Dei Verbum and Catholicism’s ancient genius – an exploration of Vatican II via Dei Verbum (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation)

[Covering note for those who participated in this focus group at the forum. This paper is not the text of what I presented in my focus group at the forum, but it includes much of what was raised there. That day I chose to present some of the material included here as stimulus for a facilitated group conversation on a few aspects of Vatican II’s revolutionary Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum. The following paper is an effort firstly to draw together some of the necessarily scattered ideas that surfaced that afternoon, secondly to offer a broadened base for considering these, and thirdly to highlight the significant amount of unfinished business in the Church community in relation to divine revelation.]

Focus and concerns of this paper

This consideration of Vatican II’s unfinished business will focus on The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum [translated “Word of God”]. To assess the extent, to which this document has actually reached and benefited the renewing Church, I have deliberately chosen to limit my perspective in this paper to what I hear and observe from personal experience in the ministry of adult faith formation.

Primarily, I wish to illustrate that much of what Dei Verbum sought to feed into the consciousness of people has not yet been done. Even without considering its more landmark teachings, at the grassroots there is still major ignorance and misunderstanding about the three key media of Divine Revelation it stressed, namely Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium. Though people’s misunderstandings are various, I believe what underpins many of them is a type of dualistic thinking or quietism. This is particularly apparent in some religious language usage, including ways of talking about faith itself. Implicit in all of this, I sense, is a serious blockage about belief in humanity’s goodness, evidence that past emphases still lives on and have power over our insides. I think it is this incapacity to believe that God’s Spirit works in and through human beings in the Christian community which gives the major signal that Dei Verbum has not yet been transmitted properly. I say this because one of the landmark features of this document is that, below all it says on Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium; it affirms ‘humanbeinghood’.

Expressed through Scripture and Creeds, Dei Verbum grounds all its teachings in the theological conviction that human experience is revelatory of God. It is strong in its insistence that what we call “Divine Revelation” is actually God’s self-revealing in our lives, not just when we are at our best, but also when we are messy, struggling and suffering from all our limitations. It is this theological conviction which I call ‘the ancient genius of Catholicism’. Without this sort of faith consciousness, I believe, we have little chance of real Church renewal today, particularly that of our Sacramental, liturgical life.

Overview of sections of this paper

Dualistic religious language is unfaithful to Scripture, ancient Christian theology and Vatican II.

Landmark features of Dei Verbum’s theology reaffirm that human experience, reflected on by the community in the light of faith, is revelatory of God.

The ecclesial renewal called for by Vatican II’s other documents cannot work without a basis in Dei Verbum’s theological convictions.

1.1: Dissonance between religious language and human self-understandings

In his book, ‘Paths from science towards God: the end of all our exploring’, Arthur Peacocke writes of the crisis he sees in religious language in contemporary Christianity:

“Today, intellectually educated but often theologically uninformed people – if they are still attached to the Christian churches- are hanging on by their fingertips, as they increasingly bracket off large sections of the liturgies in which they participate as either unintelligible or unbelievable in their classical form, or both … There is an increasingly alarming dissonance between the language of devotion, liturgies and doctrines and what people perceive themselves to be, and to becoming, in the world.”

This paper addresses just one small facet of the crisis Peacocke signals, namely the dissonance some people experience between dualistic, quietistic religious language and their own more positive human self-understandings. The following story addresses the same issue, illustrating Peacock’s claim that people simply “bracket off” religious language if it does not speak with intelligibility and credibility into their real human lives. For the faith community of the Church, the danger then is that faith itself can be misconstrued and left aside by many who have been initiated into it.

1.2: Faith language and upholding the “good news” of being human

I have always remembered an incident related by the late Sr. Helen Lombard SGS: As founding President of the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes in the late 1980s, Helen was invited to address the Members at the opening of Federal Parliament. Experienced communicator that she was, Helen did not waste this opportunity, speaking on one of the contemporary “signs of the times”, the issue of “privatisation”. She challenged her listeners to consider well its implications for ordinary Australians. After her address Helen said she was approached by a still-prominent politician who, intending to compliment her, said something like,

“I was agreeably surprised. I have always rather thought that religious people sound as if they are plugged into the moon, but I must admit I found myself listening to you!”

Whilst it would be possible to question if the stereotype Helen appeared to break was entirely fair, many of us would probably wince at the politician’s remark, because we recognise some truth in it. Helen’s ability to speak with meaning and to hold people’s attention on this occasion indicates that she spoke from a faith conviction far from quietism. What she said and why she said it were consistent with that vision of Vatican II found in Gaudium et Spes #1:

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of human beings. United in Christ, they are led by the Spirit in their journey to the kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation that is meant for all humanity. That is why this community realises that it is truly and intimately linked with humankind and its history”.

[Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #1. adapted with inclusive language]

One of the most quoted ideals of Vatican II, this statement is unequivocal in its declaration that the Church and the “good news” of Christ are grounded in human life and human history. It challenges those of us who talk about God and explore faith with people to sound similarly grounded, lest we compromise some of Christianity’s most ancient self-understandings.

1.3: Language that negates Christian faith

When we sound as if we are “plugged into the moon”,

we raise the spectre of ancient gnosticism and its heretical, dualistic belief that the world of the spirit is good, but the world of creation is bad, so Christ comes to liberate us from it;

we deny the true significance of Jesus’ incarnation among us, ignoring the faith declarations and creeds of the early councils, especially Chalcedon and Ephesus, which insist, amongst other things, that Jesus’ full humanity is inseparable from his full divinity, and therefore, not bad;

we negate the affirmation of our own created humanity which the Nicean-Constantinopolitan creed proclaims;

we undermine two primary convictions of Christian Scripture: Christ’s resurrection and the presence of his Spirit are ongoing realities which we encounter in faith, not in some other world, but in the context of human life in this world;

we fail Vatican II’s opened stance towards the world and its vision of the Church as a vital, credible, welcome contributor within the serious conversations of our times. [cf. Gaudium et Spes, chapter 4].

1.4: Scripture affirms that God is revealed through humanity

What we have inherited in Christian faith from its outset gives us neither cause nor justification for dualistic thinking. The letter to the Hebrews is adamant that Jesus was here amongst us as one who was fully human, able to “sympathise with our weaknesses …….. one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” [4:15]. Matthew’s gospel is just as adamant that it is the identifiably human one, Jesus, who reveals “God with us” [Mtt. 1:23]. Far from leading us to devalue our humanity or our world, Jesus affirms it and reveals that God affirms it, by announcing that God’s kingdom is to be lived and realised in the here and now. [Mtt. 4:17 ff.].

1.5: The difficulties of “revising people”

Having noted all of the above, it is also fair to concede that it is not surprising to find people today still sometimes sounding as if they are ‘plugged into the moon’. Dualistic thinking, disparaging the here and now, was certainly abroad as people of my age grew up in the decades just before and immediately after the Council. In the classroom, from the Sunday and Mission pulpits and in the confessional we were brought up hearing that Christian life was about ‘saving one’s soul’, ‘getting to heaven’, ‘avoiding sin and the devil’, ‘keeping out of hell’ and ‘gaining indulgences’ to cut back our ‘time’ in purgatory. Though all of this certainly had its effects on how we approached life in the here and now, it was a life geared towards somewhere else and it gave one the sense that this life was indeed a “valley of tears” which had to be endured as we worked through the obstacle course entailed in living it. When we spoke of God’s “grace”, it was as if it were a commodity piped in from elsewhere, and the seven Sacraments were its major outlets. “Here” was a place it were best to be out of, and “elsewhere” was where God could best be found. It is hard to undo some of this inside ourselves, to be converted to anything else. As Tad Guzie once wrote, “[R]evising books is easier than revising people”.

1.6: Pastoral learnings about faith-talk from practical experience

As a lecturer of young people preparing to teach Religious Studies in schools and as an adult educator working in various parish and diocesan faith formation programs, I know and dread the tell-tale signs when people are turning off and tuning out. I have learned that if I want to pass on the truth of the faith of our community’s Tradition I need to keep connected with life as lived, with the “joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of human experience of which GS # 1 speaks.

I find I also need to be careful how I talk of faith itself, avoiding over-assumptions or any glibness that might creep in from frequent usage or from the comfortably overt religious culture in which I live. I have learnt the pastoral necessity of respecting the faith journey that parents too are on when they are struggling to know how to prepare their children about faith, for the Sacraments of initiation, when the religious language they learned themselves at school seems to hold no contemporary meaning for them and, often enough, feels distant from the real concerns of their lives. In the religious concepts and language I use I find I need to emphasise that faith is not a static body of truths people have to believe without thinking. It is not incompatible with questioning and doubt, nor is it cancelled out by the sort of leaving aside that people sometimes do before they have appropriated through personal choice the faith out of which others chose their baptism.

