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Dei Verbum and Christian Morals | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P. | Ignatius Insight

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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 God’s 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 that,

"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 God’s 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 “holy war.”
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 says,

"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 Deuteronomist’s 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 Church’s 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 Church’s 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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