‘Dei Verbum,’ a Beautiful Treatise on Divine Revelation
COMMENTARY: Today marks 50th anniversary of promulgation of Church constitution.
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation
Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Nov. 18, 1965
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council felt they should make a statement summarizing the Church’s teaching about the Bible. The result was one of the most beautiful and succinct documents on Scripture in the history of Christianity.
Formally entitled the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” this short teaching takes its more common title from its first two Latin words: Dei Verbum, “the Word of God.” While the Council Fathers did not start out to refute heresies about Scripture, they did, in the end, produce a document that identified and rejected the major errors about God’s revelation that have plagued the Church in ancient as well as modern times.
While largely focused on Scripture, Dei Verbum is a teaching about divine revelation as a whole, not just the Bible. Its six chapters cover the topics of (1) revelation, (2) Tradition, (3) inspiration, (4) the Old Testament, (5) the New Testament and (6) the use of Scripture in the Church.
In the first chapter, the Council Fathers teach that God has revealed himself in many ways: through nature, through historical acts, through prophets, through Scripture, through Tradition, and most especially through the incarnation of Christ himself. All these means of revelation are united in harmony. In particular, the Council Fathers stress the unity of God’s revelation through deeds and words in history:
“God’s plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: The deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them” (2).
By saying this, the Council refutes several heretical movements in theology that were popular in the middle of the 20th century.
On the one hand, there were the popular German-speaking theologians Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth, both of whom, in their own way, denied that God revealed himself through historical action. Bultmann outright rejected the historicity of any of God’s reputed miracles in the Bible, whereas Barth was simply indifferent to them: He didn’t think it really mattered whether God had acted in history or not.
On the other hand, there were those, in both Europe and America, of the “salvation history” school, who felt God only revealed himself by historical acts, and the Bible was a record of God’s revelation but not itself a revelation from God.
Against all these false ideas, Dei Verbum states clearly that God reveals himself both by deeds and by words. The deeds prove that God is really there and not a figment of our imaginations. The words explain the meaning of the deeds, so that we know how to interpret what has happened as an act of God.
For example, the 10 plagues against Egypt demonstrated God’s power and presence. Yet Moses’ words were also necessary to interpret the meaning of the plagues: These were not 10 environmental flukes that destroyed the Egyptian economy. No! These were 10 acts of the God of Israel, with the intention of freeing the people of Israel from slavery. So the deeds and the words are mutually supporting. Without the words, the meaning of the deeds would be unclear: The plagues would be senseless disasters. Without the deeds, the truth of the words would not be confirmed. Moses would be an empty talker.
The Council Fathers closed the first chapter of Dei Verbum by making several brief affirmations ruling out other heresies. Against Mormons, Muslims and others who believe the Scriptures were succeeded by new revelation through another prophet (e.g., Joseph Smith or Mohammed), Dei Verbum affirms: “The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (4). Against those who asserted that God could not be known from creation, Dei Verbum reaffirms that “God … can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason.” But against those who argued that everything true about God could be known simply through philosophy, the Council Fathers assert, “Through divine revelation, God chose … to share with [men] those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind.”
The second chapter of Dei Verbum focuses on how God’s revelation is handed down to us. At the time of the Council, there were those who argued that Scripture and Tradition were two separate sources of God’s revelation. Theologians had various explanations for how they related to each other. Some gave priority to Scripture, others to Tradition, and yet others (usually outside the Church) saw conflict between the two.
In the midst of this confusion, the Council taught clearly: Scripture and Tradition were two means by which the one word of God came to us. Thus, there could be neither conflict nor superiority between the two: “Both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.”
Although that probably offended the sensibilities of Protestants observing the Council, who wished to prioritize Scripture, nonetheless the Council Fathers wisely recognized that to downgrade Tradition would lead to the demise of Scripture, as well. It already had within Protestantism. Because Protestants reject Tradition, their interpretations of Scripture have no controls or restraints: In every generation, theologians would arise with new and strange doctrines claimed to be based on the Bible, always drifting farther and farther from the faith of the early Church. But the fathers of Vatican II remembered a principal attributed to Origen: “Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart, rather than in documents and records.” The meaning of Scripture is lived out in the life of the Church, and the Church passes on all that she is and believes from one generation to the next. This passing on, or handing down, of all that she is and believes is called “Tradition.” The Bible is actually a part of Tradition, in one sense, because it is through the Tradition that we know which books belong in the Bible in the first place and that all these books, and no others, are truly the inspired word of God. We would not know that from the books of the Bible alone, since many — perhaps most — of the biblical books do not themselves claim to be the inspired word of God.
The third chapter of Dei Verbum deals with the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. “Inspiration” means “God-breathed” and refers to the fact that the Bible is truly God’s word, since he used men to compose “everything and only those things which he wanted.” This rules out the possibility that there is anything uninspired in the Bible, anything that is merely human opinion.
“Inerrancy” refers to the truth of Scripture, specifically its freedom from all error. On this point, the Council is very bold, ruling out the possibility of error on the part of the human authors of Scripture by saying “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit,” and therefore true, since the Spirit can never assert what is false. The scriptural books must be held “to teach truth — which God wished to consign to the sacred books for the sake of our salvation — firmly, faithfully and without error” (11, my translation from the Latin).
Lest any should think that it was only truths directly related to our salvation that were preserved from error, the Council added a footnote to the end of this Latin sentence referencing documents from St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII, all denying that the truth of Scripture is limited in some way to faith and morals or salvation issues.
Chapters five and six concern the Old and New Testaments respectively. Dei Verbum affirms the permanent value of the Old Testament as revelation to the whole people of God, not a dead word given only to Israel in the past. The New Testament teaches more clearly the truths contained already in the Old Testament, as well as revealing mysteries which had not been anticipated. Knowing the truth and historicity of the New Testament were widely under attack, in particular by the German theologian Bultmann mentioned above, the Council gave full affirmation to the apostolic authorship and historicity of the Gospels: “The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. … They themselves and apostolic men … handed on to us in writing … the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” (18).
Furthermore, “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught” (19).
The sixth and last chapter of Dei Verbum teaches on the role of Scripture in the life of the Church. The Council reminds us that “sacred theology rests on the written word of God,” and “study of the sacred page is the soul of sacred theology” (24). Therefore, the whole people of God — laity, religious, priests and bishops — should make a concerted effort to place meditation on Scripture at the center of their spiritual and devotional practices.
I must say that when I first read Dei Verbum — as a Protestant pastor, five years before my conversion to Catholicism — this last section of Dei Verbum profoundly impressed me. I had never known how much the Catholic Church urged her children to learn, study, memorize and live the Bible.
Though brief, Dei Verbum rightly deserves to stand side by side with the other great documents of Vatican II. Although the Council Fathers never intended to enter into controversy, they did effectively refute a wide number of modern and ancient heresies with respect to Scripture, while wholeheartedly reaffirming the faith that the Catholic Church has always had in the word of God in Scripture and Tradition.
John S. Bergsma, Ph.D.,
is a professor of theology
- Nov. 1-14, 2015