Pablo Richard
Word of God - Source of Life and Hope for the New Millennium

Pablo Richard: Born in Chile (1939), a priest of the archdiocese of San José, Costa Rica. Licentiate in Theology at the Catholic University of Chile, Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures at the Pont. Biblical Institute, Rome. Biblical Archeological Studies at the Biblical School of Jerusalem, Doctorate in Sociology of Religion at the Sorbonne, Paris. Professor of Exegesis at the National University of Costa Rica and at the Latin American Biblical University; Director of the Departamento Ecuménico de Investigaciones (DEI) for the permanent formation of pastoral lay workers in Latin America.


"And indeed everything that was written long ago in the scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope from the examples scripture gives of how people who did not give up were helped by God." (Rom 15,4)

God's Word at the Crossroads of Life and Death

The spirit of idolatry in neo-liberal globalization

We are in the midst of an incredible process of globalization, of surprising advances in communications and of an economic, technical and scientific progress heretofore unachieved. But at the same time we realize that those invited to take part in the feast of modernity are a mere minority, and that this progress is not in tune with nature and the cosmos. There is the growing problem of the destruction of the environment which is radically opposed to progress and to human civilization itself. Nevertheless, the problem is neither the process of globalization in itself nor the advances in science and technology, but it is one of the spirit within that process, its rational basis, logic, ethic, ideology, culture and spirituality which is contrary to human universalism and to harmony with nature. This spirit of the system is generally known as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, as an ideology, hides the reality of death which is on the increase in the process of globalization and lends it its justification as the best and only system possible. In theological terms, neoliberalism is that kind of idolatry which permits the system to destroy and kill without limits and without any qualms of conscience.

The role of God's Word in resisting the spirit of the system

If the fundamental problem is not the system itself but its spirit, Christians have to provide the cultural, ethical and spiritual resistance against the very heart of globalization. This resistance is neither theoretical nor ideological, but is identified with the struggle for human life and the integrity of creation, with the struggle to reconstruct civil society and the state, with the struggle for a culture and an ethic of life contrary to the ideology of death inherent in neoliberalism. This resistance and struggle allows us to think out and offer alternatives to the present system of neoliberal globalization.

The movement brought about by Jesus, in Christianity's earliest years, was confronted by a situation similar to ours. The Roman empire seemed to be the best system for that time, and Christians then had no possibility to think out and construct an alternative system. The problem was not the system itself but its spirit of idolatry. The Christians then did not confront the system directly. They offered a cultural, ethical and spiritual resistance which in the course of time destroyed the legitimacy of the existing system. The Christians lived in the Roman empire, but were not of it. The whole apocalyptic tradition breathes this same attitude: the problem was not with the recognized authorities (whom Paul defended in Rom 13) but the spiritual and idolatrous system which was behind the system and sustained it: the beast and the false prophet (Rev 13).

Two biblical texts, of apocalyptic character and going back to the end of the first century, can help us define the resistance which the Christians showed against a totally perverted system. The first one is: "Finally, grow strong in the Lord, with the strength of his power. Put Godís armour on so as to be able to resist the devilís tactics. For it is not against human enemies that we have to struggle, but against the Sovereignties and the Powers who originate the darkness in this world, the spiritual army of evil in the heavens. (Eph 6,10-12). This text recommends further the use of the weapons needed for this combat: truth, justice, peace, faith, prayer, constant vigilance and particularly the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God (cf. Eph 6,13-20).

The second text is from 2 Thes 2,1-12. Here Paul speaks of the apostasy, the diabolic power, and the mystery of iniquity. At the same time, he points out "that which now holds back the impious one." The idolatry of the market is today's mystery of iniquity which is at work in the world. Confronted with this iniquity one can either seek refuge in apostasy or in the practice of truth. That which prevents the total apostasy of humanity is the cultural, ethical and spiritual resistance against the very soul of the system of neoliberal globalization. It is the Christian community which resists the idolatry of the market, which believes in the God of life and which works out a theology critical of the iniquity of the system. It is the force of the Spirit, of the Word and of solidarity.

In the reconstruction of the life, of the spirit and of hope, Christianity holds in its hands all the historical power of God's Word, a power which he revealed in the Exodus and in the historical and prophetic traditions of Israel, in the tradition of liberation contained in the books of Wisdom, in the power of prayer and mysticism contained in the psalms. Finally, the power of the Word was revealed to us in a definitive form in Jesus, in the movement he called to life, and in all the inspired works which stem from it. If the Church were only able to reconstruct the identity of its origins and regain the power which the Word had over the first communities, the Word of God today would become life and hope for the majority of people who are rejected and without hope, as well as for the cosmos which is groaning under the burden of human progress.

