Dei Verbum, the Church, and Its Mission: Lecture on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

<em>Dei Verbum</em>, the Church, and Its Mission: Lecture on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

This article is the transcript of the third part of a lecture series on the Second Vatican Council, put on the by the Office of religious Education of the Diocese of Lincoln. This lecture was given on April 5, 2024 at the John XXIII Diocesan Center. 

INTRODUCTION 

Like Bishop Emeritus Bruskewitz, I was around at the time of the second Vatican Council in the early 60s; but unlike His Excellency, I was not present at the proceedings. As a young teen at the time, I was oblivious of anything important happening in Rome; and I am fairly certain that no mention was made of this historic event in my then-Mennonite context. That would come many years later, perhaps in the occasional reference by a history professor or in a book I happened to be reading. But nothing about the Vatican, or about Vatican II specifically, would register with any degree of significance until our son Chad and his wife Kacy were on their journey toward the Catholic Church in the fall of 2010.

At that time, I was one of six leaders—two vocational pastors and four lay elders—in an Evangelical congregation in north Lincoln. Chad and Kacy had requested a meeting with this leadership body, and the evening had arrived for our scheduled appointment. We had an edifying discussion as I recall, characterized by grace and concern; but what I remember most about the event is that they came to the meeting bearing gifts—a yellow-covered little booklet, one for each of us gathered around the conference table. On its cover it bore the title Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, and in smaller italicized font, Dei Verbum, followed by the words “Solemnly promulgated by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI on November 18, 1965,” and “Documents of Vatican II” at the bottom. This was, I believe, the first time I had laid eyes on any official document of the Catholic Church.

Chad and Kacy must have imagined that the little yellow booklet would be the perfect piece to put into the hands of a group of biblically committed Protestant churchmen––a pretty gutsy move I and probably my fellow-leaders thought at the time (three of whom would eventually find our home in the Catholic Church!). Whether or not the little booklet met with the same immediate response by my fellow-elders, I devoured it almost at once—not initially because of any inkling that I might be drawn toward the Church that produced it, but simply so that I might better understand what my son and daughter-in-law were getting themselves into. The former impulse would intensify over the next half a decade, at least partly through multiple readings of Dei Verbum, which would affect me in profound ways.

I have begun this talk on a personal note because the topic which draws our attention this evening is one with which I have a deep personal connection. This is more than a merely historical or academic matter to me, as you will doubtless discern as we proceed.

What follows is a consideration of Dei Verbum in four parts:

            1.         A Brief History of Its Writing
            2.         A Concise Summary of Its Contents
            3.         Some Personal Reflections on Its Significance
            4.         Dei Verbum Sixty Years Later: Retrospect and Prospect

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ITS WRITING

For those who attended the first and second sessions of this symposium, our distinguished presenters, Bishops Bruskewitz and Conley, have provided an excellent orientation to the Second Vatican Council—the 20th ecumenical council of the Church.

To review briefly and for the benefit of those unable to attend the earlier presentations, the Council was convoked on October 11, 1962, by Pope Saint John XXIII, “Good Pope John” as he was affectionately called, whose statue graces the building in which we are presently meeting, in the interest of orientating the life and mission of the Church toward the third millennium. It would conclude just shy of three years and two months later, on December 8, 1965, in the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, the successor of John XXIII, following the latter’s death.

I do not know that anyone has captured better the spirit and intent of this Council than Pope John Paul II, in his 1992 apostolic introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which opens with these words:

Guarding the Deposit of Faith Is the MISSION WHICH THE LORD ENTRUSTED TO HIS CHURCH, and which she fulfills in every age. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which was opened 30 years ago by my predecessor Pope John XXIII, of happy memory, had as its intention and purpose to highlight the Church’s apostolic and pastoral mission and by making the truth of the Gospel shine forth to lead all people to seek and receive Christ’s love which surpasses all knowledge (cf. Eph 3:19).

The principal task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will. For this reason the Council was not first of all to condemn the errors of the time, but above all to strive calmly to show the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith (pp. 1-2).

To this end, the official published texts of Vatican II consisted in 16 documents: Four Apostolic Constitutions, two of which are Dogmatic Constitutions, occupying the highest level of teaching authority in the Church: Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), plus Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on Sacred Liturgy) and Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World); nine Decrees; and three Declarations.

Of the four Apostolic Constitutions, Dei Verbum is by far the shortest, with just under 6,000 words (5,904 in English translation, including 41 foot/endnotes), about one-sixth the length of Gaudium et Spes, the longest of the Constitutions, with almost 37,000 words (36,712 words in ET, including 166 toot/endnotes). But what Dei Verbum lacks in size it more than makes up in significance, which probably explains why no fewer than a disproportionate 77 citations of this diminutive document appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church!

In this light it might come as a surprise that Dei Verbum experienced more than its share of controversy and a quite bumpy path enroute to its adoption and promulgation. Despite the fact that each of the plenary sessions of the Council opened with a procession and the Gospels enthroned––powerful symbol of the centrality of the word of God in the life of the Church––the document that most features that Sacred Word was one of the last to be approved by the Council Fathers. The reasons are more complex than I can review here, but briefly: When the first draft or schēma (Grk. form or shape), as it was called, appeared in the fall of 1962 under the title De Fontibus Revelationis, On the Sources of Revelation, it met with negative reaction by a majority of those present, ostensibly on grounds of its unacceptable tone and content. Even the young Joseph Ratzinger expressed his personal discontent at the excessively negative and defensive tone and lack of theological finesse.1

And so, failing the necessary two-thirds majority vote for approval, Pope John XXIII intervened and sent the first schēmaback to the drafting table for multiple rounds of major revision—wisely commissioning two cardinals who held opposing views on the initial draft to hammer out an entirely new and more acceptable text to bring back to the assembly. Through a complicated process, with multiple drafts and many amendments over the next three years, the Constitution was finally approved by a resounding 99.7% affirmative vote (2350 to 6)2 on November 18, 1965, just three weeks before the Council itself ended on December 8.3

According to Ronald Witherup, “All parties recognized that the final dogmatic constitution was in many ways a compromise document,” with limitations and possible imperfections—Church documents, we remember, are not inspired Scripture. “That being said,” Witherup continues, “Dei Verbum is nonetheless a dogmatic constitution adopted by an ecumenical council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI. It thus constitutes the church’s highest teaching authority on the theme of divine revelation. Moreover, its less doctrinal focus and more pastoral tone more closely matched the design of the council as expressed by John XXIII, who had convened the council. It also influenced every subsequent church teaching on scripture to the present. . . .”4 (emphasis added) It is noteworthy that, while this was the last of the documents to be promulgated at the Council, even “the Doctrinal Commission of Vatican II, which played a major role in preparing the draft documents, underlined the primary importance of Dei Verbum by stating that it was ‘in a way the first of all the constitutions of this council, so that its Preface introduces them all to a certain extent’.”5

We might question the wisdom of devoting three painstaking years to hammering out the wording of such a short document, but that is to lose sight of the sacredness of the subject matter—God’s holy and eternal word––and its reception by God’s people and its centrality to all that the Church is, believes, proclaims, and does. It mattered to the Church’s earliest Fathers to get it right on whether Jesus was the same essence as the Father (homoousios) or merely similar in essence to the Father (homoiousios)—a mere “iota of a difference,” but illustrative of Mark Twain’s famous quip that the difference between the “right” word and the “almost right” word is like the difference between “lightning” and the “lightning bug.” Similarly, nothing, it seemed, mattered more to our 20th-century Fathers than getting Dei Verbum, God’s word, right. Hence, the meticulous attention given to articulating their convictions about what it is that God says, and how and why.6

A CONCISE SUMMARY OF ITS CONTENTS

The Constitution consists in an eloquent Preface or Prologue and six short chapters comprising just 26 numbered articles (paragraphs essentially), plus several unnumbered paragraphs. It would be tempting to devote the remainder of my time simply to reading it! We will read parts, and I will attempt to summarize the rest, with many quotations woven seamlessly into my summary remarks.

The Preface, Article §1:

Hearing the word of God [L., Dei Verbum] with reverence and proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction from these words of St. John: “We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:2–3). Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.

Three points briefly noted: First, the emphasis on reverently hearing and faithfully proclaiming, in that order. The Church is above all a listening, receptive community before it is anything else.7 Second, the continuity with two previous Church Councils, explicitly identified: Trent and Vatican I. Dei Verbum did not appear out of thin air, but, as with all Church teachings, it grew out of and reflects a certain shared heritage.8 The Church’s faith might “develop,” to adopt Newman’s term (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine), and the Church might articulate it in a manner appropriate to each new day; but it ever remains “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Third, the pastoral note struck by highlighting the universal proclamation of the truth of revelation and its desired chain reaction: “so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love”—this in the Prologue to a dogmatic document! We are served notice at the outset that orthodoxy is ordered toward orthopraxy. How we conceive of divine revelation affects everything! If we get this wrong, we will get nothing else right. And with that the Constitution launches directly into what will be its main topic: “Revelation itself,” that is, how God makes himself known.

Chapter I: Revelation Itself, Articles §§2-6

In five somewhat dense articles, including no fewer than 32 biblical citations in the text and notes, Chapter I describes the concept of divine revelation––what it is and how it comes to us.

Article §2 clarifies the purpose of revelation: God graciously takes the initiative in revealing himself in deeds and words so that we might know him in loving friendship through the One who is the fullness of all divine revelation––the Word made flesh.

Articles §§3-4 offer a brief synopsis of that revelation by sketching how God reveals himself from Creation to Christ, the fullness and perfection of all revelation (Jn 1:1-18; Heb 1:1-3), in addition to whom “no further new public revelation” is given.

Article §5 defines the proper human response to divine revelation as “the obedience of faith” (a line from St. Paul, but attributed to the wrong reference with an uncorrected typo in all the texts I consulted––it should be Rom 16:26, not 13:26, which latter chapter has only 14 verses!). This act of obedient faith can only be made by the “grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit,” which same Holy Spirit “bring[s] about an ever deeper understanding of revelation” and “constantly brings faith to completion by His gifts.”

Article §6 explains why divine revelation is necessary if God “can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Rom. 1:20).” It is because God chose to “communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding . . . salvation,” or in other words, “those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind.” Without divine revelation, we would remain in the dark on a great many things God desires for us to know about his person, plans, and purposes.

Chapter II: Handing on Divine Revelation, Articles §§7-10

Having provided a basic description of revelation itself, Dei Verbum now turns to the question of how that revelation is communicated and transmitted. It is here that the Constitution explicitly addresses one of the issues that had become such a point of confusion and controversy in the 16th century––the relationship of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

In keeping with the spirit of the Council, Dei Verbum navigates this sticking issue in a manner that is positive and constructive, avoiding unnecessary polemics against the Protestant insistence on sola scriptura, which had been addressed at Trent.

Article §7 broaches the topic head-on: “Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion, commissioned the Apostles . . . who . . . handed on what they had received” and who “left bishops as their successors, ‘handing over’ to them ‘the authority to teach in their own place’” (St. Irenaeus), so as “to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church.” Two points are registered here: the foreverness of God’s revelation and its transmission to succeeding generations through Christ’s apostles and their successors, ensuring that “the transmission of revelation [is] a faithful unbroken chain of sacred communication.”9

Article §8 highlights the way in which the Church’s entire faith is preserved, perpetuated, and deepened through the inspired Scriptures and the unending “episcopal succession,” “the help of the Holy Spirit,” and “the contemplation and study made by believers.” Dei Verbum is clear: It is through Tradition that “the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her.”10

Article §9 drives directly and without ambiguity to the relationship between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture: they “are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence,” since “both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, . . . merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. . . .  Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed.”

After reiterating that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church,”11 and that “holding to, practicing and professing [this] heritage of the faith” is the sacred duty of both the hierarchy and the faithful, article §10 insists that “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God . . . has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”12 The article clarifies that the magisterium is both the authentic interpreter of Scripture and its humble servant: “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 the 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. It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church . . . 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.”13 From this formulation, of course, we derive the metaphor of the three-legged stool: Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, or what I prefer to call Text, Tradition, and Teaching Office.

Chapter III: Sacred Scripture, Its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation, Articles §§11-13

Having defined ‘revelation’ in Chapter I and clarified the means of its transmission in Chapter II, Dei Verbum devotes its remaining four chapters to Sacred Scripture. I will offer an observation or two on this disproportion later on, but for now:

According to Article §11, “holy mother Church . . . holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts,14 are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit”––with both “God as their author” and men as “true authors,” who “consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted . . . for the sake of salvation”15—what theologians call the “dual authorship” of Scripture.

Article §12 highlights the human dimension of Scripture, with implications for its proper interpretation. This includes due attention to the human author’s use of “contemporary literary forms”  and “customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer,” but with “no less serious attention . . . given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, . . . the living tradition of the whole Church . . . along with the harmony that exists between the elements of the faith,” within which “rules”16 Catholic interpreters and professional exegetes are urged to operate, with their work “subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.”17

Article §13 sums up Chapter III by underscoring the way in which God adapts his divine message through human instruments for the sake of our understanding, but not in such a way that it mars the revelation. Scripture is likened to the incarnational analogy of the divine Word becoming flesh, highlighting the “marvelous ‘condescension’” of God “in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature” (citing St. John Chrysostom). Just as the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, is fully God and fully man, so the written word, Scripture, is fully God’s word in human words.

Chapter IV: The Old Testament, Articles §§14-16

Having introduced the Bible generally in Chapter III, the following chapter focuses on the Old Testament specifically, sometimes considered the Constitution’s weakest chapter due in part to its brevity.

Following a succinct overview of the Old Testament story, Article §14 asserts that “the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament . . . written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable.” In this way, the article ensures that the Old Testament remains an abiding and essential witness as Christian Scripture, contra all tendencies to relegate it to a bygone era, or worse, to construe it as advocating an inferior or non-Christian view of God (à la Marcion’s heresy).

