The sixth and final chapter of Dei Verbum is about how the Bible is actually used and its fundamental importance in the Church.
The chapter begins by saying that listening to the Bible at Mass stands on par with receiving the Eucharist; the two parts of the liturgy stand together as a single “table both of God’s Word and of Christ’s Body,” from which we receive “the bread of life” (DV 21). The bread of life (see John 6:22-59) is found in both the Scriptures and the Eucharist. We receive Jesus with our minds through the Scriptures, then we receive him bodily through the consecrated bread and wine. He, the Word of God incarnate, is really present in both (DV 24). Reading or hearing the Bible is truly sacramental. Like celebrating the sacraments, Sacred Scripture is an effective means of encountering God and hearing his Word. For this reason, our encounters with Scripture should be accompanied by prayer, when God hears our words (DV 25).
The Bible should shape and define everything we do as Christians. “Together with Sacred Tradition,” it is “the supreme rule of faith” that regulates our religion (DV 21). It is “the support and vigor of the Church” and the “pure and continual source of spiritual life” (DV 22). Besides the sacraments, there is nothing else to which it can be compared in the life of the Church, it is so all-encompassing. This is why St. Jerome said (as Dei Verbum quotes), “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” (DV 25). The Bible isn’t just one holy thing among many holy things in Christianity, like the Rosary or Christmas or wearing a cross or fasting. In a sense, the Bible is the whole thing, the foundation of every aspect of our religion. What is the Rosary, for example, except a meditation on Scripture with the repetition of Luke 1:28 and 42?
I think that some Catholics think that doctrine, rather than the Bible, is the “main event” of our religion, so to speak. The Bible is just a sacred book you use to grab a few quotes to “prove” the doctrines. It would be much more accurate to say that the Bible is our doctrine. Doctrinal formulations like catechisms, dogmatic constitutions, and papal encyclicals are summaries and authoritative interpretations of the Bible and Tradition. They do not in any way replace the Scriptures, nor are they divinely inspired; they explain the divinely-inspired Scriptures. It is like the Apostles’ Creed. This creed exists and is given to catechumens, according to St. Augustine, as a shorthand, summary way to refer to the entire content of the Scriptures in a form that can be memorized and recited.
Many Christians ask, “What should I read from the Bible?” They want to know where to find all the important doctrines and rules. But the whole thing is important. Abraham and Sarah and Hagar are important. Isaac and Jacob and Rebekah and Rachel are important. Ruth and Boaz are important. David and Bathsheba are important. The Book of Job, the Psalms, and the Song of Songs are important! Truly, the whole Bible is written by, about, and for God’s People. Its center and heart is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Dei Verbum chapter 6 focuses on preaching and theology. Preaching is to be “nourished and directed by Sacred Scripture” (DV 21). This is not a timeless truism but was a declaration of reform for preaching. The revision of the Lectionary called for by the Council was in line with this renewal. Prior to the Council, the Lectionary was very small, using an annual cycle with minimal use of the Old Testament. Under Pope Paul VI, it was expanded to a three-year Sunday cycle (weekdays have a two-year cycle). The Tridentine “Epistle” was replaced by a First and Second Reading, the former of which is always from the Old Testament except during Eastertide, when it’s replaced by Acts of the Apostles. The Old Testament readings were chosen to correspond to the Gospel.
Dei Verbum does not specify rules for preaching. Generally, the preacher should explain the readings. In my opinion, preachers should follow this principle more strictly. I’ve heard more than a few “random” homilies that barely shoe-horned in (or just ignored) the scriptural readings. My favorite homilies try to explain the Old Testament and Gospel readings theologically (with historical context if needed) rather than moralize. Dei Verbum says the homily “holds a distinguished place” in catechesis (DV 24), so the bar should be set high. Preaching is one of the most important duties of the clergy. Even more than religious education classes and adult Bible studies, the homily at Mass is the time when the Scriptures are explained to the faithful.
The study of the Bible is the heart of both theology and catechesis. In fact, it’s said to be like theology’s “soul” (DV 24). Again Dei Verbum does not lay out specific laws here, but if we look at the Council itself as an example, we see that the renewal of theology was all about ressourcement. This French word means going back to the sources (ad fontes in Latin), meaning Scripture, the Fathers, and the Doctors. Every branch of theology was to be renewed by turning attention back to the Bible and the early Church, even if that meant revising and even abandoning various neo-scholastic theses, thought-categories, and terms. In this way, the Church was able (to quote Benedict XVI) to recover its “deepest patrimony.”
Chapter 6 addresses another practical matter: Bible translations. It acknowledges the place of honor held by both the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, as well as other ancient translations (DV 22). Through his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), Pius XII had already repealed the Tridentine rule (which was canonical, not doctrinal) that made the Vulgate the only translation authorized for public use in the Catholic Church for 400 years. Again following Pius XII, Vatican II says that new translations into modern languages should be made from the original Hebrew and Greek (ibid.). It even recommends this be done, “with the assent of the authority of the Church,” in partnership with non-Catholic Christians (ibid.). Such assent has been given by episcopal conferences for the creation of (for example) the Revised Standard Version—Catholic Edition (1966) and the New Revised Standard—Catholic Edition (1991), the latter of which is the basis of the Canadian English Lectionary. Since the Bible is something that unites all Christians, it is eminently fitting that we read from a common translation.
Dei Verbum specifically says that Bible translations should contain “instructional explanations” and “instructional annotations,” aka footnotes (DV 25). The New American Bible (the basis of the U.S. English Lectionary) contains footnotes that are part of the text. That is to say, it is never printed (even online) without the footnotes. The idea here, which is very Catholic, is that the Bible cannot interpret itself. Biblical scholars and theologians, “under the watchfulness of the Sacred Magisterium,” help explain the Scriptures to the faithful and train priests (DV 23). As I mentioned in a previous post, more work needs to be done to provide good helps to Catholics. The dearth of good material is exacerbated by the proliferation, especially on the internet, of materials that promote traditionalism and fundamentalisms.
This at last concludes my series on Dei Verbum that I began last summer! I hope you have learned something during it and that it inspires you, through the grace of God, to study the Scriptures with an open mind and with faith-driven curiosity about things divine and human.
Image: The Ghent Altarpiece: Virgin Mary, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (1432), Saint Bavo’s Cathedral (Ghent, Belgium)
- Latin translations are my own. Ex mensa tam verbi Dei quam Corporis Christi panem vitae. ↑
- Una cum Sacra Traditione semper ut supremam fidei suae regulam. ↑
- Ecclesiae sustentaculum ac vigor. ↑
- Vitae spiritualis fons purus et perennis. ↑
- Ignoratio enim Scripturarum ignoratio Christi est. ↑
- Sacrā Scripturā nutriatur et regatur. ↑
- Eximium locum habeat. ↑
- Veluti anima Sacrae Theologiae. ↑
- Benedict XVI, Address to the Roman Curia (12/22/05) ↑
- Annuente Ecclesiae auctoritate. ↑
- Explicationibus instructae. ↑
- Instructae adnotationibus. ↑
Image: By Jan van Eyck – Jan van Eyck, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109231
Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject 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).