The historical challenges of God's Word in our present situation

Four realities of life and death within the system of globalization present a serious "hermeneutic" challenge to God's Word as Word of life and hope, particularly to the rejected and the poor.

Human Life: The basic threat is that to the life of the poor and the rejected. Human life is not only an economic, political, anthropological and psychological reality, but it is also a cultural, ethical and spiritual reality. Life itself, the world we live in, health constitute ethical, spiritual and "hermeneutic" imperatives for the interpretation of the Bible. Paraphrasing Irenaeus we can say: "Verbum Dei, vivens pauper, gloria autem pauperis Verbum Dei" (The Word of God is the poor man who is alive, the glory of the poor man is the Word of God).

The equality of man- and woman-kind (gender equality): The dimension of gender equality is another hermeneutic category which we cannot avoid if we do not wish to put the very credibility of our interpretation of the Bible at risk. It is necessary to break down the patriarchal interpretation given to the Bible through the centuries. The male centered (androcentric) interpretation of the Bible has become so systematic and profound as to deform and to twist the very texts themselves and their translations and interpretations. The patriarchal form of hermeneutics has destroyed woman and made her invisible in the Bible. At the same time, man has been blown up with a nature which is both alien to him and alienating to others. Human liberation, just as the liberation of man and woman, belong to the context of our interpretation of God's Word.

Culture and Religion. The Bible had its beginnings first in a Semitic cultural context and later in a Hellenistic one. Very soon it took over the Latin-Roman culture, representing a break with the cultures of the East. Through twenty centuries, the Bible's interpretation had to confront many cultures, particularly in the fulfilment of its universal mission. Christianity reached the shores of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the wake of the European cultural expansion. It is necessary to overcome the Euro- centrism of culture and religion which had imprisoned the Bible, in order to begin to dialog with the cultures and religions of the Third World.

Nature and The Cosmos: Hermeneutics had always relegated nature to the sidelines, as if it had not taken part in the history of salvation. The "cry of the earth" which is now threatened by neoliberal globalization must provide orientation to our interpretation of the Bible. God's Word must likewise be life and hope for the cosmos which is groaning for the new creation.

God's Word as Life and Hope for the Church

The One and Triune God of Life is alive in the People of God

Three forces are in motion today within the Church: The force of the Word (in the biblical movement) the force of the Spirit (in the movements of spirituality) and the force of solidarity (in the preferential option for the poor). They are the manifestations of the same one and triune God: Jesus, the Word made flesh (Logos), the Holy Spirit (Pneuma) and the Father who is Love (Agape). The three forces are as dependent on each other as the three divine persons. The Word is efficacious in the spirit and in solidarity. Spirituality and solidarity cannot prescind from the Word; it is the Word which gives direction to spirituality and solidarity.

These three forces (Word-Spirit-Solidarity) are in the hands of all baptized and in all communities whose communion is constitutive of the Church as the People of God. The structures and ecclesial ministries are at the service of these divine forces. The Bible is the canon and the grammar of the faith, it defines and clarifies the identity of the Church. The Magisterium and exegesis are at the service of God's Word, which is the highest authority in the Church (Dei Verbum 10).

The Word: a letter which kills or a Spirit which gives life?

The Word of God stands between life and death. If the Word is submitted to the law, to the institution and to the power, it becomes a letter governed by the flesh and leading us to death. Law is only useful if it is at the service of life. If, on the other hand, the Word is interpreted in faith, it obeys to the Spirit, gives us life and hope and sets us free from sin and from death. (cf. Gal 5, 2 Cor 3,4-18, Rom 8,1-13).

Setting the Word of God free so that it become Word of life and hope

A novel hermeneutic space for God's Word

Hermeneutic space is that institutional place where a specific interpretive subject gets its identity, proper to that place and different from any other subject. This space makes a certain interpretation of the Bible proper to that place and different from those other interpretations made in other hermeneutic places. Our interpretation of the Bible depends on the place where we find ourselves.

There are two traditionally accepted hermeneutic spaces which are thoroughly legitimate and always useful and necessary. The first is the academic space. These are the faculties of theology, the seminaries, and centers for studies. The Bible is interpreted here scientifically, according to the canons of the methods of historical-criticism, of classical literary methods, and of the new methods of human sciences. In this space, the subject of the Bible's interpretation is the expert, the exegete, the biblical professor, the graduate of biblical sciences and other related sciences. The academic interpretation of the Bible finds its legitimacy in the correct use of the scientific methods and in the authority of the authors cited.

