A) Concerning the Sacred Scriptures, the most recent document with the highest level of authority in the Catholic Church is called the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," often referred to by its Latin title, Dei Verbum (DV), which was officially promulgated on November 18, 1965, by the bishops meeting at the Second Vatican Council. A more recent publication summarizing the Church's official teachings is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, 1994). Not only does the Catechism clearly present the same teachings as Dei Verbum, but the structure of this CCC chapter closely parallels the structure of DV:
Article 1 of this portion of the CCC (§§51-73) expands upon the teachings of chapter 1 of DV.
Article 2 of the CCC (§§74-100) further develops the material presented in chapter 2 of DV.
Article 3 of the CCC (§§101-141) summarizes the main points of chapters 3-6 of DV.
B) Revelation: Official Catholic teachings about the Bible do not deal immediately with the written scriptures, but begin from a much broader perspective, first presenting the Church's teachings about "Revelation." In Catholic understanding, divine revelation is much more than just the Bible; it is also more than God revealing verbal messages to humanity. Rather, it is the entire process by which God reveals or expresses Himself in our world, what we might call "God's self-revelation." Moreover, this process of divine revelation can be seen in four main historical stages:
God's self-revelation in creation, in everything that exists in the universe, from inanimate material, to plants and animals, in what we today call "nature."
God's self-revelation in and to the human race, who are "created in God's image and likeness" (see Gen 1:26-27), so we are endowed with reason, which gives us the ability to know God.
God's special revelation to the people of Israel, the "chosen people," giving them more direct knowledge about God and the world, working in and through their history, sending them messages that were passed down orally and eventually written down in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).
God's self-revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, "the Word made flesh" (see John 1:14), "sent from the Father" (cf. John 5:17-37; 14:6-28), who through his words and actions reveals even more clearly everything we need to know about God and our world, about life and love, about forgiveness and salvation.
C) Tradition: After briefly presenting this broader concept of "Revelation," but still before addressing the written scriptures, Catholic teachings explain "The Transmission of Divine Revelation," that is, the process by which God's revelation is "transmitted" or "handed down" or "passed on" (Latin traditio) through the ages. Again, this is a complex process involving several different stages or steps, which one must carefully distinguish from one another. The following stages apply both in the OT era and in the NT era:
Historical Events: the actions of the patriarchs, prophets, kings, and all the people of Israel (in the OT era), or the actions of Jesus, his own disciples and apostles (in the NT era).
Oral Traditions: the stories about what happened, and the teachings of various people, as passed down from one generation to the next, often by anonymous people.
Written Documents: the various books of Moses, the prophets, and teachers of Israel (in the OT); and the recorded Gospels, letters, and other writings of early Christian leaders (in the NT).
Canonization and Interpretation: the "transmission" of God's revelation did not end with the writing of the individual books of the Bible, but continues in the activity of the Church, first in collecting and "canonizing" the collections of scriptures we now call the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the ongoing teaching, interpretation, and application of God's revelation in the lives of individuals and communities throughout the centuries.
D) Scripture: Only after understanding the Catholic Christian teachings about Revelation and Tradition can we also come to a proper understanding of the Church's teachings about the Bible, the Sacred Scriptures. Only now can we properly see the intertwined relationships between Revelation, Tradition, and Scripture:
Contrary to the polemical Reformation-era debates (and popular misunderstandings still today!), "Scripture" and "Tradition" are not opposed to each other; they are not two separate entities. Rather, "Scripture" (the written Bible) is part of the larger reality called "Tradition" (the transmission of divine truth), which is itself part of the larger process called "Revelation" (or better, "God's self-revelation"). Expressed with mathematical symbols, one might say Revelation > Tradition > Scripture.
Although the Bible is obviously a very old and crucial part of the Church's Tradition, handing on God's Revelation, it is not the only part. Much of God's self-revelation has been and continues to be handed on to humanity through other aspects of the Church's Tradition (esp. the liturgy), and even more broadly in various ways. Put differently, although the Scriptures contain Revelation, not all of God's self-revelation is recorded in the Bible (since God has revealed and continues to reveal Himself in nature, in people, and in many other ways).
