By Sarah Levesque
Let’s take a look at what Catholics believe about divine revelation and the ability to interpret it. To paraphrase Dei verbum (the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), there are multiple facets of Divine Revelation. The main sections are Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, though God also reveals Himself in Creation, and certain saints have claimed to have been given visions.
Sacred Scripture is recognized by all Christians, but Catholics and Protestants have different canons (that is, different lists of the books in the Bible). Catholics use the 73 books based on the Septuagint, which is the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version used by the Apostles. These were made the official canon in 397. Protestants have a 66-book canon largely based on the Masoretic text compiled in the tenth century. Between the two compilings, multiple centuries had passed and multiple books no longer existed in their original languages, leading to controversy. But the Roman Catholic Church stands by the 73-book canon passed down from the Apostles and Church Fathers.
We also recognize Sacred Tradition, which is the teachings entrusted to the Apostles and handed down through their successors to us today. Both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are interpreted by the teaching authority of the Church, called the Magisterium, which is based on the teachings of the Apostles and the Church Fathers. As Mike Aquila noted in his booklet The Early Church, “The Church sought the truth in the apostolic tradition: the rule of faith, the canon of Scriptures, the words of liturgical worship and the authority of the bishops who held legitimate succession. These were the sure measures of biblical interpretation” (p32). While Aquila speaks of the Early Church, the same remains true today in the Roman Catholic Church. Tellingly, most of the Early Church Councils mark their points with phrases such as “as we have been taught” or “as has been handed down” rather than “as we see in Matthew’s Gospel”. And not all the teachings they mention are in the Bible; this is why we do not uphold the Bible as the only source of Divine Revelation, but one of two main sources.
Since the days of the Early Church, whenever a teaching was contested enough to disrupt the Church, a council was called, based on the Council of Jerusalem called by the Apostles, which we can read about in Acts 15. When a council called together the bishops of the entire Church along with the Pope or his representatives, it was known as an Ecumenical Council, and the decisions made in the councils were understood to be doctrinal once they were signed by all the bishops and the Pope. There were typically some very vocal malcontents, to be sure, yet they did not have the orthodox Christians behind them and were typically excommunicated for their heretical views. I would posit that most Christians today still believe what was set out in the first six Ecumenical Councils at the least. These largely taught how the Trinity was to be understood, including the teachings that Jesus Christ was True God and True Man, and that the Holy Spirit is part of the Trinity and ought to be worshipped.
How do we know the things that have been passed down but are not in the Bible are true? Most can be found in the writings of the Early Church Fathers, people who either knew the Apostles personally or were only one generation removed from them. The others bank on the trust of the Magisterium – the teaching office of the Church – which in turn is based on the following teachings of Christ, spoken not just to the Apostles, but to the Apostles as the head of the Church, and thus passed down to their successors and the Church at large:
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven… For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:18, 20).
“And remember, I [Jesus] am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-15).
It is also based on the authority of the Pope, which I talked about in a previous article and I will address again soon. For this article, let this passage suffice:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:17-19).
Together, these teachings have been understood to mean that the Holy Spirit will guide the Catholic Church, which is built on the Rock of Peter (whose name means rock), and which will never be defeated by the devil. Of course, she (the Church, who is denoted as feminine due to her status as the Bride of Christ) must fight with the devil all the time, and often he seems to be winning. But the Lord has promised that He Himself has the victory in the end. To this end, I submit the idea that if the Catholic Church were a merely human institution instead of a Divine institution, she would not have lasted her initial persecution, not to mention the roughly 1700 years since that initial Roman persecution ended. And if this purported human institution had, somehow, mysteriously, managed to stay intact for two thousand years, it would not be without serious changes to her way of life. And yet, if you place today’s basic Roman Catholic liturgy and doctrines alongside those of the earliest church – for example, those found in the Didache (the first extra-biblical Christian writing known to modernity, likely written before 100AD) and in the works of St Clement 1 (died 99AD) Justin Martyr (died c.165AD) – you will find a remarkable similarity. Add a medieval version to the mix and there will still be but little difference. The Lord has preserved His Church, just as He said, despite the many battles the devil has fought against her.
If you wish to study Catholic teachings, this Catholic understanding of Revelation – that it is made up of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, interpreted by the Church – is vital, for this is what the entirety of Catholic teaching rests on. I invite you to read further on the subject. Whether you want to start with Dei verbum or the Early Church Fathers, I can promise you a thought-provoking journey.
Bible passages from the New Revised Standard Edition, retrieved from BibleGateway.com.
Aquila, Mike. The Early Church. Knights of Columbus Catholic Information Service, New Haven CT. 2008-2017.
Dei verbum (the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation),