The Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) was surely the most difficult document to finalize at the Second Vatican Council.
The original document on revelation appeared in November 1962 and was soundly rejected by the council fathers. It went through roughly six more major drafts before finally being approved three weeks before the council ended in 1965.
To win approval, compromises were needed, and nowhere is that more evident than in the document's discussion of Sacred Scripture.
To say compromises were made in drafting the document does not mean that the truth was compromised; it does mean that both the so-called conservative and progressive groupings at the council both agreed to a document that said less than either group would have liked it to say.
Throughout the section on Scripture, there is a tension between the view that the Bible is the absolutely inerrant word of God and the view that the Bible was written by human authors who used various literary forms and who were shaped by the culture of their time.
God is the author of Sacred Scripture but its human authors never lost their freedom and used the literary styles of their time to convey God's words in ways that could be humanly understood.
In its compromises, Dei Verbum reaches a Catholic understanding of the Bible: the Bible is divinely inspired and historically accurate, but it is written by human beings who wanted to address particular issues of concern to the Church.
Fittingly, the constitution compares the Bible with the Incarnation: "Indeed the words of God, expressed in human language, are in every way like human speech, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the weak flesh of human beings, became like them" (DV 13).
Not so easy to reconcile, however, is the constitution's assertion that the Bible is "without error" with its assertions that the Gospel writers selected certain elements and "others they synthesized or explained with an eye to the situation of the churches" (DV 20).
The document also tells of the importance of understanding the literary forms that the sacred authors used, the customs of speech common at the time of the writing of the various books of the Bible and other cultural factors that may make it difficult for a modern reader to fully understand Scripture.
Just as Christ is divine and human so is the Bible.
Dei Verbum does not raise other facts which are recognized by contemporary scholars – that some books had multiple authors, were edited and compiled by other people, and are available in different ancient manuscripts that do not totally agree with each other.
A key statement of Dei Verbum is, "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures" (DV 11). This statement implies that Scripture is less concerned with complete historical accuracy than with teaching the truths that we need to know in order to be saved.
Bible uses different ways to express God's truth
An excerpt from Dei Verbum, #12
God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion . . . .
To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms."
For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse.
The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.
Yet, historical accuracy is far from irrelevant. If the Gospels are not an historically reliable account of the life of Christ, our faith is severely undermined.
A little further along. Dei Verbum states that the Church "unhesitatingly affirms" that the Gospels are historically accurate and "faithfully hand on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among men and women, really did and taught for their eternal salvation" (DV 19).
As Catholics, we need to hold these tensions together in order to have a proper appreciation for the Bible. On one hand, the Bible was not dictated word-for-word by the Holy Spirit to the sacred authors nor was it divinely infused into their minds. On the other hand, Scripture is not a compilation of fairytales concocted by Jesus' followers to serve their own interests.
Dei Verbum wisely does not try to spell out what it means to say that the sacred books were divinely inspired. Nor does it even suggest that some parts were inspired and others not. Further, it does not attempt to define biblical inerrancy.
The constitution, however, does maintain that the Bible is divinely inspired and that it has God as its author. It also rightly asserts that the Old Testament prefigured the New in ways that the Old Testament authors could not have anticipated.
One should not be in doubt about the Bible, but neither should one expect it to do something its authors had no intention of doing – trying to provide an account of the events of salvation history in a manner similar to the way modern journalists report on a train crash or federal election.
Even journalists, while striving to be fair and comprehensive, will admit they write from a perspective. The sacred authors were unabashedly committed to a point of view.
Of crucial importance in reading the Bible is the analogy of faith – that every part must be understood within the perspective of the whole. To some extent, the Bible is self-interpreting; the four Gospels complement, rather than contradict, each other. The Old Testament and New Testament shed light on each other.
It is by understanding the big picture of Scripture that we can see how the parts fit the whole and come to know the truths of our salvation.