Proposed document on divine revelation was stillborn

January 21, 2013

On Nov. 14, 1962, as soon as the fathers of the Second Vatican Council had given overwhelming approval in principle to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, they turned their attention to a schema that had been proposed called the Sources of Revelation.

While the liturgy document had come to the council floor well prepared, the same could not be said for the document on revelation. Leading theologians who had seen the schema even before Vatican II opened had trained their sights on it.

Nevertheless, the men who had written and approved the schema – known by its Latin name, De Fontibus – were no slouches. The Doctrinal Commission that had approved De Fontibus was spearheaded by the Holy Office, the Vatican's office for maintaining the purity of doctrine.

The document, however, had a negative tone, condemning errors and fighting old battles with Protestants. It did not fight those battles well.

De Fontibus treated revelation strictly in terms of words and preaching – faith was something that was taught, not caught. Because it only saw the intellectual side of the faith and not the living witness, it saw the justification for the teachings of the faith as coming from two sources – Scripture and tradition. The Bible could not be fully understood without the apostolic tradition and indeed Scripture was derived from tradition.

When the council finally issued its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation three years later, it would be clear in asserting that what God reveals is not primarily words, but God himself. This revelation is brought about through God's words and deeds – creation, his relationship with the children of Abraham, and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Theologians Edward Shillebeechx (left) and Karl Rahner (right) issued strong challenges to the proposed document on divine revelation at Vatican II.


Theologians Edward Shillebeechx (left) and Karl Rahner (right) issued strong challenges to the proposed document on divine revelation at Vatican II.

Scripture and tradition, then, are not the sources of revelation but rather the way it is transmitted. The one source of revelation is the Word of God.

Those who wrote De Fontibus thought the two-source theory had been taught by the Council of Trent in the 17th century. In fact, 20th century manuals for seminarians maintained that it had been.

However, theologians such as Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx went back to the documents of Trent and showed that was not what had been taught there at all.

Those two theologians wrote strong critiques of De Fontibus, which circulated among the council fathers.

Rahner also criticized De Fontibus for its nearly fundamentalist approach to inspiration and the inerrancy of the Bible. The schema read as though God had dictated the books of the Bible to the sacred authors. It stated, "Everything, even the smallest part of Scripture and all that the sacred writer expresses, must be held as the expression of the Holy Spirit."


The schema failed to take into account even the teaching of Pope Pius XII whose 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu emphasized that the study of the Bible had to take into account the various literary styles used, such as poetry, allegory and history.

Along with the criticisms of Schillebeeckx and Rahner, Johannes Feiner had added further criticisms. Feiner noted that De Fontibus had failed to mention that it is the people of God in their entirety who are the subject of tradition. Nor did it make the crucial point that the Church's magisterium is the servant, not the master, of the Word of God.

Church historian Giuseppe Ruggieri concluded, "Feiner's report was a genuine and open declaration of war."


Indeed, while important theological points had been raised, the issue had become emotional, one which pitted one Vatican department against another.

But what of the fathers of Vatican II? Most were bishops appointed by the pope and recommended by the Curia for their positions. Many had been educated in the Roman universities whose professors had helped craft De Fontibus. Where did they stand?

And who was the Canadian who helped bring about the papal decision that was seen by some as the turning point of Vatican II and the end of the Counter-Reformation?

Answers to these questions will have to wait for next week's article.

(Information about the critiques by Rahner, Schillebeeckx and Feiner was based on Giuseppe Ruggieri's article "The First Doctrinal Clash" in History of Vatican II, volume II, edited by Giuseppe Alberigo and Joseph Komonchak.)