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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 2: Revelation and Its Sources
Part 1


Monotheism proposes a world distinct from God but not separate from him. Creation carries within it an iconic power a capacity to image, or echo, its Creator. This in turn means that the world has a fundamental (and therefore God-given) possibility of being an epiphany of the divine presence, and that presence's transforming power. Unbelieving humankind misses its opportunity, failing to recognize and praise the Creator, which is why Paul says that our moral sense becomes a wayward guide (Rom 1:18-23). But suppose God were himself to liberate this iconic, epiphanic power vested in beings in their substance and process and, with special intensity, in human beings in their identity and story? This, for the Church, is what the almighty maker of the world has done through the prophets and other inspired persons of the old covenant, and finally, at the heart of the new, in his Son Jesus Christ whom the apostolic witness proclaims the Word par excellence the very self-expression of God and so the key that unlocks the significance of God's many "words," the center of revelation history.

The idea that in Jesus and as Jesus what appears is the Source of being itself cannot indeed be grasped without revelation. Nor is this surprising. Owing to the negative phenomena of evil and finiteness which are no mere epiphenomena, though the one entails defect and the other is sheer deficiency of being, but true phenomena in the root meaning of that word: striking realities history is incapable of fulfilling itself by its own resources. There may be signs and pointers to meaning in the world but there are no signs of a meaning of the world, of the world as a whole. Of course when the concept of history is too narrowly defined to permit a disclosure by way of revelation, then criticism must necessarily oppose the gospel's revelatory claim. But when historical critics take a view of reality (and so of history) that is open to transcendence, they need not oppose the idea of revelation.

Humankind is situated in history, and yet is not totally subject to history's conditions. Like other living things, human beings are endowed with a nature, yet not in such a way that they can dispense with the free, creative, spiritual self-constitution of their existence on that nature's basis. The revelation the Church claims to transmit corresponds well to the condition of so spirited an animal. She regards this revelation as located in history but unconfined by history's limits, for through humankind the world is open to the transcendent, the absolute. It likewise fits humanity's "dialectical" relation to history that, on the one hand, the truth of revelation either expands until the close of the climactic revelatory epoch of the incarnation or, in the time of the subsequent Church, is further refined, while, on the other hand, the revealed truth is, thanks to the gift of the Spirit, truly "in" Christians, really interior to them, as their own persons here and now. For the human species occupies in developmental mode the span between the beginning, the origins of the race, and the end, the final truth of the kingdom, and yet does so without prejudice to the ability of each of its members to apprehend (over against the rest if need be) what is true, beautiful, and good.

Catholic Christianity understands itself, then, as a revealed religion. It is a way of life, worship, and prayer created by divine initiative, and entered upon out of obedience to a more than human demand. This unveiling of initiative and demand is what constitutes revelation from the side of its divine subject. Such disclosure necessarily involves, moreover and indeed this is its highest office the disclosure of the Subject himself, for, as the Scholastics rightly insisted, agere sequitur esse, "action manifests being." Although an historical revelation that was not the disclosure of the Source of all being could hardly be called a manifestation of God, this particular disclosure or, rather, this Christologically unified set of disclosures was made through the medium of historical events. Nor should this perplex us, incorrigible searchers after timeless truths of reason though we are. After all, if temporality is the mode of being of the cosmos, the Lord of the cosmos is necessarily the Lord of history also.

Such revelation in history implies some consciousness, on the part of revelation's recipients, that the human situation has been changed from beyond. And this in turn implies a transformed awareness which may come about through reworked concepts, or refashioned images, or, most probably, through both of these together, for at its highest, human penetration of the real is at once conceptual and perceptive, thought that makes images its vehicles, imagining empowered by thought.

If revelation is a disclosure of initiative and demand then the relation between human recipient and divine Subject is best understood on the analogy of our experience of persons, who are also acting subjects, after their own fashion. Granting privilege to this analogy enables us to call the revelatory transformation, in its unlooked-for quality, the "gift" of God, or, in the Latinate English which sometimes produces so lovely a word, his "grace." Since the demand that issues from the initiative tells us what we ought to do, and, as the philosophers remind us, "ought" implies "can," we rightly describe such grace as the communication of new life, of fresh resources for our nature's being. And so revelation has at one and the same time existential, cognitive, and ontological dimensions. In other words, it changes the human situation, our awareness of it, and our very being itself.

