According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater
Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma
It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds
assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

Monday, September 14, 2020

How Catholics Read the Bible, Part 3 - Biblical Inerrancy for Catholics




THEOLOGY / UNPACKING VATICAN II

Biblical inerrancy for Catholics: Dei Verbum, chapter 3

by Adam Rasmussen
September 10, 2020, Updated September 11, 2020


In my previous post, I explored the revision process and debate that led to the final wording of Dei Verbum (DV) 11, which says that the Scriptures teach “without error the truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be put in writing in Holy Writ.”[1] Now I will answer the question: how exactly should we interpret this passage today? There are a few options.

Total inerrancy: no change in teaching

You can argue that DV means the same thing Pius XII meant, namely, that the Bible is free of all error, even on historical details that have nothing to do with salvation. This interpretation minimizes the significance of the phrase “for the sake of our salvation,” saying that it only refers to the nature of the Bible in general. The reasoning goes like this: the Bible teaches all kinds of truth without error. The reason it does this is because God wanted us to learn the truth in order to save us. It’s not a limitation of what kinds of truth the Bible may contain, but only an explanation of why the Bible is inerrant. Nothing in DV contradicts this.

This is the view of those who want to minimize—or even deny the existence of—any “ruptures” or “discontinuities” between what Vatican II says and what earlier popes said.[2] Their best argument is to cite footnote 5 in DV 11, which refers back to PD and DAS. According to them, this proves that DV, despite the new phrasing, should be reduced back to DAS.

A weakness of this position is that it has a hard time credibly explaining the various historical errors that are in fact in the Bible. The neo-scholastic position was that the mistaken statements were intended non-literally. Thus, for example, when the Book of Daniel says that Nebuchadnezzar was the father of Belshazzar (5:2)—his father was actually Nabonidus—it was somehow meant metaphorically. This example was used because it is neat, straightforward, and (in their view) plausible. Other historical claims are harder to explain, such as the supposed empire-wide census under Quirinius in Luke 2:1-2.[3]

A more serious danger, in my opinion, is that the total inerrancy position tends strongly toward fundamentalism. Rather than interpreting the factual errors in the Bible “metaphorically,” the temptation is just to declare the Bible infallible and reject or ignore anything that contradicts it. Almost inevitably, modern science is discarded. This mindset leads to the attitude that secular knowledge is wrong, and learning it will destroy your faith! This attitude is anti-rational, sectarian, and contrary to the goal of theology, which is faith seeking understanding.

Worse still, the mindset can lead people to a spiral of anxiety about every little detail that happens to be in Scripture. Some become consumed with trying to find explanations for every apparent mistake, no matter how obscure. Whole books are devoted to the topic. They devote their energy to ingenious apologetics and intellectual gymnastics, which are too clever by half, when their time would be better spent actually studying the message of the Bible. The entire mentality, in my opinion, makes an idol out of the Bible at the expense of reading it to understand what it is trying to teach us about God and salvation.

Limited inerrancy: St. John Henry Newman and “passing remarks”

The alternative to this, which DV seems to suggest, is that inerrancy is limited only to things pertaining to salvation. There may be mistakes and inaccuracies on things that have nothing to do with salvation. Though inspired by God, it was actually written by human beings, not God. These authors wrote from particular socio-historical contexts.[4] As a result, it contains many statements of a historical nature that have no salvific content in themselves and so need not be inerrant.

This was the view of St. John Henry Newman, who called such statements “obiter dicta,” which is a Latin juridical term that means “said in passing,” as in, passing remarks that are not germane to the argument. Here is how Newman explained it:
“Being inspired because written by inspired men, [the Scriptures] have a human side, which manifests itself in language, style, tone of thought, character, intellectual peculiarities, and such infirmities, not sinful, as belong to our nature, and which in unimportant matters may issue in what in doctrinal definitions is called an obiter dictum.” (§30)
Such passing remarks, according to Newman, do not relate to faith and morals, and therefore “may without violence be referred to the human element in [Scripture’s] composition” (§34). This does not mean such remarks are meaningless or that they should be excised from the text, for they could hold some literary meaning. It only means that, considered in isolation as merely historical data, they are not germane to the salvific message. Often called the “absent father of Vatican II” (absent because he died 72 years before it began), the wording of DV recalls Newman’s position. The theologians who wrote it knew and positively appreciated his views.[5]

