4th Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


4th Lenten Sermon of Father Cantalamessa

"Scripture Breathes Forth God"


Here is a translation of the Lenten meditation delivered today by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia, titled "The Letter Kills, the Spirit Gives Life: The Spiritual Reading of the Bible."

This is the fourth in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective."

* * *

1. Divinely inspired Scripture

The Second Letter to Timothy contains the celebrated affirmation according to which "all Scripture is inspired by God" (2 Timothy 3:16). The expression that gets translated as "inspired by God" or "divinely inspired," is a single word in the original Greek: "theopneustos." This word contains the two nouns "God" ("Theos") and "Spirit" ("Pneuma"). Such a word has two basic meanings: One is well-known and the other is usually neglected, even though it is no less important than the first.

The meaning that is more known is the passive one, highlighted by all of the modern translations: Scripture is "inspired by God." Another passage in the New Testament explains this meaning thus: "Moved by the Holy Spirit [the prophets] spoke on behalf of God" (2 Peter 1:21). This is, in sum, the classical doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture, that which we proclaim as an article of faith in the Creed, when we say of the Holy Spirit that "he has spoken through the prophets."

We can represent with human images this event of divine inspiration, which is in itself so mysterious: God "touches" with his divine finger — that is, with his living energy which is the Holy Spirit — that recondite point where the human spirit opens to the infinite and from there that touch — in itself as simple and instantaneous as God who produces it — spreads like a sonorous vibration through all of man's faculties — will, intelligence, imagination, heart — translating itself into concepts, images, words.

The effect that is brought about in such a way is a theandric reality, that is, fully divine and fully human: both elements intimately fused even if not "confused." The Church's magisterium — the encyclicals "Providentissimus Deus" of Leo XIII and "Divino afflante Spiritu" of Pius XIl — tell us that the two sides, divine and human, remain intact. God is the principal author of Scripture because he takes responsibility for what is written, determining the content with the action of his Spirit; nevertheless, the sacred writer is also the author, in the full sense of the word because he has intrinsically cooperated with this action, through a normal human activity, which God has used as an instrument. God — the Fathers said — is like the musician who, touching the lyre strings, makes them vibrate; the sound is entirely the work of the musician, but it would not exist without the lyre's strings.

Of this marvelous work of God there is often only one effect that is focused on: biblical inerrancy, that is, the fact that the Bible does not contain any error, if we understand "error" rightly as the absence of a humanly possible truth, in a determinate cultural context, taking account of the literary genre employed, and, therefore, due to the writer. But biblical inspiration supplies much more than the simple inerrancy of the word of God (which is something negative); it positively supplies its inexhaustibility, its divine power and vitality and that which Augustine called the "mira profonditas," the "marvelous profundity."[1]

In this way we are now prepared to discover the other meaning of biblical inspiration. In itself, grammatically, the participle "theopneustos" is active, not passive. The tradition itself knew how, in certain moments, to pick out this active meaning. Scripture, St. Ambrose said, is "theopneustos" not only because it is "inspired by God," but because it "spirates God," it breathes forth God![2]

Speaking about creation, St. Augustine says that God did not make things and then go away, but that things "came from him and remain in him."[3] This is how it is with the words of God: They came from God, and they remain in him and he in them. After having dictated the Scripture, the Holy Spirit is in a way contained within it; he ceaselessly inhabits it and animates it with his divine breath. Heidegger said that "language is the house of Being"; we can say that the word is the house of the Spirit.

The Vatican II constitution "Dei Verbum" also takes up this thread of tradition when it says that sacred Scriptures "inspired by God (passive inspiration!) and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and apostles (active inspiration!)."[4]

2. Biblical Docetism and Ebionism

But now we must deal with the most delicate problem: How do we approach the Scriptures in a way that they truly "free" the Spirit that they contain? I said that Scripture is a theandric reality, that is, divine-human. Now the law of every theandric reality (as are, for example, Christ and the Church) is that the divine cannot be discovered without passing through the human. One cannot discover the divinity in Christ if not through his concrete humanity.

Those who, in antiquity, tried to go about it differently fell into Docetism. Dismissing Christ's body and other human traits as mere "appearances" ("dokein"), they also lost hold of his deeper reality and, in the place of the living God become man, they came up with their own distorted idea of God. In the same way, in Scripture, the Spirit cannot be discovered if not by passing through the letter, that is, through the concrete human vesture that the word of God assumed in the different books and inspired authors. In them the divine meaning cannot be discovered, if not by beginning from the human meaning, the one intended by the human author, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Luke, Paul, etc. It is in this that we find the complete justification of the immense effort in study and research that surrounds the book of Scripture.

But this is not the only risk that biblical exegesis runs. In regard to the person of Jesus there was not only the danger of Docetism, that is, of neglecting the human; there was also the danger of stopping there, of only seeing the human in him and of not seeing the divine dimension of the Son of God. There was, in sum, the danger of Ebionism. For the Ebionites (who were Judeo-Christians), Jesus was, to be sure, a great prophet, the greatest prophet, if you will, but nothing more. The Fathers called them "Ebionites" (from "ebionim," "the poor") to say that they were poor in faith.

This also happens with Scripture. There is a biblical Ebionism, that is, the tendency to stop at the letter, considering the Bible an excellent book, the most excellent of human books, if you will, but only a human book. Unfortunately we run the risk of reducing Scripture to a single dimension. The upsetting of the balance today is not in the direction of Docetism, but toward Ebionism.

The Bible is intentionally explained by many scholars with the historical-critical method. I do not speak of the non-believing scholars for whom this is normal, but of scholars who profess to be believers. The secularization of the sacred is nowhere more acute than in the secularization of the sacred Book. Now, pretending to understand the Scripture, studying it only with the apparatus of historical-philological analysis is like pretending to discover the mystery of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, basing oneself on a chemical analysis of the consecrated host! The historical-critical analysis even when it is pushed to the maximum of perfection, represents, in reality just the first step in the knowledge of the Bible, that regarding the letter.

Jesus solemnly states in the Gospel that Abraham "saw his day" (cf. John 8:56), that Moses had "written about him" (cf. John 5:46), that Isaiah "saw his glory and spoke of him" (cf. John 12:41), that the prophets and the Psalms and all of the Scriptures speak of him (cf. Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39), but today a certain scientific exegesis hesitates to speak of Jesus, it practically does not see him in any part of the Old Testament, or, at least it is afraid to say that it sees him, because it is afraid to disqualify itself "scientifically."

The most serious problem of a certain solely scientific exegesis is that it completely changes the relationship between the exegete and the word of God. The Bible becomes an object of study that the professor must "master" and before which, as is fitting for every man of science, he must remain "neutral." But in this unique case it is not permissible to be "neutral" and it is not a given that one must "master" the material; one must rather be mastered by it. To say of a Scripture scholar that he "masters" the word of God, if one thinks about it, is almost to utter a blasphemy.

The consequence of all of this is that Scripture closes itself and "folds back" on itself; it returns to being a "sealed" book, a "veiled" book. That veil is "eliminated in Christ," St. Paul says, when there is "conversion to the Lord," that is, when one recognizes Christ in the pages of Scripture (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:15-16). What happens to the Bible is what happens to certain very sensitive plants whose leaves close up as soon as they are touched by foreign bodies, or with certain sea shells that close up to protect the pearl they have inside. The pearl of Scripture is Christ.

The crises of faith of so many Bible scholars cannot be explained in any other way. When one asks about the spiritual poverty and aridity that reign in some seminaries and places of formation, one quickly finds that one of the principal causes is the way in which Scripture is taught there. The Church has lived and lives by the spiritual reading of the Bible; if this channel is cut off that nourishes the life of piety, zeal, faith, then everything withers and languishes. The liturgy, which is entirely built on the spiritual reading of Scripture, is no longer understood, or rather it is experienced as a moment that is detached from true personal formation and contradicted by that which was learned on the first day of class.

4. The Spirit gives life

A great sign of hope is that the demand for a spiritual reading of Scripture and one guided by faith is now beginning to be felt by some eminent exegetes. One of them has written: "It is urgent that those who study and interpret Scripture interest themselves again in the exegesis of the Fathers, to rediscover, beyond their methods, the spirit that animated them, the deep soul that inspired their exegesis; at their school we must learn to interpret Scripture, not only from the historical and critical perspective, but equally in the Church and for the Church" (Ignace de la Potterie). Father Henri de Lubac, in his monumental history of medieval exegesis, has brought to light the coherence, the solidity and the extraordinary fruitfulness of the spiritual exegesis practiced by the ancient Fathers and the medievals.

