Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
"The Letter Kills, the
Spirit Gives Life: The Spiritual Reading of the Bible."
4th Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
March 14, 2008
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
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."
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!
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." 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!)."
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
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.
3. 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
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
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.
4. 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.
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." 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.
5. 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.
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".
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
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
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
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". 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]
 Texts in Henri de Lubac, "Histoire de l'exégése médiévale," I,1,
Paris,Aubier 1959, pp. 119 ff.
 St. Ambrose, "De Spiritu Sancto," III, 112.
 St. Augustine, "Confessions," IV, 12, 18.
 "Dei Verbum," 21.
 cf. H.G. Gadamer, "Wahrheit und Methode," Thbingen 1960.
 Origen, In Lev. hom. V, 5.
 Henri de Lubac, "Exégèse médiévale," II, 2, p. 79.
 Henri de Lubac, "Storia e spirito," Roma 1971, p. 587.
 St. Gregory the Great, Moral Commentary on the Book of Job, 20,1
(CC 143A, p. 1003).
© Innovative Media, Inc.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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