When Pope Leo XIII said in 1893 that limited inerrancy “cannot be tolerated” (Providentissimus Deus 20), it was understood that he had the recently-deceased Cardinal Newman in mind. Fifty years later, Pius XII renewed this, explicitly naming “obiter dicta” but not Newman himself (Divino Afflante Spiritu 1). Vatican II and the post-conciliar popes have brought about many theological and liturgical developments. Pope Francis canonized John Henry Newman on October 13, 2019, and it seems likely that a future pope will declare Newman a Doctor of the Church. If that were to happen, it would mean that he had been judged as useful for the whole Church. Given Newman’s canonization and prominent influence on the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, I think his views deserve serious re-consideration.

In fact, DV 11 is widely understood to mean some kind of limited inerrancy; it is the de facto default position of most Catholic theologians and even bishops. In 2005, for example, the bishops’ conference of England and Wales, together with the bishops’ conference of Scotland, interpreted DV 11 as follows:

It is important to note this teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the truth of Scripture is to be found in all that is written down ‘for the sake of our salvation’. We should not expect total accuracy from the Bible in other, secular matters. We should not expect to find in Scripture full scientific accuracy or complete historical precision.[6]

The two bishops conferences specifically labeled this a “teaching document,” meaning that it exercised the ordinary magisterium of the bishops of those countries.[7] The same position was taken in the working document (Instrumentum Laboris) of the 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. It is even stronger:
The following can be said with certainty: […] with regards to what might be inspired in the many parts of Sacred Scripture, inerrancy applies only to “that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV 11).
There must have been some disagreement about this among the bishops, however, because in their final propositions (#12), they asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to clarify the matter. Following this, Benedict XVI, in his 2010 apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, quoted DV 11 and then added:
One must acknowledge the need today for a fuller and more adequate study of these realities [inspiration and truth], in order better to respond to the need to interpret the sacred texts in accordance with their nature. Here I would express my fervent hope that research in this field will progress and bear fruit both for biblical science and for the spiritual life of the faithful. (19)
He wisely judged a magisterial intervention inopportune, and instead handed the issue back to biblical and theological researchers.

As for post-conciliar theologians, some version of limited inerrancy is almost universally espoused (outside of traditionalist circles). The two giants of twentieth-century American Catholic biblical scholarship, Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ,[8] and Fr. Raymond Brown, SS,[9] espoused this view.[10] The advantages of limited inerrancy are that it is rational, it has the authority of Newman, it accords best with the final wording of DV, it is more coherent with the view of revelation given in chapter 1 of DV than is total inerrancy (self-revelation, not facts), and it allows Catholic theology to bypass fruitless and self-defeating debates about trivia and minutiae.
This is what I tell my students: when you get to the pearly gates, is St. Peter going to give you a pop quiz about who was high priest when David ate the show-bread or who Belshazzar’s father was? No, he’s going to ask you whether, by God’s grace, you performed the works of mercy.
In the next and final part of my analysis of DV 11, I will discuss limited inerrancy as understood by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. The future Pope Benedict XVI served as a peritus (expert theologian) at Vatican II for the German-speaking bishops who helped write Dei Verbum and has written about the subject of truth and error in the Bible.


Notes:

[1]   My translation of the original Latin, which reads, “Cum ergo omne id, quod auctores inspirati seu hagiographi asserunt, retineri debeat assertum a Spiritu Sancto, inde Scripturae libri veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa Litteris Sacris consignari voluit, firmiter, fideliter et sine errore docere profitendi sunt.”

[2] This is an enormous topic that I cannot address here, but a good starting point is Benedict XVI’s 2005 curial address in which he espoused a “hermeneutic of reform” and “renewal in continuity” that encompasses certain “ruptures” in which the Council really did change some particulars (his example being religious liberty) on the basis of deeper doctrinal principles. The continuity lies in these deeper principles. This is also Pope Francis’s view.