But it must be said that the Fathers do nothing in this field but apply (with the imperfect tools that they had at their disposal) the pure and simple teaching of the New Testament; they are not, in other words, the initiators, but the continuers of a tradition that had John, Paul and Jesus himself as its founders. Not only did they practice a spiritual reading of the Scriptures all the while, that is, a reading in reference to Christ, but they also gave the justification of such a reading, declaring that all of the Scriptures speak of Christ (cf. John 5:39), that "the Spirit of Christ" was already in them at work in and expressing himself though the prophets (cf. 1 Peter 1:11), that everything, in the Old Testament, is said "allegorically," that is, in reference to the Church (cf. Galatians 4:24), or "for our admonishment" (1 Corinthians 10:11).

So, to speak of the "spiritual" reading of the Bible is not to speak of an edifying, mystical, subjective, or worse still, imaginative, reading, in opposition to the scientific reading, which would be objective. On the contrary, it is the most objective reading that there is because it is based on the Spirit of God, not on the spirit of man. The subjective reading of Scripture spread precisely when the spiritual reading of it was abandoned and there where such a reading has been most clearly abandoned.

Spiritual reading is therefore something that is quite precise and objective; it is the reading that is done under the guidance of, or in the light of, the Holy Spirit that inspired Scripture. It is based on a historical event, namely, the redemptive act of Christ which, with his death and resurrection, accomplishes the plan of salvation and realizes all of the figures and the prophecies, it reveals all of the hidden mysteries and offers the true key for reading the Bible. The Book of Revelation expresses all this with the image of the slain Lamb who takes the book in hand and breaks the seven seals (cf. Revelation 5:1ff.)

After him, he who wants to continue to read Scripture prescinding from this act, would be like one who continues to read a musical score in the key of "F," after the composer has introduced the key of "G" into the passage: From that point on every single note would sound as a false and off-key note. Now, the New Testament calls the new key "the Spirit," while it defines the old key as "the letter," saying that the letter kills, but only the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6)

Opposing "letter" and "Spirit" to each other does not mean opposing the Old and the New Testament, as if the former only represented the letter and the latter only the Spirit. It means to oppose to each other two different ways of reading both the Old and the New Testament: the way that prescinds from Christ and the way that, instead, judges everything in the light of Christ. For this reason, the Church values both Testaments, because both speak of Christ.

5. What the Spirit says to the Church

Spiritual reading does not only regard the Old Testament; in a different sense it also regards the New Testament; it too must be read spiritually. Reading the New Testament spiritually means reading it in the light of the Holy Spirit given to the Church at Pentecost to lead the Church to all truth, that is, to the complete understanding and actualization of the Gospel.

Jesus explained beforehand the relationship between his word and the Spirit that he would send (even if we do not necessarily need to think that he did so in the precise terms that John's Gospel uses in this regard). The Spirit — one reads in John — "will teach and bring to mind" everything that Jesus said (cf. John 14:25f.), that is, he will make it completely understood, in all of its implications. He "will not speak from himself," that is, he will not say new things in respect to those things that Jesus said, but — as Jesus himself says — he will take what is mine and will reveal it (cf. John 16:13-15).

In this one sees how spiritual reading integrates and surpasses scientific reading. Scientific reading knows only one direction, which is that of history; it explains, in fact, that which comes after in light of that which comes before; it explains the New Testament in the light of the Old which precedes it, and it explains the Church in the light of the New Testament. A good part of the critical effort in regard to Scripture consists in illustrating the doctrines of the Gospel in light of the Old Testament traditions, of the rabbinical exegesis, etc.; it consists, in sum, in the research on sources (Kittel and many other biblical aids are based on this).

Spiritual reading fully recognizes the validity of this direction of research, but it adds an inverse direction to it. This consists in explaining that which comes before in the light of that which comes after, prophecy in the light of its realization, the Old Testament in the light of the New and in the New in the light of the tradition of the Church. In this the spiritual reading of the Bible finds a singular confirmation in the Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutic principle of "history of effects" ("Wirkungsgeschichte"), according to which a text is understood by taking account of the effects that it has produced in history, by inserting oneself in this history and dialoguing with it.[5]

Only after God has realized his plan, is one able to fully understand the meaning of that which prepared and prefigured. If every tree, as Jesus says, is known by its fruit, then the word of God cannot be fully understood unless the fruits it produces are seen. Studying Scripture in the light of the Tradition is a little like knowing the tree by its fruits. For this reason Origen says that "the spiritual sense is that which the Spirit gives to the Church."[6] The Spirit identifies itself with the ecclesial reading or, indeed, Tradition itself, if by "Tradition" we understand not only the solemn declarations of the magisterium (which, after all, only touch on very few biblical texts), but also the experience of doctrine and sanctity in which the word of God is in a way newly incarnated and "explained" over the course of centuries, by the working of the Holy Spirit.

