With Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P.

This Spring (April 1-3, 2019), the McGrath Institute for Church Life is sponsoring an academic conference entitled: “Word and Wisdom: Exploring the Future of Biblical Studies.” The conference is organized around the publication of an anthology of the work of Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P., edited and translated by Notre Dame’s own Francesca A. Murphy and Kenneth Oakes. The anthology, A Poetic Christ: Thomist Reflections on Scripture, Language, and Reality (T&T Clark, 2019), has been the subject of a lively reading group comprised of doctoral students and faculty from the Department of Theology, who have meet weekly to discuss Venard’s learned study of the Bible as divinely inspired Scripture. In anticipation of the conference, I offer a brief account of the anthology and several salient points raised in the course of our discussions as a means of encouraging students and faculty across the disciplines at Notre Dame to attend this important intellectual event.

Olivier-Thomas Venard is a Professor of New Testament at the École Biblique in Jerusalem, having previously studied in Paris and Toulouse, France. Francesca Murphy has described him as a “Toulouse Thomist with a différance,” by which she means a theologian who attempts to interpret Aquinas’s original meaning, and who has brought the best insights of post-structuralism, linguistics, and the French literary canon (especially Rimbaud and Baudelaire) to bear upon his work in biblical studies. As Cyril O’Regan states in the Foreword to A Poetic Christ, Venard’s writings “give the lie to the modern segregation between the disciplines of biblical studies, historical and systematic theology, philosophy, and literary studies.” His integral work in and across these various fields is well represented in A Poetic Christ, which covers roughly one third of Venard’s vast trilogy: Littérature et théologie: Une saison en enfer (2002), La langue de l’ineffable: Essai sur le fondement théologique de la métaphysique (2004), and Pagina sacra: le passage de l’Écriture sainte à l’écriture théologique (2009).

A Poetic Christ is divided into four parts and a conclusion, which respectively address Scripture, theology and literature, language as a theological question, and theological reflections on the Word, cross, and Eucharist. In the first part, Venard describes his Scriptural poetics, which emphasize the ways in which the Gospel in particular (but also the two-testament Bible more generally) does not merely describe events of the historical past, but actually mediates an encounter with the living God. Revelation, for Venard, happens in our encounter with the text; the Word reveals himself to us through the words of the text, which are irreducible to another (say, mythological or philosophical) idiom.

Turning to the relationship between theology and literature, Venard reads modernist poetics as an attempt to “resacralize” language, to figure the poet as prophet and the text as a kind of scripture. Venard sees in a figure like Rimbaud, “one who is sensitive to this distant call heard in language, in writing, of the Word who calls and magnetizes the language of every person,” but at the same time one who consciously (or even self-consciously) refuses to acknowledge that Word. As O’Regan describes the approach, “Venard’s interest is whether Christ the Word demonstrates his power in the literature that execrates him just as much as in the literature that gives him unstinting praise.” Venard thinks so, insofar as the Word of God ultimately exceeds all words, such that Christ the Word “produces” all literary speech.

Addressing the question of language from a theological perspective, Venard insists (through a studied engagement with Aquinas) that language has “objective” meaning. “[The] word,” Venard writes, is “the place where the thinking person and reality really commune; it is the symbolic link of the person and the cosmos…a kind of mediation between the human and the divine.” We (post-) moderns have forgotten or abandoned any sense in which meaning and truth might be accessible through language, which has largely been reduced to a means for controlling thought. Rather than following Venard and acknowledging language as a gift freely given by the God who enters into conversation with humanity, many remain content with an understanding of language as a mere construction to be manipulated at will. Murphy has even gone so far as to argue that until those who attempt to control thought by controlling language would, like Henry IV at Canossa, kneel barefoot before Holy Mother Church, speech will be hog tied by politics. The only way to free speech from its servile bondage, she thinks, is the recognition that language is God’s humanizing gift.

I hope that this brief summary of some of the poignant insights contained in Venard’s A Poetic Christ might entice readers to enter into what promises to be a stimulating conversation. Throughout the three days of the conference a host of respected theologians and philosophers will address the question of how a synthesis of history, contemporary philosophy of language, theology of culture, and traditional exegetical resources might guide Biblical studies toward a better future. Venard’s own address (scheduled for 7:00 pm on April 2nd in the Eck Visitor’s Center), will be followed by a musical exploration of his work, in the form of an original composition commissioned specifically for the Word and Wisdom Conference. Inspired by Venard’s writings, as well as Aquinas’s Eucharistic hymn, Adoro Te Devote, French-Armenian composer Michel Petrossian’s Latens Deitas promises to draw its hearers more deeply into the Word who is Wisdom.

Columcille Dever is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the History of Christianity at Notre Dame. His dissertation research explores Tertullian of Carthage’s polemical engagement with Marcion of Sinope and its implications for the interpretation of the two-testament Bible as Christian Scripture. He is particularly grateful for conversations with Francesca Murphy and Matthew Vale during the composition of this article. You can reach him at jdever@nd.edu.