About us



Vol 42 No 4



Mark Kenney SM

Mark O'Brien OP

Brendan Byrne, SJ
Personal Story, Mission, and Meaning for the Church Today

Michael Trainor

Anne Hunt

John S. McKinnon
Part One: The Second Conversion


Synod on the Word of God


ON OCTOBER 5, 2008 the 12th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops opened in Rome. It met for three weeks concluding its work on October 26. The topic for this conference was 'The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church'. This was a significant event since it was the first time since Vatican II and the promulgation of Dei Verbum, 'Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,' that the Bible was the focal point of a major meeting.1 It is also significant that the synod on the Word of God coincided with the celebration of the year of St. Paul whose life was dedicated to the proclamation of the Word. Although the Synod completed its work in October, the final document by Pope Benedict will not appear for some months yet. Nonetheless, now is an opportune time to reflect on the work of the Synod and the propositions that it presented to Pope Benedict for his final statement. This article will treat the Synod in three ways: 1) it will place the Synod in the context of the Church's ongoing teaching concerning the written Word of God; 2) it will examine the preparation and composition of the Synod; and 3) it will present the main issues and recommendations that came from the Synod.

The Synod in the Context of Church Teaching

The Church teaching regarding the Bible is quite large.2 For the purposes of this article, we can begin with the encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 'On the Study of Scripture,' (18 November 1893).3 This Papal document opened the door to contemporary biblical studies. It acknowledged the 'historical, archaeological, and scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century, which profoundly affected the interpretation of the Bible'.4 Although this was a meagre start to a critical study of the Bible, it prepared the way for the influential encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Divino afflante Spiritu, 'On the Promotion of Biblical Studies,' (30 September 1943).5 This document advocated a critical approach to the study and interpretation of the Bible. Although it never mentioned a particular method of interpretation, it is clear that it promoted the use of the historical-critical method. It emphasised that the goal of exegesis should be the explanation of the literal sense of the Scriptures in order to make known the intention of the author in writing. In order to accomplish this, the exegete must make use of the original languages in which the Bible was written. Most importantly, however, the exegete must be attentive to the literary forms which compose the Scriptures for these are vital to a proper interpretation of the text.6 This encyclical of Pope Pius XII prepared the way for the document that Vatican II would produce about the Bible and its interpretation.

Dei Verbum7 does not address biblical interpretation until Chapter Three. The first two chapters deal with Divine Revelation and its transmission. In addition to interpretation, Chapter Three addresses several other issues regarding the Scriptures. First it describes the process of inspiration followed by a brief statement regarding inerrancy. It states, 'we must acknowledge the Books of Scripture as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth that God wished to be recorded in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.'8 For its statement regarding interpretation of the Bible, Dei Verbum freely draws upon Divino afflante Spiritu. In order to be able to understand what God has communicated through the Scriptures, it is necessary to determine what the authors intended to convey by what they wrote. In order to achieve this, it is essential to determine the literary forms of which they made use. In addition, the exegete must take into consideration the human author's customs and culture and the influence these could have on the style and method of composition.

The last document to be considered is not strictly part of official Church teaching but received the endorsement of Pope John Paul II. This is the 1993 publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.9 The Pontifical Biblical Commission is a group of scholars that works in association with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A major part of this document is devoted to the historical-critical method and its importance in the interpretation of Scripture. Regarding this method, it states:

The historical-critical method is the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts. Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the 'Word of God in human language,' has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them. Because of this, its proper understanding not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.10

Although the historical-critical method is essential to biblical interpretation, it is not sufficient in itself for a complete understanding of the biblical text; other methods must be employed with it. The Pontifical Biblical Commission presents a description and evaluation of a number of these interpretive approaches which include: new methods of literary analysis, the sociological approach, the approach through cultural anthropology, and contextual or advocacy approaches which include liberation theology and feminism.

This brief survey of Church teaching regarding biblical interpretation provides an important context for a discussion of the Synod on the Word of God. Elements of these documents, particularly Divino afflante Spiritu, Dei Verbum, and The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, constantly arose during the sessions of the Synod.

The Preparation and Composition of the Synod

In preparation for the Synod, standard procedure was followed. On 27 April 2007, the Lineamenta or working document for the Synod entitled The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church 11 was presented. This document offered a number of themes as possible topics for the Synod. The purpose of the document was to stimulate reflection and discussion prior to the convening of the Synod. The document was composed of an Introduction and three chapters entitled: Revelation, the Word of God and the Church; The Word of God in the Life of the Church; and the Word of God in the Mission of the Church. Each section was followed by a series of questions which the participants of the Synod were invited to answer. The responses were sent to the general secretariat of the Synod before the end of November 2007. These responses were used in setting the agenda for the Synod when it met.

The participants included 253 bishops representing 113 Bishops' conferences, 25 representatives of the Roman Curia and the Union of Superiors General. There were 41 experts from 21 countries of which 6 were women and 37 auditors from 26 countries of which 19 were women.12 In addition to the usual participants, there were also a number of specially invited guests. These included Rev. A. Milloy, secretary general of the United Bible Societies, and Frère Alois, prior of the Taizé Community. For the first time, a non-Christian was invited to address the assembly. Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, Israel, spoke to the Synod on the Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures. Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, England and a world renowned New Testament scholar also addressed the Synod.

The Synod met for three weeks.13 The Synod opened with five reports from the five continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and America) regarding the state of the Bible in their regions of the world.14 The first week and a half was devoted to the Synod participants delivering five minute reports on various aspects of the Bible. In addition to regular meetings of the total assembly, the participants were divided into discussion groups which met throughout the remainder of the Synod.

On 14 October, towards the end of the individual reports, the Pope addressed the entire assembly for a short, ten minute, period. He stated that Dei Verbum had called for two methodologies for appropriate exegetical work. The first methodology is the historical-critical method. The second methodology is the theological which includes three elements: 1) canonical exegesis which stresses the unity of the entire Scripture; 2) the living tradition of the whole church; and 3) observance of the analogy of faith. Pope Benedict observed that there appears to be a lack of the second methodology, the theological, in current biblical exegesis. A proper balance must be achieved between historical exegesis and theological exegesis.15

At the close of the Synod, a list of fifty-five propositions was submitted to the Pope for consideration for the document that he will issue. These propositions are only advisory and the Pope will decide which of the proposals will be included in the Apostolic Exhortation.

Issues and Recommendations of the Synod

The fifty-five propositions were presented to the Pope in the form of a formal proposal. The document was composed of an introduction and three parts, following the format of the Lineamenta that was sent out before the Synod convened. Thus, the titles of the three parts of the proposal document were identical to the three chapters of the Lineamenta. This classification will be used in the discussion of the proposals.16 The propositions can be divided into two types. The first is a recommendation for some specific action to be taken concerning certain issues. The second type is simply an affirmation or acknowledgement of a value or present situation that the Synod would like to see continue.

Part I, 'The Word of God in the Faith of the Church', begins by clearly defining the term, 'Word of God'. When this term was used in the Lineamenta, it was used in an ambiguous way to refer to both the person of Jesus as the Word of God and Scripture as the Word of God. The proposal clearly indicates that the primary meaning of the 'Word of God' is Jesus. Sometimes, in order to make the distinction between Jesus and the Bible, the Scriptures are called the 'written Word of God'.

The sixth proposition urges that a patristic reading of the Bible not be overlooked, especially its use of the two senses of Scripture: the literal sense and the spiritual sense. The document is very clear on determining the literal sense; scientific methods of critical exegesis are used. The proposal, however, is not so clear on determining the spiritual sense. It says, 'The spiritual sense also concerns the reality of the events of which Scripture speaks, taking account of the living Tradition of the whole church and the analogy of faith, which implies the intrinsic connection of the truths of the faith among themselves and in their totality in the design of divine revelation'.17 It would be helpful to have some clarification as to the process that can be used in determining the spiritual sense of Scripture. Also, different meanings can be attributed to the term 'spiritual sense'; therefore, it is necessary to know how the term is being used.18

The Synod members also reiterated the Lineamenta's assertion that there is a close connection between the Word of God in the Scriptures and the Eucharist. This was one of the reasons why the Synod on the Word of God followed the Synod on the Eucharist, to emphasise the unity of the two. Following from this is the importance of Scripture in the sacraments of penance and the anointing of the sick.

