9 Dei Verbum – Rector’s Conference for the Year of Faith, 2012

In my rector’s conferences this semester and in anticipation of the Year of Faith promulgated by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, I am focusing on the major documents of the Second Vatican Council. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the convocation of the Council by Blessed John XXIII. It is a momentous event and one that warrants some careful attention given to the documents that comprise the Council’s teaching. In the further conferences for this semester, I will consider the other three major documents of Vatican II.

Today I will begin with a biblical observation: “The Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword.”

These words from the Book of Hebrews are a source of revelation for us at every level. They tell us something significant about the Word of God, a topic that is considered dogmatically in the document of the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum. Dei Verbum, the Word of God, has a double meaning in a Christian context. On the one hand, it refers to something very particular, the revelation received by the holy Church in sacred Scripture and Tradition. On the other hand, it refers to the Word made Flesh, the One who has dwelt among us, Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father.

The Word of God, received through the ages in the formal transmission of revelation, is sharper than any two-edged sword, and so is the reality of the Divine Master whom we receive daily in the holy Eucharist and whose life we are called to be participants in, in an intimate way. The dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation reveals to us the intimacy of the connection, the concomitancy, between the received Word and the living Word.

Our consideration of this intimacy must begin with an assertion. St. Paul tells us in the First Letter to Timothy, “God desires that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the Truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). This is a dramatic assertion, particularly in a time in which the anthropology of religion informs us of the shrouded nature of deities among peoples of an earlier time.

Even Judaism maintained, in a very focused way, the distance of God, a God who was considered only within the context of the cloud, only known by an unspeakable name, the Tetragrammaton. The nature of our engagement with the Word of God in the new dispensation then comes with a movement, a desire on the part of God, a desire to be known and known intimately. God’s desire is that all things should be revealed and remain “in their entirety.”[1]

In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching.[2]

God’s gracious revelation is therefore in a person, the person of Jesus, and our encounter with that person is transmitted through the evidence of the apostolic preaching. The content of this preaching, the Good News, the Gospel, was given first orally:

This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.[3]

This oral message came through the living witness of its postulators, a witness often sealed in the covenant of blood. The Word was believed because its harbingers were willing to die on its behalf. The oral message of the apostles existed for almost a generation when this same Word and its divine content were committed to writing.[4] From these earliest days of the Church, the Word went forth, not only in preaching and writing, but also in the celebration of the holy Eucharist, bringing men and women of the early Church into intimate contact with the Word about which they were hearing. Apostolic succession assured that:

[T]he apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (Jude 1:3). Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.[5]

The communication between Scripture and Tradition becomes an essential element in learning the way in which God intends to show Himself to us through history.

For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the Word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.[6]

The living complement to Scripture and Tradition is the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church that gives authentic witness to the Word of God, and, in the context of that authentic witness, gives authentic interpretation.[7]

[And yet,] this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.[8]

Therefore, the document presents to us three distinct realties in the context of the Divine Plan: God intends to communicate to us, He uses the dual and interpenetrating means of Tradition and Scripture, and He provides for an authentic interpretation in the body of the Magisterium. What these dogmatic assertions teach us, ultimately, is something, again, about God’s love for us, his desire to draw us to Himself in a way that transcends the old covenant and its perceived intimacy. God intends to know us in a dynamic way, a way that involves us, that invites us through the means of Tradition and Scripture, in the living reality of the Magisterium of the Church.

The teachings of the Second Vatican Council found in Dei Verbum are not new teachings; they are teachings interpreted in a new way, revealing the dynamic nature of dogma seen in the teaching of the Council itself. The teachings of Dei Verbum offer a new perspective on our engagement with the particular modes of revelation considered in the document. They are not, however, exclusive. They represent a time of change in the Church.

A charge that has frequently been leveled at the Catholic Church is that, historically, it tried to keep the holy Word in the sacred Scriptures from the people. The claim, of course, is not only false, it is non-historical. It makes no sense to talk about access to the Bible in generations upon generations of people who could not read. Widespread illiteracy in the early Church, and the Medieval Church in particular, meant that most men and women were deprived of a direct experience of the Biblical texts.

