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SIDIC Periodical XVII - 1984/3
The Word of God in Church and Synagogue (Pages 13 - 19)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Word of God in the Faith Community
Paolo Ricca


The Word of God and the Faith Community are, in the Evangelical Church, and consequently in the Waldensian Church to which the writer belongs, both absolutely inseparable and completely interchangeable. The faith community is born through listening to the Word of God which is therefore not only the food, but also the foundation of faith, its very matrix. This birth of the faith community through the Word does not happen once and for all, but is being constantly renewed; it is a kind of continual creation because the Word cannot be exploited nor imprisoned in the strong-room of the sacred Word, for example, any more than faith can live on revenue. It is true that the faith community has its institutional side which can exist independently of the action of the Word, or against it even. It has happened, and can do so again, that the institutional organism and the faith community can be at odds with one another or even in open conflict. But the faith community as such can only exist in so fat as it accepts the Word of God and is obedient to it. It would he possible for a sacred institution to exist without the Word, but we cannot have faith without the Word. According to biblical experience, in fact, faith does not spring forth from the heart, nor from the reasoning of the intellect, the promptings of conscience, nor again from the needs of the soul. The primum movens of faith comes neither from within us nor from the world around us. Faith, biblically speaking, is born, not from our initiative, but as the response to a Word which is recognized as the Word of God. The paradigm of Jewish and Christian faith remains for all time that of Abram to whom the Lord said:
"Go forth from your country .. . So Abram went, as the Lord told him" Gen. 12:1,4.
To believe means to respond. Faith and the faith community cannot exist, therefore, before, beside or away from the Word of God and its sphere of influence. Faith properly so called is that which responds to the Word of God.

This is why the title of this contribution must be clearly understood. It does not wish to suggest that "the faith community" is the widest limit within which can be found also the more restricted reality of "the Word of God". The Word is certainly in the faith community, but is also before and above it. It is in the faith community, not as an object in its hands, but as the transcendent Subject of its faith and its hope, and therefore, as the Author of its very existence. The Word is in the community as the giver of life, not only because it is the reason for its existence, but because it is the vital force which makes it exist. It is true, therefore, that the Word is in the community, but it is also true that the community is in the Word. The community transmits the Word, certainly, but it is also true that the community itself, so to say, is transmitted by the Word which recreates it in every generation. The Word opens a breach in human hearts and, in bringing forth faith, brings forth the believing community as well. But be careful! It is not faith which keeps the flame of the Word burning brightly, but rather it is the Word which keeps the flame of faith alive.

"We can be sure, therefore, that the soul can do without every other thing except the Word of God, and without the Word of God, nothing is of any use to it. But when it has the Word of God, it has no need of any other thing; on the contrary, it finds in the Word of God sufficient food, joy, peace, light, skill, justice, truth, wisdom, freedom and an abundance of every good thing" Luther.

The Waldensian Church — Its Beginnings
The birth of the Waldensian movement in twelth century France is indissolubly linked with a strong need jar the Word oh God, resulting in a call to mission and to evangelical preaching. This call was heard by the laity, that is to say, by the "base' of the Church of that time. It is typical that the founder of Waldensianism (a merchant by the name of Waldo of the secularized — in the modern sense — city of Lyons) dedicated himself completely after his conversion to evangelization. He refused, however, to join the hierarchy by becoming a priest or a monk, but continued to live as a simple believer, and was rejected by the clerical preachers of the Word. Groups of responsible lay people were aware that the word of the Church was not the Word of God and made the courageous decision to take their word of God to the people. The first Waldensian community became a society of itinerant preachers who returned to the model of Jesus and his disciples. They relived the experience of the Jewish "shaliah" or "envoy" and of the Christian "apostle", travelling across Europe to preach in the streets and houses. They did this, not in the framework of the liturgical practices of the time nor in places set aside for worship, but in the ordinary circumstances of daily life, just where they happened to be and in ways that seemed best at that moment. Thus the Waldensian community in its essence was born (as we say today) to once again take hold of the Word of God which had been made mute by the official Church, and to give it back to the people who had lost the habit of listening to it and were therefore used to living without it. This interest in the Word of God by the first Waldensians was so strong that Waldo had large portions of it translated into the vernacular — another revolutionary innovation for which he was loudly condemned and repressed — in order to bring the Word of God out of its hiding place in the Latin language of the clergy which the people did not understand. In a Europe which was officially Christian while in reality very pagan, Waldensianism arose precisely to join faith to the Word of God again. It did so in the deep conviction that faith is living and true only when it is born as a response to the Word of God — a Word which could not be regarded as magical nor expressed in the unknown Latin language which, in its mysterious formulae, created a sacralizing atmosphere without giving any understanding of its meaning. In this way, the Word became clear and transparent again, and could be articulated in a call, in an offer of life, in an invitation to decision and conversion. Through the freedom of this itinerant preaching the Word was transferred from church to market place, from temple to house, from liturgy to life, from sacred surroundings to those of everyday life. A new kind of faith and a new community were born of this new relationship with the Word and its newfound role.

