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Celebrating the Word of God: A Call to authentic biblical spirituality devoid of fundamentalism

To mark the celebration of the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, the great translator of the Vulgate, whose intention of making the Scriptures available to all in their languages was seen in the Latin translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek, the Catholic Biblical Federation declared the Year of the Word of God (Dei Verbi Annus), from the first Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) until the Feast of St. Jerome, September 30, 2020.

The celebration of Dei Verbi Annus coincides with the first celebration of the newly instituted Sunday of the Word of God as declared by Pope Francis in his motu proprio, Aperuit Illis, published on September 30, 2019; a day to be celebrated every third Sunday in Ordinary Time.

By way of laying a background, the Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini states that “The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book”: Christianity is the “religion of the Word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word” (No. 7).

Regardless of the narrow sense in which “….not a religion of the book” may be understood, there remains the fact that a great deal of data on Christianity, on how the Christian life is to be led or on Jesus Christ himself, the Incarnate Word, is provided to Christians by the sacred book called The Bible.

Pope Francis echoes this truth in these words, “Without the scriptures, the events of the mission of Jesus and of his church would remain incomprehensible” (Aperuit Illis).  Emphasising the relationship between Christian spirituality and Sacred Scripture; that the Bible—the written Word of God—serves as a foundation and nourishment of the Christian life, the year 2020 presents us with a double-interwoven celebration in honour of the Word of God: Sunday of the Word of God and the Year of the Word of God.

These celebrations aim at the celebration, study and dissemination of the Word of God (Aperuit Illis), and renewal of the efforts of Christians in placing the Word of God at the centre of their lives and of the life and mission of the church (Cf. Letter from the President of the Catholic Biblical Federation).

Together, both celebrations must be seen as a moment of grace, a time to deepen our call to authentic Biblical spirituality devoid of fundamentalism amid a contemporary trend in Christian spirituality that seems superficially biblical.

It has been asserted that one of the characteristics of Christian spirituality in the days prior to the Second Vatican Council is what could be called ‘elitism’ (Cunningham and Egan, p.5) —where spirituality, that is religious experience or holiness, was seen as being for the elite: bishops, priests, nuns, and monks; as such the Bible was in the possession of these few to the neglect of the faithful.

The Second Vatican Council has however corrected this narrow view about Christian spirituality. The Council has in various ways stated the universal call to holiness: that every Christian by virtue of his or her baptism is called to a life of holiness; and encouraged the centrality of the Word of God and its practice in the daily life of the Christian by stating that access to sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful (Cf. The Conciliar Documents: Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum).

In light of this, Pope Francis emphasizes that: “The Bible cannot be just the heritage of some, much less a collection of books for the benefit of a privileged few. It belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognise themselves in its words” (Aperuit Illis).

Thus to deepen the life of the Christian faithful, Christian Spirituality which is Trinitarian meanwhile Christocentric must be rooted in following Jesus Christ, and in drawing inspiration from his life, events and teachings.

Centred on Christ, the image of God and the Word made flesh, Christian life has a connection with the content that informs it—the written Word of God; knowledge of this revealed word of God is thus knowledge and encounter of Jesus Christ. We are thus reminded of the words of St. Jerome that “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Scripture as the Word of God for us becomes the principal witness of the life and teachings of the Lord.

And growth in Christian life thus depends on the ability to integrate the past of Jesus with the today of the Christian, giving thought to the vision and call of the Lord, concretized and applied in new circumstances.

The conception that may seemingly come to the fore at once is Sola Scriptura, that “Scripture is the only source for Christian spirituality” however this an inadequate expression of what Christian spirituality should mean for us today. The Christian life as it is echoes the Bible’s call for life in the Spirit and fosters humanity’s struggle for truth and its search for God; knowing that its call already includes applications.

“The Scriptures of the Church are not archives of the past but a channel of life for the continuing church, through which God instructs and admonishes his people.” (Cf. Scheffczyk, pp. 365-366). The scriptures are inspired, and in them, God reveals his call to us. Scripture thus provides ‘the authoritative and definitive word that continues to shape and enliven the church.’ Thus the Vatican Council stresses that revelation is given to the people and belongs to the Church.

The relationship between spirituality and scripture is profound and vital, but it is also complex and delicate. Certainly, scripture is a source; it is a means for growth in Christian life, a life that must be consciously penetrated by Scripture. In Scripture, we see how others tried to be faithful, and that means they used. We read the results of their convictions and faith.

Even though their context is different from ours, the vision is clear and requires that Jesus’ concrete teaching be reapplied. The Gospel, thus, is the ultimate norm and the common inspiration for every authentic Christian disciple. In that sense, scripture serves as the measuring rod for authentic spirituality, the norm, and the test of all spirituality in the Church.

It is often used as a support for doctrinal positions, and ought to be used as a source to control the authenticity of present spiritual teaching and practice. But this could lead to fundamentalism, rigorism, and conservatism if the theological task of interpretation is not well done. Moreover as succinctly put forth by some, ‘the Bible is not the object of our faith, but our access to God in Christ’.

For we believe ‘in the God of the Bible not the Bible of God,’ and we are open to his spirit. Christians must come to understand that the Bible is the Divine Word expressed through human words (Cunningham and Egan, p. 30).

