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Dei Verbum – Forty Years Later

Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm
10 October 2005



I am grateful to Fr. Mark Sheridan, Rettore Magnifico del Pontificio Ateneo Sant’Anselmo, for his invitation to participate in the Inaugurazione dell’anno accademico 2005-2006, and for suggesting the theme for my remarks this evening: “Dei Verbum – quarant’anni dopo.” Surely for these past forty years everyone engaged in the study and teaching of theology has been challenged by the familiar words of number 24 of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation “Dei Verbum”: “Sacred theology relies on the written word of God, taken together with sacred tradition, as its permanent foundation. … The sacred scriptures contain the word of God, and because they are inspired, they truly are the word of God; therefore, the study of the sacred page should be the very soul of sacred theology.”

This exhortation of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council made forty years ago next month should be a welcome source of encouragement for professors and students at this theological school at the beginning of a new academic year. I hope that my presence and remarks here can serve as a further encouragement.

In my preparation for this evening I had the occasion to reread Dei Verbum through at one sitting. I was impressed by its simple and concise language, and by how commonplace the truths that it teaches seem at a distance of forty years. But I also remembered from my years of teaching the course “De Revelatione” for several years in the seminary some thirty years ago that it had not been a simple task for the Council Fathers to draft this Constitution. It was crafted in controversy, and its much-debated course through all four sessions of the Council gave no guarantee that it would finally be adopted all but unanimously.

To help me recall Dei Verbum from a closer vantage point I turned to an early commentary on Dei Verbum by then-Father Joseph Ratzinger. He identified “three motifs that came together in the struggle for a Constitution on Revelation.” It seemed to me that the three points he identified in those first years after the Council might provide a useful framework for my reflections this evening.

Here are the three themes Ratzinger identified as forming the crucible from which Dei Verbum was fashioned: the first was the “new view of the phenomenon of tradition”; the second was “the application of critical historical methods to the interpretation of Scripture”; and the third was the growth of the so-called “biblical movement.” Let me offer a few reflections on these three contributing themes in reverse order.

The Biblical Movement

Like the liturgical and ecumenical “movements,” the biblical movement of the early twentieth century sharpened the focus of Catholics on the Scriptures and created in many bishops at the Council the desire to provide greater access for the faithful to the spiritual treasures contained in the Bible. The biblical movement had been encouraged by pioneering Encyclicals like Pope Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus and Pope Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu. In conjunction with the liturgical movement, it bore fruit in an expanded three-year cycle of Scripture readings at Mass. In addition, the emphasis on the Bible, together with the growth of ecumenical awareness, helped to provide a foundation for the increased mutual understanding evidenced by the many post-conciliar dialogues, especially with the ecclesial communities that trace their origin to the Reformation.

The particular contribution of the biblical movement to Dei Verbum was the emergence of a broad context in which the classical theological questions about revelation (such as the nature of inspiration, the extent of inerrancy, and the separation between written word and oral tradition) seemed to be too narrowly conceived. With this context in mind, the bishops were open to a new way of posing the question about Sacred Scripture. This new state of the question only developed in the “give and take” of the conciliar debates.

The desire for a greater knowledge of and use of the Scriptures in the life of the Church that was the soul of this “biblical movement” has been realized in ways hardly dared to be hoped for before the Council. This achievement can look to Dei Verbum as one of its principal foundations. At the same time, we cannot view this achievement as something completed. When we think of the many ideological interpretations of Scripture that lead people astray, or the overly narrow fundamentalism that affects so many today, we can surely recognize that the Council’s exhortations must always be accompanied by the best pastoral guidance the Church can give to her faithful sons and daughters in order to reach the goal set out in the sixth and final chapter of Dei Verbum (26): “So may it come [to be] that, by the reading and study of the sacred books ‘the word of God may speed on and triumph’ (2 Th 3:1) and the treasure of revelation entrusted to the church may more and more fill people’s hearts.”

Biblical Criticism

The second major contribution to the development of Dei Verbum was that of biblical criticism. One has only to think about the controversies of the Modernist period, or recall the statements of the Pontifical Biblical Commission at the beginning of the twentieth century (now viewed as transitory judgments), to appreciate the climate of lingering tensions, especially for Biblical scholars, that existed at the beginning of the Council. In this regard, it cannot be denied that Dei Verbum’s explicit acceptance of the importance of literary genres, and of the nature of historical and poetical writings, in interpreting Scripture brought a certain peace to the world of Catholic exegesis (cf. no 12).

It is, however, no surprise that the position taken by the Council Fathers in Dei Verbum no. 12, while acknowledging the legitimate advances in Biblical studies made by scientific exegesis, has not resolved all of the tensions that have marked post-conciliar biblical exegesis since the Council.

