The next worldwide Synod of Bishops is going to focus its attention on Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. This pivotal conciliar document has called Catholics to draw more effectively upon the life-changing power of Sacred Scripture.
And yet, Dei Verbum is not simply about the Bible. The title of this document itself is instructive. The Council Fathers did not call it Dei Librum (“Book of God”) but Dei Verbum (“Word of God”). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us why this distinction is important:
“The Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, open our minds to understand the Scriptures” (no. 108, footnotes omitted).
For All the Saints
One of the principal themes of the Second Vatican Council was the universal call to holiness. The renewal of the Church hinges on the ongoing sanctification of all her members. This is the work of God, but all the faithful must be personally engaged in the process.
Dei Verbum takes us to the point of entry into this new life in Christ Jesus. It comes down to the “obedience of faith” that we give to God as He reveals Himself to us (DV, no. 5). As our Lord Himself says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28).
It is the great mission of the Holy Spirit, the “soul of the Church,” to reveal Christ to us and bring us into communion with Him and all His holy ones. As St. Paul says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 12:3). The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles and to the entire Church surely includes the singular blessing of Sacred Scripture, but encompasses the totality of what Christ bequeathed to His Church, including the sacred liturgy. In this regard the Holy Spirit “is the Church’s living memory” (Catechism, no. 1099), making present and effective in our lives the saving works of Christ. Dei Verbum, no. 9 therefore affirms that Sacred Tradition and Scripture are bound closely together and flow from the same divine wellspring, which is none other than the Holy Spirit.
While Catholics do not limit God’s self-revelation to the Bible alone (“sola scriptura”), we must affirm with St. Jerome that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”
The fact of the matter is that Catholics have not been well “versed” in Sacred Scripture. Surely, Catholics know much more of the Bible than we think we do–to the extent we’ve stayed awake at Mass and catechism class. Still, we experience something of an “inferiority complex” when it comes to the Bible. When challenged on the more controversial aspects of our faith with the dreaded “Where in the Bible…?” questions, we are needlessly bewildered and intimidated.
Tragically, there are millions of Catholics raised since the mid-20th century in this country who have left the Church. Many, for one reason or another, have simply abandoned all religious practice, as the poor formation many Catholics have received has proven to be no match for the relentless secularism of our society. Some, however, have met “Bible Christians” who have found in these biblically hapless Catholics easy targets for their proselytism.
In my own life–despite 12 years of Catholic school–I found myself as a young adult woefully ignorant of Christ. Scripture was not a priority in our home and was not convincingly proclaimed at school or at Sunday Mass. Our beautiful, large, family Bible was used mostly to keep important documents and newspaper clippings flat (because of its size), and safe (because no one would ever think of opening it).
Even as the Holy Spirit was gently leading me home in the 1980s, it was difficult to find sound Catholic materials on Scripture. The first book I picked up discussed how St. Paul didn’t write many of the Epistles the Church attributes to him. The second book said we had to focus on the human Jesus and proceeded to explain away the miraculous occurrences in the Gospels. The third book went so far as to deny the Resurrection, saying that it wasn’t a historical event, but basically, “It’s the Church’s story and we’re sticking to it.” These were all considered mainstream “Catholic” books that I later encountered, among others, in seminary. No wonder we’re confused!
While there’s much more work to be done today, the climate is already subtly but unmistakably changing. My kids and their friends not only know the Catechism, but are quite at home–where they should be–in the Bible, and in fact have more of it memorized than I do. The Liturgy of the Word–not just at Mass, but also in other sacramental celebrations and the Liturgy of the Hours–now receives greater attention. The faithful are exposed to more of the Bible than before, and in its natural habitat to boot: the sacred liturgy. Catholics in unprecedented numbers are engaged in life-changing Bible studies. Catholic apologetics, thanks to Karl Keating, Pat Madrid, and so many others, has undergone a remarkable renaissance, such that Catholics are increasingly able to explain the biblical basis of our beliefs.
