Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Nov. 18, 1965, as the third of four constitutions of the Second Vatican Council, more than half of the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” (Dei Verbum, hereafter referred to as DV), is devoted to the theme of sacred Scripture. Yet, this is not a Bible course or a commentary on sacred Scripture but rather an overview of the Catholic position on how the Bible fits within the larger Word of God, and under the even larger umbrella of Divine Revelation.
When reviewing this document I was reminded of a time long ago when I first heard the comment made that Protestants follow the Bible while Catholics follow the Church. In fact, even in high school my teachers suggested that Protestants were more familiar with the Bible than Catholics. Others suggested that Catholics engaged in an intimate reading or study of sacred Scripture prior to Vatican II were somehow involved in a surreptitious affair.
I disagree with these statements, not simply because they do not match my experience, but because credible data communicates the opposite. As a teenager, in conversation with my Protestant relatives, it became apparent that although my aunt, cousins and grandmother read the Bible frequently, the fact is that they read and re-read favorite passages, leaving the bulk of the Bible left unread.
This was also the case with my friends who were mostly Protestant. The only scriptures they seemed familiar with were the psalms, especially the 23rd psalm, as well as the accounts describing the birth of Jesus and the passages that recounted His resurrection.
During the years when I worked for the government, my non-Catholic acquaintances, with the exception of a few Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses, knew little about sacred Scripture. In fact, even the Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons only knew a handful of passages they had memorized for the purpose of doing door-to-door ministry.
Years ago as an undergraduate student my Protestant colleagues studying for the ministry also told me that their superiors conceded that the selection of scriptural passages for Sunday services were mostly at the discretion of the preacher. Practically speaking, unlike Catholic preachers (deacons, priests and bishops), many Protestant ministers could exempt themselves from dealing with the more difficult passages from sacred Scripture.
A more compelling argument can be made that Catholics have a wider and more extensive knowledge of the Bible than their Protestant brothers and sisters. In addition to a different Gospel passage proclaimed at every Mass, three additional selections from sacred Scripture are also read at Sunday Mass that ordinarily includes an Old Testament reading, a psalm and a New Testament selection. Weekday Mass has one less reading. The Church has also created cycles of Sunday and weekday readings in an effort to cover all 73 books of the Bible over a three-year period. In addition, the entire narrative of the Mass is also present in sacred Scripture. This is generally obvious to any casual observer with a biblical background.
Finally, Catholics are exposed to sacred Scripture when they utter the Lord’s Prayer (see: St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 6 and St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 11), the Hail Mary (see: St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 1) and when they pray the mysteries of the rosary which highlight major events in the lives of Jesus and His mother from the Bible. Of course, the stations of the cross also bring us on a biblical journey, as do the artistic stained glass windows in most churches which depict scenes from biblical passages.
Dei Verbum affirms this comprehensive use of sacred Scripture in the life of the Church. It likewise seeks to impress upon the whole people of God the importance of continuing to explore the Bible in its many facets. Article 12 of Dei Verbum advices: “attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out.” This means that we need to understand what the Bible is and what it is not.
For example, the Bible is not a science book and certainly not a historical text, at least not according to the way we generally understand history as a chronology of past events. Much of the confusion over how to interpret the Bible is caused by incorrectly identifying sacred Scripture as a scientific text or as a historical record.
The Bible is first and foremost a religious book meant for religious instruction which includes theological study and spiritual nourishment. As such we can say with confidence that, while the sacred writers under the guidance of the Holy Spirit used their natural gifts and genius in contributing to the written text of the Bible, God is nonetheless the author of sacred Scripture. As Dei Verbum points out, “God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion” (DV, 12). Those who wrote the words of sacred Scripture did so with all their human limitations and flaws and apparent mistakes or misunderstandings. Yet, they were nonetheless inspired to write only what Divine Providence intended for the purpose of salvation. In this regard, Scripture is inerrant or without error insofar as it includes all that God intended irregardless of what might be critiqued as falling short of being accurate in details that encompass other disciplines like the sciences such as biology, physics or chemistry. As Dei Verbum affirms: “Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation”  (DV, 11).
I love the comment made a few paragraphs later in Dei Verbum when the Council Fathers state: “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” (DV, 13) The analogy here captures the idea that just as the eternal Word of God (the second person of the blessed Trinity) became flesh (and lived as one like us in all things but sin), similarly God’s perfect “eternal” words presented in human language, while expressed imperfectly, nonetheless retain their source of origin.
Just as we look to the gospel passages, therefore, to gain an insight into the personality traits and character of Jesus, so too we look to the “literary forms” used by the sacred writers in the different books of the Bible to determine whether they are “historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.” Such examination of the extensive literature helps “search out the intention of the sacred writers,” including the particular situation of their “time and culture” (cf. DV, 13).
In “Sacred Scripture, It’s Inspiration and Divine Interpretation”
(chapter 3 of Dei Verbum) which I have examined here, we see an overview of the Catholic understanding of inspiration and divine interpretation in sacred Scripture.
The two chapters that follow explain how to approach the written Word of God in the Old and New Testaments. Chapter 6, the final chapter, deals with Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church. These shall be examined in my next article.
Father John G. Hillier, Ph.D. serves as Assistant Chancellor to the Bishop. To read his previous columns on Vatican II please visit www.diometuchen.org/father-hillier