Revelation as Dialogical

Dei Verbum as a Hermeneutic for Praying with Theology

Understanding Divine Revelation in its first instance as the desire of the Father to communicate himself in love to human persons serves as an opportunity for more deeply integrating one’s intellectual life with one’s spiritual life. The movement from Dei Filius of the First Vatican Council to the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, of the Second Vatican Council manifests a positive development toward a greater understanding of Divine Revelation as first being understood as a communion among persons, divine and human. The personalist methodology of Dei Verbum opens up a door to relate to God in a theological manner that is essentially more deeply personal. It signifies a development from a primarily academic approach to theology, to a theology that is not less doctrinal, but simply more relational, thus illumining doctrine through the lens of personhood. This leads to a relationship with theology that is more integral and accessible to the lived experience of the Christian who seeks the closeness of God in the depth of one’s heart, and in the trials, joys, pains, and circumstances of one’s daily life.

How does one discover, or grow more deeply in, the experienced awareness of God’s love for them? A non-believer may certainly see a bumblebee and be led to the possibility of God’s creative power (Dei Filius). However, how does that non-believer come to know the personal love of the Father, the creator of their own personhood, and upon whom their personhood is sustained and depends (Dei Verbum)? God sometimes reaches us first through the use of our reason, which leads to a life of faith and charity. For others he speaks directly into experience in a manner wherein reason is clearly not at the forefront. For some the former is sufficient, for others, whether at the beginning or more mature phase of the spiritual life, something much more personal is needed. This seems especially true of those desiring to cultivate a lifelong relationship with God in sustained, consistent, and surrendered prayer rooted in love.

The Path to Dei Verbum: Toward Personhood and Communion

The Dogmatic Constitution, Dei Filius, of the First Vatican Council in its second chapter, which is on Revelation, first addresses God’s Revelation through creation and then goes on to historical Revelation.1 This methodology is traditionally called the preambula fidei, which is understood as natural knowledge being prior to the divine act of faith.2 It is certainly valid, but a weakness is that it could remain at the level of the intellectual alone, without the involvement of love. For example, chapter three of Dei Filius, which pertains to theological faith, defines it as the full submission of the intellect and will to God.3 At this period in the Church’s history, dogma was focused on the rational assent to propositions proposed by the Church, and based primarily in a notional understanding. This method brought emphasis to the distinction between nature and grace, especially the supernatural reality of the latter.

While it is certainly necessary and helpful that we have this distinction within the Tradition, there was nevertheless a basis for a further development wherein 1) the person of the Father who gives the Revelation would be emphasized as prior to the content itself and 2) the act of faith would be deepened to include the more existential reality of the whole self being given freely to God.4

The Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council on Revelation, Dei Verbum, therefore contributes to an understanding of both the God who reveals and the person who responds to Revelation. However, the journey to this contribution of the Second Vatican Council was not without arduous struggle.5 Joseph Ratzinger, soon to be peritus, was asked by the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Frings, to review the draft-text, Constitutionis Dogmaticae De Fontibus, which had been approved by Pope John XXIII on July 13, 1962. The draft-text was sent out to the members of the Council prior to discussion within the Council itself.6 The thoughts of Joseph Ratzinger on the theological method employed in the draft-text are very helpful for our understanding the benefit of understanding Revelation and the human response in the act of faith more through the lens of the categories of personhood and communion than nature and grace, emphasizing the former categories without neglecting the latter. In his Memoirs Ratzinger recalls his review of the preliminary texts for Cardinal Frings:

He now began to send me these texts regularly in order to have my criticism and suggestion for improvement. Naturally, I took exception to certain things, but I found no grounds for radical rejection of what was being proposed, such as managed to put through. It is true that the documents bore only weak traces of the biblical and patristic renewal of the last decades, so that they gave an impression of rigidity and narrowness through their excessive dependence on Scholastic theology. In other words, they reflected more the thought of scholars than of shepherds. But I must say that they had a solid foundation and had been carefully elaborated.7

The theological desires of the young Father Ratzinger were vindicated at the Council, where the draft-text prepared by the Preparatory Theological Commission was rejected.8 Ratzinger was then added as a peritus to a mixed Commission. The final text, with revisions, was officially promulgated under the Pontificate of Paul VI on November 18, 1965. Notably, the distinctions between Scripture and Tradition as independent sources9 were removed, for the Fathers of the Council chose not to reduce the content of Revelation to historical events. According to the analysis of Avery Dulles, against such an overly historical approach to Revelation, the Fathers held that God himself in his eternal reality is the primary content or object of Revelation.10 Ratzinger reflects in his commentary on the fruits of this return to the original sources: “the struggle over the Constitution on Revelation was undoubtedly the liberation from the narrow view and the return to what actually happens in the positive sources, before it was crystallized into doctrine, when God ‘reveals’ himself, and thus a re-appraisal of the whole nature and basis of Christian existence.”11