That which is necessary is not therefore a spiritual reading that would take the place of current scientific exegesis, with a mechanical return to the exegesis of the Fathers; it is rather a new spiritual reading corresponding to the enormous progress recorded by the study of "letter." It is a reading, in sum, that has the breath and faith of the Fathers and, at the same time, the consistency and seriousness of current biblical science.

6. The Spirit that blows from the four winds

On the plain strewn with dry bones the prophet Ezekiel heard the question: "Can these bones be brought back to life?" (Ezekiel 37:3). We pose ourselves the same question today: Can exegesis, withered from the excess of philologism, again find the élan and the life that it had at other times in the history of the Church? Father de Lubac, after having studied the long history of Christian exegesis, concludes rather sadly, saying that we moderns lack the conditions to be able to revive a spiritual reading like that of the Fathers; we lack that spirited faith, that sense of fullness and unity that they had, and because of this, wanting to imitate their audacity today would almost be to expose it to profanation, lacking as we do the spirit from which those things proceeded.[7]

Nevertheless, he does not shut the door completely on hope and says that "if one wants to find again what in the early centuries of the Church was the spiritual interpretation of Scripture, it is necessary first of all to reproduce a spiritual movement"[8]. Looking back at these words after some decades and with Vatican II between us, it seems to me that they are prophetic. That "spiritual movement" and that "élan" have begun to resurface, but not because men have programmed or foreseen them, but because from the four winds the Spirit has begun unexpectedly to blow again upon the dried up bones. Contemporaneously with the reappearance of the gifts, we also witness the reappearance of the spiritual reading of the Bible and this too is a fruit — one of the more exquisite — of the Spirit.

Participating in Bible and prayer groups, I am stupefied in hearing, at times, reflections on God's word that are analogous to those offered by Origen, Augustine or Gregory the Great in their time, even if it is in a more simple language. The words about the temple, the "tent of David," about Jerusalem destroyed and rebuilt after the exile, are applied, in all simplicity, to the Church, to Mary, to one's own community and personal life. That which is told about people in the Old Testament brings one to think, by analogy or antithesis, of Jesus and what is said of Jesus is applied and actualized in reference to the Church and to the individual believer.

Many perplexities with respect to the spiritual reading of the Bible are caused by not keeping to the distinction between explanation and application. In spiritual reading, beyond trying to explain the text, attributing an intention to it that is foreign to the sacred author, it is in general a matter of applying and actualizing the text. We already see this happening in the New Testament in regard to the words of Jesus. Sometimes we see that the same parable of Christ gets applied in different ways in the Synoptics, according to the needs and problems of the community for which each author is writing.

The Fathers' applications of Scripture and those of today are obviously not of the same canonical character as the original applications, but the process that leads to them is the same and it is based on the fact that the words of God are not dead words, " to be conserved with oil," Péguy would say; they are "living" and "active" words, capable of revealing hidden meanings and possibilities in response to new questions and situations. It is a consequence of what I have called the "active inspiration" of Scripture, that is, of the fact that it is not only "inspired by the Spirit," but "breathes forth" the Spirit too and it does so continually if it is read with faith. "Scripture," St. Gregory the Great said, "‘cum legentibus crescit'" — it "grows with those who read it"[9]. Growing, it remains intact.

Let us conclude with a prayer that I once heard a woman pray after she was read the episode in which Elijah, ascending up to heaven, leaves Elisha two-thirds of his spirit. It is an example of spiritual reading in the sense I have just explained: "Thank you, Jesus, that ascending to heaven, you do not only leave us two-thirds of your Spirit, but all of your Spirit! Thank you that you did not give your Spirit to just one disciple, but to all men!"

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

[1] Texts in Henri de Lubac, "Histoire de l'exégése médiévale," I,1, Paris,Aubier 1959, pp. 119 ff.
[2] St. Ambrose, "De Spiritu Sancto," III, 112.
[3] St. Augustine, "Confessions," IV, 12, 18.

[4] "Dei Verbum," 21.
[5] cf. H.G. Gadamer, "Wahrheit und Methode," Thbingen 1960.
[6] Origen, In Lev. hom. V, 5.

[7] Henri de Lubac, "Exégèse médiévale," II, 2, p. 79.
[8] Henri de Lubac, "Storia e spirito," Roma 1971, p. 587.
[9] St. Gregory the Great, Moral Commentary on the Book of Job, 20,1 (CC 143A, p. 1003).

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