The first chapter of Dei Verbum (DV) defines and explains faith and revelation, the second explains Tradition and how it grows, and the third explains Scripture and how to interpret it in light of both its human and divine qualities. The Word of God in Scripture, like the incarnate Word, is a synergy of human and divine authorship.

DV repeats the essential definition of Scripture given at the Council of Trent on April 8, 1546—that the Catholic Church accepts “in their entirety the books of both the Old and the New Testament, with all their parts” as “sacred and canonical” (DV 11). In the historical context of the time, this wording was intended to preserve the so-called deuterocanonical books that Protestants rejected as apocryphal.[1]

Although Trent defined the fourth-century Latin Vulgate as the official Bible of the Roman Church, DV does not mention it. This omission is the direct result of Pope Pius XII’s groundbreaking 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, which officially brought modern forms of biblical study into the Catholic Church with papal approbation. Pius XII encouraged scholars to work from the original languages (a sine qua non of all scholarship) and clarified that Trent’s codification of the Vulgate applied only to the public (i.e., liturgical) use of Scripture in the Latin Church and “by no means lessened the authority and power of the original texts” (DAS 21).

DV chapter 3 re-states the crucial insight of chapter 1 that Scripture is not itself divine revelation, but “divinely-revealed things […] are contained and set forth in Sacred Scripture” (11). The Bible is not revelation; it contains revelation. Often Catholic theologians (like me) say that it witnesses to God’s self-revelation. It is the primary (and inspired) means by which we have access to revelation.

At this point someone may object: don’t we call the Bible the “Word of God”? For example, after each reading at Mass, we say “The Word of the Lord” (verbum Domini). Yes, and rightly so. However, the expression must be correctly understood as DV chapter 2 defined it: “Sacred Scripture is God’s speech insofar as it is put into writing while the divine Spirit blows” (DV 9).[2] Likewise, chapter 3 refers to “God’s words expressed through human language” (13). The Bible is not God’s Word in an absolute sense; that would be the Eternal Son and Word of God, who became incarnate as the man Jesus. The Bible is a divinely-inspired but still human expression of God’s Word. How does this work?

The locus classicus of the doctrine of Scripture is 2 Tim 3:16, which DV quotes in full: “All Scripture is divinely inspired,” etc. (DV 11). The English word inspired is the translation of the Greek theopneustos, which literally means God-breathed (theos = God; pneuma = breath/spirit). DV makes no attempt to define exactly what inspiration is, and there are many different theological theories about it.[3] It does say, though, that, because of divine inspiration, God is the “author” of the Bible” (ibid.).

In what sense is God the Bible’s “author”? DV clarifies what this does and does not mean. Crucially, it does not mean that God dictated the Bible verbatim, as if to secretaries. So important is this point, with such precise doctrinal wording required, that the sentence explaining it uses four subordinate clauses with three footnotes! Here is my translation:

To compose the sacred books God chose human beings, whom he employed while they used their own abilities and mental strength, with the result that, while he acted in them and through them, they as true authors consigned to writing everything he wanted, and only what he wanted. (11)

The crux of the assertion is that the human beings who wrote the Bible are its true authors; they really wrote it. God did not write the Bible; human beings did. Everything that follows in the rest of the chapter depends upon this point! Otherwise, the entire endeavor of modern biblical studies would be impossible, since it rests on the essential foundation that the biblical books are human and historical.

This does not mean that the Bible is not divine. On the contrary, DV still refers to God as the “author” of the Bible even while saying that the human beings are “true authors.” While this may seem like a contradiction—and biblical fundamentalists would take this tack to reject DV in favor of divine dictation—it is not. How? The human and the divine authors function on different levels in synergy (the Greek word for cooperation). God acted by means of the human authors, and God even acted in them as well (divine inspiration). Because of this divine action, the end result is that the words of the Bible, though they are human words, express everything God wanted and only what God wanted. This latter clause is important in that it rules out the idea (which I have heard many times) that, besides the divine content, the biblical authors also slipped in some of their own thoughts and ideas that may be wrong.[4] No, the whole Bible is divinely inspired. As such, God is its “author” in the root sense of that word: the Bible speaks with divine authority. But, at the same time—paradoxical though it may seem—the whole Bible is also human. Every word of Scripture was written by a human being and is a human word.

