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

Dei Verbum and Biblical Scholarship

by Gerald O'Collins S.J.

Tomorrow it will be twenty-five years since Pope Paul VI and the other bishops at the Second Vatican Council promulgated Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation (18th November 1965). This document has important things to teach about revelation, faith, tradition, and the magisterium. But it can be reasonably argued that the Bible was the main object of the bishops' teaching in Dei Verbum. Four out of the six chapters which make up the document are explicitly dedicated to the Scriptures. Moreover, the first two chapters have also important things to say about the Scriptures. For Catholic biblical scholarship Dei Verbum is the document from the Second Vatican Council.

Since tomorrow is the twenty fifth anniversary of Dei Verbum, I want to dedicate the first part of this lecture to that document and its teachings on biblical scholarship to indicate how the directives of Dei Verbum can be implemented.

The central thrust of the sixth and final chapter of Dei Verbum makes it quite clear that biblical scholarship should serve the whole life of the Church. The Scriptures, and biblical scholarship which helps to open up the Scriptures, must guide and nourish the Church and the entire Christian life (DV 21). That is the headline for chapter six; let us see some of the small print.

That last chapter begins by endorsing a comparison between the Eucharist and the Scriptures which we find in the Fathers of the Church and which has its ultimate roots in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel.

Like the eucharistic Body of Christ, the Scriptures are the bread of life; on our pilgrimage we are fed both by the Word of God and by the Eucharist ( ibid.). The Scriptures nourish and also guide Christian life. To cite Dei Verbum, "the Scriptures, taken together with the sacred Tradition," are "the supreme rule" of the Church's faith (ibid.). Hence by making their contribution to understanding, interpreting and actualizing the Scriptures, biblical scholars are helping to nourish and guide the Church.

Chapter six of Dei Verbum indicates some specific areas in the life of the Church which are nourished and guided by the Scriptures: theology and the whole "ministry of the Word" ("pastoral preaching, catechetics and all forms of Christian instruction, among which the liturgical homily should take pride of place") (DV 24; see Sacrosanctum Concilium 24). The Council's dream that, with help from biblical scholars, all those "officially engaged in the ministry of the Word" should "immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant sacred reading and diligent study" (DV 25) has been far from fully realized. Some progress has been made, but biblical studies have still much to do towards providing that "profound understanding of the sacred Scriptures" which can nourish the whole ministry of the Word (DV 23) and the study of theology (DV 24).

The closing chapter of Dei Verbum offers us a wonderful dream about the way the Scriptures in general (DV 21-26) and biblical scholarship in particular (DV 23) should guide and nourish the whole life of the church. Those final pages of the document remain as topical and challenging as ever. They can serve as a timely examination of conscience for everyone: bishops, priests, biblical scholars, theologians, those engaged in the various forms of the ministry of the Word, and all the faithful. I have no right to examine any conscience but my own. But one thing is clear: there is certainly no lack of material in that final chapter of Dei Verbum for an examination of our consciences and a deep pondering of that lapidary statement it quotes from Saint Jerome: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (DV 25).

So much for the great pastoral and spiritual hopes the Second Vatican Council placed in a renewed study and use of the Scriptures at every level of Church life. The end, the closing vision of Dei Verbum, is where we started. Let us go back to earlier chapters of the document. They say and imply much about biblical scholarship and its role for Christian faith and life. There are, for example, the rich passages on the connection and interplay between the Scriptures, tradition and the magisterium (DV 9-10). There is the teaching on the nature of biblical truth (DV 11), the indispensable importance of the Old Testament (DV 14-16) and our access through the Gospels to the history of Jesus (DV 19). The opening five chapters of Dei Verbum offer a great deal of enduring and valuable teaching for biblical studies and scholarship. One could develop a year-long, in-depth course on all that.

This morning I would like to concentrate on one item for biblical scholarship which we find in the first five chapters of Dei Verbum namely, the description of exegetical work offered by chapter 3, article 12. According to Dei Verbum what principles should guide exegesis? What rules help exegetes, to understand for themselves and explain to others the meaning of Scripture?

