Gerald O’Collins SJ
This article considers some of the significant themes of Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s constitution on divine revelation. Gerald O’Collins SJ is now an adjunct professor at Australian Catholic University.
At first glance, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) can seem less appealing and relevant than some of the other fifteen documents produced by the Council. Tightly composed in a style that calls on readers to watch closely each word, it is, at sixteen pages in the translation edited by Austin Flannery, much shorter than the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, 77 pages) and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes, 99 pages). Since it deals with the nature and means of divine revelation, Dei Verbum may seem less interesting than either of these documents on the Church. After all, they treat matters that bear directly on the experience of Catholics and other Christians: life together as the People of God (Lumen Gentium) and relations with all other human beings in a world of our common hopes, joys, threats, fears, and responsibilities (Gaudium et Spes).
Nevertheless, the teaching of Dei Verbum on God’s self-communication remains as fresh and important as it did when the Council first promulgated the text in November 1965. Let me highlight four significant themes that we need to put back on display.
(1) To begin with, the opening chapter of Dei Verbum presents divine revelation as being primarily the self-disclosure of the Trinity. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit invite us to enter a lifelong conversation of faith and love. Some speak here of revelation initiating a ‘dialogue’ or ‘encounter’. However we choose to speak of revelation, first and foremost it involves God taking the initiative to emerge from the divine mystery, speak with human beings, and call on them to commit themselves in a lasting and loving obedience that will be their life of faith. In the meeting at the burning bush, we find Moses dramatically confronted with the self-revealing God and commissioned to play a role in delivering the Israelites from slavery (Exod 3.1–10). The risen Jesus takes the initiative to show himself to Mary Magdalene and bring alive their relationship in an unimaginably new way (John 20.11–18).
Revelation also involves, to be sure, new truths being disclosed about God and ourselves. Allowing ourselves to be encountered by God necessarily means now knowing more about God than we did before. Left to ourselves, we would not know, for instance, that in the life of God there are three distinct persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The new truths about God that the whole biblical story unveils make up what Dei Verbum calls ‘the deposit of faith’ (no. 10) or ‘the treasure of revelation’ (no. 26). Inevitably the divine self-manifestation reveals something about God and the human beings whom God addresses. There are revealed truths (lower case). But, primarily, revelation is always an interpersonal event, a meeting with God who is Truth (upper case) itself, and a matter of knowing God rather than merely knowing about God.
(2) A second theme to be reclaimed from Dei Verbum concerns the way in which revelation and salvation may be distinguished but are never truly separable. God’s activity in being revealed to us remains inextricably intertwined with the divine activity in saving or redeeming us. As our document puts it, the history (or ‘economy’) of revelation is the history of salvation, and vice versa. Over and over again, Dei Verbum moves between revelation and salvation as equivalent realities (nos. 3, 4, 6, 7, 14, 15, 17, 21). By repeating this theme, the text highlights its importance.
One could draw on the terminology of John’s Gospel to express this second point. The divine light is our life. Since Jesus is the light of the world (John 9.5), he is also the life of the world, the One who heals a man born blind and promises to deliver those who believe in him from their spiritual darkness (John 9.1–41). Jesus cannot be the light of the world without also being the life of the world, and vice versa. Whenever he speaks to us and discloses himself to us, that self-revealing activity changes and transforms our existence.
Long before the coming of Christ, the Book of Isaiah had already drawn attention to the inseparable link between the self-disclosing word of God and its redemptive, transforming power. Like the rain from heaven, the revealing word of God succeeds in bringing growth and life (Isaiah 55.10–11). A divine self-disclosure that does not change human beings makes no sense. Whenever human beings respond with faith to God’s self-revelation and accept the invitation to enter freely into a dialogue of love with their Creator and Redeemer, they receive salvation. With an eye on Jesus Christ, Dei Verbum makes perfectly clear the essential link between revelation and salvation: he revealed ‘that God is with us, to deliver us from the darkness of sin and death and to raise us up to eternal life’ (no. 4).
(3) The incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ constitutes the third major theme of Dei Verbum. The death and resurrection of God’s incarnate Son, along with the coming of the Holy Spirit, constitute the perfect and unsurpassable climax of the divine self-revelation within human history. God has spoken his Word, and, with that, has nothing more to say. To express this theme, Dei Verbum (no. 4) cites the appropriate New Testament text: ‘After speaking in many and diverse ways by the prophets, in these last days God has spoken by the Son’ (Hebrews 1.1–2).
Until the end of time we are called to accept and assimilate the divine self-disclosure, of which Christ (with his Spirit) forms the centre and highpoint. In our individual and communal lives, he invests everything with meaning; with him we can work through everything.