[3] Joseph Fitzmyer gives a detailed account of this problem in his Anchor Bible translation and commentary: The Gospel according to Luke I-IX (AB 28, 1982).

[4] I will return to this point and its significance for biblical interpretation in my next post.

[5] See Juan Velez Giraldo, “Newman’s Influence on Vatican II’s Constitution Dei Verbum,” Scripta Theologica 51 (2019): 711-40.

[6] The Gift of Scripture: A teaching document of the Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, and of Scotland (2005)

[7] Not the universal magisterium, which would require the explicit approval of the pope or Ecumenical Council.

[8] Quoting DV 11, Fitzmyer writes: “Inerrancy is the quality of all assertions in the Bible that pertain to human salvation. That important phrase saves Catholic interpreters from crass fundamentalism, because it means that the charism of inerrancy does not necessarily grace every statement made with a past tense verb as if it were historically true” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Interpretation of Scripture: In Defense of the Historical-Critical Method [2008], 8).

[9] Brown was well aware of the ambiguity of DV 11, but argued that it means: “It is not as if some parts of Scripture teach without error ‘truth for the sake of salvation,’ and other parts do not. Everything in Scripture is inerrant to the extent to which it conforms to the salvific purpose of God” (The Critical Meaning of the Bible [1981], 20).

[10] Theologian Joseph O’Leary gave a robust and polemical defense of it at Durham University shortly before the aforementioned synod of bishops on the Word of God: “Scriptural Inerrancy” (4/20/08).

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Dr. Adam Rasmussen is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. His research focuses on St. Basil, Origen, and the interface between theology and science in their writings. His current research focuses on Basil and the human body, physiology, and medicine. 

How Catholics Read the Bible, Part 2 - Are There Mistakes in the Bible?




THEOLOGY / UNPACKING VATICAN II

Are there any mistakes in the Bible? Dei Verbum, chapter 3

by Adam Rasmussen
September 9, 2020


In part 1 of my analysis of the third chapter of the Vatican II document Dei Verbum (DV), I showed how the Church understands the creation of the Bible as a divine-human synergy. God is its Author insofar as he inspired it, but human beings are its “true authors” (DV 11). They actually wrote the words, which are therefore human words. In this second part, I will examine the second paragraph of section 11, which tells us that when it comes to salvation, the Bible teaches truth without error.

Is the Bible “inerrant”? The words inerrant and inerrancy are neologisms coined during the largely Protestant contests of the early-19th century about the factual truthfulness of the Bible (as well as occasionally being used to refer to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility).[1] Disputes arose from the new field of biblical archaeology as well as the burgeoning of critical historiography, which called the Bible’s historical reliability into serious question. Insofar as Catholics at the time were more caught up in the codification of the doctrine of papal infallibility (achieved in 1870 at the First Vatican Council), the word inerrancy is principally associated with Protestant fundamentalism.

The original “schema” on the Sources of Revelation,[2] drafted by the pre-conciliar Preparatory Theological Commission in 1960, twice used the word inerrancy. One instance was replaced by “immunity from error” for the version presented to the bishops at the Council. This document, and all the preparatory documents prepared by the Commission, were rejected by a super-majority of bishops, who then enlisted theologians to draft new documents. This was the moment that truly made the Council, as it effectively liberated itself from the neo-scholastic Roman curia and their regressive and self-referential approach to Catholic teaching. Dei Verbum does not use the words inerrant or inerrancy, which have never appeared in any magisterial document.[3]

What does DV say about truth and error in Scripture? Here is the exact wording:
Since everything that the inspired authors or sacred writers assert must be held to have been asserted by the Holy Spirit, it must be confessed that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach the truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be put in writing in Holy Writ. (11)
This teaches a kind of inerrancy, but not the fundamentalist kind, for the nature of “inerrancy” is qualified. What does the Bible teach without error? “The truth.” What truth? “The truth that God, for the sake of our salvation” wanted in it. The phrase “for the sake of our salvation” is the key.

