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Commentary on Dei Verbum

Daniel J. Castellano


1. Historical Background
2. Revelation Itself
3. Transmitting Divine Revelation
4. Inspiration of Holy Scripture
5. Interpretation of Holy Scripture
6. The Old Testament
7. The New Testament
8. Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church
9. Aftermath

Among all the documents of Vatican II, Dei Verbum most closely resembles a traditional conciliar document in form, declaring and expounding doctrine. As a “dogmatic constitution,” it was subjected to greater theological and juridical scrutiny, especially as it dealt with a matter that is fundamental to the faith. Divine revelation, which is the word of God expressed in Scripture and Tradition, is the basis of all Christian doctrine. While the Second Vatican Council generally avoided making new dogmatic definitions, the present constitution at least touches upon the age-old question of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. It also clarifies teaching about the authenticity and inerrancy of Holy Scripture, in light of modern developments in exegesis and criticism.

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1. Historical Background

The First Vatican Council, in its dogmatic constitution Dei Filius (1870), reaffirmed and clarified Tridentine teaching about the content and interpretation of Scripture. It emphasized that the authority of the Scriptures comes not from merely ecclesiastical or canonical law, nor from the mere fact of their inerrancy, “but because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author.” This traditional view of divine authorship was shared by all the Fathers of the Church. Further, interpretation of Scripture in matters of faith and morals, since this pertains to establishing Christian doctrine, is the prerogative of the Church. “In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers.”

While the Vatican Council clarified some matters of central importance regarding divine revelation, other questions were left unanswered. What, exactly, is meant by the divine inspiration of Scripture? What about subjects in Scripture not pertaining to faith and morals? While the Latin Vulgate remains normative, is it the only authentic form of Holy Writ?

These and other questions attained greater prominence in the last decades of the nineteenth century, as textual criticism of the Bible became more developed as a science, due to the discoveries of more ancient manuscripts and an increase in philological and archaeological knowledge. At the time, a distinction was made between “lower” and “higher” criticism. Lower criticism involved the comparison of extant manuscripts in order to determine, as closely as possible, the original verbal form of the text, removing copyist errors and editorial glosses. Higher criticism, also known as form criticism, attempted to determine how and why a text was first composed, mainly by looking at internal literary clues, but also by considering cultural context. As higher criticism was much more interpretive, and less bound by objective criteria than lower criticism, it was much more likely to run afoul of orthodox doctrine.

The higher critics claimed to have proven a number of theses that were at odds not only with particular Christian doctrines, but even with the basic authenticity and divine inspiration of Scripture. Other theses did not overtly contradict the faith, but at least seemed highly difficult to reconcile with it. Some controversial theses merely questioned the traditional authorship of certain books of Scripture, e.g., whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or St. Matthew wrote the Gospel bearing his name. Others boldly challenged the integrity of Scripture, arguing that certain books were harmonizations of contradictory traditions, or that primitive histories were distorted to serve later theological purposes. Still others sought to resolve supposed historical difficulties by claiming that certain books were not historical in genre, but were intended as literary fiction or poetry, or that fables and myths were confused with history.

In response to these dangers to the faith, the Magisterium issued several pronouncements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, condemning critical doctrines that were contrary to the faith, while at the same time defining what lines of inquiry and theses could be licitly held by Catholic exegetes. Here, as always, there was a delicate balance between the Church’s right to define doctrines of faith and morals, and the right to a certain degree of freedom in scientific inquiry.

Most notably, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893), which denounced the rash claims of higher criticism as unsubstantiated impiety, while at the same time commending the use of lower critical methods, including the study of Scripture in its original languages. The Pope closed the door on the pretense that there can be error in Scripture even on matters not pertaining to faith and morals, for those who make such argument “either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error.”

A decade later, in Vigilantiae studiique (1902), Pope Leo established the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which had the task of answering questions as to which critical theses may be licitly held by Catholics. As clarified by Pope St. Pius X in the motu proprio Praestantia Sacrae Scripturae (1907), the judgments of this commission bound Catholics in conscience, as did those of any Roman Congregation.

The responsa of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (the most important of these issued from 1905 to 1915) contradicted a number of widely held critical theses (notably the two-source hypothesis of the Synoptic Gospels), while allowing latitude in other areas (e.g., allowing non-Mosaic glosses in the Pentateuch, permitting denial of Davidic authorship of the Psalms). Generally, these judgments upheld traditional attributions of authorship, as well as belief in the historical genre of much of Scripture, including the first chapters of Genesis. This strong stance on Biblical inerrancy, however much it may be derided as “fundamentalism” (a shibboleth of elastic meaning), is in fact merely the consistent position of the Magisterium, and indeed of all the Fathers of the Church.

In 1907, Pope St. Pius X forcefully denounced the ideological underpinnings of critical impieties, under the rubric of “Modernism.” “Modernism” is not a cohesive ideology held by a self-identified group of “Modernists,” but an umbrella term for the heterodox combination of theology with various modern ideological trends, such as relativism, liberalism, and secularism. In the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, the Pope articulated the explicit and implicit doctrines held by modern critics, pointing out their contradiction with faith, and in many cases, with reason. In Lamentabili Sane, he produced a syllabus of condemned Modernist errors, including a number of propositions held by Biblical critics regarding divine revelation and the truth of Scripture.

By the mid-twentieth century, textual criticism (formerly called “lower criticism”) had developed mostly objective norms in its methodology, and its value came to be more widely appreciated among Catholic exegetes. Likewise, certain aspects of form criticism, especially the identification of literary genre, could now be better grounded as a more solid historical background was established by archaeological discoveries. Pope Pius XII recognized these developments in his encyclical Divino Afflante Espiritu (1943), which praises the improvements in textual criticism, and explains that the Tridentine endorsement of the Latin Vulgate should not discourage recourse to Greek and Hebrew Biblical texts, and vernacular translations from these. Pope Pius did not thereby soften his predecessors’ positions on Scriptural inerrancy; on the contrary, he held that improved knowledge of ancient history and literary modes were necessary aids for the exegete in “explaining the Sacred Scripture and in demonstrating and proving its immunity from all error.”

With this background, we can now examine the extent to which Dei Verbum confirms prior teachings or develops them. When treating each of its topics, we will compare the constitution’s teaching with pre-conciliar documents.

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2. Revelation Itself

The constitution Dei Verbum opens by expressing continuity with previous councils: “...following in the footsteps of the Council of Trent and of the First Vatican Council, this present council wishes to set forth authentic doctrine on divine revelation and how it is handed on…”

The purpose of divine revelation is to bring men into fellowship with God, now and in the life to come. “This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them.” (DV, 2) Clearly, the Church’s notion of revelation requires the reality of the deeds in salvation history; it is not merely a collection of moral teachings. This unity of word and deed is most prominent in Christ, “who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.”

God’s Word is made known to man through created realities (Rom 1:19-20), as all things are created and kept in existence through the Word. Yet there is another way in which God reveals Himself:

Planning to make known the way of heavenly salvation, He went further and from the start manifested Himself to our first parents. … He called Abraham in order to make of him a great nation. Through the patriarchs, and after them through Moses and the prophets, He taught his people to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God, provident father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by Him, and in this manner prepared the way for the Gospel down through the centuries. (DV, 3)

The purpose of this more direct divine revelation is to show the way to salvation. Note how the Council takes for granted the historical reality of the basic facts of the story of salvation. God does not merely reach people through didactic inspiration, but through direct engagement with man at specific points in history. The reality of revelation cannot be separated from historical reality.

Another aspect of the Council’s teaching is the unity of the plan of salvation across time. The various revelations of the Old Testament are all oriented toward preparing man for the Savior who is to come.

Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, "now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb. 1:1-2). ... To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). for this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. (DV, 4)

The reality of Christ’s words and deeds, including his miracles and resurrection from death, are essential to the perfection of revelation. There is nothing lacking in this revelation, which definitively shows and establishes what God wishes for the salvation of men. Thus “we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We ought to give the “obedience of faith” to God who reveals, “offering the full submission of intellect and will… and freely assenting to the truth revealed.” Such faith is possible only by the preceding help of the Holy Spirit, “moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind.” (DV, 5) Thus understanding and acceptance of revelation is not attained by purely natural or human means.

As a sacred synod has affirmed, God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason; but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race. (DV, 6)

Here is repeated the teaching of the First Vatican Council that the reality of God and His providence may be known through natural human reason, but revelation is an aid even to those matters accessible to reason, as it expounds things unambiguously and with authority. Note that the present Council holds revelation to be a sounder basis for belief than human reason.

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3. Transmitting Divine Revelation

The transmission of the full revelation of Christ was commissioned in the first place to the Apostles (“sent ones”), who were ordered to preach the Gospel to all men. They faithfully spread the Gospel by oral preaching, “and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.” (DV, 7) This last statement closely parallels one from the fourth session of Council of Trent: “..this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating..”

Note that Christian revelation is not strictly verbal, but includes practices derived from Christ’s teaching and example, or from the divine inspiration of the Apostles. This spoken and practiced Gospel actually precedes even the written Gospels. Those Apostles who preached and taught observances from their knowledge of Christ and His Spirit were no less inspired than “those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.” (DV, 7)

The earliest Fathers (e.g., St. Ignatius and St. Irenaeus) attest that the Apostles passed on their authority primarily to their successors, not to a set of documents.

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, "handing over" to them "the authority to teach in their own place." [St. Irenaeus, Adv. haer., III, 3, 1] This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything... (DV, 7)

This “handing over” is the basis of our term Tradition. Tradition in the common sense means any customary belief or practice that is handed down from one generation to another. In the sense of Christian revelation, Tradition refers primarily to the teaching authority that is handed from the Apostles to their successors, and also to the content of the teaching proclaimed by such authority. Both Tradition and Scripture derive their authority from the Apostles, who alone were commissioned by Christ to preach the Gospel.

The successors of the Apostles preach the Gospel in their place, and the inspired books are but one means of preserving the Apostolic preaching, and proving that the successors are faithfully adhering to what they have received.

Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increases in faith of the people of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes. (DV, 8)

This broad notion of Tradition includes liturgical, devotional and canonical customs, not all of which are immutable, though all contribute to holiness of life in their time and place. The Council emphasizes the dynamic aspect of Tradition:

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. (DV, 8)

The notion of doctrinal development implied here is much too vague to serve as a useful definition. All we can glean is that, though the realities and words of revelation are only those handed down from the Apostles, nonetheless the Holy Spirit may increase our understanding of these realities and words. Such increase is accessible even to ordinary believers through contemplation, though only the teaching of the Magisterium has the guarantee of truth. The last sentence quoted may seem to imply a progressivist, evolutionary notion of ecclesiastical history, in accordance with modern futurism. Strictly speaking, it asserts only the Church’s traditional eschatology, that all our activity is oriented toward the full revelation at the end of time.

The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. (DV, 8)

Historically, in opposition to those who would advance heterodox doctrines in the name of a “deeper understanding,” the Church has appealed to the authority of the Fathers of the Church, from whom it was not licit to deviate when they were in agreement. Here, the Council reminds us that the appeal to Patristic authority itself presupposes that the Holy Spirit remains active even in the post-apostolic generations, enabling the faithful to obtain better understanding of some doctrines. It is precisely because we accept living Tradition that we accept the teaching and practice of the Fathers and incorporate them into the life of the Church. The more accurate model of the Church’s notion of development is not progress, a succession of new things replacing the old, but growth, which is new things being added and incorporated into what already exists. Thus the present Council makes no suggestion that we should depart from the Fathers, while at the same time allowing that we may learn new things about the deposit of faith.

Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her… (DV, 8)

It is through living Tradition that we can even know which books of Scripture are canonical. After all, the canon was not fixed until well after the death of the Apostles. Further, no Catholic can deny that our understanding of Scripture has improved greatly on many points, due to the divinely guided activities of the Fathers and other successors of the Apostles, and by other clergy and religious.

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 transmits the word of God, entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, to their successors in its integrity, 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. (DV, 9) [More literal translation of Latin by author.]

Both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture convey the word of God, so they are depicted as two streams of revelation. Sacred Scripture is the word of God put in writing, while Sacred Tradition transmits the word of God to the successors of the Apostles, so that they may expound it truthfully and faithfully. Both modes of revelation have the common end of proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation.

Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence. (DV, 9)

Dei Verbum reaffirms the Council of Trent’s teaching that Scripture is not the only basis of revealed doctrine. Yet neither the Tridentine synod nor the modern Council have specified if the doctrinal content of Scripture and Tradition are coextensive. It could be that Scripture and Tradition cover the same doctrines, while helping to clarify each other. Strange as it might seem, many Catholic exegetes, including several saints (e.g., St. Athanasius, Oratio contra gent., 1), have held that all the doctrines of the Church are at least implicitly contained in Scripture, though Tradition is needed to elucidate and expound them correctly. There is nothing in Trent or Dei Verbum that positively excludes this opinion. Indeed, the modern Council takes care to adhere to this model that the Catechism calls “one common source... two distinct modes of transmission.” (CCC 80-81)

In the subsequent text, however, the Council at least seems to imply that the Scripture and Tradition have revelatory content that are not fully overlapping.

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers, so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (DV, 10)

Since Sacred Tradition includes liturgical and devotional practices, it most certainly is not coextensive in content with Sacred Scripture, though this still does not answer the question of whether all doctrine is at least implied in Scripture.

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church. whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (DV, 10)

The Magisterium (teaching office) is the only authentic interpreter of Scripture and Tradition. In exercising this office, the Church is aided by the Holy Spirit, yet this is not a third source of revelation. Rather, the teaching office of the Church is subservient to the word of God revealed through Scripture and Tradition, and only expounds this deposit of faith, without adding anything to it. Thus the decrees of the Magisterium do not constitute a new body of revelation. Still, this does not mean that there can be no development of doctrine, for we have seen that Tradition itself is a living source of revelation.

It is clear, therefore, that 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. (DV, 10)

The interdependence of Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium is easy to prove. Scripture depends on Tradition, since Christian revelation was preached before it was written, and it is only by episcopal authority that a canon of authentic Scripture could be established. Tradition depends on Scripture, since the Fathers themselves frequently appealed to Scripture to defend their teachings. The Magisterium depends on Scripture and Tradition, as its authority is utterly subservient to revelation, yet at the same time Scripture and Tradition are not fully knowable without the Church to act as authentic interpreter, since they are not completely perspicuous to all men at all times. These dependencies are not utter dependencies, for each of the three has its own direct connection to the Holy Spirit of truth, albeit by different modes.

In general, the Council’s teaching on revelation reaffirms Tridentine doctrine, though in some respects it asserts the importance of Tradition more strongly. Sacred Tradition is presented as temporally prior to Scripture and as equal to Scripture in authority. While there is nothing in Dei Verbum that positively eliminates the idea that all Christian doctrine is at least implicitly contained in Scripture, the tenor of its argument seems to oppose such an opinion, or at least render it unnecessary.

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4. Inspiration of Holy Scripture

The remainder of the document deals with the inspiration and interpretation of Holy Scripture. Even if we agree that Scripture and Tradition are equally binding in authority, it can hardly be disputed that appeals to Scripture have always been favored by theologians, especially the Fathers, for the firm establishment of doctrine. This is because Sacred Scripture gives us an especially direct and less equivocal expression of the word of God, owing to its particular mode of inspiration. Questions of Biblical inspiration and interpretation take special importance in a highly literate age, as the Church must make clear the relationship between her doctrines and Scripture, and explain what is meant by Scripture as the “word of God.”

For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles, holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, 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)

The first sentence parallels a similar statement by the Council of Trent, which includes: “...having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author.” The second sentence clarifies that the Catholic notion of Biblical inspiration does not involve the suppression of human agency. In Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo XIII had taught:

For, by supernatural power, He so moved and impelled them to write-He was so present to them-that the things which He ordered, and those only, they, first, rightly understood, then willed faithfully to write down, and finally expressed in apt words and with infallible truth. Otherwise, it could not be said that He was the Author of the entire Scripture. (PD, 20)

Pope Benedict XV forcefully reaffirmed Leo’s teaching on Biblical inspiration in Spiritus Paraclitus (1920), yet he also described with approval St. Jerome’s view:

Thus he asserts that the Books of the Bible were composed at the inspiration, or suggestion, or even at the dictation of the Holy Spirit; even that they were written and edited by Him. Yet he never questions but that the individual authors of these Books worked in full freedom under the Divine afflatus, each of them in accordance with his individual nature and character. (SP, 8)

Dei Verbum likewise affirms that the sacred authors wrote only what God willed for them to write, while emphasizing that this did not entail a suppression of their natural human abilities. In fact, God made use of their abilities, so that they too were true authors. This agrees with the perennial faith of the Church, for we say without contradiction that St. Paul was the author of the letter to the Romans, and so was the Holy Spirit.

As the inspired authors retained the free use of their faculties, they were not mere puppets or stenographers, but cooperated in the composition of Holy Scripture, using their own literary skills. This notion of inspiration is different from that of Islam, where the Prophet Muhammad is said to have recited the Qu’ran from a heavenly exemplar, and so the Muslims consequently affirm that its literary style is without peer. Christians make no such claim about their Scripture, and freely admit that its literary quality is frequently limited by the skill of its human authors. What is divine is its message, which is to say its content or significance.

Therefore, since everything that is 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. Therefore "all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error..." [2 Tim. 3:16] (DV, 11)

The first clause establishes a reasonably clear rule for determining the scope of Biblical inspiration. Whatever the inspired authors assert is also asserted by the Holy Spirit. This principle guarantees that the meaning of the Scriptures will be generally accessible to us, for this does not demand the impossible task of scrutinizing the mind of God. We have only to determine what the human author intended to assert, and thus learn also what the Holy Spirit asserts. The Latin verb assero comes from the root meaning “to bind” or “to join,” since we are committing ourselves to a declaration, or making a composite statement relating a predicate to some subject. Thus it applies only to propositions, not individual words or letters, which standing alone, do not admit of truth or falsity. Yet it is not enough to read Scripture grammatically, for we must also know what the author intends. He might intend to assert a historical fact, or to relate a didactic parable, or merely quote what someone else said without concurring.

