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The Bible in Evangelization Today

Saverio Corradino, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Sun, Jan 19th 2020


“The sacred Scriptures are the very source of evangelization” is the statement Pope Francis uses in Evangelii Gaudium (EG) to conclude the section dedicated to the proclamation of the Word.[1] It is a page that is simple and at the same time complex. Simple, because there can be no true evangelization without the Scriptures; complex, because it is necessary to explain why the Church has “lost” the Bible during its history. The pope states: “Not only the homily has to be nourished by the Word of God. All evangelization is based on that Word, listened to and celebrated and witnessed to. … Consequently, we need to be constantly trained in hearing the Word. The Church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized. It is indispensable that the Word of God ‘be ever more fully at the heart of every ecclesial activity.’[2] … The study of the sacred Scriptures must be a door opened to every believer. … We do not blindly seek God or wait for him to speak to us first, for ‘God has spoken, he is no longer the great unknown, but has shown himself’[3]” (EG 174-175)

The pastoral primacy of the Holy Scriptures

The primary role of the Bible had already been recommended by Vatican II,[4] but the pope’s exhortation leads us to reflect with a new spirit. Every pastoral work of evangelization should not only put the Bible to the fore, but must also relate it to the world we are living in, the people with whom we are dealing, and the wider humanity moving around us, enfolding and conditioning us.[5]

This preference does not come from an inclination that would give less importance than previously to the institutional Church. Instead, it is a matter of the clear and peremptory need to recognize that one meets the Lord and hears his Word in that community of faith which is the Church. There is no tension, therefore, between those two objectives. On the contrary, there is a convergence, an underlying harmony and an expectation to see them occur simultaneously and in their fulness, since there is no reading of the Bible if not through the life of the Church, and there is no ecclesial community without listening together to the Word of God.



Believers meet the Lord in the Church because it is there that the Lord dialogues with his people. They can speak honestly with him there, free from the daily risk of misapprehension and misunderstanding.[6] This movement of faith does not at all imply a devaluation of the Church. Rather, it spontaneously proposes the interaction of knowing, through the Church, the Word of God in the strict sense of the Bible. This is the Word that God addresses to his people, and by listening to it the people of God is edified, a people that is the Church in its true identity.

This is a theme open to many developments. There is a parallelism and complementarity between the Bible and the Church, between the incarnation of God, which is the biblical Word (Word of God and word of humankind), and the extension of the Word incarnate, which is the Church. There is also the place that the Bible occupies in the history of salvation from its first official appearance during the time of Josiah as a text of ecclesial reform.[7] There is also the relationship between Word and event throughout the story of salvation, where the event proves the Word and gives it body, and the Word gives meaning to the event and shows its permanence. The immanent result of this experience is the certainty of finding in the Church the proper place for listening to the biblical Word.[8]

The relevance of the Bible

In our belief about faith, why does the Bible hold the primary place in evangelization? To give an answer to this question, we cannot avoid trying, even though it is difficult, to show the relevance of the Bible for the conscience of people today. This effort must necessarily proceed through examples, even with all the difficulty of preserving the persuasive strength the examples held when they were first shown to us as an unexpected gift.

It is clear that the New Testament offers numerous images that are immediately useful. Almost by surprise people today recognize problems that beset them in private and solutions for which they believed the key was lost. For example, at the beginning of the Letter to the Romans (1:18-32), we read that religious perversion is not a consequence of moral laxity, but the opposite is true: the decadence of humanity in wanton sex is a result of religious betrayal. It is a punishment for infidelity toward the inexhaustible goodness of God toward humankind. We are faced with an unusual statement that is completely different from what we have heard in the past, yet is incredibly close to the experience that takes place within and around us.

The primacy of the experience of faith, its irreducibility to simply carrying out moral laws so that they appear to be the fruit of faith, and not vice-versa, is a matter that raises strong feelings today. The priority of the experience of faith in moral conscience is already proposed in the stories of Abraham, Jacob and David. These are stories of men who have a deeply rooted bond with God and who, through this fidelity, compensate for their unpreparedness and immaturity in moral convention.

In fact, the Old Testament, even with its distance over time, is completely readable today and utterly useful. We find here the initiative of an invisible God who is made manifest, and not only with miraculous gestures (limited to the Exodus epic) throughout history. This way of hearing and recognizing the presence of God is very close to our hearts. We find here expressions of weakness, boredom and the illusory enthusiasm of humanity with its readiness to assume irrevocable commitments, only to fail. In addition, we rediscover our history as individuals and human groups.

The very story of Israel, with its ups and downs, leaps of faith and betrayals, times of waiting, expiation, joy and delusion, seems to constitute a permanent model that is forever available. Analogies, feedback, interior suggestions, reasons for hope or for exultation and opportunities for comfort can be discovered there. That long intimate history of the Covenant, where God is always faithful and the people of God are always ready to betray, yet are also continuously called to rise again, expresses with vivid, even modern, language the contradictory nature of our relationship with God. There is the mystery of sin, that congenital lability which results in humans failing when really put to the test. There is also the very mystery of God, of his incomprehensible love given to the good as well as to the bad, of his loyalty that surpasses human measure, and that has caused so much anguish for the author of the Book of Job. Furthermore, there is the scandal of a God who seems to reward extensively and visibly the arrogant and wicked, while striking with implacable hardness those who try to return loyalty with loyalty.

A few specific themes: solitude and false security

As soon as general subjects come up, other denser and firmer issues soon arise, such as that of the incomprehensibility of God, to which the solitude of the individual is necessarily linked. Contrary to what some of our interlocutors think, the religious person finds neither consolation nor security in an encounter with the Lord. Instead, a source of further solitude is found, a reason to feel disconcerted and contradicted. This is a path leading to total estrangement.

Abraham, after having been called by God, is separated from his own family, sent off into a foreign country where he wanders without possessing a single piece of land belonging to him. He is deprived of descendants, despite the accompanying promise of countless offspring. He is a man completely alone as a result of his encounter with God. In addition, the more that he deepens his friendship with the Lord, the more his solitude becomes tragic and without remedy.

The same happens for Moses, a successful, well-off man who begins his true existence only when he abandons the safety and the solidity of his life as a courtier and goes toward his own brothers, paying for such loyalty with condemnation to death and flight. However, his official mission will only begin later, with a new radical detachment and with abandonment of the family when he will already be old and tired, similar to Abraham during the decisive years when he needed to transmit his legacy to his descendants.

Abraham, Jacob and Moses are historical people. Job and Tobias on the other hand are emblematic characters who symbolize a similar level of incomprehension, rejection and isolation. The profile of the Servant of the Lord, the one man who can help with the plan of universal salvation for Israel and for all peoples, only becomes clear after he is reduced to silence, rendered useless and annihilated.[9]

The Beatitudes say that there is no Christian life without poverty. And solitude is poverty. This is especially true for the solitude that comes from an uprooting, like that of Abraham, Moses and Tobias. It is also true for the solitude of the immigrants who live around us and are often looked at with intolerance.

The necessity of being uprooted for Christian life touches upon another theme alive in the spirit of humankind today: the renunciation of false security. In theological terms, this can be found in the Letter to the Romans and in the Letter to the Galatians. For example, there is the false security of the pagans who feel comfortable with the gods shaped by their hands, familiar to them and made to measure. Another example is the false security of those Jews who translated the interior fidelity requested by God into precise rules of behavior, and then carried them out meticulously and excessively. There is also the false security of the Christians who feel satisfied since they have received absolution and feel confident of eternal life because they have received communion the first Friday of nine consecutive months. Likewise, there is the false security of the priest, the religious and the nun who think that they have done much for the Lord.