That the divine initiative, demand, and grace, are found in history implies their "economic" or step-by-step manifestation, and this in turn suggests the structure of the overall process, which is one of promise and fulfillment. At one point in this sequence, a moment of initiative, demand, and grace a revelatory moment was experienced as plenary. In that moment, the known resistances to the communion of God with humankind-sin and death-were absolutely negated, and human nature in one case, that of Jesus Christ, became fully conformed to the divine will in its final and architectonically conceived aim, and therefore identical with the terminus of the divine promise. That human nature not only altogether received but also in receiving wholly expressed the Father's very life, his self-communicating Word, and thus embodied a unity of the world with and in God only prospective at the moment of creation and unachieved indeed traduced and parodied ever since. At that point, the ascension of the risen Lord, revelation was complete. As John of the Cross remarked, God has no further word to say to us than this Word thus spoken in his Son.[1]

Nor is this wholly unexpected: here we need not say, Credo quia absurdum, "I can only believe because it is unthinkable." Goodness is self-diffusive, and the higher its order the more abundant and intimate its self-communication, as heroic love can testify. It is not unfitting, then, to think of the Creator of the world as communicating himself in the eternal generation of his Word, nor to conceive that the Word so begotten should enter into the created order for our salvation and, becoming incarnate, exist for us in a "sacrament" (a humanly visible form where the outer gives expression to the inner and leads into its mystery), living and teaching, acting and suffering, embracing our self-inflicted distance from God and triumphantly overcoming that estrangement in the events of the first Easter.

At that first Easter, though, the plenary revelation embodied in the glorified humanity of Jesus was not yet adequately registered by other people. That happened only with the communication at Pentecost of a share in the new communion of God and humanity as divinely encompassed in Jesus Christ. This communication came about in and through the creation of a community, the Church, equipped by the Spirit to "remember" (to ponder in her corporate memory and on that basis to articulate) the fullness of divine truth brought by the Revealer. In this perspective, it is only with the dying of the last constitutive member of the apostolic generation the last apostle that the revelation comes to its term.

In still another sense, however, revelation has still not reached its goal: namely, in as much as the plenary moment of Christ, in his disclosure of the true finality of history and cosmos, is not yet extended in all its implications to each and every one of the living, the departed, and those yet to be born, nor to the material continuum (the special case of Mary of Nazareth apart) of which his transfigured body is the renewed foundation.


But why do we thus "believe in" Jesus Christ? As with belief in the existence of God himself, we are dealing here with the convergence of a number of factors, all of which point to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was a unique divine "legate" (spokesman for the mystery of the divine) in the course of world history's development. In the first place, his figure sums up in an integrative fashion the pre-history of Israel's religion and the characteristic emphases of the other great world religions. His is a revelation than which no greater can be thought. The faith of Israel that God has entered into a voluntary covenant with this people (Moses), dealing righteously with its moral transgressions (Amos) yet always faithful and merciful (Hosea), high uplifted in his being (the apocalyptic literature) yet giving life and energy to his creatures by his word, wisdom, and spirit (the sapiential literature) and comprehending all the nations and all time in his plan (the later prophets), found its completion in one who himself performed "all righteousness" (Matt 3:15) on behalf of and in human flesh, teaching an exigent moral code yet providing the motive force to meet its demands, separated from sinners yet compassionate to their weaknesses, looking to the salvation of the nations and to a rebirth of all things.[2] At the same time, while ancient polytheism in the Gentile world never re­covered from the criticisms of philosophers, the ethical systems that replaced it lacked the power to move multitudes effectively to seek the Good. Jesus taught of a God who had all the dramatic interplay with creation of the ancient myths, yet, so far from being dethronable by the critiques of the philosophers, crowned their insights. More widely, if Judaism and later Islam emphasize the transcendence of God, Hinduism stresses his immanence; they meet in the religion that describes the Word of God as becoming incarnate in this same Jesus Christ. And while Buddhism offers suffering as the key to life, only Christianity can dare to speak of the divine One who suffered under Pontius Pilate. [3]