A strong recommendation was made by the Synod for a revival of the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. This subject was brought to the Synod floor on the second day during the opening address of Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City. This recommendation was the result of what proved to be a major thrust of the Synod: a pastoral approach to the Bible that would aim to make Scripture more available as a source of spiritual nourishment and means of attaining a personal encounter with Jesus. Lectio Divina is mentioned a second time in Proposition 22 which refers to the prayerful reading of Scripture.

Dei Verbum was naturally a document quoted many times during the Synod. The Synod felt that the treatment of the concepts of 'inspiration' and 'truth' was not clear enough and requested the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for a clarification of these important biblical issues and also to comment on their relationship.

One of the last propositions of Part One reaffirms God's preference for the poor as found in Scripture and also describes the poor as apt agents of evangelization of the Word found in Scripture.

Part Two, 'The Word of God in the Life of the Church', can be divided into four major areas: Scripture and the liturgy; the recommendation made by Pope Benedict in his intervention; the Scriptures in relation to specific groups in the church; and the role of Scripture in pastoral ministry. Seven of the propositions deal with the Bible in the liturgy. A revision of the Lectionary is called for so that the link between the Old Testament readings and the Gospel readings may be more evident. This revision should also provide for a more diverse use of Old Testament passages and themes. It is recommended that a homily be given at every Mass, even at weekday Masses. To aid in the preparation of homilies a 'Directory on the Homily' should be prepared which would contain the principles of homiletics as well as the biblical themes found in the lectionaries. The Synod recognized and encouraged the role of the laity in the ministry of the Word and requested that the ministry of lector be made available for women

A substantial part of the second section of propositions addresses the recommendation that Pope Benedict made in his short intervention during the Synod. The Synod calls for the exegetical process to be conducted on two levels as presented in Dei Verbum: the historical and the theological. The methodology of the former makes use of the historical-critical method; while, the methodology of the latter utilizes the unity of the Scriptures, the living tradition of the church, and the analogy of faith. There should also be greater dialogue and collaboration among exegetes and theologians.

A number of propositions speak to the use of the Word of God among various groups such as families, priests and those in formation for the priesthood, small communities for the purpose of studying and praying the Scriptures, those in consecrated life, and youth. The importance of Scripture in pastoral ministry is emphasised with particular attention to those in the field of health care. The second part of the propositions ends with the role played by Scripture in Christian unity.

The third and final section of propositions is entitled 'The Word of God in the Mission of the Church' and is directly concerned with the missionary aspect of the Bible. Every baptised person is called to be a missionary of the Word of God. Before mission is possible, however, the missionary must be permeated with the Scriptures and the Synod realises that the way in which the Scriptures are read is very important to this mission. Despite the Synod's cautions about the use of historical criticism in exegesis, it also recognises the necessity of the method. If the historical dimension of the Scriptures is neglected the danger of a fundamentalist interpretation is very real. Although the Synod strongly recommends the use of Lectio Divina, the method must be used in association with the recognition of the human element that is present in the inspired text.19

Several propositions are devoted to the role of the Bible in interreligious dialogue, especially with Jews and Muslims. The third section of propositions also comments on the use of the Scriptures in promoting a proper ecology. The list of propositions ends with a call for Catholics to follow Mary's example in relation to the Scriptures, one must have an attitude of prayerful listening and yet be committed to mission and proclamation at the same time.


The purpose of the Synod on the Word of God was made clear in the Lineamenta. It was to be a pastoral Synod focusing on the Word of God in the life of the church as well as in the mission of the church. In this respect, this Synod adopted a new approach in its reflections on the Bible in the church and in the world today. From the brief historical study in the first section of this article, it can be seen that since Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus in 1893, church documents and even Vatican II were primarily concerned with scholarly, exegetical interpretation of the Scriptures. The Synod on the Word of God acknowledged the importance of scholarly exegesis but also saw the need to address another important aspect of the Scriptures--the spiritual dimension for the individual as well as for the entire church community, thus setting a new direction in the church's reflection on the Word of God.