At this point, let us recall the purpose of Scripture. From chapter 1 of DV, we learned that revelation is not an information dump, as if we could be saved by knowing certain facts, which is essentially the heresy of Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge”). Revelation is God’s disclosure of himself and his will for the human race. What is that will? Salvation. To become one with God (even in a certain sense to “become God”). If revelation were a body of knowledge laid out in the Bible (as many Christians take it to be), then it would follow logically that that body would have to be flawless, without error of any kind. After all, if being saved required knowing all the right facts, then salvation would be endangered by even the slightest mistake. But according to DV, revelation is not about information (though it contains information) but salvation. Therefore, immunity from error is necessary only insofar as salvation is concerned. Which is what DV says: the Bible teaches without error the truth revealed by God for the sake of salvation.

But what exactly does this salvation-focused understanding of “inerrancy” imply? Does this mean the Bible may contain errors on issues that are unrelated to salvation? At this point it is necessary to acknowledge that this question was debated by the bishops themselves and has been the subject of heated controversy ever since. As in all aspects of Catholic theology, multiple interpretations are possible and permissible. The final wording of DV is by design open to some interpretation. And that is okay. To rightly understand the different possible interpretations, it is necessary to look at the drafting process that DV went through as well as the debates that took place during the Council.

The original schema De fontibus differed radically from DV. It said inspiration “necessarily excludes and repels error in any matter, religious or profane” (12). The word profane encompassed historical statements. When Dei Verbum was first drafted to replace De fontibus, it said something similar, namely that the Bible is “completely free of all error.”[4] This wording was taken more or less from Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu: “freedom from any error whatsoever” (1); “immunity from all error” (38). The third draft changed it to “without any error.” While this is the same assertion, it is less emphatic, as if the document were moving farther and farther away from the original, at least rhetorically.
Cardinal Franz Konig

During the Council Cardinal Franz König, the Archbishop of Vienna, advocated against total inerrancy, famously reading aloud a list of well-known errors in the Bible, such as the locus classicus of Mark 2:26, which mistakes Abiathar for his father Achimelech (2 Sam 8:17). In this he seemed to have the support of the majority, and so the fourth draft of DV was substantially changed, so that it now said the Scriptures “teach saving truth without error.” Far from saying the Bible is free of any error, it now asserted that it was free of error only with respect to “saving truth.” This wording clearly implied that inerrancy was limited and caused a stir among the more conservative bishops, who asked Paul VI to intervene. As a result, the pope had the word saving removed. However, when this was done, the clause “for the sake of our salvation” was added in its place! One hand gives, while the other takes away. Thus, the final, authoritative wording –approved by 99.7% of the assembled bishops[5]– states that the Scriptures “teach without error the truth that God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to be put in writing in Holy Writ” (DV 11).

As a historical theologian, I believe magisterial documents should be interpreted within their historical context. I despise attempts to interpret them purely Platonically, as if the words stood apart from history and the men that wrote them in some Ideal realm. What does this drafting and debate process tell us about what DV 11 means? It seems to suggest that the majority of bishops favored some kind of salvation-centric limited inerrancy. However, since the conservative minority went to the pope about this, and he was sympathetic to their concern (which is no surprise, given the view of his predecessor Pius XII), the Council had little choice but to settle for a somewhat-ambiguous compromise.

In my next article, I will evaluate several ways to interpret this contested phrase and what it tells us about how God uses Scripture to reveal himself to us.


Notes:

[1] See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “inerrancy.”

[2] De fontibus revelationis. Notice the plural. The draft strongly defends the ideas that Tradition and Scripture are two sources and that some truths are found in Tradition only. Both were rejected by Dei Verbum, as I showed in my earlier post on chapter 2. The text has been translated into English with commentary by (my teacher) Fr. Joseph Komonchak.

[3] It can be found in the heading attached to Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus 20 in Denzinger (DS 3291): “De inspiratione et inerrantia s[acrae] Scripturae.” PD itself, however, does not use the word.

[4] These changes are documented in Robert P. Miller, “’For the Sake of Our Salvation’: Interpreting Dei Verbum, Art. 11, Fifty Years Later,” The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning 15, no. 2 (2016): (1-12) 3.

[5] This is the number from the final, ceremonial vote. There were a few more dissenters at the last meaningful vote.

Main Image: The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Testament manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. Most likely originated in Egypt. Also part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P. oxy. 2). By Unknown author – University of Pennsylvania Library [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10717414 

Cardinal Franz Konig image: By The original uploader was Walter Ching at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6067656

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Dr. Adam Rasmussen is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. His research focuses on St. Basil, Origen, and the interface between theology and science in their writings. His current research focuses on Basil and the human body, physiology, and medicine. 

How Catholics Read the Bible, Part 1 - What is Revelation?




THEOLOGY / UNPACKING VATICAN II

God Reveals Himself: Dei Verbum, Chapter One

by Adam Rasmussen
June 24, 2020

As this millennium approached, John Paul II called upon the whole Church to do an examination of conscience regarding the extent to which it had received and implemented the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (Tertio Millennio Adveniente 36). He said that the Council gave the Church a “truly huge wealth of content” and a “new, previously-unknown tone,” which together “constitute almost a message of a new age” (ibid. 20).[1] This statement presages one of Pope Francis’s oft-repeated sayings: “We are not living in an era of change, but a change of era.” Although a quarter-century has passed since John Paul II wrote this, I believe, as apparently does Francis, that the Catholic Church still has not fully implemented that epochal Synod. To pursue this noble goal within my own modest means, I am exploring major themes of some of the Council’s major documents in a series of posts. In this initial post, I explain how the first chapter of Dei Verbum radically shifted the Church’s predominant understanding of revelation away from one of propositional truth to one of God’s self-revelation.


“Dei Verbum radically shifted the Church’s predominant understanding of revelation
away from one of propositional truth to one of God’s self-revelation.”


Dei Verbum is one of the four principal documents, called Constitutions, of Vatican II. Although now 55 years old, DV remains the magisterial touchstone for the authentic Catholic understanding of divine revelation to this day.

Dei Verbum does not bury the lede: chapter 1 opens with the main point of that chapter: “It pleased God to reveal himself and make known the mystery (sacramentum) of his will” (DV 2). The object of God’s revelation is his own self and his will for the human race. The purpose of divine revelation is not merely to reveal information about the world or human history. It is to make God known and accessible to his children. For example, Gen 1:3-5 narrates the creation of the first day, when “God separated the light from the darkness” (v. 4). This is not a divine disclosure of the scientific facts of what happened during the first 86,400 seconds of the universe’s existence. Rather, by this passage God reveals something of himself: his power to create from nothing, and his ability to bring order from chaos, light from darkness, good from evil.

The word sacramentum here is significant. It is the Latin translation of the Greek word mysterion (mystery), which refers to a secret religious ritual or truth. Dei Verbum takes this phrase from Ephesians 1:9: “For he has made known to us […] the mystery of his will” (RSV). This “mystery” is God’s plan to reconcile all things and all beings in Christ (Eph 1:10; 1:21-23; Phil 2:10-11). The Latin word sacramentum evokes the Catholic concept of an efficacious sign by which our spirits become one with God. This was God’s hidden purpose as he revealed himself throughout salvation history “in many and various ways” (Heb 1:1; DV 4): to unite us to himself.

This purpose is what theologians call divinization or deification (theosis in Greek): for human beings “to become sharers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4; DV 2). How? By reading and studying the Bible, perhaps? That would be the goal if revelation were the merely conveying information, but that could never divinize us. Rather, we become divine, not through the Bible itself, but “through Christ, the Word made flesh” (DV 2). It was the second-century bishop, St. Irenaeus, who first said that the Word of God “became what we are, that he might make us into what he himself is.”[2] From this derives the profound paradox of St. Athanasius: “He himself became human, that we might become God.”[3]