In the sixteenth century (1532 to be precise) Waldensians joined the Protestant Reform. Many reasons can be brought forward in order to explain the change, but the most plausible seems to have been as follows: the Waldensians of the fifteen hundreds discovered in the Protestant reformation a faithfulness to the Bible analogous to that which had inspired their own communiy from its very beginnings. Some Waldensians, in fact, felt that the reformers had a deeper understanding of the Bible than they themselves. This joining with the Protestant reform meant for the followers of Waldo a further consolidation and deepening of their relation between the Word of God and the faith community. Thus there came about a new understanding of the Word and of the renewal of faith which followed it.

From the sixteenth century to the present the bond between Word and faith in the Waldensian community has, as is obvious, gone through various stages, some life-giving and fruitful, other less creative and significant. But the link that has endured and which remains still today is the very crown of Waldensian life and witness. The eight-hundred years' history of this faith community attests to the fact that its meaning and raison d'κtre is to create the human space in which the Word of God assumes its form and its body in history and among the people. The meaning of the faith community is to be the body of the Word of God.

Word and Action
In the Bible we find two kinds of the Word of God: the Word of God which creates, calling into being that which is not as if it were, and thus bringing everything into being from nothing; and the Word of God which, through priests and prophets, reveals that the history of Israel is a sacred history, that it is the place where God works his mighty deeds. This Word both brings history into being and explains it as the dealings of God with his people, and therefore as a history revealed through faith. It recognizes that the faith of Israel is faith in the freedoms wrought by God in history, beginning with the Exodus. The Word of God which gives birth to and nurtures faith is the Word which unveils the presence of God in the history of Israel, and is therefore the same Word which is the very substance of history.

The Word of God and the actions of God involve us and enrich our lives. The Word becomes the saving act and the saving act is concentrated in and communicated through the Word. The Word acts and the Action speaks. To be a faith community, then, means certainly to be a community which listens to the Word: "faith comes through hearing" says the Apostle Paul, summing up so succinctly the centuries' long experience of Israel. But substantially this listening consists in the appropriation of the historical memory in which this people relives and hands down to succeeding generations the saving interventions of God on its behalf. To listen in this sense means to remember: to remember a history, which is a history of vocation and of liberation.

In the Waldensian experience, as in that of the Israelites, the relationship between faith and history is extremely cohesive. Just as Israel, reflecting on its history, has been able to pass through all its trials and sufferings, seeing in these the signs of its vocation, of its election and mission, so also the little Waldensian community, reflecting on its life story, which is both an anguished and a marvellous one, finds many motives for thanksgiving and can interpret its own survival as an act of the gratuitous and undeserved grace of God, and to sing with the psalmist:
"If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, let Israel now say
if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us,
then they would have swallowed us up alive, when their anger was kindled against us; ... Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us as prey to their teeth"
Ps. 124:1-3,6.

Just as Israel has been a thousand times persecuted and put to death, and has miraculously and mysteriously lived, survived, revived in a way that God alone can explain, so too, the little Waldensian community has survived miraculously over the centuries, in spite of ferocious persecutions and against all reasonable expectation.

It is not surprising that a Waldensian historian of the last century called his people the Israel of the Alps. The metaphor may seem bold (in spite of certain parallel experiences) but it is certainly not a fanciful one. We have no desire to discuss its legitimacy but to understand its reasons — one of them at least: the faith of a community is its response to a Word which becomes history,in which God has worked his liberating action and has renewed his vocation. Between the Word of God and the community of faith there is a fundamental to and fro movement: the saving action of God wrought in history that the Word interprets and announces, and that faith accepts and celebrates.

Word and Scripture
According to evangelical faith (and Christianity in general) the Word of God exists in three distinct forms: as the incarnate Word in the person and in the life of Jesus of Nazareth (as John the Evangelist writes: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." Jn. 1:4); as the written Word in the books of the Bible (as one of the disciples of Paul's school has it: "All scripture is inspired by God..." 2 Tim. 3:16); as the Word preached by the prophets, apostles, men and women of God throughout the ages (as the apostle Paul has written to the faithful of Thessalonica: "...when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God..." 1 Thess. 2:13). We share these last two forms of the Word of God together with the faith experience of the Jewish people, while consciences are divided where the first is concerned. Nevertheless, the idea that the Word of God has become flesh, therefore history, as also a personal history, is not by that fact extraneous from the horizons of biblical faith. Not a few biblical personages of the history of Israel fulfilled in their own destiny a kind of identification with the Word of God, as witness, for example, this testimony of the prophet Jeremiah:
"I have become a laughing stock all the day; ... for the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long"
Jer. 20:7,8.

The prophet's destiny is the same as that of the Word; the Word and the prophet are one.

In the Jewish experience, as in the Christian also, the Word of God is above all else a spoken Word, a Word announced, proclaimed, taught, therefore a living Word, free and unpredictable, through whose mediation a dialogue is initiated or at least proposed. It is fitting to reflect for a moment on the singular fact, well worth considering, that God reads his presence, his action and his own honor according to the Word, according therefore to the reality which, in one sense, is the most fleeting, precarious and ephemeral thing on earth. Nothing could he shorter that a word which is both born and dies in the very act of being uttered (a word is scarcely spoken than it belongs to the past); it lives its mysterious, impalpable existence through sign and sound only. It is true that throughout the ancient world, and therefore also that of the ancient Near East, which is the cradle of biblical culture, a supernatural power was always attributed to the word, as if it were endowed in itself with a magical force that could be either dangerous or beneficial. "Whoever utters a word puts powers into motion" (Va der Leeuw). In the Bible, however, there are only a few traces of a magical concept of the word, which biblical persons have neither formulated nor practised. For them, the word is simply the fundamental and initial means for communication among persons, whatever he the god they serve. But God makes use of these same human words in order to communicate his own Word. Therefore, by God's choice we can say, the Word of God appears as the word of man and woman: there is nothing amazing or exceptional or unequivocably divine about it. It is a word like any other, neither more nor less, and for that very reason is often ignored, contested or scorned. Exteriorly the Word of God is no different from the ordinary word of an ordinary person. This is the paradox: God entrusts his truth and his salvation, his very self, therefore, to the fragile and contentious word of ordinary people.

The expression "Word of God" should not on that account evoke in us the idea of the sacredness of the Word in the sense of having magical powers which could be possessed and imprisoned, hut rather should lead us to reflect on the diversity of the ways of God (cf. Is. 55:8) who "chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" 1 Cor. 1:27). He has chosen the weakness of the human word to transmit the strength of his eternal and life-giving truth. God has chosen to communicate himself through the Word, not because it is magical, that is to say, possessing power, but because, on the contrary, it is weak, extremely weak, so that we might realize the truth of what the Lord says: "my power is made perfect in weakness" 2 Cor. 12:9.

