Because of its solidly doctrinal character, the Second Vatican Council’s document on Revelation will have a powerful and lasting impact, which will be felt in many fields.
The discussion of the Revelation schema which has ended here indicates that it will receive a preponderant vote of acceptance. Though many suggestions were offered for its improvement, almost all the bishops spoke of it as adequate, balanced and well-informed — a worthy product of the long, careful labor spent in its preparation.
The opening chapters emphasize a dimension in Revelation which many have overlooked, its primary character as a vital communication of God to man. In the past few centuries common teaching has concentrated on an analysis of the separate truths which form the contents of Revelation. Doctrines have been presented as a monolithic deposit coming down from an ancient past to form a body of truths which men must accept with a predominantly intellectual assent of faith.
Somehow, St. Thomas’ emphasis on the self-manifestation of First Truth in every truth it utters was lost sight of, probably because the concept was too rarified for most teachers to grasp. In the schema, however, this primary factor is once more reaffirmed. The speaking of God, like the speaking of man, is presented as a self-revelation. Through His living word God enters into contact with those whom He addresses, revealing Himself and manifesting the secrets of His inward life and love.
Through this emphasis the schema restores a perspective which brings all Revelation into focus and binds its separate truths into unity. Each truth is now seen as resonant with the voice of God manifesting Himself to every man, past or present, who opens his heart through faith.
Recognition of this perennial dynamism of God’s Revelation is bound to infuse new vitality into the Church’s teaching on faith. Far from being a merely intellectual assent to the separate doctrines God has revealed, faith involves a vital response of the whole man to the living God who gives Himself in the here and now to all who hear His word.
Ever since the Council of Trent took measures to safeguard the necessary intellectual element in faith, many teachers have tended to emphasize this aspect alone. It is time now to enlarge this concept with a fuller and more dynamic stress on man’s total response to God. Several bishops, in fact, asked that this be explicitly stated in the schema’s treatment of faith.
Those vital elements which St. Paul and the early Fathers stressed in the act of faith once more will come to the fore as a primary dimension in Christian life. Systematic teaching of the separate truths of Revelation will continue, but there will be a new awareness of God speaking. Emphasis will shift from the system which tends to separate truths and will turn to the revealing God whose self-manifestation unites them. Man’s faith in the truths of Revelation will be seen in the terms of a “you and I” dialogue between the loving Father who speaks and the devoted son who responds.
The schema, therefore, is bound to exert a strong impact on the liturgical life of the Church where systems and divisions melt away before the presence of God. In the liturgy the Christian family draws near with love to the Father and Brother who have prepared a family feast. There God speaks in the midst of His very own, and men who are His children respond with wholehearted faith. Far from being merely a Church service, the liturgy provides man’s best opportunity for intimate encounter with God.
This renewed attitude in Christian living will be greatly strengthened by the schema’s teaching on tradition. For the first time a conciliar document has dealt at length with the concept of tradition as something far more extensive than the teaching of the Fathers and of the teaching authority of the Church.
Tradition is now presented as embracing the whole life of the Church, its teaching, its cult, its practice. God is always speaking to everyone in the Church through the truths of Revelation and through the illumination of His Holy Spirit; and the Church is always responding with a faith which can never fail. Tradition, therefore, far from being merely a tenacious memory of the past, is a living reality in the present; for the word of God never changes and the voice of His Son, responding through the Church, His Mystical Body, is always the same — “yesterday, today, yes, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
This concept of tradition spells a new dignity for every Christian, giving him a full role to play in the perennially vital transmission of God’s word to the world. This means, too, a new urgency for full Christian living, intelligent and wholehearted. Each man must realize that he is part of a living tradition. In his weakness he will always need the light and control of the Church’s teaching authority. But what he himself is and lives by, his belief, his prayer, his conduct — all this enters into the Church’s full tradition. Each Christian is a living echo of the voice of God.
It is hardly needful to say what this means for the apostolate of the laity. Previously our laity have been called the “hands of the Church,” reaching into areas where otherwise the Church’s teaching would have no influence. The schema shows the profound reason why the laity are so necessary and how it is possible for them to perform so great a task. They, like everyone else in the Church, are living voices of tradition. In their lives other men hear God speaking and God’s son responding. For the world at large, that world of men who know nothing of Pope or bishop or priest, the voice of God will be heard chiefly through its resonant echo in the lives of our Catholic laity.
These emphases of the schema cannot fail to make a deep impression on the non-Catholic mind. The whole background of Protestantism has conditioned non-Catholics of our day to think of religion as something eminently vital. God speaking and man responding, this alone is true religion for most non-Catholics.
The formidable and tightly wrought structure of the Church, its emphasis on an unchanging moral code and its highly systematized theology, its seeming impersonality and its multitudinous rites — all this strikes the average non-Catholic as something foreign to the Biblical concept of religion as a dialogue with God.
Now, with a new thrust, the Church itself has brought to the fore that essential feature of her life which, in the mind of non-Catholics, was often obscured by elements which, though necessary to secure the integrity of personal religion, are often open to misunderstanding.
The schema thus dissolves a wall of separation.
Reading it, the non-Catholic will discover in the Church the very values which have always formed for him the heart of true religion.
The schema does more than affirm these principles. It implements them. In its treatment of Revelation in Sacred Scripture the document makes provision that God’s voice will be heard in all its rich fullness. The chapters on interpretation of the Bible, and on the Old and New Testaments, present directives which incorporate what is best in modern scholarship.
As many bishops pointed out, these chapters need perfecting. But, even as they stand, these sections show a competent awareness of all those factors which must be a feature of the Biblical scholar who has at his command tools for investigating the riches of Scripture which were unknown in previous centuries.
The principles of Bible interpretation described by Pope Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu and by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in its recent letter now come to the fore with the full authority of a conciliar document.
These directives spell full encouragement for the Biblical scholar to walk with confidence in the intricate ways of his own specialized field. Even more, the debates of the bishops on the concept of inerrancy, the nature of inspiration, and the relation between Scripture and tradition indicate that these are still open questions, presenting a challenge to scholars and rendering imperative their conscientious and fruitful labor. The council has lifted the shadow of suspicion which for so long a time has pressed heavily on the souls of some of the Church’s most loyal and devoted sons. Many, in reading this schema, will breathe a fervent “Deo gratias.”
These directives will also shape the teaching of Scripture in seminaries, the conduct of adult study clubs, the whole course of Scripture teaching.
Little by little the new insights will filter down to those who are not specialists in the field of Scripture study. They will gradually become familiar with the only true way in which Scripture may be read — under the guiding light of the mentality of those who first heard the words of Revelation and who formed the first rank in that living tradition which embraces their day and ours.
But all these facts are secondary to the council’s prime purpose. The conciliar schema is pre-eminently concerned with the need to make God’s voice resound through the world. God speaking and man responding form the unifying theme of this document.
If, then, the Fathers have spoken of Biblical studies, if they have enunciated guiding principles, it was not simply to help the Biblical scholar, to direct the course of seminary studies, or to encourage the work of Bible study clubs. All these factors, though real and very necessary, must be seen in proper perspective.
If they feature in the schema, it is because they are needful to discover the full message of God that men may hear His voice fully and perfectly and may respond wholeheartedly to His word which is “living and efficient and keener than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
Father Barnabas Ahern, CP
The author is professor of Scripture at the Passionist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., editor of the magazine, Bible Today, and a consultant for the council.