REVELATION AND THE MAGISTERIUM
Two Sources of Revelation
Although in the beginning, divine revelation was handed down from generation to generation only by word of mouth, some of it later came to be written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The divine revelation that was handed down by oral transmission is known as Sacred Tradition, which comes from the Latin tradere, which means to hand something down. Holy Scripture (or the Bible) is the divine revelation that was originally passed down orally but was later committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Bible was, therefore, not a set of manuscripts directly written by God, but it came out of the oral or Sacred Tradition of the Church. The Bible is nothing else but that part of Sacred Tradition that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has been recorded or committed to writing.
Therefore, our knowledge of what God has revealed comes from these two sources: Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture. Sacred Tradition, together with Holy Scripture, make up what is known as the deposit of faith (depositum fidei).
The total deposit of faith originally contained in Sacred Tradition is now split into two parts. One part is recorded in the inspired writings, called Holy Scripture, but the other part is not. Many theologians restrict the name “Sacred Tradition” to refer only to that part of Sacred Tradition that remained outside of Holy Scripture, or that was not fully written by divine inspiration. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as one keeps in mind that even the contents of Holy Scripture were once part of Sacred Tradition.
In the Christian tradition, there were four men, called evangelists, who wrote the Gospels pertaining to the life, miracles, and teachings of Jesus Christ. These men were Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There was a fifth man, Saint Paul, who helped spread the Christian faith to the pagan world, but he did not write a Gospel, so he was not called an evangelist. Saint Paul was a great Apostle and wrote many important epistles or letters (addressed to various Christian communities) that became recognized as "inspired writings" and, therefore, are now regarded also as parts of the Bible.
Saint Paul (also named "Saul") was a great Apostle, although he was not one of the Twelve. He was actually one of the Pharisees and an intense persecutor of early Christians. He became a believer in Christ when Christ confronted him on his way to Damascus, saying: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4)
The Conversion of Saint Paul
A painting by Benvenuto Tisi (1481-1559)
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The Role of the Magisterium
Although a divine institution, the Church herself does not make new revelations but merely teaches or explains what God has revealed. Unlike Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture, the Church is not a constitutive source of revelation, although we learn and understand God’s revelation through her guidance. Through her teaching authority, called the Magisterium, the Church acts as the preacher of God’s revelation. However, because of her role as a teacher and interpreter of Christian revelation, the Church could be considered an interpretative source of divine revelation. In other words, she is a source as far as the interpretation of God's revelation is concerned.
Christ selected twelve Apostles from among His disciples, to whom He gave special training and instruction. Before He ascended into Heaven, He gave them a special mandate: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Therefore, it is a big mistake to think that the Bible is the only means intended by God to pass on His revelation to all nations. It was clearly His will to make use of the Church’s preaching activity for the purpose of evangelizing the world.
Indeed, this was how the Church grew and spread from the beginning—that is, through the preaching activity of the Church. In the early days of Christianity, people had no complete Bible. Biblical scholars estimate that the first canonical Gospel (that of St. Matthew) was not written until about A.D. 42, which was almost a decade after the crucifixion. The last Gospel (that of St. John) was not completed until about the end of the first century, and the entire set of books that is known as the New Testament was not officially recognized until the fourth century of the Christian era. For nearly four centuries, Christians had no New Testament, and they had to depend on the preaching activity of the Church to learn what Christ had revealed. The Church, in turn, drew its knowledge of the faith largely from Sacred Tradition. The Church relied also on Sacred Tradition (a) to decide which of the many books that claimed to be inspired should be recognized as truly “inspired” by God and (b) to determine who the inspired authors really were.
After the books of the Bible were officially determined and recognized, the Church relied on both the Bible and Sacred Tradition for her teachings. Because of her special role as Teacher (Magister), the Church received from Christ the gift of infallibility or the protection and assistance of the Holy Spirit: “But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you” (John 14:26). It is in her role as Teacher that the Church serves as an infallible but purely interpretative source of Christian revelation. The Church is not above the Bible or Sacred Tradition. She has no authority to originate new teaching or to add to or change the words of the Holy Scripture. But she is the one Authority instituted by Christ to be the sole interpreter and guardian of divine revelation. Thus, in its Dogmatic Constitution, Pastor Aeternus, Vatican Council I says: "For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles." Vatican Council I, Session 4 (18 July 1870), Chapter 4, No. 6.
The Pope enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit or the gift of infallibility when making solemn teachings on matters of faith and morals.
Pope St. Gregory the Great
A painting by Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652)
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The sola Scriptura principle was one of the five pillars of the Protestant Reformation. The champion of this principle was Martin Luther (1483-1546), who, at the conclusion of a debate at Leipsic, said: "A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it." See the article on Martin Luther: A Unique Vessel, IV, E.
A painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)
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Together with their belief that only the Bible needs to be believed, Protestants also reject the Catholic claim that Sacred Tradition is equally a true source of revelation. The problem with that is that, without Sacred Tradition, there would be no Bible at all, for the Bible only grew out of the Sacred Tradition of the Church. Without drawing from Sacred Tradition, the Protestants themselves would not know which books comprised the New Testament of the Bible. The Bible did not say which of the many competing gospels written about Christ were inspired. It was the Catholic Church—thanks to her Sacred Tradition—that determined which books belonged to Holy Scripture. When the Protestant Reformers broke off from the Catholic Church, the canon of Holy Scripture was already defined. The Protestants merely inherited their list of New Testament books from the Catholic Church. This means that Sacred Tradition cannot be ignored and that the Bible alone is not the ultimate authority in matters of religion.
If the Bible is not the ultimate authority in matters of faith and morals, then what is? The ultimate source, authority, or rule of faith is, of course, God Himself, for it is He who reveals Himself. But for a Catholic, the proximate source of revealed truth is not the Bible alone, nor is it simply the Bible and Sacred Tradition taken together. Rather, the proximate source, norm, or rule of faith is the Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition as illuminated, interpreted, and taught by the Catholic Church.
Truly, the Bible is also a rule of faith, but it cannot serve as a proximate norm or rule of faith because it has many abstruse passages that require interpretation, and the Bible does not interpret itself. Since the Church is the one institution to whom Christ promised the Spirit of Truth (John 16:12-13), and since it is the institution given by Christ the commission to preach the gospel to all nations (Mark 16:15), therefore, it is through the Church’s interpretation, explanation, and teachings that we learn what God has revealed in Holy Scripture. Christ gave a stern warning to those who refuse to listen to the Church's teaching: "He who hears you, hears me; he who despises you, despises me; and he who despises me, despises him who sent me" (Luke 10:16).
This does not mean that the Church is higher than the Bible because the Bible is the word of God. Relative to the Bible, the Church is only its guardian. Indeed, the Church has a divine authority to preach and interpret the Bible, but it has no authority to introduce new texts, change the word of God, or alter its meaning. The Church must defend the word of God and safeguard its message.
"This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed." – Dei Verbum, Ch. II, #10.
Through the ages, it has been the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that guided the faithful, even before the first Gospel was written. It was the Church that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, determined which religious books were inspired and should be considered parts of the Holy Scripture. To this day, it is still the Church who, by drawing from her Sacred Tradition, interprets and explains the meaning of the Bible authoritatively for the believer.