It is a strange thing, but the need for production of a document like Vatican II’s Dei Verbum [“The Word of God”] would never have occurred to the Church prior to 1500. Catholicism understood the idea of God’s “word” as divinely inspired truths imparted to select individuals to inspire and inform believers, on matters of history, doctrine, guidance, and authority. The Christian Church included the Hebrew Scripture [or Old Testament] as inspired by God because of its orientation toward the coming of the Messiah and “Christian founder.” What we know today as the “New Testament” demanded much more of the early Church’s labor and discussion, but by the fourth century or thereabouts the canon or collection of God’s New Testament revelation of Jesus was settled. In terms of defining God’s word for faith and worship, the precise library of sacred revelation had been set for all time in the Church.
Contrary to instinct, defining the New Testament canon was much harder for Christians than assessing the boundaries of the Hebrew/Jewish canon. The Jewish canon had already been established a few centuries before Christ, and the first Christians, who were themselves Jews, embraced the Hebrew Scripture in its entirety, forty-five books. If you read books about the Bible, you will see the Old Testament collection referred to as “The Septuagint,” a reference to belief that seventy holy Jews met to make this determination of what was truly a “revelation of God’s truth.” In contrast, by the end of the first century A.D. the Christian Church needed to sort out and pass judgment on which books written by the baptized were inspired by God and thus necessary for reading and church guidance. In other words, which books would make up the New Testament canon, to go along with the Old Testament, the Septuagint?
As it turned out, the Church based its lengthy discernment on the practices of the local churches—i.e., which books were read most frequently in the Eucharistic celebrations. Historically, St. Paul’s Letters seem to have been written first—1 Thessalonians has been dated as early as 50 A.D. The first Gospel or narrative of Jesus’ life was composed just before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by an individual named Mark. The final and official compilation of the books of the Christian New Testament dates to around 400 A.D. The Church stated that the twenty-seven designated books contain everything that is necessary to know of God’s message of salvation.
For the next millennium there was consensus, generally speaking, that the Bible and the Church were intimately joined—one rarely, if ever, pondered over the Bible as a stand-alone source separate from the Church, or vice-versa, the Church as a stand-alone body separate from the Bible. When the New Testament Canon was finalized by the fifth century, the future St. Jerome [347-420 A.D.], easily the most gifted, colorful, and cantankerous man of his time, gathered the loose copies and fragments of both testaments—in a variety of ancient pieces, mostly Hebrew and Greek—and translated the entire corpus into fifth century Latin, a more modern translation that quickly became the official text for Western Catholic Church services and study [until 1970!] Jerome’s translation is called the Vulgate, from the Latin for “vulgar” or street language. Jerome’s sponsor, Pope Damasus, wished that the Bible be translated in a way that any Roman citizen might read it, a remarkable accomplishment for the time.
The chronic Achilles Heel in the intimate relationship of Church and Bible was the inability to critique one without critiquing the other. It did not occur to most Catholics that there might be cracks between what the Bible said, and how the Church would interpret the Bible for its own purposes, both for good intentions and self-delusions of power.
Two factors to bear in mind about most of the Church’s history. First, the tools for objective study of the Bible—theological, historical, linguistic, literary, archaeological, philosophical, scientific, and ecumenical, to cite some-- did not exist wholesale until about 1800, a date we associate with the Enlightenment and the modern era. Second, the Church was highly disinclined to do a thorough self-examination of its life and ministry for fear of having to admit it had overreached its authority. This fear was in full view during Vatican II [1962-1965] and even to this day.
FIRST STIRRINGS ON THE HORIZON
The tiny saplings of what would become Vatican II’s Dei Verbum  are evident as early as 1200 A.D. Francis of Assisi had gathered a little band of about a dozen brothers, attracted to his spirit of joy and his desire to live precisely as Jesus had lived according to the Gospels. For Francis, the literal Gospel described a Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head, who owned nothing, and who delivered hope in God and actual physical care to outcasts, including people with leprosy. Francis, whose brilliance often gets short shrift in Catholic catechetics, realized that he needed ecclesiastical blessing and permission to avoid difficulties with Roman authorities; the medieval age was rife with local movements of every sort motivated by personal mystical experiences, many of them far afield from Catholic guardrails of practice and common sense.
In their exchanges, Pope Innocent [r. 1198-1216] instructed Francis to join an existing order, such as the Benedictines or the Augustinians, communities which, supervised by the Church, lived safe rules, long tested, that protected the integrity of the Church and the orders’ members themselves from doctrinal error and subsequent punishments for excesses.
Francis, for his part, explained his belief that it was possible—even preferable—for a committed soul to live the very words of the Gospel as a religious way of life. Francis’s rule would be drawn directly from the Vulgate text of St. Jerome. Innocent was initially reluctant to grant the request; he feared that attempts to live Christ’s perfection under solemn vows would be impossible, and those who broke solemn vows could be imprisoned or even put to death for apostacy or heresy. There was a pastoral concern for Francis and his band on the part of Pope Innocent, as the pontiff, for all his papal power, desired a renewal of simplicity and holiness at the parochial level of the Medieval Church.