Once it is accepted that everything asserted by the inspired authors in Scripture is also asserted by the Holy Spirit, it logically follows there can be no error in any of these assertions, since God can neither deceive nor be deceived. At the insistence of more progressive bishops, the phrase “for the sake of salvation” was appended to the original statement. Consequently, they and various liberal exegetes have held that this phrase limits the scope of Biblical inerrancy. In other words, a Biblical statement about history or science might admit error if it is not related to the truths about salvation. While this restricted notion of inerrancy might make exegetes’ lives easier, it is incompatible with the basic logic expounded a couple lines earlier in Dei Verbum. Everything asserted by the inspired authors is also asserted by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can neither deceive nor be deceived, as even liberal Catholics will admit. From this it inexorably follows that everything asserted by the inspired authors is free from error, and this logic holds for historical and scientific statements no less than statements about faith and morals. As Pope Leo taught in Providentissimus Deus:

...it is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. For the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond, because (as they wrongly think) in a question of the truth or falsehood of a passage, we should consider not so much what God has said as the reason and purpose which He had in mind in saying it—this system cannot be tolerated.

...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...(PD, 20)

Pope Leo’s teaching is grounded not only in perennial Christian teaching, but in basic logic. Once divine authorship of the Scripture, including all its assertions, is admitted (as Dei Verbum explicitly confirms), it does not matter one whit whether or not a particular assertion is related to the primary purpose of divine revelation. God does not momentarily or intermittently cease to be Truth and commit error when asserting things incidental to His primary purpose.

Still, the purpose of Scripture—to expound the faith and morals necessary for salvation—does have an important exegetical role. Pope Leo had already acknowledged as much, citing St. Augustine and St. Thomas:

“[The Holy Ghost] ...did not intend to teach men these things... things in no way profitable unto salvation." Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers—as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us—`went by what sensibly appeared," or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to. (PD, 18)

Since the Holy Spirit was not concerned with teaching men the secrets of nature or other matters unessential to salvation, we should not expect such topics to be discussed with greater precision than the culture of the time permitted. In other words, we should not read too much into every phrase as though it were a special revelation about some worldly truth, but instead regard expressions according to the common modes of speech used by the ancients. This does not mean there can be overt falsehood in Scripture, but neither should we demand that the ancient author have a complete knowledge of natural facts. He will know no more than what God has revealed to him, and revelation is oriented toward faith and morals. Nonetheless, since in his entire writing he is guided by the Spirit of Truth, there will be no falsehood in anything he asserts.

All this is consistent with St. Jerome’s teaching on Biblical inspiration, which according to Pope Benedict XV “in no wise differs the common teaching of the Catholic Church”:

For he holds that God, through His grace, illumines the writer's mind regarding the particular truth which, "in the person of God," he is to set before men; he holds, moreover, that God moves the writer's will—nay, even impels it—to write; finally, that God abides with him unceasingly, in unique fashion, until his task is accomplished. (Spiritus Paraclitus, 9)

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5. Interpretation of Holy Scripture

In Sacred Scripture, God speaks through men in human fashion, so it is licit, indeed necessary, to investigate the meaning intended by the sacred writers using sound literary principles.

To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another. (DV, 12)

This emphasis on “literary forms” is an important advancement in the Church’s teaching, since it pertains to what was once called “higher criticism.” This does not entail a wholesale adoption of modern criticism, however. The Church does not allow the use of literary forms as a means of admitting falsehood in Scripture. Rather, “truth is set forth and expressed differently” depending on genre. A poem is not “false” because the events it describes did not occur historically, for no such assertion is intended. It is not licit to deny the historical genre of a text simply because one believes it to be in error. There must be sound reasons, grounded in comparative literature, for supposing that the author himself deliberately intended to relate something other than history. It cannot be that the author was deceived into relating myth as fact, for though men can be deceived, the Holy Spirit cannot.

Past magisterial pronouncements spoke negatively of “higher criticism,” as in Providentissimus Deus:

There has arisen, to the great detriment of religion, an inept method, dignified by the name of the "higher criticism," which pretends to judge of the origin, integrity and authority of each Book from internal indications alone. It is clear, on the other hand, that in historical questions, such as the origin and the handing down of writings, the witness of history is of primary importance, and that historical investigation should be made with the utmost care; and that in this matter internal evidence is seldom of great value, except as confirmation. To look upon it in any other light will be to open the door to many evil consequences. It will make the enemies of religion much more bold and confident in attacking and mangling the Sacred Books; and this vaunted "higher criticism" will resolve itself into the reflection of the bias and the prejudice of the critics. It will not throw on the Scripture the light which is sought, or prove of any advantage to doctrine; it will only give rise to disagreement and dissension, those sure notes of error, which the critics in question so plentifully exhibit in their own persons; and seeing that most of them are tainted with false philosophy and rationalism, it must lead to the elimination from the sacred writings of all prophecy and miracle, and of everything else that is outside the natural order. (PD, 17)

Here higher criticism is condemned not only on account of the impious conclusions of its practitioners, but on methodological grounds. To determine the origin and provenance of a document, one must refer primarily to historical testimony, and use internal evidence (the document’s content and style) only to corroborate the former. Higher criticism disregards ancient testimonies about the authorship and provenance of Scriptures, and instead relies on equivocal literary evidence to produce speculative, subjective conclusions that undermine the authority of Scripture.

Still, the Magisterium had shown that it would endorse a critical science once it developed reasonably sound methods. This was the case with so-called “lower criticism,” which was praised by Pope Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu:

It is scarcely necessary to observe that this criticism, which some fifty years ago not a few made use of quite arbitrarily and often in such wise that one would say they did so to introduce into the sacred text their own preconceived ideas, today has rules so firmly established and secure, that it has become a most valuable aid to the purer and more accurate editing of the sacred text and that any abuse can easily be discovered. (DAS, 18)

By the mid-twentieth century, textual (formerly “lower”) criticism had adopted rather firm, objective criteria for determining the more probable original reading among variants. Such criticism relies primarily on external evidence (comparison of manuscripts). Its use of internal evidence is conditioned by well-defined heuristic principles and by external evidence.

With advances in archaeology and the knowledge of ancient history and literature, it might likewise become possible for at least some parts of “higher criticism” to become less arbitrary and subjective than the speculations of the nineteenth-century German theorists. Dei Verbum clearly endorses the aspect of higher criticism known as “form criticism,” which identifies ancient literary genres of texts and portions of texts. By comparison with known ancient idioms and modes of thought, the exegete might more accurately express the intention of the inspired author, whether it is to relate history or to give a poetic or didactic discourse. The ancient Hebrews commonly used physical images or figures of speech to represent more abstract ideas, and the interpreter would do well to reveal the intended meaning behind the proper literal sense. This sort of exegesis does a real service to the Church, since revealing more exactly what the sacred writer intended to assert also clarifies what the Holy Spirit intended to assert, per the Church’s definition of inspiration.

