Vatican II on Divine RevelationFR. KENNETH BAKER, S.J.
The Catholic faith is based on divine revelation. In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965) the Second Vatican Council spelled out in some detail what the Church believes and teaches with regard to divine revelation, primarily as it is contained in the Bible.
The Catholic faith is based on divine revelation. The Catholic Church knows that she was founded by Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, and that she was commissioned by Him to proclaim the Gospel of God’s love to all mankind. Jesus as the Word of God is the fullness of God’s revelation. He revealed to His disciples the inner nature of God as tri-personal — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also revealed God’s plan to redeem the human race by His passion, death and resurrection.
In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, November 18, 1965) the Second Vatican Council spelled out in some detail what the Church believes and teaches with regard to divine revelation, primarily as it is contained in the Bible. Tradition is also included, but the emphasis in the document is on the written word in the holy Scriptures of the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). Dei Verbum, since it is a dogmatic constitution, is one of the most important documents of the Council. It ranks second only to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and is printed in the second place in the collection of Vatican II documents.
In what follows I will summarize briefly the prologue and the six chapters of the Constitution and in the process I will make a few observations as a help to understanding the document.
In the prologue the Council says that it hears the Word of God with reverence and proclaims it with faith in order to have fellowship “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:2-3). In accordance with Tradition, the Fathers of the Council say they intend “to set forth the true doctrine on divine revelation and its transmission.” The Council wants the whole world “to hear the summons to salvation, so that through hearing it may believe, through belief it may hope, through hope it may come to love” (#1).
The goal then is to proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the whole world so that it may believe in Jesus Christ and so arrive at the love of God.
CHAPTER I. DIVINE REVELATION ITSELF (##2-6):
The basic idea of revelation is to make known something that is hidden. In the case of divine revelation it means that God makes known to man Himself and the mysterious plan of His will for man and the world. “His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature (Eph. 2:18; 2 Pet. 1:4)” (#2).
How does God do this? He does it by deeds and words in the history of salvation as recorded in the OT and in the NT. The miraculous works of God in salvation history verify the words of the prophets like Abraham and Moses, and the words explain the works and “bring to light the mystery they contain” (#2).
God revealed Himself in a beginning way to Abraham, Moses and the prophets and so adopted Israel as His own people. He taught them to look for the promised Savior and Messiah and in this way He set the stage for the arrival of the Gospel in Jesus Christ (#3).
Finally, He sent His only-begotten Son, who is the light of the world, to dwell among men and to tell them about the inner life of God and His plan for the world. Jesus Christ completed and perfected revelation; He proved who He was by His words and His miracles, especially by His glorious resurrection from the dead.
Jesus established a new and eternal covenant between God and man which will never be replaced; this means that there will be no new public revelation of God’s will before the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ in glory (#4).
The proper response of man to God’s revelation of Himself is faith by which he freely assents to revelation and “commits his entire self to God” (#5). But faith is a gift of God, so man must have the grace of God which illuminates his mind and moves his will to believe; to do this he needs the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus said in John 6:44, “no one can come to me unless my Father draws him.”
In #6 the Council repeats its definition of revelation and quotes two passages from Vatican I: 1) that God can be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason from considering the created world, and 2) “that those things, which in themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error” (#6, citing Denz. 3004 and 3005).
CHAPTER II. THE TRANSMISSION OF DIVINE REVELATION (##7-10):
This chapter answers the question: How is divine revelation, which was given to mankind thousands of years ago in the OT and by Jesus in the NT, handed on from generation to generation?
The answer is that Christ the Lord, who is the fullness of the revelation of God, taught the Apostles all that God wished to communicate to man and then commanded them to preach the Gospel to all nations, beginning with Israel. This is what they did; they also bore witness to all that He said and did in His earthly life. As the Apostles advanced in age and died as martyrs for Christ, those still living and their co-workers committed the message of salvation to writing.
Jesus founded His Church, which He willed to last until His Second Coming, on Peter and the Apostles. In order that the Gospel might be preserved intact, the Apostles appointed bishops as their successors and conferred their own teaching authority on them. Thus, this sacred Tradition and the sacred Scriptures are “like a mirror, in which the Church, during its pilgrim journey here on earth, contemplates God” (#7).
In this way the apostolic preaching is preserved without corruption until the end of time. The teaching of the Church on faith and morals is based on that original preaching. But it is not static. There is growth in the understanding of the faith, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which takes place through reflection on God’s Word by saints and bishops and theologians. As time goes by the Church advances in its understanding of what has been revealed and applies the ancient truths to new problems and circumstances, such as changes in the social order and in the physical and life sciences.
