On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Dei Verbum

Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction from these words of St. John: ‘We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ’ (1Jn 1:2-3). Therefore, following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on, so that by hearing the message of salvation the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.

Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation)

22 years after Pius XII’s encyclical on biblical studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pope Paul VI promulgated Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from the Second Vatican Council.

Dei Verbum begins with an extended reflection on the nature of Divine Revelation itself. Stressing the importance of both God’s words and deeds (2), the document goes on to show that “Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself… especially through His death and glorious resurrection.” Because revelation has been perfected, “we now await no further new public revelation” (4). Finally, the Council Fathers affirm that while God can be known through the light of human reason, it is only through grace that man is able to submit to revealed truth (5,6).

The Fathers proceed to outline the transmission of revelation through the ages, beginning with the Apostles. By their teaching, example and observances the Apostles continued to pass on what they had learned from Jesus, both through oral preaching and in writing. Leaving the bishops to continue their ministry, the Apostles assured “an unending succession of preachers until the end of time” (8). This deposit of faith, which consists of both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, flows from God through the succession of bishops who, through their exercise of the teaching authority of the Church, are entrusted with the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God (10).

Dei Verbum then takes a closer look at Scripture, affirming that both the Old and New Testaments have been written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and delivered to the Church as sacred and canonical (11). Because they have God as their author the sacred writings “must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.”

Yet the Council Fathers acknowledge that to the extent that the Sacred Authors used human language to express divine truths, we must understand their intended meaning to grasp their divine content. Echoing Divino Afflante Spiritu, they commend biblical scholars to pay particular attention to the literary forms contained within scripture, as well as to the internal unity of the biblical texts (12).

The Council Fathers then outline the covenants of the Old and New Testaments. The purpose of the Abrahamic, Noahic and Mosaic Covenants (as well as the other minor covenants of the Old Testament) is to prepare for the coming of Christ; in these covenants with the Chosen People God foreshadows the New Covenant with all of humanity (15, 16). The New Testament is the record of this renewed covenant. For this reason the four Gospels have pride of place, since “they are the principle witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior” (18). Yet the council affirms that Scripture does not contain a complete record of the life and teachings of Christ:

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 (19).

Dei Verbum ends with some extended thoughts on the proper use of Scripture in the life of the Church. The Council Fathers encourages the translation of Scripture into the vernacular (22); the study of the Church Fathers to better understand the meaning of Scripture (23); the use of Scripture in theological studies, catechesis and preaching (24); and frequent reading and praying of the Word of God, especially by priests, religious and bishops (25), and the use of Scripture in evangelization:

In this way, therefore, through the reading and study of the sacred books “the word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified” (2Thess 3:1) and the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of men. Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery, similar we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which “lasts forever” (Is 40:8; see 1Pet 1:23-25).

Posts in this Series:

  1. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (October 13, 2008)
  2. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Dei Verbum (October 7, 2008)
  3. On the Catholic Interpretation of the Bible: Divino Afflante Spiritu (September 30, 2008)