Dei Verbum’s endorsement of the use of “literary forms” does not give carte blanche to modern Biblical critics. There is no indication that such analysis is to be used to determine authorship of the Biblical texts, nor are there grounds for denying the reality of Biblical prophecy and miracles, much less the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The Council has already made a strong statement on Biblical inspiration, and in its discussion of the Old and New Testaments, we will find endorsement of the historical reality of the basic events, natural and supernatural, of salvation history.

The use of literary analysis to determine the human author’s intent is not the final word on the intended meaning of Holy Scripture, for the Council takes seriously the authorship of the Holy Spirit.

But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith (analogiae fidei). It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (DV, 12) [Emphasis added]

Appealing to the unity of all Scripture makes sense only in light of its divine authorship, for the human authors generally had no knowledge of most of the other books. Since the same Holy Spirit inspired all the authors, it must not be thought that one asserted a doctrine that was essentially opposed to another revealed truth. The harmony of the various teachings of Scripture is not always apparent, and cannot be brought out through purely humanistic analysis. One must appeal to the Church’s living Tradition, which is itself the work of the Holy Spirit.

The exegetical principles of Dei Verbum are in continuity with previous Catholic teaching, though using different language. The Fathers of the Church consistently taught that revealed truths complement each other, so that none can be fully understood except in light of the whole. Protestant Reformers, most notably Calvin (through a misinterpretation of Romans 12:6), conceived of the “analogy of faith” as a rule of Biblical interpretation whereby a part of Scripture should be understood in light of the rest. This expression came to have a broader usage, meaning that each element of the faith can only be understood in harmony with the other elements. In a Catholic context, the “analogy of faith” requires us to interpret each part of Scripture in harmony with the whole of Scripture and Sacred Tradition as taught by the Church. (The official English translation above, though non-literal, accurately conveys the meaning of analogiae fidei.) Thus Pope Leo wrote:

In the other passages [i.e., those not definitively interpreted by the sacred writers or the Magisterium], the analogy of faith should be followed, and Catholic doctrine, as authoritatively proposed by the Church, should be held as the supreme law; for, seeing that the same God is the author both of the Sacred Books and of the doctrine committed to the Church, it is clearly impossible that any teaching can by legitimate means be extracted from the former, which shall in any respect be at variance with the latter. Hence it follows that all interpretation is foolish and false which either makes the sacred writers disagree one with another, or is opposed to the doctrine of the Church. (PD, 14) [Emphasis added]

From the Council of Trent onward, the Magisterium repeatedly declared that no one should deviate from the sense of Scripture taught by unanimous agreement of the Fathers. The present Council prefers the term “living tradition,” indicating that Sacred Tradition did not end with the Fathers (though they are reliable witnesses to Tradition), but continues even today.

Exegetical work provides a valuable service in helping the Church’s living tradition develop, but not in an anarchic way. Its judgments are preliminary and subject to the review and final judgment of the Magisterium. The Magisterium alone is divinely commissioned to interpret the word of God—as revealed in Scripture and Tradition—definitively. This strenuous reassertion of apostolic authority—the sole basis for determining authentic teachings of Scripture and living Tradition —is conveniently one of the most ignored parts of Dei Verbum.

In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous "condescension" of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature. For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men. (DV, 13)

Any expression of the divine Word in human language necessarily entails a great condescension on the part of God, akin to the humility and solicitude for human welfare shown in the Incarnation. The analogy is clear: just as Christ truly took on human nature and all its weaknesses except sin, so too does the written Word of God take on all the limitations of human language except falsehood. There is no impiety in subjecting the written Word to the ordinary methods of textual and literary criticism, for this is merely acknowledging the reality of the condescension that God undertook for our benefit. This is not cause, however, to deny the divine character of Scriptural teaching, any more than the real humanity of Christ contradicts His divinity.

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6. The Old Testament

In its résumé of the Old Testament, the Council presupposes the historical reality of the covenants with Abraham and Moses, the miraculous manifestations to the Israelites, and the divine inspiration of the prophets.

First He entered into a covenant with Abraham and, through Moses, with the people of Israel. To this people which He had acquired for Himself, He so manifested Himself through words and deeds as the one true and living God that Israel came to know by experience the ways of God with men. Then too, when God Himself spoke to them through the mouth of the prophets, Israel daily gained a deeper and clearer understanding of His ways and made them more widely known among the nations. (DV, 14)

The purpose of these interventions was to prepare a people for the “plan of salvation foretold by the sacred authors” of the Old Testament. These divinely inspired books, therefore, “remain permanently valuable.” (DV, 14; cf. Rom. 15:4)

The Council holds a distinctively Christian understanding of the Old Covenant:[1]

The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy, and to indicate its meaning through various types. … These books, though they also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show us true divine pedagogy. ... Christians should receive them with reverence. (DV, 15)

Although the Old Testament is not an end in itself, but merely a preparation for the coming of Christ, it still contains much truth about God and man that is applicable even today. Some of its teachings are incomplete, which is to say they reveal only part of a religious or moral truth more fully disclosed by Christ, though they already reveal God as both just and merciful. Other teachings, most notably its ritual prescriptions, are only temporary, as they have been replaced by the sacramental dispensation.

The Council reaffirms the conviction of the Fathers that the Old Testament prefigured the New, often in types or allegories. Likewise, in accord with Christ’s own teaching (Matt. 5:17), the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old.

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. For, though Christ established the new covenant in His blood, still the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and in turn shed light on it and explain it. (DV, 16)

The New Covenant does not render the Old Testament irrelevant, for the latter helps bring forth the meaning of the New. Christ Himself upbraided the Pharisees for failing to recognize the Messiah foretold in the Scriptures (John 5:45-46; cf. Matt. 21:42), and He repeatedly quoted Scripture to confirm His teaching and His divine authority.

