Circular Letter: Summer 2013

Vatican II & Divine Revelation: The Word of God

We have been reflecting in our Lay Circular Letters during this Year of Faith on the most important documents of Vatican II. In the previous two issues we examined Sacrosanctum Concilium – the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and Lumen Gentium -the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In this issue, therefore, we want to continue with our reflection by examining the third major document written by the Second Vatican Council, namely, Dei Verbum – the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

Dei Verbum is the shortest, but nevertheless one of the most important and influential documents of Vatican II. For it summarizes, in less than fifteen pages, the most important truths about the Word of God, divine Revelation, and Biblical studies (cf. Vatican Council II: The Concilial and Post Conciliar Documents, Volume 1, Austin Flannery, O.P., General Editor, Collegeville, IN, 1992, pp. 750-765). And so, for anyone who wants to know more about what the Church has to say about the Word of God and the Bible, Dei Verbum (hereafter referred to as “DV”) should be the first place to begin.

As you know, there is a renewed interest in the Bible today among Christians of all denominations; and this great hunger for the Word of God is shared by many Catholics, as well. For example, many parishes have well-attended Bible study classes. Similarly great is the interest that the EWTN programs about various aspects of the Bible have generated. However, despite the many aids that are becoming increasingly available to help us understand the Bible, many of us may be unsure about the best way to approach this fascinating, but nevertheless, difficult and mysterious subject. The document Dei Verbum can provide us with a ready study guide that can give us the basic tools we need in order to properly approach our study of the Bible and the Word of God. The starting point, then, for anyone who wants to deepen their knowledge and understanding of Sacred Scripture should be Dei Verbum.

In order to help us mine the riches of this profound document more deeply, Pope Benedict XVI. has done us the great service of publishing the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini — The Word of the Lord, (hereafter referred to as: “VD”) which was written in order to summarize the findings and recommendations of the Twelfth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops which had as its theme: “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church”. What’s more, Bd. Pope John Paul II. in his Encyclical Letter, Fides et Ratio—Faith and Reason (hereafter referred to as: “FR”) has also provided us with many precious insights about Revelation, and the Word of God. And so with these two Popes as our guide, then, let us now begin our review and study of the Church’s teaching about the Bible and the Word of God as it is presented for us in Dei Verbum.

Dei Verbum is divided up into six short chapters that present us with a bird’s eye view of the most important truths that are taught by the Church about divine Revelation. The chapters are titled as follows: 1. Divine Revelation Itself; 2. The Transmission of Divine Revelation; 3. Sacred Scripture: Its Divine Inspiration and its Interpretation; 4. The Old Testament; 5. The New Testament;  6. Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church.

1st Chapter: Divine Revelation Itself

In the first chapter the Council Fathers tackle the difficult and demanding topic of the definition of divine Revelation. They define it as the manifestation and communication by God “both of Himself and the eternal decrees of His will concerning the salvation of mankind” (DV, 6). (Please note: the accompanying number that is placed besides the abbreviation “DV” indicates the paragraph in the document where the cited quotation can be located.) And this revelation has been carried out for us in its most complete and perfect form in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is stressed in Dei Verbum, then, that the “most intimate truth which this revelation gives us about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ, who is Himself the mediator and the sum total of Revelation” (DV, 2). For the Father “sent His Son, the eternal Word, Who enlightens all men, to dwell among men, and so tell them about the inner life of God” (DV, 4). Jesus, then, is, as Pope Benedict puts it in his Apostolic Exhortation, the “culmination of Revelation” (VD, 14). For “He who ‘has made God known’ (Jn 1:18) is the one definitive Word given to mankind” (VD, 14). In short, everything that we need to know about divine Revelation has been manifested to us in and through Jesus Christ, Who is the Word of God.

Contemplating Jesus as a revealer, then, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stressed, as Pope John Paul II. notes, (cf. FR, 10), the salvific character of God’s Revelation in history by describing it in these terms:

In this Revelation the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15; 1Tm l:17), out of the abundance of His love speaks to men and women as friends (cf. Ex 33:11; Jn 15: 14-15) and lived among them (cf. Bar 3:38), so that He may invite them into communion with Himself. This plan of Revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity. By this Revelation, then, the deepest truths about God and human salvation are made clear to us in Christ who is the mediator and at the same time the fullness of Revelation. (DV, 2)

In short, what the Council is telling us here is that the truth about God Himself was revealed to us once and for all in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. For as the Council Fathers put it,
after God had spoken many times and in various ways through the prophets, ‘in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son'(Heb l:l-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, to dwell among men and to tell them about the inner life of God. Hence, Jesus Christ … ‘speaks the words of God’ (Jn 3:34), and accomplishes the saving work which the Father gave Him to do (cf. Jn 5:36; 17:4). (DV, 4)

For this reason, we can therefore say that Jesus not only “completed and perfected Revelation” ; but also that He “confirmed it by divine guarantees” (DV, 4). But how did He do this? He did it “by the total fact of His presence and self-manifestation—by words and works, signs and miracles, but above all by His death and glorious Resurrection from the dead, and finally by sending the Spirit of Truth” (DV, 4).

Keep in mind that “Revelation remains charged with mystery”, as Pope John Paul points out (FR, 13) Therefore, as the Council explains, “‘the obedience of faith’ ( Rom 16:26; cf. Rom 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) must be given to God as He reveals Himself” (DV, 5). However, it must be stressed, that even,
before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, [and] who opens the eye of the mind… (DV, 5).

In other words, we must receive a special preparatory grace, as the Council is telling us here, before we can even have faith in the Revelation that is given to us through Jesus Christ.

2nd Chapter: The Transmission of Divine Revelation

This chapter discusses the means by which divine Revelation not only has been, but also continues to be transmitted to us. First of all, divine Revelation is transmitted to us by the Apostles in an unwritten form that is called “Tradition”. For the Apostles themselves “handed on” the divine Revelation that they had received “whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or … from the prompting of the Holy Spirit” (DV, 7). Now this transmission of sacred Tradition was done by the Apostles in three different ways, namely: “by their preaching”; “by the example they gave”, and “by the institutions they established” (DV, 7).

Secondly, divine Revelation is transmitted to us by Sacred Scripture, which can be defined as the “speech of God as it is put down in writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (DV, 9). Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are the two different means by which the Revelation of God is transmitted to the Church. Therefore, as the Council Fathers saw it, ” Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church” (DV, 10). It must be stressed here, though, that our understanding of Revelation has not been frozen in time. In other words, our understanding of Revelation is not limited to only what the Apostles told us and taught us by their preaching and writings. Rather, the “Tradition that comes from the Apostles makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (DV, 8). For “as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her” (DV, 8).

The means by which the Church advances “toward the plenitude of divine truth” is the Magisterium, that is, the teaching authority of the Church. In fact, the Council stressed in no uncertain terms that “the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone”(DV, 10). It is important for us to be aware, then, that the Church’s Magisterium has the final say on how certain controversial passages found in the Bible and other confusing points pertaining to divine Revelation are to be understood and interpreted. The average person, then, is not free to interpret the Bible on all points as he or she sees fit, as the Protestants maintain.

At the same time the Magisterium “is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant” (DV, 10). For it teaches only, as the Council stresses, “what has been handed on to it” (DV, 10). And so, it is clear, then, as the Council goes on to explain, that “in the supremely wise arrangement of God, Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others” (DV, 10). For they all “contribute effectively to the salvation of souls; working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit” (DV, 10). Our understanding of divine Revelation, then, must be firmly supported by the sacred tripod of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium. And so, we cannot neglect one leg of the this unique tripod, then, at the expense of the two; otherwise our efforts to understand the Word of God and divine Revelation will collapse into confusion. All this helps us to appreciate what Pope Benedict points out, namely, that “the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’ (VD, 7). Rather, it is a religion of the Word: “not of a written and mute word”, but of the “incarnate and living Word”, as St. Bernard puts it. (St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Homilia super missus est, IV, 11. Quoted by Pope Benedict in VD, 7).

3rd Chapter: Sacred Scripture: Its Divine Inspiration and Interpretation

This chapter discusses both the inspiration and interpretation of Sacred Scripture. First of all, the Council begins here by stating without qualification that the “books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach the truth which God, for the sake of our salvation wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures” (DV, 11). For God inspired the sacred writers of the Bible to put down in writing exactly what He wanted written—nothing more and nothing less. In other words, there is not a word written in the Bible that God did not want put there (cf. Leo XIII, Provendentissimus Deus, 18, November 1893). (Modern translation of the original texts of the Bible are, of course, an entirely different matter! To say the least.)

We could say that the Lord used the sacred writers of the Bible, then, in much the same way as a writer of a book uses a pen to put down on paper the thoughts that he has in his mind and wants to express to others. The sacred writers, however, it must be stressed, were not used by God as mere passive dictating machines. Rather, as the Council explains, “God chose certain men who, all the while He employed them in this task made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though He acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever He wanted written and no more” (DV, 11). For this reason, as St. Paul reveals to us, “all Scripture is inspired by God, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tm 3:16-17).

To verify the inspiration of Sacred Scripture, then, is one thing; but to interpret it correctly is an entirely different matter, and a much more difficult one at that. For in order to understand the meaning and intent of Sacred Scripture correctly, we must look for that meaning which the sacred writer, in a determined situation and given the circumstances of his time and culture, intended to express, and did in fact express, through the medium of a contemporary literary form” (DV, 12). It is no easy matter, then, to correctly understand the Scriptures, and always apply them in the right way to our life. For this reason, we need help. The first help that comes our way most readily and effectively is from the saints. For the “most profound interpretation of Sacred Scripture”, as Pope Benedict says, “comes precisely from those who let themselves be shaped by the Word of God through listening, reading, and assiduous meditation on it”, namely the saints (VD, 48). We should not hesitate, then, to ask the saints to help us deepen our knowledge and understanding of the Bible, when we study and meditate on it.

4th Chapter: The Old Testament

The fourth chapter discusses the meaning and significance of the books of the Old Testament, as well as their relationship to that of the New Testament. It is important, then, that we have a balanced view of what is written in the Old Testament. For we may have a tendency to discount the value of what is written in these venerable books, because they sometimes seem obscure and out of date. The Council, however, states in no uncertain terms that “Christians should accept with veneration these writings [of the Old Testament] which give expression to a lively sense of God, which are a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on human life, as well as a wonderful training program” (DV, 15).

What’s more, the Council Fathers stress the close connection which binds the Old Testament to the New Testament by pointing out with St. Augustine, that “the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament and the Old Testament is made manifest in the New Testament” (St. Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, 2,7). In other words, we could say that all the books of the Old Testament are “not only caught up into the Gospel message, attain, and show forth their meaning in the New Testament”; but also, at the same time, they “shed light on it and explain it” (DV, 16). And this is possible because, as St. Hugh of Victor points out, “all Sacred Scripture is but one book and that book is Christ, and all Divine Scripture speaks of Christ, and all Divine Scripture is fulfilled in Christ” (St. Hugh of Victor, De arca Noe, 2, 8. Quoted in CCC, 134.).

5th Chapter: The New Testament

This chapter takes up the question of the meaning and significance of the New Testament in the life of the Church. And it does this first of all by stating strongly that “the Word of God, which is the power of God for salvation of everyone who has faith, is set forth and displays its power in a most wonderful way in the writings of the New Testament” (DV, 17). In other words, what was hidden and veiled to previous generations is now definitively revealed to us in Jesus Christ, our redemption and promise of eternal salvation. Not all of the writings in the New Testament, however, it should be noted, have equal value. For some are more important than others. The Council Fathers are at pains to point out for us, then, that the four Gospels have pride of place. Why? Because “they are our principal source [for what we know about] the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Savior” (DV, 18). In fact, we can have absolute faith that the four Gospels “faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while He lived among men, really did and taught for their salvation, until the day He was taken up” (DV, 19).

We can have this assurance, then, this complete confidence in the reliability of the Gospels because the evangelists “always… told us the honest truth about Jesus. Whether they relied on their own memory and recollections or on the testimony of those who ‘from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word’, their purpose in writing was that we might know the “truth” concerning the things of which we have been informed (cf. Lk 1: 2-4)” (DV, l9). What’s more, the other writings contained in the New Testament “firmly establish those matters which concern Christ the Lord, formulate more and more precisely His authentic teaching, preach the saving power of Christ’s divine work and foretell its glorious consummation” (DV, 20).

6th Chapter: Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church

This chapter is pastoral in nature and addresses the question as to how Scripture becomes fruitful in the life of the faithful. For the Council Fathers strongly stress here the practice of Lectio Divina, that is the prayerful reading of and the devout meditation on Sacred Scripture. For the members in the Work of the Holy Angels, we can see in this practice the first step towards the fulfillment of the Second Fundamental Direction of Contemplation. In fact, it is hard to imagine a stronger recommendation for spending time in Lectio Divina than the one given in the pages of this final chapter. For it is stated here that the “Sacred Synod forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful, especially those who live in religious life, to learn the ‘surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 3:8) by frequent reading of the Divine Scriptures” (DV, 25).

The importance, then, of reading the Bible frequently and assiduously cannot be overestimated for our spiritual life. For as St. Jerome has pointed out, in a famous and often quoted statement, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (St. Jerome, Comm. In Isaias, prol.) The Bible, however, should not merely be read; it should be read “prayerfully”! In fact, the Council recommends that “prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue may take place between God and men” (DV, 25). For as St. Ambrose notes, “we speak to God when we pray; but “we listen to Him when we read Sacred Scripture” (St. Ambrose, De Officiis ministrorum I, 20, 88).

To sum up: we have been provided by the Second Vatican Council in it Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Verbum, with a magnificent panorama of divine Revelation, its meaning and significance, and the means by which we can deepen not only our understanding and appreciation of it, but also our love and reverence for it. Let us, then, during this Year of Faith, ask Mary, the Woman of Faith and the Mother of the Word of God, who “kept all these words, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19), to obtain for us the light and strength that we will need to say each and every day to her son, when God’s will is manifested to us, the same words that she spoke at the Annunciation, namely: “Be it done to me according to your Word” (Lk l:38).

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