1.7: Faith-talk and resistance to certitude

Some of the people I meet in this way find they resonate with the experience named by Richard Holloway when he writes about faith for people of today:

“I am most comfortable today with borderline thinkers – people who easily or uneasily straddle a frontier, such as believers with doubts, or sceptics troubled by insistent whispers of belief. I feel most comfortable with people like this because I myself straddle this mysterious boundary, so that I share both faith and doubt. Indeed, my definition of faith sees it as intrinsically associated with doubt. The opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. Where we have certainty we need no faith. Faith comes in where we take something largely on trust, whatever the grounds of our trust may be. “

Beneath some people’s religious language there seems to be a view that faith is a gift God gives at baptism which we are expected to keep in its pristine packaging, preserve amidst the dangers of this world and hand back to God unsullied by any of the experiences encountered during life. I find that faith so construed is the faith that many people have given up. There is a dissonance between the certitude of this faith’s answers and the reality of what happens to people and within people across life.

Against all of this, I find it essential to reassure people that faith can be understood with a lot of compassion for the experience of being human, that is, as a lifelong journey which encompasses many phases. When looked at as a partnership between God’s grace and human response, faith becomes a gift that is gradually unpacked and progressively appreciated more, as life is lived with a deepening openness to God. I find it helps to assure people that God can cope with human mess, and that Scripture and Tradition and Christian history, properly understood, bear out that fact persistently. I find these views of faith relieve people, giving some the freedom and confidence to take up the journey again, to trust that life and faith are not so dissonant after all. Only in a climate where human life is respected in this way do people tend to want to entrust the real issues of their lives into faith-talk, I find.

1.8: “The good news is a human being”

Let me conclude this paper’s introductory section by emphasising that we misunderstand the “good news of salvation which is meant for all humanity”, to which Gaudium et Spes # 1 refers, if our ways of speaking about God and faith give any hint of dualism or fail to take seriously what it is like to be human. Bishop John Heaps does not misunderstand it. In the title chosen for chapter 2 of his book, A love that dares to question, his choice of language is arresting in the truth it speaks,

“The Good News is a Human Being”.

2.1: Dei Verbum provides theological support for practical learning:

I will move now to consider the teachings of Dei Verbum. One of the most liberating experiences of my life has been to find support for the generally pastoral learnings from practical experience I have just outlined within the theology undergirding this document. In the late 1970s at the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila, I had the singular good fortune to become enamoured of it through the passionate, humanly-attuned catechetical scholarship of Jose [Pepe] M. Calle SJ, exile from the Jesuit Mission in China some years before and confrère of the great Fr. Nebreda SJ. Pepe, helped his students recognise the groundbreaking nature of what Dei Verbum taught, not only in the way it clarified and transformed what Trent and Vatican I had taught earlier about divine revelation, but particularly in what it affirmed about humanity below the surface of its teachings on Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. The words which Pepe used to sum up Dei Verbum’s import for the renewing Church still ring in my ears, and even though I have read a lot and been involved in a variety of ministries since, I never learned anything more worth sticking to in ministry than what he used to say:

“God teaches humankind about itself [and about Godself], not merely from without, but first of all from within, through the ordinary or extraordinary experiences of human life”.

More recently I discovered a quote of Karl Rahner which supports the catechetical insight Pepe Calle found in Dei Verbum. Inevitably I find teachers nodding when I use this quote, as a prelude to exploring Dei Verbum with them:

“The theological problem today is about finding the art of drawing religion out of people not pumping it into them. The redemption has happened. The Holy Spirit is in people. The art is to help them become what they are’”

2.2: Signs that Dei Verbum still awaits transmission

I believe that the continuance of a tendency to speak as if God needs to be brought into our lives from some other sphere, and as if faith is simply an adherence to a fixed body of truths, can both be attributed, at least in part, to a failure in transmission of all that Dei Verbum originally set out to offer the people of the Church. Despite a widespread spiritual hunger in people to explore God’s presence and action in their lives, there is ignorance and misunderstanding about how God ‘speaks’ via both Scripture and Tradition within the faith community. Then, for a series of additional reasons, one characteristically encounters heated resistance concerning the Magisterium’s role in teaching and interpreting the Word of God, as outlined in Dei Verbum. Clearly there is much unfinished business from Vatican II re the nature and process of Divine Revelation.