Without entering into the legitimate debate among exegetes regarding the rules of interpretation – a dialogue in which I can claim no competence – I want to expose what seems to me to be a key question posed by the embrace of historical critical methods among Catholic exegetes. Parenthetically, I say “Catholic” exegetes, not unaware that in the field of scientific exegesis there has been a strong interdependency between Catholic and Protestant exegetes, who rightly admire the scholarship of their colleagues and peers, and rightly learn from one another. An objective reading of the modern history of Biblical interpretation suggests that Catholic exegetes, learning from the advances made earlier by their Protestant counterparts, did not always avoid embracing the underlying hermeneutical principles on which these exegetical rules were grounded – principles that sometimes took their origin in philosophical suppositions of the Enlightenment – principles that cannot be reconciled with the foundational principles of Catholic theology.

While making this very “broad brush” description of the situation of Catholic Biblical interpretation, I do not want to be misunderstood. I intend such a description not as a criticism of individuals or groups, but as an attempt to understand a stage in the development of biblical scholarship at the time of the Council. Among the many issues at play here, I want to focus on the effect of modern critical methodology on the classical Catholic view of the relationship between the literal and the “spiritual” sense of the Scripture.

A review of half a century of biblical commentaries shows a disposition in favor of the “literal” sense in the interpretation of Scripture, often to the exclusion of any attention to the classical “spiritual sense” of Scripture. The problem many modern exegetes see in the “spiritual” sense could be summed up in the phrase “lack of control”: where are the limits of this spiritual sense? how can one accept a hermeutic that does not respect the scientific exegesis based on a “literal” meaning of Scripture? how does one prevent “exegesis” from becoming “eisegesis” (reading into the Scriptural text)?

In the history of Catholic biblical interpretation theologians as different as Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman have insisted on the priority of the literal meaning of the sacred text as basic – not, however, to the exclusion of the spiritual sense that was so central to the biblical commentary and exegesis of the Church Fathers. While Newman criticized the abuses of the spiritual sense, he would no doubt have been surprised to find that in much of contemporary biblical scholarship the classical spiritual sense has been all but bracketed out.

Cardinal Avery Dulles recently gave an illustration of how this modern tendency to limit exegesis to the literal sense affected English translations of Dei Verbum no. 12. As Dulles notes, the opening paragraph of no. 12 implicitly, but intentionally, makes a distinction between the literal and spiritual sense of Scripture: “Since God speaks in sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended [the literal sense], and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” [the spiritual sense]. The Latin is: “attente investigare debet, quid hagiographi reapse significare intenderint et eorum verbis manifestare Deo placuerit.”

The key word “et” is correctly rendered in the Abbott English translation as “and,” cited above. But other English translations are misleading: for example, the translation edited by Flannery reads “the interpreter … should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind, that meaning which God has thought well to manifest through the medium of their words.” The translation in the Tanner edition is even more misleading. It says that the interpreter must “carefully investigate what meaning the biblical writers had in mind; that will also be what God chose to manifest by means of their words.” These translations do not adequately express what Dei Verbum intended; rather they represent a common mindset biased in favor of limiting Biblical interpretation to the “literal” sense, to the practical exclusion of the “spiritual” sense.

The spiritual sense refers to the possibility of discerning a meaning in the sacred text beyond the literal meaning because the Bible, though composed of many books, has one divine Author. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 111) says, “But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter.” It goes on to quote Dei Verbum 12, par 3: “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.” It further lists the criteria that guide the spiritual sense of Scripture as indicated in Dei Verbum: “Be especially attentive ‘to the content and unity of the whole Scripture’; Read the Scripture within ‘the living tradition of the whole Church’; Be attentive to the analogy of faith’.” (CCC 112-4)

In addition to the mistranslation of no. 12 of Dei Verbum noted above in Dulles’ analysis, my rereading of the Constitution for this 40th anniversary has brought to my attention several other inconsistencies in the English translations. I cannot speak for translations into other languages, but this experience leads me to express a modest hope that, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Council, we might anticipate having a carefully done official translation of the principal Council documents in the major languages ready for the Council’s 50th anniversary.

In 1993 the Pontifical Biblical Commission published an important commentary on the various approaches to Biblical interpretation: “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.” While the Pontifical Biblical Commission is no longer charged with giving authoritative magisterial pronouncements on the Bible, this document provides a thorough analysis of the developments in Biblical exegesis and hermeneutical studies since the Vatican Council. This work is particularly important because it has brought the issues only mentioned in Dei Verbum to a new level of maturity.