Tradition and Scripture are closely bound together since they come from the same divine source. The Bible is “the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit” (#9). Tradition transmits faithfully the Word of God which was given to the Apostles by Jesus and the Holy Spirit and it also transmits it to the bishops who are the successors of the Apostles. So the Church draws her certainty about revealed truth both from Scripture and from Tradition, both of which must be treated with equal reverence.
In #10 the Council makes a very important statement that sums up and basically concludes a theological debate which has been going on since the Council of Trent in the 16th century: “Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church” (emphasis added). The Council thus takes a position here that there are not two sources of revelation, but only one — Tradition and Scripture together.
Every written document is subject to interpretation, especially when it was written hundreds or thousands of years ago. Thus, we have a Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution of the United States. The Council says that the only authentic interpreter of the Word of God, whether written or in the form of Tradition, is the teaching office of the Church, which is also called the “Magisterium.” In His Providence God has so arranged things that Tradition, Scripture and the Magisterium “are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others” (#10). This means that problems or questions about true faith and morals must be solved by resorting to these three basic sources.
CHAPTER III. SACRED SCRIPTURE: ITS DIVINE INSPIRATION AND INTERPRETATION (##11-13):
The Church holds that the 46 books of the OT and the 27 books of the NT are “inspired” by God. Inspiration means that, in some mysterious way, God is the primary author of those books; by means of His grace He worked through the minds and wills of the sacred authors, moving them to put down in writing those truths He wished to communicate to all mankind. Since God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, is the author of the Bible, the Council says that “we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures” (# 11).
Those books were written down over a period of more than a thousand years; the language and cultural situation were vastly different from what we know. Consequently, the interpreter of the Bible, if he is to ascertain correctly what God wished to tell us, must strive to find the literal meaning the sacred writers had in mind. This means that he must know the original language, culture, customs, date of writing, place, and author.
The interpreter must also know the different literary forms used by the ancient authors — laws, history, poetry, prayers, parables, prophecy, wisdom, and so forth. Correct interpretation also requires that the reader must keep the divine authorship in mind; he ought not to forget that there is unity in all of Scripture because it has one divine author. So there are no errors in the Bible and any conclusions drawn from Scripture must take into account the whole Tradition of the Church and the analogy of faith, that is, what the Church has always taught. The Magisterium of the Church is deeply concerned about the way in which the Bible is interpreted, and all interpretation of the Bible is subject to the judgment of the Church, which exercises the divinely given commission of overseeing and guarding the interpretation of God’s holy Word. One must never forget that the Bible was produced by the Church; it is her book and she is the only one who can determine with authority the meaning of any disputed text.
CHAPTER IV. THE OLD TESTAMENT (##14-16):
God revealed Himself to man gradually. He revealed Himself to Abraham and through Abraham He gained for Himself a people — the people of Israel. He established a covenant with them and gave them the promises of a Savior or Messiah who would eventually come. So His plan for the salvation of mankind had its beginning with Israel and is written down in her sacred books. The OT contains 46 books — law, history, prophets and wisdom books — and all of them, in one way or another, point to the Messiah, the one who was to come. So the whole OT is a preparation for the Redeemer who is the God-man, Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem about 1700 years after the time of Abraham.
Everything in the OT points to Jesus the Messiah, some things more clearly than others. Thus, we find dramatic types of Christ such as Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, Job, and so forth. Accordingly, the Catholic Church reveres the OT and includes all the books in her own Bible. The Council says that those books “give expression to a lively sense of God” and that they are “a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on human life, as well as a wonderful treasury of prayers” (# 15).
Quoting St. Augustine, the document says God, who is the author of all the books of the OT and NT, in his wisdom and providence has brought it about that the New should be hidden in the Old and that the Old should be made clear in the New (#16). There are more than 350 references to the OT in the NT. The books of the OT attain new meaning in the NT, and they also shed new light on many of the things that Jesus did and said. So the more one understands the books of the OT, the better he will understand the NT. They can only strengthen his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
CHAPTER V THE NEW TESTAMENT (##17-20):
The chapter begins with the strong statement that the Word of God “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith (cf. Rom. 1:16).” This power and this faith are set forth clearly in the writings of the NT. For it tells the story of the incarnation of the Son of God, what He did and what He said in order to redeem the human race. He is the one who has the words of eternal life and He communicates that life through grace to all who believe in Him. So the books of the NT are a divine witness to all that Jesus did and said; they explain who He is and why He came into this world.