Before moving to a fuller consideration of Dei Verbum’s teachings on Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, I will offer some practical evidence of the mammoth task still to be done at the grassroots of Church membership to transmit its teachings.

2.3: Contemporary difficulties with Scripture, Church Tradition and Magisterial teachings


Right across Hebrew Scripture, there is the image of God in ‘conversation’ with a variety of human beings. We regularly read or hear the words, “And the Lord said”. When questioned about the meaning of such words in excerpts such as Exodus 3: 1 ff., Exodus 33: 1 ff. or any of the interactions between God and the prophets, it is clear that, below the surface of their responses, many people imagine either that God shouts down to earth from some other sphere, or, more frequently, that God appears in personal visions giving specific, private revelations to the writers of Scripture. In this situation many still understand divine inspiration as a type of verbatim dictation by God to the writers, so God is either the only author, or the only author that needs to be considered. Furthermore, the purpose of Scripture, particularly the Gospels, is seen primarily as providing a trustable record of factually based events upon which to base one’s faith. Below such misunderstandings of Scripture lies the type of dualistic thinking of which I have been speaking, I believe: God speaks from elsewhere and human beings are simply the passive recipients of God’s Word.

As Scripture is misunderstood, so also is Tradition and the role of the Magisterium within it. At best, Tradition is composed of beliefs and practices from the past, which we repeat in order to keep in touch with the Christian faith which began with those who had known Jesus. Tradition is not a living present dynamic, and its rituals, the Sacraments and liturgy, really belong to a former era rather than to our contemporary life in any really credible way. At worst, Tradition is simply equated with conservatism and viewed as yet another version of religious irrelevance to be ‘bracketed off’ in the here and now.

The role of the Magisterium:

Some people sustain dualistic thinking into how they view the Magisterium. It is as if they attribute to the Pope, in particular, and also to the bishops, special, almost super-human powers to hear and communicate the Word of the God who speaks from elsewhere. Other people are more chary about assigning other human beings, including leaders, any significant role in interpreting God’s Word. For them, at best, the Magisterial teachings and dogma of Tradition are honoured human wisdom, judged trustable not so much on the basis of the part God plays in them but on the basis of the Christian credibility and human attentiveness of particular Church leadership at any time in question.

At our present time there seems to be a particular difficulty with trusting Church leadership, partly out of a modern, cultural tendency to query any leadership’s basis for authority, but largely as a response to the fallout from sexual abuse and the enduring dismissal of Church leadership’s capacity to guide married people on the issues raised since the 1970s in Humanae Vitae. People perceive many of those in Church leadership as out of touch with their real lives, unwilling to consult in order to become informed, and non-collaborative in searching beyond themselves for the truth by which the community of faith might be guided. It is as if Church leadership is too human to be trusted as the voice of God but not humanly grounded enough to speak on matters of importance to people of ‘the world’.

2.4: Scripture and Tradition record a community’s ongoing faith journey in partnership with God

It is probably true to say that neither Dei Verbum nor any other of Vatican II’s documents seems to have been able to provide for the people of the Church as convincing an appreciation of the role of the Magisterium as has been needed in practice over the last four decades. However Dei Verbum did provide understandings on Scripture, Tradition and even the Magisterium which, if transmitted more thoroughly, could have helped correct many of the impoverished understandings just outlined.

One of the particular strengths of Dei Verbum was its articulation of Christian faith as a dynamic, living, ongoing, co-operative relationship between God and the human people of the Church. From this faith-view flowed the following understandings of Scripture, Tradition and the role of the Magisterium.

Key understandings on Scripture

Scriptural writings emerged from an ongoing partnership between God’s gift of self-revelation and the faith community’s reflective, well-chewed over response across their history [cf. DV # 3];

Scripture therefore records a people’s faith journey, so the bible is not simply the compilation of a series of special individual revelations.

Scripture is authored ‘truly’ by both God and human beings working in the co-operative dynamic of faith within human life situations at the time of writing, cf. DV # 12:

” [The Scriptures] have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men [sic.] who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”

God’s word in Scripture is expressed in human words, concepts and understandings:

“God speaks through men [sic.] in human fashion” [DV # 12];:

” Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men [sic.] are in every way like human language …… ” [DV # 13];

Scripture not only reveals something of the Mystery of God but also of the mystery of being human:

“[I]t gave expression to a lively sense of God, [and is] a storehouse of sublime teachings on God and sound wisdom on human life”,[DV # 15],

Scripture cannot simply be read off the page literalistically because the truth it reveals needs to be explored critically, there being different types of truth lying below the variety of genres within the writings, these reflecting the cultures, needs and limitations of the human authors, as in DV # 12:

“[T]ruth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetic and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression. Hence the exegete must look for the meaning which the sacred writer, in a determined fashion and given the circumstances of his time and culture, intended to express and did in fact express, through the medium of a contemporary literary form”.

Scripture is concerned with recording the truth of God’s Mystery at work in the lives of Israel and the Christian community. It would never have seen its concern as that of recording the type of history or science 21st Century people have come to prize [cf. DV # 11].

Key understandings on Tradition

Tradition is a continuation of God’s Word in Scripture through the whole life of the Church:

” What was handed on by the apostles comprises everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith. In this way the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” [DV # 8]

“Thus God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son.” [ibid.]

Key understandings on the relationship of Scripture and Tradition

As Trent had taught four centuries before, so did Dei Verbum:

“Thus…. the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal feelings of devotion and reverence.” [DV # 9]

God’s Word is ongoing through Tradition as well as Scripture, and the two are interdependent:

” This economy of Revelation is realised by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other. As a result, the works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and bear out the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain.” [DV # 2]

“This sacred Tradition, then, and the sacred Scripture of both Testaments, are like a mirror, in which the Church, during its pilgrim journey here on earth, contemplates God, from whom she receives everything, until such time as she is brought to see him face to face as he really is [cf. Jn 3:2].” [DV # 7]

Key understandings on the Magisterium:

The Magisterium continues the role of the apostles in transmitting the faith and is the office through which authenticity is assured in what is taught and passed on about Christian faith across the generations.

“In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. This gave them ‘ their own position of teaching authority.” [DV # 7]

” [T]he task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.” [DV # 10]

2.5 Dei Verbum deepens the teachings of Trent and Vatican I

It is worth pointing out how Dei Verbum did not simply restate the earlier teachings of Trent and Vatican I. Significantly, in terms of our appreciation of a community’s developing faith journey, it went further, opening a fresh spectrum in which to clarify Catholic teaching in the light of the Church’s learning since Trent. It deliberately stretched beneath the divisions of Protestant and Catholic teachings which had viewed Sacred Scripture and Tradition as separate, often competing media of revelation, finding beneath the differences a deeper place of belief. Dei Verbum opened up a broad basis for unity on this issue, as it proclaimed:

“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine wellspring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal… Hence both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal feelings of devotion and reverence.” [DV # 9]

Likewise, Dei Verbum # 5 and # 6 re-emphasised and strengthened Vatican II’s careful stance on the debate between supernatural and natural bases for faith, over which the fideists and rationalists had struggled before that Council. It saw grace as gratuitous, a gift of God to which one responds willingly in co-operation with the Spirit within, using all of one’s human faculties:

“By faith man [sic.] freely commits his [sic.] entire self to God.” [DV # 5]

In this ‘catholicity’ of approach Dei Verbum gathered all those absolutist positions that had divided Christians on the issue of divine revelation since the Reformation and signaled as its vision the possibility of a more compassionate and dialogical truth exploration rather than polemical stand-offs with their implicit ‘anathemas’ for all those who saw truth differently.

2.6: The truth about Divine Revelation is progressively understood and deepened:

In both its fidelity to the wisdom of Trent and Vatican I and in its deepening of their teachings, as just outlined, Dei Verbum was groundbreaking in the synthesis it was able to enunciate. However, in its recognition of the growth that occurs over time in human understanding of what God reveals, it was revolutionary. Against the backdrop of the entrenched, often emphasised pre-Vatican ideal of a Church that was semper idem [“always the same”], in the same spirit as other Vatican II documents, it taught of a Church that, like each of its members, is on a life journey in faith, as a “pilgrim” [DV # 7]:

” The…. Holy Spirit perfects faith by his gifts, so that Revelation may be more and more profoundly understood.” [DV # 5]

“The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.” [DV # 8]

“[A]s the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her.” [ibid]

Perhaps more than anything else which Dei Verbum says, this recognition of a ‘pilgrim’ journey of growth has the power to encourage both the community of the Church and us its members, by offering us the chance to be compassionate to our own limitations as we personally and communally participate in that same faith journey.

2.7: Pope John’s intervention opens the possibility for a relational rather than content-focused view of Divine Revelation

Leaving aside for a moment the actual teachings of Dei Verbum’s incarnational theology, it is also worth recalling that the very process by which Dei Verbum came into being at the Council reflected in practice the sort of searching, growing theology about which it eventually taught.

Though Divine Revelation was the second major issue after Sacred Liturgy addressed by Vatican II, the final text of Dei Verbum emerged only towards the close of the Council, after three years of conciliar experience and four painstaking redraftings. In the optimism of his dual call for “Traditione” as well as “Transitione”, and in the trust he wished to place in the Council’s further deliberations of the original curial schema on Divine Revelation, Pope John XXIII personally intervened in the process, insisting that the present and future Church needed more than simply a reiteration of past defensive teachings.

The initial curial schema had re-presented Trent’s and Vatican I’s clarifications which focused solely on the media of the content of divine revelation: Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Though Dei Verbum went on to make its own landmark clarifications re these same media, as we have seen, it did not do so before offering a whole fresh context in which to view those media through its attention to the actual nature of divine revelation itself.

2.8: Divine Revelation is first and foremost God’s self-revelation

The very first Chapter of Dei Verbum taught that divine revelation was God’s deliberate self-revelation. It did not simply outline the Church’s role in defending, protecting and transmitting the truths of the deposit of faith as Trent and Vatican I had done in their emphasis on the content of Christian faith. Instead, Dei Verbum focused on naming the pivotal truth of God’s role in revealing Godself as the One in the personal relationship of friendship with humanity. In terms often more like poetry than dogmatic theology, it emphasised the graciousness of God’s self-revelation, particularly through the human life of Jesus, and also through the lives and history of human beings in the community of the Church from the outset of Christianity and across the centuries.

“It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will [cf. Eph. 1:9]. His will was that men [sic.] should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature [cf. Eph. 2:18; 2 Pet. 1:4]. By this revelation, then, the invisible God [cf. Col. 1:15; Tim. 1:17], from the fulness of his love, addresses men [sic.] as his friends [cf. Ex. 33:11; Jn. 15:14-15], and moves among them [cf. Bar. 3:38], in order to invite and receive them into his own company.” [DV # 2]

2.9: Through Jesus, humanity is invited to share divinity:

As LG # 2 also does, DV # 2 takes this affirmation of humanity one surprising step further. Both remind us that the true calling of Christians is, as 2 Peter 1:4 expressed it, to become “participants in the divine nature”. That we human beings could have the temerity to view our calling in Christ in this way shocked me when I first became aware of it, until I learned that the Greek Church had always named Christian life in terms of ‘divinisation’ [theosis].

This leads me to recall my surprise when I actually ‘heard’ for the first time the astounding prayer, reminiscent of DV # 2, which accompanies the pouring of water into the chalice of wine each Eucharist:

” By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

When I checked to see if this was a ‘new’ prayer arising out of Vatican II. I found instead that the pre-Vatican Mass had the same prayer in words perhaps even more emphatically affirmative of humanity. The Marian Missal’s translation of the Latin reads:

“O God, who in creating human nature, didst wonderfully dignify it, and still more wonderfully restore it, grant that by the Mystery of this water and wine, we may be made partakers of His divine nature, who vouchsafed to be made partaker of our human nature…”

Hence Dei Verbum is no less strong than Scripture or the ancient creeds in doing away with any basis for dualistic thinking. It emphasises that it is Jesus’ very humanity which reveals God, for he is the quintessential “Word of God”, who speaks “the sum total of Revelation” [DV # 2]. Here “to dwell among men [sic.] and to tell them about the inner life of God” [DV # 4], he also “revealed man to man himself [sic.]” [GS # 22]. Being “’a man among men [sic.]’ speaking ‘the words of God’” [DV # 4], it was “with his own lips” and “from his way of life and his works” that he revealed God [DV # 7].

3.1: The unified relationship between Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium provides a basis for ecclesial renewal

Moving now to the concluding section of this paper, I want to illustrate that the incarnational theology underpinning Dei Verbum is an essential ingredient in supporting ecclesial renewal.

I will begin this reflection by drawing out some of the implications of that teaching in DV #10 which emphasises that Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium are inseparable expressions of the single dynamic of the Spirit’s presence and action in the faith community:

“It is clear … that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” [DV # 10]

3.2: The Holy Spirit is the life of the living Church

For me this extract provides the hermeneutical key for unlocking the full significance of all Dei Verbum’s other expressions of incarnational theology discussed across this paper. Above all, it signals that Dei Verbum’s theological stance is the very antithesis of dualism. It is not as if the Holy Spirit is called in from somewhere else to do three specialised, separate jobs for the Church and then move away again to an existence outside the world of humanity. For the picture DV #10 paints is of the whole way of life of the faith community, in collaboration with the Spirit of God across the generations. It is a holistic picture of a living, growing process, the very heart of which is the Spirit who, as Paul reminded the Romans, prays within the ‘groaning’ of us and of all God’s creation, as we await the completion of God’s design in us [cf. Rom. 8:22-27].

DV #10 marks an important climax in what Dei Verbum says re the life of the Church from its inception. It explains the process whereby the sacred writings of Scripture emerge from the Christian community’s reflection on what Jesus means to its members in the light of their faith in his resurrection and gift of the Spirit. It goes on to explain that the dogma this community teaches, through its leaders, grows out of a living, worshipping, praying community which struggles to preserve and pass on its ‘beloved believing’.

To many ears this could sound like more religious language “plugged into the moon”. So it is important to recall that it arises from a faith conviction earthed in the expectation that this will make a difference to how we live and treat each other in the practicalities of here and now. Our ancient faith is that Jesus’ resurrection and his gift of the Spirit are ongoing and that we are part of a people who belong to the Body of Christ, as Paul preached to the Corinthians [1 Cor. 12]. This is not a dead body, but one alive with the Spirit’s life [1 Cor. 12:13]. We are charged by initiation “into Christ” to be the arms and legs, face and voice of Christ in the world of our human lives. What we do and how we do it matters in the coming of God’s ‘kingdom’. Thus the creed places our belief in ourselves as Church within what it says of our belief in the very Spirit of God.

3.3: The Church as the “Body of Christ”, the Sacrament of Christ in the world

In Paul’s teaching about the “Body of Christ” it is expected that gifts will be shared by each member of the community with the community, for the good of the community, for the gifts truthfully belong to the Spirit who is the life of the community [1 Cor. 12:12-30]. The faithful community then is the primordial Sacrament of Christ through its continual life of transformation “into Christ” through Eucharist. This is the faith where the ‘holy communion’ of equally baptised persons must discern whether they are treating each other as the Body in everyday life, before they worthily eat the Body together in Eucharistic ‘holy communion’. [1 Cor. 11:29].

3.4: Who is Christ among us?

Across the centuries the Church effectively lost this sense of being the Body of equally initiated people “in Christ”. The one who led, taught and presided at liturgy gradually became the only alter Christus. He exercised responsibility for what had originally been a whole community’s call to holiness, a whole community’s call to be the Sacrament of Christ in the world, a whole community’s call to be the “we” who celebrate liturgy and the Sacraments. Then as the early Church gradually needed it, the Spirit’s gift of leading and presiding became an essential component in the life of the community. Yet, it was never envisaged as the only gift, and it was not meant to draw around itself any meaning beyond that arising from the life of the whole Body.

3.5: Restoring leadership within the vision of “hierarchical communio”

” Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church. By adhering to it the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood [sic.], to the breaking of the bread [cf. Acts 2:42 Greek]. So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful” [my underlining]. LG # 12 adds more emphasis to this recovery of the whole Body’s responsibility for the faith when it points to the inerrancy of the whole community through its leadership:

“The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One [cf. Jn 2:20, 27] cannot err in matters of faith”. [my underlining]

The responsibility for the faith is given to the entire community, not just to leadership, but leadership rightly exercises that responsibility, nonetheless. Hence whatever right and responsibility is assigned to the leader is, first of all, an affirmation of what belongs to the whole people.