The second reason for accepting the claims of Jesus as a revealer is that he shows to human beings the true purpose of their nature, illuminating the meaning of the human condition as a whole as well as such concrete, particular problems as labor and solitude, otherness and communion, freedom and duty, suffering and death, sin and salvation, so that all falls into a pattern, whose basic form is that of vocation to be children of God, called by grace to share his life and glory. In the image of the Father who "is working always" (John 5:17), disciples order their work to the glory of God, notably by making this world a place of greater fellowship, thus preparing it to enter the kingdom. Jesus also shows what solitude can be, lovingly if painfully accepted in union with God's overflowing presence. Since, moreover, in Jesus the Father has adopted human beings as his children, "others" are not "Hell," as Jean-Paul Sartre maintained, but Christ. Our difference from others is overcome in a communion that gives access to our own deepest identity. Again, Jesus' gospel is full of practical directives, for so long as we are still on the way to goodness, our freedom is vulnerable and can fail; yet he invites us to enter a realm where that freedom can unfold to the point of becoming deiform, and law give way altogether to love. On the other hand, it is clear that the power of evil, shown forth nowhere more fully than in the cross, is not to be appeased or harmonized with the rest of life, but neither is it to become the occasion for a rebellion that would condemn God in the name of justice. The disfigured but all-merciful face of Christ shows that victory over evil is won by a love that rises above hate. This is, however, a true victory in a genuine spiritual warfare: the New Testament speaks with deliberate paradox of the "wrath of the Lamb" who never minced words in his evocation of human malice and its predestined outcome.[4]

Third, Jesus was experienced as altogether authoritative in both word and deed. "He taught them as having authority and not as the scribes" (Matt 7:29); "never did man so speak" (John 7:46). Though the language of authority discomforts a libertarian society like that of North Atlantic civilization at the end of the second millennium, the fact is that human beings (when not misled by ideologues) seek submission to true authority, for it is human nature to want it, and real frustration not to find it. The idea of authority is part and parcel of the meaning of transcendence. The words of Jesus, though he stood in the line of the Old Testament prophets, went beyond theirs since he called men and women to find rest in discipleship (Matt 11:28-30), representing himself as the agent of the divine judgment (Matt 25:31-46), among whose criteria are attitudes to his own mission and message (Mark 8:38). To be his disciple is already to share the coming kingdom. He is something greater than Jonah and Solomon (Matt 12:41-42; Luke 11:30-32); many prophets and kings have desired to see what his disciples see and have not seen it (Matt 13:16-17; Luke 10:23-24). He treated his miracles as signs of God's own order breaking through into the world order as we know it. Though not to be overvalued for themselves they constitute fresh evidence of his authority. He himself avoids calling attention to them as signs of his power, for the emphasis within the miracles themselves lies on their content of love. They are responses to human need.

Fourth, there is the aesthetic dimension of Jesus' career: the attractive radiance of the form of life that was his. That form of life can be summed up as "love suffering and transfigured," a phrase that refers to his life, death, and resurrection all in one. The apologist will ask the unbeliever: is not this form of life an incomparable "translucence" (shining through) of the eternal in the temporal, and so of all epiphanies in our experience the most powerful and authoritative? We are justified in answering this question affirmatively in as much as many cultures have shared the intuition that the divinity is essentially self-giving goodness; that this notion is, to say the least, compatible with the rational idea of God in theism; and that, in the majestic humility of Jesus, the hypothesis it contains is uniquely exemplified. The public "profile" of the life of Jesus encourages us, therefore, to see him as a man specially authorized by the divine Subject, inspired, engraced by him. For this reason, his inner mystery, his inner selfhood which was the locus of his communion with God, must be of compelling interest for us.

Fifth, the Church claims that communion like his with the Father is still possible for us. The resurrection means that he is living now. Those resurrection appearances that took place in Jerusalem were evidential, proving that Jesus was really alive. Those in Galilee were more vocational, telling the disciples what they were expected to do as a result of their encounters with the living Jesus. More broadly, we can describe the evidence for the resurrection as falling into three categories, two of which are objective (the empty tomb, the appearances), and the third subjective (the extraordinary change in the disciples which resulted from both of the former). The resurrection showed not only that Jesus was still overflowingly alive but also (and even more) that he was available for continuing discipleship, as Friend and Master, to human beings everywhere. It vindicated humankind's hope for a life everlasting (for what can a Creator mean by bringing into existence a creature capable of immortal hope and a voluntary attachment to God?). It initiated a victory over the destructive powers of sin as well as death, acting as the charter of a new society, the Church, which is the fellowship of the resurrection with a gospel that proclaims the annulling of the separation between humankind and God, and between one human being (or constellation of human beings) and another.

