Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Council at 50: Vatican II’s Word on the Word of God

Welcome to one of the series of blogs on the Second Vatican Council. Each piece reviews one of the 16 documents produced by the Council Fathers during the extraordinary occasion in Church history. Vatican II, which drew together the world’s bishops, opened fifty years ago in St. Peter’s Basilica, October 11, 1962.

(Photo courtesy Catholic News Service)

All documents are not created equal.  Of the 16 produced by the Second Vatican Council, only two got top-tier religious ranking:  Dogmatic Constitution. Those two are Lumen Gentium (On the Church) and Dei Verbum (On the Word of God).

In Dei Verbum (DV), the Council Fathers responded to common misunderstandings about the Church and the bible. The following five highlights show how they answered these challenges from the world.

1. Tradition:  People often ask why the Church puts faith in Tradition, especially if it’s not found in the bible.  Dei Verbum teaches that before the Word was written (Scripture), it was preached and lived. It is the preaching and deeds of the Apostles, which the Church calls Tradition. Scripture and Tradition, that cannot be separated. They are living and interconnected –
both expressions of Christ (cf. DV 7-10). 
Yet they cannot interpret themselves, and so Tradition and Scripture also have the successors of the Apostles, the bishops, to interpret them.  Dei Verbum gives us a tripod of Tradition, Scripture and teaching authority, “so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others” (DV 10).  Together, they lead securely to salvation with God.

2. DV affirmed the bible as inspired and therefore without error.  Some biblical scholars have tried to understand our world using only the power of human reason, leaving out faith or the supernatural – effectively sidelining God to the act of creation and then to heaven. They search for “natural” explanations for any mention of “supernatural” happenings in the bible. DV states that the whole bible, Old and New Testament, was “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”  Therefore, they have “God as their author,” (DV 11) who can act supernaturally.  DV affirms that  the bible must be read with faith as well as reason.  It states that the bible teaches “faithfully and without error” and is given to us “for the sake of salvation” (DV 11). 

3. DV’s embrace of humility in Scripture:  Just as God humbled Himself to become human in every way except sin, so the Word humbled itself to be written in human language in every way except error (DV 13). The humble appearance of God in Jesus is compared to the humble appearance of God in the written word.  Both require faith to see the divine in the human.  This means that just as people without faith failed to see Jesus as the Son of God, today people without faith will fail to see the bible (because of its humble nature) as inspired and without error.

4. Perhaps, the biggest development in DV states that the bible’s truth is expressed according to the “literary form” of each book or part.  Historical truth will be expressed differently from prophetic or poetic truth; and these “forms” follow the “time and culture” when they were written (DV 12).  DV also says that every line of Scripture has to be understood in relation to the bible as a whole, as well as in relation to the whole Tradition of the Church. The bible is a unity.

5. Lastly, DV shows a desire for dialogue and evangelization when it encourages translations of the bible for non-Catholics and even non-Christians. Such translations, it counsels, should include footnotes to explain the biblical verses in accord with the religious background of those reading it (DV 25).


Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas is a member of the Subcommittee on Scripture Translations of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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