But after the Word of God has been spoken it has been put into writing. Why? That it may not be forgotten, first of all. Then that it may neither be changed nor adulterated, and finally, so that it may be faithfully transmitted to generations to come. Thus, the Word has become Words, Scripture, Book. Judaism and Christianity both have a "sacred book" considered canonical, therefore having a unique authority for the faith and life of the believing community. They read it differently, perhaps, but for both of them it marks the beginnings of a faith born of the Word mediated through Scripture. After having said that the Word gives birth to faith, we should now state clearly that this Word is a biblical, scriptural one, consigned, preserved and attested to in the pages of the Bible. In the concrete, faith anchored to the Word of God means a faith nurtured by the Bible on which the believer "meditates day and night" Ps. 1:2, so that he or she may declare:
"I have more understanding than all my teachers, for thy testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
for I keep thy precepts"
Ps. 119:99,100.

God therefore not only speaks but writes. Once he wrote on stone tablets the ten words of the covenant, but after that he wrote on tablets of hearts of flesh ("I will write it upon their hearts" Jer. 31:33). A Word of God is written on hearts, as well as on stone, or parchment, or paper, and yet it is not a Word frozen into fixed letters — a Word that is no more than Scripture.
Let us look then at the circular movement of the Word of God: the Word becomes Scripture and Scripture becomes the Word again. It is essential that the Word become Scripture so that it not remain in swaddling clothes, be forgotten or be changed; it is essential that Scripture becomes the Word again so that it is not fossilized in a text. God must be he who speaks, and not only he who has spoken.

The faith community, therefore, in the Jewish as in Christian circles, seeks the Word of God by reading, studying, reflecting on Sacred Scripture, without identifying the Word with the letters which compose it, but looking upon the letter as the cradle, so to speak, of the Word, the place where, as by a perpetually renewed miracle, it germinates and speaks. The modes by which the faith community seeks and finds the Word through Scripture can be very different, according to the various cultural and liturgical community contexts to which it belongs.

In the Waldensian experience (and that of Protestantism in general) there are four main principles:
1) Evangelical preaching: (praedicatio verbi Dei est verbum Dei — "the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God" — declares a Reformed Confession of Faith of the sixteenth century.) It can take place in public worship or on other occasions, in other circumstances, in the church or in the market place, in presence of believers or non-believers, and which always consists in an explanation of the biblical text and the proclamation of its message.
2) The Community Study of the Bible (called, in our Church, "Bible Study"), which usually has a weekly rhythm and consists of a deep examination, followed by discussion, of a passage or book of the Bible; in this context, philosophical, historical and cultural problems are seen in the light of a critical reading of the biblical text.
3) A family and personal reading of the Bible, very practical in days gone by, is declining in popularity nowadays, unfortunately, due to the fact that modern life styles and working hours with their different tempos have broken both the rhythm and the very unity of family life. This personal and family moment gathered around the biblical Word has its distinctly liturgical-devotional aspect.
4) Religious instruction given in our churches (to children in so-called "Sunday schools" and to youth in general in "catechism" courses) is permeated by the Bible and its personages, by their life and traditions, by their witness. Apart from history and culture, the Bible as a book of faith and of life is not only an almost inexhaustible source of riches, but it has the power of initiating and forming us in the faith and of making us grow to adulthood. Biblical instruction is therefore the highway to evangelical faith. The words of Luther, spoken in the sixteenth century, are valid for every generation of believers, whereby the faith community "is conceived, formed, nurtured, born, educated, pastured, clothed, adorned, strengthened, armed, conserved" by the Word of God, where is found "the whole of its life and all its substance."

Word and Faith
The whole of life and the substance of faith are found in the Word of God. But what is it concretely that transmits the Word to faith; from what does it take life, and in what form? There are three fundamental realities: that which concerns knowledge of God and of self; that which consists in the concrete circumstances of life and behavior; that which articulates faith in language (witness to others and prayer to God).