Finally, the Church herself is the sign of salvation. Exhibited in the whole being of Jesus his teaching, wisdom, holiness, miracles, passion, death, and resurrection this salvation still makes itself known, albeit fitfully, through the Church. In this sense, she is part of the evidence for the truth-value of Christian believing. The First Vatican Council speaks of her as a sign lifted up before the nations: a motive of credibility, and a witness to the divine message, thanks to five qualities which make her, of all the institutions in human history, something unusual, exceptional, and even astonishing. The quintet is: marvelous expansion, eminent holiness, inexhaustible fruitfulness (in good works), catholic or universal unity, and invincible stability. These qualities, taken cumulatively, convergently, are an argument for accepting Christian truth; they make the Church, in her own lesser order, an analogue of the sign of Christ. Although the Church is semper reformanda, always to be reformed (which means in the first place that the life of each and every member of the Church needs such reform), she is not only the Church of sinners (to think so would be to render the tabloid press the criterion of all relevant data). She is also the Church of saints, a body manifesting extraordinary positive qualities. She shows herself as a community that has, historically, defeated normal human prediction. Despite her diversity and the complexity of her message, she has triumphed over internal division and the negative effects of human particularity (catholic unity, that is, faithfulness to the same gospel and communion in a single corporate life). Despite her immersion in the historical process, she has triumphed over the limits of time and history (invincible stability and marvelous expansion: an institution so thoroughly inserted in history and its tensions has preserved not only identity and consistency but also dynamism). Despite the ravages of human sinfulness, she has triumphed over the processes of attrition and mediocritization that afflict even the most highly motivated groups and individuals over time (holiness, and fruitfulness "in all good").[5]

Moreover, her teaching speaks authoritatively to all the questions that life suggests, refining answers over centuries of discussion and addressing them in a language that strikes home to the human heart. She rehearses sublimely the mystery of the human condition and the universality of the promised redemption. That in all of this the Church remains fully conscious of her human wounds does not obliterate, but rather confirms, her force. She has won the minds of great thinkers, the loyalty of great servants from missionaries to philanthropists, the love of great saints. The community founded by Jesus Christ has been the greatest civilizing agent of all the institutions of human history, even though her gospel is not simply a humanism and cannot adequately be evaluated in these terms alone.

The Act of Faith

Since Catholic Christianity is founded on revelation, its sacra doctrina, "holy teaching," can only be grasped by the reception of revelation: faith. The classic account of what faith is for Catholic theology comes in the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.[6] There faith is said to be a theological virtue a habit or disposition by which God attaches us to himself. Directly, though mysteriously, it places us in contact with him. Indeed, it is itself such a contact. In this contact, the human mind is satisfied through the gift of access to what Thomas calls prima veritas, the "first truth" the mind of God which is both perfect intelligence and complete intelligibility, the source and criterion of all the truth of the created world. At the same time, the human will is satisfied through being put in touch with the supreme good God's own beatitude, or happiness, which cannot fail to make happy those who receive it. So faith is a beginning of the life of glory. It is a rudimentary start to that wholly fulfilled existence which will be ours when we enjoy the vision of God. (The distinction between mind and will here is a relative distinction within the unity of a person. Both aspects of ourselves, intellectual and affective, knowing and loving, are engaged simultaneously in the act of faith.) And when that act becomes a habit a set of the whole personality then mind and will are developed in this gracious relation to God. Faith is itself "gracious," a divine gift, a share at our level of reality in God's own knowledge of and delight in himself.

The object of faith, then, is not ultimately a series of propositions (what the Bible says, what the Creed teaches, etc.), but the reality of God himself communicated in Christ who is the providential way to God witnessed to in the Scriptures, which in turn are summed up, on the Church's authority, in the articles of the Creed and commentary on them in other doctrinal determinations. Strictly speaking, then, we do not believe in the Bible or the Creed or the Church's authority, but through all these things (and, when we consider them as media of the historic revelation, in no other conceivable way) we are attached to God himself, in whom is our faith, in whose reality the act of faith terminates.

