In 1983, for Martin Luther's 500th birth anniversary, Cardinal Willebrands, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, referred to him by saying 'our common master', meaning 'the one that made the Bible...the starting point for theology and Christian life'.
Today, we can repeat those words in the occasion of the Reformation's 500th anniversary (1517-2017). I believe we all agree on the key role the Reformation had on handing the Bible over to the Christian people.
It is true that the first printed Bible was made between 1435 and 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz. However, that edition in 180 copies on subscription was mainly delivered to monastries. The printed text was in Latin Vulgate of Jerome hence, only accessible to clericals and intellectuals.
The situation is completely different in 1522 when Melchior Lotter printed in Wittenberg 3,000 copies of the Septembertestament, the New Testament translated in German by Martin Luther.
The underlying assumption is completely different. The number of copies and the language of the volume show the aim of the publication: giving the Word of God to the people and in their own language. The publication of the whole Bible (1543) has brought to completion the Lutheran translation of the Bible. However, Luther, apostle of the Word, has introduced small variations to his text up to 1545, a few months before his death in 1546.
These historical references are usueful to stress one of the main contributions the Reformation brought to the hystory of the Church: the awareness Christian people needed to be given the great trasures of the Word of God to make it the nourishment of faith and life in Christ.
In the mens of the Latin Church, that in the 14th centruty leaves behind the Middle Age to enter a new culture of the Renaissance, there is no space for a widespread reading of the Bible, available for all and not only limited to the clericals.
During the 13th and 14th centuries, a number of translations of the Bible (either complete or partial) were published in the main vulgar European languages, both in print and handwriting. However, the Bible translated in the language spoken by people is seen with skepticism and caution from the ecclesiastical authorities, concerned the 'wind of heresy' would fall on the Christian people.
This concern leads to a fraightened attidute towards the biblical text in vulgar language, perceived as dangerous when read outside the 'controlled' channels (either liturgical or academic). One example for all. The Royal Spanish Inquisition burnt publicly hundreds of bibles in Barcelona and València in 1483. The Catalan edition, translated from Latin and printed in València in 1478 in 600 copies, was lost for ever.
In the First Letter of John we read: 'In love there is no room for fear' (4, 18). Fear was at the roots of mistrust on the diffusion of the Bible among the people. It is true that Cathars, who were condemened for their dualistic doctrins, first translated the New Testament, and they added a Cathar ritual at the end of it. However, the response from the Church in the 13th century, leaned towards prohibiting any translation in vulgar languages, or suspecting many biblical manuscript might contain eretical doctrines, that had to be destroyed. Fear and mistrust were combined to a third element: the sacralisation of the language used in the biblical text was aligned to the the language of the liturgy, Latin. These three elements created an atmosphere of periliousness around the biblical text, that tore it off lay people's hands.
Luther's choice on the biblical text is clear. He could count on the recent invention of industrial printing to clearly realise the pastoral implementation of one of his theological belief (sola Scriptura). So he translated the Bible for the people in a unified German for that occasion, that readers willingly accepted.
Luther is aware the Scripture is the foundation of the ecclesiastic life and his definition of the Refromation of the Church is based on the reading of the New Testament, especially Paul.
Indeed, the whole Reformation is saturated in the biblical text, and this direction puts Luther close to the great tradition of the Fathers of the Church and the Christian writers, according to whom nothing can be done without the Word of God, that is the heart of theology, spirituality, and Christian life. Luther stands in front of the Word with no fear, rather with the sincerity of the believer walking along a path based on it.
The secondary place the Bible has held in the life of Christians was the most serious consequence of an historical process started in the 12th century and established from the 15th century onwards. In an horizon of heavy conflicts at all levels, there is no space for a positive acceptance of Luther's attitude towards the diffusion of the Word of God and its impact on Christian life. The statements of the Council of Trent related to the Sacred Scripture will shape the Catholic dogmatics for the following four hundred years, up to the Vatican II. This is not the place to go further on this.
However, as it was gripped by the diffusion of the Lutheran doctrine, considered heretical and harmful, the Catholic Church fails to grasp the pastoral consequences of a potential recovery of the Word as spiritual food for the people of God. The Church keeps its suspicious and anxious attitude, boosted by the separation into two of the Latin Church.
Fear turns the Bible into 'something of the Protestant' for centuries – at least in the Latin countries. The so called Counter–Reformation or Catholic Reformation will not be led by the Word of God, rather under a controlling gaze on the biblical text for it not to introduce the 'herecy' in the Catholic faith.
The Bible is not perceived as the great instrument to live Christianity, the same Word God wanted to rise up among the people, 'true authors', express through their language what the Spirit of God, 'true author', allows them to write. The Catholic lay, for centuries, will not be able to get close, without becoming object of suspect, to the Word of God and its treasures. One of the great intuition of Luther's Reformation will remain buried in the uproar of a painful clash 'that has wounded the indivisible unity of the Church' (Lund Declaration, 31st October 2016).
The Council of Trent ended in 1563. The Vatican Council II started in 1962. Four hundred years went by before the Catholic Church reaffirmed the timeless doctrine, meaning the Holy Scripture, according to the Catholic dogmatics, 'together with sacred Tradition', is the 'supreme rule of faith' (Dei Verbum 21).
This dogmatic Constitution devotes a whole chapter, the sixth, to the 'Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church'. The chapter echoes the pastoral proposition of the Reformation related to the heavy and massive use of the Word of God among all the moments of the life of Christian communities.
Hence, the biblical movement reaches its objective, promoted by Catholic exegets and theologians and pushed by the papal teaching (Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, 1893, or Pius XII in the Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943).
The Bible was taken into consideration in the Catholic theology more and more, but the great step for the Scripture to be 'food and source' for lay people – what Martin Luther wished for and promoted – will only happen as the mature fruit of the action of the Spirit in the assembly of the Council (Dei Verbum 21).
From the Vatican II onwards, in the last fifty years, Christian Churches began walking together on a path sub Verbo Domini, in the light of the Word of God. We must say the Word and the mercy are the two main paths pulling together the Christian Churches, or if we wish, the Bible and the unconditional love – meant as love for the poor and brotherhood towards the other Christians.
The gift of the Word and the gift of the poor and the brothers tipify many moments of encounter and friendship among the Christians of different confessions – as the beautiful International meeting for world religions for peace in Germany shows. The Word has the first place, from the beginning in the Scripture (Gen 1, 1-2) up to its central event, the incarnation of the Logos, 'Jesus Christ', the eternal Word of the Father (John 1, 1-18).
The primacy of the Word is a theological principle the Evangelical and the Catholic theologies fully agree upon. In the structure of the sistematic theology, the use of the biblical methods (not only in the fundamental historical critical method), the exegetic research, in many other fields the Word unifies and does not separate, combines and does not divide.
Thanks to the contacts of every kind, the shared reading of the Bible, the mutual preaching, the spiritual books read with no restrictions by author or origin, the Word has become what it has always been, but needed to be realized: a common heritage.
The old dream of the reformers – the Bible for the Christian people – is nowadays a common Christian project. After the Council, the 'ecumenism of the Word' started, a closeness between Evangelicals and Catholics led by the common use, and the global protection, of the Bible as the amalgam of the Christian life.
Compassion, closeness to the other, the different, the far, as well as the attention to the wounded man on the road, begging for love come from the Word (Luke 10, 30-37). There is a common language, the language of mercy, rooted in the Scriptures and known to all Christians, that creates the 'ecumenism of love'.
Whomever reads the biblical text with no prejudices, with an open heart to the calls of the Spirit, they will find in every page of the Scriptures a call to recognising a common Father and to compassion towards the common brother, meaning towards the other that is waiting for me. The otherness is intrinsic in being human.
The otherness leads to, in many instances, a common effort towards peace. If the Scripture was used in the years of collisions and wars between Catholics and Reformers as a mean of destruction, even in many instances the Scripture turned into a weapon to defeat the opponent, nowadays the Christian Churches are aware of the mistakes made, the sins of violence and hatred towards the other Christians.
There is a purification within memory by recognising the many fratricidal events that have happened, so that there is a common effort for peace in every land. The 'ecumenism of peace' is a name often originated by the 'ecumenism of love.
The Word and its fruits (love and peace) mark the begining of a new relation, that - after 500 years from the Reformation – has to take place between Catholics and Evangelicals in this complex season of the third millennium.
Global violence, terrorism with no face, the endless wars ask, on behalf the Christians, a return to the Word leading to a renewal of a life lived according to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. According to John 17, 23 the world will recognise the Word of life if Christians become what the Scripture asks them to be: listener to the Word, passionate for love, and peacemakers.
Dei Verbum 21 incomincia con queste parole: «La Chiesa ha sempre venerato le Divine Scritture come ha fatto per il Corpo stesso di Cristo». Il termine «venerazione» viene usato qui e nel num. 26 sia per la Parola che per il Sacramento dell’Eucaristia.
Dei Verbum 21 opens with these words: 'The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord'. The word 'veneration' is used in this chapter and in chapter 26 for both the Word and the Sacrament of Eucharist.
In this moment in history, characterised by a globalised world, the Bible might lose the indisputable role held in the lives of Christians belonging to the Churches established after the Reformation on one side. On the other side, it might stop its spiritual growth among the Catholics after the last fifty years.
The indifference towards religion is a common challenge directly impacting on the use of the Bible as nourishment for both faith and life. It is then necessary to propose the Word of God again as object for 'veneration' and 'devotion' amongst those who know the Lord, and those who are willing to get to know Him.
Growing in the contact to the Scripture is needed, as much as finding the taste of the Word, meeting the dead and risen Lord through the devotion to the Bible, event of liberation for the whole humanity.