Vatican II, 40 Years Later: "Dei Verbum"

Scott Hahn on the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation

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ROME, MAY 27, 2003 ( Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, ZENIT is asking Church leaders and prominent laity to reflect on the main documents of the council.

Here, ZENIT spoke with Scott Hahn about “Dei Verbum,” the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation.

Hahn is professor of Scripture and theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and holds the Pio Cardinal Laghi Chair at the Pontifical College Josephinum. He is founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and founder and director of the Institute of Applied Biblical Studies.

Q: Where has been the greatest progress in the understanding of Scripture within the Church?

Hahn: I’m tempted to say that the greatest progress is “Dei Verbum” itself.

The document is a remarkable development — a positive, constructive, integral, holistic approach to the ways that God reveals himself. There were three major renewals in the Church in the years leading up to Vatican II: in Scripture studies, in patristics [the study of the Church Fathers] and in liturgy. “Dei Verbum” was a synthesis of all three.

The document in turn inspired many further developments. I think the greatest was the pure distillation of “Dei Verbum’s” teaching that appears in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, especially Nos. 75-136.

The Catechism distills the essence of the document and shows us a practical, pastoral, Catholic approach to the Scriptures, as they are read in the liturgy and in accord with tradition. The Catechism takes its cue from “Dei Verbum” and calls us all to read the Bible from the heart of the Church.

Q: What are the major points of “Dei Verbum”?

Hahn: It’s all about divine Revelation, which is more than propositions and data — it’s more than just facts we have to learn. The major point of the document is our salvation. Salvation is more than avoiding hell and getting into heaven. It’s sharing the power of divine love with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The new covenant is the life-giving love of the Trinity that spilled out of eternity and into time, out of Israel and into the nations. The Trinity is the source and the fulfillment of Revelation, the beginning and the end.

What is revealed is the eternal mystery of God’s inner life. By revealing himself, God empowers us to share his life forever. This is what Christ came for. This is why we receive the Holy Spirit. This triune personalism is at the heart of “Dei Verbum.”

The document then provides a golden setting for the jewel of the Scriptures when it speaks about Tradition. What comes across most clearly is the fact that Tradition is alive. As Catholics, we don’t see Tradition as archaic or arcane. It’s not an antique heirloom. We speak of “living Tradition,” “sacred Tradition.” It’s something organic, something dynamic.

And where does Tradition possess its greatest vitality? In the liturgy, where the Scriptures are proclaimed each day. Tradition, then, is not something we fall back on when we can’t find a doctrine in the Scriptures.

No, “Dei Verbum” shows us that Scripture and Tradition are interdependent. The apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. It is Tradition that defined the canon of the sacred books. It’s in the communion of saints that we find our Bible-study group, our interpretive community.

So sacred Scripture is the Word of God; sacred Tradition takes the Word of God and hands it on in full purity; and Scripture and Tradition together form one sacred deposit of the faith.

Q: How does the magisterium fit in?

Hahn: The magisterium is that “unending succession of preachers” in our own time. Again, like Tradition, the magisterium is not something reactionary or reliquary. It’s a living, breathing part of the sacred mystery of divine Revelation.

The magisterium carries on the task of the apostles with the same divine power they possessed. So it’s not a hanging judge, not an umpire, not a traffic cop. Its task is to proclaim the Gospel.

“Dei Verbum” says that the magisterium alone has the responsibility of authentically interpreting the Word of God. Non-Catholics and dissenting Catholics have sometimes presented this as a demotion — having to submit to authority outside themselves — but it’s not a demotion. It’s actually a promotion.

Who, after all, is more powerful, the mayor of a village or the vice-president of a nation? We are actually more powerful when we place ourselves in the service of a greater power.

So Catholic interpreters are not prevented from going deeper; they’re empowered to go deeper. Since we’re able to avoid certain errors, we can explore the Bible with greater freedom, power and assurance.

Q: What is the greatest challenge still ahead of us?

Hahn: The Pope himself threw down the challenge in 1994, in his apostolic letter “Tertio Millennio Adveniente.”

He called for an “examination of conscience” over how the Church has received the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. “To what extent,” he asked us, “has the word of God become more fully the soul of theology and the inspiration of the whole of Christian living, as ‘Dei Verbum’ sought?” Those are sobering words.

Since I am a professor of Scripture and theology, I suspect that they’re the words I’ll be judged by. Have I done all I can to promote biblical literacy among lay people and biblical fluency among the clergy? God help me if I haven’t.

Q: As someone who came from a Protestant background, what do you think has been the effect of “Dei Verbum” on ecumenical relations? Has it helped to bring people into the Church, for instance?

Hahn: Yes, it’s helped. I’m a living testimony to this, and I know so many others.

“Dei Verbum” is helpful because it touches directly upon the matters that precipitated the Protestant Reformation. I think Protestants are especially impressed with the notion that the magisterium is subordinated to Scripture but empowered by it, and that Scripture, Tradition and magisterium all receive their authority from the same Spirit.

Catholics need to become conversant in these ideas and to present them with charity and clarity.
Q: What advice would you give someone who wants to make the most of the Bible in his or her life?

Hahn: Read the Bible from the heart of the Church. Read the Bible along with the Church, with the Old and the New Testaments as they appear together in the lectionary. Listen to them in the liturgy, but read them too, either before Mass in preparation or afterward in meditation.

Taking the Scriptures in devotional reading and participating in the Mass creates a sort of feedback loop. The more you do one, the better you do the other. And read “Dei Verbum”! Its language is actually very simple and accessible to lay readers. I’ve read it dozens of times. It doesn’t get old; it gets better.

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