A long time ago, in a blog far, far away…I began to discuss the text Verbum Domini , the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Benedict XVI on the “Word of God in the life and mission of the Church.” Many things have intervened since then, such as the end of one semester, Christmas, and the beginning of another semester, but it is time to return to the text and I will, however long it takes, discuss the whole of the document. You have either been warned or encouraged, but I like to think that things related to Scripture take time to mature, and by this I primarily mean the students of Scripture. If you would like, please check out the first post here .
A key element of the initial portion of the text, Part One: Verbum Dei: The God Who Speaks, is how revelation speaks to human reason. This is a significant part of reflection on Scripture not only since the rise of Christianity, but since Jewish scholars and philosophers such as Philo of Alexandria began to muse and consider the relationship of God’s word to Greco-Roman philosophy. It is an always important consideration as there are forces outside of the Church who want to relegate Scripture’s relevance to the dustbin of history and “blind faith” and there are forces within Christianity who are equally happy to maintain Scripture as God’s voice removed from reason. Verbum Domini, however, sees the faith of Scripture as embedded in reason. “Scripture tells us that everything that exists does not exist by chance but is willed by God and part of his plan, at whose center is the invitation to partake, in Christ, in the divine life. Creation is born of the Logos and indelibly bears the mark of the creative Reason which orders and directs it” (19-20). The Logos, the Word itself, Jesus Christ, was also translated by Philo, the Stoics and even the Pre-Socratic Heraclitus as “Reason,” so a significant and ancient connection is being made here by Benedict. Naturally, the Greek philosophers and Philo did not connect the Logos to Jesus, but Benedict is stating that the Logos of Christian revelation is the Reason of the Greco-Roman (and Hellenistic Jewish) philosophers. Faith and Reason must not be torn asunder, for they have the same origin. Indeed, Scripture itself asks us to consider reason: “Thus sacred Scripture itself invites us to acknowledge the Creator by contemplating his creation (cf. Wis 13:5; Rom 1:19-20)” (20). Benedict’s focus is on reason at the very heart of creation as revealed through Scripture itself.
The next section of the text, The Creation of Man, points to “Reality” which “is born of the word, as creatura Verbi, and everything is called to serve the word. Creation is the setting in which the entire history of the love between God and his creation develops; hence human salvation is the reason underlying everything” (21). This is an important and powerful claim, for modern science has in many ways torn the book of nature apart from the book of revelation and nature is as often seen as “nature, red of tooth and claw,” as Tennyson wrote, and not the book in which God’s order and reason can be seen. Terry Nichols has written powerfully about this attempt to pull nature away from revelation or to see reason as an alien intrusion in faith in The Sacred Cosmos .
Yet, Benedict argues that “contemplating the cosmos from the perspective of salvation history, we come to realize the unique and singular position occupied by man in creation:“ God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). This enables us to acknowledge fully the precious gifts received from the Creator: the value of our body, the gift of reason, freedom and conscience. Here too we discover what the philosophical tradition calls “the natural law”. In effect, “every human being who comes to consciousness and to responsibility has the experience of an inner call to do good” and thus to avoid evil. As Saint Thomas Aquinas says, this principle is the basis of all the other precepts of the natural law. Listening to the word of God leads us first and foremost to value the need to live in accordance with this law “written on human hearts ” (cf. Rom 2:15; 7:23)” (21). Again, we are brought back to the Stoics and Greco-Roman philosophers from whom the notion of the “law of nature” was taken, first by Hellenistic Jews and then by Christians. Due to God’s sovereign creation, of the cosmos and of human beings, and because the cosmos was (and is) shot through with reason, the world was intelligible, full of meaning and purpose and not at odds with creation, but nature itself was full to the brim with reason.
The coming of Christ does not bring us into opposition with nature, Benedict argues, but “Jesus Christ then gives mankind the new law, the law of the Gospel, which takes up and eminently fulfils the natural law, setting us free from the law of sin, as a result of which, as Saint Paul says, “ I can will what is right, but I cannot do it ”(Rom 7:18). It likewise enables men and women, through grace, to share in the divine life and to overcome their selfishness.” (22). Grace perfects nature, but this does not exclude the reasonableness of nature. It does, however, offer a challenging, new view of reality.
In the section, The Realism of the Word, Benedict writes, “the word of God makes us change our concept of realism: the realist is the one who recognizes in the word of God the foundation of all things” (22). This concept of reality is, today, a hard sell, both in terms of the scientific worldview which sees reality in material things and the drive for success which is made manifest in material things. Benedict is unquestionably correct that “this realism is particularly needed in our own time, when many things in which we trust for building our lives, things in which we are tempted to put our hopes, prove ephemeral. Possessions, pleasure and power show themselves sooner or later to be incapable of fulfilling the deepest yearnings of the human heart” (22). True, that, as Omar would say, but the pull is powerful and the depths to which people are being pulled are abyss-like. How to convince them that reality is actually found in Scripture? How to convince people that nature is not simply cruel and purposeless and that winning is not found in the one who dies with the most toys? Benedict to my mind is making all of the right connections, but how can Scripture be brought to life for those for whom it means nothing or for those who know nothing of it? Let's discuss these questions next time (and below in the comments section) when we return to Verbum Domini.
John W. Martens
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