Here revelation and the Bible match each other. The crucified and risen Christ is also the focus of unity for the Sacred Scriptures. A twelfth-century theologian who lived and taught in Paris, Hugh of St Victor, witnessed classically to this union of the Bible in Christ: ‘all divine Scripture speaks of Christ and all divine Scripture finds its fulfillment in Christ’, because ‘all divine Scripture forms one book, which is the book of life.’1 Apropos of revelation, we might likewise say that all divine self-disclosure speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in him, because all divine self-disclosure forms one great plan, the saving manifestation to human beings of God, who is light and life itself.
(4) A fourth major theme from Dei Verbum concerns the ‘timing’ of the divine self-disclosure: as (a) past, (b) present, and (c) future. (a) Obviously revelation has emerged through a series of past events. Christ ‘completed, perfected and, through the divine witness, confirmed revelation’. He did this ‘by his whole presence and self-manifestation – by words and deeds, signs and miracles, but above all by his death and glorious resurrection from the dead, and finally by sending the Spirit of truth’ (no. 4).
Here our document effectively summarizes everything that occurred in the past and made up what many have called the entire ‘Christ-event’ – from his conception and birth which showed him to be Emmanuel or ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1.23) right through to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost. This revelation, given once and for all in the past through Christ, has been entrusted to the Church to be proclaimed to the world and preserved with fidelity.
(b) Nevertheless, Dei Verbum associates revelation not only with what happened in the past but also with what happens now in the Church: ‘God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son’. Through the Holy Spirit ‘the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church and through her in the world’ (no. 8).
When expressing the present reality of divine revelation, our document recalls the matching reality of human faith. ‘The obedience of faith’ must be given to God in his self-disclosure (no. 5). The living reality of faith exists now, and so too does the divine self-revelation to which faith responds. Revelation aims at rousing faith and remains incomplete until it does so. This mutual relationship with faith means that the faith that happens now entails the revelation that happens now.
Some Catholics still resist the notion of revelation happening here and now. They allege that we simply remember the self-revelation of God that happened long ago, and grow in understanding and interpreting that past revelation. They fear that representing revelation as a present reality could lead to claims about new, revealed truths about God being disclosed now. That would undercut believing that Christ completed and perfected the divine self-disclosure.
But to deny the ‘here and now’ reality of revelation puts into question the active power of the Holy Spirit in mediating the presence of the risen Christ, the light of the world. In effect, this denial means reducing faith to the acceptance of some revealed truths coming from the past rather than taking faith in its integral sense – as the full obedience given to God revealed today through the living voice of the gospel. To deny the present revelation of God is also to sell short its human correlative, faith.
Of course, if one persists in thinking that revelation involves primarily the communication of hidden truths that have been disclosed, it becomes easier to relegate revelation to the past. As soon as the whole set of revealed doctrines was complete, revelation ended or was ‘closed’. For this way of thinking, later believers cannot personally and directly experience revelation. All they can do is remember, interpret and apply truths revealed long ago to the Christians of the first century.
Those who press this line of thought have forgotten that revelation involves primarily a personal meeting with the self-revealing God, an ‘I-Thou’ encounter. God has not fallen silent – either in the liturgy or beyond. As Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) remarks, Christ himself ‘speaks when the sacred Scriptures are read in the Church’ (no. 7); he ‘is still proclaiming the Gospel’ (no. 33).
To appreciate what Dei Verbum taught about the past and present nature of revelation, we find illuminating guidance from Blessed John Paul II. In his 1979 apostolic exhortation on ‘Catechesis in Our Time (Catechesi Tradendae)’, he pictured revelation as something that has happened in the past and that continues to happen in the present (nos. 22, 35, 36). A year later, he highlighted even more the past and present nature of the divine self-disclosure in his 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy). He began by recognizing revelation as something completed in the past: ‘it is “God who is rich in mercy” whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father; it is his very Son who, in himself, has manifested him and made him known to us’ (no. 1). Yet the same encyclical repeatedly proclaims the present reality of this revelation: ‘the cross speaks and never ceases to speak of God the Father’ (no. 7); ‘the genuine face of mercy has to be ever revealed anew’ (no. 6). John Paul II named as the reason for the Church’s existence her mission ‘to reveal God, that Father who allows us to “see” him in Christ’ (no. 15). Through the Blessed Virgin Mary the love of God ‘continues to be revealed in the history of the Church and of humanity’ (no. 9). The Pope himself prayed that ‘the love which is in the Father may once again be revealed at this stage in history’ (no.15).
One might sum up what we find in Dei Verbum and the teaching of John Paul II as follows. The present reality of revelation actualizes the living event of divine self-manifestation, but without adding to the ‘content’ of what was fully revealed through Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and sending of the Holy Spirit. Revelation continues to be an actual encounter with the self-revealing God; yet this living dialogue always relates to and depends on what was completely revealed through Jesus Christ.
(c) Finally, Dei Verbum warns us against so emphasizing the fullness of what has been revealed in Christ that we forget ‘the glorious manifestation of our Lord’ which is still to come in the future (no. 4). Here our text refers to 1 Timothy 6.14 and Titus 2.13. We could easily pile up further references, since the language of revelation in the New Testament is strongly angled toward the future divine manifestation that will be the second coming of Christ.