Francis put into play one of the most significant questions for future Catholic life: if the Gospels—the Bible—were not given by God as the source of personal conduct and meditational prayer, then what was the role of the Bible? Historians today would look back and use the term “cherry picking” to describe the Church’s relationship to the Bible. In other words, the Church at times selected a variety of Bible texts—often out of context—to support its policies and teachings on such matters as the persecution of the Jews and the unlimited power of the papacy.
Innocent did, in the end, approve the Gospel rule for Francis, but the pope died prematurely at the age of 52 and thus did not see one of his biggest fears come to fruition, i.e., that an extremist wing of the Franciscans, the “Spirituals,” would deny the power of the papacy to soften the believed Biblical mandate to live absolute and voluntary poverty. See my review of The Spiritual Franciscans posted to Amazon in 2005 for more discussion on this controversy.
FULL MORTAL COMBAT
The issue of the authority of the Bible discussed by Francis and Innocent did not go gently into the night, as over the next three hundred years the papacy became less exemplary and more controversial. Vatican II’s Dei Verbum is the distant descendant of the era known as the Protestant Reformation. In 1518, a major fundraising effort was underway in the Roman Catholic Church toward the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Preachers were dispatched throughout Europe to issue letters of release from the post-life punishments of Purgatory in exchange for monetary gifts toward the construction project. A ditty of the time provides a crude, if accurate description, of the transaction. “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” You have heard of the 1500’s controversy, “the sale of indulgences.” What was at stake was precisely the relationship of God’s saving will, as expressed in the Scriptures, to many of the practices of the Catholic Church. The sale of indulgences was the first universal blast of a volcano that had been gathering pressure for some years. The Franciscan controversy noted above is just one example.
When Martin Luther [1483-1546], an Augustinian monk and scripture scholar, encountered the preaching of indulgences in his own German locale, he issued his famous retort taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter One: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek. For in it is revealed the righteousness of God from faith to faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” God grants eternal life; it cannot be purchased regardless of papal authorizations to the contrary.
Luther was laying down the theological gridwork of the Reformation—salvation is bestowed directly from God through the agency of God’s revealed Word, the Bible, the Dei Verbum if you will. Luther was not calling for an end to the Catholic Church, but rather,  the elimination of the “inventions” of such practices as indulgences and several of the sacraments for which no Scriptural basis could be obviously found—indulgences, confession and priestly celibacy, to cite three; and  an emphasis upon God’s saving will as the agent of redemption through the Christian’s personal engagement with the holy word. The phrase sola scriptura [“by scripture alone is man saved”] captured the landscape. Luther himself translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into German, and the newly invented printing press put the Bible into the hands of every devout Christian for prayer and inspiration without the mediation of the clergy or an authoritative church. This biblical “independence” was a new factor in European life.
That said, it does not take a profound scholar to see that while Luther’s turn to the Bible as the reforming instrument of Christianity was certainly an enrichment of the Church, he did not—could not—answer several new questions. It is hard to claim an independence for the Bible, sola scriptura, when the Bible—and particularly the New Testament—is the product of the Church. It was baptized Christians who wrote the very texts and then determined which ones embodied God’s saving message for all time. Consequently, the Reformation era opened the door to discussion of the very meaning of Revelation--how it was delivered, and how it is to be interpreted. The Bible texts themselves show that the term sola scriptura can be taken too far. In the Hebrew Scripture, God addressed Abraham as the father of a great nation. In the Christian Testament, the Apostles are sent forth to announce the Good News to the entire world. So where is this balance between the dramatic personal visitation of God’s saving wisdom to each human being and the imperative to enter God’s saving community to find life [through circumcision, or later, through baptism]?
This was the ultimate target of Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, which in twenty-seven paragraphs attempted to pull together a timely explanation of the meaning of “Revelation,” its expression in the sacred books of the Bible and the life of the baptized Church. It is worth noting that Dei Verbum was the most hotly contested document of the Council, as the Church Fathers divided between the enormous body of new Biblical scholarship produced after Luther and the absolute authority of the Church to manage the Scripture and its interpretation. Vatican II was the third Council to tackle the issue of Biblical revelation and authority. Trent [1545-1563] and Vatican I [1869-1870] devoted enormous energies to the role of Scripture, and some of the most famous papal instructions of all time were issued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well about bible scholarship.
In the next installment, I will focus on the amazing progress of biblical study between the Reformation and Dei Verbum, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when our insights into the holy texts were turned upside down.
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For a brief but excellent introduction to the document Dei Verbum, see The Word of God at Vatican II: Exploring Dei Verbum  by Father Ronald D. Witherup.