The recommendations presented to Pope Benedict reflect the pastoral concerns of the Synod. They include the use of Lectio Divina for the spiritual enrichment of the individual as well as methods of improving the use of Scripture in the liturgical life of the church. These methods include the preparation of better homilies, methods to enhance the liturgy of the Word in the Eucharist and other sacraments, and means of engaging the laity more actively in these areas, requesting that women be admitted to the ministry of lector. Finally, the Synod spoke to the fundamental missionary activity of the church that must always be at the centre of any discussion of the Word of God--it must be proclaimed to all the nations.

In view of the variety of issues and concerns that the Synod addressed regarding the Bible, it will be interesting to see how Pope Benedict brings them together in his forthcoming Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of God.

Fr Mark Kenney is a member of the Atlanta Province of the Marists in the United States. Formerly he was the Director of Formation for the Atlanta Province, and now he lectures in Scripture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney.


1 Since Vatican II there have been a number of papal addresses concerning the Bible as well as the 1993 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. For all of these, see: Béchard, DP. (2002), The Scripture Documents: An Anthology of Official Catholic Teaching. Liturgical Press, Collegeville. The Pontifical Biblical Commission also produced a second important document on the Scriptures that was published after Béchard's book appeared: (2002), The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano. The Synod on the Word of God is the first international gathering on the Bible since Vatican II.

 2 Documents regarding interpretation of Scripture go back to the patristic period with St. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem (315-387 C.E.). Much of this material remains untranslated in the Latin. All the documents that are discussed in this article can be found in Béchard 2002.

 3 Béchard 2002, 37-61.

 4 Fitzmyer, JA. (2008), The Interpretation of Scripture. Paulist Press, New York, 4.

 5 Béchard 2002, 115-139.

 6 Fitzmyer 2008, 5-6.

 7 Béchard 2002, 19-33.

 8 Béchard 2002, 24.

 9 Béchard 2002, 244-317.

 10 Béchard 2002, 249. For a history and description of the historical-critical method, see Béchard 2002, 249-252, and Fitzmyer 2008, 59-73.

 11 The full text can be accessed at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/synod/documents/rc_synod_doc_20070427_lineamenta

 12 For a complete list of the participants, see the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sindo/documents/bollettino_22_xii-ordinaria-2008/02_inglese/bol_02.stml

 13 For a complete outline plus summary of the various sessions see the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_22_xii-ordinaria-2008/02_inglese/b00_sommario_02.html This source contains mostly summaries of the participant's interventions. The National Catholic Reporter also produced a daily summary of the activities of the Synod which includes a discussion of the major themes and issues that arose during the sessions. See http://johnallen.ncrcafe.org

 14 http://ncrcafe.org/node/2155

 15 The official text of the Pope's address to the Synod can be found at: http:/ncrcafe.org/node/2210

 16 All fifty-five propositions can be found at the National Catholic Reporter website: http://ncrcafe.org/node/2228. The Vatican website contains only a summery of the propositions in English; it does not list them all.

 17 John Allen, 'Synod: Final Propositions of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible', 2008, http://ncrcafe.org/node/2228. Accessed 28 October 2008.

 18 Fitzmyer, 2008, 91.

 19 The process of Lectio Divina contains four steps: lectio (reading); meditatio (meditation); oratio (prayer); and contemplatio (contemplation). In the first step, reading the text, it is necessary to understand the background of the Scripture passage in order to properly understand what the passage is about. To achieve this, the person must make use of contemporary biblical criticism. In fact, the use of such material can even be incorporated into the prayer of Lectio Divina. For more information regarding the use of biblical criticism in Lectio Divina, see Christopher Hayden. (2001), Praying the Scriptures: a Practical Introduction to Lectio Divina. St. Pauls, London, 61-62.