The Council says that the most important books in the NT are the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John because they are our principal source of knowledge about the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. The Church has always proclaimed and defended the apostolic origin of the four Gospels. For Jesus communicated the Good News to His Apostles; they preached it everywhere and eventually they and other apostolic men committed that preaching to writing in what we call the four Gospels just mentioned.
The next very serious point has to do with the historical value of the Gospels, that is, are they true? Do they really tell us what Jesus did and said, or are they a pious fabrication of those who lived perhaps many years after the time of Jesus? The Church unequivocally defends the historicity of the four Gospels and firmly maintains that they truly and accurately tell us what Jesus did and taught during his earthly life. So the Gospels were written by eye witnesses (Matthew and John), or by the companions of eye witnesses (Mark and Luke). Helped by the Holy Spirit, they wrote down what they remembered and what they had preached for a number of years, or they wrote down the testimony of others who were eye witnesses. Their purpose was that we might know the full truth about Jesus the Christ (see Luke 1:2-4) (#19).
In addition to the four Gospels, the NT also contains the fourteen letters of St. Paul and the other apostolic writings which were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These writings clarify certain points of Jesus’ teaching and apply it to the circumstances of the time. Much of it is theological reflection on what God accomplished through Jesus Christ. For Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit on his Apostles (John 14 and 16) to guide them into all truth; He also said that He Himself would be with them until the end of the world (see Matt. 28:18-20).
CHAPTER VI. SACRED SCRIPTURE IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH (##21-26):
The Church regards the divine Scriptures along with Tradition as the supreme rule of her faith. It follows that the Christian life and especially the worship of the Church should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture. The liturgy of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, is permeated with quotes and references to the Bible.
All the faithful should have easy access to sacred Scripture. For this reason the Church encourages and promotes good translations in the modern languages which should be based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts; she holds in high regard the Greek Septuagint version of the OT, and the Latin Vulgate edition which was produced by St. Jerome in the 4th century.
The Church is taught by the Holy Spirit. In every generation she strives to achieve a deeper understanding of the sacred books which contain the Word of God. Accordingly, she encourages the study of the Eastern and Western Fathers and also the holy liturgies of the various Catholic rites. The Council urges exegetes and theologians to study the Scriptures and to explain them, but always under the watchful eye of the Magisterium. For explanation of the Bible is a work that must be done in the Church, for the Church, and under the direction of the Church.
The Word of God nourishes faith. So the study of the Scriptures enlightens the mind, strengthens the will and inflames the hearts of men with the love of God. This section of the document strongly encourages Scripture scholars to press forward in their work, but always in accordance with the mind of the Church (#23).
Catholic theology is based on sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Quoting a phrase from Pope Leo XIII, the Council says that the study of “the sacred page” should be the “soul of theology.” The pastoral work of priests should be nourished by their use of the Scriptures, especially in preaching and catechetics.
Using an expression of St. Jerome, the Council reminds both priests and lay people that “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Accordingly, the Council urges priests, deacons and catechists to “immerse themselves” in the Scriptures by constantly reading them and meditating on them. The study of the sacred page should lead naturally to prayer, for, as St. Ambrose said, “We speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles.”
Next, the Council says that bishops should instruct the faithful on how to use the Bible in a Catholic way, and that they should provide good translations with adequate notes so the reader can better understand what the authors are saying, especially the evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (#25).
Finally, the Council hopes that by reading and studying the Word of God contained in the Bible, Catholics will grow in the knowledge and love of God. So the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Scriptures are the foundation of a vigorous and generous spiritual life.
The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum depends on Catholic biblical scholarship of the past. It is especially dependent on the encyclical letters of three popes which treat the Bible: Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus (1893), Benedict XV’s Spiritus Paraclitus (1920, and Pius XII’s Divino Afflante (1943 ). Those readers interested in questions related to the interpretation of the Bible should consult the important document published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1993 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Providentissimus Deus. The English title is “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Catholic Church.” It can be found in Origins (Vol. 23, No. 29, January 6, 1994, pp. 497-524). The Daughters of St. Paul also sell it in a pamphlet form. These four documents, along with the Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation, will give the reader a good overview of Church teaching during the past hundred years on questions relating to divine Revelation and its interpretation. These documents are normative for anyone who calls himself a Catholic — whether cleric, theologian or lay person.
Baker, Kenneth. “Vatican II on Divine Revelation.” Catholic Dossier 6 no. 1 (January-February 2000): 17-21.
Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.
Fr. Kenneth Baker, S. J. is editor of Homiletic and Pastoral Review and author of Inside the Bible.
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