Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: The Word of God at Vatican II by Fr. Ronald Witherup

Dei Verbum is the most important Church document concerning Scripture.  One of the important objectives of the council fathers who composed this document was the encouraging of all Catholics to make reading and studying the bible a normative part of daily life (DV 22,26).  Now this is not to say that prior to this that the Church official discouraged her people from reading the Bible.   (This is quite evident in the often found indulgence notice in the back front cover of many Douay-Rheims Bibles.)  Yet, it must be recognized that there were places where Catholics were discouraged, instead to take up books like the Baltimore Catechism.  While I was born more than a decade after the council, and so don't know this by personal experience, I have heard from numerous people, while leading Bible studies and teaching classes, that this did indeed happen in some places.  With that being said, there is no excuse now.  The Church has made it abundantly clear that she wants her sons and daughters taking up the Scriptures everyday for spiritual nourishment.  All of out previous Popes, most notably Pope Benedict and Francis, have regularly reminded us to do this.  What greater example could we have then the great scriptural writings of Benedict!

Now, while there have certainly been scholarly volumes devoted to Dei Verbum, very little has been published for the average Catholic. Yet, with the 50th anniversary of its publication coming in 2015, we are beginning to see some fine resources being published.  I am very happy to report that Little Rock Scripture Study's The Word of God at Vatican II: Exploring Dei Verbum is extremely helpful and easily applicable to either personal or group study.

Written by noted Catholic biblical scholar Fr. Ronald D. Witherup, who was one of the main editors on the lovely Little Rock Catholic Study Bible, this 85 page volume provides a short overview of all the main points concerning the council document. It is broken into three sections: 1) A Brief History of Dei Verbum; 2) A Brief Commentary on Dei Verbum; 3) Ongoing Interpretation and the Fruits of Dei Verbum.   Scattered throughout are various charts that cover a wide range of topics, most notably the different theories on Inspiration, comparison of the two main drafts of the document, the major scripture documents that led up to Vatican II, and church documents after Vatican II.  Witherup does an admirable job in providing context and content to this document.  He reminds us that "virtually all church documents have been influenced in one way or another by previous church teachings.  Dei Verbum is no exception (7)."  His chart on the documents that led up to Vatican II begin with Trent and Sancta Mater Ecclesia of 1964.  In each case, he gives a brief summary of each document and indicates which paragraphs of Dei Verbum were influenced by them.

In addition, he also recognizes many of the important figures who contributed to this document.  A certain Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) is mentioned more than once.  He notes that Pope Benedict's poetic Verbum Domini is the most "comprehensive and important" document since the council (68).  Other works of scholars like Brown, Murphy, and Fitzmyer are rightly noted as being some of the great fruits of Vatican II.  (Little Rock Scripture Study is of course mentioned as well.)  I would have perhaps liked to see others mentioned as well, for example some of those scholars associated with the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture.  

I will conclude with what I think is the real heart of Witherup's work, that being his paragraph by paragraph commentary of Dei Verbum found in chapter 2.  The commentary is aided by the fact that Witherup included the actual document.  So, you don't need to flip between this book and the council document.  It is right there for you.  (And yes, the footnotes from Dei Verbum are included as well.)Encompassing over 40 pages, Witherup takes you through each section of the document providing helpful commentary on the main issues.  These range from one to five or more paragraphs each depending on the issue.   As you can guess, there is more of an extensive commentary on the interpretation of paragraph 11.  As Witherup notes, the issue of inerrancy is an issue still being debated and discussed today.  Pope Benedict asked for the issue to be studied by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and its finding are due to be released quite soon.

The Word of God at Vatican II is a great resource.  It comes with a study guide for individual or group study.  An answer book can be purchased as well.  I plan to use this throughout the year and next.  If I had my wish, I would love to see a collection of essays published by contemporary Catholic scripture scholars, from a wide variety of schools, looking back at the importance of Dei Verbum.

Thank you to the fine folks at Liturgical Press for providing me a review copy.


Dick Neves said...

While this book is a good overall summary of Dei Verbum, it glosses over the controversies surrounding Paragraph 11 and its interpretation. The view presented in this book is inconsistent with Sacred Tradition and previous papal encyclicals. How can the 'Word of God', "written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit", and written by true authors "consigned to writing "whatever he (Holy Spirit) wanted written and no more" contain error in the autographic text?

Timothy said...


Have you had a chance to read the recent document on this issue that came from the Pontifical Biblical Commission?

CarlHernz said...

Because the Bible is the product of its time, any limitations the writers had because of their place in history were included when they spoke of these in passing.

To illustrate: Scripture writers are unanimous in transmitting the truth that the universe was created by God. Yet whenever a Bible writer described the physical universe in the context of transmitting this truth, the same writers described it in the terms that the ancients believed in.

All of the Bible writers believed in an ancient cosmic paradigm that was widely accepted in Mesopitamian society since antiquity. This pre-scientific concept had no knowledge of the vacuum of space, so as far as everybody was concerned the reason why rain fell from the sky was because "outer space" consisted of water. These cosmic waters were kept from flooding upon earth because God placed a firmament or dome between us and them, dividing "the water below the dome from the water above the dome." (Genesis 1:7) Rain descended through "floodgates" which opened and closed at God's command. These cosmic waters were also accessible by plunging into the ocean and referred to as "the great abyss."--Genesis 7:11.

This lack of knowledge of the vacuum of space is why Peter wrote that "the earth was formed out of water and through water." (2 Peter 3:5) Water was even believed to be the basic element of all that existed in the physical universe, even by the science of the Greeks, and so these unenlightened details got transferred along with religious truths every time the origin of he universe got discussed by Bible writers.

Of course today we know there is no dome or physical firmament over the planet. We know there is such a thing as an atmosphere. Outside of this is not an abyss of water from which all elements of the physical universe were derived but the vacuum of space. We have all seen pictures that verify these facts that were out of reach of the ancients who composed the Written Word.

Obviously these details were unnecessary to be included by the Holy Spirit in the inspiration process as God was transmitting religious truths through Holy Writ and not composing a scientific text. Thankfully God does not require that we each become scientists to gain salvation and know all the facts of the universe before we can share the truths of salvation, otherwise we would have not even one of the pages of Scripture we possess today. Transmission of truth is not compromised by the limitations of the narrative in which it is communicated. An error in understanding of a non-religious point doesn't affect the value of a life-saving truth transmitted alongside.

rolf said...

Well said, Carl!