Wednesday, August 15, 2012

As a Dogmatic Constitution, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum signaled for Catholics the fundamental and authoritative Church teaching on Scripture. In terms of Catholic theology, Dei Verbum represents a significant signpost for the acceptance of the study of Scripture using modern methods and techniques, though on a number of issues, many questions remain answered only in part or vaguely. It did, however, mark an opening up of the study of Scripture for lay people, both a lay professoriate and lay people in the classrooms and pews. Though it has not had, in my opinion, the continuing and intended impact of placing the Bible, “the soul of sacred theology (DV 24),” at the heart of theology in general, such as in systematic and moral theology, it has brought the study of the Bible by Catholic biblical scholars into dialogue with Protestant and Jewish biblical scholarship and with the Academy as a whole. Without this document, and the tendencies it reflects, it is possible to imagine both a more prominent fundamentalist reading of Scripture in the Church – which is even now increasing - and lay people less engaged with Scripture (“easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful”: DV 22).  For all that is missing in Dei Verbum, or that has not been realized by it since its promulgation, it nevertheless creates a boundary which carves out academic study of the Bible and places it at the heart of theology and welcomes lay readers to the treasures of the Bible.

Although it was not directly formative for me as a student, since I came to the Catholic Church after the completion of my academic degrees, DV  did and does order my thinking as a Catholic biblical theologian. As I was trained by scholars, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, who took both the sacred character of the Scriptures seriously and the academic study of them seriously, when I came across DV  as a biblical scholar it made sense of my own predilections and practices. This document posits not a rupture at the core of biblical study, but a significant relationship between academic study and faith in the Scriptures. While the tensions between the two are not entirely dissipated, it opens the door for a constant conversation between scientific study of the Bible in the classroom and its rightful place in the Church’s life and liturgy.

Dei Verbum, an important touchstone document for Catholic biblical scholars, has become for me a fruitful text for teaching both undergraduate and graduate students. In presenting the Catholic position on Scripture, it allows Catholic students to understand their own Church’s teaching, while illuminating differences and similarities found in the approaches to Scripture in the faith traditions of other students. As a teaching document in Scripture courses, Dei Verbum can be used to raise numerous issues in biblical studies in Catholic or ecumenical classrooms.  Before examining what I see as some of the issues and questions which DV raises, and which need to be addressed in the classroom, depending upon the level of the students, I want to look briefly at how I use the dogmatic constitution in the classroom.

Teaching Undergraduate Students Theology 101:

I have taught this document in each Theology 101 course which I teach. It is a difficult document to teach because it is to students especially dry and its significance is not immediately clear. Nevertheless, I believe it lays a foundation both for Catholic students and for other Christian students (and for non-Christian students!) to understand what the Catholic position is regarding revelation in general and the distinction between Scripture, Tradition and the teaching office of the Church.  This is, in itself, a difficult issue for Catholics, but raising it in class is helpful for all students. It becomes clear to all non-Catholic students that Tradition and the Magisterium play some functional and fundamental role in the handing on and the interpretation of Scripture. 

This is helpful for non-Catholic students as it allows them to grasp what their own traditions teach and to examine their own positions, either personal or denominational, with respect to Scripture, Tradition, interpretation and revelation in general. Naturally, of course, it is often the first time Catholic students have come to terms with these distinctions and what is often surprising for Catholic students, both those pious and devout and those nominally Catholic, is the high regard in which Scripture is held by the Catholic Church. As in DV 21, “The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles.” Many young Catholic students come to study theology with a sense, not always unspoken, that Scripture is a “Protestant thing, we have Tradition and the Pope.”

At the beginning of Theo 101 I teach the first two chapters of Dei Verbum, paragraphs 1-10, by focusing on key points as we discuss in general the notion of revelation. While the focus is on the special revelation given first to the Jewish people and then to the followers of Jesus, found in the Scriptures and through Jesus himself, Dei Verbum is helpful in understanding general revelation as both paragraphs 3 and 6 touch on this:

God, who through the Word creates all things (see John 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities (see Rom. 1:19-20). (DV 3).

As a sacred synod has affirmed, God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Rom. 1:20); but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race. (DV 6).

Both passages cite Romans 1:19-20, which I read with my students. Another important passage is found in paragraph 8, which gives us this important discussion point: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down.” A specific discussion of this point is only undertaken later in the semester, and the same will be the case for this discussion here (there are a number of parts to come).

When I teach the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible or Tanak for Jewish students), I discuss chapters 3 and 4, encompassing paragraphs 11-16, which touch more specifically on the Scriptures as special revelation and the Catholic understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures. I focus on a few central passages here, which we will come back to on a number of occasions throughout the semester:

i) Inspiration: “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author” (11);

ii) Human authorship: “they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted” (11);

iii) Truth/Inerrancy: “the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (11);

iv) Biblical scholarship: “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” (12);

v) The OT:  “The plan of salvation foretold by the sacred authors, recounted and explained by them, is found as the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament: these books, therefore, written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable.”

We read the last section of Dei Verbum when we come to the NT portion of the class, Chapter 5 (I tend not to cover Chapter 6 with my 101 class). There are a few essential notions I concentrate on discussing with them:

i) Apostolic Origin: “The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin” (18);

ii) Post-Easter: “after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ's life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth” (19);

iii) Synthesis: “The sacred 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” (19).

Teaching Theology to Upper Level Undergraduates and Graduate Students

In New Testament, a 200 level course, the first class is spent discussing the Bible and its origin, and how it is understood amongst Jews, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians, to put us all on the same page as we begin. From my first lesson, I write:

“Each of the Bibles we have just discussed is a collection of writings from a number of different authors and composed at different times over a period of several centuries. That is, the biblical writings are the products of a long and complex human religious history. But each religious group we have mentioned regards the Bible as sacred "scripture" and sees the collection of writings that make up its Bible as having a certain unity. Exactly what it means to call the Bible "scripture" varies somewhat among these religious groups and even among individual members of the same religious group. There is therefore the risk of oversimplifying things in trying to discuss the matter. But, especially if you are not very familiar with any of these religious groups, you may find it helpful to have a basic explanation of what "scripture" means for religious adherents. The classic modern statement of the meaning of the Bible as sacred scripture for Roman Catholics is found in the Vatican II Council document called Dei Verbum, which means “the Word of God” in Latin. In this document the basic Catholic positions on the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments is discussed, as is the role of Tradition and the Magisterium in the interpretation of the Bible.”

In a footnote, I direct students to other writings:
“For more detailed discussion of how the scriptures of various religions “function” as sacred texts, see H. Coward, Sacred Word and Sacred Text:  Scripture in World Religions (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988); F. F. Bruce, E. G. Rupp, Holy Book and Holy Tradition (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1968)  For the Roman Catholic position, please see Dei Verbum, available online at and see the articles, “Inspiration” by Raymond F. Collins, 1023-1033 and “Canonicity” by Raymond E. Brown and Raymond F. Collins, 1034-1054 in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy; Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990).”
I go on after this to discuss more generally notions of the authority of the Bible, inspiration of the text, the continuing role of inspiration and then the academic study of the Bible in light of these considerations. The text of Dei Verbum itself, however, will continue to be discussed in class whenever necessary. This occurs initially as I begin the study of the New Testament by beginning with the Old Testament.  The significance of the Hebrew Bible for the first Christians, who were Jews, is drawn out explicitly, as is the influence of the Old Testament upon the first Christian writings and the manner in which they influenced not just the writings we now know as the New Testament, but upon the thinking of the first Christians as they meditated upon the person of Jesus.   The continuing validity of the Old Testament for the Jewish people is also made clear, though this will be discussed in further lessons as necessary.

When the New Testament itself is studied, the influence of Dei Verbum occurs directly in most lessons on the individual books of the New Testament, such as the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, the letters and Revelation, but also in depth when we discuss the Synoptic Problem. We evaluate the statements of Dei Verbum in light of questions regarding authorship, historicity, redaction criticism, and any other questions that are relevant, which change from document to document. The important reality is that in a study of the New Testament, the claims of Dei Verbum and how we make sense of them in a study of the Bible are always present and relevant. For some students this is especially helpful when they realize that claims of historicity or literary study may be engaged fruitfully according to the Church; for others, the significance of the document is found more readily in its focus on the Bible as inspired literature, Scripture, whether they are Catholics or not.  

In upper level classes, Dei Verbum appears everywhere, but more on an ad hoc basis, depending on the course.  In a course on apocalyptic literature, I might focus on the need to interpret according to genre and literary type (“To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse:” DV 12). One of the key questions in the study of genre and literary forms, for instance, is what it means to say something is “true” when we are dealing with mythic and legendary language or with allegorical images. In apocalyptic literature this can often be a question as to how much of apocalyptic thought reflects an historical situation, a future hope, or is intended to speak to present day concerns. Another question that arises in a study of apocalyptic literature is how to evaluate canonical and non-canonical apocalypses. This might arise because of the influence of non-canonical texts upon canonical texts, in terms, language, imagery and even literary form, but also, for example, given that Jude actually cites a short passage from 1 Enoch. In a study of the Gospels I would refer to paragraphs discussed above (DV 17-19), especially regarding apostolic origin of the Gospels, the synthetic nature of the Gospels and the Post-Easter context for the creation of the Gospels.

In graduate courses, Dei Verbum is discussed, as in 101, at the beginning of all of my courses, including chapter 6. It is a document which is essential for every Catholic student of Scripture to know intimately. My graduate Survey of the New Testament course has a question on the Final exam dealing with Dei Verbum and its significance for interpreting the Bible. Apart from that, it is required reading for every student preparing for comprehensive exams in the MAT program. That is, every student is expected to have read Dei Verbum and be prepared to answer a question dealing with it on their comprehensive exams.

 Interestingly, I spend more time directly dealing with Dei Verbum in my lower-level Theology undergraduate courses than I do in my upper-level and graduate courses. This is not because it is less significant for the upper-level and graduate courses, but because I assume knowledge of the text and focus more on the working out of the issues which arise in the text and which my graduate students especially are keen to answer. This is not to say that lower-level undergraduate students do not have excellent questions to ask of Dei Verbum only that they are sometimes unaware of how significant the questions are and how difficult they might be to answer.

This is simply the beginning of these posts. In subsequent posts, I deal with the passages cited above (and others), the questions which students raise, and some of the answers which I, and others, have given. We will also look at some of the issues which were not raised at all in DV or raised only vaguely or partially.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. John, great subject to cover in depth, especially for us former prot.evang.'s. I just finished Fr Harrington's book, How Do Catholics Read the Bible? The title sounds elementary but the book is challenging and helped a lot with DV. Keep up the good work. Tom Schuessler Mayville Wi.

  2. Tom,

    I think most significant questions are simple when you get right down to it, though the answers might be complex! Fr. Harrington's work is always excellent and I admire him and his work very much.

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