This hermeneutic requires Catholic exegetes to depart from purely humanistic analysis, for humanly speaking, the authors of the Old Testament could not have known anything of the New Testament. Only the divine author, the Holy Spirit, would have such knowledge, and be able to reveal it, with or without the full understanding of the inspired writer.

Those who reject this principle in favor of a purely humanistic analysis of the Old Testament will never understand the Old Testament prophecies and types pointing to Christ, and will be as blind as those unbelieving Jews who interpreted Scripture by legalistic criteria. This is in marked contrast with the Apostles, to whom the Scriptures were opened by the Holy Spirit imparted by the risen Christ. (Luke 24:45; cf. John 20:22; St. Ambrose, De spiritu sancto, I, 4, 55)

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7. The New Testament

The word of God, which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, is set forth and shows its power in a most excellent way in the writings of the New Testament. For when the fullness of time arrived, the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us in His fullness of graces and truth. (DV, 17)

Here the Council identifies the “word of God,” in the sense of the revealed word for our salvation (manifest in Scripture and Tradition), with the Word who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, i.e., Christ. In Romans 1:16, St. Paul describes the Gospel as “the power of God for the salvation of all who believe,” and the Council regards this phrase as applicable to the word of God more generally. Indeed, St. Paul elsewhere calls Christ “the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), and the Old Testament repeatedly portrays the word of God as God’s creative power. This Word is most powerfully manifest in the New Testament, which reveals the Word Incarnate.

Christ established the kingdom of God on earth, manifested His Father and Himself by deeds and words, and completed His work by His death, resurrection and glorious Ascension and by the sending of the Holy Spirit. Having been lifted up from the earth, He draws all men to Himself, He who alone has the words of eternal life. … Now the writings of the New Testament stand as a perpetual and divine witness to these realities. (DV, 17)

The Council unequivocally affirms the reality of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Spirit. It also attests to reality of His deeds, which manifested Himself and the Father, i.e., the miracles He worked. Note also that the kingdom of God is something already established by Christ on earth, and not purely an eschatological reality.

The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. (DV, 18)

The Council upholds the traditional conviction that the Four Gospels were all written either by Apostles or “apostolic men,” the latter term being customarily applied to St. Mark and St. Luke, who were trusted companions of the Apostles. In this sense, they are all of apostolic origin. The document does not, however, explicitly confirm the traditional authorship of the Gospels. It might allow, for example, that St. Matthew’s Gospel was actually written by a companion of the Apostle. Still, it is inconsonant with the Council’s insistence on apostolic origin to attribute a Gospel to an author who was not a contemporary of the Apostles or had no close association with them.

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. Indeed, after the Ascension to 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. (DV, 19)

The Council “unhesitatingly” confirms the historical character of the Gospels. They relate what Christ really did and taught for eternal salvation. It would contradict the Council to assert that the Gospels contain fabricated accounts with Christ inserted as the protagonist or speaker. The authenticity of the accounts is guaranteed by their apostolic origin, as Christ Himself taught the Apostles and enlightened them by the Spirit, so it can hardly be maintained that they related a poor understanding of their Lord’s teaching.

Still, the historical and doctrinal fidelity of the Gospels should not compel us to a rigid literalism of interpretation. Per the modes of writing then current, the Evangelists freely selected and arranged the content of existing oral and written sources, according to the themes and concerns of their churches.

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 of them 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 eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word “we might know "the truth" concerning those matters about which we have been instructed. (DV, 19)

The Evangelists did not always present material in chronological order, and they used editorial discretion when compiling collections of Christ’s sayings, sometimes adding their own interpretive comments. None of this contravenes the integrity of the Gospels, as in all these activities they related the truth about Christ. They did not aim to reproduce words and phrases with verbatim accuracy—an object that was not valued in a predominantly oral culture—but only to convey faithfully the substantive meaning of Christ’s teaching.

Besides the four Gospels, the canon of the New Testament also contains the epistles of St. Paul and other apostolic writings, composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by which, according to the wise plan of God, those matters which concern Christ the Lord are confirmed, His true teaching is more and more fully stated… For the Lord Jesus was with His apostles as He had promised and sent them the advocate Spirit who would lead them into the fullness of truth. (DV, 20)

Dei Verbum affirms the divine inspiration of the rest of the New Testament canon, without making a clear declaration about their authorship, except for some epistles of St. Paul. It might be allowable for Catholics to attribute the authorship of some canonical writings to “apostolic men” (i.e., companions of the Apostles), though not as a pretext for impugning their authenticity as witnesses to apostolic teaching.

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8. Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church

In the modern era, especially as contrasted with Protestants, it often seemed as though Catholics had relatively little regard for Sacred Scripture, due to the comparative neglect of Biblical study among Catholic laity. A primary objective of the Council, both here and in other documents, is to nourish the Church’s teaching and practice with more explicit and direct reference to Holy Scripture.

The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she (sicut et ipsum) venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body. (DV, 21)

The veneration of Holy Scripture is analogous to, though not identical with, the veneration of the Eucharist. Both Scripture and the Eucharist present the saving Divine Word, though only in the latter is Christ substantially present. Holy Scripture—not the paper and ink, before which we do not genuflect, but its message—demands the highest degree of veneration and Christian submission, since it is no less truly the Divine Word than Christ in the flesh. Post-conciliar liturgy has emphasized this unity of the Word revealed in Scripture and in the Eucharist by structuring the Mass as composed of the Liturgies of the Word and of the Eucharist.

She has always maintained [the divine Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as 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. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. (DV, 21)

Holy Scripture, together with Sacred Tradition, is the supreme rule of faith. This mode of revelation is valuable precisely because the Word is preserved without change, so we have it as it was in the times of the prophets and the Apostles. It guarantees that the doctrines of the Church, even when they develop by living Tradition, nonetheless remain faithful to the revelation that was completed in the apostolic age.

The Council calls for greater emphasis on Holy Scripture in Catholic preaching, and for broader access to Scripture even to the laity.

Easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful. That is why the Church from the very beginning accepted as her own that very ancient Greek translation; of the Old Testament which is called the Septuagint; and she has always given a place of honor to other Eastern translations and Latin ones especially the Latin translation known as the Vulgate. But since the word of God should be accessible at all times, the Church by her authority and with maternal concern sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books. And should the opportunity arise and the Church authorities approve, if these translations are produced in cooperation with the separated brethren as well, all Christians will be able to use them. (DV, 22)

Vernacular translations of the Bible were already permitted by the Church for centuries, though these always used the Vulgate as a template. In the early Tridentine period, vernacular Bibles were generally viewed with scorn by Catholics, since the act of translation could and did occasion much doctrinal mischief. In the late nineteenth century, “critical texts” based on Greek and Hebrew manuscripts were likewise viewed with distrust. This did not mean that Catholics denied the value of studying Scripture in its original languages. As Pope Leo XIII wrote:

Hence it is most proper that Professors of Sacred Scripture and theologians should master those tongues in which the sacred Books were originally written; and it would be well that Church students also should cultivate them, more especially those who aspire to academic degrees. And endeavours should be made to establish in all academic institutions—as has already been laudably done in many—chairs of the other ancient languages, especially the Semitic, and of subjects connected therewith, for the benefit principally of those who are intended to profess sacred literature. (Providentissimus Deus, 17)

Still, the Vulgate remained the only doctrinally normative text acceptable for use in the Latin Church, per decree of the Council of Trent. Yet this never entailed a denial that there could be other linguistic forms of the authentic text. As Pope Pius XII wrote:

Nor should anyone think that this use of the original texts, in accordance with the methods of criticism, in any way derogates from those decrees so wisely enacted by the Council of Trent concerning the Latin Vulgate. It is historically certain that the Presidents of the Council received a commission, which they duly carried out, to beg, that is, the Sovereign Pontiff in the name of the Council that he should have corrected, as far as possible, first a Latin, and then a Greek, and Hebrew edition, which eventually would be published for the benefit of the Holy Church of God. If this desire could not then be fully realized owing to the difficulties of the times and other obstacles, at present it can, We earnestly hope, be more perfectly and entirely fulfilled by the united efforts of Catholic scholars. (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 20; cf. Decr. de editione et usu Sacrorum Librorum; Conc. Trid. ed. Soc. Goerres, t. V, p.91 s.)

Reliance on the Vulgate, which was always limited to the Latin Church and for the purposes of public use, as opposed to scholarship, was conditioned by the technical difficulty of producing critical Hebrew and Greek texts (though the Church already accepted the Septuagint in the Eastern Rites). It was only in the twentieth century that textual criticism possessed both a wealth of manuscript data and sound objective methods, making possible critical editions that might be accepted for public use among Catholics.

Pope Pius XII noted that the Council of Trent upheld the Vulgate edition as “authentic” only among the Latin versions then in circulation, not to “diminish the authority and value of the original texts.” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 21)

Wherefore this authority of the Vulgate in matters of doctrine by no means prevents—nay rather today it almost demands—either the corroboration and confirmation of this same doctrine by the original texts or the having recourse on any and every occasion to the aid of these same texts, by which the correct meaning of the Sacred Letters is everywhere daily made more clear and evident. Nor is it forbidden by the decree of the Council of Trent to make translations into the vulgar tongue, even directly from the original texts themselves… (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 22)

Thus Dei Verbum is not granting anything that was not already permitted by Pope Pius XII. The only new exhortation, made in an ecumenical spirit, is that new critical translations may be made in cooperation with non-Catholics, contingent upon approval by Church authorities.

The Council insists that “all the clergy must hold fast to the Sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study... so that none of them will become ‘an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly’”. (DV, 25) In earlier centuries, Scriptural studies had been limited to a minority, due to the difficulty and expense of copying texts. Even after the age of the printing press, many Catholic clergy neglected in-depth Scriptural study, being formed by ecclesiastical and theological writings, as well as liturgy and devotion. While these sources are themselves informed by Holy Scripture in many respects, this does not excuse preachers of the responsibility of learning Scripture directly insofar as they are able. Since all clergy, including deacons, were now encouraged to take a role in preaching, it is all the more imperative that they should be hearers of the written Word of God, as should catechists.

This emphasis on Scriptural study does not imply a neglect of Sacred Tradition, for the Council affirms: “Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation.” (DV, 24) The Church “also encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West and of sacred liturgies.” (DV, 23)

For most of the Christian era, the vast majority of lay Catholics were illiterate, as was the case among people in every nation. Thus most people knew Scripture only through hearing it read aloud, in sacred liturgy or in preaching. The use of Latin in the liturgy prevented most people from understanding what Scripture was read, though this was remedied by permitting vernacular readings at Mass in the mid-twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, printing had become inexpensive enough for the masses to own books, and universal mandatory education finally became practicable. By the time of the Second Vatican Council, near-universal literacy could be assumed in most nations, which was hardly the case at the time of the last Council in 1870. It was only appropriate, therefore, now to encourage “frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” by lay Catholics. (DV, 25)

Still, the study of Holy Scripture by the laity is subject to certain norms, recognizing that only the Magisterium can authoritatively interpret Scripture. In the early Tridentine era, Scriptural studies by Catholic laity were positively discouraged, as these often relied on faulty editions informed by heretical theologies. Even when following an authentic edition, an uneducated Catholic might be easily misled by the superficial or apparent meaning of text, if he does not have a comprehensive knowledge of Scripture and Tradition as interpreted by the Church. Accordingly, it falls to the bishops, as guardians of apostolic teaching, “to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books, especially the New Testament and above all the Gospels.” They can do this by authorizing translations of Scripture, with adequate explanations in footnotes, for the use of lay Catholics. They may even authorize editions “for the use of non-Christians and adapted to their situation.” (DV, 25)

The laity may engage Holy Scripture in different ways; it does not have to be always through direct reading. It can also “be through the liturgy, rich in the divine word, or through devotional reading, or through instructions suitable for the purpose and other aids” approved by the Church. (DV, 25) Further, we are not to read Holy Scripture as we would a secular text, but should accompany this reading by prayer, to reciprocate God’s communication with us.

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9. Aftermath

Sacred Scripture is the basis of much (possibly all, as discussed above) of the Church’s doctrine. It is only logically consistent for the Church to uphold the inerrancy of Scripture if she is to maintain the infallibility of authentic magisterial teaching. Of course, those who deny the former generally care little for the latter. Thus we find that the world of post-Conciliar Catholic Biblical studies follows quite different norms from those envisioned by Dei Verbum.

