Reflections on Vatican II – Divine Revelation

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Reflections on Vatican II – Divine Revelation

In preparation for the Jubilee Year of 2025, Pope Francis encouraged a return to the documents of Vatican II, refreshing awareness of the fruits of that Council. To encourage your own study of those documents, Fr Peter Wygnański here begins a short series of articles about the four major constitutions.

Reflecting on the Constitutions of Vatican II: 1 – Dei Verbum and Divine Revelation.

Not too long ago, I travelled to Camden to catch up with an old friend. During our festive dinner, we became aware, through stilted conversation, that his wife and I knew this schoolmate of mine in very different ways. I had a long, shared past with him, the sort of which she had only just begun to create. She, on the other hand, knew him more intimately than I did and had detailed knowledge of his day-to-day life.

We reflected a while about these different ways of knowing someone: imagine if someone had written a momentous, thoroughly researched, four-volume biography of my life, memorising every little fact about me, but without ever actually meeting me?

Who would know me ‘better’, that studious author, or my comparably ignorant childhood friend? Who would give me better advice or consolation? Who would share more in my joys and griefs? Who would be more likely to help me see a different point of view? These diverse ways of knowing can help us reflect, as the Second Vatican Council did, about how we know God.

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum, (Latin for the Word of God), was a watershed moment for our understanding of how God reveals Himself to humanity, and how we, in turn, respond.

The document takes its name, as all such documents do, from its opening words: “Hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith, the sacred synod takes its direction from these words of St John: We announce to you the eternal life which dwelt with the Father and was made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we announce to you, so that you may have fellowship with us and our common fellowship be with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.”(§1), What was different then, about this understanding of God’s Revelation, and what does that mean for us today?

We can take for granted, now, that Vatican II refocused how we think about God’s communication to us. In the time leading up to the council, there was fear that the modern world called the eternity of divine truths into question. The Catholic faith was easier to defend if Revelation was thought of as a momentous biography of God, the list of things we know about Him, through Scripture and Tradition.

Faith, then, was largely a matter of agreeing with, or submitting to, that list of teachings which were carefully preserved. As long as I believed what I received, and did what I was supposed to, I could be part of the Church and saved. When Revelation is a list, however, we can fall into the trap of worrying about the list more than the God it describes, and Scripture and Tradition of the Church seem to wrestle with each other for the final word.

The Council Fathers, however, rediscovered an ancient understanding of Revelation as being more like knowing a childhood friend, a shared past. Revelation is not the content, but the process: the Living God, “out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends”(§2), to make himself known to us, most fully through the incarnate Word bursting into History in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

When Revelation is God’s unveiling action, the “divine wellspring” from which “both Scripture and Tradition flow”(§9), we do not throw away the teachings entrusted to the apostles and faithfully handed down to us through the ages by their successors, but we receive those teachings as they are meant to be, sure knowledge which point to the true depths of our human condition and to the God who “frees us from the darkness of sin and death to raise us up to life eternal.”(§4)

We believe, then, because we are able to encounter a living power who has reached out towards us by His self-disclosure, and our faith is a relationship with Jesus Christ. In friendship with God, already a fruit of the Holy Spirit, that same spirit “opens the eyes of our minds” so that we “commit our whole selves freely to God”, with full submission of intellect and will.”(§5)

That is how we come to know Christ, and how “the whole world may believe, by believing it may hope, and by hoping it may love.”(§1)

Pictured above is Vincenzo Campi’s St Matthew and the Angel, 1588. Picture from Wikipedia.