Biblical Authority Permeates Council Teaching

By Donahue, John R. | National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

Biblical Authority Permeates Council Teaching


Donahue, John R., National Catholic Reporter


On Oct. 11, 1962, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council entered St. Peter's Basilica in solemn procession behind an ancient manuscript of the Scriptures. As they conducted their deliberations before this centuries-old Bible, enshrined in a place of honor, they were enacting a drama of the role of Scripture in the council itself and in the post-conciliar church. The church is summoned to be a follower and servant of the word. The authority of the Bible permeates all aspects of the council. The constant citation of biblical texts gives the council documents a flavor of biblical language and is implicit recognition of the authority of the biblical text.

Early in the first session of the council a draft document, a dogmatic schema "On the Sources of Revelation," prepared by the theological commission under Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, crystallized the reactionary tendencies of post-Tridentine and antimodernist theology. The draft went beyond the Council of Trent in arguing for "two sources" of revelation, and presented fundamentalist views on inspiration and inerrancy. Immediately a procession of speakers stood to urge rejection of this schema.

Still, despite strong voices against this draft, partly because of parliamentary confusion, the vote to reject the schema did not receive the required two-thirds majority necessary to send it back to the drafting committee. A week later the drama was further heightened when Cardinal Pericle Felici, the council general secretary, announced that Pope John XXIII had removed discussion of this schema from the agenda and handed it over to a mixed commission, of which Ottaviani and Jesuit Cardinal Augustin Bea, representing the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, were to be cochairs. Commentators saw this incident as a sign that the bishops were to take the council as their own and not remain as deputies of the Roman Curia.

The revised Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum)-subsequently described by Dominican Fr. Edward Schill-beeckx, a peritus, as one of the council's "crown jewels"--was accepted: 2,344 bishops in favor out of 2,350 in attendance. The first words of the preface set the tone for the whole: "Hearing the Word of God with reverence and proclaiming it confidently," the council claims that its teaching is itself service of the word and proclaims it with the hope that the world will increase in faith and love. A chapter on revelation itself, which is foundational for the whole, follows the preface.

Revelation is dialogic and personal. While Vatican I said that God reveals his wisdom, goodness and "eternal decrees of his will," Vatican II uses less abstract language in stating, "God chose to reveal himself." This self-disclosure of God is not simply in the form of truth about God but is an invitation to dialogue and communion with him. Revelation occurs in both words and deeds, which have "an inner unity; the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and reality signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them."

The following important chapter, "Handing on Divine Revelation," spells out carefully, but somewhat dialectically, the relation of Scripture and tradition. Neither Scripture nor tradition is ever called explicitly a "source" of revelation, but there is a close connection between the two. Both of them flow "from the same divine wellspring ... and tend toward the same end." In one sense "Scripture" is the result of tradition since it is the handing on in writing of the apostolic witness and preaching. Scripture and tradition form one sacred deposit of the word of God, yet there is a priority given to Scripture, which is called the word of God, while tradition hands on the word. This section states that the church's apostolic tradition develops with the help of the Holy Spirit, "through the contemplation and study made by believers who treasure these things in their hearts . …

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