Many Catholics raised in the 1940s and 50s are familiar with the old Baltimore Catechism with its “question and answer” format. This method suggested that the Catholic faith was all about objective truth, a set of tenets meant to outline a particular philosophy similar to the platform of a political party. Catechetical instruction involved extensive memorization of doctrine, formal prayers and moral principles.
Later, in the 1960s and 70s, the opposite extreme, often described as “feel good catechetics” became the flavor du jour. This ideology, reflecting minimum content, professed an exaggerated focus on subjective feelings and opinions. Catechetical instruction for younger children often included the challenge of using the best of their creativity to fashion homemade crosses and statues out of uncooked macaroni, gallons of Elmer’s glue and popsicle sticks.
Dei Verbum (hereafter referred to as DV) makes clear that the whole purpose of Divine Revelation and being faithfully Catholic is not about ideology or stale macaroni but a relationship: becoming fully acquainted with God and not only gleaning information about God. The goal is to become firmly rooted in God while establishing an authentic communion as children of God or members of the People of God.
While the first section of Dei Verbum helps explain the truth that the Word of God comprises sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture, with the role of the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church) to offer an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, the bulk of the document, articles 11-26, is devoted entirely to sacred Scripture.
In my previous article I alluded to the traditional Protestant belief that the Word of God is the sole authority for Christian faith. Catholics, too, affirm the Word of God as the only exclusive authority. The problem is that the Catholic interpretation of what comprises the Word of God is different from the Protestant interpretation. For Protestants it means Sola Scriptura or Scripture alone. For Catholics the Word of God comprises “sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture” (DV, 10).
An additional complication involves ordained ministers and theologians who, although well-intentioned, support “material sufficiency.” This means that everything believed is somehow contained in sacred Scripture or all that is needed for salvation is, either implicitly or explicitly, contained in sacred Scripture. This is not the official position of the Church.
The quickest and best way to refute this is Saint Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians 2:15 which states: “…stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by a letter of ours.”
Here Saint Paul is writing to the people in Thessalonia reminding them that sacred Scripture is not the only exclusive source of God’s Word. Here, in sacred Scripture itself, oral tradition is held up as a source of the Word of God and not just written tradition. Saint Peter likewise affirms this in his first letter: “The word of the Lord remains forever. This is the word that has been proclaimed to you” (1:25). The Word of God is accepted by both Peter and Paul to include the oral proclamation or oral tradition and not solely the written tradition or sacred Scripture.
As Catholics we do not believe in Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) but in solum Verbum Dei (the Word of God alone). As one my former students, a convert to Catholicism studying for the holy priesthood who previously adhered to Sola Scriptura as a Protestant minister, once commented, “It is contrary to Scripture to say that the Word of God is found in the Bible alone!”
Another point to consider for those unconvinced by the testimony of Saints Peter and Paul is the historical fact that the original apostles were long deceased, and more than a generation of other disciples, including countless Church leaders, had already preached and practiced the faith before the 27 New Testament books were edited, organized and officially accepted as inspired texts. In other words, preaching, teaching, praying, worshiping and even resolving disputes within the Church had all taken place long before the canon of the Bible was finally settled. Baptisms were performed and the Eucharist was celebrated. Christian burials took place and ordinations occurred. The Church existed and grew even though the books of the Bible had yet to be fully compiled. Who finally decided which books were inspired by the Holy Spirit? Who made the final decision as to which books would be included in the New Testament? How could this be decided without the participation and authority of the original chosen apostles? How could Church leaders assume the authority to make such decisions if the Bible alone was the sole authority of the Church? The answer — it was the bishops or successors of the apostles who chose to compile and authorize the 27 books of the New Testament and 46 of the Old Testament. This occurred at the Synod of Hippo in 393, the Council of Carthage I in 397 and Carthage II in 419. A letter of Pope St. Innocent I in 405 also officially listed these books. Later, when discussion continued about adding other books into the Church’s canon of sacred Scripture, the Council of Florence in 1442 definitively affirmed the official list of 27 books for the New Testament and 46 books for the Old Testament, the same canon or list that had been compiled more than 1,000 years before.
Dei Verbum treats the entire Bible as a single book, inspired by God. Article 11 explains: “… the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety … are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author…” It is God’s Word inasmuch as God is its author by way of inspiration. This inspiration affects all the human authors and, taken as a whole, the Bible, although a gift of the Church, provides a solid foundation for the Church to help ratify her beliefs, moral system, and life of worship.
Dei Verbum explains further that sacred Scripture being “divinely inspired,” teaches “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (DV, 11). When approaching sacred Scripture (whether for study, personal prayer such as lectio divina, preaching or liturgical proclamation), Dei Verbum tells us that we need to: 1. “carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended,” and 2. “what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” (DV, 12). These are reinforced a few lines later with the following two considerations. The first is that sacred Scripture is “to be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written,” and secondly, attention is to focus on “the content and unity of the whole of Scripture in order to ascertain its proper meaning” (DV, 12).
In the end, the official interpretation of sacred Scripture is subject “to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God” of which sacred Scripture is a portion, albeit a most significant portion, but together with sacred Tradition comprise one “sacred deposit of the Word of God” (DV, 12).
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