Dei Verbum as the Hermeneutical Key to the Conciliar Documents

Dei Verbum, though promulgated under the pontificate of Paul VI, may be considered from a doctrinal perspective the source document, or hermeneutical key, to the other documents of the Council. The Council begins and ends with the discussion of Dei Verbum,12 thus providing a theological hermeneutic from which to proceed and conclude. René Latourelle likens the emergence of Dei Verbum to a method of approaching Revelation that is more personalist, historical, and Christocentric, and less extrinsicist, temporal, and notional.13 Joseph Ratzinger’s commentary on Dei Verbum describes the theological dimensions of the renewed appreciation of the relation between word and event in the structure of Revelation.14 Ratzinger states: “The Fathers were merely concerned with overcoming neo-scholastic intellectualism, for which Revelation chiefly meant a store of mysterious supernatural teachings, which automatically reduces faith very much to an acceptance of these supernatural insights.”15

The unique nature of this Constitution is that it begins with the personal Revelation of God and salvation in Jesus Christ, a different point of departure from that of Vatican I, which spoke first of God’s revelation through creation, and then of historical Revelation.16 Thus, a hermeneutic is provided by the former through which all contemplative pondering and acceptance of doctrinal and dogmatic truths may be applied, that is, through the origin of the personhood of the Father, and the fullness of his Revelation in the person of Jesus Christ.17

The theology of Henri De Lubac, S.J., serves as a catalyst for placing the mystery of Christ in the foreground of Revelation. While conceptual expressions, along with their notions and propositions, are understood in his theology as necessary, they are nevertheless only illumined by the centrality of the mystery of Christ.18 De Lubac recognizes that the normative truth of the mystery should govern our understanding of precise formulas etc., the normative truth being central to the rediscovery that the mystery of the person of Christ contains the whole of Revelation and the whole of dogma.19

This Christocentric understanding of Revelation leaves ample space for preserving and protecting the presence of mystery in our understanding of the act of faith, which thus enables the theological virtue of faith to reach into the deeper levels of the human heart, to which conceptual answers are insufficient.20 It becomes evident that since this methodology is centered on the divine personhood of the Father and of Christ, it is apophatic. Here, the divine may never be reduced to our own concepts or formulations. With person and mystery21 at the forefront, we are invited to understand Revelation as a dialogical event.

Furthermore, with this emphasis on personhood, both divine and human, a door is opened for a metaphysics to emerge which reflects, from the ontological perspective, the primacy of personhood, communion, and love. The point of departure for such a metaphysics would be the invitation of the person of the Father to all of creation to partake in the event of communion.22

According to Maximus the Confessor, if the Father makes all things by his will, and he makes each creature by an act of his will, then the Father knows existing things as he knows the products of his own will. The will, of course, in the classic Christian sense, is identified with the love of the Father, which is significantly distinct from the Father knowing things simply by their own nature (classic Greek). For Maximus, God knows things only because he first loves them.23 Maximus thus provides the foundations for a Christian metaphysic where love is the ultimate link between God and creation.

The Incarnation is an act of love by the Father, and this mandates that personhood and love must be understood as primary in any Christian metaphysic. Because love is the principle act of God in creation, love must be the human person’s principal act of response. For love to be the primary response, faith must have access to deepest existential corners of one’s heart. These hidden places of the heart often remain shrouded in mystery, acknowledged, related, and healed only through the life of grace and prayer, void of concepts; in an apophatic form of prayer that may be described as nothing less than loving surrender.

Dei Verbum as Dialogical

Article 1 of Dei Verbum begins by stating that “the Word of God calls for reverent attention and confident proclamation.”24 This thus becomes our posture for prayer, the appreciation of the Word of God as a divine gift, extending from the fullness of the love of the Father and demanding a response from us with each prayerful encounter.25 In every act of lectio divina, theological study, or contemplative prayer, we are thus called by this first article to a reverent hearing and attention to the presence of God within his Word.

Article 2 of the same Dogmatic Constitution further extends this invitation of the Father as it speaks of God “revealing himself” to the human person, as he “speaks to man as friends and enters into their life” so as to “invite and receive them into relationship with himself.”26 Joseph Ratzinger understands this article as being dialogical in character, particularly because of the use of the words indicating dialogue, such as alloquitor and conservatur.27 Such verbs, used by the Council Fathers to describe the relationship of God with human persons, are examples of the dialogical import of Revelation in terms of the word, for every word presupposes an “I” and a “Thou” and implies that the “I” intends to be understood by the “Thou.”28 This understanding of word carries with it an existential delegation.29

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, Article 5 of Dei Verbum, in a development from Vatican I, describes assent to Revelation as assent to the Revelation God gives,30 placing emphasis on the person of the Father giving the Revelation (the who) rather than simply assenting to the truth of what has been revealed by God (the what).31 Joseph Ratzinger comments that this change of emphasis: “opens up a new vista, which again in no way removes the intellectual component of faith, but understands it as a component to a wider whole.”32 It thus becomes evident that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council desired to personalize Revelation.33

Traces of the Hermeneutic in the Magisterium

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI was able to elaborate on his earlier theological contributions to Dei Verbum by restating the necessity of moving from a classical to a more personal understanding of God as he explains:

The divine power that Aristotle at the height of Greek philosophy sought to grasp through reflection, is indeed for every being an object and desire and love, and as an object of love this divinity moves the world, but in itself it lacks nothing and does not love: it is solely the object of love. The one God in whom Israel believes, on the other hand, loves with a personal love.34

In his second encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI states that God’s desire to reveal himself to the human person is not simply a communication of things to be known, but it involves the whole person as he states:

So now we can say: Christianity was not only “good news” — the communication of a hitherto unknown content. In our language we would say: The Christian message was not only “informative” but “performative.” This means: The Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known — it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing.35

Pope Francis, in continuity with his predecessor, uses the same hermeneutic when he speaks of the relationship of the kerygma to the transmission of the faith. He speaks of the initial encounter with God in Revelation giving the one who receives security, meaning and wisdom, as it satisfies the thirst for the infinite. For this grace to occur, the Pope states, preaching should be more evangelical than philosophical. Essentially, the transmission of the faith should first be aimed at quenching a heart that thirsts, which fills the deepest corners of the human heart first with the person of God Himself, and thereafter, with more prayer, the necessary doctrine that expresses Him, and teaches us more about who He is in Himself. Pope Francis writes:

We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more “solid” formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats. It is the message capable of responding to the desire for the infinite which abides in every human heart. The centrality of the kerygma calls for stressing those elements which are most needed today: it has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical. All this demands on the part of the evangelizer certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental.36


As one grows in the spiritual life, one relates to God in a manner that moves more from concepts to presence. In prayer, one sits and is drawn into deeper and more prolonged moments of silence. At the same time the silence grows and deepens, so does the desire to share God with others. Yet, in this sharing of God with others, the otherness of God, his great mystery, and at the same time His very personal and intimate love are so overwhelming, that concepts seems to not explain Him well enough, and in themselves, one is aware that they do not quench the deeper thirst. It is at this period of the spiritual life where one must not abandon the intellectual, but see and receive it in a more personal manner, so that it becomes ever more integrated with one’s prayer.

This hermeneutic provided by the Second Vatican Council as developed in this essay enables one to do just that. It is for the beginner, the person seeking to be filled by God, as well as for the wise and experienced contemplative. Whether one is at the beginning, or passing into the deeper stages of the spiritual life, the manner in which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council discerned to describe how God relates with us in the totality of our personhood, with our minds and our hearts, only serves to plunge us more deeply into the mystery which is the Trinitarian God Himself.

  1. Cf. Dei Filius, First Vatican Council, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II, ed. N.P. Tanner S.J., 806. “The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the things that were created through the natural light of human reason.”
  2. Cf. K. Rahner, H. Vorgrimler, ed. Dictionary of Theology (Chestnut Ridge, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1985), 403.
  3. cf. Dei Filius, in Tanner, 807. “Since human beings are totally dependent on God as their Creator and Lord, and created reason is completely subject to uncreated truth, we are obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect and will by faith.”
  4. Cf. Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, in the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II, ed., N.P. Tanner S.J., Article 5, “Deo revelanti praestanda est oboeditio fidei, quao homo se totum libere committit.”
  5. cf. R. Fisichella, “Dei Verbum 1: History”, in R. Fisichella and R. Latourelle eds., Dictionary of Fundamental Theology, New York, NY, 1994, 215–216. Cf. J. Ratzinger, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed., H. Vorgrimler, 159. The Preparatory Theological Commission for the document on revelation was chaired by Cardinal Ottaviani of the Holy Office, with Sebastian Tromp, professor of apologetics at the Pontifical Gregorian University as Secretary. Fisichella notes that it was due to the skill of Tromp in providing a draft summary that the complex subject was discussed in an organized manner.
  6. Cf. R. Fisichella, “Dei Verbum 1: History,” 215.
  7. J. Ratzinger, Milestones Memoirs 1927–1977 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1998). See also J. Wicks S.J, Investigating Vatican II: Its Theologians, Ecumenical Turn, and Biblical Commitment (Washington D.C.: CUA Press, 2018), 88: “As a matter of principle, Ratzinger stated that the council texts ‘should not be treatises in a scholastic style, as if they were taken over from textbooks of theologians, but should instead speak the language of Holy Scripture and the holy Fathers of the Church.’” This most recent book by Fr. Wicks S.J., a former Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, is the fruit of years of theological and historical reflection on the texts of the Second Vatican Council.
  8. Cf. J. Wicks, S.J, Investigating Vatican II, 63–64. Ratzinger, who had produced an alternative draft text with K. Rahner, had been giving lectures to groups of bishops. “On October 10, (1962), the day before the opening liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger spoke to the German-speaking bishops on the serious problems with the draft text ‘The Sources of Revelation’.”
  9. Cf. R. Fisichella, “Dei Verbum I: History,” 216. Cf. J. Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Origin and Background” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed., H. Vorgrimler, ed. III (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1969), 159.
  10. Cf. C. Colson and R.J. Neuhaus, eds, Your Word is Truth: A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002).
  11. J. Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Origin and Background,” ed. H. Vorgrimler, 170.
  12. Cf. R. Latourelle, “Dei Verbum II: Commentary” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, ed. H. Vorgrimler, ed. III (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1969), 218. Here Latourelle states that “Dei Verbum was one of the first constitutions submitted for discussion, and one of the last to be voted upon.”
  13. Latourelle, “Dei Verbum II: Commentary,” 218.
  14. Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” 172.
  15. Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” 172.
  16. Cf. Latourelle, “Dei Verbum II: Commentary,” 218.
  17. Cf. T. Neal and J. Gresham, Wonder and the Prayerful Study of Theology (Omaha, NE: Institute for Priestly Formation, 2017). These two experienced seminary theologians introduce the seminarian to praying with the doctrine of the Church by using the Chalcedonian Creed as a doxology. The methodology of Dei Verbum serves to enhance this experience insofar as the seminarian is able to ponder the doctrine of the Church in relation to, and as a gift from, the person of the Father. Doctrine will then be received not only intellectually, but into the inner recesses of the heart of the seminarian, thus giving them the tools to align their hour of prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament to their theological study in the classroom.
  18. Cf. R. Latourelle, Theology of Revelation (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1966), 228.
  19. Latourelle, Theology of Revelation, 228.
  20. Latourelle, Theology of Revelation, 228. See also the trilogy of books written by Fr. Donald Haggerty, an experienced seminary spiritual director, on contemplative prayer for a masterful exposition of how concepts are not sufficient for the soul who grows deeper in the spiritual life: Contemplative Provocations (2013); Contemplative Hunger (2016); and Contemplative Enigmas (2020, all from Ignatius Press).
  21. Latourelle, Theology of Revelation, 228.
  22. Cf. International Theological Commission, Theology, Christology, Anthropology, 1982–1983. “In ancient philosophy substance in general was at the center of things, but here the center is a ‘metaphysic of charity,’ namely, the person, whose most perfect act of charity is the act of charity.”
  23. Cf. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua 7.
  24. Dei Verbum, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II, ed., N.P. Tanner S.J., 971; Latin original: “Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans.”
  25. Cf. R. Latourelle, “Dei Verbum II: Commentary,” 218.
  26. Dei Verbum, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II, ed., N.P. Tanner S.J., 972; Latin original: “Hac itaque revelatione Deus invisibilis ex abundantia caritatis suae homines tamquam amicos alloquitor et cum eis conversatur.”
  27. J. Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Origin and Background,” ed. H. Vorgrimler, 171.
  28. Cf. R. Latourelle, Theology of Revelation, 228. See also S. Pie-Ninot, La Teologia Fundamentale, Brescia, 2007, 83–84.
  29. Cf. R. Latourelle, Theology of Revelation, 324–325. See also J. Alfaro, S.J., “Persona Y Gracia” in Gregorianum Vol. 41, Rome, 1960, 5–29.
  30. Cf. Dei Verbum, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II, ed., N.P. Tanner S.J., 973. Emphasis mine.
  31. J. Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” 178. Cf. Dei Filius, First Vatican Council, Vol . II, ed. N.P. Tanner S.J., 807.
  32. J. Ratzinger, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” 178.
  33. Cf. R. Latourelle, “Dei Verbum II: Commentary,” 218.
  34. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas est, article 9, 2006.
  35. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, article 3, 2007.
  36. Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, article 165, 2013.
Msgr. Walter Oxley About Msgr. Walter Oxley

Rev. Msgr. Walter R. Oxley, STD is a priest of the Diocese of Toledo, OH. He is the pastor of Saint Mary Parish, Millersville and Saint Michael the Archangel Parish, Gibsonburg. He is the author of Personhood and Communion (Blessed Hope Publishing, 2018) and, with Rev. John Cush, Theology as Prayer (IPF Publications, 2022).

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