Article 12 of chapter 3 proposes at least four major rules for the guidance of exegesis. In the first place, Dei Verbum firmly endorses the methods of historical-critical exegesis which aims to reach conclusions at three levels. At the final or third stage it tries to establish, as far as possible, the meaning and message of the original authors. Using this or that literary form, what did the biblical authors intend to say to the audience they wrote for? In the contexts in which they wrote and using the resources of their culture, what did the sacred writers have in mind? In other words, at this third level, historical-critical exegesis tries to understand the intention of the original author.

As regards the second stage, the period of the primitive community, such exegesis tries to identify the nature and extent of the traditions formed and handed on during the early decades of Christianity, prior to the composition of the particular New Testament texts being studied. What traditions, for example, lie behind and were drawn on by John's Gospel? What function did these traditions serve prior to the final composition of the Gospel?

Finally, historical-critical exegesis also attempts to go back to stage one: the actual events that gave rise to the community's proclamation, preaching and traditions. In this way such exegesis studies three levels: that of the NT authors themselves, that of the traditions in the early communities and that of the events themselves - above all, the events concerned with Jesus himself. Article 12 of Dei Verbum attends to level three, but implies also the study of levels two and one (see also art. 12 on "the honest truth" about Jesus).

We call this exegesis historical, because it tries to go back to the historical contexts in which our biblical texts were formed and fashioned. We call this exegesis critical, because it requires professional knowledge and judgment to determine, even to some extent, what Mark, for example, wanted to communicate in his Gospel and what were the sources he drew on. Thus far the first principle endorsed by Dei Verbum. The interpretation of the Scriptures, following the methods of historical-critical exegesis, aims to establish what the biblical authors intended to express.

After some detail on the methods of historical-critical exegesis, the same paragraph of Dei Verbum adds, much more briefly, a principle entailing three further rules that should guide the work of exegetes in understanding and explaining the meaning of Scripture. The principle is reading and interpreting the Scriptures with the help of the same Spirit through whom they were written. That entails three rules: 1) attention to the content and unity of the entire Bible; 2) attention to the living tradition of the whole Church; and 3) concern for the analogy of faith. In parenthesis, let me warn those who use the Flannery translation of the Vatican II documents that this passage in Dei Verbum is not rendered all that well. For example, the original Latin text of Dei Verbum says: "since the sacred Scripture is to be read and interpreted in the same Spirit through whom it was written (cum Sacra Scriptura eodem Spiritu quo scripta est etiam legenda et interpretanda sit)." The Flannery version renders this, "since sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind." "With its divine authorship in mind" weakens considerably the advice Vatican II drew from St Jerome (in Galatians, 5.19-21; PL 26, 417 A) about reading and interpreting the Scriptures with the same Spirit through whom they were written. The earlier Abbott translation was more faithful to the Latin text of Dei Verbum when it rendered the clause as follows: "Since holy Scripture must be read and interpreted according to the same Spirit by whom it was written."

The general thrust of this principle from Dei Verbum is clear. One and the same Holy Spirit inspired the original writing of the Scriptures and should inspire the reading and interpretation of them today. In this sense, exegesis is a spiritual experience. The interpreter of the Scriptures should be a spiritual person. The Holy Spirit links the past formation of the sacred texts and their present interpretation. Light for understanding the Scriptures now comes from the same Spirit who, back there and then, imparted the original charism of biblical interpretation.

To explain this "spiritual" principle for biblical interpretation, Dei Verbum mentions three rules: first "the content and unity of the whole of Scripture". What unifies the content of the entire Bible? The Christian answer has always been: Jesus Christ himself (see DV, 25). In his encyclical Spiritus Paraclitus (1920) Pope Benedict XV noted: "In Christum enim velut centrum omnes utriusque Testamenti paginae vergunt (all the pages of both testaments lead towards Christ as the centre)." Back in the sixteenth century William Tyndale wrote: "The Scriptures spring out of Christ and were given to lead us to Christ. Thou must therefore go along by the Scriptures as by a line, until thou come at Christ, which is the way's end and resting place." The twelfth-century Augustinian canon, Hugh of Saint Victor, shared a similar christological vision: "All divine Scripture speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in Christ, because it forms only one book, the book of life which is Christ."

Pope Benedict XV, William Tyndale and Hugh of Saint Victor are three among very many Christians who have witnessed to their faith that it is Christ who gives unity to the whole of Scriptures and their content. Dei Verbum recognizes unity as the first result of the Spirit's influence on the Scriptures, and that unity is found in Christ.