Catholic Bibles translated from the original languages existed even before the Council. Many of those produced after the Council, however, took greater liberties in translation, sometimes deviating from the original text in favor of more theory-laden interpretation. Some editions even rearrange or delete parts of Scripture on the basis of higher critical theories not supported by extant manuscript readings. These mutilations are unfortunate and unnecessary, since the ancient editions of the Bible have been reconstructed by textual critics to a high degree of accuracy.

The Holy See reserves to itself the right to define the authentic edition of Scripture to be used for liturgy, per the instruction Inter Oecumenici (1964):

The basis of the translations is the Latin liturgical text. The version of the biblical passages should conform to the same Latin liturgical text. This does not, however, take away the right to revise that version, should it seem advisable, on the basis of the original text or of some clearer version. (IO, 40a)

Accordingly, the Church updated the Vulgate, using the critically reconstructed original of St. Jerome's text as the base text,[2] and then correcting this in places to better render the original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. This Nova Vulgata is the basis of all Scripture used in liturgy. While the instruction quoted above prescribes only the revision of Vulgate itself, subsequent norms have allowed even liturgical Scripture to be translated directly from the original languages, consulting the Nova Vulgata as "an auxiliary tool" for interpretation, and following the same manuscript tradition it follows. (Liturgiam authenticam, 24, 37)

After the Council, Catholic critical editions of the Bible have frequently included commentary and footnotes that often seem to deny Scriptural inerrancy (even on matters of morals) or uncritically accept the hypotheses of German higher critics. Ironically, Catholics began to adopt these errors around the same time that many mainstream Protestants became disenchanted with them, so that our endorsement of “modern” criticism (e.g. Bultmann, Wellhausen, etc.) seems positively retrogressive.

It is common to dismiss those who uphold the Church’s teaching on Biblical inerrancy with the careless epithet of “fundamentalist.”[3] More substantively, it is a common opinion among Catholic exegetes that inerrancy does not apply to matters not pertinent to faith and morals, and some even quote Dei Verbum as endorsing this position. Yet it is by no means necessary to compromise the Church’s perennial teaching on the divine inspiration of Scripture in order to avoid the pitfalls of geocentrism, young-earth creationism, and the like. The Council allows that not all of Scripture is to be understood in the plain literal sense, while at the same time leaving intact the traditional doctrines of divine inspiration and inerrancy.

It is one thing to deny or compromise Scriptural inerrancy on rationalistic grounds, but quite another to claim that the universal Magisterium has abandoned it. The Pontifical Biblical Commission continued to exist after the Council, even to this day, yet it never once in this half-century rescinded or superseded any of its responsa of the early twentieth century. At the time of the Council, it issued the document De historica evangeliorum veritate (1964), which upheld the historical character of the Gospels, yet allowed that the Evangelists may have changed the order, specific wording, and context of the same deeds, for the benefit of their readers.

In Evangelium Vitae (1995), Pope John Paul II matter-of-factly mentioned the “Yahwist account of creation,” (EV, 35) apparently giving sanction to the “documentary hypothesis” made famous by Wellhausen. Yet the use of the term “Yahwist” by no means entails endorsement of a specific hypothesis about how, when, and by whom the Pentateuch was composed. This term is used even today by modern critics who have abandoned the documentary hypothesis in favor of other models. Even advocates of a strong view of Mosaic authorship allow that Moses used written sources in composing his work, and it has been recognized that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis at least since the time of Flavius Josephus (1st cent.).

Still, it is hardly deniable that the Church allows considerably more latitude in Biblical form criticism than it did prior to the Council. The question arises as to whether the Magisterium has thereby given tacit consent to modern critical hypotheses that openly deny traditional teachings about the divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. The argument from silence, however, proves too much. By that standard, we could note that many Catholic theologians deny Church teaching about transubstantiation, contraception, abortion, etc. without penalty. Yet not even the dissidents themselves pretend that the Magisterium has abandoned its teaching on these issues. On the contrary, their disaffection is predicated on the the fact that the Magisterium has not endorsed their views, but opposes them. The absence of punishment is merely consequent to the fact that the Church has abandoned the temporal sword (where it has not already been seized from her).

There is no question that the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy is a “hard saying,” so it is always tempting for exegetes and apologists to make their work easier by softening the teaching. Every age finds its own set of problems in Scripture, depending on its perspective. Our current ethical and historiographical presuppositions make much of the Old Testament problematic in a way that was not so in earlier eras. Dei Verbum—like all other Magisterial pronouncements—does not presume to solve all Scriptural difficulties. Our faith in Scripture is not based on its self-evident truth—in many places, we do not even know what it asserts, much less how to evaluate the assertion. It is grounded in the authority of the Church, which comes from the Apostles, who were commissioned by Christ. Catholics believe in the Scriptures because they trust in Christ’s promises to His Church.

Yet there is a further reason, touched on by Origen and reaffirmed by the Council: Holy Scripture speaks to us in a way that impresses upon us its truth, so that we need no exterior convincing. We recognize the Spirit of truth as we would a person; such has been the conviction of all the saints who have remarked on the subject. Without this recognition of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, there would be no reason for us to have any more concern for it than another set of ancient texts.

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[1] The Greek term diatheke, translated in Latin as testamentum, encompasses the meanings of both “covenant” and “testament,” hence the two parts of the Christian Bible may be called the Old and New Covenants. This nomenclature is purely Christian, and has no Jewish antecedent. The Jews regard Holy Scripture as composed of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.

[2] St. Jerome's original Old Testament text was reconstructed by the the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Jerome by order of Pope St. Pius X. His New Testament text was reconstructed by Protestant scholars in what is known as the Stuttgart Vulgate (1969). These were used as the base text for the Nova Vulgata, except for the books of Tobit and Judith, which follow the Vetus Latina.

[3] The term “fundamentalist” arises from a series of essays known as The Fundamentals (1910-15), which defended long-held Christian doctrines (taking a Reformed or Calvinist theological perspective) against modern liberal denials. Many of the essays cogently upheld the inerrancy of Scripture against the claims of higher criticism, while others, less convincingly, defended a plain literal interpretation of Genesis against the theory of evolution. As a result, “fundamentalism” has come to be identified with strict Biblical literalism, and it is wrongly perceived that defenders of Biblical inerrancy are necessarily naive literalists or young-earth creationists.

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© 2014 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org