This is an attitude that has begun to annoy us as much as we are bothered by those who call upon us to be humble in a way that is not always sincere (it is easy to focus only on a specific aspect of our responsibility as human beings, while at the same time finding fault with those who accept responsibility for taking care of all that is needed). However, these people must always be welcomed sincerely, because only by seeing ourselves from the outside, with the eyes of a stranger, do we know what we are really lacking.

In the Book of Jonah, this false security is ridiculed with clarity and indulgence – two things we particularly need. It is an enchanting story despite its sarcasm. It is also deeply accurate despite the hyperbolic amplifications. Jonah, the well-known prophet from the Book of Kings, is the authentic proclaimer of the Word of God. All through the story everyone enters into a relationship with God due to his testimony. He is the only one who resists the Word of God from the beginning to the end of the story, with unyielding obstinacy and an almost satanic inconvertibility. Meanwhile, every other creature, the pagan sailors, the Assyrian persecutors of Israel, the animals, even the sea monster that swallows Jonah, the plants – like the castor-oil plant that creates a shadow on the head of the prophet and then dries up in a second – and the stormy sea that suddenly subsides, all promptly obey the Word of God brought to them through Jonah.

The Book of Origins

The first chapters of Genesis, despite the extreme cultural distance that separates them from us, are known to be a classic place for people of today to focus their attention on the Bible. The first creation story (Gen 1:1-2:3) and the second (Gen 2:4-25) talk about the double dimension of humanity. On one hand, we are called to conquer the world, to make it subordinate to ourselves, to humanize it (Gen 1:22,29-30; 2:8,15). On the other hand, we are also called to worship God, to recognize ourselves as God’s creatures, to represent God in a vicarious function before other creatures (Gen 1:26-27; 2:1-3) and to obey God’s commands (Gen 2:16-17).

There is a technical dimension and one of worship: a person is reduced by half when possessing only one of these dimensions. In addition, if we currently glorify technological achievements to the point of leaving aside worship, we celebrate the defeat of humankind, its failure and mutilation, and not its victory.[10]

The human couple is a real issue both in preaching and in spiritual direction. It is a topic that has left us perplexed and embarrassed in recent decades. It is as if the conscience of faith had nothing to say to people today about a burning issue that, despite all pretenses, leaves everyone feeling our very substance as human beings is at stake. So when Jesus needed to respond to the Pharisees on the subject of divorce (cf. Matt 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-9), he went back directly to the teaching from the Book of Genesis, a teaching whose rich experience does not allow it to be easily exhausted even by those who have returned there several times, drawing upon it broadly.[11]

Another current example is the gigantic failure of industrial society, ridiculed and condemned as an offense to God and as the reason for the tearing apart of humanity, as in the story of the Tower of Babel (cf. Gen 11:1-9). In that brief episode, we can see symbolized humankind’s illusion of constructing its own salvation and settling its differences without any need for God. People resort to the virtually infinite strength of society and to their own ability to plan for an autonomous future where God receives a share (this “tower” was originally a sacred building) but is not the author.

The patriarchal story

From the first offer God makes to the human couple in Eden up to our experience of the Church, what emerges is that humanity cannot be saved without an initiative coming from God to whom we are called to respond and whose place we cannot take. For puzzling examples, we have those three episodes of the patriarchal story where Abraham twice (Gen 12:10-20; 20:2-18) and then Isaac (Gen 26:7-11) were willing to sacrifice their wives in order to save their own lives. The intention of the triple repetition is certainly not to praise the behavior of the patriarchs. Rather, the aim is to exalt the saving intervention of God, beyond the errors, stupidity or infidelity of humans. In each of the three cases, God intervenes to guarantee the fulfillment of his promise to give the patriarchs a lineage, that is, to provide the heir to whom the immense responsibility for the future, the story of salvation, will be entrusted.

