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Catholic Authority: The Word on Tradition…

July 7, 2012

Below is a brief overview of the sources, transmission, and interpretation of divine revelation within the Roman Catholic Church with particular attention to the functions of: Scripture,  Apostolic Tradition, and the Magisterium.

For the Church authority matters.  By what authority a church or religious institution claims to exist and speak into the lives of its adherents is of primary importance.  Within the Catholic Church authority is primarily derived from one source;  the revelation of God.  Understanding how that revelation was manifested and received is key to understanding the authority of the Catholic church and its mission.  God in his wisdom chose to reveal Himself and to make known to mankind the “hidden purpose of His will.”[1]  The majesty and impact of this act has not been lost on the church, and in fact, has served to animate the activities and construction within the church, of the apparatus necessary to share this glorious revelation with the world.  Our task here will be to examine the elements, sources and impact of the church’s use of this revelation; and how this differs from and/or fascinates protestant evangelicalism.

That God chose to reveal himself to the world is not in dispute within the church.  How God accomplished this revelation and how the church responded has often been a point of division throughout the history of Christianity.  For the Catholic Church,  there are three primary sources of God’s revelation to man.  This trinity of divine revelation takes the form of two modes of transmission and mode of interpretation.  God.  God transmitted His word through two sources; sacred scripture and tradition.[2]  These two occupy the same space and serve to work together and form a unified front of the truth of Christ.  They “are bound closely together and communicate one with the other.”[3]

Sacred Scripture is the actual written word of God, recorded through the work and breath of the Holy Spirit.[4]  This Scripture is the record of God’s deeds made manifest in the history of salvation. The word both confirms and is confirmed by the works of God in history.[5]  Chief among God works recorded in the Scriptures is the incarnation of the mystery of His Son.  Christ serves to make the revelation of God to man complete.  This leads us to the second mode of God’s revealing transmission, tradition.

Holy tradition is the entirety of God’s word communicated from God to the apostles by Christ and by the Holy Spirit.[6]  These are the oral teachings of Christ, recorded in the gospels, which informed the first church fathers, the apostles, as to the construction and actions of the Church.  The church is the product of Christ’s incarnation and work here on earth; indeed it is the focus of God’s revelation through His son and the Holy Spirit.  As such, the church “does not derive certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone.”[7]  But rather it must derive its certainty about truth from the work of scripture and tradition together.  And each must be accorded “equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”[8]  These are the two modes of the transmission divine revelation.  And both for “one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church.”[9]  Of chief importance to the church is its mode of interpreting this sacred deposit and communicating this truth to its believers.  This task falls under the work of the Magisterium.

The Magisterium serves to, “give authentic interpretation of the word of God,” to the people of God within the church.[10]  It is not superior to God’s word, but is indispensable to the work of God, acting as the servant of the word; “teaching what has been handed on to it.”[11]  While not equal to God’s word, it exercises its authority from Christ to the “fullest extent” when it serves to defines dogma from God’s revelation.[12]  This si the work of define truths from Scripture and tradition to inform the life of the believer and conform the behaviors of the faithful to the image of Christ.  This work is necessary to the effectiveness of the Scriptures.[13]

These three elements of divine revelation weave together the tapestry of divine authority as exercised by the church.  Each mode serves to inform the other and bring definition to the will of God for the believer.  And each is of indispensable importance to the authority of the church on earth.  We shall now examine the sources the church uses to proclaim this authority.

As was evidenced in the discussion above, there are three sources and methods by which the church has developed the doctrine of divine revelation.  More than any other doctrine, this one has woven together its substance and its subject.  How do we know what to believe about the Scriptures? We know from the Scriptures.  What informs our thoughts on tradition?  Of course, the history of tradition within the church.  Each of these doctrines is joined together by the work of the Magisterium.  The Catechism speaks to revelation in a section entitled “God comes to meet Man.”  Within that section on divine revelation, the chief source of catechetical instruction comes from Vatican II and the document Dei Verbum.  Dei Verbum was solemnly promulgated by Pope Paul VI, to follow in the foot steps of “the council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.  The presentation of this doctrine within the teaching of the church reflects very much the substance of this doctrine in practice.  It is often difficult to tell where Scripture begins and where tradition ends, or visa versa.  This is a key point of Criticism among evangelical and has been since the Council of Trent.

