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Five reasons to read Dei Verbum—and five things you’ll learn in doing so

The Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”, promulgated in late 1965, has plenty to teach about Scripture, theology, and the person of Jesus Christ.

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.

(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR on January 4, 2016.)

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Arts and Letters and Professor of Theology at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. Dr. Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).


  1. Excellent theological presentation of Dei Verbum and Christocentrism. During seminary studies that came home as a central theme of Vat II. As Huizenga implies it wasn’t made as clear prior, lost, as it was in proscriptions. A clear doctrine despite all the misplaced modernism, explained scripturally for the reader with simplicity. Christ is at the center of our faith and salvation. All history is impacted by that mystery revealed at Bethlehem realized on Calvary. God’s intimate, sacrificial love for his children is spoken in his Son.

  2. All of these reasons pre-existed Dei Verbum for centuries, if not millenia, and have been abundantly set forth in the Fathers and the Tradition of the Church in the reading and explication of Sacred Scripture, so why is Dei Verbum needed?

  3. Excellent. I get SO ANGRY at VaticanII-izens preaching, without substance, that VaticanII changed everything about the Church that it has become a mortal sin for me to attend some “Catholic” presentations. I find Dr. Huizenga’s post to be consoling.

  4. “you’ll come to see that the Council itself and its documents aren’t the problem.”

    Except in the sense that the documents were ambiguous enough to allow “much obvious nonsense has taken root in the Church under the banner of the Council.”

    For example,

    “3. Dei Verbum subtly affirms reading Scripture for its four classical senses…
    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.”

    “Enter the Catechism”

    Dei Verbum was promulgated in 1965. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was promulgated in 1992. That left 27 years for the promoters of “obvious nonsense” to wreak havoc, unchecked.

  5. Of reading the Vatican II documents, Huizenga writes: “If you’re inclined to disdain Vatican II, you’ll come to see that the Council itself and its documents aren’t the problem.”

    Dissent over the meaning of the Second Vatican Council hinges on the alleged difference between the “spirit of Vatican II” and the actual documents. To address this point, an extraordinary synod of bishops was convened in 1985. One of several suggestions to advance an “objective” reception of the Council simply called for a reading of the documents: “. . . a new diffusion of the documents themselves . . .” (The Extraordinary Synod: 1985 [Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1985], 42).

    Another thirty-five years have passed. We have to assume that by now the documents have been translated into German.

  6. Thank you – the freedom given to tie in faith and reason , that has brought forth good priests who are brilliant scientists as well ..for example, we need not even contest about the role of evolution – Genesis account tell us that Adam was put to sleep , before Eve is brought forth , the time frame of that sleep open to events that are read as evolution … – interesting read – had not heard this as the supporting argument before ….the fallen , rebellious nature of the self will of the enemy also said to be fixed for ever – and ? the source of the errors in hearts that also also seem ‘fixed ‘- until the ‘Uncut
    Stone ‘ comes rolling in , to make such into dust , to help raise it all into the glory of and Light of the Reign of the Divine Will that reigned in Adam before The Fall and being restored in our times , in the Redemption and all its holiness and power ..

    Love and gory to You Lord , in every word in the Sacred Scripture …

    May the Mother and Queen of the Divine Will continue to appeal to all , to come up to the Divine Will !

  7. May I make “5 points” with you?

    1. VATICAN II settled old debates not accelerated them; and positioned right ones. Frame this.

    2. Nonsense-quibbling and its promoters are the perennial story of wheat and tares since before VATICAN II.

    3. The JPII CATECHISM is part of the natural progression “of the wheat”.

    4. The Council and Catechism both faithfully reflect the parables of the good stewards (new and old etc.).

    5. The Church moves “out to the whole creation” – Mark 16:15; viz. unicity and catholicity.

    I recommend reading Ratzinger’s ON THE WAY TO JESUS CHRIST. You will see I haven’t here said anything new! I think I would be right to mention this type of reading can also be “spiritual” including what isn’t “mystical” or “phenomenal” – in Council documents, JPII, Catechism, Ratzinger.

  8. VATICAN II has been followed by controversy and confusion for 57 years. Further, it has promoted the exodus of some 80% or more of baptised Catholics and produced a brand of nominal Catholic who often sees human rights as beyond the domain of the Creator in such issues as abortion and euthanasia. How did the Spirit [of Vat II] get it so wrong?? Maybe it was a human spirit, different from that Holy One who in trinity with the Father and Son is the true Spirit. Surely the true Spirit couldn’t have got it so wrong!!!

    • Controversy and confusion are always going, whether after VATICAN II of before it. They are not the result of the Council.

      The loss of the sense of sin and nominalism were already recognized before the Council.

      Abortion in the west was already trending before VATICAN II. Euthanasia as an organizing phenomenon came later via its own channels not VATICAN II.

      The exodus you speak of deserves attention, it’s true! But writing off the Council in one stroke or by broadside cut-downs, “scything”, would add to the problems and worse them, not heal.

      The “80%” number would depend on location.

      The way you construct your argument thus appears not to be of the Holy Spirit.

  9. In the VATICAN II documents, according to my search of the English translations, there is not one single occurrence of the phrase “missionary discipleship” being used.

    The word discipleship never occurs in any of the VATICAN II Documents.

    The only use of the word missionary in the 4 Constitutions is in Lumen Gentium 27, “missionary activity”.

    The word “missionary” is used in conjunctions in the following modes and this mostly happens in Ad Gentes -:

    missionary activity
    missionary zeal
    missionary vocation
    missionary work
    missionaryt task
    missionary spirit
    missionary labor
    missionary co-operation

    In Ad Gentes missionary occurs 71 times, mostly as “missionary activity”. There is mention of “missionary pastoral procedure” , “undertaking” , “workers” , “institutes and seminaries” , “spirituality” , “outlook , “missionary ministry in the spirit of service” , “elements” , “awareness”.

    In Christus Dominus the bishop is to encourage “various forms of apostolate” not a singular one; meanwhile, he is to encourage missionary vocation.

    It seems to me that right now there is an explosion-move going on, to construct a “form and spirit” of action for laypeople that never existed; based in some kind of a way on a “composite” and “extrapolation” of Acts of the Apostles. In other words it is being offered as “an action of the Holy Spirit”.

    Is it true that questioning it is elitist/intellectualist/complacent, by which is meant maybe somewhat lacking in faith or rebellious, legalistic and “neo-Pelagian”?

    A long time ago in the 1990’s I experienced behaviours in a parish group that remarkably resembles what is happening now. If they are linked it makes a very interesting story.

  10. ‘ The final risk, he said, was to adopt an attitude that “We have always done it this way.”

    “Those who think this way, perhaps without even realizing it, make the mistake of not taking seriously the times in which we are living,” he commented.

    “The danger, in the end, is to apply old solutions to new problems. A patch of rough cloth that ends up creating a worse tear.”

    “It is important that the synodal process be exactly this: a process of becoming, a process that involves the local Churches, in different phases and from the bottom up, in an exciting and engaging effort that can forge a style of communion and participation directed to mission.” ‘

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