As Catholics we hear quite a bit about the love of God. We are reminded…
An Unfailing Treasure: Dei Verbum and the revelation of God
“Just as the substantial Word of God became like men in every respect except sin, so too the words of God, expressed in human languages, became like human language in every respect except error.”
— Dei Verbum, No. 13
With only 26 articles (paragraphs), Dei Verbum (“The Word of God,” Nov. 18, 1965), the Second Vatican Council’s document on divine revelation, is the shortest of the council’s four constitutions. Its brevity, however, belies its awe-inspiring proclamation:
“It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will. His will was that [men and women] should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature” (No. 2).
In other words, God the Father invites “his creatures into the perfect unity of the Blessed Trinity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 260). Those who perceive this gift accept baptism and lead “a life worthy of the gospel of Christ. They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer” (CCC, No. 1692).
One might imagine that such good news as God’s desire to be with his creatures provided a positive and unifying foundation from which to write Dei Verbum, but it did not begin that way. The writing took place over the entire four sessions of the council, from 1962 to 1965. It also required numerous drafts and the intervention of Pope St. Paul VI, who ascended to the papacy after Pope St. John XXIII died on June 3, 1963.
Two points of controversy continued to delay the completion of Dei Verbum. One was the argument over the relative importance of Tradition and Scripture in transmitting God’s revelation, as if they were two separate sources. One side held Tradition — the Church’s doctrine, life and worship passed on from the apostles to the bishops, who preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching (cf. CCC, Nos. 78, 81) — as superior; they thought this would prevent attacks on dogmas such as Mary’s assumption. Those in favor of Scripture saw the Bible as a key feature to ecumenism. The final draft resolved the argument by showing that revelation is one reality: “Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (No. 10) … “flowing out from the same divine wellspring” (No. 9).
The other point of controversy during the drafting of Dei Verbum was the definition of “inerrancy.” The crux of the issue concerned how the Bible could be considered “without error” when any reader could point to historical or scientific statements that were clearly not accurate. Dei Verbum resolves this issue by demonstrating that Scripture teaches “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided in the sacred Scriptures” (No. 11). The Bible is not a textbook on science or history; it is not intended to teach on such matters. Rather, the Bible proclaims God’s truth, and it does so by using different literary genres that are immersed in specific cultures and historical periods.
Though it took three years for them to reach a final draft, the bishops at Vatican II produced a profound document in Dei Verbum that helps the faithful appreciate how God, “from the fullness of his love, addresses [all men and women] as his friends, and moves among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company” (No. 2).
Dei Verbum teaches that God’s revelation is first and foremost a revelation of himself, “realized by deeds and words” (No. 2), and culminating in the sum total of revelation, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, who accomplishes the saving work which the Father gave him to do (cf. No. 4). By his life, death and resurrection, and by the sending of the Spirit, Jesus reveals that “God is with us, to deliver us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to eternal life” (No. 4).
God provides “constant evidence of himself” in creation (No. 3), which manifests “his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity” (Rom 1:20). God “can be known with certainty from the created world” (No. 6). He also manifested himself to the first human beings, and he taught the people of Israel “to recognize him as the only living and true God,” their Father (No. 3). Then, at the right hour, God sent his son as the fullness of revelation so that “no new public revelation is to be expected” until Jesus comes again (No. 4).
God wanted his revelation to “be transmitted to all generations” (No. 7). Therefore, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh and Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, commanded the apostles to hand on what they had received from him to all people. This includes their interactions with Jesus — his words and deeds, his miracles and teaching, and his fulfillment of the prophets. The apostles handed on what Jesus told them in various ways: in their teaching and preaching, in writing, by the example of their lives, their worship of Christ and by the institutions they established. Finally, the apostles handed on their own mission to their successors, the bishops, so that the revelation of God in Christ might be preserved until the end of time (Nos. 7-8).
According to Dei Verbum, the transmission of God’s revelation is guarded through “the supremely wise arrangement of God,” who tasks the bishops, as the teachers of the Faith, with giving an authentic interpretation of God’s word, either in its written form or the form of Tradition. This teaching office, or magisterium, completes its task well by listening to the word of God, guarding it and explaining it “with the help of the Holy Spirit,” to whom they must make every effort to yield. The bishops remain servants of the Word of God and teach with authority when they teach what has been handed on to them (No. 10).
Regarding the Scriptures, the full canon of which is known to the Church by means of Tradition, insomuch as the early Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit identified the authentic books, Dei Verbum teaches that they were written down under the inspiration of the same Spirit. God, therefore, is the primary author of the Bible, though he used human writers (with all their powers and faculties) to consign “to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more” (No. 11). Moreover, it is God’s authorship that guarantees the inerrancy of the Bible.
The Old Testament contains the true words of God and prepares for and declares in prophecy the coming of Christ. The New Testament reveals that which the Old points to: the full mystery of Jesus, his words and deeds, his Paschal Mystery, the sending of the Holy Spirit and the bringing together of the Church. The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, “whose historicity [the Church] unhesitatingly affirms” (No. 19), have a special place within the New Testament because they focus on the life and ministry of Jesus.
Anyone who approaches Scripture should keep in mind the way they were written, which is through God’s use of human authors. Therefore, one needs to search out the intended meaning of the authors, both God and human. This means paying attention to literary forms, rules of language, historical and cultural context, and, importantly, “the content and unity of the whole of Scripture” and Tradition. Ultimately, all interpretations are subject to the judgment of the Church (No. 12).
Through Dei Verbum, the bishops of Vatican II encourage everyone in the Church to a wide and frequent access to Scripture, and they call upon themselves to provide good translations (cf. No. 22). The reason is that God talks to his children through the Scriptures, so they should be available to as many people as possible (No. 21).
When we pray, we speak to God. When we read Scripture, we listen to him (No. 25). As we enter more deeply into this relationship to which God invites us, God nourishes our minds, strengthens our hearts and enflames our hearts with love of him so that we are prepared to share in his divine nature (No. 23).
David Werning writes from Virginia.