The 1965 Vatican II declaration Dei Verbum, “The Word of God,” has been cited by many as the most important document to emerge from the Council, for it cuts to the very identity and authority of the Church. Dei Verbum is brief but powerful. It has the courage to enumerate the root issues of both the nature of the Bible and the Church’s ownership of the Biblical keys, so to speak. Dei Verbum does not answer the many thorny questions around how the Church relates to the Scripture in practical terms, such as morality. We are still working on that today and we need to be engaging in the Word with more energy than we do.
Dei Verbum cuts to the multiple issues of the nature and form of God’s Revelation. It defines who controls the scope and usage of the divine canon [the Scripture books] and how this is done, and how the sacred texts have been communicated to humankind over time. Thankfully, we have a worthy introduction. The Word of God at Vatican II has a noteworthy pedigree. It was designed for individual and group study of Dei Verbum by Father Ronald D. Witherup as part of the venerable Little Rock [Arkansas] Bible Study series published by Liturgical Press. The author is a superior of the Sulpician Order of priests whose ministry is seminary and priestly continuing education. But no adult Catholic need worry that this resource is “over your head,” as the text covers and explains a lot of ground and introduces biblical terms and Church history which are not familiar. Shakespeare was correct when he penned “knowledge maketh a bloody entrance, but it is worth the trouble. The Bible is what we [should] do.
It is impossible for any author to itemize every issue of debate and contention surrounding the four-years writing of Dei Verbum but let me set the table on the dynamics of how this council document was constructed. This may explain, as the author himself notes, why Dei Verbum looks for all the world like a compromise document, a “both/and” statement.
In 1959 Pope John XXIII announced the call to the world’s bishops to attend an ecumenical council in 1962. Every bishop in the world was invited to submit issues for discussion. Pope John assigned the task of collating and preparing organized drafts to his Curia, the Vatican administrators. The conservative Curia never wanted a council, and the history books generally agree that the summary of proposals from the Curia were hardly earthshaking and designed for a six-week one session council.
Raising the subject of Sacred Scripture at an ecumenical council seemed particularly dangerous to the Roman Curia. Beginning around 1900, modern Biblical scholarship had taken up newer methods of Bible study, such as the “historical-critical” method. In 1943 Pope Pius XII, in his famous encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, allowed Catholic scholars and students to use the newer methods, within reason; these are the methods I learned in grad school a decade after the Council, and there is an excellent summary published here under “redaction criticism” if you have no background in Scripture study.
When the Council opened in 1962, most bishops were unhappy with the Curia’s proposals. The bishops’ theological advisors at the Council, called peritus or periti, explained why they should be upset: the Scriptural proposals were sorely inadequate for the work of the Council. Incidentally, one of the most outspoken of the periti on this subject was Father Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. [Father Ratzinger published his diary of the Council in 1966 and had plenty to say about the status quo. During the opening Mass of the Council, he noted that one cardinal was saying the Mass at the altar while thousands of clergy just watched it. After the Council, concelebration would become the norm when priests gathered for Mass.]
By the 1960’s Biblical study—Catholic and Protestant—was challenging longstanding theology and practice. One example: scholars today generally hold that the Adam and Eve narrative is a philosophical attempt to explain the presence of evil in the world, written only a few centuries before Christ. If the narrative is not depicting literal history, as was long held, then what are we to make of the Catholic doctrine involving original sin and our inheritance of this sin biologically and the need to baptize infants and…well, you see the problem, which even the Catechism of 1993 still churns over today. As it turned out, discussion of Scripture on the Council floor turned to another thorny matter, dogmas declared by the Church without Biblical reference at all. In 1854 Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary an infallible doctrine, and in 1950 Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary an infallible doctrine.
All this being said, the vast majority of bishops at Vatican endorsed a continuing and vigorous study of the Word of God, and thus was born Dei Verbum. And, thankfully, we have an accessible commentary to guide us in the Biblical renewal called for by the Council.
The very formation of the New Testament canon [the twenty-seven books] had been one of the major accomplishments of the early Church, and there was a prolonged, almost democratic method in the way that early Church leaders discerned which of the many texts appearing by 100 A.D. were God’s revelation. Ironically, it was an antisemitic heretic, Marcion, who began disseminating Gospels with Jewish references expunged, that led the Church to define the selection of books containing “everything necessary for salvation.” The determining factor was frequency of use at the Sunday Eucharist by bishops and faithful, under the communal guidance of the Holy Spirit. The present-day New Testament, as we know it, is comprised of the twenty-seven books that Christians came to customarily proclaim at their celebrations of the Eucharist, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Paragraph One of Dei Verbum states as its primary goal the “setting forth the authentic teachings on divine revelation and its transmission [i.e., handing down.]” [p. 18] Paragraph Two emphasizes God’s initiative in the Revelation process. Father Witherup picks up for emphasis in this paragraph the astounding reality that God’s relation to us is of the nature of friendship.
Paragraph 5 attempts to address a chronic debate from ancient times: in the process of Revelation, does God reach out to us first, or do we enjoy the intrinsic power of reaching out to God first? is our own inherent goodness what drives us to God, or does our God’s prompting incite us to a closer union with the divine? This is fallout of an early Church heresy, Pelagianism, and later in the Reformation-Calvinist doctrine of Predestination. Dei Verbum addresses the issue here by stating that both positions are true in a sense; medieval theologians developed the concept of actual grace—the help of God to those spiritually dead in mortal sin.
Paragraphs seven through ten address how God’s revelation came into the form we have today; it is consistent with the Council of Trent’s teaching  that the written Gospels were preceded by Christ’s actual words and deeds, and then the oral transmission of his works through his apostles and other witnesses. Late in the first century this witness was arranged and composed in multiple forms by the four evangelists. See Luke 1: 1-4 which describes the process. As the author observes, Dei Verbum does not define the process of authors’ inspiration per se, whether it be from individual or community sources, though later he rules out literal inspiration on historical grounds.
Paragraphs eight, nine, and ten discuss Tradition, long defined and revered as the body of truth discovered while the Church pondered upon Scripture. Over time Tradition has taken a separate but equal identity, to the degree that the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of two sources of Revelation, Scripture, and Tradition. [para. 78] Dei Verbum and our author labor mightily on this dual source issue, which became a pronounced issue of contention with the sale of indulgences around 1500. Luther had argued that the Church was inventing too much practice without significant Biblical basis and evidence. The author concedes, too, that Dei Verbum does not address the Hebrew Scriptures [Old Testament] sufficiently in the Council document.
The author’s treatment of Paragraphs 21-26 is excellent and profitable to novice and expert alike. Paragraph 21 teaches “The Church has always venerated the divine scriptures as it has venerated the Body of the Lord” [p. 49] and the author pairs it with teaching from Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, the Constitution on the Church. To be honest, this teaching on the presence of Christ in both the Sacred Scripture and the Eucharistic Bread and Cup would ring foreign to most Catholics. Both DV and Father Witherup conclude with advocacy of Bible prayer and study for all Catholics, including praying the Liturgy of the Hours, deeply Biblical in form and content. However, after multiple Synods on the Bible over the past half century and the work of a new generation of Biblical scholars, particularly women, we still have an exceedingly long way to go before we Catholics can call ourselves biblical without crossing our fingers.