Scripture Study Course
The Word of God Is Living and Active – Hebrews 4:12.

.The Spiritual Interpretation of the Bible
.by Raniero Cantalamessa
“The letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6)

I should like to begin this meditation by adopting St. Francis of Assisi's opening words in his Letter to all the Faithful: "I am the servant of all and so I am bound to wait upon everyone and make known to them the fragrant words of my Lord'"1 He calls Christ's words "fragrant," thereby implicitly comparing them to sweet-smelling, newly baked bread, and we shall see in this meditation that this is exactly what God's words are: fragrant with the Holy Spirit.

1. Scripture divinely inspired

In the Second Epistle to Timothy we find the famous statement: "All Scripture is inspired by God" (2 Tim 3:16). The expression translated as "inspired by God" in the original Greek is one single word, theopneustos, which combines two words, "God" (theos) and "Spirit" (pneuma). This word has two basic meanings, one well known and another habitually neglected yet no less important than the first. 

Let us begin with the well-known meaning. This is the passive meaning, emphasized in all modern translations: Scripture is "inspired by God." Another passage in the New Testament explains what this means: "Human beings [i.e., the prophets], moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God" (2 Pet 1:21). This is, in a word, the classic doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture, which we proclaim in the Creed as an article of faith when we say that the Holy Spirit is he "who has spoken through the prophets." 

This doctrine carries us back to the very source of the whole Christian mystery, which is the Trinity, the unity of and distinction between the three divine Persons. The Holy Spirit accompanies the Word just as, in the bosom ofthe Trinity, the breathing of the Holy Spirit is bound up with the begetting of the Word. As, at the incarnation, the Spirit enters Mary so that the Word will become flesh within her, so, in an analogous though not identical way, the Spirit works within the sacred writer, so that he can welcome the Word of God and "incarnate" it in human language. This in itself mysterious event of inspiration we can represent for ourselves in human imagery: with his divine finger (i.e., his living energy), which is the Holy Spirit, God touches that hidden point where the human spirit opens to the infinite, and from there that touch (in itself very simple and instantaneous, as is God who produces it) is diffused like a sonorous vibration through all the human faculties (will, intelligence, imagination, emotion), translating itself into concepts, images, and words. Human beings "moved by the Holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God": the mysterious transition occurs from divine motion to created reality, which can be observed in all the ad extra works of God: in creation, in the incarnation, in the production of grace. 

The result thus obtained is a theandric reality, fully divine and fully human, the two intimately fused together, though not "confused." The magisterium of the Church (the encyclical letters Providentissimus Deus of Leo XIII and Divino afflante Spiritu of Pius XII) tells us that the two realities – divine and human – are maintained intact. God is the principal author of Scripture since he is responsible for what is written, determining its content by the activity of his Spirit. Nevertheless, the sacred writer is also the author in the full sense of the word, since he has intrinsically collaborated in this act by means of a normal human activity which God has used as an instrument. God, the [early church] Fathers used to say, is like a musician who by touching the strings of the lyre makes them vibrate; the sound is entirely the work of the musician but it would not exist were it not for the lyre-strings. In the case of Scripture, the mystery consists in the fact that God moves not inert, inanimate strings, but free ones (the will, the intelligence) which are capable of moving themselves. Only he can move such strings as he pleases while still maintaining their freedom intact and therefore acting through them. 

Of this marvellous work of God, only one effect is usually emphasized: the inerrancy of Scripture, that is to say the fact that the Bible contains no error (if by "error" we mean the absence of a truth humanly possible in a given cultural context and hence one to be demanded of the writer). But biblical inspiration is the basis for much more than the mere (negative) inerrancy of the Word of God; positively, it is the basis for its inexhaustibility, its divine force and vitality, and what St. Augustine called its mira projunditas, its marvellous depth.

