One of the things that the Second Vatican Council spent a lot of time on was the stupendous fact that God has revealed himself to mankind.
Understanding what God’s revelation is and what it means for humanity is crucial for the moral life. Basically, if there is no revelation, then there is no Catholic Church! There may be religious groups praying to the heavens, but that is as far as they would get. The document explaining God’s revelation from the council is known as Dei Verbum (“The Word of God,” also known as the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation).
The council started the document with a quotation from the First Letter of John: “We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us” (1:2). This is a wonder in itself, but the quotation goes further: “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” (1:3). So the authorities in the Church are telling the whole world that God is Father, Son and Spirit, and He has drawn us into fellowship with Him.
Revelation in Created Things
When God creates the universe, everything bears some kind of witness to God the Creator. As the council said, God “gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities” (Dei Verbum, No. 3). In the New Testament we find, for example, St. Paul explaining, “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Rom 1:20). So the wonders that we see around us already speak of the characteristics of the God who made us.
This constant speaking of God surrounds us all day long. So every single person can begin to know whom they are relating to. This is a wonder!
God did not stop with leaving clues to himself in creation. From the time of Adam and Eve, God has spoken in human history. It is important to see the whole sweep of God’s efforts because each one helps us to appreciate more about God and what God wishes for mankind. The ultimate revelation of God himself lies in the coming of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the very fullness of God’s revelation. As the council clarified: “Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making himself present and manifesting himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth” (DV, No. 4). Because of the fullness of who Jesus is, people need God’s help, His grace to help them. In this way God brings people to faith in Jesus Christ.
The council referred readers to what the First Vatican Council had taught about faith: “‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 13; see 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) ‘is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’” (DV, No. 5). God graces us to develop faith and to be in the position to welcome God’s revelation. Human faith is the response to God’s revelation.
Handing on Revelation
This is the crucial point of the council’s teaching. Why should people even pay attention to God? The council gave a wonderful answer: “Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind” (No. 6). This is the glory that God is offering to mankind and which he has revealed to the People of God — namely, His Church. This is the possibility of the fullness of life in union with God. The council is telling us about the most spectacular relationship in life.
Now, how is the treasure of God’s revelation handed on in the Church? First of all, we have God’s guarantee: “God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations” (No. 7). So God has taken care to ensure that each generation enjoys the fullness of his revelation, guaranteed!
Jesus himself “commissioned” the apostles “to impart to [people] heavenly gifts” (No. 7). So, there is a group of men, in the Church, who have this power to pass on the gifts that God offers. Then there is also a written component to God’s revelation, safeguarded by the Church, in which “apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing” (No. 7). So, we have two constituents to revelation. The one is called tradition (from the Latin tradere — to hand over), and the other is called the Scriptures.
Now, people know something about the Scriptures, but “tradition” is the word that is much more misunderstood. The council was clear: What is handed on “includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes” (No. 8). So, God has given the Church the Scriptures and tradition.
Intimately tied in to the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church, “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (No. 10). Technically, this teaching office is called the magisterium. Jesus Christ has shared not only His understanding of the Scriptures and His life with His community (the tradition), but also His authority with the leaders of the Church.
At this point, once they had briefly explained the whole scope of God’s revelation of himself, the council fathers fleshed out the nature of the Scriptures themselves. The reason the Scriptures are such treasures is that they are inspired by the Spirit of God and, furthermore, “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” (No. 11).
But when bringing about the Scriptures, the Spirit of God worked in a way that respected how human beings function. So, for example, in the interpretation of the Scriptures, “For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due 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” (No. 12).
People need to know this when they are interpreting the Scriptures. Last, the ultimate interpretation is still safeguarded by the magisterium.
Old and New Testaments
The Scriptures in use today began with the Hebrew Scriptures because God chose one people to work with over thousands of years. “Israel daily gained a deeper and clearer understanding of His ways and made them more widely known among the nations” (No. 14). For this reason, the Hebrew Scriptures are read daily at Mass. But their value does not stop there: “The principal purpose to which the plan of the old covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming of Christ, the redeemer of all” (No. 15). The Old Testament prophecies pointed to a coming redeemer.
Then, in the birth of a little baby, Jesus, in Israel, “when the fullness of time arrived (see Gal 4:4), the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us in His fullness of graces and truth” (DV, No. 17).
It was through this man that God then “revealed [himself] to His holy apostles and prophets in the Holy Spirit (see Eph 3:4-6, Greek text), so that they might preach the Gospel, stir up faith in Jesus, Christ and Lord, and gather together the Church” (DV, No. 17). This was the way that the New Testament community began and undertook its mission to worship and preach the Gospel to the world.
The very heart of the New Testament is the four Gospels, written so that “we might know ‘the truth’ concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Lk 1:2-4)” (DV, No. 19). The council also gave a survey of the basic things that the faithful need to know to interpret the New Testament properly so as to hear the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.
The final part of the teaching on divine revelation appropriately explains how the Church uses the sacred Scriptures. Significantly, “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” (No. 21). Consequently, the reading of the Scriptures nourishes every single aspect of Church life.
As a result, the Church has had an enormous interest in the Scriptures for two millennia. Hence the Church has been highly preoccupied with the quality of translations and with the level of scholarship in the Scriptures.
The theology of the Church must always be fed by prayer and the study of the Scriptures.
The profound task of preaching falls to the clergy. In fact, the council quoted St. Augustine’s words in one of his homilies, warning against “an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly” (No. 25).
Bishops, too, have special responsibilities when it comes to getting people trained in the Scriptures and facilitating the teaching of what they contain.
The council concluded their teaching on divine revelation with the noble wish: “In this way, therefore, through the reading and study of the sacred books ‘the word of God may spread rapidly and be glorified’ (2 Thes 3:1) and the treasure of revelation, entrusted to the Church, may . . . fill the hearts of men. Just as the life of the Church is strengthened through more frequent celebration of the Eucharistic mystery . . . we may hope for a new stimulus for the life of the Spirit from a growing reverence for the word of God, which ‘lasts forever’ (Is 40:8; see 1 Pt 1:23-25)” (No. 26).
With this reverence for the word in the Scriptures and the word in the tradition of the Church, mankind will discover the wonder of the God who made us.