewell speech’ of Jesus in chapters 14-16 of the Gospel according to St. John illustrates this perfectly.
This speech is located after the Last Supper, at the moment that marks the shift between the end of the public ministry of Jesus and the Passion. Against the background of the ‘now’ which is by now imminent [Jn 12:23-28], and which is already accepted and offered at the Passover banquet [Jn 13:1-5], there stands out in this speech a clear intention to instruct the disciples about the ‘economy’ that will follow Christ’s death and resurrection. In this economy, in which is guaranteed Christ’s presence [‘I am with you always, to the close of the age’, Mt 28:20], it is the Holy Spirit who ‘will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said’ [Jn 14:26]. The teaching is the teaching of testimony. ‘When the Councillor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father…he will bear fitness to me’ [Jn 15:26]. It is the Holy Spirit who will lead to the full truth that Christ came to reveal, with a testimony that is not extraneous to the event of Christ. ‘I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak…’ [Jn 16,12-13]. This testimony of the Holy Spirit acts within the life of the Church and achieves one of its realisations in the inspiration of the holy books [cf. DV, n. 7], which infuse into the Church their truth and unerring quality [DV, n. 11].
However, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit cannot be understood as being in a dialectic with the testimony of the apostles who wrote down what they saw and heard. The books of the New Testament are an expression of the faith of the apostles [and of ‘men of their circle’, DV, n. 7] and this faith is the outcome of the action of the Holy Spirit: ‘no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can ever say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit [1Cor 12:3; cf. Mt 16:17; cf. DV, n 5]. It is precisely here that the value of the testimony of the apostles written down in the books of the New Testament is rooted. This testimony is not extrinsic to the event of Christ because it is a realisation of the faith which forms a part of the very nature of Revelation.
An Intrinsic Connection
The dichotomy that could emerge between Revelation as the word of God, and thus as testimony of the Holy Spirit, and Scripture as reflection of faith above historical revelation, is led back to a unity only if one contemplates the ‘reception of divine revelation within the breast of human faith, generated thanks to the grace of revelation itself’ (4). Thus the problem lies in a correct understanding of the act of faith. The historical event of Revelation seeks to bear upon the history and lives of men. That is to say, it seeks to be ‘meaningful’, and this it is in the receiving of faith. It is thus particularly clear that the apostolic testimony that comes down to us in the books of the New Testament is a realisation of faith, and because faith is fertile thanks to of the action of the Holy Spirit the written work that arises from it becomes normative testimony to Revelation. The response of man, in his free decision to adhere to the event of divine self-giving, thus becomes an instrument of this very self-giving (because it realises in faith the objective forms of Tradition and Scripture) and at the same time a condition of the evidence and of the meaningful character of the event itself. (5)
In this sense, faith and witness are intrinsically connected, not because of a moral dynamic but because of the very nature of Revelation. The formation of Scripture and its normative status is a clear example of this close relationship.
I will end with an important observation regarding the hermeneutic act by which one accedes to Scripture. As attested Revelation, Scripture cannot be reduced to a ‘text’ that is methodologically accessible without calling freedom into play. As testimony of Revelation it conserves the nature of the event that takes place here and now, provoking my freedom. To be loyal to the nature of Scripture, the exegete, like the believer, must bring into play his freedom when faced with written testimony. Only this freedom (faith) is able to take on the symbolic structure by which the truth is given in testimony (Revelation). One thus understands more effectively the words of Benedict XVI in his book Jesus of Nazareth when he describes the limit of the historical-critical method: ‘For someone who considers himself directly addressed by the Bible today, the method’s first limit is that by its very nature it has to leave the biblical word in the past. It is a historical method, and that means that it investigates the then-current context of events in which the texts originated. It attempts to identify and to understand the past – as it was in itself – with the greatest possible precision, in order then to find out what the author could have said and intended to say in the context of the mentality and events of the time. To the extent that it remains true to itself, the historical method not only has to investigate the biblical word as a thing of the past, but also has to let it remain in the past. It can glimpse points of contact with the present; the one thing it cannot do is to make it into something present today – that would be overstepping its bounds. Its very precision in interpreting the reality of the past is both its strength and its limit’ (6).
(1) H. U. Von Balthasar, Gloria. Un’estetica teologica; vol. I, La percezione della forma (Jaca Book, Milan 1983), p. 505.
(2) Cf. Mt 22:43; Mk 12:36; Jn 20:31; Acts 1:16; 4:19-25; 28:25; 2Tm 3:16; Heb 3:7; 9:8; 10:15; 1Pt 1:11; 2Pt 1:19-21; 3:15-16.
(3) Cf. DS 348, 421, 464, 706, 783, 1787, 1952, 2009-2010, 2090, 2102, 2186; DV 7.11.
(4) H. U. Von Balthasar, Gloria, vol. I, p. 504.
(5) Cf. A. Scola, Chi è la Chiesa? Una chiave antropologica e sacramentale per l’ecclesiologia (Queriniana, Brescia, 2005), pp. 113-127; Id., Questioni di antropologia teologica, (Lateran University Press, Rome, 1997), pp. 163-169.
(6) J. Ratzinger – Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, New York, 2007), p. xvi.