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Review: "The Word of God at Vatican II" Part III

I have spent the last two days looking at Fr. Ronald Witherup’s new book The Word of God at Vatican II: Exploring Dei Verbum.  Today, I will wrap up this review.

Rather than give a complete summation of Witherup’s careful examination of each paragraph of the text, I will only note now that he goes on to consider each paragraph of Dei Verbum, usefully pointing out the source or implication of what might not be so obvious to the casual reader. For example, in the section of the document dealing with the Hebrew Scriptures, Witherup observes, “The Old Testament holds the mystery of salvation, albeit in a hidden fashion that need to be unraveled in order to be fully understood. Yet the Old Testament is here valued for its own sake as well as for its role in illuminating the New Testament.” Similarly, he highlights the important role of a 1964 document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in articulating “the three levels of ancient tradition [which] are embedded in the gospels: 1) the level of Jesus’ own teaching; 2) the level of the apostles’ preaching and oral proclamation; 3) the level of the collecting, sorting, editing, organizing the oral traditions about Jesus.” And, Witherup gives proper attention to one of the most important, really seminal, statements of the entire constitution, in Paragraph 22, which begins, “Access to the sacred scripture ought to be widely available to the Christian faithful.” Here was a clear break from the previous practice of the Church and one that has already born much good fruit and will continue to do so. The average Catholic is no longer encouraged to be a biblical illiterate.

One item warrants special attention. In Paragraph 25, Dei Verbum urges all entrusted with preaching in the Church to “immerse themselves in the scriptures by constant spiritual reading and diligent study.” Here the two great reform Councils kiss and meet: Trent established seminaries to confront the scandal caused by uninformed clergy and Vatican II urges those aspiring to, or already practicing, ministry in the Church to constant prayerful reading of the scriptures and “diligent study.” We should expect our clergy to be learned in the scriptures and to demonstrate in their preaching all the nuance that Dei Verbum brings to the subject. Not every priest needs to be a biblical scholar but every priest should be familiar, and remain familiar, with biblical scholarship.

Witherup goes on to examine the most important examples of Church teaching on revelation since Vatican II, from the documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, to the Catechism of the Church, to Pope Benedict’s apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini in 2010 and, most recently, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. He includes an important discussion of the importance of using the historical critical method – which roots our study of the Bible in the texts – even while cautioning against seeing that method of interpretation as the only or exhaustive approach to biblical interpretation. Here, Witherup tracks closely with Pope Benedict’s teaching and approach, not only in the above cited exhortation, which was an exercise of the papal magisterium, but likewise in his own three volume series on Jesus of Nazareth.

The “new evangelization,” whatever else it is, must be rooted in the Gospels. Certainly Dei Verbum recognizes and advances the primary place of the Gospels in the life of the Church. It is only the Gospels that we incense before proclaiming them. It is the Gospels with which the presider blesses the people after they are read. At each session of Vatican II, before the discussions began, the Gospels were enthroned in the aula. Witherup notes all of this but he goes on to note something else that is very smart and which I have not seen anyone else point out. He writes:

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Some Catholics have seen the call for the new evangelization as an opportunity to employ with new force the age0old method of apologetics. Apologetics is essentially a defense or explanation of the faith. In some modern circles, it has become a means to justify every aspect of Catholic faith by reference to Scripture. While defending the faith is certainly a valid tradition, which in some instances like outright persecution requires dramatic action, it also has some limitations. The most important one is that it sets one in opposition to those who do not share the faith. It immediately puts one on the defensive and in an argumentative stance. Moreover, attempting to justify every Catholic teaching, liturgical practice or minor tradition with Scripture leads to prooftexting, that is, using passages of Scripture taken out of context to justify or prove the validity of one’s belief or practice.

Here is a critical insight that needs to be pondered by the Church’s pastors.

It is unclear to me why this document has been relatively neglected compared to the three other constitutions adopted at Vatican II, a neglect that was even recognized at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985 called to reflect on the Council’s achievements. All the most contentious issues facing the Church in the past fifty years are dealt with in important ways here. When some find the Church’s teachings unpersuasive and outdated, Dei Verbum reminds us that the revelation of God is authoritative and it is God’s gift: If we find the teachings drawn from that revelation to be burdensome rather than liberating, perhaps our lens is too extrinsic, rooted in something other than the faith itself. The faith is never going to be identical to the attitudes and opinions found at a Georgetown or Upper West Side cocktail party – and thank God for that! On the other hand, as Witherup not only our understandings of what Scripture commands have changed, for example, no longer condoning slavery, but our study of Scripture demands an awareness of context. He compares the famous text in Isaiah, in which the swords are beaten into ploughshares, and points out that in Joel, the ploughshares are beaten into swords. “What is going on here?” Witherup asks. “Did God change his mind? Which passage has greater authority, since both are in the Bible?” He explains that Isaiah and Joel faced radically different circumstances. Sophisticated study goes a long way towards ameliorating perceived difficulties.

Reading Witherup’s short but exceedingly well done analysis of the text should help cure the neglect that Dei Verbum has received.  Any parish study group, adult faith formation class, high school CCD instructor, and the like will derive great benefit from reading it and reacquainting themselves with the critical document of Vatican II. I commend it without reserve to readers of this blog. 

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