Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Revelation and Inspiration

By B. C. Butler

The draft document On the Sources of Revelation was withdrawn from the council after a preliminary debate and hostile vote in November 1962. It was eventually replaced by the document On Divine Revelation, passed and promulgated three years later, in November 1965. The subject of revelation thus spanned practically the whole course of the council, and there is a respectable theological view that, outstanding as is the importance of the much larger dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Constitution on Divine Revelation may prove to be the supreme achievement of this council. It deals with an issue which is at the heart of the Christian religion, and does so in a way which makes possible dialogue on this basic subject between the Catholic and the other Churches.

The constitution consists of a proem and six short chapters, the whole covering, without notes, only about ten pages. The chapters deal in order with: Revelation itself; its transmission; the Inspiration and Interpretation of Holy Scripture; the Old Testament; the New Testament; and Holy Scripture in the Life of the Church. Of the subjects thus treated, the most important theologically are: Revelation and its transmission; the Inspiration and Truth of the Bible; and the historicity of the four Gospels.


We may perhaps assume that the title of this constitution is due to its having replaced the draft on the sources of revelation. The real theme of the conciliar document is the word of God, which, in fact, it mentions in its opening words: Dei verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans. . . . 'Hearing the word of God with religious deference and boldly proclaiming the same, the holy Synod takes its cue from the words of St John when he says: "We announce to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us - that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:2-3).'

There is a latent ambiguity in the word 'revelation': it may mean either the act of revealing or the truths revealed. The constitution employs it in both senses. It speaks of 'divine revelation and its transmission' (n. 1), but elsewhere says: 'It has pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will.... By this revelation God who is invisible addresses, in the abundance of his love, men as his friends and holds converse with them, that he may invite and take them into fellowship with himself' (n. 2).

The passage just quoted is impregnated with biblical language. We remark that the constitution does not begin, as a manual of dogmatic theology might, with a scholastic definition of the meaning of 'divine revelation' considered as a term of general connotation. I take, for example, the definition given in one such manual:[1] (Divine revelation is) 'the manifestation of some truth made to us by God through a supernatural illumination of our mind'; the learned author proceeds to give a discourse on scholastic cognitive psychology. What is missing here is any reference to the personal, Thou-and-I relationship which may be set up between him who receives a divine revelation and God who reveals. God only comes into the manualist's account in so far as he is recognised or inferred to guarantee the truth of what is revealed. The content of the revelation might be the logarithmic tables, or it might be the trinity of persons in the divine unity; but in either case, one has the feeling that it could be a third-personal enrichment of the intellect rather than a second-personal self-disclosure to the heart.

It is precisely this personal element that is brought into the foreground in the constitution: God does not simply increase men's store of speculative knowledge; he addresses them as his friends and 'holds converse with them'; his immediate purpose is both to make known the mystery of his will and to disclose himself, and his ulterior purpose is not only to invite but to take them into fellowship with himself. We are not in the schoolroom where a divine philosopher, himself unseen, dictates abstract ideas to pupils of high intelligence. We seem rather to be in the original paradise, where an infinitely loving God calls to us, accosts us as his friends, woos us to his friendship. It is the 'heart speaketh to heart' of John Henry Newman's motto. It is the divine side of the lovers' dialogue in the Song of Solomon: 'I sleep, and my heart watcheth: the voice of my beloved knocking: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is full of dew, and my locks of the drops of the nights' (Song of Songs 5:2). If it suggests anything to me in the history of Greek philosophy, it reminds me not of Plato's brilliant dialectic, but of his refusal to write down the heart of his message, 'because it is not a thing that can be taught in words' (Ep. VII).

In communication between friends or lovers the personal element is always present, and it is often preponderant. Often the truth that my friend imparts to me, like the gift he gives me, is less valuable for its intrinsic content than for its source; and it brings me into an act of communion with this source, my friend. An act of communion is an act of love, an act therefore, of knowledge, since knowledge and will are alike involved in an act of love. Our knowledge of God is indeed at the core of Christianity, that knowledge of him that we can only have if he discloses himself to us in 'revelation'. But we have to bear in mind that the word 'knowledge' in Old Testament scripture has its own resonance. In the Old Testament, if God knows his chosen, and if they know him, the knowledge in question is better compared to the mutual knowledge of husband and wife than to the science and speculation of the Greeks, or the 'clear and distinct ideas' of Descartes. Already, then, we see that it is inadequate to think of the Christian revelation as the enlargement of our speculative intelligence by the divine bestowal of a set of true propositions. That true propositions may be involved is not excluded, but revelation will transcend them much as, when a young lover says, 'I love you', the disclosure made far transcends the scientific meaning of those banal words.

