As set out in a previous post, I have embarked on a journey through the 16 Vatican II documents, starting with the dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum here.
Before getting into it, let me start with a few words to those of you - my friends! - who hold no or other beliefs about God than me. Without meaning to tell you what to do, I’d say that probably the best attitude to have when reading this post (and the rest of the series that will follow on Vatican II) is that of Thomas Nagel in his well-known paper entitled: “What is it like to be a bat?”1 I don’t mean to get sidetracked here into his superb challenge to how consciousness is to be approached, but would just like to take some pointers from him on how one can consider the words of another, who holds different beliefs (and I am talking purely about understanding, without meaning to reduce relationships to knowledge alone). Nagel has the key insight that the question of what it is to be a bat is not about what it would be like for me to be a bat, but what it is for a bat to be a bat. “Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.” Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I believe these limitations apply in both directions. I too lack the direct experience of not believing in God or of holding other beliefs to my own, and therefore can only get so far with understanding what it is like to be an atheist or agnostic using my own “inadequate resources.” Sticking to Nagel’s example, trying to understand another person with whom I don’t share a key characteristic is like trying to understand from a bat what it is like to have sonar. Even if the bat could speak English, we wouldn’t have a shared vocabulary for it to quite get that across to me. In spite of such limitations, I hope that you will find interest in how Catholics look at the way they believe God has revealed himself to the world, which is precisely the subject of Dei Verbum.
Where else would the discourse start but with a quote from the New Testament, where John says the following:
“We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:2-3)This puts us in a very clear context from the word go: that of continuity with Jesus’s disciples desiring to share what they have “seen and heard,” for the sake of building relationships with others and with God. The purpose of Dei Verbum then is to clarify how the above revelation of God to the world is to be understood. This revelation, where “the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself.”
Dei Verbum proceeds to present different ways in which God has revealed and continues to reveal himself:
- Nature. “God, who through the Word creates all things and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities” and “he ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation.” The message here is clear: God can be found in his creation,2 “known […] by the light of human reason” and all who live for others rather than themselves will find him.
- The people of Israel. “Then, at the time He had appointed He called Abraham in order to make of him a great nation. Through the patriarchs, and after them through Moses and the prophets, He taught this people to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God, provident father and just judge.” The books of the Old Testament “give expression to a lively sense of God, contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way.” Even though these books “also contain some things which are incomplete and temporary, [we] should receive them with reverence.” “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.”
- Jesus. “He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God.” God sends his Son, Jesus - the “eternal Word” - and through his life, teaching, death and resurrection, God shows himself directly to us and reveals himself in full intimacy.
- The Holy Spirit. For someone to “freely assent to the truth revealed by Him […], the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist” and “[t]o bring about an ever deeper understanding of revelation the same Holy Spirit constantly brings faith to completion.” While revelation is complete in the person of Jesus, the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit of truth”), whom Jesus sent to his followers after his resurrection, continues to deepen our understanding of it.
How is one to understand the nature of Scripture though? Dei Verbum first reaffirms the Church’s belief in “the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, [being] 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.” However, since they were written by men, we “should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” Here, a distinction needs to be made between passages that are “historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.” “[We] must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. [… D]ue attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.” This is as far from literalism as you can get - instead it is a teasing out of intention from a text anchored in a specific period of history and in a specific geographical location. No wonder its understanding has the potential to grow and for “new insights [to be] brought about”!
An important warning follows next in Dei Verbum: “serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out [and t]he living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.” Understanding what was meant by a passage from Scripture mustn’t be done on the basis of picking a couple of phrases out of the whole and trying to make sense of them from scratch. They are part of a textual corpus and there is a rich body of existing insight into them and interpretation of them, to which any new understanding can add. Preserving the message God sent us through his Son and the Holy Spirit - and understanding it in the context I am in - requires a careful and critical interaction with all of Scripture, in which the Church’s judgment plays a key guiding and interpretative role too. Ultimately, the aim is “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature” (St. John Chrysostom, On Genesis).
Within the New Testament, the Gospels have a special “preeminence,” “for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word.” Their authors wrote the four Gospels, “selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that […] we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed.” To make these “words of God” “accessible at all times, the Church […] sees to it that suitable and correct translations are made into different languages, especially from the original texts of the sacred books.” Preference is given also to producing translations “with the separated brethren[…, so that] all Christians will be able to use them.”
Finally, all Christians are called to a frequent reading of Scripture and to accompany it with prayer, “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, On the Duties of Ministers I)” In this way “the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may more and more fill the hearts of men.”
So, these are my 1500 word notes on the 6000 word Vatican II text :) - if you are interested, do read it in full. I certainly got a lot out of it and feel very comfortable with what the Church teaches about Scripture: they are believed to be the true Words of God, but since they were recorded by humans and within the “literary forms” and cultural conventions of a specific place and time, the task of understanding what the authors’ intentions were and what God meant to communicate, is a delicate process. That it is a process is also key, to my mind - it is not like these 2000 year old texts can just be internalized immediately (no text can!). Instead, they require knowledge, discernment, an open mind and the willingness to hear what God has to say to me - here and now.
Lumen Gentium is up next, and since it has 27000 words, I reckon it will occupy me for a while :).
1 Thanks to my bestie, Margaret, for introducing me to this paper a good 10 years ago! If you are interested in consciousness at all, I highly recommend it in full.
2 Note, that this does not imply the lunacy of Creationism - instead, I read this as, with our best knowledge today, God sustaining a universe that he made to follow the (his!) Standard Model.