In other words: faith is a certain kind (the most central kind!) of mystical experience. It is a mysterious, not fully expressible yet real, contact with God in Christ. It is a touch of God in his self-manifestation and, in that way, a participation in the inner love-life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit: not, however, as an inarticulate feeling but through, with and in a real conformation of our minds to divine truth.

If this is what faith is, how do we come to get it? Two things must coincide. First, we must hear the preaching of the Church, which is the communication of the gospel here and now. Second, we must allow scope for the inner action, the interior drawing or attraction, of the Holy Spirit. No one who has not heard the Church speaking of God in Christ can be said to have faith in the full sense of that word; the same must be said of anyone who resists the pull of God's beata veritas, the beatifying truth of his own being, expressing itself on the occasion of this preaching.

In more recent times, and chiefly in the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church set out to clarify the relation of faith, so understood, to human rationality, that is, to what we are doing when we are engaged in knowing in a secular way. Faith is said to transcend reason, but not to go against it. On the contrary, in the typical instance of the alert and informed pagan in the process of conversion to the gospel, faith has a rational preamble, a series of arguments and evidences that demonstrate faith's coherence with the deliverances of reason. As we have seen, Catholic theology regards the existence of God, the world's source, as philosophically demonstrable, and likewise our possibility of "hearing" this God should it please him to communicate with us. Historical evidence, so Catholicism maintains, is at least compatible with, and even points to, the actual speaking of God in Israel, his self-identification in Jesus Christ as a divine legate, and the energizing, from beyond normal human resources, of the apostles at the first Pentecost. Consideration of these things clears away the undergrowth of error from ignorance, and makes faith rationally feasible. Yet faith itself remains a supernatural gift, a direct intervention of God illuminating our minds and quickening our wills, so that through the language of Scripture, the Creed, and the liturgy (the three principal forms of discourse in Tradition), we can gain a hold on God himself.

Faith transforms the affirmations of natural theology made possible by reason alone. Believing that God exists, persons of faith will already, by anticipation, believe implicitly all that the subsequent revelation of the mystery of the Holy Spirit will some day disclose to them. Similarly, believing that God is the rewarder of those who seek him and these two propositions, for the Letter to the Hebrews, sum up the minimum credo of the good pagan (Heb 11:6) they will already believe, by anticipation, and darkly, all that the mystery of the redemptive incarnation will later make manifest to them.

The God of the imagination is too close to poetry, the God of reason too close to philosophy, to meet the demands of the concept of faith. And what are those demands? First, through the media of the divinely instituted religion (through Jesus' mission and its mediations in the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the preaching of the Church) there is direct encounter between the Lord of Israel the Father and myself. Second, this encounter is to be understood on the model of personal relationship. Third, the meeting concerned is transformative: it actually brings about changes in me, in my habitual way of seeing things (my conceptual understanding) as in my behavior (my life).

Through faith, I enter more and more into the sphere of activity of the Father, I am drawn into his life, a life which is already relationship, and to this process no end may be preset. The imagination produces my images of God, reason purifies them, but then, within the mental space carved out by these purified images, I become aware that I am not so much an "I" looking for a divine "Thou" as a "thou" engaged by the divine "I." In the case of the imagination, what I am aware of reflexively through the images is my own capacity to symbolize the infinite God in finite terms. In the case of reason, what I am aware of is that God exists a conclusion inferred through a variety of premises. But in the case of faith, what I became aware of, through the economy of Word and sacrament, is the self-offering of the true God himself in fellowship and communion as the God of love.

What kind of awareness is the awareness we call faith? Although Protestantism is frequently chary of the word mystical, faith-encounter with the God of love can only be described with the help of the vocabulary of mysticism, that is, the language of direct (though not unmediated) meeting with divinity. Anyone who possesses Christian faith must be the subject of a mystical experience at once intellectual and affective in kind.