1) Knowledge of God and o/ self. "God has created nothing except mysteries" (Dostoiesvky), and men and women grope, searching for God and for self in mystery, ("... that they might feel after him" Acts 17:27). God has become the fruit of our imaginations, fantasies, fears, calculations: an imagined and fictitious god. Not only this, but the human heart is a source of idols, writes Calvin, and he was not mistaken. Men and women, so little disposed to give God a place in their lives, are yet great creators of divinities, untiring makers of idols that replace God. They do not know how to live with God, yet neither can they live without idols. Real incredulity is as rare as real faith. Many of those who pass for unbelievers have some hidden and unacknowledged god. Few there are who believe in nothing. The big battle in the Bible, therefore, is not against unbelief but against false religion, always being propagated in some new form, not only religious but lay. In this world where religion abounds and faith is wanting, the intervention of the Word of God becomes life-giving because it determines the transition from faith in "these 5 ain things" to faith in "a living God" Acts 14-15 — thus there is a transition from appearance to reality, from illusion to truth, from doubt to certainty, from confusion to clarity, from fear to freedom, from anxiety to peace. The Word reveals God to faith, which is never based on ignorance, however, but on knowledge. One no longer believes because one does not know, but because one knows. This is not only a knowledge about God, but about self also. The Word is like the light and heat of the sun which dispels the clouds of our ignorance and creates clarity and vision where before there were confusion and blindness. But in knowing God one knows oneself: the Word reveals the human person to himself or herself. He thus discovers his fundamental condition of creatureliness, discovers the inexplicable but incontrovertible reality of his sin, therefore of his almost innate lack of faith, discovers above all else the strength of grace and of pardon, the mystery of election and of vocation, the patience and kindness of him whom we dare to call "Father". Thus the Word transmits knowledge to faith and knowledge in its turn becomes the vital life-blood of faith.

2) The concrete reality of life. The Word of God does not transmit knowledge only. Judaism and Christianity are not gnostic religions that can be sublimated in speculation. They are, on the contrary, eminently practical religions which reach their goal in love. The summit of faith is not knowledge but love. The Word of God thus transmits to faith not only knowledge but the way to live a life of faith. This means that we have criteria and indications which influence our daily choices in the labyrinth of life. The Word of God not only teaches us what to believe, but also how to live, or rather, it teaches us to live by teaching us to believe. The person wise in life's ways is no less rare than the person wise in matters of faith: they are intimately linked moreover, and the Bible overflows with examples of both. We need a whole lifetime to learn how to live and even that is not enough. How shall we live our life? What meaning shall we give it? What destination shall we assign to it? And how shall we manage the thousand and one problems which arise in our personal and family lives — problems of affectivity, of sexuality, problems of a professional, social or political nature? Doubtless the Word of God and the Bible are not law codes in the juridical sense. They announce freedom and call on us to take our own responsibility. Thus, teaching liberty and training us for responsibility, the Bible helps us to live a creative, constructive, positive life which will be a blessing for others and a sign — however fragile — of the beneficent reality of God. In times like our own when so many people are suffering simply because they have lost their bearings, who do not know how to live or what form and content to give to their existence, we can on the contrary, understand anew the joy of the psalmist who acknowledges:
"In the way of thy testimonies I delight as much as in all riches"
Ps. 119:14.

Let us understand how
"the will of God, what good and acceptable and perfect"
Rom. 12:2,

may be a great blessing for each one and so far as he or she is freed from uncertainty and indecision with regard to what is good and what is evil. The Word of God, received into the faith community, puts it in touch with this will, which helps it to live a full life.

3) The language of faith. The Word of God, finally, transmits to faith a language through which it can be expressed, articulated in a discourse, made understandable to others and ever clearer to oneself. The Word of God has become the word of faith. It teaches faith how to speak just as a mother teaches her child its very first words. Thus faith does not remain silent, because a faith which does not speak soon becomes a dead faith. Just as the child learns to speak as it grows, so a mature or adult faith is that which can say what it believes, and believes what its says.
The Word of God gives faith Les mats pour le dire (as is the title of a beautiful French book recently published) — the words to say it — to speak for oneself, or rather, to speak to God, God to us and we to God. When there is question of speaking to God, let us willingly put ourselves aside as Moses did when he said:
"Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent,
either heretofore or since thou hast spoken to thy servant;
but I am slow of speech and of tongue"
Ex. 4:10; or like Jeremiah who lamented his youth:
"Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak,
for I am only a youth°
Jet. 1:6.

