Unpacking Vatican II

Dei Verbum chapter 3, part 7

In my previous post, I explained why Dei Verbum says the Bible must be interpreted in its historical context. I focused on scientific issues, but the implications are much broader. Christians are not beholden to the ancient writers’ assumptions about slavery and women, for these are only the historical background and not the content of God’s revelation.


Slavery was taken for granted in the ancient world. With the sole exception of St. Gregory of Nyssa, pre-modern Christian interpreters did not challenge its place in society. Eventually, gradually, it was questioned, though as recently as 1866 the Catholic Church still held that “considered in itself and absolutely, slavery is by no means contrary to natural and divine law.”[1] The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council set aside the nostrums of neo-scholasticism and instead reflected on centuries of Christian experience and development of doctrine. It declared slavery an “infamy” and “supreme dishonor to the Creator” (Gaudium et Spes 27). Pope John Paul II defined slavery (and the other infamies of GS 27) as “intrinsically evil” (Veritatis Splendor 80). That is, he formally taught by his supreme authority that slavery is evil in itself.

The ancient worldview of the sacred writers accepted slavery, but the Church now defines it as evil. This development must be taken into account when interpreting passages such as “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ” (Eph 6:5 NABRE; cf. Col 3:22; Ti 2:9-10; 1 Pt 2:18). This historical acceptance of slavery is the background for the Bible’s frequent use of the symbolism of slavery. Jesus says: “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mk 10:44). Paul uses the same metaphor when identifying himself to the Christians of Rome: “Paul, a slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; cf. Eph 6:6). Frequently, interpreters and translators censor this metaphor by mistranslating the Greek word doulos as servant, even though the word unquestionably refers to slaves—people whose bodies and labor are owned by others.[2] This spares the average reader from having to think about the fact that the authors of the Bible were part of a slave-owning culture that they did not challenge.[3] Within the context of their culture, Jesus and Paul used the common experience of enslavement as a way to imagine total devotion to God. Compare this to the metaphor of a temple building that Paul also uses: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). Having been ransomed by Jesus (cf. Mk 10:45), Paul is not so much free as he is the slave of a new master: Christ.


Attitudes toward women have changed analogously. 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids women “to teach or to have authority over a man,” yet today there are officially-sanctioned women theologians and catechists in the Church. We have four women doctors (doctor means “teacher” in Latin) of the universal Church: Saints Hildegard, Catherine of Siena, Teresa, and Thérèse of Lisieux. In her own time, with the approval of Pope Eugene III, Hildegard went on four preaching tours throughout Europe to spread the revelations she had received. She knew that many (male) clerics would oppose her and “think [her] contemptible because of Eve’s transgression”—in other words, because she was a woman—but the divine Voice told her to win them over by “the flood of [her] irrigation” (mystical knowledge—she loved nature metaphors).[4]

The rise of feminism in the late 19th and 20th centuries was met with an ambivalent reaction by the popes.[5] Saint Pius X, for example, said in a 1906 interview: “There is much to admire in the feminist desire to elevate women intellectually and socially, but the Lord protect us from political feminism!”[6] Despite a plethora of women saints who did great things and exercised both political and religious authority (e.g., Deborah), even today Christian women are nearly always directed to the Virgin Mary, as though her maternal love for her Son were the sole and exclusively salutary example of female virtue.

Traditionally, women are told to obey their husbands and to mind the domestic sphere (Ti 2:5; Eph 5:22-24; Col 3:18; 1 Pt 3:1). But in an insufficiently-known passage from 1988, Pope John Paul II, based on Ephesians 5:21 and Galatians 3:28, said that the emancipation of women from patriarchal obedience to their husbands is directly analogous to the abolition of slavery and “must gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behavior and customs” (Mulieris Dignitatem 24). In its place, he offered Paul’s words telling spouses to “be subject to one another” as the essential and timeless message. The specific, one-sided command to women, which was “profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time,” was to be replaced by the “Gospel innovation” of mutual subjection. Now Christian husbands must also be subject to their wives. Lest anyone miss his meaning, he explains that this is a difference between marriage and the Church’s relationship to its Lord: “whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the “subjection” is not one-sided but mutual” (ibid.).

As part of his ongoing call for more women in ministry, Pope Francis this year changed canon law to allow women to be installed as lectors and acolytes. The Catholic Church no longer thinks about women in the same way as it once did, similar to how we no longer think about the universe or slavery in the same way.[7] The recognition of the full dignity of women is a fruit of the Holy Spirit: “we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women” (Amoris Laetitia 54).