In my experience, people who study the Bible seriously quickly come to appreciate this fact, even without theological training. This is because it is manifestly apparent that human beings wrote the Bible. To give but a single example among thousands, think of St. Paul, who sometimes speaks of himself. When giving instruction about marriage, for instance, he carefully differentiates his own ideas from the teachings of Jesus: “Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Cor 7:25 RSV). This is divinely inspired Scripture, yes, but it was obviously written by the man Paul. To say that this line, and all the rest, was dictated by God does not make logical sense.

The divine-human synergy that created the Bible can be understood by analogy to other examples of divine-human synergy. First and foremost among these is Jesus’ dual nature as both fully divine and fully human. Jesus is not a demi-god like Hercules. He is a true human being, “like us in all things except sin” (Gaudium et Spes 22). He is also truly God, “of the same substance as the Father” (Nicene Creed). DV itself makes this comparison as the final sentence of chapter 3: “God’s words, expressed through human languages, have become like human speech, just as once the Word of the Eternal Father, assuming the flesh of human weakness, became like human beings” (DV 13). Secondly I would add the synergy of salvation, which comes through God’s grace alone, which we can never merit, yet is only obtainable by “freely assenting to and co-operating with that grace.”[5] Saint Paul—who famously said “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8; cf. Gal 3:16)—also told the Christians in Philippi: “work out your own salvation” (Phil 2:12). It is God’s M.O. to work with us, not merely for us. He did this with the composition of Scripture; he did it in the Incarnation; and he does it when saving us.

In asserting the truly human nature of Scripture, DV rejects the “dictation” theory of inspiration that drives biblical fundamentalism (whether Catholic or Protestant). In my previous posts I mentioned that some Catholics may still understand divine revelation as a set of propositions to be believed, and think of Tradition as a body of extra-biblical doctrines. But DV taught a better theology. Similar conceptions are likely held on the authorship of Scripture as well. The idea, whether deliberately expressed or only hazily felt, that “God wrote the Bible” is widespread. It is a well-intended, though false, way of affirming the Bible’s divine authorship and inspiration. It is most frequently invoked whenever someone appeals to the human or historically-contingent nature of the Bible when attempting to respond to an apparently-outmoded rule (for example, women covering their hair [1 Cor 11:2-16]).

But that brings us to the next topic. How do we interpret the Bible in its historical context? This will be the subject of my next article.

[1] That is, Tobit, Judith, the “additions” to Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and the “additions” to Daniel. On the Catholic version of Esther, see Angela Parchen Rasmussen, “The Presentation of the Catholic Canonical Form of Esther in Modern Bible Translations: A Proposal,” JTS 70.1 (2019): 1-20, https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/fly164.

This probably also includes the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-16) and the pericope of the adulteress (John 7:53-8:11), which are absent from the earliest manuscripts of these Gospels but are present in the Latin Vulgate. The footnotes of the NABRE make this claim, as do Catholic theologians generally, such as Raymond Brown, “The story of the adulteress was accepted by Jerome, and so Catholics regard it as canonical” (The Gospel according to John, AB 29 [1966-70], 1:336). On this subject, see Armin D. Baum, “Does the Pericope Adulterae (John 7:53-8:11) Have Canonical Authority? An Interconfessional Approach,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 24.2 (2014): 163-78.

[2] Interestingly, the word for speech here is locutio, so the document does not actually say the Bible is the “Word of God” (verbum Dei). This could be interpreted as a way to reserve that expression for the Second Person of the Trinity. However, it later says “God’s words” (verba Dei), and as I noted we say “Word of the Lord” (verbum Domini) at Mass in reference to the Scriptures.

[3] Ronald Witherup identifies five main theories: strict verbal inspiration (i.e., fundamentalism), limited verbal inspiration, inspiration of the content, inspiration of the human authors, and inspiration of the early Christian community (Scripture: Dei Verbum [Rediscovering Vatican II; 2006], 90).

[4] How to account for the Bible’s human limitations when interpreting it, will be covered in my next post.

[5] Council of Trent, Session VI: eidem gratiae libere assentiendo et cooperando (DS 1525).


Image: Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23590521

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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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