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Vatican II urges faithful to read the Bible

November 22 , 2000

The first in a series of columns from Archbishop Chaput's address on "Dei Verbum" during the archdiocesan Scripture Conference, Oct. 20-21, in Denver.

"It pleased God in His goodness and wisdom to reveal Himself and to make known the mystery of His will."

So begins the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), issued on November 18, 1965. Dei Verbum — which means "Word of God" in Latin — is one of the four foundational documents of the Second Vatican Council. And yet in some ways over the past 35 years, it's been a better-guarded secret than the "third secret of Fatima." Too many Catholics barely know it exists. And I hope we can begin to remedy that together.

Esteem for `Word of God'

Many of you will remember that Vatican II produced 16 texts, divided into four major constitutions, plus various decrees and declarations. Dei Verbum, written as a constitution, showed the bishops' esteem for the Word of God and the reverence in which they hoped all Christian believers would hold that Word. Dei Verbum stands at a crossroad. On the one hand, it served as an official seal of approval on decades of biblical research by Catholic scholars, some of whom operated under a cloud of suspicion for much of their academic careers. At the same time, it launched everyday Catholics on a scriptural revival unparalleled in the history of the Church.

Dei Verbum opens by explaining the basic flow of the process of Divine Revelation, which comes to fruition in the life of Jesus Christ, who "completed and perfected Revelation and confirmed it with divine guarantees" (n. 4). Since Jesus Christ is the definitive manifestation of God, the Council Fathers naturally say that "no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord, Jesus Christ" (n. 4).

Scripture and Tradition

Moreover, the bishops teach that "sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church" (n.10). In doing so, the council bypasses the old Protestant Reformation debate about "Scripture versus Tradition" to a more useful discussion of the Lord's desire to reveal Himself fully to His People — a process carried forward by both Scripture and Tradition.

This makes sense. In reality, Tradition came before Scripture, and the Church came before them both, because the writing of the New Testament didn't begin until some 15-20 years after the Lord's Death and Resurrection. The Gospel message was passed along through oral tradition first, and only later committed to written form. The means of transmission — whether oral or written — were secondary to the goal (revelation) and to the receiver of the revelation (God's People, the Church).

`Authentic Interpretation'

Obviously, the Scriptures didn't drop from heaven in final form. They took shape in and through the community of the Church, working under divine inspiration. And somewhat like the American Constitution, the Scriptures are not self-explanatory documents. They require "an authentic interpretation" — and that task "has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone" (n. 10). The bishops stress 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. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls" (n. 10).

Divine Inspiration

Dei Verbum therefore offers a middle way between Protestant fundamentalism and secular rationalism in interpreting the Bible. It clearly teaches the divine inspiration of the sacred authors and, therefore, the inerrant quality of their writings. It says "that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be confided to the sacred Scriptures" (n. 11). In that qualifying phrase, "for the sake of our salvation," we hear the Catholic response to modern rationalism, which denies the inerrancy of Scripture and even the need for salvation. But Dei Verbum also avoids a simple-minded literalism.

In response to fundamentalists and biblical literalists, Dei Verbum stresses the need for "carefully search[ing] out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God had thought well to manifest through the medium of words" (n. 12). For Catholics, this comes through an analysis of "literary forms, for the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts and in other forms of literary expression" (n.12). Dei Verbum, then, follows the common sense wisdom of the great 16th century cardinal and historian Cesare Baronius, who reacted to the Galileo crisis of his day with the simple comment that, "The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven — not how the heavens go."

 

 

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