But if this is so, what are we to make of the various stories and texts of the Bible? If they are not themselves the revelation, what role do they play in God’s self-revelation? They are a means of God’s self-revelation: “This economy (oeconomia) of revelation is made through intrinsically-connected deeds and words” (DV 2). The Greek word oikonomia (economy) here, so important in Eastern theology, is effaced in the English translations.[4] Oikonomia refers to the managing of a household (oikos = house, nomos = law). In its theological usage, it refers to how God relates to the world, his management of, and plan for, the world and the human race. It is distinguished from theologia (theology), which refers to how God exists eternally in himself. Here it shows that God’s revelation is neither a complete book that one day fell tout de suite from the sky, nor a patchwork of enigmas, riddles, visions and prophecies that accumulated over time. Rather, God revealed himself deliberately over thousands of years, through the Torah, the prophets, and the other Hebrew writings. The pinnacle and culmination of this ancient economy is revealed in the New Testament, when the Son of God himself, becoming human, “perfects revelation by fulfilling it” (DV 4).


“These texts are not just reportings of ancient happenings to give
us a neat history lesson: they are how God reveals himself.”


Revelation comes by both words and deeds. “The words proclaim the works” (DV 2). That is, the many stories of the Bible tell what God has done for his people, first for the Israelites and later for the whole human race with the Christ event. Once again, these texts are not just reportings of ancient happenings to give us a neat history lesson: they are how God reveals himself. “The works performed by God in the history of salvation manifest and corroborate the teaching and significance of the words” (ibid). It is by these acts, perhaps more than by any other words in Scripture, that God’s will for liberation is shown to us.

Take, for example, a verse like Numbers 33:14: “And they set out from Alush, and encamped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink.” Seen from the view of revelation proposed in Dei Verbum, these words are part of the broader story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from oppression, and thus they are integral to God’s revelation. On the fundamentalistic view, however, the words themselves are considered to be a divine revelation. Thus, a fundamentalist would conclude that God wanted to tell us about this particular fact of history, namely that the Israelites once encamped at a place called Rephidim, which lacked water. And that would be that; that is the revelation of that verse. The only difference between it and other interesting facts, such as that Alexander the Great defeated the Maedi in 340 B.C., is that this one happens to have come from God rather than human beings. Although the significance of the distinction between these two concepts of revelation may seem small, its implications for biblical studies and theology are large, as will become clear when we reach chapter 3 of Dei Verbum.

In addition to the stories of salvation history, there are also words and teachings about God as well as moral instructions, not all of which are immediately connected to a particular divine deed. For example, St. James says: “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (4:8). Words like these serve to “elucidate the mystery contained in the deeds” (DV 4). They clarify the meaning and purpose behind God’s works, and also teach us about God himself and what he expects of us. This verse tells us that union with God requires our own effort as well.

What is the ultimate message? The document virtually defines the content of revelation as this: “God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death and to raise us up again into everlasting life” (DV 6). All the words and deeds of Scripture, taken together, point to this message, which is the Gospel. “Emmanuel: God is with us” (Matt 1:23-24).

This way of defining revelation focuses on God and his liberation of humanity. It is opposed to a fundamentalistic approach that defines revelation as simply the words on the page, which are then taken to be God’s own words. It provides a key by which the Christian reader may find the salvific and divine message conveyed through the medium of the human words considered in their totality. Each individual verse is not in itself a revelation from God. Considered in its literary context, each verse contributes to the revelation, insofar as every sentence in a work of literature is integral to the whole.

In my next post I will explore how this concept of revelation in the first chapter of Dei Verbum corresponds to the concept of faith, and how that ties in with the “new, previously-unknown tone” of the conciliar documents.


Notes:

[1] All biblical quotations are from the Revised Standard Version. All other quotations are my own translation of the Latin or Greek.

[2] Against Heresies 5, preface: Factus est quod sumus nos, uti nos perficeret esse quod et ipse.

[3] On the Incarnation 54,3: Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν.

[4] The Daughters of St. Paul translation, used on the Vatican website, has plan, which is good. Both Flannery and Tanner have pattern. I do not know what the old Abbott translation has.

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Dr. Adam Rasmussen is a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. His research focuses on St. Basil, Origen, and the interface between theology and science in their writings. His current research focuses on Basil and the human body, physiology, and medicine.

Adam blogs at https://chrysologus.blogspot.com/