An experience of faith that is totally based upon the initiative of God is perceived today as liberating and absolutely indispensable. People are tired of the talking, the expectations and the possessions; they are tired of impotence disguised as presumption. Religious reform and its impact on humanity must be sought in the initiative of God, which never fails, rather than elsewhere.

In the context of the patriarchal history, the most extensive and complete story in Genesis is that of Joseph. It helps to settle a chronic prejudice born from lack of familiarity with biblical literature: that which makes the religion of the Old Testament a universe closed to feelings of forgiveness and prone to sacralizing revenge and resentment. Joseph is called to save his brothers. In accordance with the paradigm that will be expressly formulated later with the Servant of the Lord, every mission of salvation in biblical literature is a gift of life that becomes available by passing through death. However, for Joseph, death was not only the result of the jealousy and hatred of his brothers or the fear of a resentful gentlewoman. The wall of death that he needed to break through and move beyond was the resentment he felt toward those who wanted his death. This resentment – which is true death – needed to be defeated through complete forgiveness.

We add here a separate point of interest: in the patriarchal story, no less than in other passages of the Bible, the modernity of language comes from describing the psychology of people through gestures rather than through introspective allusions.[12] It can also be seen through the abolishing of the stages, the transition moments, and directly contrasting sequences that are distant in space and time. The same applies to the repetition of a message, description or narrative which serves to give a measure of time and that, through the variety of perspectives, expresses the fullness of developments and their progressive advances. In contrast to how we are accustomed to doing it, everything is said visually and not through already formulated concepts.[13]

The language of the Bible

Even if they succeed in persuading listeners that the biblical message has a certain topicality, all the examples that have been given, and many others that could be provided, can also lead to documenting the opposite thesis, that of the weak relevance of the Bible for leading people of today to an encounter with God. In fact, if we want to grasp today’s connection to each of these references, we need to get through a thick and hard shell made of a seemingly foreign substance: not only a different language, but also a mentality and customs that are completely different from ours, incredible analogies and disconcerting occurrences.

The intervention that is needed to overcome this range of differences is not reduced solely to the translation. It requires a transformation that is more than just lexical or grammatical. It also needs to be a cultural transfer of the multitude of modern literary genres to the pertinent literary genres in each page of the Bible, bringing a religious atmosphere from one stage of the story of salvation to God’s “today” in which we live, from the first tastes of the Christian experience in the New Testament to the complexity of today’s ecclesial life. It requires a translation that places every biblical page into the perspective of the history of Israel. Above all, it must be reintegrated into its own internal history, bringing it to the text that we have before our eyes, which is the only one to properly bear the name “Word of God.”

However, these reasons for biblical language being outdated can be multiplied when we enter into the details. The 10 genealogies included in the Book of Genesis remain incomprehensible to us. To our mind, a genealogy only shows the past and at most constitutes a surrogate for legal documents in a society of nomads. Actually, it demonstrates tension toward the future and not the immobility of an acquired situation. Such a forward thrust is expressed in two directions: that of promoting history – which is common to all genealogies – and that which gives each of them their own tone – celebratory, demonstrative, processional, etc.

In the same way, certain accounts seem unacceptable to us – Lot’s daughters, Jacob’s shrewdness, David’s private life and so on. This is due to the habit of reading the Bible (which is a story of salvation) as a human history rather than as the initiative of God. Equally unacceptable for us are some of the traditions, like that of the levirate (a man being obliged to marry his brother’s widow) or that of go’el (the redeemer, the one who redeems), which also play a decisive role in edifying episodes like those in the story of Ruth.

We associate the concept of the Word of God with the idea of finality and, therefore, expect absolute immovability. This makes it difficult to imagine any progressive movement in the typical words of God that come from the oracles. Instead, these are just words in motion, converging for mutual growth and conditioning and toward the eschatological conclusion, namely the coming of Christ and, beyond that, toward the Second Coming.