Article §15 further clarifies that, while “the plan of the old covenant” was preparatory and the books of the Old Testament “contain some things which are incomplete and temporary,” they are more than mere preamble or prologue, foreshadowing what is to come. In fact, they “indicate its meaning through various types” and “show us true divine pedagogy. These same books, then, give expression to a lively sense of God, contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way. Christians should receive them with reverence.”

Article §16 adopts a famous line from St. Augustine highlighting God’s wise intention that “the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.” While the Old Testament books and all their parts are “caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel,” they “show forth their full meaning in the New Testament . . . and in turn shed light on it and explain it.” In no uncertain terms, Dei Verbum insists on the conception of the Bible as a two-Testament witness to the triune God made fully manifest in Christ.

Chapter V: The New Testament, Articles §§17-20

Slightly longer than the preceding, a discussion of the New Testament naturally follows that of the Old.

Article §17 appears to exalt the New Testament over the Old Testament in its opening line: “The word of God . . . is set forth and shows its power in a most excellent way in the writings of the New Testament,” although, to be precise, “a most excellent way” need not be taken in a comparative sense. The main point here is that “the writings of the New Testament stand as a perpetual and divine witness to [the] realities” of the completed revelation in the incarnate Christ. Not to be overlooked: The twofold explicit mention of the “Greek text” in this article (in connection with Jn 12:32 and Eph 3:4-6; also in §§10-11) possibly suggests that, to the Council Fathers, the original language of the New Testament maintains a certain priority over the Latin, at least in terms of clarity and/or precision.18

Article §18 explains why the four canonical Gospels are so reverenced in Christian tradition: “among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.” The “fourfold Gospel” is of “apostolic origin” and “the foundation of faith.”

According to Article §19, “Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels . . . whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven.” While sometimes selective in the way they handle what Jesus said and did, they do so “always in such a fashion that they [tell] us the honest truth about Jesus.” The Gospels can be trusted as historically reliable.

While the four Gospels occupy a place of preeminence, Article §20 affirms that the remaining books of the New Testament canon are “composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by which, according to the wise plan of God, those matters which concern Christ the Lord are confirmed, His true teaching is more and more fully stated, the saving power of the divine work of Christ is preached, the story is told of the beginnings of the Church and its marvelous growth, and its glorious fulfillment is foretold,” thus filling out “the fullness of truth” into which the apostles were led by the “advocate Spirit” according to Jesus’ promise (John 16:13).

Chapter VI: Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church, Articles §§21-26

We arrive finally at the “payoff” of the Church’s teaching on Sacred Scripture—the “so what?” question respecting the role of Scripture in Catholic life and liturgy, including the pastoral implications of this Dogmatic Constitution.19

It begins with a most remarkable, almost startling, assertion of the equal veneration of Scripture and Sacrament, the Word and the Eucharist:

The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. Consequently these words are perfectly applicable to Sacred Scripture: ‘For the word of God is living and active’ (Heb. 4:12) and ‘it has power to build you up and give you your heritage among all those who are sanctified’ (Acts 20:32; see 1 Thess. 2:13)” (italics added).

Therefore, Article §22 insists, “Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” With due recognition to the Greek and Latin translations (the Septuagint and the Vulgate), “since the word of God should be accessible at all times [and to all Christians], the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.”20

Article §23 presses further: “The bride of the incarnate Word, the Church taught by the Holy Spirit, is concerned to move ahead toward a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures so that she may increasingly feed her sons with the divine words. Therefore, she also encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West and of sacred liturgies. Catholic exegetes then and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies, under the watchful care of the sacred teaching office of the Church, to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. This should be so done that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the scriptures for the people of God, to enlighten their minds, strengthen their wills, and set men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. The sacred synod encourages the sons of the Church and the Biblical scholars to continue energetically, following the mind of the Church, with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor.” You should by now be able to see my heart dancing, and the Institute I represent reenergized—perhaps even the glow of rekindled fire emanating from our office about two blocks directly south of where we are presently gathered!

Article §24 continues: “Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation. . . . For the Sacred Scriptures contain the word of God. . . ; and so the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology. By the same word of Scripture the ministry of the word also, that is, pastoral preaching, catechetics and all Christian instruction, in which the liturgical homily must hold the foremost place, is nourished in a healthy way and flourishes in a holy way” (italics added).

Article §25 admonishes all the members of the Church to become more familiar with the word of God. “Therefore, all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study, especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become ‘an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly’ [St. Augustine] since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy. The sacred synod also earnestly and especially urges all the Christian faithful, especially Religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the ‘excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8). ‘For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’ [St. Jerome] . . . And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for ‘we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.’ [St. Ambrose]” Bishops bear the responsibility of seeing that this is done “so that the children of the Church may safely and profitably become conversant with the sacred scriptures and to be penetrated with their spirit.” The article concludes by calling for the broad dissemination of the Scriptures.

