One Does Not Simply Read the Bible

Although not the first teaching document of his pontificate, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium sets forth his programmatic vision for the Church’s mission in its present moment.[1] The pope teaches here that the Church should have a strong missionary character and concern for evangelization. For Francis, these aspects find unique expression in practical care for the poor, the vulnerable, and those who are various situations of need. 

Another important component in Francis’s vision for the Church’s evangelization is his call for a renewal of biblically informed, liturgical preaching. This call, which comprises a sizable portion of Evangelii Gaudium, has not received much attention during his pontificate. This is a regrettable, for Francis’s remarks on this subject are timely, instructive, and rich.   

Francis most especially treats the renewal of biblical preaching in Evangelii Gaudium §135–159. His remarks here have a substantive, though not obvious, continuity with major elements in classic Christian biblical hermeneutics, such as those found in early Christian exegesis and preaching. I seek to illumine the commonalities between Pope Francis’s recommendations in Evangelii Gaudium for the renewal of biblically informed preaching and characteristic elements in patristic theological thinking about Scripture.

What follows will focus on three areas of convergence: first, the belief that Scripture mediates an encounter with the Word of God; second, the proper understanding of Scripture requires certain moral and spiritual dispositions on the part of the reader; third, the interpretation and/or proclamation of Scripture should serve a transformative end.

Encountering God’s Word through Scripture

Francis teaches that Church’s core proclamation is the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the love of God revealed in him. It is thoroughly Christocentric. When first speaking of the need for a renewal of evangelical preaching in the Introduction of Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes, “The heart of its message will always be the same: the God who revealed his immense love in the crucified and risen Christ” (§11).

Later, in the opening of Chapter 3, entitled “The Proclamation of the Gospel,” Francis quotes St. John Paul II in teaching that genuine evangelization requires “‘the primacy of the proclamation of Jesus Christ’” (§110).[2] According to Francis, all baptized persons are involved in the work of evangelization because evangelization is ingredient to Christian identity as such. Moreover, evangelization is borne out of the personal encounter of the baptized with the free gift of God’s love in Christ. The pope writes, “Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus” (§120).[3]  

Francis employs this basic structure of evangelization to frame the task of biblical preaching. Just as evangelization is borne out of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, so too must renewed preaching be borne out of an encounter with the Word of God in Scripture.[4] To begin with, Francis makes explicit that liturgical preaching should be biblical preaching: “The biblical text,” he writes, “needs to be the basis of our preaching” (§146).[5] But this preaching must be animated by the preacher’s own spiritual contact with the Word of God, given in Scripture.

In this respect, Francis writes, “Whoever wants to preach must be the first to let the word of God move him deeply and become incarnate in his daily life” (§150).[6] He later adds, “before preparing what we will actually say when preaching, we need to let ourselves be penetrated by that word which will also penetrate others; for it is a living and active word” (§150). To preach evangelically, the preacher must not only preach on the Word of God but must have been personally touched by that same Word.[7] Only then will he be able to mediate the Word of God to his congregation. Put differently—and to use the familiar paraphrase of the Scholastic dictum that a cause must contain all of its effects—“you can’t give what you don’t have.”

Francis’s teaching that the Word of God must first take root in the preacher through his mediation on Scripture implies that Scripture has the capacity to mediate God’s Word to its readers.[8] That is, through the reading of Scripture (and by extension its liturgical proclamation and preaching), people can encounter the Word of God. This understanding of Scripture as mediating an encounter with God’s Word is at home in premodern theological thinking about Scripture. Writing in 1964, Yves Congar wrote the following about the classic doctrine of Scripture as variously found throughout patristic and medieval Christianity: “The divine Scriptures are regarded as a kind of sacrament: a grace-bearing sign that effectively realizes communion with God.”[9]

While several different trends can be cited in this regard, one particular expression of this belief is the association between the divine Word incarnated in Jesus and the divine Word present in Scripture: the Incarnate Word and the inscripturated Word.[10] Arguably the most influential proponent of this theological association is Origen of Alexandria. Origen’s views on this topic are aptly discussed by Henri de Lubac in his History and Spirit. De Lubac uses the expression “Incorporation of the Logos” to denote Origen’s understanding of the Logos’s mode of presence in Scripture, which is genuine though not incarnational. He writes the following of Origen’s understanding:

In the literal meaning of Scripture, the Logos is thus not, properly speaking, incarnated as he is in the humanity of Jesus and this is what allows us still to speak of comparison; he is, nevertheless, already truly incorporated there; he himself dwells there, not just some idea of him.[11]

