Dei Verbum, the Minor Prophets and a Catholic Textbook: A Case Study


The Vatican II document on Scripture, Dei Verbum, has some very specific language about how to read the Bible. The document states, “Since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, 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.” (sec. 21) Also it states, “the books of the Old Testament with all their parts, caught up into the proclamation of the Gospel, acquire and show forth their full meaning in the New Testament and in turn shed light on it and explain it.” (sec. 16, footnotes removed)

So, as Catholics, we are supposed to read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old. They go hand-in-hand. We are supposed to pay attention to the “content and unity of the whole of Scripture.” So let’s put these ideas to the test in a miniature case study:

1. The New Testament says, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 2:20-21 ESV)

2. A common Catholic textbook on the Old Testament commenting on Haggai says, “Haggai’s enthusiastic nationalism and hope for independence led him to extol Zerubbabel as the person God would use to bring blessing to the land.” (Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the Old Testament. New York: Paulist Press, 1984. p. 439)

The textbook’s explanation of Haggai certainly sounds as if the author believes that Haggai’s prophecy about Zerubbabel was produced by Haggai’s will because of his nationalism and hope for political independence and not by the Holy Spirit. The oracle is a result of Haggai’s personal thoughts, struggles, weaknesses and dreams. That is, it was produced by “the will of man.” But this understanding is directly in opposition to the understanding laid out in 2 Peter 2:20-21. There, the author emphasizes thoroughly that the prophecies of Scripture are not the product of human thinking or striving, but of the Holy Spirit’s leading and inspiration.

It seems it would be quite difficult to reconcile 2 Peter 2:20-21 and the statement of the textbook. Oh wait, Dei Verbum just makes the problem worse. It says we are supposed to read Scripture as a unity, Old and New Testaments together interpreting one another. Here, 2 Peter is telling us how to read the prophets. So, if we accept Dei Verbum, then we should follow 2 Peter’s guidance.

The point is simple, the prophets spoke “under the influence of God”(2 Pet 2:21 NAB). They did not make up their prophecies because of their pet political issues or their psychological problems. God spoke through them. And to read the Bible in a Catholic way, we must accept this simple teaching of the Bible and the Church.

(Photo: Siena, Cathedral of S. Maria, west facade, head of prophet Haggai: ca. 1280-1300 from mtholyoke.edu)

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