Article §26 concludes the Constitution on a hope-filled note inspired by the Scriptures themselves: “In this way, therefore, through the reading and study of the sacred books ‘the word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified’ (2 Thess. 3:1) and the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of men. Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which ‘lasts forever’ (Is. 40:8; see 1 Peter 1:23-25).” To its closing paragraph, the Constitution has maintained a careful and beautiful balance of Scripture and Sacrament as key to the life and health of the Church.

SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON ITS SIGNIFICANCE

One might deplete a sizable stock of descriptive superlatives and still not exhaust the worthy attributes of Dei Verbum. Identifying my favorite parts is a little like my granddaughter Lucia’s naming her best friends at school by including everyone in her kindergarten class. My favorite parts are, well, Chapters I-VI! But among these, if I must, I would single out Chapter II: Handing on Divine Revelation; Chapter III: Sacred Scripture, Its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation (especially the third paragraph in Article §12); and perhaps above all, Chapter VI: Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church. A few comments on each of these:

While the discussion on Scripture and Tradition in Chapter II might have raised more questions than it answered on my initial reading in 2010, it was an introduction to some issues that would launch me into an extended study that has continued to this day. Some of our Emmaus students have read my short piece “The Trauma of Tradition” which I wrote as the preface to a lengthy chapter “Not by Scripture Alone” in a not-yet-published manuscript still under construction. But while Dei Verbum offers a deft clarification on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, it is noteworthy that four of its six chapters––two-thirds of its contents––are dedicated to Scripture. Assuming that the principle of proportion counts for something, we should not overlook the Church’s recognition that what stands written, Scripture, occupies a privileged place. To be authentically Catholic, faithful sons and daughters of the Church, is to be, like our Blessed Mother, steeped in Scripture; it is to be a Bible Christian. Putting this more sharply, to be ignorant of Scripture is not only to be ignorant of Christ, as St. Jerome famously declared; it is also to be out of step with the dogmatic conviction of the Church to which one claims allegiance. More on this point below.

Respecting Chapter III and my singling out the third paragraph in Article §12, once again, many students have heard the story of my researching, writing, and teaching a series of courses on Interpretation back in 2007-2008, only to discover years later the essential outline of those courses—you guessed it––right here in Dei Verbum, Chapter III, Article §12! Alas, I had spent hundreds of hours reinventing the proverbial wheel! I might have saved myself a mountain of work had I just read Dei Verbumearlier! You can ask me about the details later.

Finally, let me highlight two points of immense personal interest and significance from Chapter VI, one of which I have already noted, namely, the exalted role of Scripture in the Church’s life and liturgy. Nowhere is this stated more clearly or emphatically, even joltingly, than in those opening words of Article §21: “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord. . . .” To be noted, it is of “the sacred books” that the Article goes on to attribute “the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life”! One might have expected such high praise to be reserved for the Eucharist, but that clearly and explicitly is not the case. The roots of this conviction appear to go back at least as far as to St. Augustine, who wanted to give “the same respect to the least syllables of Scripture that we give to the particles of the Blessed Sacrament.”21 To anticipate a point I will reemphasize below, I think the Church, and many Catholics by their own admission, clergy and laity alike, have a long way to go in making this conviction a reality of life. I am reminded of Jonathan Reyes’ first sentence in the Introduction to The Religion of the Day: “It is possible to do many Catholic things, and yet not have a Catholic mind,”22 that is, in the context of our discussion, a mind devoted to, filled with, and shaped by God’s word.

A second point of personal interest and significance, to no one’s surprise, is the emphasized role of lay Scripture scholarship—the urging of “suitable and correct translations [to be] made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books”; the exhortation to “Catholic exegetes and other students of sacred theology . . . [to] devote their energies . . . to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings”; and the encouragement for “the sons of the Church and the Biblical scholars to continue energetically . . . with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor.” It’s a joyful and empowering thing to know that what we are about here at the Emmaus Institute is aligned with the dogmatic voice of the Church!

DEI VERBUM SIXTY YEARS LATER: RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT

Writing ten years ago, in 2014, Ronald Witherup nears the conclusion of his The Word of God at Vatican II with the observation that “Dei Verbum remains one of the great successes of Vatican II in the sense that its impact was widespread and is still ongoing. Fortunately, the fiftieth anniversary of the constitution has also given a push to go back to the ‘well’ of this profound document so that we can once again drink of its refreshing teaching.”23 Now in 2024, we are approaching 60 years since the promulgation of Dei Verbum—a goodly number of years for us to be able to look back at how far we’ve come and forward to where we still might need to go.

As a nine-year-old Catholic and one not personally familiar with the Church pre- and immediately post-Vatican II, I have virtually no real comprehension of the polarizing firestorms reportedly ignited by the Council. What I know of these matters comes solely from listening and reading, with an awareness of the potential for emotional agendas and prejudicial distortions. I am grateful that at least some of the issues are well documented, with measured analysis and appropriate balance, in mature works like Fr. Blake Britton, Reclaiming Vatican II: What It (Really) Said, What It Means, and How It Calls Us to Renew the Church;24 Matthew Levering, An Introduction to Vatican II: An Ongoing Theological Event;25 Ronald D. Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II: Exploring Dei Verbum; and, of course, many earlier works by Pope Benedict XVI and others.

Whatever the controversies, confusions, debates, and doubts surrounding the Council generally, it escapes me how any sincere and serious-minded Catholic might possibly take issue with the main tenets of Dei Verbum, although I am told that my optimism has not been shared by all. To my understanding, Dei Verbum did not really proclaim any new dogmas or doctrines, but deepened considerably the Church’s understanding of divine revelation, and specifically, of the relationship of Scripture and Tradition.26 My sense is that, in the words of Bishop Robert Barron’s lament, “The great missionary vision of Vatican II remains largely unrealized.”27 In the case of Dei Verbum, I might express a similar disappointment, that the great bibliological vision of Vatican II remains at least partially unrealized, with which the Bishop seems also to agree, when he writes recently: “The Second Vatican Council called for a revival of biblical studies and a deepening of a biblical sensibility among the Catholic faithful. For a variety of reasons . . . this renaissance, in my judgment, has not happened.”28

However neophyte my observation, I must concur with Bishop Barron. We have a long way to go to catch up with the vision of this document about the centrality of Scripture in the life and liturgy of the Church and in the everyday consciousness of the average Catholic. (Parenthetically, when that finally happens, he says shamelessly, I should think that students will be breaking down the doors to get into Emmaus classes, and our courses will be wait-listed a mile long!)

But, thanks at least in part to Vatican II and Dei Verbum, there has been progress. Something had gone tragically wrong in at least some of the seminary formation prior to and for some years following the Council, with many priests of my acquaintance reporting of their personal sense of deficiency in Scripture study, owing to such factors as theological liberalism (“Belief in Jesus’ bodily Resurrection is optional; it really didn’t happen”), methodological distraction (wholesale caving to the misguided agenda of historical criticism), and just plain pedagogical incompetency and boredom. Perhaps it took Vatican II, and Dei Verbum in particular, to begin to fix all of that.29

Again, we have a long way to go to realize the vision of Dei Verbum, but the signs are encouraging: younger priests who report positively of their Scripture classes in seminary and who reflect a desire to align their homilies more closely with the vision expressed in Article §21, that “all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture” (also §§23-25); the incorporating of two Scripture classes in the propaedeutic stage of our own St. Gregory the Great Seminary this year so as to set the students’ hearts on fire with a love for Sacred Scripture at the outset of their seminary formation; the Bible-centered emphasis of FOCUS, Catholic apologists, innumerable publications, television (EWTN) and radio programming (KVSS surveys); revision of the Lectionary to include more biblical readings; advances in Catholic biblical scholarship; promotion of ecumenical dialogue through more serious engagement with Scripture; the existence and growth of faithful Scripture-dedicated institutes like the Augustine Institute, Franciscan University, St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, our own Emmaus Institute, and others; a growing desire and expressed interest in serious Bible study at the parish level; and a developing conviction that Catholics really are or ought to be the true Bible Christians, that Bible study and knowledge is not a uniquely Protestant thing, but is part of what identifies us as Catholic.30

I am not the one to answer this question, but I do wonder where we might be––indeed, if any of what I have just sketched would be reality––were it not for Vatican II and Dei Verbum. Still, my hope and prayer is that Vatican II will continue to be, as Matthew Levering has captured in the subtitle to his book, An Ongoing Theological Event. Specifically—and I say this humbly and non-critically––I hope that the vision of Chapter VI will continue to be realized among the clergy who devote themselves increasingly to the deep and serious study of Scripture and who reflect that in their homilies; among the laity who value lifelong growth in scriptural understanding as they value lifelong devotion to the Sacraments; and among the academics who respond to the call to “devote their energies . . . to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings . . . with a constant renewal of vigor” (Article §23).