So now we are ready to investigate that other, lesser-known meaning of biblical inspiration. In itself, grammatically speaking, the participle theopneustos is active, not passive, and if it is true that tradition and theology have alike always explained it in a passive sense ("inspired by God"), it is also true that the same tradition has found an active significance in it too. Scripture, said St. Ambrose, is theopneustos not only because it is "inspired by God" but also because it "respires God," because it breathes God.2 It is, St. Francis would say, the fragrance of God. Speaking of the creation, St. Augustine says that God did not make things and then turn his back on them, but that they "are from him and also in him."3 The same is true of God's words: having come from God, they remain in him and he in them. Having dictated Scripture, the Holy Spirit is, as it were, contained in it, lives in it, and enlivens it unceasingly with his own divine breath. The conciliar constitution Dei Verbum also picks up this thread of tradition; it says that "the sacred Scriptures, inspired by God [passive inspiration!] and committed to writing once and for all time, present God's own Word in an unalterable form, and they make the voice of the Holy Spirit sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles" [active inspiration!].'"4

Once again we ought to recognize the wonderful relationship between the mystery of the Eucharist and that of the Word of God. In the Mass – through the epiclesis and consecration – the Holy Spirit gives us the Eucharist, and then, in Communion, the Eucharist gives us the Holy Spirit. Once and for all time, the Holy Spirit inspired Scripture and now, each time we open the book, Scripture breathes the Holy Spirit! There are inspirations that move our will to the good, illuminations that clear our mind, our deepest emotions. . . . To what can we compare the word of Scripture? St. Gregory the Great wondered, and then replied: It is like a flint, cold to the touch, but when struck by the steel it gives off sparks and lights the fire. The words of Scripture stay cold if one limits them to their literal meaning, but if, inspired by the Lord, one strikes with an attentive mind, they will give vent to the fire of mystic meanings.5

I once heard a man give this testimony in public: He had reached the last stage of alcoholism; he couldn't hold out for more than an hour or two without a drink; wherever he happened to be, travelling, in the train, or at work, his first thought was where could he get some wine. His wife, who was there too, said she had reached the brink of despair and could see no way out for herself and her three children, except death. Someone invited them to some Bible readings. There was one word in particular which, heard by chance, made a deep impression on him and which for many years served as a rope to draw him up from the abyss. Each time he read it over, it was like a fresh flood of heat and strength, until he was completely cured. When he tried to tell us what that word was, his voice broke and he was so overcome with emotion that he could not manage to complete the sentence. It was the verse in the Song of Songs (1:2) which says, "More delightful is your love than wine." It would have been easy for any "expert" on the Song to show him that the verse had no bearing on his situation and that he was deluding himself, but the man went on repeating, "I was dead and now I am alive. That word gave me back my life!" So, too, the man born blind replied to those who questioned him, "How that may be, I don't know. All I do know is, before I couldn't see and now I can see" (cf. John 9:25)...

3. "The Spirit gives life"

When we don't use a limb for a long while, it needs to undergo rehabilitation exercises before it can be used properly again. For all too long, Christians have been without the use of this vital "limb," the Bible, and now they need to be retrained in how to use it. For some people, retraining will consist at first in picking up the Bible and reading it, since perhaps they have never seriously approached it before, or not at full length. For others who know the Bible and have even perhaps studied it for some time, retraining will consist in reaccustoming oneself to that spiritual interpretation of Scripture which throughout the patristic and medieval periods constituted the main source of the Church's wisdom and spirituality...

But it must be said that the [early church] Fathers, in this field, only applied (with the imperfect instruments then at their disposal) the straightforward lesson of the New Testament. In other words, they were not the initiators but the bearers of a tradition which had for its founders John, Paul, and Jesus himself. These latter had always not only practiced a spiritual interpretation of the Scriptures (ie., a reading with reference to Christ), but had even provided the justification for reading the Scriptures like this by declaring that all the Scriptures speak of Christ (cf. John 5:39), that "the Spirit of Christ" was already at work in them, expressing himself through the prophets (cf. 1 Pet 1:11) and that everything in the Old Testament is said by way of allegory, with reference to the Church (cf. Gal 4:24). 

However, by "spiritual interpretation" of the Bible we do not mean an edifying, mystical, subjective or, even worse, a fanciful interpretation, as opposed to a scientific interpretation which would, by contrast, be objective. Not at all: the spiritual interpretation is the most objective there can be, since it is based on the Spirit of God and not on human wit. The subjective interpretation of Scripture (based on free examination) has run riot precisely when spiritual interpretation has been given up and most blatantly abandoned. 

Spiritual interpretation is very precise and objective; it is interpretation done under the guidance, or by the light, of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures in the first place. It is based on an historical event, that is, the redemptive act of Christ, who by his death and resurrection completes the plan of salvation, fulfills all types and prophecies, unveils all hidden mysteries, and offers us the true key for interpreting the whole Bible. Anyone choosing to read the Scriptures after Christ's life while disregarding his act would be like someone persistently reading a musical score in the key of G when the composer has already moved into the key of B; every single note after the shift would sound false and out of tune. The New Testament calls the new key "the Spirit," while it defines the old key as "the letter," saying that "the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6). Reading the Scriptures without the Holy Spirit would be like opening a book in the dark. 

To erect an antithesis between "letter" and "Spirit" does not mean erecting one between Old and New Testaments, as though the former merely represented the letter and the latter only the Spirit. It means, rather, to make an antithesis between the two different ways of reading either the Old Testament or the New: between the way which disregards Christ, and the way which, by contrast, evaluates everything by the light of Christ. This is why the Church prizes both Testaments, for both speak to her of Christ. When the Word of God is read like this, a sort of transfiguration of Scripture occurs, analogous to Christ's transfiguration on Tabor. The Spirit hidden within the Scriptures sets them ablaze from within, making him known whom they were foreshadowing. So, spiritual interpretation confers new and hitherto unknown force and influence on the Old Testament, but this only comes about once we realize that it is talking about something else; that besides having a concrete and literal meaning, it also has a symbolic one leading us beyond it. In other, more traditional, words, the text becomes powerful once we discover that it is speaking "by allegory" (Gal 4:24). St. Augustine says,

Anything that is suggested by means of symbols strikes and kindles our affection much more forcefully than the truth itself would do if presented unadorned with mysterious symbols. . .  Our sensibility is less easily kindled when still involved in purely concrete realities, but if it is first turned towards symbols drawn from the corporeal world, and thence again to the plane of those spiritual realities signified by those symbols, it gathers strength by the mere act of passing from one to the other and, like the flame of a burning torch, is made by the motion to burn all the brighter.9
Something similar happens for the Christian in passing from the Old Testament to the New, from prophecy to reality. In this passing, the mind "flares up" like a moving torch. The description of the sufferings of the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah 53 has its own way of speaking to us about the passion of Christ, which no historical narrative in the Gospels can replace... The Old Testament is not scorned in spiritual interpretation; on the contrary, it is exalted to the utmost. When St. Paul says, "The Spirit gives life," this has to be understood as meaning: gives life to the letter in the Old Testament as well.

See related text: The Letter Kills, the Spirit Gives Life: The Spiritual Reading of the Bible, fourth in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The Word of God Is Living and Effective", by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, given in Rome, March 2008.


1. Francis of Assisi, Letter to all the Faithful (St. Francis of Assisi, Writings..., p. 93)
2. St. Ambrose, De Spiritu Sancto, III, 112.
3. St. Augustine, Confessions, IV, 12, 18.
4. Dei Verbum, 21.
5. cf. H.G. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, Tubingen 1960.
6. St. Augustine, Epistula 55.11.21 (CSEL 34, 1, p. 192)

[Excerpt from The Mystery of God’s Word, Chapter 8, by Raniero Cantalamessa, (c) 1994, translation by Alan Neame, published by The Liturgical Press.]

Father Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958. Divinity Doctor (Fribourg 1962) and Doctor in classical literature (Milan 1966). Former Ordinary Professor of History of Ancient Christianity and Director of the Department of Religious Sciences at the Catholic University of Milan. Member of the International Theological Commission (1975-1981) and for 12 years member of the Catholic Delegation for the dialogue with the Pentecostal Churches. In 1979 he resigned his teaching position to become a full time preacher of the Gospel. In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II Preacher to the Papal Household and confirmed in that position by pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

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