Among the texts that de Lubac adduces on this point is the beginning of Origen’s Homilies on Leviticus 1. Here, Origen develops a comparison between the humanity and divinity of the Incarnate Logos with the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture. Origen writes, “just as there [the Word of God] was covered with the veil of flesh, so here with the veil of the letter, so that indeed the letter is seen as flesh but the spiritual sense hiding within is perceived as divinity.”[12] Similarly, Origen speaks of the inscripturation of the Word as a way by which the imperceptible, immaterial Logos becomes perceptible to humans. He writes the following in a Fragment from his Commentary on Matthew:

Just as this spoken word cannot . . . be touched or seen, but when written in a book and, so to speak, become bodily, then indeed is seen and touched, so too is it with the fleshless and bodiless WORD of God; according to its divinity it is neither seen nor written, but when it becomes flesh, it is seen and written.[13]

Although Origen’s account is not the only way in which premodern Christian authors articulated the point, the basic understanding of Scripture as a vehicle or mode of the divine Word’s presence appears in many premodern Christian exegetes and continues in the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis.

Holiness and Virtue as a Prerequisite for Understanding Scripture

Within his discussion of biblical preaching, Pope Francis devotes several paragraphs to homily preparation and gives some practical advice on the topic.[14] To begin with, the preacher should have an informed sense of the message of the biblical texts. Thus, Francis speaks of the need for the preacher to consult intellectual resources in order to facilitate a proper understanding of what the biblical texts, understood in their historical and canonical contexts, are saying. But, again quoting St. John Paul II, Francis states, “Knowledge of [the biblical text’s] linguistic or exegetical aspects, though certainly necessary is not enough” (§149).[15] Thus, an informed, intelligent understanding of the biblical text is a necessary, though not sufficient condition, for effective preaching of God’s Word.

What stands out in the pope’s advice on homily preparation is the amount of attention he devotes to the spiritual and moral dispositions of the preacher. For instance, Francis speaks of the need for the preacher to be humble and receptive before the Word of God. He writes the following while quoting St. Paul VI:

Whenever we stop and attempt to understand the message of a particular text, we are practicing “reverence for the truth.” This is the humility of heart which recognizes that the word is always beyond us, that “we are neither its masters or owners but its guardians, heralds and servants” (§146).[16]

Francis also encourages preachers to spend time with the biblical texts on which they will preach, and he relates this practice to spending time with loved ones. The preacher should spend time with Scripture for in doing so, the preacher spends time with the God whom he loves and encounters in Scripture (§146). Moreover, as we have said in the previous section, the preacher must himself first experience and be touched by the Word of God before he can mediate that Word to others in his preaching. Francis again quotes St. John Paul II, the preacher “needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him” (§149).[17]

As a way to integrate the intellectual and spiritual aspects of homily preparation, Francis encourages preachers to practice lectio divina (§152). This classical mode of praying with Scripture, Francis writes, “is not something separate from the study undertaken by the preacher to ascertain the central message of the text; on the contrary, it should begin with that study and then go on to discern how that same message speaks to his own life” (§152).

Classic Christian biblical hermeneutics posited an interactive and reciprocal relationship between biblical interpretation and transformation in holiness. For instance, there appears across early Christian interpreters the belief that the proper understanding of the Scripture requires certain moral and spiritual dispositions on the part of the reader. These included, in the words of Yves Congar, “humility, purity of heart, a true desire to seek God and a strong love of the Gospel.”[18] These moral and spiritual dispositions correlate with the primary goal of premodern biblical interpretation which was the transformation of people’s lives. As Luke Johnson has put it, the premodern Christian reader (in contrast to the modern critical exegete) was more interested in “reading for transformation” than for “information.”[19] These two aspects—that interpretation both presupposed and was ordered to holiness of life—will each be addressed respectively in this section and the next.

Consider, for example, some remarks of Augustine in De doctrina christiana. For Augustine, the Scripture is part of a larger providentially ordered system of personal conversion, purification, and spiritual ascent. Throughout this treatise, Augustine integrates his directions for proper biblical exegesis and preaching within a larger theological account of the Triune God’s restoration of fallen humanity and the proper ordering of a creature’s loves towards the enjoyment of God.[20]

In Book II, Augustine speaks of the importance of the reader’s moral and spiritual dispositions with reference to the “gifts of the Spirit” in Isa. 11. For Augustine, the sine qua non precondition for proper understanding of Scripture is personal conversion to God and desire to do his will. Augustine writes, “What is needed above all else, therefore, is to be converted by the fear of God wishing to know his will, what he bids us seek and shun.”[21] Starting thus from “fear of the Lord,” Augustine proceeds through the various gifts of the Spirit (fear of the Lord, piety, knowledge, etc.) which this progressive movement into Scripture will engender in the reader as he or she grows in proper understanding of the Scripture.  

For Augustine, as for other early Christian interpreters, there is a kind of reciprocal interaction between the reader’s spiritual disposition and understanding of the Scriptures. When the reader approaches Scripture with proper dispositions such as faith, reverence, and humility, the reader opens him or herself to an encounter with the Word of God. The more one yields to this encounter with the Word of God, the more one comes to understand the Bible’s contents and is transformed by God in holiness of life. 

Biblical Interpretation’s Transformative End

Pope Francis’s teachings on the moral and spiritual dispositions of the preacher also inform his comments on the purpose of preaching. Just as the preacher must have proper humility before the Word of God in preparing the homily, so must the preacher also have proper humility in giving the homily. Francis is quite clear that liturgical preaching of the Word of God is not “a form of entertainment . . . a speech or a lecture” (§138).

The preacher should recede behind the Word he proclaims and serve the good of the congregation he addresses by minimizing himself. As Francis puts it, “the words of the preacher must be measured, so that the Lord, more than his minister, will be the center of attention.” (§138). Moreover, the preacher must be mindful of the situation and needs of his congregation. His attentive care for his people can become evident in the preacher’s own demeanor as well as the tone, length, and audience-appropriate level of his homily.

The liturgical preaching of Scripture is a proclamation of the Word of God and should help facilitate the congregation’s own transformative encounter with God. Taken in its own right, the homily, Francis writes, “can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.” (§135). The implication seems to be that just as the preacher encountered the Word of God through Scripture in his mediation on the biblical readings, so should the preacher serve to mediate that biblical word to his congregation through his preaching. Moreover, as part of the Eucharistic liturgy, the should be ordered “to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist” (§138). By so facilitating an encounter or (to use Francis’ term of choice) “dialogue” with God, the liturgical preaching of Scripture contributes to the congregation’s communion with Christ.

When Francis’s remarks on liturgical preaching of the Word are set within the larger vision of Evangelii Gaudium, such preaching comes to light as providing sustenance for the congregants’ own work of evangelization in the world, of bringing Christ to all whom they meet (§127–129). As we have seen, evangelization is borne out of the personal encounter with Jesus Christ. When the Word of God is preached faithfully and powerfully in the liturgy, individual Christians encounter Christ the Word, learn from him, and are empowered by him for their missionary endeavor. 

As mentioned previously, for premodern Christians, not only were certain moral and spiritual dispositions of the Christian reader prerequisite for proper understanding of Scripture but biblical interpretation was also ordered to the transformation of life. Multiple examples of this belief can be cited, such as Origen’s account of the senses of Scripture in On First Principles IV, Augustine’s teaching in De doctrina christiana that correct understanding necessarily involves the building up of charity, and Athanasius’ likening of the Psalms to a mirror for the formation of Christian virtue in his “Letter to Marcellinus.”[22]

An especially rich expression of this belief is Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.[23] In this treatise, Gregory interprets the life of Moses for a correspondent, who wrote to Gregory asking about the life of perfection.[24] Over the course of two books, Gregory first walks through the account of Moses’s life given in the Pentateuch (i.e. its historia) and then proceeds to contemplate this historia so as to access its spiritual depths.

He writes, “we shall seek out the spiritual understanding which corresponds to the history in order to obtain suggestions of virtue.”[25] For Gregory, the fruit of the proper contemplation of the contents of Scripture is a transformed life. Thus, at the conclusion of his work, Gregory encourages his correspondent, “by transferring to your own life what is contemplated through spiritual interpretation of the things spoken literally, to be known by God and to become his friend.”[26] For Gregory, proper attention to the biblical text orders the mind to spiritual things and facilitates the ongoing formation in holiness of life.


I have sought to show that there exist multiple lines of conceptual continuity between Pope Francis’s recommendations for the renewal of biblical preaching and early Christian theological thinking about Scripture. In particular, there is a shared understanding of Scripture as mediating an encounter with the divine Word, to readers who are properly disposed, and as serving as a transformative end. Given these points of convergence, a more thorough engagement with the “spirit” of patristic exegesis help us explore the substance of the pope’s exhortations and contribute to the Church’s task of evangelization in the contemporary world. For, in the words of Mary Healy, “the revitalization of faith . . . will begin with good preaching or it will not begin at all.”[27]

[1] Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel—Evangelii Gaudium (Washington, DC and Vatican City: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013). All references to Evangelii Gaudium will be given parenthetically in the body of the text.