Of course, because of the nature of textual production, there were no readily available texts for them to read anyway. It is wrong, however, to think that the early Church and the Medieval Church had no access to the Bible. The Bible was read in the liturgical assembly, and explained in preaching. The stories of the Bible were told in the living texts of architecture and stained glass. If the average man or woman could not read, then the essence of Scripture was conveyed to them by other means.

Christianity is not a religion of the Book; it is a religion of the living Word. If Catholics, historically, were not given access to the Book, they were given access to the living Word in the Holy Mass, in Communion, in the intimate encounters of a community built upon the Word. Reading the Bible becomes a much more important way of gaining access to the Word when there is not liturgical presence, when the community of faith has been divided between the sacred and the secular.

It is true that, during the Renaissance and Reformation periods, the Church strictly curtailed access to the Bible for the average layman. This happened within a context, the context of the misinterpretation of the centrality of Scripture (sola scriptura) and the removal of the order of Christianity found in the liturgy. In other words, people during that time of Catholic prohibition were reading the Bible for the wrong reasons and in the wrong context. Never was the Catholic without access to the Word of God, understood in a particular way in the Mass.

If there was a tension between the body of Catholics reading the Scriptures and the prescriptions of the Magisterium, it came by way of false interpretive methodologies inherent in some Renaissance and Reformation views. One of these views is fundamentalism. Biblical fundamentalism sees the Bible rightly as inerrant. It sees it wrongly as self-sufficient. While we know that all of revelation is contained in the Bible, the Bible must stand in the living tradition of the Church. It must breathe through the lungs of the Church’s authentic teaching office.

Various fundamentalist views hold that the Bible is self-interpreting, that its texts are self-evident. Yet, how many divisions within fundamentalism do we observe based on false readings of a self-evident text? Fundamentalism and its historical manifestations strip the Bible of its richness. As a divinely inspired text, the Bible is necessarily open to generative interpretation. Fundamentalism ultimately and ironically strips the Bible of its authority by making it the cognitive playground of useless speculators.

The opposite extreme of fundamentalism is liberalism. Liberal forms of Christianity seek to strip the Bible of its power by making it merely the written expression of an historical cultural environment. From this perspective, the Bible tells us a great deal about ancient religious practices, but nothing substantial about the world in which we live, the world we seek to interpret through its pages.

Dei Verbum stands at the end of a cautious trajectory of biblical interpretation. In Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter of 1943, the area of biblical scholarship is opened in the Church. The letter comes as a response to that written by Pope Leo XIII 50 years earlier, Providentissimus Deus. In the earlier letter, Pope Leo condemns many of the modernist interpretations of the Bible and generally holds fast to the Church’s traditional stance, while nevertheless providing some means for Catholics gaining a greater access to biblical texts.

In the anniversary work, Pope Pius offers a more nuanced view, a view that comes in light of 50 crucial years in Catholic biblical scholarship. Pope Pius is open to new interpretive methodologies and new translations. He also promotes studying the text within its original linguistic context. He writes:

We ought to explain the original text which was written by the inspired author Himself and has more authority and greater weight than any, even the very best, translation whether ancient or modern. This can be done all the more easily and fruitfully if to the knowledge of languages be joined a real skill in literary criticism of the same text.[9]

All of this advancement led to the teaching found in Dei Verbum. The core of the teaching found in the document is the assertion that stands at the center of Catholic thought about the Bible: Christ is the center of the Scriptures. The Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, are predicated on a single revelation, the Revelation of Christ Jesus. Dei Verbum offers this insight:

[T]he words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.[10]

The intimate link between Word and Word is reiterated. We come to know the Bible as Word precisely through our engagement with the Word, which is Christ. Here again, the Eucharistic celebration provides an essential link, the Word comes hard upon the Word in the celebration, unfolding as it does in every celebration the essence of the Divine Plan and the dogmatic assertion about both realities.[11] The Church finds nourishment in sacred Scripture, which it welcomes as the Word of God Himself.[12]