In his preface to the Biblical Commission’s document, the Commission’s president Cardinal Ratzinger gives what might be considered an “update” on the question of biblical criticism: “The study of the Bible … is never finished; each age must in its own way newly seek to understand the sacred books. In the history of interpretation the rise of the historical-critical method opened a new era. With it, new possibilities for understanding the biblical word in its originality opened up. Just as with all human endeavor, though, so also this method contained hidden dangers along with its positive possibilities: The search for the original can lead to putting the word back into the past completely so that it is no longer taken in its actuality. It can result that only the human dimension of the word appears as real, while the genuine author, God, is removed from the reach of a method which was established for understanding human reality.”

How the meaning of the Scriptures can become known – the “meaning in which the human word and God’s word work together in the singularity of historical events and the eternity of the everlasting Word, which is contemporary in every age” [Ratzinger: Preface] – is the task addressed by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in its 1993 document. It remains a lasting legacy of the pioneering work of Dei Verbum. It further underscores the ongoing task of situating Biblical exegesis properly within, and not outside of, the scope of Catholic theology today.


The third of the themes identified by Fr. Ratzinger as contributing to the shaping of the Constitution on Divine Revelation is the concept of tradition. This word had a history in Catholic theology which is most often associated with the “two source” theory of how God’s Revelation is present and known in the Church: partly in scriptis (Scripture) and partly in traditis (traditions). The broader idea of Tradition that emerged from the early 19th century onwards provided a unifying concept of how Revelation – God’s Word (eternally present in the Trinitarian communion, and historically revealed in the incarnate Word) is the true, unique “source” of both Scripture and Tradition. Thus no. 9 of Dei Verbum presents this key concept on the connection between Scripture and Tradition: “For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” And again in no. 10, we read: “Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, which is committed to the Church.” And again, in the next paragraph, Dei Verbum uses the phrase “interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on…”

Fr. Albert Vanhoye is decisive in his comments on this point: “The Council rejected the dichotomy which would place a dualism at the origin of Revelation and maintain the compartmentalization of Tradition and Scripture. On the contrary, the Council wanted to insist on both the unity of their origin and the multiplicity of links that hold Scripture and Tradition in symbiosis.” [Il Concilio Vaticano II, R. Fisichella ed., p.31]. The ecumenical implications of this breakthrough have already been alluded to: while not embracing the classical Protestant “sola scriptura” in principle, the Council’s formulation also avoids the two source language that had created a deep chasm between Catholic and Protestant approaches over the centuries.

Another important dimension which can be attributed to the broader notion of Tradition is its dynamic, historical sense. “So the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by a continuous succession of preachers until the end of time … So the Church, in her teaching, life, and worship, perpetuates and hands on (tradere) to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (Dei Verbum 8, par 1). It is this broad concept of “tradition” that Dei Verbum speaks about when it says, “This tradition which comes from the apostles makes progress [progredisce] in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum 8, par 2).

Fr. Zoltan Alszeghy, S.J., does not hesitate to say that “The conciliar text speaks of the progress of Tradition, but this is nothing other than the development of dogma” [Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives, v.I, p.140] He sees the statement of Dei Verbum as referring to the progress of Tradition from the perspective of its starting point. But when speaking of the development of dogma, he says that we are considering this progress from the viewpoint of its result.

I refer to the issue of the development of doctrine to underscore the importance of the new faculty dedicated to the history of theology recently set up at this Pontifical Athenaeum. It can be seen as yet another fruitful expression of the growth in understanding of the Word of God so earnestly recommended by Dei Verbum. Moreover, it seems to me that the historical study of theological developments, particularly in moral theology, has been too long neglected in Catholic theology. I express my hope that this new faculty will make a rich contribution to the ongoing renewal and progress of theology in the Church.

Finally, I want to highlight one further aspect of the contribution of the concept of a living, dynamic and organic tradition to the understanding of the Church: that of her teaching authority or Magisterium. The particular genius of Dei Verbum is to show the interconnectedness of these several theological notions: Revelation, the Word of God, Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium. In no. 10, par. 2 of Dei Verbum, the role of the Magisterium in relation to the other notions is set forth: “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 by 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.”

To teach with authority, which the Church does by divine gift, can sometimes lead us to focus on the power to teach given to the apostles and their successors. In Dei Verbum this teaching authority is clearly presented as a service to the Word of God, to the Gospel – and thus as a service to the truth. This is a fundamental and important contribution to the ecclesiology of the Catholic Church made in the Constitution Dei Verbum.


The Constitution Dei Verbum begins with the words of the first Letter of St. John: “We announce to you the eternal life which was with the Father, and has appeared to us.” (1 John 1:2). Revelation, Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium have the same unique source and the same purpose – to let us know the Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (cf. John 17:3). As we celebrate the Synod of the Bishops with which this year of the Eucharist concludes, we can only marvel at the Revelation of God’s love manifest in so many ways to us, and give Him thanks.

+William Joseph Levada
Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith