According to the Christian tradition the term “sacred” has always signified, “inspired by God,” and therefore, when referring to the truths of salvation conferred “inerrancy” on the basic beliefs of the Catholic Church (CC). These truths had always been expressed in propositional statements called dogmas or doctrines and referred to  as God’s “revelation” or official communication to mankind through the Church.  The (CC) close to 2000 years old needed to modernize its relationship with men in a new world of technology, science, and learning which called for a new explanation of how God communicates with us. Consequently among many other important changes the Ecumenical Council Vatican II issued  its Constitution (Verbum Dei) on the basic doctrine of Divine Revelation, derived principally from Scripture modifying an institutional frame of reference  for God’s rich and diverse relationship to members of the human family. A short but excellent explanation of this change can be found in a book by the theologian, Richard R. Gaillardetz, By What Authority?, pages 1 to 10.

God speaks to us in works and fallible men record them in words. Most religious institutions have been founded or changed through sacred writings. Wisdom acquired over the ages recognizes that individuals and thus their institutions can interpret or even change acquired and written sources in the light of new insights or newly discovered facts through history. In other words reliable historical findings can modify previous knowledge acquired incorrectly or partially. Within that framework Vatican II even in the case of “sacred” scriptures, once considered literally and eternally true, composed the following discussion of revelation through history:

The key passages in Verbum Dei, nos. 2 and 3, on the relationship between scripture and the works performed by God, i.e., scripture and history, are debated. Scripture and tradition for centuries had been argued to be the basis of belief in Christ. No. 2 reads:

The pattern of this revelation unfolds through deeds and words which are intrinsically connected: the works performed by God in the history of salvation show forth and confirm the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring to light the mystery they contain. The most intimate truth thus revealed about God and human salvation shine forth for us in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of revelation.” (no. 2). (Flannery, English). translation):

The wordplay in no. 2, between works and words through the phrase the works …confirm the doctrine and realities signified by the wordsbring to light the mystery they contain appear somehow to confer on the words the same or even more weight than the works of God. However, both temporal sequence and the logic of human language dictate that we are saved by faith in Jesus himself, God’s work, not because he was called the Christ in scripture. The words of men can commemorate the work with its understanding at that given moment of time; but the works are human events knowable by multiple acceptable means of communication. The words are of men passing through a changing reality while the works are of God in history.

Paragraph no. 3 is meant to clarify no. 2 but could be more precise by naming its referent, Jesus, a concrete human individual from Galilee.  The quote from Paul is meant to explain: “God, who creates and conserves all things by his Word (see Jn 1:3), provides constant evidence of himself in created realities (Rom 1:19-20). John’s use of “Word”, is meaningful only as a reference to God’s work, already made flesh 70 years earlier. At the same time God’ Word in John is meant to point to God’s Son as “the most intimate truth thus revealed about God” although known only through second and third hand usually oral testimonies, each transmission marked by its author’s memory and understanding. It’s use by John is a simply a legitimate and inspired play on words but in itself cannot produce the effect of God’s works.

Adding the word “Jesus” such as “in Jesus the Christ or Christ Jesus” could have linked all the “intimate truth thus revealed” to the words of the gospels, the human/divine Jesus to be known ever anew by  historical techniques. Thus, Verbum Dei’s expression  “in Christ as the sum total of revelation” is incomplete without its human referent “…Jesus, the Christ…the sum total of revelation.”  This interpretation is confirmed by the Council itself through the  quote from Paul in Romans 1:19-20. Although not written into the text of no. 3, Paul’s quote reads: “The anger of God is being revealed…against all the impiety and depravity of men who keep truth imprisoned…For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them since God himself has made it plain…Ever since God created the world his everlasting power and deity—however invisible—have been there for the mind to see in the things he has made. (Romans 1:18-21, italics mine). (trans. from Jerusalem Bible). The full created reality is the historical or factual Jesus, gradually “shining forth” in new lights gained through fellow human ingenuity. The works are of God, knowable through conventional human communication. The words of men in the canonical gospels transmitted in part orally were composed in writing by Jesus’ followers after a 35 to 75 year time period. They were finally afforded accreditation for theological discourse after 200 more years by the regime of a non-believer one of a series of so-called “divine” emperors, an intriguing twist of God’s work in history.