Dei Verbum article 12 then adds two further effects of the Spirit which serve as rules for understanding and explaining the Scriptures: "the living Tradition of the whole Church" and the analogy of faith. "The living Tradition of the whole Church" obviously derives from the pneumatological principle. It is, after all, the living Spirit of God who is the primary, if invisible, bearer of tradition. How has the Church, guided by the Spirit, received and understood the Scriptures through her worship, life and articulated beliefs? Seen this way, "the living Tradition of the whole Church" invites us to interpret the Scriptures in an ecclesial way. Through the Holy Spirit the whole Church has been living out and actualizing the Scriptures. The whole story of ecclesial interpretation enlightens and guides the work of exegetes.

The third result of the Spirit's activity is located in "the analogy of faith" (Rom 12:6). Drawn from St Paul, the phrase has been traditionally used to recall that particular biblical passages and Christian beliefs should be interpreted in the context of definitive revelation and integral faith. "The analogy of faith" moves us close to the task of theology as "faith seeking understanding" - if you like, integral faith responding to God's definitive revelation and seeking understanding.

Taken this way, the last part of Dei Verbum article 12 encourages a pneumatological exegesis, an exegesis which would attend to the unity of the Scriptures in Christ, the Church's living tradition and the analogy of faith that guides theology. In short, a pneumatological exegesis will be christological, ecclesial and theological. By inspiring the Scriptures and illuminating our understanding of them, the Holy Spirit leads us to Christ, his Church and a theology based on definitive revelation. Conversely, a Christological, ecclesial and theological outlook will guide us to understand and interpret the Scriptures inspired by the Spirit.

To sum up the first part of this lecture. The sixth or last chapter of Dei Verbum offers a challenging vision of the role of the Scriptures for the faith and life of the whole Church. Earlier, in Chapter 3, the document spells out its advice for professional interpreters of the Scriptures and the role they should play. On the one hand, their exegesis should follow the same rules of the historical-critical method. On the other hand their exegesis should also be pneumatological, which means being christological, ecclesial and theological in their approach. In brief, the integral version of biblical scholarship that we find in Dei Verbum article 12 includes both reason and faith, the right use of historical reason and the appropriate attention to the transformative guidance of the Holy Spirit. The first approach keeps a certain critical distance when in a scholarly way it reads the text. The second or pneumatological approach means being read by the text and transformed by it. It is the difference between grasping the meaning of the text and being grasped by its meaning, or between finding the truth and being found by it.

The first part of this lecture has been theoretical - idealistic and Platonic, if you like. It's high time to turn practical and Aristotelian and offer at least one detailed example. What would the directives of Dei Verbum do for our exegesis when we apply them to such an example in practice?

The example I have selected comes from a field in which I have been teaching and writing since 1967 - the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The issue concerns the Easter appearances and the specific question: are these encounters to be interpreted as experiences of the Holy Spirit? This is a question prompted by John's Gospel, where during an appearance the risen Christ breathes on the disciples and imparts to them the Holy Spirit. That scene led Rudolf Bultmann to speak of Easter and Pentecost "falling together." In his commentary on John, C. K. Barrett suggests that originally the first Christians had one experience, a christological and pneumatological experience which included the resurrection of Jesus, his appearances, his exaltation and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Let me put the issue quite clearly. Were the appearances of the risen Christ, Christophanies, really the same event as the gift of the Holy Spirit? Was the theme of Jesus' appearances simply an alternate way of speaking about the disciples' first experiences of the Holy Spirit after Jesus' death and burial? An affirmative answer would deny any special, distinct reality to the Christophanies. The appearances of the risen Christ would be nothing more than the experiences of the Spirit in which we can all share.

To begin with, what does historical-critical exegesis have to say about the issue? Clearly John 20:22 links at least one Christophany with the receiving of the Holy Spirit. In an act of new creation the risen Christ, after commissioning the disciples, breathes into them the Spirit. In the power of the Spirit they will be enabled to fulfill their mission. However, on the one hand. the same Gospel reports appearances of the risen Jesus without speaking of the gift of the Spirit (John 20: 11-18, 26-29; 21: 1-23). On the other hand, John represents Jesus in death as imparting the Spirit without there being an appearance of him as risen from the dead (John 19: 30, 34-37). In dying, Jesus gives up "his Spirit" and then his side is pierced. The reader of the Gospel has been prepared to associate the gift of the Spirit with the blood and water coming from the open side of Christ (John 7: 37-39). To interpret that scene on Calvary, John cites the Scriptures: "They shall look on him whom they have pierced." The contemplation of the crucified Jesus, not the appearance of the risen Christ, is here linked with the Spirit. Even in John's Gospel the gift of the Spirit and the Christophanies are by no means always associated.