The second traditional hermeneutic space is that of the institution of the liturgy of the Church. In it the Bible is read and interpreted in the context of the liturgy and in the context of the ordinary teaching and magisterial function of the Church. This space is bolstered up by the work of the "academics" which is now transformed according to the rules of the liturgy and of the teaching of the faith in the Church. In this liturgical space, the celebration of the Word is done within the community, but this community follows the hermeneutic logic dictated by liturgical prescriptions, with its calendar, its rules and liturgical norms. In this hermeneutic space the subject is the ordained minister or the layman authorized to exercise his function.

The reading of the Bible in community is beginning to provide a third new and just as legitimate and necessary space for the experience of and the correct interpretation of God's Word. We would like to provisionally call this the communitary space. In it the Bible is read and interpreted in community, whether they be in the basic ecclesial communities or in other ecclesial communitary institutions and movements. The interpretation of the Bible performed in community possesses characteristics which are different from the academic or liturgical-institutional interpretations. The community, in the first place, is a space where those who normally cannot share in society (the poor, the rejected, the youth, women, indigenous natives) can participate. It assumes its importance in places where large institutions do not hold sway. It is also a place where solidarity and spirituality, commitment to freedom and gospel inspired mission are found. The community, inasmuch as it is a direct and representative expression of the Church as the People of God, is the space par excellence for spiritual, mystical, prophetic and apocalyptic creativity. It is a space where a form of ecumenism is found, where one can build more easily a communion with other religious and ecclesial traditions. In this space the subject of the interpretation of the Bible is neither the exegete nor the ordained minister but the community itself. This community is active as the interpreting subject of a subject which is greater than the People of God.

The communitary hermeneutic space is a privileged place where the poor and the rejected can creatively share in the interpretation of the Bible. This creativity can hardly be found in the academic and the liturgical-institutional space. "Many Ďbasic Christian communitiesí focus their gatherings upon the Bible and set themselves a threefold objective: to know the Bible, to create community and to serve the people. Here also exegetes can render useful assistance in avoiding actualizations of the biblical message that are not well grounded in the text. But there is reason to rejoice in seeing the Bible in the hands of people of lowly condition and of the poor; they can bring to its interpretation and to its actualization a light more penetrating, from the spiritual and existential point of view, that that which comes from a learning that relies upon its own resources alone (cf. Mt 11,25)." "The entire biblical tradition and, in a particular way, the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels indicates as privileged hearers of the Word of God those whom the world considers people of lowly status... (They)... have a capacity for hearing and interpreting the Word of God which should be taken into account by the whole Church; it demands a response on the social level as well." This space is necessary to set free the Word of God as the Word of Life and Hope for the whole Church and all mankind.

The inter-action of all three hermeneutical spaces is all important. The communitarian space needs the support of the academic space (that of biblical science) and that of the liturgical-institutional space (that of the magisterium). Scientific and liturgical interpretation need the support of the community, where Word and Life, Word and Culture, Word and the Subjectivity of every member living in that community meet. These three hermeneutic spaces are found in the interior of the Church where the three spaces can perhaps be physically identified, either totally or partially. In any case, they should not be placed in opposition to each other, as if they were purely physical spaces. It is necessary to distinguish them as hermeneutic spaces.

In the spaces we mentioned, but particularly in the communitary space, we have to discover in depth the existence of personal and subjective space. In the scientific, liturgical and community spaces it is finally the person, with his whole subjectivity and spirituality as well as mystical depth, which receives, interprets, meditates and contemplates the Word. This process of interiorization is obtained through the practice of the lectio divina, or the prayerful reading of the Bible.

In the so-called communitary space, it is necessary to multiply the subjects which accept the ministry of God's Word. The communitary space, with the help of biblical science and of the Church magisterium, will grow and become strong as the number and quality of its own ministers of the Word grows. It is important that these ministers act with authority, legitimacy, security, efficiency and with a certain kind of autonomy. This will be achieved with the measure of their wisdom and spiritual capacity to interpret and proclaim God's Word. The autonomy of the minister does not mean independence from the magisterium nor from the Church. It means an "autonomy to take off", an autonomy which gives him the spiritual capacity to listen and to remain faithful to the Word. The communitary hermeneutic space must acknowledge, respect and develop this spiritual capacity of the ministers of the Word, particularly when they are poor or rejected.