To say that the absolute, the unconditioned, has a relation to a conditioned, finite being such as myself would normally be simply to say that God, whoever he may be, is my Creator. This is a reasonable claim, since as we have seen it is reasonable to hold that the world and the self are patterned in the way they are by a fontal being on which they depend. But to say that the absolute has desired to enter into a relation of communion with me, that I am conscious of the absolute God as it were before me, facing me, rather than as the ultimate condition of my being, behind my back: this claim can only be paraphrased with the aid of mystical terms.

The content of this continuous state of mystical awareness which we call Christian faith is the loving possession of the gospel truths proposed for our assent by the Church. But this Godward expansion of mind and heart has an indispensable center in sympathetic identification With the consciousness of Jesus Christ, the Word made man. For this reason, faith involves at the same time the awareness of God as Father and Spirit as well as Son, and of the intimate co-presence of Father, Son, and Spirit: the Holy Trinity.

But why should we be interested in the consciousness of Jesus Christ in the first place? It is because in him there lie hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3) that faith is justified: its deliverances derive from One who did not himself believe but knew. Yet faith does not merely know about Jesus Christ, through his verbal self­testimony. It knows Christ Jesus, the public agent of revelation at its climax, in his inward uniqueness.

There are, however, those who would want to dismiss all such references to "inner selving," or interior awareness, and even to consciousness itself, as a matter of philosophical muddle-headedness. Reports of these things, they would object, are but garbled versions of the propensities of particular organisms to behave in certain ways, and should be rewritten in this form as soon as possible. But while people certainly vary in their capacity to describe their own inner world, and some have a richer, and more interesting, inner life than others, anyone who has ever experienced a profound relationship with another person knows full well that to write off this whole area of life is perverse. Fortunately what poets, lovers, and spiritual directors have always known, many philosophers can still admit. Conscious

ness is the answer to the question, What is it like, being he, she, or it? It is that reality whose being is one with its own (non-discursive) knowing of itself.

I find myself both as man and as myself something more determined and distinctive, at pitch, more distinctive and higher pitched than any­thing else I see.... And when I ask where does all this throng and stack of being, so rich, so distinctive, so important, come from, nothing I see can answer me. And this whether I speak of human nature or of my in­dividuality, my selfbeing.... And this is much more true when we con­sider the mind; when I consider my selfbeing; my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, of I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnutleaf or camphor, and is incommunicable by any means to another man.... Nothing else in nature comes near this un­speakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this self being of my own. [7]

Ontologically incommunicable, it can yet be known, thanks to the empathy triggered by observation. Such empathetic imagining of the consciousness of others is not infallible. It can make mistakes. Nonetheless, imagining a thing as it really is must count as a peculiarly basic way of knowing a fact, while the singular importance of consciousness, subjectivity, lies in its being the necessary medium for the apprehension of value, the worth of facts. Apprehended value can attach only to what occurs within a stream of consciousness with the exception of the divine consciousness, for that, as the consciousness of an infinite subjectivity, is not a stream but a simultaneous possession.

Though the light of faith whereby our intellectual powers are rendered proportionate to their revealed Object and the gracious quickening of the will which draws us to it are themselves unique, and our grasp of Jesus' identity controlled and steadied by our participation in that corporate subject which is the apostolic community, in other respects our faith knowledge of him is comparable with our knowledge of any other human consciousness: namely, by empathetic identification working on sensuous epiphanies in deed and word. There can be no imaginative access to the subjectivity of another without a free, self­restraining, humble, other-oriented establishment of concern. Such an attentive and concerned disciplining of self is necessary for imaginative entry into the existence of another person, whether this person be part of the past or of the present.

It is the peculiar nature of our access to the subjectivity of Jesus that it partakes of both these latter categories. The empirical cues that enable empathetic identification to go forward are a matter of both ancient texts (the Gospels, especially) and current experience (for instance, the seven sacraments, which the Church holds to be extensions of the historical action of Jesus, since, in the words of Pope Leo the Great, "all that was visible in the life of the Redeemer has passed over into his sacraments"). The case of Jesus Christ is unique in that he is both an historical figure, epistemologically laid to rest with the last contemporary account that speaks of him, and a person living in a metahistorical dimension that yet impinges through his Church-body on our world.

For this reason, the specifically Christian material to be used in setting out to describe the God disclosed in faith is Scripture read in Tradition. Texts and other monuments witness to Jesus Christ as, in the Spirit, the revealer of the Father, within the worshipping community of the Catholic Church, defining herself as she does by continuing relation with his living person. These cues, when read aright, bring us to the inward self: the outer reveals the inner, the public realm the intimate foyer of the heart that heart which, as the privileged locus of the human sense of God, is rightly called the sacred heart par excellence.


For Catholicism, exegetical method cannot be equated with the historical method tout court. The exegesis of the Bible, the Word of God, is or should be theology (believing interpretation) from the beginning. In studying Scripture we seek what in their faith the biblical authors wished to express in their texts something that always goes beyond the historical events concerned when the latter are taken in their sheer historicity. So true exegesis has to include two essential dimensions: the horizontal one of historical research and philological analysis, and the vertical one of the ontological depth, or opening onto mystery, of the sacred texts. By identifying fact with truth (rejecting or neglecting the metahistorical aspect of Scripture), modern historicism closes itself off from the self-revelation of the Word. Through representation, which moves on the level of phenomena (things thought, said, formulated), interpretation has to go beyond things and words to attain to ontological truth, to place in the light what is not immediately visible, to bring out the root experience behind what is spoken. Just as in metaphysics one cannot speak truly of beings without referring at the same time to being, in which they share, so also interpretative language even as it speaks of something determinate always says in addition something more. As the recent (1993) guidelines of the Roman pontiff's biblical commission, "The Interpretation of the Bible," have it: over and above the deliverances of the historical-critical method, valuable though this is, there stands the special "pre-understanding" of the Catholic exegete, in continuity with the selfsame religious tradition coming down from Israel and the primitive Christian community.

"Their [exegetes'] interpretation stands thereby in continuity with a dynamic pattern of interpretation that is found within the Bible itself and continues in the life of the Church. This dynamic pattern corresponds to the requirement that there be a lived affinity between the interpreter and the object, an affinity which constitutes in fact one of the conditions that makes the entire exegetical enterprise possible."[8]

Furthermore, authentic interpretation always carries some reference not only to the source of its texts, what lies within and behind them, but also to their goal, to the final term of what they describe. For this reason too, biblical interpretation, as understood by Catholicism, cannot but be ecclesial. Only the Church understands the goal of God's revealing (and therefore Scripture-inspiring) activity, so only she can interpret the Spirit by the Spirit. Ecclesial exegesis takes place at the highest level: on the presupposition of God's design for this literature.

Moreover, we should not abstract the question of inspiration from the multiform action of the Spirit in the economy of salvation. The production of Sacred Scripture is conditioned by three wider factors: the existence of a community (Israel, the Church) called to salvation, the historic experience of this community, and the particular vocation of some individuals to occupy key positions within it and fulfill crucial roles in divine salvation's coming in history. The theology of inspiration considers both authors and texts within the historical and cultural milieu in which they were placed, but also within the tradition unfolded throughout the economy of salvation. Hence, ultimately, its Christological reference, since Christ is the center of tradition's history. Had Jesus himself written, the religion which came from him would have been "koranic" in kind. The sacred text, recognized as "come from heaven," the product of unmediated transcendence, could only have been conserved in fundamentalist fashion, imposing itself in a wooden way as the straightforwardly applicable norm of faith and practice during all subsequent generations. But the definitive revelation came in Jesus, and by his mediation, under quite another form: a living person who spoke and acted, leading a human existence of a type that can be called at once prophetic, didactic, sapiential, apocalyptic, and messianic (the latter in a sense at variance from that which his contemporaries imagined), right up to the final drama and its dénouement in the death on the cross. So as to found on his faithfully obedient person a new world where salvation might be extended, at least as offer, to all human beings, the Father raised Jesus up as Lord and Christ, giving him the name which is above every other name (Phil 2:9). There is the global event within whose spaciousness the texts of the two interrelated Testaments must be evaluated. Through all of that, God spoke his definitive word.

The ancient Scriptures have thus been "fulfilled" by way of what the contemporary French exegete Pierre Grelot has called a "surplus of meaning" which is from now on the key to their interpretation "in the Spirit."[9] This surplus does not obliterate all trace of their original bearings, but draws out from the letter of the text a dynamic quality which the Holy Spirit placed there with a view to the realization of salvation in the Christ who was to come. In taking up the Old Testament in a way that transcended its imaginable limits, Jesus (in Origen's words) turned the Scriptures into the gospel. At the same time, by fulfilling the divine (the age-long unfolding of God's liberty), of which his resurrection was the climax, he became the object of the good news, having first been its proclaimer.

The earliest disciples had no different canon of Scripture from Jews. What they possessed was, rather, a distinctive manner of reading the shared sacred texts. They approached the Bible in the light of the accounts of the crucified and risen Messiah passed down in the Church, the new Israel, for it was in the name of this Messiah that they prayed, and into his reality that they were introduced by baptism and the holy Eucharist. His words, the memory of his actions, the vehicles of his atoning sacrifice: all these were entrusted to his witnesses so that they might carry out the two tasks he had laid upon them the foundation of the Church as the community of salvation, and the transmission of the gospel which the Church is called to proclaim in missionary fashion to the world.

The ministry of the direct witnesses, the apostles, had its prolongation in the diverse forms of service of the Word carried out under their presidency; and this labor produced new texts-our "New" Testament inseparable from the communitarian life of the gospel churches. The production of these texts was not a systematic affair, but depended rather on the concrete circumstances that led the apostles and other depositories of the apostolic tradition to respond in this way to the practical needs of local communities for the sake of their instruction and perseverance in faith and evangelical practice. Here too, if revelation was to receive authoritative witness in written form, inspiration had to serve as a "charism" (a divine gift of both stimulus and guidance, to mind and to heart), encompassing the entire prehistory, whether oral or written, of the texts the New Testament preserves.

The only finally decisive criterion for discerning inspiration is the use of certain books as authority-bearing vis-à-vis the Word of God in the community which guards the true faith, hinged as that community is on the ministries episcopacy and papacy that animate and watch over it. It is in the name of the apostolic tradition that ecclesiastical tradition recognizes the authority of these books, thus integrating them into the Church's fundamental structure as a heritage handed down by her own first leaders.

Catholicism, then, reads the Bible in the Spirit as a canonically and narrationally unified whole centered on Jesus Christ and telling the story of the dealings of the Father with his people and his world in ways (and here we come to a new point) that are typologically applicable to the present. This is indeed how Scripture came into existence, at any rate as the Church's canon. To constitute the New Testament, writings were selected on the basis of a sensus fidelium formed by the liturgically embedded Christological and Trinitarian reading of the sacred books of Israel. To read the Bible otherwise is not to read it as Scripture at all.

This principle governs the Catholic understanding of the Old Testament. Though Christ and his teaching cannot be explained exhaustively on the basis of preexisting factors in Judaism, nonetheless we must be prepared for the possibility that the "elder dispensation" was providentially commissioned to assemble much conceptual material with a view to its incorporation into the fabric of the Christian Creed much as King David is said to have collected great stones and timber for the building of the temple he was destined never to see.

"A rose is a rose is a rose," " wrote the poet Gertrude Stein, but the Christian Doctors would not have agreed. In terms of God's providence (literally, his foresight in planning the course of his self-communication to the world) the ultimate significance of a thing, what it points to, may not be located within itself at all. It may be something that will happen centuries later, when the original rose has withered and returned to the earth. Thomas Aquinas says of the biblical history:

"God has the power, not only of adapting words to convey meanings (which men also can do), but also of adapting things themselves [etiam res ipsas, the 'very realities of history']. In every branch of knowledge, words have meaning, but what is special here is that the things meant by the words mean something [etiam significant aliquid, 'point to something other than themselves']."[10]



1. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel 2.22.3-5.

2. H. E. W. Turner, Why We Believe in Jesus Christ (London, 1952) 4-6.

3. Ibid., 10.

4. R. Latourelle, Man and His Problems in the Light of Christ (New York, 1983).

5. R. Latourelle, Signs of Christ and His Church (New York, 1975).

6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2-2.1-7.

7. Cited from Hopkins's notes on the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius in G. Storey, A Preface to Hopkins, 2d ed. (London and New York, 1992) 33-34.

8. The Interpretation of the Bible, preface to part 3.

9. P. Grelot, "Dix propositions sur l'inspiration scripturaire," Esprit et Vie 96, no. 8 (1986) 97-105.

10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologise 1.1.10.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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