There is no answer to these difficulties. With reflection, meditation, study and prayer we need to face the task and change our resistance into something new that, especially initially, offers us an encounter with God through his biblical Word, which is the authentic inexhaustible Word, and which therefore repays hundredfold the effort it asks of us.

The Bible and protest

Something else that makes the Bible out of touch today is the fact that it provides no foothold for debate for the sake of debate. Alas, these days many believers seem persuaded that the effort for their life of faith can be reduced exclusively to this: arguments from the right against adversaries from the left, or arguments from the left against adversaries from the right. It is almost as if the testimony that we are called to give to the world – that is, to the pagans – can take place through an episode from our house, and with an issue specific to our lives, our ghetto.

The Bible is a book in which those who are overwhelmed – even by forms of violence within the ecclesiastical sphere – can find comfort and respite. The Word of God is eminently consoling and some of its books are particularly designated for this role. It opens a horizon full of the future that helps the “poor of the Lord” (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2; 57:15; 66:1-2) to free themselves from their grudges and to look with hope toward a future that they are called to build. In this sense it would appear that the Bible is reserved to people from the true profession of faith, those who were born of love for a torn communion and from the conviction that only God can overturn the fictitious balance of sin.[14] Instead, it is for those who find themselves reduced to silence and for those who are opposed, but not for those who raise their voices and feel so confident that they point their fingers at others in condemnation.

The Bible gives no pretext for political diversion. Political commitment is a Christian responsibility. It is not permissible to take refuge in religious obligations so as to avoid political ones, just as escaping into a political context does not justify abandoning religious conversion, accomplishing one in the other. Moreover, the Bible has no political model of its own to propose – no matter what anyone says, since they are speaking from hearsay. It also contains no useful guidelines for scientific progress or for historical or philological methods. The Word of God is not proclaimed to exempt people from the hard work of speaking about what is within their competence, but it prepares them to face their daily struggles with equilibrium and passion.

Why the Bible is “lost”

We cannot conclude without a somewhat embarrassing observation that we mentioned at the beginning about why, in the Church, the Bible has been “lost.” The small importance that biblical tradition has had in the life of the Church, at least from the time of the Reformation to the Second Vatican Council, is not by chance. The reason cannot be only psychological, or even religious, in its reaction against the Protestant controversy (a reason that would indicate a very serious reaction toward those with whom they were discussing). There is something more, and a renewal of evangelization requires that this be taken into account in a manner that will make it impossible to leave this point in silence.

The Word of God is present in humanity in many ways. The Bible is not alone; there is also the teaching of the Church, at all its levels, ranging from the solemn magisterium to other official decisions of the hierarchy, and then to the common doctrine taught in theology, and finally to catechesis and to the practical resolutions for the faithful. This double presence of the Word of God is indispensable.

 As we know from the famous page of Plato’s Phaedrus,[15] the written word is not enough since it is unable to respond to those who question the difficulties it puts forth, nor is it able to clearly indicate its identity. However, even the spoken word is not enough when it lacks an immutable reference, and therefore a written word which constitutes, to varying degrees, authentic development, updating and clarification. This leads to an inevitable consequence: there is a competition between these two authorities. More precisely, the Christian senses the competition between the Word of God, which is the Bible, and his own word. If this hidden disagreement is not clearly stated, addressed and truly overcome, any discourse on evangelization by means of the Bible remains a diversion.

Some pastoral indications

Finally, we offer some pastoral indications for the use of the Bible in evangelization. There is a serious underlying problem when we refer to the Old Testament: in general, our familiarity with the Word of God is modest. This can be seen with the mostly important pages we read in the liturgy of the Word on Sundays. Readings other than the Gospel rarely speak even to the celebrant, despite the guides and commentaries available. It is therefore necessary to proceed in stages and to recapture a preparation that comes not only from studies, but from listening, reflection and above all from prayer.

