By F. K. Bartels
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living” (Catechism of The Catholic Church, No. 108).
GLADE PARK, CO (Catholic Online) – On March 23 Pope Benedict XVI, during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square, focused his catechesis on St. Lawrence, whom he acknowledged as an “effective preacher,” and a “theologian versed in sacred Scripture and the fathers of the Church.” St. Lawrence was, continued the Pope, “also able to illustrate in an exemplary way the Catholic doctrine to Christians who, above all in Germany, had followed the Reformation.”
“With his clear and quiet exposition,” continued our Holy Father, St. Lawrence “showed the biblical and patristic foundation of all the articles of the faith called into question by Martin Luther. Among these, the primacy of St. Peter and his Successors, the divine origin of the episcopate, justification as man’s interior transformation, the need of good works for salvation. The success that Lawrence enjoyed helps us to understand that also today, in carrying forward ecumenical dialogue with so much hope, the confrontation with sacred Scripture, read in the Tradition of the Church, is an irreplaceable element of fundamental importance, as I wished to recall in the apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini.”
It is not necessary to ask why Pope Benedict would use the phrase “confrontation with sacred Scripture”; for it is the inconsistent interpretation of Scripture itself which often continues to — at least to a large extent — fuel disunity in contemporary Christendom. Our Lord prayed for unity among his followers on the eve of his Passion (see Jn. 17); however, it will not be achieved until Christians can agree on key doctrines of the Christian religion, such as those mentioned above by our Holy Father.
Pope Benedict also emphasized the importance of reading Scripture “in the Tradition of the Church.” The inseparable relationship between Tradition (the word of God revealed to the living community of the Church) and Scripture remains as perhaps the single most misunderstood element of the true Christian religion among those who trace the origin of their particular faith tradition to the Reformation. Simply, Tradition is viewed today by some Christians as an intrusion on the word of God, when, in fact, it is just the opposite: it is essential to a fruitful and proper understanding of Scripture. One without the other diminishes the whole of God’s revealed word.
The notion that Scripture should be interpreted in an isolated fashion apart from Tradition was foreign to the apostolic Church, as St. Paul attests: “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thess. 2:15). It was not until Martin Luther and the Reformation in the sixteenth century that sola scriptura became entrenched in parts of Christendom. Thomas Bokenkotter wrote that for “Luther, ‘Scripture alone’ was the supreme authority in religion-and henceforth this phrase became the rallying cry of all Protestants” (A Concise History of the Catholic Church, 208).
Further, Hilaire Belloc noted that the main principle of the Reformation was a “reaction against a united spiritual authority” (The Great Heresies, 97). While the Reformation was ignited by a complex array of disagreements, clergy abuses, frustration over certain practices in the Church at that time, and other issues, it was nevertheless the tenet of “Scripture alone” which provided the reformers with an anchor point on which a break from the authority of the Catholic Church could be both implemented and, so it seems, sustained. The Christians of that period were Catholics and, in order to facilitate a break with Rome, it became necessary to argue against the importance of Tradition and the authority of the Church: “Scripture alone” became the foundation of such an argument.
Tradition: The Revealed Word of God In History
In Part One of Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI, in describing the various ways in which the word of God is spoken throughout salvation history, focuses on the relationship between Tradition and Scripture. It is important to recognize that, at the very outset, our Holy Father wished to make clear the inseparable relationship between the apostolic Tradition contained in the living Church and the written word of God preserved in Sacred Scripture:
“Then too, the word of God is that word preached by the Apostles in obedience to the command of the Risen Jesus: ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk. 16:15). The word of God is thus handed on in the Church’s living Tradition. Finally, the word of God, attested and divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. All this helps us to see that, while in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’: Christianity is the ‘religion of the word of God,’ not of ‘a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word’ (qtd. from St. Bernard of Clairvaux). Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable” (Verbum Domini, 7).
We might think of Tradition as the foundation upon which Sacred Scripture is built, for Tradition is of apostolic origin, and was first received into the Church by the Apostles who heard it from the Savior’s own lips. These men, the foundation-stones of the Church (Eph. 2:20), went forth and, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, handed on by “oral preaching, by their example, [and] by their ordinances, what they themselves had received.” It was the “Apostles and others associated with them who, under the inspiration [of the] Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing” (Ibid., 17-18).
Quoting from Vatican IIs Dei Verbum, Pope Benedict XVI stated that Tradition is “a living and dynamic reality”: it “‘makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit’; yet not in the sense that it changes in its truth, which is perennial. Rather, ‘there is a growth in insight into the realities and the words that are being passed on,’ through contemplation and study, with the understanding granted by deeper spiritual experience and by the ‘preaching of those who, on succeeding to the office of bishop, have received the sure charism of truth'” (Ibid.).
Tradition, Scripture and Magisterium: The Threefold Key To Christian Unity
It is hardly necessary to ask whether “Scripture alone” is entirely sufficient as the sole rule of faith for the Christian religion. The centuries since the Reformation up to present times adequately demonstrate that it is not. Nevertheless, it should be of great interest to every Christian who cherishes the word of God in their heart to contemplate sincerely and carefully whether or not they are receiving God’s revelation in its entirety. In a word, is the fullness of truth important? Surely every devout and pious Christian will agree that it is. In our love for God we want to know the whole truth, for God is Truth, and we intuitively understand that it is necessary to live in the truth to live with God. The truth is an inseparable and integral part of the Christian life, for it was Jesus Christ who said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). It could easily be argued that, for the Christian, accessing the fullness of truth is as important as even a breath of air: while oxygen is necessary for our bodies it is the Risen Lord of Truth who sustains us and provides our very life-principle.
It becomes, then, a question of whether Scripture contains the whole of God’s revelation to his people. As much as we cherish Scripture, the answer can be nothing other than a definitive “no.” In the economy of salvation God speaks to his people through history, creation, the prophets, and “most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God” (Verbum Domini, 7). It was the Person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, who self-communicated his word to the Apostles, informing them of what he desired them to know and what he wished them to communicate to the Church, the People for whom he gave up his life on the cross. The point is, the transmission of God’s revelation took place first in the ecclesial community through oral preaching. Later, it was members of that same Church who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, recorded in the New Testament some of the sayings and parables of Jesus, the mysteries of his life, his commands, and some of what had been revealed to the Apostles by the Spirit.
Through apostolic succession, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church has faithfully cherished and transmitted the deposit of faith she received from Christ, which includes both Tradition and Scripture in accordance with the Risen Lord’s command: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). Thus we can easily see that in order to access the fullness of truth — the deposit of faith given the Church by Jesus Christ — one must consult both Tradition and Scripture. The Gospel is both God’s unwritten and written word, not, rather, simply the written word only. As Pope Benedict observed, “Ultimately, it is the living Tradition of the Church which makes us adequately understand sacred Scripture as the word of God” (Verbum Domini, 17-18).
Further, the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church Christ founded and which the reformers so often sought to dismiss is just as integral and inseparable from the fullness of truth as is Tradition and Scripture. For apart from the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church, the fullness of God’s revelation cannot be maintained on earth in its integrity.
“It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (Catechism of The Catholic Church, No. 95).
Pope Benedict XVI reminds those faithful who thirst for the fullness of God’s revealed truth where the nourishing fount of “the supreme rule of faith” is to be found: “In short, by the work of the Holy Spirit and under the guidance of the magisterium, the Church hands on to every generation all that has been revealed in Christ. The Church lives in the certainty that her Lord, who spoke in the past, continues today to communicate his word in her living Tradition and in sacred Scripture. Indeed, the word of God is given to us in sacred Scripture as an inspired testimony to revelation; together with the Church’s living Tradition, it constitutes the supreme rule of faith” (Verbum Domini, 17-18).
F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at catholicpathways.com