Magisterial Development Concerning the Incarnation

Luiz Ruscillo FAITH Magazine July – August 2012

Canon Luiz Ruscillo, director of education in Lancaster diocese and parish priest of Hornby and Kirby Lonsdale, shows how Pope Benedict, in Verbum Domini,has continued the development of magisterial scriptural theology. The Pope outlines areas for "further thought" and development. As part of such a desired discussion Fr Ruscillo offers some insights from Edward Holloway's book A New Synthesis. This is an extract of the first part of a talk given to the Faith Theological Symposium 2012. We hope to publish the rest in the near future.

Verbum Domini' [1] is the 2010 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI following the 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of October 2008. This synod had as its theme "The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church". The Synod Fathers asked the Holy Father to make known to the People of God "the rich fruits which emerged from the synodal sessions and the recommendations which result from our common endeavour".[2]  As a result, in parts the document strains under the effort of trying to do justice to everything that was said by the many bishops present at the Synod. However, the theology at the heart of the treatise comes from Benedict's ownvision of the meaning of the Word of God in the Church and in the Scriptures. By making constant reference to the Prologue of John's Gospel, the Pope shows that the Bible is not simply a word from the past, but a living and timely word. As a result this vision touches on the meaning of the Word of God for all times and throughout creation.

This approach by Benedict follows in the line of significant decisive steps forward in Catholic biblical scholarship from the end of the 19th century throughout the 20th century: Providentissimus Deus, Leo XIII, 1893; Spiritus Paraclitus, Benedict XV, 1920; Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius XII, 1943; Dei Verbum, 1965. In Verbum Domini, Benedict describes this process as "a crescendo of interventions aimed at an increased awareness of the importance of the word of God and the study of the Bible in the life of the Church".[3] Since the Second Vatican Council this "crescendo" has continued with, among others, the Pontifical Biblical Commission documents De Sacra Scriptura et Christologia, 1984; TheInterpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1993; and The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, 2001.

The clearest and simplest exposition of Benedict's approach to biblical interpretation is given in the Foreword to his first volume of Jesus of Nazareth.[4] The point around which he constructs his work is to see "Jesus in the light of his communion with the Father, which is the true centre of his personality; without it, we cannot understand him at all, and it is from this centre that he makes himself present to us still today."[5] This is the vision at the heart of Verbum Domini.

The Logos

In the Introduction and the Conclusion we find the usual thanks and exhortations. Significantly, in them we also read that the Pope takes the Prologue of John's Gospel as the "synthesising principle" for the work of the Synod. In the Introduction he expresses his intention to "present and develop the labours of the Synod by making constant reference to the Prologue".[6] The evangelist, says Pope Benedict, "came to a deep certainty: Jesus is the Wisdom of God incarnate, he is his eternal Word who became a mortal man."[7] Again, in the Conclusion, the Pope reminds us: "The Prologue of John's Gospel leads us to ponder the fact that everything that exists is under the sign of the Word. The Word goesforth from the Father, comes to dwell in our midst and then returns to the Father in order to bring with him the whole of creation which was made in him and for him."[8]

Since it is the Logos, as expressed in John's Prologue, which guides Pope Benedict's thought throughout Verbum Domini, it is important to look at the meaning of the term as used in John. It is often suggested that John drew on the writings of Philo (an Alexandrian Jewish Philosopher, 25BC-AD50) to develop the concept of Logos as used in the Prologue. In this way some scholars would wish to define the Logos of John in terms of Greek philosophical categories. This opinion has been largely rejected by modern biblical scholars. The vocabulary and imagery of the Prologue are clearly seen to be influenced by Old Testament wisdom literature and not Hellenistic philosophy.

Wisdom Personified

Raymond Brown suggests that the author of John "capitalised and developed"[9] the primitive New Testament tradition of the identification of Jesus with personified Wisdom as found in the Old Testament. Brown has identified how almost every line of the Prologue has a parallel in wisdom literature referring to the personification of Wisdom.[10]

It is conceivable that John was also influenced by a number of other Old Testament or rabbinical traditions; namely the Semitic understanding of the term "word", dabar, and the identification of Wisdom with the Torah.


The term Dabar is much more than the "spoken word". It has a wide range of active meanings including "thing", "affair", "event" and "action". Dabar has power to create, to heal, to challenge and even to judge. Hebrew thought did not personify the Dabar as it did Wisdom, but still it considered that once spoken it had a quasi-substantial existence.
This is the sense of the word as spoken in Is 55:18 and indeed of the word spoken in Gen 1:1, at the beginning of creation. Jn 1: 3 easily fits into this vision. This active, powerful, revealing and creating "word" can possibly be identified with the Son in Heb 1:1-4. It gives deeper meaning to the contrast between speaking "in the past to the fathers" but now speaking in "one who is Son". Wisdom literature also identifies personified Wisdom with the "word of God" (Pr 9:1 -9).


In later rabbinical writings the Torah is considered to be created before all things and used as a pattern on which God created the world. As the Torah becomes increasingly idealised, wisdom literature begins to identify personified Wisdom with the Torah (Sir 24: 23 and Bar 4:1), much as it does with the Dabar of God. Furthermore, the Torah and the "word of the Lord" become interchangeable as in Is 22: 3; "Out of Zion shall go forth the Law and out of Jerusalem the word of the Lord." It is not surprising, given this late development in Jewish theology, that we should find parallels between this idealised concept of the Law and the Logos in the Prologue. The Torah is "the light" in Pr 6: 23. It is also described as the great example of"grace and truth" by the Rabbis, using exactly the words referred to the Logos made flesh in Jn 1:14.

The first Christian theologians saw clearly the linear development of personified, creating Wisdom to the reality they encountered in the incarnate Word. The universalist outlook of the sages, with their reverence for the Wisdom of God's creative, revealing and continuing providential activity in the world, furnishes Christians with the perfect vocabulary and categories to describe the new reality of Christ, the divine Mind of God. While their experience of Christ is radically original, still they recognised that His advent had been prepared and expected culturally, theologically and in literature.

"In the mind of the theologian of the Prologue the creative word of God, the word of the Lord that came to the prophets, has become personal in Jesus who is the embodiment of divine revelation. Jesus is divine wisdom, pre-existent, but now come among men to teach them and give them life"[11]

Old Testament wisdom literature gives John his vocabulary and theological categories. But the Incarnation gives John the inspiration and licence to take personification much further than anything in the Old Testament. New Testament Christology is firmly rooted in the Old Testament and the Old is brought to its completion in the New.

Yet it seems not enough to say that John has taken the personification of Wisdom to a greater intensity than seen before. Clearly, Logos is "with God" and "is God". No passage of the Old Testament can even hint at this identification. Furthermore, the understanding of John's Logos does not find its roots in personified Wisdom alone. The Logos is architect of creation; the Logos is also the Light (Jn 1: 3) and the fulfilment of the Law (Jn 1:17). As Light he shines among men. In other words, Logos is revealing God (Jn 1:18); Logos is the "word" of revelation. Finally, Logos completes the Law when the Law, which is the foundation of the Covenant, comes in "grace and truth". The fullest understanding of the Logos of the Prologue is as the One who is Wisdom-Word.

Dialogue of God and Man [12]

By far the most interesting and useful passages of Verbum Domini are found in the first section of Part I, "Verbum Dei: The God who Speaks". In this section the Pope develops his theme that God, through a dialogue which he desires to have with man, becomes known to him. The purpose of this dialogue is to "invite and take [men and women] into fellowship with himself."[13] Yet the Prologue, says Pope Benedict,[14] is not sufficiently understood if we stop at the fact that God enters into loving communion with us. The Prologue makes us realise that the Logos is truly eternal; "God was never without his Logos."[15] The Father eternallyutters his Word in the Holy Spirit. The Word exists before creation. The Word reveals God in the dialogue of love between the divine persons, and invites us to share in that love. As a consequence, we can only understand ourselves, made in the image of God, in accepting the Word.