Up to Vatican II in the Catholic Church “revelation,” or God’s officially recognized communication with  mankind, had been limited to doctrinal  and dogmatic, or propositional statements. Heretofore, God’s communication to men would consist in his relationship to members of the human family. A short but excellent explanation of this change can be found in a book by the theologian, Richard R. Gaillardetz, By What Authority?, pages 1 to 10.


POPE FRANCIS: “The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is—these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today. “God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. Time initiates processes, and space crystallizes them. God is in history, in the processes.” (

POPE BENEDICT XV1: The young Joseph Ratzinger, a rising theological star and later to become the ultra- conservative Pope Benedict 16, gave reluctant testimony to history as an input into theology in his THEOLOGICAL HIGHLIGHTS OF VATICAN II published  shortly after the Council in 1966 and reproduced in a Kindle edition:

“The debate on revelation took up again-this time in a somewhat calmer atmosphere-a problem which in 1962 had set off a most violent controversy: the problem of the historical dimension in theology which underlay the problems of revealed truth, scripture and tradition….The method of historical criticism, which saw the bible in an entirely new light, had won its first victories. The sacred books, believed to be the work of a very few authors to whom God had directly dictated his words, suddenly appeared as a work expressive of an entire human history, which had grown layer by layer throughout millennia, a history deeply interwoven with the religious history of surrounding peoples.(Italics mine).

“No less dramatic was the awakening that took place in regard to the idea of tradition. Liturgical forms and customs, dogmatic formulations thought to have arisen with the apostles, now appeared as products of complicated processes of growth within the womb of history. And the very human factors in this growth were becoming increasingly evident. Here arose an enormous danger for the faith. In Protestantism this led to the temporary victory of a liberal theology in which the substance of faith was reduced to a belief in the fatherhood of the Supreme Being and the consequent brotherhood of man. Pius X took drastic measures to suppress similar developments within Catholic theology…” (Kindle Locations 1097-1100). (

The universally respected theologian, Richard Gaillardetz, not only acknowledges the new and weighty influence of history adopted in the Council, he attributes key doctrinal changes to history. He writes in the Preface to his book, BY WHAT AUTHORITY (Liturgical Press, 2003):

“Once viewed with suspicion, now the council called for a new respect for modern      science and un unprecedented openness to the fruits of historical scholarship.”(p. xii).

Gaillardetz explains how “…divine revelation is a good example of the council’s determination to ‘return to the sources.’ The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, offered a biblically informed presentation of divine revelation as nothing less than God’s self-gift to humankind in love.”(p. 3). (

Stephen Schloesser, S.J.,  a professional historian, portrays the Church grappling with history in his essay,  Chapter 3: Against Forgetting: Memory, History, Vatican II  in  the book, VATICAN II DID ANYTHING HAPPEN (ed. By David Schultenover: Continuum, New York, 2008).

For Schloesser from the point  of view of the march of history, Vatican II and its openness to look at current problems with a close eye on how they developed was not only timely but a moral and ethical necessity for the Church. He asks how could a millennial institution called to interpret God’s relationship with mankind could evade the obligation of confronting the new and challenging world fashioned by the scope and weight of global events leading up to and reaching a climax in the 20th century.

“The Council was largely framed by the traumatic events of 1956 and 1968: the repression of popular uprisings by Russian tanks in Budapest and Prague. Implicit in the cold war tapestry were events that are now largely unknown to a youthful generation precisely because they are in the settled past. Hitler’s aggression and the Holocaust; the Soviet empire whose seeds lay in the blood of Stalingrad; the Atomic Age that was born in Hiroshima; the postwar division of the world into two mutually exclusive ideologies and superpowers; and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation…(p. 93)…the council was a response to cataclysmic shifts in the mid-20th century…the Jewish Holocaust, of a global war that claimed between 50 and 60 million lives, of the invention of the atomic bomb and the possibility of human annihilation…of decolonization and the end of Western hegemony—“(p.96).

Schloesser sums up the angst that pervaded our globe at the time of the council: “…the second half of the 20th century—a time when the world faced its deepest anxieties and had no idea whether or not they would soon be realized.” (p. 94). Along with doubts and anxiety technology was rapidly turning the world into a glass window display of a global cornucopia for a burgeoning and ever poorer, hungrier world population. Where was the power of the Church and it billion plus membership? (