[2] Francis here quotes John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, §19.

[3] Similarly, Benedict XVI (Deus Caritas Est §16–18) teaches that the Christian love of neighbor arises from a personal encounter with the love of God.

[4] For a study of how Scripture mediates God to its readers, see William M. Wright IV and Francis Martin, Encountering the Living God in Scripture: Theological and Philosophical Principles for Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).

[5] Mary Healy has called attention to the interest in past instructions in the American church to dissociate preaching from Scriptural exposition. In particular, she cites the 1982 instruction Fulfilled in Your Hearing and its 2010 commentary from Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics as examples of this dissociative interest. She also points out that the 1982 instruction has since been supplanted by the 2012 instruction Preaching the Mystery of Faith. See Mary Healy, “Verbum Domini and the Renewal of Biblical Preaching,” in Verbum Domini and the Complementarity of Exegesis and Theology, ed. Fr. Scott Carl (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 111–113.

[6] Francis (§151) adds, “What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love always has the last word.”

[7] For exposition of this point with reference to the Parable of the Sower, see Wright and Martin, Encountering, 232–236.

[8] For Francis (as for the Catholic Tradition in general) “the Word of God” is a theological reality that is larger than the Scripture. Francis writes, “the Sacred Scriptures are the written testimony of the divine word, the canonical memorial that testifies to the event of Revelation. The Word of God therefore precedes and exceeds the Bible.” Pope Francis, “Address to the Members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission,” 12 April 2013. Text available at /documents/papa-francesco_20140412_comitato-scienze-storiche.html.

[9] Yves Congar, O.P., The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 91. For Congar’s theological thinking about Scripture in sacramental terms, see Yves M.-J. Congar, O.P., Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and Theological Essay, trans. Michael Naseby and Thomas Rainborough (London: Burns & Oates, 1966), 403–406; ibid., “Sur la valeur sacramentelle de la Parole,” La  Vie spirituelle 135 (1981), 379–389. For secondary discussion, see William M. Wright IV, The Bible and Catholic Ressourcement: Essays on Scripture and Theology (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic 2019), 18–25.

[10] For a brief overview, see J. H. Crehan, SJ, “The Analogy between Verbum Dei Incarnatum and Verbum Dei Scriptum in the Fathers,” Journal of Theological Studies 6 (1955): 87–90.

[11] Henri de Lubac, SJ, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen, trans. Anne Englund Nash and Juvenal Merriell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 389.

[12] Origen, Hom. Lev. 1.1; cited from Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 1–16, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley, FOC (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1900), 29.

[13] Origen. Frag. Com. Matt (PG 17:289); quoted from Hans Urs von Balthasar, ed., Origen: Spirit and Fire—A Thematic Anthology of His Writings, trans. Robert J. Daly, SJ (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984) §153 (pp. 87–88)

[14] Francis (§145) writes, “Preparation for preaching is so important a task that a prolonged time of study, prayer, reflection and pastoral creativity should be devoted to it.”

[15] Francis here quotes John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis §26. See also Francis, Joy of the Gospel, §147–148.

[16] Francis here quotes Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi §78.

[17] Francis here quotes John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis §26.

[18] Yves Congar, O.P., The Meaning of Tradition, trans. A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004 [1964]), 91.

[19] Luke Timothy Johnson and William S. Kurz, SJ, The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 84; typeset adjusted. See also pp. 36–37, 59, 84–88.

[20] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.3.3–I.34.38. All citations will be taken from Saint Augustine, Teaching Christianity—De Doctrina Christiana, trans. Edmund Hill, OP (Hyde park, NY: New City Press, 1996).

[21] Augustine, Doct. Chr. II.7.9 (p. 132)

[22] See Origen, On First Principles, IV.2.4–9; Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, I.36.40; cf. III.10.14; Athanasius, The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1980).

For secondary discussion, see John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 128–139.

[23] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Everett Ferguson and Abraham J. Malherbe, CWS (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978).

[24] Ibid., Life of Moses, I.1–2.

[25] Ibid., Life of Moses, I.15.

[26] Ibid., Life of Moses, II.320.

[27] Healy, “Renewal of Biblical Preaching,” 109.

Featured Image: Lorenzo Costa, possibly a portrait of Cardinal Bibbiena with St. Jerome in background, c. 1519; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


William Wright

William M. Wright IV is a Professor of Catholic Studies and Theology at Duquesne University. A specialist in New Testament studies, he is the author of several books, including (with Francis Martin) The Gospel of John and Encountering the Living God in Scripture: Theological and Philosophical Principles for Interpretation.

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