God then has disclosed himself and his will. And the constitution goes on to say how: 'This plan (oeconomia) of revelation takes place by deeds and words intrinsically interconnected, so that the works wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest the teaching and the realities signified by the words and corroborate them; while the words proclaim the works and illuminate the mystery contained in them' (n. 2).

Thus we see that, according to our constitution, the notion of divine revelation, as it concerns the Christian gospel, is part of a larger notion of divine action in history: it is not by 'words' alone but by 'deeds and words' that the revelation is given. Our modern western idea of revelation has been too much influenced by the very necessary Hellenisation of the gospel, whereby Christianity was made communicable to the men of the Graeco-Roman culture. Greek philosophy was familiar with the idea of revelation. At the heart of Socrates' life work, it was said, was an oracular piece of information; being oracular, it was, of course, ambiguous; it proposed a question to Socrates' intelligence. At a poignant point in Plato's Phaedo we are reminded that the question of the immortality of the soul is of such, even practical, importance that one must either find the answer or, at least, the best answer one can - unless one were able to make the journey through life in a surer, less perilous, way upon the raft of some word from the gods (85, c.d.). The Christians, moving into the world of Graeco-Roman culture, were confident that they had the divine word which Socrates, or Plato, would so thankfully have accepted. This very confidence, I suggest, led them unconsciously to accept the uncriticised presuppositions of Greek philosophy: what man needs is a firm basis of truth that can be articulated in propositions. There is a continuity in Christian thinking from the Greek apologists on through St Thomas Aquinas to the nineteenth century, and it has led us to envisage the first treatise in a course of theology as being De Divina Revelatione and to understand this revelation as primarily an intellectual enrichment of the kind that Descartes would have wanted.

Yet the Greek noun for 'revelation' (apocalypsis) occurs only once in the four Gospels (Lk 2:32, very suitably: 'a light for the revelation of the gentiles'). It occurs only four times in the Septuagint, and only once there in a religious context (of the uncovering of a man's misdeeds at his death). The foundation insights of Old Testament religion look back to, and spring from, the exodus from Egypt, interpreted as a marvellous act of divine redemption. Obviously, not only the act but its interpretation is vital; and so the constitution speaks of God's deeds and words, intrinsically interconnected. Yet it remains true that the first treatise of a course of Old Testament theology would better be entitled De Divina Actione than De Divina Revelatione [2].

Our constitution views the Old Testament phase of the history of salvation as a preparation for the fullness of the gospel. It proceeds: 'The innermost truth [3] conveyed through this revelation both about God and about man's salvation shines forth for us in Christ, who is at once the mediator and the fullness of the whole revelation.' 'Jesus Christ,' it proceeds a little lower down, 'the Word made flesh, "a man sent to men", "speaks the words of God", and consummates the work of salvation which his Father had given him to do. Hence he himself, to see whom is to see the Father (cf. Jn 14:9), by his whole presence and manifestation, by words and works, signs and miracles, and especially by his death and glorious resurrection from the dead, and finally by the sending of the Spirit of truth, completes and perfects revelation and confirms it with a divine testimony: the revelation namely that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death and to raise us up to eternal life' (nn. 2, 4).


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include the notion of the sacramental system. [5]

The constitution recovers itself partially in n. 8, where we are told that 'What has been handed on by the apostles includes all that contributes to the holy conduct of the life of her People and to the increase of faith; and so the Church, in teaching life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes'. Here, then, the Church's own intrinsic being - rather than her existential complexity - is identified with tradition; and, as we have seen, the significance of tradition in Christianity is that it renders Christ sacramentally present to mankind. This most important sentence of our chapter should be understood in the light of Lumen Gentium's reference to the Church as being 'as it were a sacrament or sign and instrument of intimate union with God' (n. 1), bearing in mind that union with God is in and through Christ, in the fullness of his self-disclosure. We presuppose, of course, that the Church is not just a visible society ruled, Iike an empire, by absolute power from the centre, but that she is that mysterious reality of grace presented to us in the teaching of this council. The word of God implanted in, entrusted to, and conveyed to men by this mystery of the Church is the Word incarnate.

The next paragraph of the Constitution on Divine Revelation teaches that 'This tradition from the apostles makes progress in the Church under the assistance of the Holy Spirit', and it is explained that insight into the realities and words transmitted grows, 'both by the contemplation and study of believers, who compare these things in their heart (cf. Lk 2:19 and 51), and from their inner understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, as well as by the preaching (praeconio, cf. the Greek kerygma) of those who along with succession to the episcopal office have received a certain charism of truth.'

