Dei Verbum: The Word of God in Modern Times

Yesterday’s post was on Vatican II as a background to Dei Verbum. Here you will see how the Catholics talk about integrating critical methods with the pastoral mission of the Church. This is a very interesting topic, but I am assured that students at BYU would find this scary and useless (See comment #30) so if you came out of that institution you’ll want to read the rest of this with your eyes closed and the blankets over your head.

Although pretty much all of the documents of Vatican II made extensive use of scripture (the result of the research directed by Divino), the teaching of the Council on scripture is found in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation and called Dei Verbum. This document has six chapters, five of which we’ll cover today.

Chapter 1: Talks about revelation itself. The Catholics have far more defined ideas of what revelation and inspiration are, as you will see. Here is the definition of revelation:

2. In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself.

So revelation is not the communication of knowledge, but an invitation to enter into fellowship with God. And notice the Biblical citations! Everywhere, like reading a Protestant document! It is interesting to read these documents and note the places where there is NO citation from scripture…

Now here’s the Catholic argument behind the idea that after Christ there would be no new public revelation:

4. Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, “now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2)…To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.

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 (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and Tit. 2:13).

Notice the part that’s missing the customary long series of scriptural citations…and have a look at 1 Tim and Titus and see if you agree with how they’re being used. If there were a religious studies major/minor at BYU, some you might have had the opportunity to take a closer look at these kinds of arguments. Here’s how the Catholics look at it:

6. Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind.
As a sacred synod has affirmed, God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Rom. 1:20); but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race.

Hm. Gonna be sayin a few things about inerrancy in a minute, I bet, right about we deal with the idea of inspiration. Notice, however, that when he talks about truth being known, he’s not talking about historical truth or scientific truth. This is kind of a crude way of saying it, but God’s “authorial intent” is limited to issues of salvation. History, science, etc., etc. are ancillary issues.

Chapter 2: Talks about how revelation, that is, the divine invitation to fellowship with God, has been handed on. Here we get mention of the NT:

8. And so the 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)

Who wrote the Gospels? The apostles? Nope, not necessarily so. The apostolic preaching is what is in the NT, and what the Church hands on to each generation. Now another thing that the Church hands on is Tradition:

…tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

Not seeing a lot of citations there, eh?! But notice the explicit teaching that Tradition does and has changed. One of the principal distinctions between Catholics and Protestants has been over Tradition. Catholics acknowledge both Tradition and Scripture. Protestants are into sola scriptura. My opinion: everybody has tradition somewhere, somehow. Since Catholics are explicit about it, they are faced with the challenge of defining the relationship between the two:

9. Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. 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…

10. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church…

But the 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. 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.

Notice the “living teaching office of the Church.” This is called the magisterium, and it is not a group of people or an office of some sort. The idea is far more complicated than it seems. And if you had opted for a Religious Studies minor/major at BYU, you could have investigated it. In a crude analogy, here we find something akin to what we call our prophetic authority, in that this authority is what reacts to the needs of the Church and moves to make changes. And notice that it is NOT above the word of God. That’s a bit of a change, at least from a practical standpoint.

Chapter 3: This is, I think, the heart of the document. It’s on scripture, inspiration, and interpretation. Here start out with inspiration:

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1)

So. Revelation is God’s invitation to fellowship, while inspiration is the gift to write under the direction of the Spirit. This means, among other things, that while all Biblical texts are the result of inspiration, not all texts contain revelation, because inspiration does not yield inevitably yield revelation. Think of some your favorite passages in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. These are “nuggets of human wisdom” and inspired, but they may not say anything about the self-revealing God or necessarily invite you to fellowship with him.

This also means that you can’t blow off any part of the canon, regardless of who you think did or did not write it. Instead, you must look most diligently for evidence of God and his will. And this brings us to the next point:

1. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

If you read Greek or Hebrew, you have noticed that some texts are more elegantly written than others. (And in translation you’ll notice things like the exquisite use of a metaphor or something like that.) This is because the folks who wrote these things were the ones doing the writing. God doesn’t “take over” a Biblical author in some kind of an autopen fashion. And with that, here comes inerrancy:

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. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).

Notice the word “truth?” Notice that it doesn’t say historical truth or scientific truth or something like that. What is inerrant about the Bible is what God wishes to say about faith and salvation. So inerrancy is a consequence of inspiration, but not everything written down is inerrant. For example, people’s prayers, exclamations, and questions are not inerrant. Inspired writers indeed wrote them down, but they are not inerrant. The single most important point, however, is that inerrancy does not grace every past tense verb to make it historically true. Likewise, scientific assertions contained in the Bible are the product of inspired writers, but they do not deal with faith and salvation and are therefore not held to be inerrant. They must indeed be investigated, however, because it is the exegete’s responsibility to understand how and why these ideas were used by the inspired authors. And this brings us to the matter of authors and their texts:

12. 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.

When God speaks in human fashion, that fashion is conditioned by time and culture. The cultural conditioning is expressed by ideas such as form and genre:

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.

And “human fashion” changes over time, so the exegete must deal with the temporal conditioning of Biblical texts:

The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.

So. We have to investigate scripture with attention to the time, place, and method of composition. In the OT in particular, this translates into some attention to source critical issues that complicate the ideas of authorship. But the investigation of these source critical ideas is not the end of the matter. Scripture has come down to us in what we might call a “received form,” and that form is interpreted within the Church community:

But, since 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.

Would you like to know more about the LDS tradition of interpretation and how it relates to that of other Christians? If you are at BYWoo, too bad. And now, back to the Catholics. In practical terms, I don’t know of a Catholic exegete who’s been disciplined recently. The Church pretty much leaves them alone unless they step outside boundaries established by responsible use of evidence or something similar. Theologians, on the other hand, can get a bit more attention…

Chapter 4: This chapter deals with the OT. It’s actually a pretty traditional view of the OT: God took for himself a people; entered into a covenant with Abraham and through Moses to the people of Israel; prophets spoke to Israel, by which means Israel gained a progressively deeper understanding of God. The latter point is probably the most significant break with traditional approaches, since it hasn’t always been kosher to allow that the Israelite religion was a work in progress. But the OT has its challenges, to which point Dei Verbum says:

15. The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy (see Luke 24:44; John 5:39; 1 Peter 1:10), and to indicate its meaning through various types (see 1 Cor. 10:12). Now the books of the Old Testament, in accordance with the state of mankind before the time of salvation established by Christ, reveal to all men the knowledge of God and of man and the ways in which God, just and merciful, deals with men. These books, though they also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless 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.

No blowin’ off the OT, or to put it more formally, Catholics are not supposed to be supercessionist. One of the reasons this idea is important is because in it is contained the seeds of how Christians are to understand and interact with the Jews, who remain God’s covenant people. Supercessionism comes up quite a bit in Holocaust studies.

Chapter V: Chapter 5 addresses the NT and its special challenges. The preeminent witness of God in the NT is the Gospels:

18. It is common knowledge that 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 Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Note: the four Gospels comprise the fourfold Gospel and are of apostolic origin but no similar assertion is made about their authorship. Now more on the relationship between apostolic preaching, the authorship of the Gospels, and historicity:

19. 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). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done.

The four Gospels are founded in historical events. There is, however, a distinction between “historical character” and “biography.” Watch this:

This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed (3) after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus.

The production of the Gospels was a literary effort derived from oral tradition. There was selection of events, summarization, synthesis, presentations of events that were driven by the then-current situation of Christianity, and the basic proclamation of Jesus as God’s Messiah. It’s the honest truth about who Christ really is, as the apostolic preachers understood him AFTER THE RESURRECTION, but not a biography. You can just bet that that business of selection, summarization, synthesis, ect., etc., was driven at least partially by the need to present Jesus as he was understood to be after his Ascension.

This is the beginning of the exposition of how Catholics employ critical methods in support of the mission of the Church. There are some tough places in this process, which we’ll take a look at tomorrow or Sunday. But what is going to happen in the next post, which will cover Chapter VI of Dei Verbum on the role of scripture in the life of Catholics, is that for the first time in a very long time, the Catholics will move to make serious study of the scriptures central in the spiritual life of the laity. And that’s been a bit of a mixed bag, so far.

5 Replies to “Dei Verbum: The Word of God in Modern Times”

  1. Great post,

    It is interesting to see how the church came face to face to and then embraced modernity.

    I find the statements on the preeminence of the Gospels especially interesting. Do major traditions within Rrotestantism affirm something similar?

  2. Mogget,

    Thank you. I appreciate this and find it very useful. (Even though I did have to read it with the blankets over my head.)

  3. Hello Mogget,

    A very good and dear LDS friend of mine linked me to this thread via an email he sent to me yesterday.

    You wrote:

    >>So revelation is not the communication of knowledge, but an invitation to enter into fellowship with God.>>

    Me: IMHO it is BOTH. For one to enjoy true fellowship with God, one must have true knowledge of God; and for one is to obtain true knowledge of God, one must enter into fellowship with God—in other words, you cannot have one without the other.

    And one more important point: God reveals Himself to man in order that man might become God—i.e., “partakers of the divine nature”.

    Grace and peace,


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