Furthermore, since there is often the problem of harmony or agreement among the human authors and books of the Bible because the Old and New Testaments, made up of collection of books were written over a long period of time in various contexts, with different literary styles, and for various purposes, no individual book can be considered normative when taken alone.

The scriptures must thus be read as a whole, and as a whole, it is normative for faith; they must be must be read as a living-whole, in the person of Jesus, the perfect fulfillment of the old covenant between God and his people. This must be accompanied by proper interpretation and relevant meaning being deduced which must guide the Christian in his or her daily endeavours.

Thus in reading the Bible, the Christian must find a feeling for faith, a sense of what it means to be Christian, an interior appreciation of scripture’s priorities, and a real resonance of his or her own life with the disciples of Jesus’ time.

When read in faith, the scriptures give us an account of the discovery of God; the discovery of the person’s own life; and the discovery of a shared mission in the plan of God. It is in view of this that it has been suggested that today, biblical spirituality is not found in the Bible, but rather in people who live the Bible’s message and call (Cf. Schoonenberg, p. 90).

Indeed, this is the essence of the spirituality of the Christian: that the proclaimed Word will facilitate a re-incarnational change, and establish that Christianity is relevant to every generation, culture, and experience; a conviction that God’s message is relevant to every life.

Realizing that at the base of every Christian spirituality is the deep hunger and longing for the Word of God, let me dare say that in no time has this hunger been strong as compared to our contemporary time, when people want their lives to be directed primarily, if not solely, by God’s Word expounded in good homilies that are scripturally based, and not held as theoretical but that which would touch their lives, speak to their hearts, transform their whole being, and inspire them to put the preaching into practice; and by so doing satisfy their hunger.

The desire to satisfy this hunger has led to many biblical apostolates, many translations, and distribution of Bibles, and the trend of the establishment and multiplicity of new and so-called Bible-reading churches resulting in ‘new spiritualities and ministries’ (in market squares, on streets, in public transports) often based on personal opinion and immense fundamentalism; a trend that takes the word of God literally without recognition of the context and literary genres employed by the human authors.

The ripple effect is the face-value interpretation and over-spiritualization of the Word of God, and the risk of treating the Scriptures with little value, essence, and relevance in our age.

Scripture, however, should not be too much personalized since it was written with someone else specifically in mind. Even though the Bible is a source of spirituality, and all Christian life must be penetrated by its teachings; for life which is uninfluenced by the Word of God cannot be Christian; Christian life nonetheless is not simply the repetition of what is contained in scripture.

For it is not all about the number of verses that can be “chewed and poured”; it is not just a matter of quotations and mantras like the Bible says, the Bible says, to which Fr. Martin Asiedu Peprah, PhD, during lectures would often ask us to retort: Which part of the Bible says! Rather, in the Bible we see events that we must relive, recelebrate, and reincarnate; we meet other disciples who, in their time and circumstances, lived the realities described.

The contemporary trend and challenge, however, is the fundamentalistic reading, interpretation, and practice of the written Word of God; holding the Bible as the only source of Divine Revelation, outside of which no truth exists.

Many people thus read their “simple faith” into the text and out of the text. This spiritualizing of the Bible can be devotionally helpful, but may lead to ‘Biblical pietism’ which does not generate authentic biblical or Christian spirituality.

What we must understand is that as the Christian tradition was passed on, sacred Scripture was not left out. Christian Scripture continues to be the ‘lamp for the feet’ of the Christian; in the written Word of God, Christ is revealed, and knowledge and encounter with him is possible.

The Bible can be our inspiration, a means for growth in the spiritual life, and contains a synthesis of the Christian vision and spirituality; however, we must be wary of fundamentalism, and overcome the practice of reading, interpreting, understanding and applying the Bible on the face value! For even though the Bible is the most widely distributed book,

It also seems to be the most controversial book because it shallowly read, often misinterpreted and misunderstood, and fundamentally applied in daily living. We must have at the back of our hearts and minds that since the Bible is God’s Word in human language and words, there is the need to understand the language forms, literary genres and styles employed by the human authors to communicate God’s message; this is essential in making an informed reading and interpretation of the Christian Scriptures.

We must also appreciate and embrace the truth that the Word of God is actualized through on-going discernment which is not individualistic but a communal openness to the Holy Spirit whose power both initiates the contemporary challenge of the Word and its application to our lives in contemporary situations, issues and lifestyles.

Thus dedicating a Sunday to the Word of God, as Pope Francis said, should not be seen as a yearly event; and declaring 2020 as the Year of the Word of God should not just end in September 2020. Together, these celebrations must be seen as an opportunity and a call to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures; we must make and renew sustained efforts aimed at a good reading, study and interpretation of the Word of God.

We must get copies of suitable and standard translations of the Bible as well as good commentaries, pray and allow the Lord to open our minds and hearts to understand the Scriptures, and seek help from our pastors and teachers, in order to develop a closer relationship with God through his words, and to put his words into practice in daily living.

It is when the Incarnate and Living Word takes root and flesh in our own ordinary lives through everyday living that we can be said to embrace authentic Biblical-Christian spirituality.


Source: Wisdom Elikplim

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