All this has greatly advanced the Church’s ecumenical and evangelistic priorities as articulated by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And the exciting thing is that we’re only now beginning to scratch the surface.
I’m often challenged to defend Vatican II in light of the problems the Church has encountered over the past 40 years. All other arguments aside, I’d suggest that the emerging, Church-wide renewal of biblical literacy that Dei Verbum has unleashed will, through the perspective of history, be more than enough to justify Pope John XXIII’s Council.
Where to Start?
As we strive to “think with the Church” and thereby take our rightful place in the new evangelization, lay Catholics are invited to come to “the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:8) through the frequent, prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture. (For many excellent suggestions, visit www.emmausroad.org.)
It is true that there are many ways to approach Scripture study, or even the personal reading of Scripture. Some begin with Genesis and go straight through to Revelation. Others like to focus on the Gospels, whose historicity, by the way, Vatican II “unhesitatingly affirms” (DV, no. 19).
Still others, using perhaps a missal or Magnificat, follow the cycle of readings provided by the Church’s liturgical calendar. All these approaches are valid. I’d simply suggest two attitudes that should inform all study of Sacred Scripture: confidence and humility.
We should have complete confidence in Scripture, because the Holy Spirit is truly its author and guarantees its reliability. Dei Verbum, no. 11 affirms these perennially valid principles of inspiration and inerrancy, citing as authority, among other traditional sources, the magnificent encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus. In that encyclical, Pope Leo affirms the inerrancy of Scripture in compelling terms:
“For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; and so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true. This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and of Trent, and finally confirmed and more expressly formulated by the [first] Council of the Vatican.”
In confidently reading the Scriptures, we do have to come grips with the human authors’ personal and cultural limitations, and we will still encounter some passages which, standing alone, are at least on the surface capable of multiple interpretations. Here’s where the commonsense principle of the “analogy of faith” comes into play (DV, no. 12; cf. Catechism, nos.113-14). The Holy Spirit who gives us the Scriptures is the same Holy Spirit who has guided the teaching Church for two thousand years. Therefore, an interpretation of Scripture that conflicts with traditional teaching must be erroneous.
For example, given the Church’s constant teaching on the Eucharist, we reject an interpretation of John 6 that would reduce Jesus’ words (“eat my flesh”) to the merely symbolic. Similarly, the Church’s authoritative teaching on Mary’s Perpetual Virginity must inform our interpretation of passages that refer to Jesus’ “brothers.”
This leads to the principle of humility, which is a necessary consequence of the “obedience of faith.” Even the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church, which alone has the task of authentically interpreting the Scriptures, is not above the Word of God, but rather is its servant (DV, no. 10).
Reading the Scripture in the Spirit in which it was given prevents us from on the one hand imposing private interpretations on the Bible, perhaps to fit our own pre-existing agenda or worldview, and on the other hand rejecting all or part of God’s Word out of skepticism. If only we could “Google” a difficult verse and get a definitive, unassailable interpretation! It doesn’t always work that way. When it comes to the Bible, we are standing before an awesome mystery greater than ourselves. In many instances, the Church wrestles with the meaning of passages for century after century. Here again Pope Leo of happy memory provides trenchant counsel:
“No one should be so presumptuous as to think that he understands the whole of the Scripture, in which St. Augustine himself confessed that there was more that he did not know, than that he knew, so, if he should come upon anything that seems incapable of solution, he must take to heart the cautious rule of the same holy Doctor: ‘It is better even to be oppressed by unknown but useful signs, than to interpret them uselessly and thus to throw off the yoke only to be caught in the trap of error.’”
As the universal Church prepares to contemplate anew Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, may we as Catholics become “Bible Christians” in the best sense. Through our devout listening to God’s Word in Sacred Scripture, may the “Book” become flesh within us, inflaming our hearts with love of God and zeal for souls.
This article originally appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2005 issue of Lay Witness magazine. All CUF members receive a subscription as part of their membership. To sign up today, visit www.cuf.org. And for the best in Catholic Bible studies and biblical materials, visit www.emmausroad.org.