(This is an excerpt from the Monday night Adult Faith Enrichment series on Vatican II, written by Peter Avvento)
In the centuries after the Council of Trent the Church assumed a defensive posture and created a “fortress mentality”. This posture was understandable in that the Church had been under attack by the Reformers, the rise of modern science and the Age of Enlightenment. The theological texts of these times were theological “manuals” which gave the impression that divine revelation was little more than a collection of truth statements. During the 19th century and early 20th century the dominant theological method in Catholic theology was “neo-scholasticism” whose approach to theology was the use of the “dogmatic manual”. Seminary texts were prepared to offer students the necessary defensive “weapons” to defend the truths of the Catholic faith.
Let’s look briefly at this model, usually referred to as the “Propositional Model”. Although the truth statements contained in these books had their remote origin in Scripture and tradition, their immediate source of authority was the magesterium (teaching function of the church). The magesterium became the immediate rule of faith for ordinary Catholics. Hence the phrase – “What does the official Church have to say about this or that?” So Scripture became the remote rule of faith, a rule that needed the magesterium for guidance. In this model, faith was conceived as an intellectual assent to truths that were contained in propositions – very mathematical to be sure but not very theological!
In the preparatory stages of Vatican II the theological commission, comprised mostly of Roman scholastic theologians, presented a draft document on revelation which was simply a rehash of the dogmatic manuals with little emphasis on scripture which had been receiving new energy through the biblical renewal movement ushered in by the 1943 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, “Divino Afflante Spiritu”. This commission expected a rubber stamp approval and was stunned when good and wise Pope John XXIII intervened and rejected their document. He created a new commission who would eventually come up with the document that we have today – “Dei Verbum” (“Word of God”).
The key to this document lies in its “personalist viewpoint” evident most especially in paragraph 2 which shows a theological shift away from the old propositional model. Now we read that God does not reveal to us a collection of information; rather, God shares his very self with us. God comes to us as a person, Jesus Christ, who is both “mediator and the sum total of revelation”.
The document refers to the character of divine revelation as the “most intimate truth” communicated by God. This is a radical departure from the traditional emphasis on “truths” or “mysteries of faith”. Revelation is not a collection of statements, theses, propositions, axioms or teachings but is the “single intimate truth” of God’s love for us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. In order for God to communicate with us He must communicate in a manner that is appropriate to our status as finite creatures. This is an old axiom that was held by St. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics, “quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis” (“that which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver”). Sarcastically, it can be translated as “we only hear what we want to hear”. The truth of that statement lies in the fact that we must be “open” to hear God’s loving Word in order to “believe” it and “act” upon it.