While the elevation of the entirety of Scripture as the infallible word of God is commendable, the chief complaint among protestant evangelicals is the equal elevation of tradition.  Placing anything on par with the word of God as proclaimed by the Holy Spirit, recorded in writing by the priests, prophets an apostles; is viewed as unacceptable.  Whether catholic or protestant, one can not deny the importance or the role of Christ’s church on earth.  Jesus gave his life for His church, His bride.  But the protestant desire for sola scriptura (scripture alone) is based on the belief that Scripture alone is “God breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness.”[14]  Also there is an appeal on behalf of evangelicals to examine the fruit of the church’s history concerning the practice of its tradition and Magisterium.  By misinterpreting the  perceived oral teachings of Christ, the habits of the early church fathers and even the composition of the canon to include apocryphal books and treating them as authoritative on par with the explicit recorded word of God, much damage has been done to the witness of Christ on earth.  The word has been given, and the mission is clear to Go into all the word, teaching what Christ taught, making disciples and baptizing in the name of the Father son and the Holy Spirit.  Elevating any human teaching or tradition to the level of this truth is bound to compete with the spirit of that mission.

In concluding it is worth examining this doctrine in terms of mystery and fascination.  As an evangelical protestant, I must admit to finding some attraction to the permanence and authority with which the Catholic church operates.  There is perceived, unquestioning adherence to what the church teaches and often times a confidence which grows from those convictions.  I think the evangelical world is beset by variation and independence of conscious to the point that it can be very difficult to discern what is true and authoritative; what truly should inform our lives?  The Catholic Church would appear to have answers to these questions.  And that perception is alluring and enticing, and its authority is attractive in this post-modern world.  The reality of course is that perception is often greater that reality.  The Catholic Church is not a monolithic body of mindless automatons.  But rather it is a vibrantly diverse group of over a billion people, some following the letter of the tradition, others not.  Ultimately evangelicals, myself included, must root our confidence in the word of God, for it alone possesses the power to save the souls of men.[15]  Our tradition must be that sole adherence to the word, which was made manifest in the Son.  The Word full of Glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of Grace and Truth.  Lacking in nothing.

 

Glossary

The Holy Scriptures: The speech of God as put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit, organized in the Canon, called the Holy Bible.

 

Tradition: The entirety of the Word of God entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

 

Magisterium: the servant of the Word of God, it is the teaching office of the church, giving authentic interpretation to the Word of God, whether in written form or in tradition.

 

Dei Verbum:  (The words of God) the Chief document of Vatican II discussing the revelation of God to the Church through the Scriptures, Holy Tradition and the role of the Magisterium.

 

Sola Scriptura:  One of the five Solas of the reformation.  Testifying to the belief of the reformers that scripture alone should instruct and inform the life of the believer and that tradition and the Magisterium were in no way equal in substance, importance, or function to the Word of God.

Bibliography

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ligouri: Liguori

Publications. 1994. Sections 50-141 the Revelation of God and Sacred Scripture.

 

Dei Verbum. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation. Promulgated by His

Holiness Pope Pail VI, November 18, 1965


[1] Dei Verbum (DV) Ch1:2

[2]Catechism Sec. 81.

[3] Catechism Sec. 80

[4] Ibid Sec. 81

[5] DV Ch.1:2

[6] Catechism Sec. 81

[7] Catechism Sec. 82

[8]Ibid.

[9]DV Ch. 2:10

[10] Catechism Sec. 85

[11] Catechism Sec. 86

 [12] Catechism Sec. 88

[13] Ibid.

[14] 2 Timothy 3:16

[15] James 1:21

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