Of all the documents to come out of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum (The Word of God) is one of the most respected. Philosopher Germain Grisez called it the highlight of the Council. Cardinal Avery Dulles said it “stands among the principal accomplishments of the Council.” Scott Hahn calls it “a remarkable development — a positive, constructive, integral, holistic approach to the ways that God reveals himself.”
The future Pope Benedict XVI had a hand in its creation and deepened and developed its major points over decades of analysis and official documents.
Officially called the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, it emerged from a difficult period in Catholic theology and Scripture scholarship and addressed the problem of the anti-Modernism debates by reaching beyond Modernism, past the First Vatican Council and back to the Council of Trent and the early Church
Fathers to recover an understanding of revelation that had become encrusted over the years. It reoriented the Church’s understanding of Scripture and Tradition and inaugurated a new period of Bible study and a return to the original sources.
Recovering What Was Lost
When you look at the history of the Second Vatican Council, the debate about divine revelation pops out as the central conflict of the entire process. It spanned all four years of the Council, and the arguments about its content and meaning threw the divisions between the Curial conservatives and the central European progressives into stark relief.
The Curia submitted a schema (working document) called “On the Sources of Revelation.” It dealt with the central issue of revelation and was greeted with intense disapproval from many of the bishops and their periti (advisers). One 35-year-old periti named Father Joseph Ratzinger was brought into the debate by Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, and he disapproved of the schema.
Father Ratzinger’s concerns started with the title, which suggested that revelation included multiple sources (Scripture, Tradition and magisterium), rather than one source with multiple expressions. Father Ratzinger traced the proper single-source understanding back to Trent, observing that the concept had become clouded in the Neo-Scholasticism that dominated seminary training following Vatican I.
“Scripture and Tradition are for us sources from which we know revelation,” Ratzinger said in an important address about the schema to the German bishops. “But they are not in themselves revelation, for revelation is itself the source of Scripture and Tradition.” This is just an example of one point of contention with the original schema, and we’re not even past the title.
Father Ratzinger would later write, “The text was written in a spirit of condemnation and negation which, in contrast with the great positive initiative of the liturgy schema, had a frigid and even offensive tone to many of the Fathers.” Its approach to revelation merely repeated the standard theological manuals many bishops had used in seminary, and the former professors of some of these Council Fathers had written it! This very problem was what the Council had been called to correct, and here they were being asked to rubber-stamp the dry old formulas of the past 50 years.
This vocal rejection of the prepared text led to one of the most dramatic moments of the first session of the Council. In order to set aside the schema on revelation, its opponents needed two-thirds of the vote. The result was 1,368 voting to withdraw the text and 813 voting to keep it: 100 short of the two-thirds needed. It was clear, however, that the will of the Council Fathers was to reject the schema and begin again. Thus, Pope John XXIII set it aside on the following day, creating a commission composed of progressives and conservatives and led by Cardinals Alfredo Ottovani and Augustin Bea. It was a decisive moment in the Council, and the document that emerged from this conflict would come to be considered one of the most important of the entire Council.
A Return to Sources
The irony of the anti-Modernist perspective on revelation is that it was contrary to the Council of Trent and the long history of Scripture and Tradition in the Church. As Peter Williamson, Adam Cardinal Maida Chair of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major and co-editor of the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series, observes, Dei Verbum “clarified the nature of divine revelation as the revelation of God himself and his decrees for the salvation of the human race through words linked to actions in human history. It explained that Scripture and Tradition are not separate sources, but together make up a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church and that the magisterium has the role of authoritatively interpreting that divine word as its servant.”
The work of theologians Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar shine through in the final document. Both had been theological exiles during the repressive years leading up to the Council, and each came into his own to leave a lasting imprint on the teachings of the Church. Congar saw Tradition as the ongoing communication of God to man, carried into the world by the Church. It’s not limited to the written word, but also found in the spoken word, the teaching office and even sacramental worship and the life of the Church. Lubac wanted to draw the Church back to the four senses of Scripture, particularly the spiritual sense, which he believed was integral to the way the Early Church Fathers approached Scripture. Lubac’s studies in the commentaries of Origen and the medieval exegetes were integral to his understanding of revelation and did much to rehabilitate this often-misunderstood Father.
At the same time, young Joseph Ratzinger was finding something similar in St. Bonaventure and the idea of salvation history: “Revelation now appeared no longer simply as a communication of truths to the intellect, but as a historical action of God, in which truth becomes gradually unveiled.” This idea of unveiling would inform Dei Verbum’s efforts to reclaim the Old Testament for contemporary study and relevance.