As a lay academic myself, I might venture just one final prospect, in two parts, but leave it as a topic of conversation for another time and place. I refer to the somewhat dated language in Chapter III, Article §12 regarding the interpretation of Scripture. We have made great strides in academic biblical studies over the past six decades, with hermeneutical advances that warrant a rigorous reassessment of  historical-critical agendas that were still in vogue in the 1960s, some of which continue to draw approving, even if qualified, nods from scholars who, for whatever reason, perhaps even unknowingly, still operate within the basic presuppositions and framework of the old itineraries.31 To my mind, this area deserves more attention than we have seen to date among Catholic biblical scholars and exegetes.

And related, although Chapter IV (Articles §§14-16) hints that the Old Testament, while in some sense preparatory, is more than mere preamble or prologue or travelogue, foreshadowing what is to come, I would urge a more nuanced development of exactly how the Older Testament reveals Christ––how these books function as Christian Scripture, in ways that illuminate and make sense of Jesus’ approach with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. As noted, I will leave these matters as a discussion for another time.

What I would like to highlight are some of the areas pointed out by one far my superior, as he reflected on a number of unfinished challenges emerging from Dei Verbum. I refer to Pope Benedict XVI’s post-conciliar encyclical Verbum Domini, issued September 30, 2010, in which he identified the following areas, among others, where further work still needs to be done:

  • the nature of inspiration and the inerrant quality of Sacred Scripture (§19);
  • the interrelationship of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium and the “material sufficiency of scripture” (§§17-18);
  • the incorporation of Scripture in homiletics (§60);
  • increased dialogue between pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars (§45);
  • greater availability of faithful translations of the Bible into local languages (§115);
  • increased appreciation and use of lectio divina, the prayerful reading of Scripture (§§86-87); and
  • establishing more centers for biblical formation, “where laity and missionaries can be trained to understand, live and proclaim the word of God. Also, where needed, specialized institutes for biblical studies” (§75).32 I know of one!

In other words, Dei Verbum prepared the path, but much remains for us to pursue, especially in terms of further refinements and greater implementation. It is in these regards that I adopt Levering’s conception of Vatican II as An Ongoing Theological Event, in hopes that Church and academy together will continue to pursue the realization of Benedict’s vision as expressed in the same apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini: “With the Synod Fathers I express my heartfelt hope for the flowering of ‘a new season of greater love for sacred Scripture on the part of every member of the People of God, so that their prayerful and faith-filled reading of the Bible will, with time, deepen their personal relationship with Jesus’” (DV §72, citing Propositio 9).

With those words, the Pope’s heartfelt hope echoed the parting vision of Dei Verbum: “Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similarly we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which ‘lasts forever’ (Is. 40:8; see 1 Peter 1:23-25)” (Article §26).

There is nothing I could possibly add to that except my own heartfelt Amen.


Endnotes

  1. Ronald D. Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II: Exploring Dei Verbum (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2014), 4. Even the title suggests an example of the doctrinal imprecision, as there is only one actual source of divine revelation (the Triune God), which revelation flows to us through two streams (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition).

  2. George T. Montague, Understanding the Bible: A Basic Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (New York: Paulist, 1997), 181.

  3. Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 4.

  4. Ibid., 4-5. For a concise, helpful summary comparison of the first and final drafts, see Witherup, 5-7. For a list of Church teachings that reflect on the profound truths found in Dei Verbum, see 64-70.

  5. Ibid., 63; citing O. Rush, “Toward a Comprehensive Interpretation of the Council and Its Documents,” Theological Studies 73:3 [2012]: 568.

  6. E.g., is it plural “fountains/sources” as in the first schema, or does divine revelation flow from a single source (God) through two streams? See Articles §§8-10.

  7. Significantly, in the Markan version of the first and greatest commandment, Jesus includes hearing, not merely loving, in his response to his interlocutor’s question––not just “You shall love . . .”, but “Hear . . . and you shall love.” Hearing is included as part of the first and greatest commandment (Mk 12:28-31).

  8. Witherup offers a helpful survey of the larger context out of which Dei Verbum was born (including Church and papal documents, previous Church Councils [notably, Trent and Vatican I], and other influences) in The Word of God at Vatican II, 7-16.

  9. Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 25. According to Witherup, it is noteworthy that Dei Verbum nowhere adopts a theory of how inspiration works. It “sidesteps such theories and simply asserts the fact of inspiration without explaining how it works” (26-27).

  10. Witherup highlights three angles or steps in the notion of tradition: the apostolic preaching; the dynamic growth through study and reflection under the Spirit’s guidance; and the role of the fathers, the liturgy and prayer, and the Sacred Scriptures in the transmission of revelation. “So the great chain of tradition continues unbroken in the life of the church. It is a living and life-giving reality” (Ibid., 28-29).

  11. This is a clarification and correction of Vatican I, which at least implied that Scripture and Tradition were two sources of revelation. In fact, there is just one divine source—God himself—whose revelation comes to us by way of Scripture and Tradition.

  12. “‘Authentically interpreting’ highlights the precise, critical function of the magisterium. Ordinarily, however, this is not done in isolation from what is going on in the whole church. Understanding develops through life; the official teaching clarifies and rectifies understanding. Although all Christian life is an interpretation of the Scriptures, in the last analysis it is the teaching office of the church that has the final authority. Doctrine ordinarily develops through a process: the people as a whole experience, theologians discuss, the magisterium decides” (Montague, Understanding the Bible, 193, n. 42).

  13. On some of the unresolved issues in the relationship of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterium, see Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 31-34.

  14. “All their parts as accepted into the canon. Thus, though scholars question whether Mark 16:9-20 was part of the original work of the evangelist, it belongs to canonical Scripture and is considered inspired. Thus also, if a disciple- editor reworked an earlier version of John, it is the present text that is considered inspired” (Montague, Understanding the Bible, 194, n. 45).

  15. Some authors propose that “inerrancy” should not be taken literally, as applying to all that Scripture says, but should be understood solely in connection with what is necessary for salvation (so Montague, Understanding the Bible, 195; and Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 35-36). Whether that is the actual intent of the document remains unclear to me, not to mention the ambiguity on what exactly are the essentials for salvation and who decides.

  16. I.e., the “rules” just stated: “the content and unity of the whole Scripture”; (2) “the living Tradition of the whole Church”; and (3) the “analogy [harmony] of faith”—what I refer to as Canon, Church, and Creed. See CCC §§112-114.

  17. “The document distinguishes between the exegetical/interpretive role of the exegetes and the “divine commission and ministry” of interpretation given to the magisterium. A process is here involved that gives the exegete freedom to research and explore the meaning of the ancient texts in the community of his fellow professionals and at the same time relieves him of the responsibility of making the final judgment of the meaning of the Word of God for the Church” (Montague, Understanding the Bible, 199, n. 55).

  18. Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 45.

  19. Ibid., 48.

  20. The article directly counters the charge sometimes echoed in Protestant polemics that the Church’s sinister bureaucracy is to blame for knowingly, intentionally, and perniciously concealing the Bible from the common person and discouraging its reading and study. In this way, they presume, the Church’s Magisterium secures and maintains control over an unsuspecting and blindly compliant laity-as-ignorant-sheep. For example, many continue to suspect that the Western (Roman) Rite’s fondness for Latin in some parts of the Church’s liturgy even today, but especially in the Middle Ages, represents a grand ecclesial conspiracy––a version of formalistic obstruction, if not sacral bullying. This supposedly explains why the Bible was so absent from the medieval Church, with residual effects felt even today, and why the Church resisted vernacular translations until Wycliffe, Luther, and Tyndale cast off the Roman yoke and released the Bible from its ecclesial prison, throwing wide the gates to the knowledge of God for the blessing of the masses. Even a modest inquiry into the actual historical data would debunk this myth as an absurd fiction and dispatch it to a long-overdue interment. It turns out that this concocted narrative, which postulates a strategy of deceit, is simply wrong at every point. Dei Verbum could not be more explicit on this point.

  21. St. Augustine, Sermon 300.2; so Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-57), Traité des Saints Ordres [Sulpician Archives, Paris], 125-26; cited in Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 50.

  22. (Bismarck: University of Mary, 2023), 1.

  23. Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 62. See pp. 64-70 for a list of Church teachings that owe a debt to Dei Verbum.

  24. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2021).

  25. (Sacra Doctrina; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017). For an expansive bibliography of works on Vatican II, see 223-37.

  26. Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 57. According to Witherup, “Many controversies have erupted over the interpretation of several documents of the council, perhaps none sharper than those surrounding Dei Verbum” (61).

  27. Endorsement in Britton, Reclaiming Vatican II, iii.

  28. Robert Barron, The Great Story of Israel: Election, Freedom, Holiness (Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire, 2022), xii.

  29. For a fuller, engaging discussion on how we got to where we are in Catholic biblical scholarship, see Robert Royal, A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015), ch. 6, “The Three Ages of Scripture Studies,” 279-323.

  30. So my two-part article “Can Catholics Be Bible Christians? Dispelling Some Popular Myths,” available at www.emmausinstitute.net/resources/articles.

  31. E.g., the immensely popular terms ‘salvation history’ and ‘Bible timeline’, which, for all of their intended contributions, reflect an accommodation both conceptually and terminologically, an attempted blending of historical-critical categories with canonical and theological interests, with little apparent awareness of the history, baggage, and confusing limitations of these expressions when it comes to the actual task of biblical interpretation and theology.

  32. This list is adapted from Witherup, The Word of God at Vatican II, 75-76.