Understanding Revelation as the beginning of dialogue, in which man is invited to respond, finds parallels in Holloway's understanding of God as Environer of man. "That is why in man, and through man, the Law of Control and Direction... passes to a new order, in the unity of the one principle of finalism, the order in which God in person is the Principle of the law, the centre of the determination to fulfilment; God takes up the law into himself, becoming to man the environment, or better, the Environer."[16] Pope Benedict writes, "...our whole existence becomes a dialogue with the God who speaks and listens, who calls us and gives direction to our lives. Here the word of God reveals that our entire life is under divine call."[17]

In another part the Pope says that biblical revelation leads us to see the eternal Word as the "foundation of all reality". "Scripture tells us that everything that exists does not exist by chance but is willed by God and part of his plan, at the centre of which is the invitation to partake, in Christ, in the divine life."[18]

The correspondence of this idea with what we find in Catholicism seems very close: "In the prologue we are told that all men are made in and through the Word, who is with God and who is God, and whose being is the light of men...he came into his own things, his own inheritance, and his own received him not. The Greek makes it clear from the use of the neuter case, that it is his own inheritance, or estate, that he came into; the unjust husbandmen are echoed here also, and in that inheritance, his own, who should have expected him and welcomed him, neither knew him nor rallied to him. This makes no sense unless the Christ is by right of coming, not by fact of sin, the Heir of the Ages."[19]

Since the Logos as expressed in John's Prologue is the constant reference point, and one which Benedict understands as offering a synthesis of the entire Christian faith,[20] it is perhaps inevitable that the primacy of Christ, the word incarnate, should be affirmed. Since creation is through the Logos, the dialogue of revelation begins at once; man is the one called and equipped to respond. We cannot understand ourselves, we are not intelligible, except in this dialogue. Is it not necessary, in this plan, that the Logos take flesh? It is not explicitly affirmed in these terms in Verbum Domini.

Another passage could be understood as suggesting that revelation "demands" incarnation. We find this in the section "The Sacramentality of the Word", where we read:

"Here it may help to recall that Pope John Paul II had made reference to the 'sacramental character of revelation' and in particular to 'the sign of the Eucharist in which the indissoluble unity between the signifier and the signified makes it possible to grasp the depths of the mystery'.[21] We come to see that at the heart of the sacramentality of the word of God is the mystery of the incarnation itself: 'the Word became flesh' (Jn 1:14), the reality of the revealed mystery is offered to us in the 'flesh' of the Son...The sacramental character of revelation points in turn to the history of salvation, to the way that the word of God enters time and space, and speaks to men and women, who are called to accept his gift in faith."[22]

The sacramental character of the word is prefigured in type in the Old Testament understanding of the Dabar as an event, an action of God. Interestingly, Pope Benedict encourages more study of this as beneficial to the life of the Church: "A deeper understanding of the sacramentality of God's word can thus lead us to a more unified understanding of the mystery of revelation, which takes place through 'deeds and words intimately connected';[23] an appreciation of this can only benefit the spiritual life of the faithful and the Church's pastoral activity."[24]

[1] Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, Vatican, 30 September 2010.
[2] Verbum Domini, 1.
[3] Verbum Domini, 3.
[4]J Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth. From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, London, 2007.
[5]Ibid, pxiv
[6] Verbum Domini, 5.
[7] Verbum Domini, 5.
[8] Verbum Domini, 121.
[9]R E Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol.1, Appendix 2, London, 1965.
[10]R E Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol.1, Appendix 2, pp521-523, London, 1965.
[11] R E Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol.1, Appendix 2, p524, London, 1965.
[12]I have called this section The Dialogue of God and Man, because it adequately describes what the Pope expresses. Edward Holloway uses this title in Catholicism chapter 10,1.
[13]Dei Verbum, 2.
[14] Verbum Domini, 6.
[15] Verbum Domini, 6.
[16]E Holloway, Catholicism: A New Synthesis, 1970, pi 07.
[17] Verbum Domini, 24.
[16] Verbum Domini, 8.
[19]Catholicism, pl40.
[20] Verbum Domini, 5.
[21]Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 13, 1998.
[22] Verbum Domini, 56.
[23] Dei Verbum, 2. Cf. David Barrett's articles in our September 2007 and May 2008 issues.
[24] Verbum Domini, 56.

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