Unpacking Vatican II

Dei Verbum chapter 3, part 8

In previous posts, I’ve explored what Dei Verbum says about how to interpret Scripture in light of its human authorship. Those principles of exegesis are essential for correctly interpreting what the human authors meant in the contexts of their times. However, “no less” important are the theological principles for interpreting Scripture’s divine element, which is the Word of God (DV 12). DV lists four interrelated principles: the holistic unity of Scripture, the “analogy of faith,” Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium.

The first criterion of theological exegesis is “the content and unity of the whole Scripture” (DV 12).[1] The word content here means “what is held together,” as in the word continuity. In other words, Scripture must be interpreted holistically as one divine message. There is a certain tension here with the historical-human exegesis, which tends to break the Bible apart into its constituent books, passages, and verses. This is necessary and good because it is the only way to attend to the circumstances and contexts of the diverse times in which each book (or part of a book) was written. It also enables us to see the different intentions and rhetorical styles used by various authors. The Council says that this must be done for sound exegesis. Once this task is done, however, the theological reading of the Bible somehow needs to put it back together. Some biblical scholars engage this task directly through what is now called “canonical criticism” (a school of thought associated with Brevard Childs). Less theologically-oriented scholars may leave this work to others, on the assumption that theological interpreters will build upon and not neglect the findings of strictly historical-critical or literary scholars.

There is no one right way to read the Bible holistically, but my advice to the ordinary reader is simple: look for what is repeatedly emphasized throughout both testaments of the Bible. There are many such themes: the oneness of God; his providence and unlimited power; his mercy and love; justice; and care for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow (to name a few). If something is repeatedly emphasized across the centuries, you can be sure it is a key part of the divine message. In other words, it is revelatory of God’s self and not background assumptions.

The second theological principle of Catholic biblical interpretation is very familiar to us Catholics: Tradition. Arguably more than anything else, the Catholic view of Tradition is what divides us from our beloved Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ—with whom we share “a certain real union in the Holy Spirit” thanks to our common faith and baptism (Lumen Gentium 15).[2] I already discussed the integral, holistic unity of Scripture and Tradition in a previous post (namely how they are not two separate sources). Having already devoted a chapter to Tradition, DV doesn’t give any specific directions about how it is to be taken into account in exegesis.

In the development of modern biblical studies (which began among Protestants), there was a strong tendency to ignore the Tradition in favor of fresh, historically-contextualized readings of Scripture. Although this was unacceptable to Catholics, it nevertheless generated some useful and valid insights that were eventually able to be accepted by the Catholic Church (officially with Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Deus Afflante Spiritu). There is always room for new interpretations, as well as the rediscovery of older ones, within Catholicism.

When we speak of the unity of Scripture and Tradition, we do not mean doggedly repeating old interpretations instead of current research. We mean that Catholic scholarship can’t ignore how the Tradition developed out of readings of Scripture. To take a couple of easy examples, no theologically-directed Catholic scholar can discuss the angel’s greeting to Mary as “Kecharitomene” (“graced one,” Luke 1:28) without engaging the Mariological tradition that drew inspiration from St. Jerome’s providential decision to translate that word as “gratia plena”—“full of grace.” Likewise, when Catholic biblical scholarship examines the fact that the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11) is absent from all manuscripts of John that date prior to the fifth century, it cannot ignore the tradition of that text’s canonicity in the Catholic Church. While some might argue that it should be removed on historical grounds, the tradition maintains its legitimacy, regardless of when or how it entered John’s Gospel.

The Catholic exegetical tradition is so complex that no one could master it. It is just as rich as the liturgical and dogmatic traditions. With very few exceptions, biblical verses do not directly connect to particular dogmas of the faith in a linear, one-to-one way. For most passages of the Bible, the industrious researcher could find dozens—even hundreds—of interpretations offered by the Fathers, Doctors, and Catholic theologians and scholars throughout history! Most of these are inaccessible to the layperson and have not been translated into English. Some attempts have been made to catalog highlights, most notably in the Ancient Christian Commentary Scripture series, but even it cannot encompass all patristics authors, and it stops at the eighth century. Medieval and early-modern theologians were no more unanimous in their views than recent ones. In every epoch, theologians constantly disagree and dialogue with one another, sometimes by name, sometimes directly through letters, and sometimes anonymously (e.g., “Some have said…”). The scholars who edit and publish primary texts of exegesis have their work cut out for them in trying to track down and document every allusion and reference to another’s views!