Setting the spiritual sense of God's Word free

Just how important the role of the Holy Spirit is in hermeneutics can be seen from the words of Patriarch Athenagoras as he expresses his eastern point of view thus:

"Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away, Christ remains a figure of the past, the Gospel a dead letter, the Church a mere organization, authority a means to exercise power, mission a propaganda machine, worship becomes out of date and morality the action of slaves."

St. Paul refers to the Spirit in terms of life and death:

"All our qualifications come from God. He is the one who has given us the qualifications to be the administrators of this new covenant, which is not a covenant of written letters but of the Spirit: the written letters bring death, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor 3,5-6)

Scriptural science has produced many excellent and useful works during the last century. Many exegetes, both men and women, have been authentic prophets and teachers of the faith. But the spirit which has thus far dominated exegesis has been that of rationalism, liberalism, individualism and existentialism. People in the Third World have no problems with exegetical methods but with the spirit with which these methods are used. They may be useful and effective, but still their spirit continues to be that which exudes the ethnocentricity, patriarchalism and authoritarianism of the West, both ancient and modern.

Because of this, hermeneutics must always be one imbued with the Spirit. It is not just any kind of spirit. It must be the Spirit of the God of life which reveals itself in the poor and the oppressed, in the cultural and religious traditions of peoples, in women and in nature. It is the same Spirit with which the Bible has been written. The constitution Dei Verbum expresses this idea beautifully: "Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted according to the same Spirit by whom it was written." (DV 12) This convergence of exegesis and Spirit has become a reality in the midst of the community.

We are all aware of the classical distinction between the three meanings of the biblical text: its literal meaning: that of the text as text; its historical meaning: that of the text interpreted in its historical context; and its spiritual meaning: that which the text acquires when it is read as God's Word revealed in history. The biblical text reveals not only God's Word to us, but also the place and the manner with which God reveals himself to us. When the text brings about this clear distinction, there arises a spiritual meaning which is radically opposed to biblical fundamentalism which reduces God's Word to its purely literal meaning, and to biblical historicism, which reduces its meaning to pure history.

St. Augustine aptly describes the spiritual meaning of the Bible when he writes: "The Bible, which is God's second book, was written to help us understand the world, to restore to us our eyes of faith and contemplation, and to transform all reality into the one great revelation of God."5

Set God's Word free, not abrogate nor suffocate it

In many places and in many ways we kill and suffocate God's Word or we simply substitute it with our human traditions. Jesus could just as well blame us as he did the Pharisees and the scribes: "...You have made Godís word null and void by means of your tradition. Hypocrites! It was you Isaiah meant when he so rightly prophesied: This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me. The worship they offer me is worthless; the doctrines they teach are only human regulations" (Mt 15,6-9). Or when he reproves the Saducees in Jerusalem: "You are wrong, because you understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God" (Mt 22,29).

There are three ways of abrogating God's Word. First, through canonical authoritarianism, by reducing the canon of the Bible as the one and only absolute criterion. In our days, exegesis has succeeded in rescuing the plurality of the canon of the Bible. Among the Jews and during the beginning of the Christian era, there was a plurality of theologies and religious movements, just as there was a variety of historical and cultural contexts. When the canon of the Bible was institutionalized, this historical plurality was legitimized, and the Bible itself extended its original pluriformity with the help of new theological and ecclesial trends. The existence of plural forms was original and orthodox. Heresies came about when one interpretation was absolutized over the rest. A very common way of destroying this plurality of tradition and of the biblical text was the creation of a canon within the canon. One takes a biblical text, one gives it an absolute meaning, and one reduces the whole Bible to this single criterion. For example: 1 Tim 2,9-15 is transformed into a single absolute criterion, and the Bible is then interpreted in the light of this text. The text is without doubt male centered (androcentric) and patriarchal. But we are not allowed to transform it into a canon within a canon, into one single and absolute criterion to be able to make a male-centered (androcentric) and patriarchal interpretation of the whole Bible. One cannot deny that the text we cited exists, but on the other hand, existing together with it, are many other texts which proclaim the liberation of women. We have to put the text in the complex and multiform context of biblical tradition. We are to reconstruct critically the diverse theological trends in order to rescue the canon of the Bible in all its complexity and multiformity. We are not allowed to absolutize singly cited verses, as if they were over and above the whole of revelation.

Secondly, we abrogate God's Word through the fundamentalism of the letter, when we kill the spiritual meaning of the text by harking only to its literal sense. There is no doubt that the literal meaning of the text is no to be negated and of greatest importance. This does not prevent us from reading the text as God's Word or from reading it in our present history in the light of the text. The opposite would be just as harmful, namely to disregard the literal meaning of the text and to fall into a spiritualism which is alien to the Spirit with which the Bible has been written. Theological fundamentalism prevents us above all, from discovering, in the light of the biblical text, God's Word in the book of life.

Thirdly, we can abrogate the text through the authoritarianism of science and the magisterium. It is evident that biblical science and the magisterium of the Church are undeniable aids to interpreting the Bible. But from the view point of methodology and hermeneutics, from the standpoint of faith and the ecclesial sense of the interpretation of the Bible, it is basic that both science and magisterium are at the service of God's Word and not stand above it. Dei Verbum 10 says: "The teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it." There are certain closed academic circles which are dominated by an exaggerated scientific biblicism which only succeeds in drowning God's Word. In the same way, there are certain ecclesial circles where the magisterium is presented in an absolute and authoritarian manner, where God's Word becomes subordinated and is suffocated.

The work of interpretation can be profoundly liberating only when God's Word confronts us and sets us free. It can be most liberating when the interpretative process (hermeneutics) sets the very Word of God free from all authoritarian and fundamentalistic oppression. God's Word is surely alive and efficacious (Heb 4, 12-13). It allows us to pursue the process of a liberating and spiritual hermeneutics in the Church.

Pastoral Guidelines at the Service of God's Word

All of what has been said before would just remain on the level of discussion and theory, if we, as a Church, do not develop an organized and efficient biblical pastoral program. We would like to enumerate and discuss briefly some aspects of such a biblical pastoral program:

To orient academic biblical work towards the liturgico-institutional as well as towards the basic communitarian space, we have to define exegesis and spirituality better and to orient exegetical methods towards pastoral and ecclesial reflection. We are to review the methods used in the biblical formation of priests, religious and pastoral lay workers. We are to provide greater space to God's Word in the institutional Church. Often, canon law and catechetics have more elbow room and authority in the Church than the Bible itself. Both canon law and catechetics are certainly necessary and useful, but they have to be at the service of God's Word; if not, they run the risk of losing the Spirit and being transformed into letters which kill.

To hand over the Bible to the People of God in the hermeneutic communitarian space together with the necessary support of biblical science and of the magisterium. For this purpose we have to train ministers of the Word by means of workshops and biblical retreats. It is necessary to create a communitarian biblical movement in the midst of the People of God for the renewal of the Church and its structures. We have to seek to transform the Church spiritually and on the long term, not by confronting the institutions but by confronting God's Word.

To reconstruct the kerygmatic dimension of the Church. This should start with a global interpretation of the history of salvation and of the origins of Christianity. We are to set up a new school promoting new ways of preaching, based on the Bible and tradition. We are to renew academic exegetical studies from the kerygmatic and pastoral point of view, which is not less scientific by being at the service of announcing God's Word and of the building up of the Church.

To reform catechetics so that it will be deeply biblical in its spirit, structure and method. Catechesis must provide living and direct contact with God's Word and lead the faithful on the ways of the history of salvation and the history of the Church.

To foster a spirituality and mysticism inspired by the Bible, and to transform the Bible into a spirituality and mysticism through the prayerful reading of the Bible.

To revise dogmatic theology, beginning from the Bible and tradition, as well as the teaching methods used in theology, beginning from exegetical methods and biblical science. We are to restore the primacy of God's Word and of his Spirit in theological studies.

To revitalize Christian ethics, beginning from the spiritual sense of the Bible. It ought not to be an ethics based on law but one based on life, where law is at the service of life, and not life at the service of law.

To re-establish the biblical roots for the social program of the Church by uniting the pastoral program for solidarity with the dimension of the Spirit and the Word.


1 The original phrase is: Gloria Dei, vivens homo; gloria autem hominis vita Dei. Irenaeus of Lyon, century II.
2 Pontifical Biblical Commission: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993, p. 130
3 idem, p. 103-104
4 Quoted from Valerio Mannucci: La Biblia como Palabra de Dios. Bilbao (Desclée), 1988, p. 318
5 Quoted from Carlos Mesters: Flor sin Defensa (Ediciones CLAR No. 16) Bogotá 1984, p. 28
6 Cf. Raymond E. Brown: Las Iglesias que los apóstoles nos dejaron. Bilbao (Desclée) 1986