The Catholic Church is not bound by the human elements of the ancient worldview just because they appear in the Bible. These are part of the historical background rather than the message of Scripture. Within Scripture itself are the seeds of liberation, even if they take centuries to flower, as John Paul II explained.

Theological Development within the Bible

From the very beginning, we Christians have not felt bound by everything in Scripture. We do not follow the hundreds of laws that, according to Scripture, God gave to Moses. When God first told St. Peter in a dream to break kosher by eating with Gentiles, he replied, “Certainly not, sir!” (Acts 10:14). Only when he heard them speaking in tongues did he realize that God was doing something new (vv. 46-48; cf. Is 43:19). This caused such a stir that a council of apostles and presbyters had to be called (15:1-2). They debated the matter and ultimately decided, by their magisterial authority (v. 28), that the experience of the Holy Spirit superseded the written law (vv. 6-11). This is what Pope Francis calls “the God of surprises.”

In contradiction to the Catholic Church’s understanding is fundamentalist thinking, which treats the whole Bible in a “flat” way. By that, I mean that every assertion, taken out of context, is treated as an inviolable word from God himself. Therefore, nothing in the Bible can ever be regarded as outmoded, obsolete, inaccurate, or historically contingent. The fundamentalist system was birthed in the 19th century to offer modern people a false certitude, but it is ultimately incoherent, since the Bible, once examined, is seen to speak with many voices throughout different times.

Reading Scripture in light of historical background also means recognizing that different books of the Bible, written at different times by different people, have different historical backgrounds. Written across a thousand years and in various circumstances, it presents multiple viewpoints, even on important religious issues. The sins of the father pass down to the son, according to Exodus 20:5 and Numbers 14:18, but don’t according to Ezekiel 18 and Deuteronomy 24:16. Christians must not eat meat that was sacrificed to a pagan god, according to Acts 15:19-21 and Revelation 2, but Paul says it is okay to do so long as you have a strong conscience and won’t cause a scandal (1 Cor 8).

Consider also the afterlife. Throughout most of the time of the writing of the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites understood there to be a single afterlife, called Sheol, which existed under the earth. Everyone went there, whether good or evil (Eccl 9:2-6). Only in one of the last books written was the resurrection of the dead revealed (Dn 12),[8] as well as the idea that there is a good chamber within Sheol where the righteous wait for redemption (Lk 16:22; Enoch 21-32; 4 Ezra 7:26-44)[9]. Interestingly, this evolution of thought about chambers in the afterlife continued into the Middle Ages, leading to the development of the doctrine of purgatory (see Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 45).

Serious study of the Bible reveals, as Dei Verbum says, that the Bible, though divinely inspired, is made of human words. These words, because they are truly human, are conditioned by literary conventions, by time and circumstances, and by history. Conveyed through this human medium, they must be wisely interpreted, so that the divine message hidden within may be understood. It was the same way with Jesus. His humanity cloaked his divinity from nearly everyone who met him; only those granted divine insight, like the apostles, could apprehend his true divinity (cf. Mt 16:17). But the humanity always remained; he still felt sadness, pain, anger, temptation—all the shortcomings of humanity except sin. In the same way, the Bible always retains the time-conditioned imperfections inherent in all human speech (Dei Verbum 13).

What should the ordinary Christian do?

Dei Verbum’s rules for exegesis are directed primarily at biblical scholars, theologians, and preachers. All of these must spend several years of graduate study learning about the biblical world. But the Council, continuing the “biblical movement” begun decades earlier, also encouraged all Christians to make the reading of and meditation upon Scripture central to their spirituality (see Dei Verbum, chapter 6). How are they supposed to learn about the “culture and times” of the Bible?

First of all, I would gently push back against the notion, imported from Evangelicalism, that every Christian should be regularly reading the Bible at home on their own. This expectation is unrealistic and unnecessary. It rests on two assumptions that Catholic doctrine rejects: 1) that the Bible is the sole source of religious authority, obviating the need for a Magisterium; and 2) that the Bible’s meaning is clear and “perspicuous,” that is, plainly comprehensible to all Christians by means of God’s Spirit dwelling in our hearts. It is a manifest fact that the Bible’s meaning isn’t plain and obvious to all believers; if it were, Christians would not be divided, and we would have no need of scholars, theologians, or the Magisterium.

