Vatican II on Divine Revelation
What is the purpose and nature of Divine Revelation? That is the question which the Second Vatican Council set out to answer in its eleventh document on November 18, 1965, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum). As the Council’s second dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum emphasizes perennial doctrine and deals very little with pastoral analysis and advice. Nonetheless, the text manifests once again the Council’s desire to set forth a comprehensive view of its chosen subjects, in the hope of stimulating genuine renewal, rather than to address only disputed questions.
Though fairly short, the Constitution is divided into six chapters, and it is interesting that while Tradition is clearly explained and upheld as one of the twin sources of Revelation, there is no separate section on it. The first two chapters are especially important in that they explain the overall nature of Revelation and its mode of transmission. The final four, all on Scripture, follow easily from this.
In the first chapter (“Revelation Itself”), the Council teaches that 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” (2). God realized His plan “by deeds and words having an inner unity” and also a clear historical pattern. First He revealed Himself through created realities (3); second He undertook the formation of a special people to acknowledge Him as “the one living and true God, provident father and just judge” and to wait for “the Savior promised by Him”; third, He sent His Son:
To see Jesus is to see His Father. 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. (4)
In consequence, “we now await no further new public revelation” and “the obedience of faith is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals” (5).
In the second chapter (“Handing on Divine Revelation”), the Council teaches that God has chosen to convey His revelation through Scripture and Tradition under the authentic interpretive authority of the Magisterium of the Church. The Gospel had been promised before Christ and, when Christ came, He brought it to fulfillment and entrusted it to the Apostles who “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”. Then:
[T]o 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.” 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, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face. (7)
Furthermore, “this tradition…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” (8). The Fathers “witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church” (8), and “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” (8). Finally:
[T]he 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…. (10)
Thus it is clear that Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church “are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others” (10).
The third chapter (“Sacred Scripture, its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation”) explains that the books of the Old and New Testaments 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” (11). The Council then provides a succinct summary of Scriptural inspiration:
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. (11)
But the Council fathers also stress that, because “God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion”, care in interpretation is needed in order “to see clearly what God wanted to communicate”, and they mention especially the need for attention to literary forms and to “the content and unity of the whole of Scripture” if the meaning of the sacred texts it to be correctly worked out (12).
In the fourth chapter (“The Old Testament”), the Council outlines the purpose of the books of the Old Testament which, “in accordance with the state of mankind before the time of salvation established by Christ, reveal to all men the knowledge of God and of man and the ways in which God, just and merciful, deals with men” (15). But the Old Testament is also completed in the New. Its books, “caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning” (16).
The fifth chapter (“The New Testament”) explains that the four Gospels “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” (19), while in the remaining New Testament books “His true teaching is more and more fully stated, the saving power of the divine work of Christ is preached, the story is told of the beginnings of the Church and its marvelous growth, and its glorious fulfillment is foretold” (20).
In the sixth and last chapter (“Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church”), the Council emphasizes that the preaching of the Church must be nourished by Sacred Scripture (21), easy access to Scripture should be provided for all the faithful (22), the Eastern and Western Fathers as well as the early liturgies should be studied along with Scripture (23), and “sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation” (24).
Finally, the Council insists on the need for frequent reading of Scripture on the part of clergy, religious and “all the Christian faithful”, offering this exhortation:
Let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying” [St. Ambrose] (25).
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