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 himelf 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 mere conveying of 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.


[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.

Image: Adobe Stock

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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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