The 50th Anniversary of Dei Verbum
God’s Revelation is the beginning of our salvation. When we say “yes” to God – when we make an act of faith – it is in reply to his invitation. Fifty years ago today, the Second Vatican Council explained what we mean by Revelation with the promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, known by its Latin title, Dei Verbum (the word of God).
We cannot come to know who God is by ourselves. God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16) and we are ensnared by the burden of our minds and our own human limitations. But God wishes us to be raised up so that we might share his very life. He wants us to know him. Thus, “in his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature” (Dei Verbum, 2).
Jesus himself is the fullness of God’s revelation. The Council Fathers also speak of the Word of God as it is written down in sacred scripture, as well as transmitted through sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. In fact, “sacred Tradition, sacred scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (Dei Verbum, 10).
In this, the document helps us to understand how the Church and her bishops, in communion with the Pope, ensure that our faith remains true. Sacred scripture and Tradition form one common deposit of faith, that is to say, one cannot find solid footing on scripture without Tradition, and likewise one will not find Tradition without any reference to scripture. The Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, exercises a definitively authoritative role in faithfully interpreting both.
Distilled down to its essence, what all this means for us is that when we read the Bible, we should read it in the communion of the Church, and not separate from or in contradiction to the Church. This three-fold notion of authority is not restrictive in the least. As parents may instruct their children because of their experience, so the Church, which is mother and teacher, may establish what is a correct reading from the Bible or from some element of our faith’s Tradition. The Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit does not restrict, but sets us in the right direction to ensure greater freedom, greater humanity, and greater happiness.
When we turn specifically to scripture, the Council affirms that, although physically written by human beings, the books of the Bible were composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, such that God is their ultimate author (Dei Verbum, 11). Thus, “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” (Id.). Furthermore, “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New” (Dei Verbum, 16).
In seeking to accurately understand a given passage of the Bible, the Council teaches, not only is it essential to read the sacred text with the Church, one must also read it in the unity and context of the whole of scripture, but particularly in light of the fullness of Revelation that is Jesus Christ. The reader must also have an appreciation of the historical situation and the various historical, prophetic, poetic, and other literary forms (Dei Verbum, 12).
Out of his great love for mankind, God reveals himself to so that humanity may partake in the divine nature and draw closer to him in time until the day that sacred scripture and Tradition exhaust their usefulness and all is fulfilled in the glorious vision of God himself. In eternity, we will not need to study the scriptures, because the Author will be fully present to us!
While on earth, the pilgrim Church urges that “easy access to sacred scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful” (Dei Verbum, 22). Relying on the Church’s understanding of God’s revelation to man to guide us, we can and should confidently experience all the riches scripture has to offer. In this way, we can enjoy the fruits of friendship with Christ and all the more remain steadfast in our hope of salvation.