3.6: The genius of Catholicism: a belief that God is revealed through humanity despite the mess

But leaders are human beings too, and we readily observe their inadequacies against our rightfully high expectations of them. Whereas we cope with the fact that Scripture is limited in its capacity to put human words around divine self-revelation, and most of us learn not to give up on the Church because is has been messy in its transmitting the gospel across history, the reality is that we find it extremely difficult to extend mercy when we feel Church leadership has let us down. If the ancient genius of our faith teaches us to trust that Scripture and Tradition are human instruments through whom the Spirit of God acts in the community, it also challenges us to some compassion re how we view the Magisterium. Church leaders are not separated from the rest of the community’s continual efforts to be converted “into Christ”. Ordination dispenses them neither from having limitations, nor from the responsibility they have to minimise these limitations. They need to be authentic in their calling, so they can speak with the community’s voice and have credibility with us in their leading, teaching and unifying of the Body. In my present work, I find the best way I can help people appreciate the nature of Church leadership and its huge demands on those individuals called to it is by discussing with them the film “Romero” on the life and martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I think it gives some glimpse into the reality that what we ask of bishops individually and corporately is indeed a ‘big ask’. Vatican II asked no less than we do. DV #10 insists

“… this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant.”

3.7: Church renewal: from inert “it” to fully participating “we”

Looked at in this perspective DV #10 offers a way of recovering a more ancient sense of the Church:

“[as a] dynamic and communal reality [rather than] as a static institution ministering to the needs of individuals who present themselves on occasion [for whom] the church is not a ‘we’ but a ‘they’ or an ‘it’”.

The importance of this need to recover the Church as a “we” rather than as an “it” came into my awareness forcefully after reading a quite brilliant article written a long time ago by a well respected Sacramental scholar and liturgist, Ralph Kiefer. Speaking of the then newly restored RCIA as a mutual ministry of witnessing to conversion into Christ for the sake of the whole Christian community, Kiefer comments,

“[The new RCIA] signals the end of the divorce between liturgy and life, between private devotion and public function, between active ministers and inert laity. For it assumes that the liturgy will be a manifestation of the real life lived by the Church – a life marked by sufficient conversion to be worth celebrating and by sufficient catechesis to enable us to perceive that the proclamation of the wonderful works of God, mirabilia Dei, is possible because they occur among us; a renewed life, moreover, in which the laity are not the passive recipients of hierarchical grace but in which the ministry made sacramental in orders is a mirror of the priestly service of the entire people of God. The real nature of Christian ministry as collegial, shared and mutual is revealed in the preparation of catechumens. The candidates for baptism are not only the recipients of the church’s ministry. They are ministers to the church as well, for it is their experience of transformation which witnesses to the presence and power of the risen Lord before the church.”

If Church renewal since the Council has been about recovering the ancient sense of the Christian community as the place where the real presence of Christ will be identifiable within the world, then the “making of Christians” through initiation and the ‘re-making of Christians’ through a whole liturgical, Sacramental life of transformation into Christ are our raison d’ être. How people respond to the call for Christian life in everyday life does matter, because that is where conversion of life rings true. Otherwise it is just unearthly religious language used in Church. Hence the recovery of the ‘primordial’ sacramentality of the whole participating community with consequences for how members live their humanity is an inspiring challenge:

“The revelation of Christ’s saving, healing and redeeming power in our midst is the making of Christians. That the people, the lay people at that, should now become primordial sacramental signs is a breathtaking departure from the recent past.”


Dualistic thinking cannot support that belief in ourselves as the Body of Christ, which Paul encouraged the Church to have. Neither can it support that sense of Church as the Sacrament of Christ which LG # 1 explores and DV # 10 implies. Neither can it support that belief in conversion of life “into Christ” which the recovered RCIA and all our renewed Sacramental rites celebrate. If we are to believe that when we celebrate liturgy and the Sacraments Christ is really present among us who gather in the here and now, we are going to have to regain the temerity to believe, as did ancient Catholicism, that human life is not only good, but meant to “share in the divinity of Christ”. We are also going to have to address more of the unfinished business of Dei Verbum and find ways of transmitting what it teaches: God deliberately reveals Godself within the real experiences of our human living, as we reflect on them in the light of that dynamic partnership in faith which God graciously offers us – here, now, on this earth, and with eternal consequences!

(Virginia Bourke RSJ is a Josephite Sister who has been a teacher, administrator and Congregational leader. She studied theology at Catholic Theological Union and the Catholic Institute of Sydney. Currently she lectures in theology for the Religious Education Department of the Maitland-Newcastle Schools Office, and at Aquinas Academy.)