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Dei Verbum and the Sources of Revelation
Posted By Eric Sammons On November 18, 2009 @ 7:00 am In Scripture,The Church | Comments Disabled
Today is the anniversary of the promulgation of Dei Verbum , the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation issued at the Second Vatican Council on November 18th, 1965. Dei Verbum is my favorite document from Vatican II, but it was not without controversy, as it made a theological declaration that contradicted a common (but not infallible) teaching of Catholic theology of the time.
Many people like to call Vatican II a “pastoral” council, implying that it was not a dogmatic council. By this they mean that Vatican II, unlike every other council, didn’t make any dogmatic declarations but instead just issued pastoral documents to guide the faithful in the modern world. To a large extent this is true, but it is too sweeping of a statement, and it does not apply completely to Dei Verbum, which did in fact settle an important theological debate.
One of the debated issues in the mid-20th century Catholic theological world was the issue of the sources of revelation. Were both Scripture and Tradition sources of revelation, and if so, were they completely independent? Most Catholic theologians in the post-Trent Church argued that Scripture and Tradition were two separate sources of revelation. They based their belief on the Council of Trent, which declared “both saving truth, and moral discipline…are contained in the written books [Scripture] and the unwritten traditions”. Note that it just simply states that “saving truth” and “moral disciple” are contained in both “written books and the unwritten traditions” – there is no comment on how much saving truth is found in either form of transmission. In the original draft of this decree, it stated that revelation is found “partly” (partim) in the written books and “partly” (partim) in tradition, but that language was removed before the text came up for a final vote. If that language had made it to the final decree, it would be hard to argue with the “two-source” belief about revelation.
However, at Vatican II the Council Fathers went a different direction. In Dei Verbum, they declared that the “Gospel” was the “source of all saving truth and moral teaching” (DV 7). (Note that “the Gospel” does not equal “the [four] Gospels”; it is the content of the saving message of Jesus Christ – the “Good News” he proclaimed and lived). Both Scripture and Tradition pass on this Gospel and it is not possible to separate them: “there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end” (DV 9). Finally, Dei Verbum declares that “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church” (DV 10). Note the integral unity between Scripture and Tradition and the common source of them both. You cannot have a division between the two any more than you could have a division between your two legs; they work together for a common purpose.
From this, the door was definitively shut on the “two-source” theory of divine revelation. But note that the teaching of Dei Verbum was not a new teaching, invented in the 1960′s. It dates back to the 2nd century and St. Irenaeus, where he lays down the same structure in Book 3 of Against Heresies : the “Gospel” was handed on by Jesus to the apostles, and then the apostles by both Scripture and Tradition handed it on to future generations. The “source” of revelation is not either the Scriptures or Tradition, but the Gospel itself. This Gospel contains all the saving truths of our salvation and it is handed on to us through Scripture and Tradition.
Irenaeus’ teaching, however, was mostly forgotten in the Catholic world by the early 20th century, and it was only by a “return to the sources” (ressourcement) that it was recovered. But it was not recovered without some resistance: the controversy it aroused during the Council can be seen in the long history of Dei Verbum; it was one of the first constitutions debated at Vatican II but one of the last to be approved. Somewhat surprisingly though, it has become one of the least controversial of the documents in the post-Vatican II world. I think that is because most theologians recognized the declaration’s brilliant resolution to the debate; it rises above the 16th century Protestant-Catholic debates and shows that we cannot equate the content of the Gospel with the means in which it is passed on to us.
If you have some time today or in the next week, I strongly recommend that you read Dei Verbum . It is a short document but packed with beautiful insights regarding how God has revealed Himself to us.
Article printed from Divine Life – A Blog by Eric Sammons: http://ericsammons.com/blog
URL to article: http://ericsammons.com/blog/2009/11/18/dei-verbum-and-the-sources-of-revelation/
URLs in this post:
 Dei Verbum: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
 Book 3 of Against Heresies: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.i.html
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