But how wonderful it is! Because God speaks to us, we begin to speak to God, to spell out his name, since God does not enclose himself in the mysterious silence of the universe, but speaks and calls and ordains. We are thus able to come forth from our enigmatic dumbness, caused by various motives behind which we could become entrenched, and speak! Thus would be fulfilled the promise of old:
"But the word (of God) is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,
so that you can do it"
Deut. 30:14.

In drawing near to the Word again and again, we begin to speak and can share the same experience as the psalmist:
"I believed, therefore have I spoken: ..."
Ps. 116: 10.'

This language of faith has two terms: others and God. Turning towards others, our language will be one of witness; turning towards God it will become prayer. The cycle of the Word will thus be complete.

"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty..."
Is. 55:10,11,

because it will return as prayer. Here is the true and ultimate scope of the mission of the Word of God in the world: it gives us the language of faith and gives faith the language of prayer. In the last analysis, the Word of God comes into the world so that every human word may become prayer.

Word and Silence
In the Bible there is not only the Word, there is Silence as well. Silence also speaks. Its speech can be both negative and positive. Silence can be a way of isolating, withdrawing and shutting ourselves in, but it can also be a way of communicating, of being, and of meeting. The silence of God in the Bible can indicate that God is not speaking, but can also mean that he is. Andre Neher, one of the main representatives of contemparary Jewish humanism, has written an important and stimulating book on the meaning of Silence in biblical revelation, in Jewish tradition and in human experience.' A reflection on the Word of God in the faith community cannot end without reference to this work and the theme it courageously studies.
The Bible, the book of the Word par excellence, is also, in effect, much more than we may generally think, the book of Silence. The God of the Bible, whom John the Evangelist calls "the Word":
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"
Jn. 1:1

is also silent, or rather, is manifested also in silence; he is, however, and very definitely so, the God who answers, and silence can be a part or an aspect of this response.

Two biblical passages, as Andre Neher points out, deserve special mention. The first is 1 Kgs. 19:12, in which is described a theophany of the God of Israel:
"And behold, the Lord passed by" (verse 11): "and a great and strong wind rent the mountains... but the Lord was not in the wind" (verse 11); "and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake" (verse 11); "and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire" (verse 12). The Lord was "a still small voice" (verse 12), which can be translated literally as "in the voice of a gentle silence". In this text God's voice is his silence. His presence is expressed, not by the Word but by the Silence. He is revealed in Silence!

The second text is Ps. 65:1, whose meaning is uncertain. A possible and plausible rendering is
"To thee Lord, in silence, praise is due in Zion" or else:
"To thee Lord, silence is fitting as praise" or again:
"For thee, silence is praise"

An authentic form of prayer is, in fact, the speechless and awestruck contemplation of the works or of the promises, that is to say, of the very reality of God. The highest form of communion is reached when we no longer need to speak to be understood.
Let us conclude with the words of Elie Wiesel which Andre Neher chose for his own final sentence:
"I'd like you to know only this: separation contains as much of a mystery as meeting. In both cases a door opens: in meeting it opens on the future, in separation on the past. It's the same door."(3)

* Prof. Paolo Ricca is a Pastor of the Waldensian Church. He obtained his doctorate in Sacred Scripture in Basle and lectures in Church History at the Waldensian Faculty of Theology in Rome. He is a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches
1. So the King James Version. All other scriptural quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version
2. L'exil de la parole. Du silence biblique au silence d'Auschwitz. Seuil, Paris 1970.
3 The Gates of the Forest, Bard Books/Avon, New York 1966


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