However, since the Bible contains the indispensible "core" of God's Revelation, so to speak, Christians believe that no other revelations would ever change or contradict what God teaches us in and through the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, as the core of Revelation, the Bible contains all the truths necessary for our redemption and salvation, so that we neither seek nor need any other revelation to supplement or complete God's revelation as found in the Scriptures.
It is also crucial to understand that the Word of God, in Catholic understanding, is not primarily the Bible (the written text), but is Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word). The most important part of Christian faith is not the Bible, but Jesus himself. Jesus came before the Bible (before the NT books were written, and before the complete scriptures were canonized).
Moreover, the Church also came before the Bible! That is, not only did the oral preaching of the apostles precede the writing of the NT books (by several decades), but it was the early Church that determined the Canon of the Bible (not until several centuries after Jesus' life).
E) Chapter 3 of DV (and the corresponding paragraphs of CCC), also summarize the Catholic Christian teachings about the "divine inspiration" of the Scriptures and their proper interpretation. In contrast to a naïve fundamentalist view of biblical authorship, which sometimes reduces the role of the biblical writers to little more than dictation machines, the Catholic understanding of the "divine inspiration" of the Bible is a good example of the Church's overall BOTH/AND approach to theology:
The Bible is both the Word of God and written in human languages. On can properly say both that God is the author of the scriptures and that the human writers acted as real authors. They did not merely record the exact words whispered into their ears by the Holy Spirit (as graphically portrayed in much medieval art), but rather made use of their own human abilities in writing their texts (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of course).
Because the Bible is written in human languages (indeed, ancient languages very different from our own!), the proper interpretation of the Scriptures requires not only that we are aware of the limitations of all human language (and the difficulties of translation from one language to another), but also that we pay attention to the various literary forms and modes of expression used by the ancient authors (see the relevant excerpts highlighted below).
The "inspiration" of the Holy Spirit applies not only to one stage, but to all stages in the long process of the transmission of divine revelation. Not only were Moses, the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, and other biblical characters inspired by the Holy Spirit in their words and actions; not only were the biblical authors inspired by God's Spirit as they were busy writing; not only was the Church leaders inspired by the Spirit when they selected which books to include in the biblical canon. Rather, the Holy Spirit was active at all these stages of the process.
Finally, the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Christian Church in the correct understanding and proper application of the scriptures for our own lives in community and as individuals. Although this goes beyond the traditional doctrine of the "divine inspiration of sacred scripture," one can properly say that the Holy Spirit still actively guides the Church in its use of the scriptures in many ways: in liturgical prayer, in small-group discussions, in personal prayer and study, and in many other facets of our individual and communal lives.
Dei Verbum: Highlights of Chapter 3:
"Sacred Scripture, Its Divine Inspiration and Interpretation"
§11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2Tim 3:16; 2Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts,are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1)In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2)they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them,(3)they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.(4) Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. Therefore "all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind"
(2 Tim 3:16-17, Greek text).
§12. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion,(6) the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.
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.(7) For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.(8)
But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written,(9)no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.(10)
§13. In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous "condescension" of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, "that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature."(11) For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.
Notes for Chapter 3 of Dei Verbum:
Cf. First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chap. 2 "On Revelation": Denzinger 1787 (3006); Biblical Commission, Decree of June 18, 1915: Denzinger 2180 (3629): Enchiridion Biblicum (EB) 420; Holy Office, Epistle of Dec. 22, 1923: EB 499.
Cf. Pius XII, encyclical "Divino Afflante
Spiritu," Sept. 30, 1943: A.A.S. 35 (1943) P. 314; EB 556.
"In" and "for" man: cf. Heb l, and 4, 7, ("in"): 2 Sam 23, 2; Matt 1:22 and various places; ("for"): First Vatican Council, Schema on Catholic Doctrine, note 9: Coll. Lac. VII, 522.