Mention the Second Vatican Council, and you’ll find some younger Catholics glazing over. Many born in the seventies and eighties missed the euphoria of the Council and the revolution realized in its aftermath. Our earliest point of reference might be not 1969 but rather the peaceful revolution Pope St. John Paul II’s faithful witness produced in 1989.
A big reason for our conciliar dysphoria is that younger Catholics never experienced the preconciliar Church and so have a harder time appreciating the Council’s many real achievements. We get to take them for granted. Another, darker reason is that much obvious nonsense has taken root in the Church under the banner of the Council, with the result that Mass attendance has collapsed and surveys indicate many Catholics either don’t know basic Church teaching or reject what they do know. It seems some have made a desert and called it renewal.
It would be a pity, then, if our relative youth and our disdain for the silliness slipped into the Church by the sleight-of-hand of the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” would lead us to ignore the Council’s glorious and binding teaching.
This is especially true where Dei Verbum—the Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, promulgated just over fifty year ago—is concerned, as it concerns biblical interpretation, which affects the whole of Catholic faith and practice. I’m a biblical scholar and so I have a bias, but here are five reasons you should read Dei Verbum first and foremost among the conciliar documents:
1. It’s very short, and so not only serves as an introduction to the Bible’s role in divine revelation but as an accessible entrée into the broader Council itself.
2. The study of sacred Scripture is “the soul of sacred theology” (see Dei Verbum 24), and so Dei Verbum will help you read the Bible according to the mind of the Church.
3. You’ll have the necessary knowledge to counter claims that the Second Vatican Council gave the historical-critical method pride of place.
4. If you’re inclined to disdain Vatican II, you’ll come to see that the Council itself and its documents aren’t the problem.
5. You’ll come to see that Vatican II was meant for mission in modernity, intended as a pastoral program (as Bishop Barron puts it), not to lead not to the secularizing of the Church but rather to the Christification of the world.
And here are five things you will learn from Dei Verbum:
1. Christ is the primary and ultimate revelation of God. Indeed, one helpful way of conceiving the theological work of the Council is Christocentrism. Instead of seeing the Catholic Faith as a bunch of discrete doctrinal data to be organized systematically, the Council endeavored to describe all aspects of Catholic faith and practice in relation to Christ. It put Christ firmly at the center. And so Dei Verbumbegins not with a statement on Scripture as such but rather with a biblical quotation from St. John pointing to Christ as the ultimate locus of divine revelation: “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” (1 Jn 1:2-3).
2. Christ, God’s definitive revelation to man, is the center of the story of salvation history the Bible tells. Christ does not merely pop out of heaven unannounced to teach by word and deed, but is the culmination of Israel’s story, the fulfillment of her prophecies and hopes, and then Christ founds a Church to carry on Israel’s mission of redemption in the world. The category of story is supreme, and Dei Verbum spends sections 2-4 spelling out the culmination of salvation history in Jesus, and sections 7-10 spell out how the Church receives, interprets, and hands on that revelation.
Moreover, against those biblical scholars who find the Bible to be a messy mass of disparate documents, Dei Verbum 12 assumes and affirms that the Bible functions as part of a harmonious, coherent whole (which the Catechism makes plain in sections 111-114).
First, salvation history is a coherent story. Dei Verbum 12 instructs interpreters to pay attention to “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture,” and so the Catechism teaches, “Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart” (112). Second, Dei Verbum 12 teaches Scripture is to be read in light of “the living Tradition of the whole Church.” Third, Dei Verbum 12 teaches Scripture is also to be read in a way that coheres with “the harmony which exists between elements of the faith,” which means that Sacred Scripture and Sacred Doctrine cannot contradict each other.
In short, Dei Verbum assumes and affirms that the Church’s Bible, the Church’s Tradition, and the Church’s doctrine are one harmonious whole with Christ at the center.
3. Dei Verbum subtly affirms reading Scripture for its four classical senses—the literal sense, and then the spiritual sense divided into three: the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical senses. The allegorical sense concerns how the Old and New Testaments relate, the tropological sense is the moral sense, and the anagogical sense concerns the soul’s progress to heaven.
Many modern Catholic scholars miss this, however, reading Dei Verbum as the Church affirming the historical-critical method as the first and only proper way to approach the Bible. Dei Verbum 12 doesn’t mention the fourfold sense directly, while it does mention paying real attention to all the dynamics and details of the human authors’ use of language in composing the biblical texts. But Dei Verbum 12 falls into two sections, the first pertaining to the letter of Scripture (what the human authors wrote) and the second pertaining to “what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.”
Enter the Catechism, which offers a definitive interpretation of Dei Verbum 12. After affirming the unity of the Bible, Tradition, and doctrine according to Dei Verbum 12 (see my #2 just above), the Catechism then in sections 115-118 advocates the fourfold sense and then in 119 quotes at length the closing lines of Dei Verbum 12. The point: The authoritative and binding Catechism finds in Dei Verbum12 an affirmation of the fourfold sense.
How does the fourfold sense work in practice? An example from Joshua: According to the letter, Joshua’s story is about his leading the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land. Allegorically, Joshua is a type of Jesus, as they have the exact same name in both Hebrew and Greek (Y’shua and Iēsous); Joshua fights literal enemies after crossing the Jordan, while Jesus fights spiritual enemies (think of the Temptation and all his exorcisms) after being baptized in the Jordan. Tropologically, we are to be like Jesus in making holy war on sin and devil in our own lives, and anagogically, following Jesus’ example here brings us closer to heaven.
4. Reading the Bible in accord with Dei Verbum along the lines sketched above means “mystagogy,” the actualization of salvation history in the Church’s liturgical and sacramental present as we anticipate heaven. “Mystery” is the Greek-derived word for sacrament, “sacrament” is the Latin-derived word for…wait for it…mystery. And so mystagogy is being brought into the Church’s sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.
The chief example: The exodus in the Old Testament with its sacrificial slaughter of the Passover lambs is a type of the sacrifice of Christ as the new Passover lamb in the New Testament, which in turn is the pattern for the sacrifice of the Eucharist each and every day: “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” When we attend mass, the past of salvation history and the future of heaven meet in our present, as we consume the risen, ascended Jesus even while we are thrown back into Passover.
5. Sacred Scripture, then, is realized most fully in the Mass, where we encounter the One who stands at the center of Scripture’s story of salvation history most fully in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ crucified and risen, the definitive revelation of God to man. Therefore for Catholics the Bible isn’t just a random collection of documents full of human words giving us mere information, but Scripture, God’s word in human words, which shapes our formation and transformation. We thus come full circle to Dei Verbum 1, which teaches that hearing God’s divinely revealed message of salvation cultivates the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.