St Paul proclaims that ‘the revealing of the Lord’ will be on ‘the day of his final coming’ (1 Cor 1.7–8), and reckons ‘the sufferings of the present time’ not ‘worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us’ (Rom 8.18). First John, while opening with the witness of the Johannine community to ‘the life’ that ‘was revealed’ in Christ (1.1–4), proceeds to comfort its readers with the promise, ‘when he [God] is revealed, we will be like him for we shall see him as he is’ (3.2). First Peter, while recognizing that Christ had been ‘revealed’ (1.20), repeatedly refers to the ‘salvation ready to be revealed in the last time’ (1.3) and ‘the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed’ (1.13).
In short, a view of God’s self-disclosure in Christ that respects the teaching of Dei Verbum should do justice to the past, present and future aspects of that revelation.2
As noted above, Dei Verbum is a short document. Moreover, even though it is called a ‘Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation’, it devotes to revelation as such only the opening chapter, and then moves to tradition (Chapter Two) and the Sacred Scriptures (Chapters Three to Six). While it presents four essential themes about the divine self-manifestation and touches on others (e.g., God’s self-communication in no. 6 and the human experience of revelation in nos. 8 and 14), we need to look to other Vatican II documents for help on further questions. Let me mention three such questions.
(1) Firstly, we saw how God’s self-communication brings both revelation and salvation. But who is the human person who is open to such a redemptive self-manifestation of God? What is the human condition and why does it need the divine light and life? For answers to these questions we can look to the last document approved by the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes. It spells out the basic human questions (e.g. about the meaning of existence, the nature of evil, and life after death) and the divine revelation that responds to those questions.
(2) Secondly, apropos of the saving revelation of God reaching out to those who follow paths of faith other than Christianity and Judaism, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, nos. 16-17), the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) and the Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes) offer food for thought.
Here we should note how some Catholics dislike talking of ‘revelation’ to the adherents of other religions. Surely, they argue, it is preferable to speak of their searching for God and coming in some measure to know truly and believe in God? In any case, where did the Council speak of God being ‘revealed’ to them?
Those who raise this objection should be reminded of two key passages in Ad Gentes. The first is a quotation from St Irenaeus of Lyons about the Son ‘revealing’ God to all (no. 3, note 2). This teaching from Irenaeus belonged to a vision he shared with many of the early Church writers: the Son of God or Word of God, being the agent of creation, is present and active everywhere in the created world and so can mediate the revelation of God to everyone.
In a later passage Ad Gentes observes that ‘God can lead those, who through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him’ (Heb 11.6) (no. 7). Here the Council follows the Letter to the Hebrews in acknowledging that mere religious beliefs to which human beings can rise are insufficient for salvation. Without faith in the self-revealing God, it is not possible to ‘please’ God, and for Hebrews that involves a grateful and reverent worship of God, along with deeds of kindness and service towards others.3 To ‘please God’ and be saved, everyone needs the divine gift of faith, given by God when people anywhere respond to the self-revelation of God. How the gift of faith reaches many people may be known only to God. But that God offers them this gift follows from the divine will to enlighten and save all human beings. The gift of faith necessarily implies what is strictly correlative with it: the action of the self-revealing God.
(3) Thirdly, as much as ever, people look for some justification of central beliefs derived from the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. From the beginning of Christianity, believers have given an account of the hope that lies at the heart of their existence (1 Pet 3.15) and developed ‘apologies’ for what they hold. Answering the objections raised by atheist or agnostic critics and establishing the credentials of Christian faith do not purport to supplant the work of God’s grace in creating that faith. But showing how faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ is both intelligible and acceptable belongs to the grateful response of human beings for what they have received.
A coherent position establishes at least a minimal credibility. The struggle to reach a final version of Dei Verbum began at the first session of Vatican II in the autumn of 1962 and ended with the final vote in November 1965. An unintended blessing
of those repeated debates and revisions came through the coherence with which the document described the nature of
revelation and its relationship with tradition and the Sacred Scriptures. But for a fully deployed ‘apology’ for the Christian message and its centre in the revelation of Jesus Christ, one must look elsewhere – above all, to Gaudium et Spes and the way it addresses all people of good will.
Beyond question, there are many further things to say about the rich teaching of Dei Verbum and, not least, the call it makes in Chapter Six to confront all levels of Christian life and work with the Scriptures and to let the Holy Spirit make the Church much more biblical. But, hopefully, enough has been said to illustrate the valuable themes that Dei Verbum and other documents of the Council develop about the reality which gave this text its name, as a Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.n
1 De Arca Noe Morali, 2. 8–9; J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina, 176, cols. 642–43.
2 See further G. O’Collins SJ, Rethinking Fundamental Theology: Toward a New Fundamental Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 128–35.
3 O’Collins SJ, G., Salvation for All: God’s Other Peoples (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 252–56.