The sentence just quoted is practically a precis of Newman's theory of the development of doctrine. It shows us the Christian revelation actively living, in a vital interaction with the life of the Church herself and her children; and while, in the reference to 'study', it makes room for theology, both professional and amateur, it seems to emphasise particularly the spiritual life and 'experience' of the faithful as a major source of development - always under the implied normative influence of the Church's official teaching body. The council was of course, quite clear that there is no new public revelation given since the age of the apostles (cf. nn. 4, 10). But the truth and reality once given is not perpetuated as a lifeless object, but as a living reality within the life of the body of Christ. The Church can progress ever further in her vital appropriation of revelation, tending as the ages pass (to quote once again from this paragraph) 'always towards the fullness of divine truth, till the words of God are accomplished in her'. The 'life-giving presence of this tradition' makes itself felt in the practice and life of 'the believing and praying Church'. 'Thus God, who spoke of old, converses uninterruptedly with the bride of his beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the gospel echoes in the Church and through her in the world, leads believers into all truth, and makes the word of Christ indwell them abundantly' (n. 8).

Christianity is an historical religion, in the special sense that it holds that 'grace and truth' were given once for all at a given point of time and space. The temptation for such a religion is to become historicist - to be fettered by its own past. This tendency is part of the reason for modern scholarship's long preoccupation with the 'quest of the historical Jesus'; as though the Church could not know the certainty of what she stood for until historical scholarship had reached its own conclusions about Christian origins. The constitution has a different understanding of our predicament. God, who spoke in Palestine nineteen hundred years ago 'by a Son' (Heb 1:2), speaks still today, through his Church, by the 'living voice' of that same Son, interpreted to us by the Holy Spirit whom he has sent. He speaks in the voice of the Church, as he spoke to the converts of Thessalonica: 'When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers' (1 Th 2:13). And that word of God is not just information for the human intellect; it is the Word made flesh alive and operative, life-giving and educative, self-communicative and assimilative - the gift and word of divine love more truly given and spoken as it is more completely received.

It will be remembered that the debate on the draft document of the Sources of Revelation had highlighted the question whether the council was to give its support to the view that the contents of divine revelation are only partially enshrined in the Bible, the defects of this 'source' having to be supplied from 'tradition'. This whole question is tied up into a Counter-Reformation problematic. Protestantism had appealed from alleged 'traditions' to the Bible, and this appeal was pushed to the final point of reliance on 'scripture alone'. In reply, the Council of Trent had affirmed that the gospel is conveyed to us by 'scripture and traditions'- it did not clearly say whether 'traditions' were a source supplementary to scripture, or only confirmatory and explicative. But the former inference was commonly drawn in subsequent centuries. Such a view was, of course, highly convenient - and, at a time when scriptural exegesis was rudimentary, almost inevitable - for a Church which wished to proclaim, for example, that our Lady was immaculately conceived and corporally assumed into heaven. However, it was questioned in the nineteenth century, alike in Germany and, by Newman, in England; and in the twentieth century its inconvenience with regard to ecumenical dialogue was obvious. Its defenders at the council, however, pressed for its adoption as entailed by the measure of official support which it had gathered over the years since Trent. The struggle went on till the last moments before the council's final acceptance of our constitution, and it has left its mark on the text. We have already seen that Sacred Tradition (note the change from Trent's plural word 'traditions') and Holy Writ are described not as 'mirrors' but as 'a sort of mirror' in which God may be contemplated. This unity of tradition and scripture is further emphasised in n. 9: 'Sacred Tradition and Holy Writ are closely interconnected and communicate each with the other. Both flow from the same divine source and in a certain way they coalesce, and they tend to the same end. Holy Writ is the utterance of God as consigned to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; Sacred Tradition transmits the word of God, entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit, completely to their successors, that, illuminated by the Spirit of truth, they may by their preaching faithfully preserve, expound and propagate it.... Each is to be received and venerated with a like [6] piety and reverence.' Again in n. 10 we are told: 'Sacred Tradition and Holy Writ are a single holy deposit of 'the word of God entrusted to the Church.'

In all this the scales are impartially held between the contending parties in the debate. There is one concession to the post-Tridentines in n. 8: 'Through tradition the complete canon of the sacred books becomes known to the Church'; but this is a point often conceded by the heirs of the Reformation. One other statement deserves mention here, partly because it owes its place in the text to the last effort of the post-Tridentines. After speaking of the virtual 'coalescence' of tradition and scripture (n. 9), it states that 'the Church does not derive through scripture alone her certitude about all that has been revealed'. This statement does not affirm that scripture has a defective content, but that the cognitive process whereby the Church becomes certain of the full range of her faith is not a mere scrutiny of scripture but is a process to which tradition contributes. This is almost exactly the position adopted by Newman in his reply to the Irenicon of Pusey; Catholics do not say, he claims, that scripture is defective, but that tradition is needed for a discovery of the full contents and implications of scripture. [7]

The chapter ends by pointing out that the 'sacred deposit of the word of God' is entrusted to the (whole) Church, while its authoritative interpretation is the prerogative of the Church's teaching authority. But this 'teaching authority is not above the word of God but is in its service, teaching only what has been handed down, listening with religious reverence to this word, guarding it and faithfully expounding it'. Thus, it concludes, Holy Writ, Sacred Tradition and the Church's teaching authority are so interconnected and combined that one does not stand firm without the others, and that all taken together, and each in its own way, they efficaciously contribute to the salvation of souls under the action of the one Holy Spirit (n. 10).

