Rereading Dei Verbum in Context
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Rereading Dei Verbum in Context

Rereading Dei Verbum in Context

Canon Luiz Ruscillo FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2013

Canon Luiz Ruscillo is Director of Education for Lancaster Diocese and a graduate of
Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute. In this lengthy but rewarding article he offers a
fascinating and synthetic overview of the scholarly context of one of Vatican II’s most
influential documents, Dei Verbum.

In November 1965 Pope Paul VI promulgated Dei Verbum. This document, one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council, presented to the modern world the Catholic Church’s understanding of how God reveals himself to humanity. The Bible is the written document that records God’s self-revelation and so Dei Verbum is concerned with the Bible. Too often Dei Verbum’s promulgation is caricatured as the moment Catholics began again to read the Bible, after centuries of it being a closed book for them. This is yet another instance of that lazy approach which understands the Second Vatican Council as an absolute novelty, an approach described by Benedict XVI as “a hermeneutic of discontinuity”.

It is true that the Catholic Church has been extremely attentive to the way Christians have approached the Bible; and those in authority have been extremely protective. We witness this as early as AD150 with Marcion, a heretical bishop in the early Church, who rejected the Old Testament and Judaism as well as large parts of the New Testament

The Church had to oppose him and promulgate an orthodox New Testament canon. Such sensitivity and reverence for the Scriptures and the accompanying harshness towards those who in some way threaten them is understandable if we take the Bible seriously as the Word of God. In Marcion’s case the Church acted correctly to protect the integrity of the teaching of the Apostles and the faith of the people.

It requires the wisdom of Solomon to guide the faithful in their reading of the Scriptures. And this has been especially the case through the period of rationalism and the Enlightenment up to the modern day, during which we have seen the birth of critical studies and the historical-critical method. From our present vantage point, looking over the most recent centuries of scripture scholarship, the long view taken by the teaching authority of the Church seems to have been vindicated. It is only within this context that one can rightly appreciate the full import of Dei Verbum.

The Bible, Interpretation and the Wider Context of Revelation

It has always been understood from the earliest times, even before Christianity, that the Bible is not a homogeneous text. Within the Scriptures themselves, both the Old and the New Testaments, we see ample evidence of new interpretations and rereading of the more ancient texts, recognition of different forms and styles, even a retelling of the same events in a different way. In other words, the practice of interpretation of the biblical text already occurs within the Bible itself.

Furthermore, neither Judaism nor Christianity can be described as “religions of the book”. Ancient Judaism had a concept of the unwritten Torah, similar to Christianity’s Tradition. This is to be expected, since a set of experiences regarded as the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt, the promise of a land and their election as a people joined to God in a covenant gave them their identity before any written accounts. Similarly, the Christian kerygma, the preaching of the Gospel, came before any written Gospels. The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, grew out of a living faith community and are owned by that community.

Consequently, although four of the six chapters (3-6) that make up Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, concentrate on the Scriptures, the document begins (chapters 1-2) by setting the Bible in the context of God revealing Himself to man in the history of salvation, in Christ who is the fullness of Revelation, and in the life of the Church through which Revelation is transmitted. The Bible cannot be read, understood or interpreted outside the community of the Church. An approach of sola scriptura makes neither historical nor theological sense.

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has beenrevealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence. (DV 9)

Having described the place of the Scriptures in the life and tradition of the Church, Dei Verbum succinctly lays down wise principles for interpreting and understanding them. These are the fruit of considered reflection by the Church on the developments of modern methods of exegesis using twenty centuries of lived wisdom. Hence, if one is to grasp the full import of Dei Verbum an overview of both the Church’s approach to Scripture and the document’s immediate scholarly context is required.

The Church and the Bible

The Church has always had a care to guide the faithful and preserve the Scriptures, especially in times of doubts and uncertainties. The Council of Trent (1545-63) dispelled anxieties with its resolution to decree the list of the inspired books of the Canon of Scripture. In doing so it adopted the same Canon that had already been listed in the Council of Florence (1438-45), which in turn is identical to that of the Council of Hippo (393); and that Council used the list found in a letter regarding the Canon sent by Pope Innocent I in 405 to Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse. Similarly, there have always been scholars within the Church, of the highest quality and integrity, who have used the critical tools available to them at the time in their biblical studies. Among the greatest would beOrigen (185-254), who began textual criticism with his Hexapla; Eusebius (260-340), who researched the formation of the New Testament; and Augustine (354-430), who laid down principles for comparison of the Synoptics.

Scholars of the Middle Ages also had a fine-tuned methodology in their exegesis, expressed as the four senses of Scripture. The method gave rise to the couplet: Litera gesta docet, Quid credas allegoria / Moralis quid agas, Quo tendas anagogia (which freely translates as: “The literal teaches what God and our ancestors did; the allegory is where our faith and belief is hid / The moral meaning gives us the rule of daily life; the anagogy [or mystical interpretation] shows us where we end our strife”). But with the coming of the age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century the Church was faced with a whole new way of approaching the Scriptures, which now we describe as modern biblical criticism. It was a development which could not be ignored and needed to be engaged with.

An Oratory priest, Richard Simon (1638-1712), with his work Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), began the era of modern criticism. He concluded that Moses was not the only author of the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and proposed that the ancient texts had unwritten traditions at their base. His work was translated into English and later German, but it was also put on the Church’s index of forbidden books. Another Catholic, Jean Astruc, observed in his work Conjectures (1753) that there is a variation in the divine name in Genesis and proposed that this was due to the use of two distinct sources. Another Catholic, Alexander Geddes, commented on the same thing at the beginning of the 19th century.

The Rise of the Historical-Critical Method

Although these Catholic scholars recognised that historical circumstances are important for understanding the text, it was among the Protestants that the historical-critical method would be developed. The great intellectual currents of the 17th and 18th centuries inevitably influenced the direction of biblical studies deeply. The shift of emphasis from metaphysics to epistemology and so to rationalism and empiricism would greatly affect the presuppositions which underpinned approaches to interpretation. With the age of the Enlightenment, rationalism culminated in a complete rejection of the supernatural, and extreme empiricism led to scepticism and subjectivism. The philosophy of Hegel, and then evolutionary theory, became the great and defining influences on biblical historicalstudies.

As a result, the great figures in biblical scholarship leading up to the beginning of the 20th century have at the heart of their work certain philosophical presuppositions born out of the Enlightenment:

  • That claims to historicity must be treated with scepticism;
  • That ancient culture and religion evolve gradually from the primitive;
  • That all supernatural elements are to be rejected.

These principles influenced the great Protestant scriptural scholars such as Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), Bernhard Duhm (1847-1928), Ferdinand Christian Bauer (1792-1860) and David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874). Nor were Catholics completely absent from the scene: the Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938) argued that the exegete could hold to the immutability of truth and, at the same time, take seriously the growth of doctrine within Scripture. Albin van Hoonacker (1857-1933) was another Catholic of the same mind who worked with the new methodology while not advocating the relativist philosophical presumptions.

It was in this period that Vatican I (1869-1870) reaffirmed that the books of the Bible are sacred and canonical because, “having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author”. It is also in this period that Leo XIII issued Providentissimus Deus (1893). This encyclical presented a plan for Catholic biblical studies. In the guidance and recommendations we find the following:

Students should be trained in methods of interpretation;
  • Although the Vulgate is to be the official text of the Bible, ancient manuscripts must not be neglected;
  • A text cannot be interpreted against a dogma of the Church;
  • The art of criticism and oriental languages should be studied;
  • God spoke to human beings in a way that they could understand and the sacred authors used terms common at the time. They did not formally intend to teach natural science and history.

Since this period is marked by vicious polemics against the faith it is significant that the reaction of the Magisterium was not defensive, but encouraged the development of genuine scientific expertise while rejecting the preconceived opinions inimical to the faith.

The 20th Century and Form Criticism

Moving into the 20th century, Herman Gunkel (1862-1932) developed a method of the study of the Old Testament described as form criticism, which looked for the original data that gave rise to the secondary context of the written form. He had eminent followers such as Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971) and Martin Noth (1902-1968). Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was the most influential New Testament scholar. He looked to get behind the written documents to the period between the events of Jesus’ life and the written accounts. This is an important and fruitful venture both for the Old and New Testaments, but when it is undertaken within a context formed by the philosophical presuppositions outlined above, its dangers are evident. The most damaging are the presumptions that historicity is absent in thebiblical text and that any reference to the supernatural must by myth

The Church’s Reaction

At the same time the Modernist crisis was at its height. Pius X decided his priority was to protect the faithful, even at the temporary expense of continued Catholic development in scripture studies. In Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907), the Pope rebutted the modernists on the origin and nature of the sacred books, on inspiration, on the distinction between the purely human Jesus of history and the divine Christ of faith. The Pontifical Biblical Commission issued decrees between 1905 and 1915 which were cautionary and defensive. They were cleverly phrased and nuanced, which did give room for scholarly investigation, but the message was clear: the findings of modernist scripture scholarship have no place in the Church.

While Benedict XV in Spiritus Paraclitus (1920) briefly commends those who dedicate themselves to the study of the Bible and the use of modern critical methods, it is Pius XII who reinvigorates Catholic biblical scholarship with Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943). This encyclical commemorated the 50th anniversary of Providentissimus Deus and developed further many of its teachings. Divino Afflante Spiritu affirms the need for textual criticism; for study of oriental languages; and for an examination of the character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the time in which he lived, the written and oral sources he used and his forms of expression. History, archaeology and other sciences are to be employed as well as the study of the literary forms. Catholic scholars were encouraged toaddress themselves, in service of the Church, even to the difficult problems – and not to shy away from, or ignore, them.

A Catholic principle becomes ever clearer at this time, and Pius XII expressed it in these words: “Just as the substantial Word of God became like men in every respect except sin, so too the words of God, expressed in human languages, became like human language in every respect except error.” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 37). This describes the strict relationship uniting the inspired biblical texts with the mystery of the Incarnation. Here we find the best hermeneutical key for all study of the Bible.

The Incarnational Principal

A first step towards the Incarnation of the Word of God was the inspired act of putting God’s words into writing. These written words became an abiding means of communication and communion between the chosen people and their Lord. They also looked to a future fulfilment, so that their fullest meaning was only completely recognised when the Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. After the coming of the Word, the written words of the New Testament attest to His presence and teaching. The written text grew out of the community of Israel and then that of the Church. This context of faith cannot be ignored in the interpretation of the text.

The Bible also has its own consistency as human literature. While God is absolute, it is not the case that each of His words in Scripture has an absolute value in itself. Since we believe that God, in the Bible, expresses Himself in human language, it is not the case that each phrase of the Bible has a uniform significance. Real human language and literature has possible nuances and flexibilities as well as limitations. Since we take seriously the realism of the Incarnation, we also take seriously the humanity of the text.

To be true to the Incarnational Principle expressed by Pius XII we must seek to understand the meaning of the texts in their historical, cultural context. The historical-critical method is an essential and useful tool for the Catholic exegete when freed from those philosophical presuppositions alien to the Bible and the Judeo-Christian religion.

With the renewed confidence brought about by Divino Afflante Spiritu, the secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a clarification in 1955 regarding the Commission’s statements earlier in the century, indicating that the interpreter of Sacred Scripture can pursue scientific investigations with full liberty provided that he respects the teaching authority of the Church.

Dei Verbum

This is the context of Dei Verbum. It is not a bolt from the blue, a moment of rare liberation for Catholic biblical scholars. It is, rather, the fruit of the wise deliberations of the Church over the last century in the face of extraordinary developments in philosophy, theology, history, archaeology and philology. This document confidently expresses the characteristics of Catholic exegesis. Since the document itself is concerned with Revelation, it is presupposed that the Bible is part of God’s self-revelation which begins in creation, through the calling of Abraham and the election of Israel, and culminates in the Incarnation. The Bible is also the “Book of the Church” and, with Tradition, flows from the one “divine wellspring” who is Christ, merges with Tradition and has the samepurpose. Catholic exegesis, then, deliberately places itself within the living Tradition of the Church

At the heart of this document the Incarnational principle is enshrined as that principle that guides and governs the Church’s understanding of the Scriptures. In Chapter 3 we read that the Sacred books have “God as their author” (DV, 11). In composing them God “chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” (DV, 11).

To search out what God intended to express to us in the Scriptures we must search out the intention and meaning of the human author. All necessary tools can and should be employed in this endeavour. At the same time, it is to be borne in mind that “[since] everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV, 11).

Also, since the Scriptures have one single Divine Author, they have an inner unity within themselves and within the life the Church. No authentic interpretation can ignore the place that a given text has in the Scriptures as a whole, and in the Tradition.

Chapter 5, although short, as is the whole document, is crammed with a wisdom gained over centuries of reflection, including the insights developed over the painful decades of the first half of the 20th century. It concentrates on the four Gospels and again expresses the Incarnational Principle: the Gospels have a Divine Author and human authors; and they are formed from, and can only be understood within, the community of faith. Article 19 bears quoting in full:

Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. 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 ofthem 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. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4). (DV, 19)

Note first that the historicity of the Gospels is affirmed, based on the assurance that the Apostles were eye-witnesses to Christ’s ministry. Note also that the Holy Spirit gave the Apostles and the sacred authors insight and clearer understanding, and thus there is a Divine guarantee of the reliability of the Gospels. The action of the Holy Spirit does not, however, overwhelm the humanity of the sacred authors, who actively engage their human faculties to co-operate with His promptings.

The authors used their skills as human writers, choosing and selecting, synthesising and explaining, always within their communities and in the context of the kerygma, the preaching of the Gospel of salvation. Thus Dei Verbum is asserting both human and divine elements that are really distinct but also united in the production of the books of the Gospel. We see then that the written texts of the Gospels can analogously be compared to the person of Jesus in whom divinity and humanity are united but unconfused. This is the Incarnational principle.

Dei Verbum is the fruit of a process that began long before the calling of the Second Vatican Council. It is also an extraordinary document. It achieves what only the Church could achieve: the preservation of reverence for the Bible as the “Word of God in words of men”, a recognition of its place within the community of faith and it gives the freedom for scientific study which can only come from such a secure philosophical and theological foundation within the Church.

The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures … inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. (DV, 21)

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