Vatican II on the Word of God

11 Mar

Pope with Book of GospelsIn my last post, I offered some reflections on how Catholics approach Scripture, calling to mind Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). This particular document is one of the four central “constitutions” promulgated at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Given its significance, I thought that before we move on to the next conciliar document I would offer this “top ten list” of key teachings found in Dei Verbum.

The entire document is rich (and it’s by far the shortest of the four constitutions!), but I have found these particular passages especially enlightening as the Church boldly proceeds with a “new evangelization.” The texts in bold italics are direct quotes, with footnotes omitted.

(1) God’s Self-Disclosure

Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. . . . He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind (no. 6).

Dei Verbum affirms, with Vatican I, that we can know God’s existence and other religious truths through the use of reason. However, in addition to truths “which totally transcend” human understanding, divine Revelation conveys truths already accessible to human reason so that everyone can know the truth with ease, certitude, and the absence of error (cf. Catechism, nos. 37-38).

(2) Tradition!

[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 (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (no. 8).

Apostolic tradition includes everything that contributes to the holiness of life and increase in faith of the People of God. The Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, and all that she believes.

(3) Deposit of Faith

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church (no. 10).

The Church stresses the unity of the Word of God, as both Scripture and Tradition flow from the same divine wellspring (no. 9).

(4) Role of Magisterium

[T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ (no. 10).

Further, this teaching office is not above the Word of God. The Magisterium serves the Word of God, teaching only what has been handed on. The Magisterium listens to the Word devoutly, guards it scrupulously, and explains it faithfully in accordance with her divine commission. With the help of the Holy Spirit, the Magisterium draws from this one deposit of faith everything which the Church presents for belief as divinely revealed.

(5) Inerrancy of Scripture

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (no. 11).

This section has been a point of controversy, as the Church’s traditional understanding of the inerrancy of Scripture has come under attack in recent decades, and this particular passage can seem ambiguous on the point. Is Scripture without error (“inerrant”) generally (but properly understood, see no. 6), or is it without error only on matters concerning our salvation?

This controversy can’t be resolved here, but in favor of the former interpretation, DV 11 does footnote sources such as Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus that set forth the traditional teaching. In addition, in Latin, the “for the sake of salvation” (causa salutis) is a genitive of purpose. The grammatical construction conveys purpose or motive (why do we have Scripture?), not a limitation upon “that truth.”

(6) Literary and Historical Criticism

However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words (no. 12).

This passage illustrates the Church’s balanced approach that recognizes not only God’s authorship of Scripture, but also the contribution of the human authors, including their historical and cultural context. The use of human sciences only creates difficulties when scholars adopt unscientific presuppositions that contradict the faith (e.g., miracles are impossible) and treat Scripture as merely an ancient human writing.

(7) Incarnation of the Word

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.” 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 (no. 13, quoting St. John Chrysostom).

Our God has come looking for us, and He reaches out to us, using our mode of communication!  By “condescension” we mean that God reaches down to us as a Father gets down to be on the level of his child, so that he can embrace him and raise him up.

(8) Role of Old Testament

God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New (no. 16).

This beautifully summarizes our approach to reading the entire Bible, not just the New Testament.

(9) Centrality of the Four Gospels

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 for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1) (no. 19).

The Church unhesitatingly asserts the historicity of the Gospels. They are reliable accounts of the life of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should frequently meditate on these four books.

(10) Ignorance of Scripture Is Ignorance of Christ

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” since they must share the abundant wealth of the divine word with the faithful committed to them, especially in the sacred liturgy (no. 25, quoting St. Augustine).

This is related to no. 22, which provides that “easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful.” Vatican II exhorted all the Christian faithful, especially religious, to learn by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures the “excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:8), taking to heart St. Jerome’s famous expression: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”

Paragraph 25 urges us to immerse ourselves in Scripture, whether it be through the liturgy, rich in the divine Word, or through devotional reading, or through classes and Bible studies, all with the approval and active support of the shepherds of the Church. We are reminded that prayer must accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together. For as St. Ambrose wrote, “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.”

One Response to “Vatican II on the Word of God”

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  1. The Book of God | - April 1, 2013

    […] on the documents of Vatican II during this “Year of Faith,” we have spent some time examining Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. This pivotal conciliar document has called Catholics to draw more effectively upon the […]

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