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Dei Verbum and Christian Morals | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. | Ignatius Insight
Vatican II sums up the purpose of the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, On Divine
Revelation, in the prologue as follows:
Following then in the steps of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I, this Synod wishes
to set forth the true doctrine on divine Revelation and its transmission. For it wants the
whole world to hear the summons to salvation, so that through hearing it may believe,
through belief it may hope, through hope it may come to love.
Thus the goal of the document is to encourage the flourishing in Christians of the
theological virtues of faith, hope, and love that St. Paul (1 Cor 13:13)
declares to be the summit of Christian living to which all morality is directed.
The rest of the document, however, is chiefly concerned with matters of faith, since
Gods word is received only in faith. It says little explicitly about the Scriptures,
as they provide the fundamental guide for Christian conscience. Yet it declares of the
Gospel that it is the source of all saving truth and moral discipline(7).
Moreover, it strongly urges all members of the Church to have recourse to biblical reading
as a pure and lasting fount of the spiritual life(21). We are all urged to
go gladly to the sacred text itself, whether in the sacred liturgy, which is full of
the divine words, or in devout reading (25). Thus some reflections of how in
practice this can be realized may be profitable.
First of all, Christian morality must always be seen as an imitation of Christ. Christian
morality is not an abstract ideal, nor is it a mere set of rules, nor is it even just a
well-organized systematic moral and spiritual theology. It is discipleship, the following
of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, not only outwardly but under the transforming power of
his Holy Spirit sent upon all the baptized. It is not so easy to understand how this is
possible. How are sinners to live like the all-holy Christ? How are mere human beings to
imitate the Son of God? How are women to imitate a man? How are children or the aged to
imitate this man in the prime of life? How are the rich to imitate this poor man? How are
the poor, ignorant, and powerless to imitate one who is the wisdom and power of
God(1 Cor 1:24)? How are intellectuals to imitate this carpenter? How are we moderns
of various races to imitate a Jew of the first century? Yet by the power of his Holy
Spirit we are called to be his Body and to live in Him. In fact our many differences are
precisely the ways in which his fullness of grace is to be made manifest to the world in a
way that in his short life on earth in a single place and time it could not be manifested.
This why Dei Verbum takes special care to vindicate the authenticity of the portrayal
of the historic Jesus of Nazareth in the Four Gospels. It emphatically declares that the
Church has "firmly and with absolute constancy maintained and continues to maintain, that
the four Gospels, whose historicity the [Church] unhesitatingly affirms, faithfully hand
on what Jesus, the Son of God, while he lived among us, really did and taught for their
salvation, until the day when he was taken up" (19).
Of course some may be troubled by what we hear of the efforts of certain scholars, like
those associated with the much publicized Jesus Seminar, to reduce the historical value of
the Gospel accounts to a bare minimum. These efforts, however, have been well refuted on
scholarly grounds. A distinction must always be made between the certitudes of faith and
reason. As John Paul II so well shows in his encyclical Faith and Reason, the Church has
always defended reason and the human sciences and is confident that when sanely pursued
they will be in harmony with faith. Consequently she is not afraid of the application of
critical historical methods to the Scriptures. Precisely, however, because she appreciates
the value of critical thought, she is not shaken by extravagant speculations so often
motivated by academic pedantry. Moreover the Church is well aware from long experience
that we cannot expect from history much more than certain salient facts on which highly
diverse reconstructions can be built. For Christian life, it is not historical
reconstructions, however scholarly, that must be the basis of our imitation of Christ but
the witness of the divinely inspired Scriptures addressed to faith. Dei Verbum is very
careful in its declaration of the inerrancy of Scripture to make clear that this does not
mean that the true and inspired sense of the Bible can be ascertained by a fundamentalist
literalism or merely subjective interpretation. God has revealed himself in the community
of faith, whose inspired Scriptures and Spirit-guided Sacred Tradition form a single
source of truth so that each must be understood in the light of the other (9).
When we look to Jesus as revealed in the Gospels and the whole of the Bible as the supreme
model of what it is to be truly moral, we cannot help but focus on the Sermon on the Mount
as recorded in Matthew. Whether we have it in the form that Jesus gave it, or whether, as
many scholars hypothesize, as a synthesis provided by tradition, or even by the author of
Matthew, from the earliest days of the Church it has been accepted as the best summary of
Jesus teaching on the Christian life. The Gospels then show us how in fact this is
how Jesus himself lived, so that his life, death, and resurrection are the most profound
commentary on this Sermon. In it we see that Jesus based his life and his moral teaching
firmly on the Old Testament that the Sermon quotes and interprets.
There is a tendency today to attempt to construct a moral theology on the sometimes rather
general ethical statements of the New Testament, while treating the more specific moral
guidance of the Old Testament as pertaining to the ancient Jews but not to modern
Christians. It is very true, as Dei Verbum itself notes, that the Old Testament
contains matters imperfect and provisional. But the Council goes on to say
"These books [of the Old Testament] nevertheless show us authentic divine teaching.
Christians should accept with veneration these writings which give expression to a lively
sense of God, which are a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on
human life, as well as a wonderful treasury of prayers; in them, too, the mystery of our
salvation is present in a hidden way" (15).
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus himself, with an authority that astonished his hearers,
indicates this imperfect character of the Old Testament revelation, You have heard
it said but I say to you. Yet he by no means repudiates it, but rather,
following the Old Testament prophets, he corrects a misunderstanding of the Law as
principally a matter of external ritual and of regulations for the Jewish community alone.
Instead he highlights that what is permanent and universal in it is its moral teaching and
above all its call for faith, hope, and love that is its interior spirit. It was for St.
Peter and St. Paul along with the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem guided by the Holy
Spirit to apply this to the Gentiles, freeing them from the particularities of the Jewish
ritual and judicial law, and calling them to observe its moral precepts not merely in the
letter but the spirit.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls all humanity to become perfect as your
heavenly Father is perfect which, of course, means as Jesus is perfect,
since Jesus is the very image of the Father. Obviously this is not possible to human
beings without grace, but the transforming power of grace not only makes it possible, but
urges us to obey this command with our whole heart. Hence the New Law is, as St. Thomas
Aquinas teaches, not an external law imposed from without, but nothing less than the
internal guidance of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Christian as in its temple and
conforming the Christian to Christ, who is perfect as the heavenly Father is
perfect (S. Th. I-II, qq. 106-108).
At first sight it might seem, therefore, that the Old Law is obsolete and hence the moral
teaching of the Old Testament is of merely historic interest, but this is not so. In the
passage (Mt 19:17; Mk 10:4) which expands the command against divorce in the Sermon on the
Mount (Mt 5:31), Jesus says of the precept of Dt 24:3 that a man in divorcing his wife
should give her a legal document to that fact that this was given because of the
hardness of your heart and was not so in the beginning when God created
man and woman for each other. This tells us, to quote Dei Verbum again, that while the Old
Testament contains matters imperfect and provisional, [it] nevertheless shows us
authentic divine teaching. Thus the New Testament calls us to observe Gods
original commands as given at the creation of an innocent and graced humanity. To this
innocence and intimacy with God we are again reborn in Christ and his Church by his Holy
Spirit. The New Law contains the imperfect commands of the Mosaic Law freed of the
imperfection that God tolerated during the time of his gradual pedagogy of the Chosen
People. As St. Paul says, The [Old] Law was to be our pedagogue until Christ
came (Gal 3:24).
A crucial example of how important it is to understand this relation of the Old to the New
Testament is the shocking Mosaic Law of the herem or ban, a feature of a
When the Lord your God has led you into the land you are entering to make your own, many
nations will fall before you . . . the Lord your God will deliver them over to you and you
will conquer them. You must lay them under ban. You must make no covenant with them nor
show them any pity. You must not marry with them; you must not give a daughter of yours to
a son of theirs, not take a daughter of theirs for a son of yours, for this would turn
away your son from following me to serving other gods and the anger of The Lord would
blaze out against you and soon destroy you. Instead deal with them like this: tear down
their altars, smash their standing-stones, cut down their sacred poles and set fire to
their idols (Dt 7:1-6).
To understand how it is possible for an inspired and inerrant Bible to represent God as
commanding the Israelites to commit what today we would call ethnic cleansing,
or even worse genocide, since in another text the ban is described as
kill every living thing, (Dt 13:16) is certainly not easy. First we must
understand that the inspiration of the Bible that according to the Council of Trent covers
the whole of the canon and all its parts can be explained as recognizing that
God is the principal author of the Bible taken as a whole and of its parts only in the
context of the whole. This is what is today called canon criticism. Dei Verbum
"Since Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted with its divine authorship in mind, no
less attention must be devoted to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, taking
into account the Tradition of the entire Church and the analogy of faith, if we are to
derive their meaning from the sacred texts" (12).
It follows that when Deuteronomy attributes this command (and other commands) to God it
would be wrong to take it in isolation from the New Testament teaching, Love your
enemies as yourself.
If then we accept its inspiration in this context, we note that, the primary intention of
this command is to warn the Israelites not to permit their faith to be corrupted by the
idolatry of the pagans. We must also make allowance for the Deuteronomists literary
style of black and white rhetoric. Jesus himself was willing to use such rhetoric as when
he said both that we should Do good to those who that hate you, but also
If any one comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children,
brothers and sisters, and even his own life cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26).
Moreover modern scholarship dates the Deuteronomistic writings long after this command
could have had a practical application as regards actual war, but was rather intended in
the strongest language to warn against idolatry, since this remained a practical problem
in Israel when Deuteronomy was last edited. Finally, it is clear that the Deuteronomist
thought that the ancient wars by which Israel had obtained freedom in the land God had
promised them could not have succeeded if God by his providential power had not cleared
the land of the pagans. In historic fact this was probably a gradual process, but for the
Deuteronomist it seems like one decisive act.
Of course, since, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out (S.Th. I-II. Q. 94 a.5 ad 2), God is
author of life and death, he could have given to the Jews a command to act as his
executioners in punishing the pagans. He could have even included the personally innocent,
since even today the innocent incur the effects of original sin and die with their parents
in wars and natural disasters. But the teaching of Dei Verbum on inspiration and inerrancy
does not imply that the Scriptures contain no historical errors, but only no errors that
would distort its religious message of salvation. Thus it is not necessary to accept the
details of the Deuteronomic understanding of past history. Hence when today we read such
passages we should understand their inspired meaning to be: (1) We must avoid idolatry and
corruption of the faith as of the utmost gravity; (2) God permitted (but did not surely in
the literal sense command) the Jews conduct of war in the manner of their own times, a
manner that for us today is seen to be barbarous; (3) In the New Testament God teaches
that such brutality is no longer tolerable and must be replaced with true respect for the
sacredness of life of all persons. No doubt in a just war it is still ethical to use
mortal force but only against aggressors.
I have analyzed this Old Testament passage that is perhaps the most difficult one in the
whole Bible to understand in a way consistent with Jesus teaching, to show that, as
Dei Verbum teaches, the Bible correctly interpreted contains no moral error. Yet it is
very easy to see how a fanatic could quote this passage to justify crimes like those of
Hitler, Stalin, or Milosevic.
Why then did God permit such dangerous things to remain in the Bible? Dei Verbum responds
to this question by emphasizing that the Bible must always be read in the context of the
Churchs teaching, i.e., its living Sacred Tradition that today takes account of
modern biblical scholarship. This explains why after the Reformation controversies the
tendency in the Church for some time was to discourage Bible reading by the laity except
in very controlled conditions. It was evident that the Protestant principle of
private interpretation was in fact doing much damage and splintering the
Christian community. The lingering result of this policy remains with us even after
Vatican II in that not a few older Catholics remain suspicious of too much emphasis on the
use of the Bible by laymen.
Vatican II, on the contrary, both because it felt that an educated laity today can use the
Bible with more and better information and in order to overcome ecumenical difficulties,
in Dei Verbum approved and encouraged Bible study by all Catholics. That there are risks
in this, in spite of the optimism of the Council, cannot be denied, but certainly the
clergy should be concerned to insure that Catholics read the Scriptures in the light of
solid scholarship and the guidance of the Churchs tradition. With this kind of
guidance difficult texts of the Old Testament need cause no scandal.
Read Part Two of "Dei Verbum and Christian Morals"
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