My point is that the Church’s exegetical tradition is not a monolith but a rich tapestry of diverse viewpoints, just like modern biblical scholarship and theology. Reading the Bible in light of this tradition is immensely beneficial, but it rarely (or never) provides definitive answers. Rather than seeking absolute meanings, the Church from the very beginning has believed that scriptural passages have more than one meaning. The medieval tradition (which grew from the thought of Origen of Alexandria) delineated four different levels of mutually enriching meaning (see CCC 115-18), each of which is also susceptible to multiple readings! While this may distress some “Type A” moderns who want clear-cut, facile answers to every question, this is and always has been the Catholic way.

The third principle of theological exegesis is called the “analogy of faith” and refers to revelation’s inner unity and coherence. It caps what was already said about the coherence and unity of Scripture and Tradition. Since God is the primary object of revelation (as well as the subject: he reveals himself), and since God is one, revelation is not a motley collection of facts, anecdotes, and rules. On the human-literary level, it can seem that way! But when seen with the eyes of faith – “read and interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written” (DV 12)[3] – unity of purpose may be found. Everything we think of as the “content” of revelation (such as the Trinity or the Incarnation) forms an integral part of one harmonious symphony. While some parts are more important than others (the “hierarchy of truths”), no one part can stand apart from another. We cannot think and reason about one aspect of the faith in one way, and then understand another aspect in a completely contradictory way.

An implication of the analogy of faith is that theological progress in one area tends to spread to others because they are all interconnected in the one faith. A prime example of this is the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The Church did not just develop one or two things in isolation, doing little touch-ups or conducting strictly liturgical and practical reforms in isolation of doctrine. Rather, a new theological approach (ressourcement) was applied across the board, touching on virtually every aspect of the Catholic faith. Because of the analogy of faith, it was not possible to tweak one or two things while leaving everything else exactly as it was. For practical reasons, the Council could not debate and write about every topic (though they covered a lot), so some work was left for later. The “spirit of the Council” – a phrase used positively by Pope Paul VI to refer to ongoing reform[4] – helped drive later documents of popes and bishops conferences. The insights of the Council continued to be applied. Pope Francis has framed all his reforms and symbolic acts as nothing other than the ongoing implementation of the Council.

The fourth and final principle is the Magisterium: “All these things about the method of interpreting Scripture are at last subject to the Church’s judgment” (DV 12).[5] Whereas the first three principles refer directly to revelation, the Magisterium, it must be noted, is only the servant of revelation, as was also said in chapter 2: “The Magisterium is not above the Word of God, but serves it” (DV 10).[6] The authority of the Magisterium regarding the interpretation of Scripture is the same as in theology generally. It serves as a kind of referee, having the authority to intervene in all theological debates. In practice, however, there have not been any magisterial interventions dealing with specifically exegetical debates since Vatican II. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI released an apostolic exhortation called Verbum Domini (“The Word of the Lord”), which offers general reflections based on the Synod of Bishops on the Word of God. My favorite line from that document is: “Given the importance of the word of God, the quality of homilies needs to be improved” (VD 59 = Sacramentum Caritatis 46)!

When you consider both the human and the divine principles of scriptural interpretation outlined by Dei Verbum, you realize that it is an enormous task, but such as is the importance of the Word of God in the Church. In fact, DV says that “The study of the Sacred Page is like the soul of Sacred Theology” (24). There are few things more important within the Church than the reading and interpreting of the Bible. “After all, ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (St. Jerome = DV 25).[7]

This concludes my analysis and exposition of the first three chapters of Dei Verbum. Since all the heavy lifting of Dei Verbum occurs in these chapters, I will need only two or three more posts to cover the final three chapters. Look for those in the coming weeks!


[1] As always, translations are my own: Non minus diligenter respiciendum est ad contentum et unitatem totius Scripturae, ratione habita vivae totius Ecclesiae Traditionis et analogiae fidei.

[2] Vera quaedam in Spiritu Sancto coniunctio.

[3] Cum Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit…

[4] For example, “Le récent Concile du Vatican a rappelé que ces progrès étaient basés d’abord sur le renouveau de l’Eglise et sur la conversion du cœur. Cela veut dire que vous contribuerez à cette marche vers l’unité dans la mesure où vous entrerez dans l’esprit du Concile” (Paul VI, Address in the Holy Spirit Cathedral, Istanbul, 7/25/67).

[5] Cuncta enim haec, de ratione interpretandi Scripturam, Ecclesiae iudicio ultime subsunt.

[6] Magisterium non supra verbum Dei est, sed eidem ministrat

[7] Ignoratio enim Scripturarum ignoratio Christi est: St. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, prol. (PL 24, 17).

Image: A Bible handwritten in Latin, on display in Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, England. The Bible was written in Belgium in 1407 AD, for reading aloud in a monastery.  Photo by Adrian Pingstone. Public Domain. 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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