The first step is based on the fact that the preacher himself must listen to the divine Word and conform to it: “The Church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized.”[16]

The second step involves personalizing[17] the Bible, helping others to read it, to meditate on the Word and to bring it alive in their lives. This is the duty for all the faithful, who are invited to make the Word of God their own, alone or in a group, and to find sustenance for an interior life and the strength to live it in their family, their profession and in the world. Witnessing is the primary path for evangelization.[18] Nevertheless, it is above all the task of the entire community of believers when they are gathered in the Sunday liturgy to listen to the Word and to be nourished by the gift of God. This celebration is a true invitation to conversion through the Bible, addressed to the whole Church in the Eucharist, because “the preaching of the living and effective Word prepares for the reception of the sacrament, and in the sacrament that Word attains its maximum efficacy.”[19]

To conclude, we must be convinced that we are never permitted to stop with what we already know and are already able to communicate to others. We are always obliged to assume again the role of the listener, who restarts from the beginning, converts and experiences the essential for the first time.[20]

[1] Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, No. 174, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2013.

[2] Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (September 30, 2010), No. 1: AAS 102 (2010) 682.

[3] Benedict XVI, Meditation during the First General Congregation of the XII General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (October 8, 2012): AAS 104 (2012) 896.

[4] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, Nos. 21-22.

[5] Cf. EG 127; 132, related to culture.

[6] Cf. EG 137. Pope Francis affirms this in the context of the Eucharist. Cf. also EG 139-140: the Church as a mother who teaches her children with motherly language.

[7] Cf. 2 Kings 22:3-23:30; also Jer 11 alludes to the reform of Josiah.

[8] Cf. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, No. 15; E. Bianchi, Nuovi stili di evangelizzazione, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, San Paolo, 2012.

[9] Cf. B. Marconcini, Il libro di Isaia (40-66), Rome, Città Nuova, 1996, 139-161.

[10] In this regard, it is traditional to find it difficult to reconcile the dependency of faith – which recognizes God as the only possibility for human salvation – with a serious interest for humanity and a positive view of its efforts to grow, which entail a self-affirmation apparently incompatible with the absolute heteronomy of a created consciousness. The two terms can almost agree only through the experience of what the Bible calls “poverty”: only by accepting and living its own radical insufficiency can humankind succeed in becoming what it is being called to be and attaining the fullness that actually belongs to it, according to the words of Jesus: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24; cf. Matt 16:25; Mark 8:35). Cf. J. B. Metz, Povertà nello spirito, Brescia, Queriniana, 1966.

[11] For this subject, cf. S. Corradino, Chi è l’uomo?, Palermo, Vittorietti, 2012; J. Daniélou, In principio, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1965.

[12] Note, for example, how the decision of Lot in Gen 13:10-11 is visually presented, or the anguish of Abraham and Isaac in Gen 22:3-10.

[13] For example, as soon as we have a few keys for the apocalyptic language, it is our habit to transcribe in pure conceptual discourse what the Apocalypse enunciates with vital development of images, almost as if the language of the “vision” were destined precisely for this work of decoding, and that the meaning was exhausted there, while its novelty and effectiveness consist precisely in the tension between visual images and theological concepts.

[14] It is therefore not surprising that the Protestants, precisely as people of the “Reformation” and of the “protestation of faith,” speak of the Bible as their own. But the Bible is also the book of communion, so that a protest and a reform that break the unity of faith are not representative of it at all.

[15] Cf. Plato, Phaedrus, § 275-276; Id., Tutti gli scritti, edited by G. Reale, Milan, Bompiani, 2001, 579-581.

[16] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), No. 174.

[17] EG 149-159. The term “personalization” is from Pope Francis. He uses it to describe how priests must prepare for the proclamation of the Word.

[18] Cf. Pope Francis’ homily from the pastoral visit to Campobasso, July 5, 2014, on

[19] EG 174; cf. 135-139.

[20] Cf. EG 166.

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