In this country, we dedicate time and energy teaching our children works of classic literature that are not easily comprehensible today, such as Shakespeare. People would not expect anyone to just pick up any classic literary work and make perfect sense of it all by themselves without help. Nor does devout prayer automatically convey scriptural enlightenment. The Bible makes no such promise; rather it warns us: “In [Paul’s letters] there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:16). This is true of most of the Bible.

So what should Christians do who want to read the Bible with historical awareness? As a theologian myself (who is married to a biblical scholar), I recommend my fellow Christians to access materials written by biblical scholars for the purpose of general education. There is no shortage of such materials, though not all are of high quality (and some are high quality but inaccessible). I highly recommend www.BibleOdyssey.org, as all of its content is written by scholars from a variety of religious traditions. Also, The New American Bible: Revised Edition contains copious scholarly notes. In addition to finding books and resources written by trained scholars, Christians can participate in lectures, programs, and Bible studies led by people with formal education in theology. Overall, this is probably an area where the Church still needs to make progress.

Readers of the Bible should take courage, persevere in reading Scripture with humility and an open mind, and, above all, remember St. Augustine’s rule. He tells us that the key to understanding the true meaning of Scripture is love:

Whoever thinks they have understood the Holy Scriptures or whatever part of them in a way that does not build up that twin love of God and neighbor, has not yet understood them. But whoever draws from them an interpretation useful for this building up of love, even if they have not said what a given author probably meant in that passage, their error is not ruinous and in no way do they deceive.
— St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1,36,40[10]

In my next post, I will look at Dei Verbum’s rules for reading the Bible in light of Sacred Tradition and the teaching of the Magisterium.


[1] Servitus ipsa per se et absolute considerata iuri naturali et divino minime repugnat (6/20/1866, my translation). This decree is widely quoted, but I’m unsure how to designate or title it. It predates the Acta Apostolica Sedis begun in 1909, and the Vatican website does not host any content prior to Leo XIII’s accession in 1878.

[2] In this they seem to follow the evangelist Matthew himself, whose parallel of Mark 10:45 changes slave to servant: “The greatest among you must be your servant,” the Greek word for servant being diakonos (whence derives “deacon”). Could it be that Matthew was also uncomfortable with the way Mark reported it? After all, Matthew also adds the exception clause (5:32; 19:9) to Jesus’ radical saying about divorce. Nevertheless, the fact that Matthew changed it makes it all the more important that translators translate Mark’s original version correctly as “slave,” lest the difference be erased for the English reader.

[3] There is debate about whether Paul opposed slavery because of certain interpretations of 1 Corinthians 7:21-24 and Philemon 1:16. However, the context of 1 Corinthians 7 suggests that Paul means slaves should make the most of their enslaved state.

[4] St. Hildegard, Scivias 1,1.

[5] See Richard L. Camp, “From Passive Subordination to Complementary Partnership: The Papal Conception of a Woman’s Place in Church and Society since 1878,” The Catholic Historical Review 76, no. 3 (1990): (506-25) 507-18.

[6] Ibid. 512.

[7] Those who wish to put women back down ought to consider if they would also like us to begin enslaving people again, contrary to the GS 27 and VS 80. If they do, they will play the unfortunate role of the fools Augustine lamented who, rather than bringing people to Christ, push them away (Literal Commentary on Genesis 1,19).

[8] Possibly Isaiah 26:19 refers to the resurrection, but it is more likely the same metaphor of restoration to the land famously found in the “dry bones” of Ezekiel 37.

[9] These latter two books are not canonical in most traditions (with the exceptions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which recognize both books, and Beta Israel [Ethiopian Jews], who recognize the book of Enoch) but they shed enormous light on the intertestamental understanding of the afterlife that is the background of Jesus’ parable in Luke 16.

[10] My translation: Quisquis igitur Scripturas divinas vel quamlibet earum partem intellexisse sibi videtur, ita ut eo intellectu non aedificet istam geminam caritatem Dei et proximi, nondum intellexit. Quisquis vero talem inde sententiam duxerit, ut huic aedificandae caritati sit utilis, nec tamen hoc dixerit quod ille quem legit eo loco sensisse probabitur, non perniciose fallitur nec omnino mentitur.

Image: St. Paul, Onesimus and Philemon, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Dr. Rasmussen is a Religious Studies teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, MD. He has a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious studies from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

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