Beyond question, this Gospel wants to link Jesus' death, resurrection and exaltation with the imparting of the Holy Spirit. It sees the paschal mystery in this unifying way. Nevertheless, even John's Gospel observes some limits in its unifying vision. Only once does it add the imparting of the Spirit to a Christophany (John 20: 19-23). What C.K. Barrett suggests is theoretically possible: that in one original experience the first Christians saw the risen Christ and received the Spirit and that, even if it is the last Gospel to be written, John 20:22 preserves a memory of that original experience. It seems much more likely, however, that John 20:22 represents the end-point of a theological development towards a more unified vision of the paschal mystery. Even in John's Gospel that process is not complete. As we have seen, John can present separately Christophanies and the gift of the Spirit. Even the very Johannine scene that links a Christophany with the gift of the Spirit also distinguishes them to some extent. Christ appears and commissions his disciples before communicating to them the Holy Spirit.

What of the earlier NT witnesses? Mark, Matthew and Luke do not identify the Christophanies with the gift of the Spirit. In Mark's brief Easter narratives, there is a promise of one or more appearances in Galilee (Mark 16:7) but not a word about the Holy Spirit. Matthew's final chapter reports two appearances but no gift of the Spirit. That chapter includes a liturgical formula about baptism "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," but that is all. Luke's Easter narrative includes Jesus' appearance and assurance to "the eleven and those who were with them" (Luke 24:22) that they would be "clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49) - a promise fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). However one interprets the content and sources of the Easter stories in the Synoptic Gospels, they hardly support the thesis that the appearances of the risen Christ were really nothing other than experiences of the Holy Spirit.

Our earliest New Testament writer is St. Paul. His summary of the Easter appearances in 1 Cor. 15:5-8 says nothing about the gift of the Spirit, nor does he make that link earlier in the same letter when he asks: "Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord" (1 Cor. 9:1) Likewise in Galatians, where Paul speaks about his vocation coming through the revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:12, 16) there is no mention of the Holy Spirit. It was the manifestation of the risen Christ which founded Paul's call to be apostle to the Gentiles. In short, the data from Paul does not support the case of the Christophanies coinciding with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We can reinforce this conclusion by noting a converse feature in Paul's letters. For the apostle, the Spirit brings a profound change in believers, making them move from being and living as "old" persons to become and live as "new" persons (Rom, 8:2, 4, 11; 1 Cor. 2:12-15; 2 Cor. 3:8, 17- 18; Gal. 3:2; 5:16- 25; Col. 3:9-10; Eph. 2:15; 3:16; 4:22-24). Paul often refers to our participating in the life of the risen Christ (Rom. 6:4; 7:6; 1 Cor. 15:45) through the indwelling spirit (Rom. 8:9, 14-16; Gal. 4:6). The power of the spirit makes us grow in the new life initiated through faith, baptism and incorporation into Christ. But Paul never identifies the believers common experience with the once-and-for-all encounter with the risen Christ that gave him and others their special, apostolic mission.

To sum up the data from Paul. When the apostle cites the appearances of the risen Christ to himself or others, he never mentions the Holy Spirit. When he refers to the experience and the effects of the Spirit (for example, 1 Cor. 12:1-13; 14:1-40), he never does so in the context of the risen Lord's appearances and the apostolic mission. Admittedly, Paul names the Holy Spirit as "the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead" (Rom 8:11). But, that is to refer to the Spirit's "source" God (the Father) to whom a recurrent formula attributes the event of Jesus' resurrection (for example, 1 Cor. 6:14; Gal. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:10). Paul does not speak of the Holy Spirit of him who "rose and appeared to me/us." The Holy Spirit is linked to the resurrection but not to the appearances.

Thus far I have briefly examined our issue by applying the first major rule of exegesis proposed by article 12 of Dei Verbum. An examination of the New Testament evidence does not support the conclusion that either the authors themselves (third stage) or their sources (second stage) point to the Easter appearances as being identical with the gift of the Holy Spirit (first stage). The only exception to this conclusion is found in John 20:22, which looks more like a later (theological) development than a guide to what originally happened at the first stage.

