Review: "The Word of God at Vatican II" Part II

Yesterday, I began looking at Fr. Ronald Witherup’s new book, The Word of God at Vatican II, looking at the influences that went into the text as well as a bit of the drama surrounding its “birth” at the first session of the Council. Today, I will look at how Witherup examines the text itself and some of what he discerns there.

The bulk of the book consists of Chapter 2, in which Witherup examines the text of the Constitution paragraph by paragraph, noting what shaped the Council Fathers thoughts on a given subject, what was new, what was in continuity, and explaining any difficulties along the way. What could have been a tedious read is kept concise and accessible.

The Prologue to the Constitution was itself a novelty and captured what was most novel about the Council as a whole: As Witherup notes, there is a pastoral focus to the document, discovered right at the beginning in which the Council Fathers state, “For [the Council] wants the whole world to hear the summons to salvation, so that through hearing, it may believe, through belief it may hope, through hope it may come to love.” Witherup also points out that the text sets forth the two-fold dynamic of our interaction with the Scriptures, hearing and proclaiming. “[The text] places the church in the more humble mode of receptivity prior to entering into evangelization or announcing the ‘Good News,’” Witherup notes.

Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 all place the emphasis on the fact that all of revelation is God’s initiative. Faith is always a response to a gift, a good gift, from God Himself. It is He who unfolds His plan for salvation to us: “The pattern of this revelation unfolds through deeds and words which are intrinsically connected: works performed by God in the history of salvation dynamo show forth and confirm the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain,” the document states. There is no room for a crimped fundamentalism here, no sense that the mystery revealed is exhausted in the revelation, but also no shyness about asserting the truth claims of the faith. The “Christian dispensation” is “the new and definitive covenant,” the document states and, as Witherup notes, “There can be no better act to come. Christ is the summit of revelation.” I know some people get upset when we Catholics make stark claims about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the mediator of salvation, but those claims are as stamped into the fabric of Vatican II, indeed more so, than anything that warrants the designation of novelty in the conciliar texts. The Second Vatican Council was innovative to be sure, but it was innovative in a full-throttled Catholic way.

Having examined what revelation is, God’s self-gift, and the response it invites, faith, the text of Dei Verbum then turns to how this revelation is carried on. This section is very pneumatological, emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit as the guarantor of the faithful transmission of the self-revelation of God. The idea that the faith is handed on, or transmitted, is, as Witherup notes, itself very biblical. Witherup also notes that the text adopts the phrase “the pilgrim journey” in discussing the Church’s on-going transmission of the self-revelation of God, a nod to a key concept of the Council. The faith, and therefore the Church, is not stagnant. And, the issue of transmission leads inexorably to the issue of biblical inspiration. The Council declined – how could it not – to affirm a fundamentalist understanding of inspiration and actually leaves the issue of how the Bible is inspired to others. Witherup includes a chart with five dominant theories of biblical interpretation, from the fundamentalist “Full Verbal Inspiration” theory, to the “Inspiration of the Human Authors” to the “Inspiration of Conent.” Witherup writes: “Dei Verbum sidesteps such theories and simply asserts the fact of inspiration without explaining how it works. Since this is indeed a difficult area to resolve, the council fathers were probably exercising prudence in not wanting to limit an ongoing technical discussion of this very complex issue.” Two conclusions emerge. First, there is work to be done. Second, the Church does not have to answer every question.

Of course, as soon as we get into the issue of transmitting the faith, we run into the issue that, as much as any other, provoked the principal conflicts of the Reformation, the relationship between scripture and tradition. Paragraphs 8, 9 and 10 take up this issue. The Council reiterated that tradition begins with the preservation of what has been received, but also notes that there has been “growth in insight into the realities and the words” of scripture, growth that we could, collectively, label tradition. This section echoes the opening speech of the Council by Pope John XXIII, who said, “For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else.” And the Council points the Church in the direction for understanding the tradition, noting the role of “the church fathers, the liturgy and prayer life of the church, and the Sacred Scriptures themselves in the transmission of revelation,” as Witherup writes.

"Tradition and sacred scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the word of God, which is entrusted to the church.” Thus begins Paragraph 10 of the document. Gone is the “two sources” of the De fontibus draft. Here, Vatican II parts ways from Vatican I. God is the one source of revelation, and the scriptures and the tradition both spring from that one source. Managing the line between these two forms of expression, and authoritatively interpreting both, falls to the teaching office of the Church, the magisterium. The text states:

But the task of getting an authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the church alone. Its authority in this manner is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but is rather its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it….It is clear, therefore, that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the magisterium of the church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute to the salvation of souls.

There is a lot to unpack there. Witherup rightly notes that “Catholics frequently identified magisterium and tradition as one and the same reality. They are not. Tradition is a much grander concept and is much larger than the teaching authority of the church….there is a certain circularity to this complex relationship.” The Council, again, left much work for future theologians. While the image of the magisterium as the servant of the word of God is novel and arresting, it is not clear how that plays out in actual fact. Witherup quotes one of the Council fathers, Abbot Christopher Butler, OSB, who said, “It is all very well for us to say and believe that the magisterium is subject to Holy Scripture. But is there anybody who is in a position to tell the magisterium: Look, your are not practicing your subjection to Scripture in your teaching.” Witherup rightly points out that the Church has rarely exercised its God-given power to definitively interpret Scripture. “The church is too wise to think that it should define what every passage of Scripture means. More often, the church has defined what a few passages do not mean rather than what they do mean.” This is a key point of what we might call proper magisterial procedure: The Church can, and sometimes must, declare what is out of bounds, what the revelation cannot abide, but insofar as the gift of ecclesial inerrancy is a negative gift, a gift that keeps the Church from teaching error, the Church’s teaching is never completed, always open to further inspiration from the Spirit, always open to new developments, always within the bounds set, but developments nonetheless. As the Church prepares for its two synods on the family, it is good to remember that the Church is still learning the depths of its own teaching, indeed still learning the depths of God’s self-revelation, and must remain ever attentive to the promptings of the Spirit.

Tomorrow, I will conclude my look at this important book.


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