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Familiarize yourself with the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which contains most of what Vatican II had to say about Scripture. Learn how the first two chapters help us understand how God talks to us and how divine revelation is transmitted from generation to generation. Click here for an online version of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.

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Very Revealing:
The Constitution on Divine Revelation

by Bill Huebsch

It’s hard to imagine cuddling up with a church document, but that’s exactly what I suggest you do with the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican II. It’s an enormously important document for anyone who loves Scripture, who knows Christ, and who is committed to the church. And yet, in the 40 years since Vatican II ended, few have actually read it, and fewer still understand the importance of what it has to say.

Cuddle up with it. Give it a long, slow read. You’ll come away with the feeling that you’ve just finished a lovely retreat.


Council Context

The Constitution on Divine Revelation, also known by its Latin title, Dei Verbum (Word of God), has always been in the background of everything else that happened during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and much of what has happened in the church since.

The other three constitutions from the Council stood in the footlights. The dramatic reforms brought about through the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy caught our immediate attention. Indeed, how could we miss the impact of its reforms?

The bold proclamation regarding the church in the modern world surprised and impressed everyone, Catholics and all others.

And the widely well-received Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, with its memorable chapters on the universal call to holiness, the church as the People of God, and the understanding of the church itself as a sacrament of Christ, shaped and molded us as a people.

In light of these more dramatic and publicly well-known constitutions from Vatican II, Revelation remained somewhat in the shadows. As we stand here today, however, 40 years later, it’s plain to see that it is having a powerful and lasting impact throughout the church.

More doctrinal and less pastoral than the others, it may seem to lack a bit of their glitz and glamour, but it is proving to be the stable anchor that holds the Church firm.

Why It Matters

I suggest you read it. Or read it again. It’s relatively short, only 26 total articles in six chapters. It’s extremely well written and readable. It was approved and promulgated on November 18, 1965, about a month before the end of the final session of Vatican II. It won wide approval; the final vote ran 2344 in favor and only 6 opposed!

Above all else, this constitution restored an important sense of balance to the Church’s understanding of how God speaks to us. Faith would no longer be seen as mere adherence to a list of doctrines and practices, but as a response to God’s self-communication, which involves the whole human person. Faith is not mere belief. It is a covenant that leads to discipleship, to Christian living.

This constitution also restored the reading and study of Scripture to the lives of average Catholics. We forget that before the Council, Catholics had not read Scripture much at all. Seminaries often did not even provide courses in Scripture study. Preaching tended to be thematic, not homiletic. And in many Catholic homes, the family Bible served mainly as a place in which to record the names of new children and the dates of their baptisms.

In the 1940s, Pope Pius XII had opened the doors to Catholic participation in biblical study. Following that, the Pontifical Biblical Commission had set forth principles for such scholarship. But now with this document, Bible study by Catholics could proceed with full force and authority.

This constitution contains, in fact, most of what the Council has to say about Scripture. Four of its six chapters (3-6) deal specifically with the Bible. And the first two chapters help us understand how Scripture, tradition and the teaching office of the Church form “one sacred deposit of the word of God” (#10).

Let’s Take a Tour

The first line of the first chapter provides us with a dramatic clue about how God speaks to us. God communicates God’s own self to us, the document says.

In Catholic theology, we call that self-communication of our ever-loving God by the name grace. The entire chapter is devoted to this great truth, summed up in article 6, “God chose to show forth and communicate Himself.…”

“What I came to see during the Second Vatican Council,” the late Bishop Raymond Lucker once said, “is that revelation involved God’s self-communication to us. God communicated the inner mysteries of God to us. And we can never.…adequately explain or express the revelation of God” (from The National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001).

This powerful experience of God, offered to every human being from the moment of conception, this mystery of divine presence, is the basis of all revelation. It is free, paid for by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus perfected this revelation and divine communication, the Constitution goes on to tell us (#4). In Jesus it is made whole and complete. We await no further word.

Chapter 1 is short, only six articles. And yet it summarizes all the ways and moments in which God has spoken to us throughout salvation history. The words proclaim the deeds of God, and the deeds confirm the words.

Handing on the Faith

Let’s continue our tour of this magnificent document. Chapter 2 discusses how the divine revelation (described in chapter 1) is transmitted from generation to generation.

Christ entrusted his message to the apostles. He named them as teachers and preachers. Down through history, the bishops of the church have continued that role of teacher. The tradition of their teachings, taken together with Scripture, provides the basis for our belief. Tradition and Scripture thus “flow from the same divine wellspring” (#9).

In this document, tradition is presented as that which embraces the whole life of the church. The Holy Spirit illuminates us and the church offers the truths of revelation. Hence, God is always speaking to everyone in the church, and our response to that is faith. This makes tradition into something new for us. Far from being a memory of past teachings or doctrines, it is now living. It is a living reality, the unchanging voice of God.

And while we need the light of the Church’s teachings as a guide, it is clear from this that every Christian experiences a living faith. We are the living voices of God in today’s world. When we pray and open ourselves to this divine communication, God speaks to us, (as Karl Rahner has expressed it) not many words, but that single divine word that is the very life of the one who prays. The world will hear God’s voice by hearing it echo in the lives of the faithful.

In fact, tradition develops in the church with the help of the Holy Spirit (#8). There is a growth in our understanding. This happens, the document tells us, through contemplation and study by faithful people, and through the preaching of the bishops. Thus, it goes on to say, the Bible is more fully known and made active in the church in every generation.

Blessed John XXIII understood this clearly. It was his own intervention in the debate during the first session of Vatican II (1962) that made the clarity of this document possible. For good Pope John, the debate surrounding this matter held pride of place. He knew that clarifying this would make possible the rest of the work which he hoped the Council would undertake.

His own personal life reflected this conviction. One day, in speaking with a close confidant, he expressed his grief that so many women and men of good will thought that the Church rejected and condemned them. “But I must be like Christ,” he said, referring to the crucifix on this desk. “I open wide my arms to embrace them. I love them and I am their father. I am always ready to welcome them.” Then turning to his guest he said, “Monsignor, all that the Gospel requires of us has not yet been understood” (John “The Transitional Pope,” by Ernesto Balducci, Trans. Dorothy White. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965, p. 31).

God, in other words, is still speaking. Revelation, we believe, is complete in Christ. But what “the Gospel requires of us” is being revealed in every new age. It is expressed in the teaching of the church and in the hearts of the faithful, according to article eight. This is why it seemed so important to Blessed John XXIII to “read the signs of the times” in order to know to what work God is calling us today.

In his opening speech at the Council itself, John XXIII made clear what he expected. “Our duty is not only to guard this precious treasure,” he said in that speech, “as if we were concerned only with antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without fear to that work which our era demands of us…” (emphasis mine).

What is that work? “…The whole world expects a step forward,” he said. And then he went on to lay out an agenda: Clinging to authentic revelation and rooted deeply in Scripture, we must present the faith in modern language and with a pastoral tone.

“The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing,” he said in that historic opening speech, “and the way in which it is presented is another.”

We must work to achieve the hope of Christ, “that all may be one.” We must “demonstrate the validity of our teachings, rather than condemning others.” And we must “make use of the medicine of mercy, rather than that of severity.”

Reading the Constitution on Divine Revelation in the context of this opening speech and the rest of Vatican II, it is clear that the community of the church, the people of God, the bishops and teachers, have a role in making the faith understandable in each generation. It is not enough to say, “It is, or it isn’t, in the Bible.” One must also ask, “But what does the Scripture demand of us?”

Thus, “it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed” (#9). The teaching office of the Church, to whom the task of interpreting all this is entrusted, is “not above the word of God, but serves it…” (#10).

These three—tradition, Scripture, and the teaching office of the Church—are so linked and joined that one cannot stand without the other. They form one deposit of faith.

Divine Inspiration

The Constitution is clearly concerned with the need to make God’s voice resound more clearly throughout the world. God speaks. Men and women hear God’s voice. They respond in faith. The Church guides all. These are the themes of this constitution.

The document concludes with four rather short chapters on the Bible. The chapters on interpretation, and on the Old and New Testaments, provide for and encourage the proper study of biblical texts, always with an eye to deeper faith in the believer.

The chapter on Scripture in the life of the church lays out a plan which would have seemed radical only a few years earlier. Namely, it calls all to know and study sacred Scripture, to have access to accurate translations. It also calls on priests to homilize about it in the Liturgy of the Word. It even suggests kindly that cooperating with “the separated brethren” may lead to faith (#22).

The goal here is to help all discover the full message that God is communicating to the human family. The goal is to help all come to hear more clearly the voice of God, so that we may respond more perfectly in faith.

Bill Huebsch is a theologian and teacher. In 1990 he founded the Vatican II Project which seeks to help keep alive the spirit and energy of the Council in today’s church and world. He is author of Vatican II in Plain English, and a dozen other books on this and related topics. His most recent work, Handbook for Success in Whole Community Catechesis is from Twenty-Third Publications.

Next: The Birth of the Church (by Elizabeth McNamer)

Praying With Scriptures
Read 1 John 1:2-3 aloud, slowly allowing the words of this passage to fill you. The bishops at Vatican II hoped the entire world would more clearly experience the wonders which John expresses here. Do you?

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