God is the author of all Scripture, and yet these writings are presented in the languages of human authors, again providing a replication of the fullness of time, in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The inspired books teach the Truth and thereby unveil the Truth broken and received on the altar. These books undoubtedly have a context, unveiled for us in authentic historical scholarship. However:

Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.[13]

Dei Verbum unfolds three principles, presented first in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit. These principles are essential to a Catholic reading of the Bible. The first is the principle of unity. All Scriptures speak of the same reality, the unity of the ultimate reality of God’s plan. The center of that plan is Christ Himself. St. Thomas tells us that the Bible makes known the Heart of Christ.[14] In St. Thomas’s estimation, the teachings of the Bible, here he is referring to the Old Testament, were obscured until the Passion of Christ provided a fundamental key to interpreting them.

Second, Dei Verbum reiterates the essential connection between Tradition and Scripture. Sacred Scripture is written in the heart of the Church, for the Church. It illuminates the Church and all attempts to understand it outside this concept lead to futile judgments of false meaning.

Finally, there is a need to be attentive to the analogy of faith, that is, the coherence of truths about the faith among themselves, interpreted not narrowly but with the whole plan of salvation.

The complexity of Scripture is also reiterated in Dei Verbum’s canonization of the ancient model of the four senses of Scripture, that is, understanding all of Scripture in the literal, the spiritual, the tropological and the anagogical senses. Dei Verbum states:

In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” (11) For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.[15]

Dei Verbum goes on to look at the means by which the Church has interpreted the Old Testament and the New Testament. The teaching here is clear. All Scripture is Christ, and in Christ there is a unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This kind of reading is called typology, a major interpretive theme in the Catholic schema of biblical exegesis.

Typology indicates the dynamic movement toward the fulfillment of the divine plan when “God [will] be everything to everyone.”[16] Dei Verbum draws to a close with the opening of a new and dynamic chapter in the Church’s relationship with the Bible.

And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting font of spiritual life. Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful.” “Therefore, the ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the very soul of sacred theology. The ministry of the Word, too – pastoral preaching, catechetics, and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should hold pride of place – is healthily nourished and thrives in holiness through the Word of Scripture.” The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful…to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,’ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’”[17]

As a dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum has opened for the Church a new chapter in its long relationship with sacred Scripture. While other documents of the Second Vatican Council have had a more prominent impact, perhaps Dei Verbum represents the greatest advancement in Church life in opening the pages of Sacred Writ for us in a new way.

Since Vatican II, we have had new and greater opportunities of studying the Bible. We do so now in our parishes and religious communities in ways that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Our authentic study of the sacred Scripture has opened for us avenues of communication with other Christian groups. Today thousands of commentaries on the holy Scriptures are at our disposal, written at every level of understanding. Today we have access to the Bible in ways our ancestors in faith would have never predicted.

We are not, however, without some cautions still. We must still be wary of the need to read the Scriptures authentically, using the time-honored methods of the holy Church, employing various senses and seeing the Bible within the living Tradition of the Church. Within the Catholic Church, we must continually read the Bible in light of the teachings of the Magisterium, seeing in the body of bishops the authentic interpreters and teachers of the faith.

In the Catholic Church, we must remain cognizant of any attempt at proof-texting or reading the Scriptures in a reductive way, even when it suits laudable, apologetic purposes. The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. It must remain so throughout our meanderings and musings, realizing at all times that its sole purpose is to bring us into contact, viable contact, with the living source of revelation itself, Jesus Christ, who is Lord of the world, now and forever.

  1. Dei Verbum, 7.
  2. Dei Verbum, 7.
  3. Dei Verbum, 7.
  4. Dei Verbum, 7.
  5. Dei Verbum, 8.
  6. Dei Verbum, 9.
  7. Dei Verbum, 10.
  8. Dei Verbum, 10.
  9. Divino Afflante Spiritu, 16.
  10. Dei Verbum, 13.
  11. Dei Verbum, 21.
  12. I Thessalonians, 2, 13.
  13. Dei Verbum, 12.
  14. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, 112.
  15. Dei Verbum, 13.
  16. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 130.
  17. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 131-133.

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