Just as the first chapter of De Divina Revelatione shows signs of a conflict between a conceptualist and a more biblical notion of revelation, so the chapter on the transmission of the revelation shows signs both of this conflict and of the old controversial problematic of scriptura sola or scriptura et traditiones. As we have seen, the attempt to affirm the 'material insufficiency' of scripture has, in the main, been successfully resisted. But the chapter continues to speak, as a rule, of Sacred Tradition as one thing and Holy Writ as another. It is my opinion that such language is not faithful to the deepest insight of the chapter itself - which manages to find expression in the sentence already cited: 'What has been handed on by (or from) the apostles embraces all those things that contribute to the holy conduct of the life of the People of God and to the increase of faith; and so the Church transmits ... all that she is, all that she believes.' Scripture must obviously be included in the things that contribute to a holy life and to the increase of faith. In fact, then, Sacred Tradition should not be distinguished from scripture as though they were two distinct realities, but only as a whole is distinguishable from one of its constituents. The relevant theological question is not: 'What does tradition give us that scripture does not contain?' but: 'What is the function of scripture within the total fact of tradition?' The word 'tradition' needs to be cleansed of its associations with an anti-Protestant polemic. It will then be seen to pose an issue which, as already suggested, is vital to Christianity: how is the unique history of Jesus Christ which, together with his person informing that history, is the fullness of divine revelation, is, in fact, the word of God made actual in historical event, made available to every man in every place and age; how is the particular 'universalised'? This is the question of sacramental actual presence - or rather of sacramental real action in human history. Scripture by itself can


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have inferred from the inspiration of scripture and the findings of modern scientific scholarship. And it takes us back behind the Hellenised theology of the Middle Ages and the Church fathers to the biblical insights of the actual period of 'salvation history'. Non in dialectica placuit Deo salvare populum sum. This recovery of biblical insights is also pregnant with the possibility of recovering the positive significance of inspiration and the inexhaustible creative potentialities of a revelation which is not confined to verbal propositions but is alive with the life of the historical and risen Christ.

Scripture, in short, its inspiration and its truth, are to be seen within the context of the notion of divine revelation which is the subject of the opening chapters of this constitution. As we have seen, this notion itself refers us back to the still more basic notion of God's redeeming intervention in the very texture of human history, and this intervention reaches its all-inclusive climax in Christ. Revelation is not just a divine satisfaction offered to our intellectual curiosity. It is an answer to the need and grace-inspired desire of the human person to know and to enter into the meaning of human existence. The Bible is a pointer to the history of salvation and to Christ, its consummation. Its purpose is not directly to enlighten us with regard to profane history, whether natural or human. But in Christ the whole of nature and history find a focus point. Thus the doctrine of biblical inspiration guarantees for us the religious truth of the scriptures in their supreme task of bringing us face to face with the life and person of Jesus Christ. To talk about 'the inerrancy of scripture' is to adopt a negative attitude to the Bible. What inspiration really guarantees is the Bible's religious truth, and its historical truth in so far as that is relevant to our redemption.



[1] Tanquerey, Brevior Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae, ed. 6, pp. 22f.

[2] The prehistory of ancient Israel as the People of God may be said to begin with Abraham, and with the divine call which he received. Here, God's word is indeed primary. But it is a word not of information but of command and promise; the revelation it gives of God's character is incidental.

[3] On the constitution's notion of truth, vide infra, p. 35.


[5] (a) The 'inspiration' of scripture is considered directly at a later point in the constitution. (b) That the apostles have left the bishops as their successors' must be understood in the light of De Ecclesia n. 20, which is careful not to state that the episcopate, as we know it today, goes back to explicit apostolic institution.

[6] The word is pari, perhaps less definite than aequa would have been; the distinction can hardly be conveyed in English.

[7] It is unfortunate that the constitution uses the Protestant watchword sola scriptura in this negative context, but it was not easy to find an acceptable formula which would avoid it. However, the Doctrinal Commission avoided the phrase ex sola scriptura and chose instead per solam scripturam; in this way it avoided the impression that it was considering scripture as a defective source.