It’s not hard to see how the deeper senses of Scripture and Tradition had been eroded in the previous century. The twin blows of sola scriptura and the rise of the historical-critical method left biblical truth and Tradition in a weaker state within the Church. There was a reasonable suspicion of the new methods of Bible study, since they were stripping the texts of their meaning and truth. There was also a reasonable fear that Tradition and the magisterium would be buried under what Father Ratzinger called “Protestant scripturalism,” which sought to deny their legitimate role in revelation. As Section 10 of Dei Verbum states: “Sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others and that all together and each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.”
These are subtle points with huge implications.
“Dei Verbum is called the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” explained Leroy Huizenga, Scripture scholar and administrative chair of human and divine sciences at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. “It’s not on Scripture as such. And so it begins by presenting Christ himself as the definitive locus of revelation, in whom salvation history holds together and to whom Scripture points. Whereas some in the pre-conciliar period had treated Scripture as a treasury of texts to be systematized into dogmatic theology, Dei Verbum sees
Scripture as the story of salvation history and reorients Scripture around Christ, its center.”
Catholics, Open Your Bibles
Although admirably concise, the five chapters and 16 pages of Dei Verbum provide a thorough framework that reorients revelation in the Church and within the life of each Catholic.
It holds an interesting place in more than 100 years of Catholic approaches to revelation. It drew on the major pre-conciliar papal documents Providentissimus Deus (The Study of Holy Scripture, Pope Leo XIII, 1893) and Divino Afflante Spiritu (Promoting Biblical Studies, Pope Pius XII 1943), while providing a fresh turning point for consideration of revelation.
Although St. John Paul II never issued an encyclical dedicated to revelation, his choice of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was Cardinal Ratzinger, who published several key documents on interpreting the Scripture in the Church. Finally, when the cardinal became pope, he published the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini (The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church, 2010), which developed the points of Dei Verbum at length in an effort to direct wayward scholars back to the proper path. Taken together, these documents lay the ground work for our understanding of Scripture.
As Father Leslie Hoppe, editor of Catholic Biblical Quarterly and professor of Old Testament studies at the Catholic Theological Union, observes, “In keeping with the pastoral and ecumenical goals that John XXIII had for Vatican II, one of Dei Verbum’s principle contribution has been its focus on the Scriptures in the life of the Church, i.e., in the liturgy, in study and prayer. Dei Verbum has facilitated a Catholic faith life and practice that is more directly shaped by Scripture — it has moved the Bible into the center of Catholic life.”
Two of the most notable features of the document are the way it encouraged Catholics to engage Scripture and its attempt to reconcile Catholic exegesis with modern methods of study based on form, original language, history and cultural context.
Previous generations of Catholics developed a reputation for biblical illiteracy, partly derived from a mistaken belief that reading the Bible was a Protestant thing to do. Since Dei Verbum, we’ve seen a boom in commentaries, courses, reflections, Bible studies and other resources for Catholics trying to gain a better understanding of Scripture.
The semi-reconciliation with historical-critical methods has been more challenging. The Council Fathers, following the lead of Pope Pius XII, wanted to take what was good from new methods of Scripture study, particularly original language and historical scholarship, without succumbing to its more extreme revisionist tendency. The goal was to encourage canonical criticism, which sees the Bible as a complete text with each of its parts interpreted in relation to the whole, rather than slices of text picked apart in isolation. Too many Catholic academics, alas, have proven susceptible to revisionist methods of criticism, resulting in denatured interpretations that have little to do with the faith.
Because of this, professor Huizinga sees much of the promise of Dei Verbum as largely unfulfilled, “as many Catholic exegetes read the document as a an ecclesial warrant for the sort of historical criticism Protestant liberalism had been engaged in since the 19th century. Thus, many Catholic commentaries and study Bibles point readers to some reconstruction of history behind the documents, as if the Bible was a mere collection of textual artifacts. That said, a sizable group of faithful scholars and theologians has received Dei
Verbum rightly, seeing a charter for the renewal of the ecclesial appropriation of Scripture in teaching, in preaching, in liturgy, in prayer.”
Father Hoppe, however, is more optimistic: “By encouraging Bible reading and study among lay and religious in addition to the clergy, the ranks of American Catholic biblical scholars have been augmented by hundreds of lay and religious women and men, who are very well prepared and who have taken up innovative and creative hermeneutical approaches in showing how the Scriptures shed light on contemporary Christian experience.”
There’s no question that Catholic biblical scholars have produced vast quantities of questionable material in the wake of Dei Verbum, but it is equally true that there has never been a shortage of good, faithful Catholic writing about the Bible. Fifty years later, this opening up of the Scriptures is one of the most notable things to come out of the Council, and it continues to nourish the Church with the revelation of God to man.
Thomas L. McDonald writes about Catholicism,
history and technology at Wonderful Things.