What might the other three rules for exegesis say about our issue? The unity of the whole Bible in Christ suggests the importance of distinguishing between the appearances and the gift of the Spirit. It is the risen Christ and not the Holy Spirit who commissions his disciples. Paul is an apostle, because he has seen the Lord (1 Cor. 9:1), not because he has received the Spirit. Mark's Easter narrative promises a rendezvous in Galilee (Mark 16:7), a promise explicitly fulfilled in Matthew's Easter narrative when the risen Jesus sends the eleven to "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19). Luke-Acts understands the apostles to be sent as witnesses "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), empowered by the Holy Spirit but commissioned to do so by the risen Christ (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). The Johannine Easter narratives centre on the commission: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (John 20:21). The Spirit is imparted in function of this sending (John 20:22). The apostles are foundational witnesses (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14), through their association with and mandate from Christ. The Christological unity of the Bible illuminates the significance of the distinction between the appearances of the risen Jesus (who sends his apostles) and the gift of the Spirit (who dwells within and empowers all Christians).

The second rule for reading and interpreting the scriptures in the same Spirit through whom they were written is the living tradition of the whole church - a lovely phrase which corresponds to the dynamic and wholistic view of tradition expressed by the chapter of Dei Verbum. Eastern Christians remind us that the church's liturgy is the pre-eminent witness to a living tradition. The liturgical separation of Easter and Pentecost is not simply the triumph of Luke's scheme found at the end of his Gospel and the beginning of Acts. The voice of the liturgy testifies to the fact that, while closely related, Christ's resurrection made known through the appearances does not simply coincide with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The living tradition that celebrates first Easter and then Pentecost does not encourage us to collapse into one the Christophanies and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Thirdly, the analogy of faith also has something to say about the issue we have chosen. In particular it is the meditation of the definitive revelation through Christ at specific times and in specific places, that is illuminating here. Their association with Christ and, in particular, their special Easter encounters with him made the apostles the foundational witnesses to the fullness of revelation manifested in Christ. All subsequent Christians depend on the foundational testimony of the apostles. It was their association with Christ, not just their experience of the Spirit, that made the apostles foundational and normative witnesses to God's definitive self-communication in Christ.

The nature of revelation is an utterly basic and all-pervading element in our understanding of Christian faith. Our Christian interpretation of revelation is integrally bound up with its apostolic character and the normative role of the apostles as witnesses to revelation. To understand the Easter appearances as really nothing else than experiences of the Holy Spirit risks undercutting the function of the apostles as foundational witnesses to revelation. Experiences of the Spirit are common to all Christians. Encounters with the risen Christ were limited to a small group of witnesses at the start of Christianity.

In short, by encouraging us to see all the elements together and in depth, the analogy of faith encourages us to distinguish between the Easter appearances to a limited number of foundational witnesses and the gift of the Spirit to all.

Tomorrow will be an important anniversary for the Church, twenty-five years since the promulgation of Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation. Among the treasures of Dei Verbum is its teaching on exegesis - a vision of exegesis that embraces both the historical-critical methods and an approach which is led by the Spirit to be properly Christological, traditional and theological. It is a vision of exegesis that respects both reason and faith, that is both rational and pneumatological.

I have taken up one specific issue to illustrate how this integral vision of exegesis might work. The four exegetical rules outlined by Dei Verbum converge in distinguishing between the appearances of the risen Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the light of the farewell discourse of John's Gospel, this conclusion is not surprising. In that discourse Jesus promises the gift of the Spirit. So far from being a substitute, let alone a rival, the Spirit will bear witness to Christ and glorify Christ (John I5:26; 16:14). A coming of the Spirit, distinct from the Easter appearances, allows for a witnessing to Christ which does not replace him. The Spirit does not glorify a Christ whom no one ever saw alive after his resurrection. To remove the distinct Easter appearances of the risen Christ or reduce them to experiences of the Spirit would be the first step towards collapsing Christology into Pneumatology. Here, as elsewhere, Christology and Pneumatology are related but properly distinct, just as Christ and the Holy Spirit are related but personally distinct.


Reproduced, with permission, from the Scripture Bulletin, Vol. XXI, No. 1, January 1991, of the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain.