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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.


Chapter 2: Revelation and Its Sources
Part 2

Thus many events, recorded in the historical books of the Old Testament, as well as in its explicitly prophetic writings, were significant not primarily for themselves but for what they foreshadowed. They were important not so much for their value as literal history (though this is never, in the nature of the case, insignificant) but as types and images, in and through which the Holy Spirit indicated what was to come, when God would bring in the new covenant to fulfill the old. They denoted what was to be enacted in the gospel events, and Christian believers, looking back on the events recorded in the Old Testament in the light of their fulfillment, found themselves in the position of the spectator of a drama who already knows how the play will end. Grasping the plot, they could recognize and appreciate the subtlety of the dramatic irony by which the divine dramatist had made the very stage of the action prefigure the final dénouement described in the New Testament books, even though this would not be understood by the characters themselves in their historical setting.

In terms of salvation, the God-given destiny of humanity, the people who composed the types and shadows have only limited significance: Melchizedek, a pagan Canaanite prince entering into some sort of friendship-treaty with Abraham, the wandering sheikh in whom Israel came to see her founding patriarch; the Hebrew slaves, slaughtering and eating the paschal lamb, taking a spring festivity where the firstborn of the flock was offered to the gods and making of it an act of thanksgiving for their escape from Egypt across the Sea of Reeds; and the survivors of those slaves, close to starvation in the semi-desert of the Sinai peninsula, coming suddenly on a food sufficiently similar, at least, to a secretion of the tarfa tree (tammarix mannifera) to share its name ("manna") all of these people have their experiences not, ultimately, for their own good, but that they may be pointers to a wider future they could never have imagined: the incarnation, and the Church which flows from it. Adapting the language of the Creed, they lived not so much for themselves but "for us ... and for our salvation." As the fourth-century Latin Father Hilary puts it:

"Christ originates, and purifies and hallows, and calls and chooses, and redeems the Church, by valid, authoritative prefigurations through the whole course of the world's history ... in the sleep of Adam, in the Flood of Noah, in the blessing of Melchizedek, and the justification of Abraham. Everything which Christ would fulfill had been prefigured since the beginning of the world."[11]

The Gospels use the same approach. When, in Matthew's Gospel, we see Christ presented as a second Moses, announcing the new law of the kingdom from a hilltop in the Sermon on the Mount; when, in Luke's Gospel, we are invited to respond to him as to a second Elijah, raising a widow's son at Nain as Elijah had at Zarephath, we get a glimpse of what the catechesis of the earliest Church was like: typological through and through. And if we look forward to the Fathers and the medievals, we find that liturgy, visual art, music, and the common piety of the people of God are all soaked in typology. Even in a milieu distanced from Catholic Christendom, such as that of the post-Reformation Anglo-Saxons, there are witnesses. Handel's Messiah, with its ransacking of Scripture for texts to speak about Christ, is unintelligible without typology. Simple folk in the England of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy were brought up on it, in florid type in the page headings of the Authorized Version of the Bible, which told them plainly that, in the Song of Songs for instance, Christ was addressing the Church "black" with sin "but beautiful" as justified by God's grace. The Catholic liturgy, old style or new, quite simply depends upon typology for its own imaginative structure.

The principal purpose toward which the plan of the Old Covenant was directed was to prepare for the coming both of Christ, the universal Redeemer, and of the messianic kingdom, to announce this coming by prophecy, and to indicate its meaning through various types. The books of the Old Testament, though they also contain some things that are incomplete and temporary, nevertheless show us true divine pedagogy.... In them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way.[12]

Though this approach may be unpopular in modern departments of biblical studies, largely nonecclesial as these are, it has much to commend it from the viewpoint of theological doctrine. First, while the Bible has no theology of itself, the Church can and should have a theology of the Bible. Such a theology, drawing on subsequent Christian experience and wisdom, will state the unity of God's plan in Scripture, and suggest how all its parts relate to the single center, Jesus Christ. Second, we must resist the false choice between the original meaning of an event or text, present in the minds of its contemporaries, and a purely artificial, external, imposed meaning. It is a matter of common experience that the full scope and bearing of an event can only be assessed retrospectively. Third, the prophets themselves recognized that their words were to some degree open: only God, expressing his will through events, would determine their final meaning and truth. Fourth, the single most pervasive theology of the Hebrew Bible, that of the Deuteronomic school, insists that the God of Israel is constant, steadfast, reliable, having a single style in all his wonderful works. If this is true, then we can expect one event, one work of God in history, to throw light on another. And the sense of a common style is aesthetic: neither pure reason nor historical scholarship can establish (or demolish) it.

This is not to say that rational evaluation of the affirmations of the biblical writers, or an historical testing of their reports, is always out of place. While holding to the inerrancy of the saving truth which God inspired the sacred writers to express in the biblical books, the Church does not treat such inerrancy as covering necessarily every element of description or reportage their message contains. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical on biblical inspiration, Providentissimus Deus, conceded that in scientific matters the sacred writer "speaks according to the appearance, in such a way that his statements must not be taken as formal affirmations," while in the succeeding pontificate of Pius X the Pontifical­Biblical Commission admitted that "in certain cases narratives thought to be properly historical had only the appearances of history."

This is a topic on which at times Church authority has been more sensitive (and defensive) than was needful, yet it was (and is) correct in principle to scrutinize scholarly initiatives not only closely but slowly, when so much is at stake. In 1884 Cardinal Newman had already written:

"It seems unworthy of divine greatness that the Almighty should in his revelation of himself to us undertake mere secular duties, and assume the office of a narrator, as such, or an historian, or geographer, except so far as the secular matters bear directly upon the revealed truth."

That last clause introduces an important qualification: a revelation given in history, and bearing on the destiny of both history and cosmos, will necessarily entail some factual assertions about both. Newman went on, accordingly, to speak of the need for an authoritative interpreter to act as a complement to the inspiration of the text:

"satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation."[13]

This brings us to the subject of Tradition, and its organ of self­interpretation, the Church's teaching office or "magisterium."


Tradition, in the Catholic doctrinal sense, is not simply whatever has been, de facto, received from the past. Holy Tradition is, rather, the treasure-house of the revelation of Christ entrusted to the Church. For this reason, the Church has to guard the integrity of Tradition, to keep it unimpaired by false accretions or wrongful mutilations, and to approach it, always, with humility and reverence, and the confidence of faith. For the revelation of God in Christ found in Tradition is a perfect work, though the mortal eyes of the faithful have yet to see that perfection. In the age to come, we shall recognize with full vision the reality we were told to remember on earth.

Unde et memores... "Wherefore, remembering": these words of the Latin Rite introduce the section of the Eucharistic Prayer known as the the "remembering." In her central act of worship, the Church both remembers her Lord and, by the power of his Spirit, actualizes anew the mystery of human salvation in her own depths. Thus her memorial of the Lord corresponds to her own deepest awareness of herself. The Church remembers that God was faithful to his promises: he willed that the reality of his eternal love, prefigured by the ancient covenants, awaited by patriarchs, felt by prophets, should be attested in the reality of history in the fullness of time in the person of his Son, so that his eternal love should become the hope of all future generations.

The primary content of Tradition is the apostles' witness to Christ's sufferings, death, and resurrection, considered against their background in the Jewish doctrine of God and in their outflow through the Holy Spirit's work in the Church as the crowning events of humankind's salvation. Tradition reproduces what happened then not chiefly in its historiographical detail but rather in the form of its presence now in the life of the Church, that is in its abiding significance. Likewise, the perpetual making present of the words of Jesus in the Church's Tradition requires an intelligent reception and transmission of what the apostles left behind. It presupposes the action of the Holy Spirit who makes Tradition a living doctrinal substance which is to be preserved from falsification and disintegration, and assists in the process of producing an ever-deeper understanding in the Church. The evangelium a Jesu Christo promulgatum (in the words of the Council of Trent) is the true object of Tradition. Tradition is the form in which the gospel is proclaimed in the sphere of the Church.

Catholic theologians frequently distinguish between Tradition, which denotes the meaning of what is written in Scripture (and so Scripture's plenary content), and certain unwritten traditions, especially in matters of worship and discipline, that are considered to have originated from the apostles themselves as the heads of the first community and, as such, endowed with an irreplaceable, unrepeatable authority to determine its basic structure as a believing, worshipping, acting, and praying people. "You will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt 19:28) the new Israel, the universal Church. The whole body of the Church, then as now, is engaged in preserving and transmitting the tradition; but it is apostolic authority alone that gives to the material, as transmitted, a normative value. The later Church with her papally centered episcopate constitutes nothing of the apostolic tradition. Instead, she guards it, passes it on, judges the adequacy of locally or temporally limited expressions of it, and where need arises (in the case of doctrinal "development") warrants the adoption of new insights into the original deposit as integral features of the doctrine of faith. For the Church, authentic Tradition is always a summons to rediscover the religious experience of the apostles in its vernal spontaneity and freshness.

Of course the Scriptures themselves are transmitted, and can therefore be called an aspect of Tradition. Scripture is one of the two forms of the Tradition, given so that the Church might preserve the purity of the gospel, and be confirmed in her proclamation. As the Council of Trent puts it, Scripture is "subsequent to the forming of the foundation of the confession of faith," being given as "a most powerful testimony and safeguard in the confirming of [faith's] teachings."[14] But the fact that Scripture as testimony to the Word of God in revelation is itself ordered to the transmitting of the gospel (Catholic Christianity can never be a "religion of the Book"), does not mean that Catholics lack reverence for Scripture. They are not bibliolaters, but they can call Scripture (with the nineteenth-century South German divine Johann Adam Möhler) the Church's "heart-blood, her very breath, her soul, her all,"[15] or say (with his twentieth-century successor Joseph Geiselmann):

"Holy Scripture as the guardian of the Gospel is the doorway of the Holy Spirit to the Bride of Christ. It is the most precious jewel the Creator Spirit bestowed, along with the Word of Christ, on all her life to come."[16]

Nor is this irrelevant to the individual, for each member of the Church must become a bearer of tradition in his or her own way. As Cardinal Newman, writing while still an Anglican, put it, the "heart of every Christian ought to represent in miniature the Catholic Church."[17] That they can only do when the faith given in tradition is realized seriously in the heart. The Christian becomes a witness of tradition only when faith has become devotion. Realizing the truth of the gospel leads inevitably to personal holiness, which is the integral form of all the qualities required in the witness. Tradition is (to cite Newman again) always "the tradition of the saints."[18] The charity whereby the heart is dedicated to God's truth simultaneously forms the believer into the image of Christ.

But if the deep sense of the normative text of Scripture, found in the last analysis by what the French philosopher-theologian Maurice Blondel called "the spiritual labor of Catholic consciousness,"[19] enables the Church to furnish from out of her "total experience" an "autonomous principle of discernment," a special place is given in this task to the consensus patrum, the accord of the Church Fathers. How may we understand this?

The texts of the New Testament do not so much describe a religion as show a religion in the process of being born. The whole complex of events that made up the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of his Spirit at Pentecost amounted to an explosion of spiritual energy of which our New Testament is, so to speak, the precious debris. Some of the texts, perhaps, are emotion recollected in tranquillity: for example, John's Gospel in its present form; others, like the Book of Revelation, are anything but recollected; some, like the Letter of Paul to Philemon, are more or less postcards tossed off in a tornado.

The New Testament testifies to the extraordinary impact its central events made on some contemporary Jews and Gentiles, but it does not constitute a religion. Some modern theologians, captivated by the notion that the secular world is already, in its own right, full of goodness and beauty and hence revelatory potential, have been unhappy with the idea that Christianity is a religion. But it is surely clear that if the way of life taught by Jesus and gifted by him once risen from the dead in power and the Holy Spirit was to be continued in a community, it could only be as a structure of belief, worship, and discipline (and if this is not a religion it is hard to imagine what could be). The patristic period, in brief, was the age in which the religion of the gospel became articulate as a way of belief, worship, and discipline "traditional Christianity" as lived in the mainstream of historic Christendom and showing, under a variety of cultural carapaces, a remarkable unity and continuity across space and time.

The age of the Fathers, then, was the moment when the apostolic teaching was given an exact form, partly with a view to excluding interpretations of it felt to be at variance with the basic thrust of Jesus' teaching and significance. The Fathers determined the fundamentals of Christian faith, the basic dogmas about God, Christ, and salvation. They forged for the future the elements of a whole Christian language. To think of a Church without Athanasius's work in establishing the divinity of Christ, Basil's activity in affirming the Godhead of the Holy Spirit, or Augustine's achievements in determining the independent and sovereign activity of God's grace, is to imagine a Church quite different in credal structure from the Church to which Catholic Christians in fact belong. The same is true of the liturgical life of the Church. In the East, the classical pattern of the liturgy was fixed by the fourth century, at least in what touches the central act of the Eucharist, the Great Prayer of consecration; and the same held for the West by the mid­seventh century at the latest. Again, the fixing of the canon of Scripture is an achievement of the patristic Church. We take it for granted that the Old and New Testaments contain certain books and not others, although if we look at a standard Protestant Bible one lacking the Deuterocanonicals we can see at a glance that something curious has happened to their Old Testament. We could perhaps imagine a Bible minus two lengthy narratives on the Maccabean wars, and even that delightful Hellenistic novel the Book of Tobit (though these have their importance for our understanding of, respectively, the intermediate state and angelology), but what of a New Testament shorn of the Fourth Gospel or consisting solely, as the heresiarch Marcion wished, of the Pauline Letters plus an abbreviated version of the Gospel according to Luke? What of a New Testament including that somewhat bizarre Jewish-Christian production The Shepherd of Hermas, in which Christ is held to be no more than an angel? Determining the canon of Scripture is not the least contribution of the Fathers to the determining of the shape of Christianity as a whole.

Indeed, in the patristic reception of the scriptural revelation all subsequent tradition finds its marching orders. The various media whereby a revelation thus crystallized transmits itself in tradition not only Creeds, the liturgy, and the canon of Scripture but also iconography and hagiology, those beautiful expressions of the sense of the faithful, as well as the institutional forms of councils and the primatial ministry of the Roman bishop in his teaching office all emerged in this decisive moment.[19a]

Finally, the teaching of the Fathers provides a model for the sort of theological reflection this book exemplifies. First, patristic thought is theocentric: God is the primary reality, and in a sense the one reality; all else is only real by virtue of relationship to him. It is the Spirit of God who brings the creature to its freedom, its fullness. Second, patristic thought is Christocentric, for the Spirit is given by Christ. Third, patristic thought is ecclesiocentric: Christ acts as head of the Church, through which salvation comes to human beings. Fourth, patristic thought is mysteriocentric: the Church's life is accomplished through the celebration of the mysteries, the sacraments. Patristic theology, in other words, concentrates on essentials, as does the best scholastic theology after it, and notably that of Thomas. We can contrast this with much modern theology where a journalistic element, concerned with those things that are actually felt to be currently important as distinct from those things that ought to be felt to be eternally important, has crept in and to some extent distorted the whole. When that happens, the pattern of the divine epiphany is obscured.

Tradition and the Magisterium

While the Church continues to live from the Fathers and their achievement, she also, and decidedly, lives after them and therefore needs some organ of internal guidance in her reading of her own deep mind.

Nothing shows up more clearly the metahistorical character of the help given the Church by the Holy Spirit than the charism of infallibility. Owing to this resource from beyond history the faith of the Church today can be identical with that of the apostles, and the privilege of normative truth and certainty enjoyed by them can also, in differing historical modalities, be shared by the Church now. The Holy Spirit's assistance is not just a guarantee against all infidelity vis-à-vis the memory of the Lord. It is the interior light of the very fidelity concerned. Though it can be translated into negative terms of resistance to exterior menaces and perils, in itself it is the very principle, living truth, and highest consciousness of the Church's faith existence.

In their different ways, all the main lines of historic Christianity expect to be able to identify the content of the gospel; indeed, if it is only as available now as water running through sand it is hard to see why one postulates a divine intervention to bring its presence into history! The Orthodox speak of abiding truth, Protestants of an enduring message. Catholics too, and par excellence, believe that it is possible to trace with certainty what the gospel teaches (faith) and commends (morals). In a fast-changing world, the self-identification of Christians can only be achieved through identifying the elements that endure through all changes. Otherwise, the very term Christian becomes riddled with ambiguity.

Such identification is made, according to Catholics, by the teaching office of pope and bishops in virtue of their apostolic and, ultimately, dominical mandate. This is true above all of those cases where their authority is most fully engaged, in the exercise of ecclesial infallibility that freedom from error in what is taught and believed that Christ willed his Church to possess. The gift of infallibility is a liberating one: not only because the truth always "sets you free" (John 8:32), but also because through establishing the limits of the abiding elements in Tradition, it also indicates those numerous things that are legitimately subject to a variety of understandings. In this way, the infallibility of the Church fosters a positive pluralism, rather than a destructive wrangling over truth.

Dogma is the fruit of that process whereby, within the communion of the Church, the thinking mind adores the self-revealing God and thinks within the mystery of grace in a renewed way. Paul told his hearers that their minds were to be renewed by the grace of Jesus Christ. This was not just a moral exhortation, encouraging people to be good, though it has moral implications and conditions. More than that: the Fathers, at any rate, understood Paul to be speaking about the difference made to the very way the human mind operates by the redemption and transfiguration of the world through Jesus Christ and his spirit. Outside the sphere of salvation, reason is adapted to the fallen state of humankind. It is, often, happily and successfully so adapted, but adapted nonetheless it is. Fallen reason can generate truth speculative truth in pure reason, truth about conduct through practical reason, and that other truth for which we have no name in productive reason (i.e., in making things, from pots and pans to states and governments). Yet it remains fallen reason, and the telltale signs are scattered throughout the history of thinking. Our apparently inextinguishable urge to locate ourselves in relation to reality as a whole, to go beyond what experience alone can tell us, ends up frequently enough either in hubris or in impotence. Thought either leaps into speculative delusions about how much it can know or else falls back into a state of supine resignation to not knowing. And so the history of philosophy is a history of reaction against metaphysics, and of reactions against the denial of metaphysics.

The Christian message insists that thought cannot go beyond the limits of fallen humanity, of a fallen world, unless it undergoes a death and a resurrection. The "death" in question is a discipline, an asceticism, provided for the human mind by ecclesial experience (worship, meditation on the Scriptures, prayer, religious love) all of which purify little by little the eye of the human intellect. The "resurrection" involves the transformation of fallen reason into that understanding which mirrors the Word of God, in whose image and to whose likeness we were originally made. In this resurrection of the mind we rise into the life of the Holy Spirit. The mind becomes spiritual, penetrating into the ultimate significance or bearing of things, as it becomes attuned to the Spirit of God.

Doctrine, then, together with dogma, its most hard-won form, and the theological thinking these stimulate, is the vision of the world that results from this Easter "passover" of the mind from death to life. It is the festival of the mind celebrating the mystery of existence in God. It is a wondrous medium that permits us to see in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, the final truth of the world beyond the illusions (be they hypermetaphysical or antimetaphysical) of what the Bible calls this aiôn, this age of the world.

The idea of the development of doctrine (and so ultimately of dogma) is invariably associated with the name of Newman. For Newman, the entire process of dogmatic development begins with a comprehensive intuition which is in many respects covert or tacit, and which continues, by way of thought both implicit and explicit, to the point where the dogma is formulated in all the sharpness of a propositional truth.

According to Newman, the appearance of the divine Messiah aroused in the apostles' faith-consciousness a comprehensive intuition of the essence the "idea" of Christianity. Within this initial impression lay dormant certain implicit orientations and unexpressed elements, typical of a knowledge that is experienced rather than consciously thought out. What the Church handed on was primarily this comprehensive apostolic intuition, whose living presence in the collectivity created an atmosphere in which the Christian idea could be transferred to, and impressed upon, new members. That idea or impression forms the link between the unsystematised revelation and the definitions of dogma, and eventually, then, in dependence on articulated doctrine, systematic theology itself. Newman's presentation suggests that there are two sorts of "reasoning" involved here: first, implicit reasoning, subject to multitudinous influences, slow in maturing, personal, incommunicable; second, explicit reasoning, which is purposeful and reflective, technical and logical in character, less rich in content, yet an authentic extension of the original idea (as formed by what, in the context of his argument for the existence of God, he had called the "illative sense"). Through intimate contact with, and affective experience of, the reality of faith, we can make judgments that contain right conclusions even though the formal reasoning adduced in their service may be non-demonstrative.[20] Though Catholic divinity insists on the coherence and consistency of the end result of this process (its "homogeneity"), it need not maintain that all was plain sailing at the time.

Newman was much struck by the sureness and definiteness with which doctrine develops and matures, along with every variety of hesitation and interruption. Truth finds its own equilibrium, through ways that are often unforeseen. The risks and changes of the most unfavourable situations, the conjunction of efforts apparently entirely independent one of another, even mutually opposed through the ebb and flow of all this, even through outright forgetting, or neglect at least, harmony is established [21]

However, in a world that always threatens to level dogma down, revealed truth would hardly be perspicuous without some accredited organ for the articulation of these advances and recuperations. Hence the need for a visible Church with a divinely shielded (and hence infallible) teaching authority, the final principle of dogmatic development. The content of the tradition of the gospel has its form in the apostolic succession.

It is only a dead religion to which written records are sufficient; a living religion must be able to adapt itself to changing environment without losing its own identity. One thing, therefore, is absolutely certain that if Christianity is a real Revelation, the Teaching Church must at any rate know her own mind with regard to the treasure committed to her care, and supremely on those points on which the salvation of her children depends. She may be undecided and permit divergent views on purely speculative points; she may allow her theologians, for instance, to argue, unchecked, for centuries as to the modes by which God acts, or as to the best philosophical terms for the elucidation of mysteries, or as to the precise limits of certain of her own powers and the manners of their exercise. But in things that directly and practically affect souls with regard to the fact of grace, its channels, the things necessary for salvation, and the rest she must not only know her mind, but must be constantly declaring it, and no less constantly silencing those who would obscure or misinterpret it.[22]

The object of the Church's teaching authority is the content of Christian revelation and all that is necessary and useful for the preaching and defense of this revelation. In determining the content of revelation, and demarcating it from other matters on which the teaching office is not competent, the magisterium is judge of its own authority: else it would be subject to the judgment of individuals, and defeat its own, Christ-given, purpose. May it not then exceed its own powers, requiring the assent of faith to alleged truths that may in fact be false or, if true, beyond the scope of revelation? Catholic faith holds that the bearers of the teaching office cannot err in this way, thanks to the assistance given the Church by the Holy Spirit. The magisterium does not, however, "make it up as it goes along": those who exercise it must refer to the Scriptures and the monuments of Tradition (the Fathers, the liturgies, the witness of sacred art, the lives of the saints, the sense of the faithful) in order to ascertain whether a proposed truth does or does not belong to the divine revelation given in Christ and "closed" (thanks to its eschatological fullness) with the deaths of the apostles. The congruence of a proposed dogma with the earlier state of the Church's tradition is discerned primarily by the magisterium itself, only in a secondary way by individual believers and theologians. There is room for nuance here, for the teaching office can propound its own doctrine as obligatory in various degrees: the so-called theological notes of a teaching.

The Magisterium and Theologians

If the primary concern of the individual theologian is propositional coherence, as defined by the context of one's approach to revelation, the magisterium by contrast possesses no system of theology as such. Instead, it or rather those who by episcopal consecration in the ministerial order have received what Irenaeus calls the charisma veritatis enjoy a kind of habitual knowledge of the overall proportions of revealed truth. When the magisterium makes a pronouncement, sufficient to the day will be some especially apt form of words which, in the particular historical situation, expresses the abiding mystery. The Church's magisterium does not identify itself with the limits of some individual theological system on which it may draw. It does not underwrite such a particular theology's own perspective and cast of mind. Rather, it discerns how a form of words created, it may be, within such a theology can serve the magisterium's own purpose: providing a window that opens onto the complete vista of revelation in some crucial and usually disputed respect.

The functions of the magisterium and of Catholic theology are, evidently, complementary rather than competitive. Theologians attempt to cast the revealed truth into a satisfying pattern, from one vantage­point, with some unifying concentration of interest. They do so by becoming learned in the Scriptures and the monuments of Tradition, and utilizing the resources of philosophy and the arts and sciences to throw light on that primary datum. Bishops, by contrast, are responsible for the global transmission of the faith; they are its adjudicators, its promoters and its guardians.[23]

Unfortunately, in recent years, the self-denying ordinance of Church authority, which now intervenes relatively rarely in such matters, has not been matched by a similar sense of responsibility in numerous theological writers. Cardinal Cahal Daly of Armagh has written:

The freedom which the Council sought to restore to all the members of the Church, and in particular to theologians, is a freedom in faith, a freedom to serve the believing community, in the unity of charity which marks the body of Christ. This freedom calls for a greater sense of responsibility than ever on the part of all members of the Church. As freedom increased, the sense of personal responsibility was required to grow in keeping with it. As control by Church authority over the thinking and practice of Catholics diminished, the taking over by members of the Church, each in their own place and sphere, of personal responsibility for the purity of Catholic teaching and the fidelity of religious observance ought to have increased. When, for example, Church authority ceased to enforce the old regulations about prior theological control of religious writing, concern for the Catholic orthodoxy of the writing should have been taken over by writers themselves and by their theological colleagues, by editors, publishers, competent book critics, et cetera. This sense of shared responsibility has not always been evident.

The same philosopher-bishop went on, adverting to the attempts of some today to justify their departures from tradition because of the abuses of Church authority in the past:

"The actual sufferers of twenty­five years ago [Daly is writing in 1976] were enhanced in their persons and strengthened in their faith and their love of the Church the correct word is sanctified by their nobility in suffering. The men who today presume vicariously to avenge them are diminished in their persons and damaged in their thinking by their very bitterness."[24]

This is a tragic waste of effort and emotion, for the hierarchy and the theologians are called together to serve the people of God in its grasp of the common truth of the Church. The first has a priority over the second: it is the apostolic ministry that is called to "proclaim the message, and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it ... with patience and with the intention of teaching" (2 Time 4:2). This burden they cannot surrender to theologians, or anyone else, for they received it from God and not from human beings. But, as Pope Paul VI remarked in an address to theologians in the year after the council's close:

Without theology, the magisterium would lack the instruments which are essential for the conducting of the great symphony in which the entire Church community express their thinking and their living in Jesus Christ.... Without the help of theology, the magisterium could undoubtedly preserve and proclaim the faith; but it would have great difficulty in acquiring that full and deep knowledge which it needs in order fully to accomplish its task.

The pope ended by summarizing the desiderata for theology today:

The Council exhorts theologians to develop a theology which will be at once pastoral and scientific: a theology which will be closely in contact with the sources, both patristic, liturgical, and, particularly, biblical: a theology which will always have profound respect for the magisterium of the Church and in particular the magisterium of the Vicar of Christ; a theology which will be relevant to human existence as historically lived and as actually experienced; a theology which will be openly ecumenical, but at the same time openly and sincerely Catholic .[25]


A high doctrine of Scripture, Tradition, and the magisterium, adopted at revelation's behest and in revelation's service, does not mean that experience is sheerly nullified in favor of these authorities. Experience has its assured place in the Catholic Christian's grasp of the truth of creation and redemption.

A sound philosophical grasp of the idea of experience is, however, vital, as the French priest-theologian Jean Mouroux showed in his study L'Expérience chrétienne.[26] Mouroux draws his readers' attention to two principal and widespread errors. The first sees experience in terms taken from such empiricist philosophers as John Locke and David Hume. Empiricism regards the human mind or spirit as a kind of blank sheet or empty blackboard: a tabula rasa. Objects impinge on the mind as do ink marks on the first or chalk marks on the second. While the mind registers certain impressions (and the feelings associated with them in our passions), it makes no more contribution to what is "written" on it than does any such surface. Here the mind is reduced to the level of a thing in reality, however, it has its own drive toward intelligibility and understanding. The human intellect is constantly scanning the horizon for elements of meaning, going forth to meet its objects, to penetrate them and squeeze out what it can, as a bee draws nectar from a flower. But at the other extreme, in idealism, the mind may be seen as so totally active that it becomes the sole source of all experience. According to this contrary misconception it resembles a kind of skin inside which everything we experience is contained. If we are hot, we can get out of our clothes and go for a swim, or take a shower; but we cannot get out of our mind. So in idealism, for all intents and purposes, reality is what the mind takes it to be what is posited by a mind itself conceived as virtually God-like. As God the Creator puts forth the world from within the divine mind and in contemplating his creation in a sense contemplates himself, so the mind puts forth its own mental creations and endows them with the status of reality. Were individuals to do this, they would soon be judged mad, but idealists are speaking of the transcendental "l," the structure of human consciousness as such. Yet surely finding ourselves surprised by the way other beings disappoint (or exceed) our expectation is so pervasive a feature of mental awareness that it could itself be called a structuring dimension of human consciousness. The idealist account of experience may not, like its empiricist rival, reduce the mind to a thing. But it treats it nonetheless as a closed system of acting.

We are looking, then, for a fuller statement of what experience is, avoiding the errors of empiricism and idealism alike. The process of assimilating perceptions must be, over against empiricism, a personal activity, not just a thing-like passivity; and it must also be, over against idealism, an encounter with agencies beyond us.

Revelation, in presuming its own intelligibility, presupposes a certain degree of spiritual experience on the part of the race. From the very fact that it has recourse to human language, it appeals to a certain spiritual experience among human beings, for concepts, as the crystallization of habits of thinking, are the echo of multiple experiences. Some experience, then, is a condition of possibility for the intelligibility of revelation.

But does the knowledge of faith itself include some further experience of its own? At least at the level of the Church as a whole there must be contemplation of the realities proclaimed in the gospel if there is also to be both correctness and plenitude of understanding. It is sometimes said that dogma is itself the fruit of Christian experience. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity, for example, may be called the product of the Church's experience of issuing from the Christ who revealed himself as the Father's Son in sending upon her the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John, faith itself is said to be a kind of seeing, and those who see Jesus see the Father also. Some aspects of this disclosure of God's saving plan in Christ belong exclusively with the beginnings of the Church, with the apostolic experience. But others endure throughout the whole time of the Church, as the reactualizing in her of God's self­gift. So, for example, Paul speaks of the Christian life as an existence "with Christ" and "in Christ," and this is surely meant to appeal to the experience of the believer. Again, there is Paul's teaching in the Letter to the Romans on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Christ) who unites himself intimately with our spirit. The notion of the mystical and moral senses of the Bible in the Fathers and the medievals derives from a sense that the main historical events of God's saving intervention in the world are unlimited in their efficacy and so can form the basic pattern for the personal life of each Christian. They are reproduced over and over again, refracted in a myriad of souls. Angelus Silesius, a German mystical writer of the Counter-Reformation, wrote, "Were Christ to be born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but not in you, you would be lost forever."[27]

The very sacramental foundations of the Christian life are built on this basis. In baptism we die and rise again with Christ, and this act must be lived out in many small dyings and risings in a progressive "imitation of Christ." In these ways, we can and must vindicate the Church's dogma in our own experience.

On the other hand, there are also senses in which the appropriate metaphor for faith is not seeing but hearing: receiving a word on trust as the authentic report of a reality not open to our inspection. The Church's dogmatic word is grounded on the word of the apostles, itself founded on Christ as substantial Word, Logos, of the Father. "God is very Truth, who can neither deceive nor be deceived" (as the English Victorian Catechism puts it). However much we assert, in a Johannine perspective, that faith naturally becomes knowledge because, through charity, it achieves communion (and so the union of God and the human person), we can never entirely rule out this other aspect of faith: simply accepting on the word of one who is faithful and true. That must remain the support of all faith experience. From one angle, it follows from the disparity between God and humanity in terms of understanding, the reception of reality into the mind. From another, it expresses the fact that we are not yet at the end, the eschaton, when, as Paul puts it, "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9). Dogma, then, may not be cast without remainder in terms of experience. Experience needs to be supplemented by such things as the prior tradition, the Scriptures themselves as a relatively independent norm, and the deliverances of those commissioned to teach authoritatively in the Christian community.

In any case, the role of tradition, text, and community in the construction of experience is properly human. As a linguistic animal, the human being exists but rarely in the world of immediacy. Rather, we inhabit worlds mediated by meaning and value. Our world is always foregrounded for us through interpretation: a world come close in words. To be human is to share a conversation that constitutes the human race as a whole. To be a Christian is to be constituted by an analogous conversation, the holy discourse of the Church's tradition.



11. Hilary, Treatise on the Mysteries 1.1; cf. A. Nichols, "Imagination and Revelation: The Face of Christ in the Old Testament," The Way 21 (1981) 270-77.

12. Dei Verbum, 15.

13. J. H. Newman, "Inspiration in Relation to Revelation," 11, 15; reprinted in J. D.Holmes and R. Murray, S.J., eds., John Henry Newman on the Inspiration of Scripture (London, 1967) 108,111.

14. DH 1505.

15. J. A. Mohler Symbolik, oder Darstellung der dogmatischen Gegensätze zwischen den Katholiken and Protestanten, ed. J. R. Geiselmann (Cologne, 1958-61) 438.

16. J. R. Geiselmann, The Meaning of Tradition (London and New York, 1966) 37.

17. J. H. Newman, Sermons Bearing on Subjects of the Day (London, 1918) 132.

18. John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons 3 (London, 1880) 257.

19. M. Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma (London, 1964)264-82.

19a. On all these "monuments" of Tradition, and aids to discernment of their revelatory significance, as indeed on the sources of revelation at large, see A. Nichols, The Shape of Catholic Theology. An Introduction to Its Sources, Principles and History (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, and Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991). That study provides the formal understanding of what Catholic theology is which underlies (and justifies) the content of the present work.

20. A. Nichols, From Newman to Congar: The Idea of Doctrinal Development from the Victorians to the Second Vatican Council (Edinburgh, 1990) 17-70.

21. H. de Lubac, The Splendour of the Church (London and New York, 1956) 8-9.

22. R. H. Benson, Confessions of a Convert (London, 1920) 91-92.

23. Christus Dominus, 15.

24. C. B. Daly, "Theologians and the Magisterium," Irish Theological Quarterly 43, no. 4 (1976) 225, 226, 228.

25. Paul VI, Message to the International Congress on the Theology of the Second Vatican Council, in Documentation catholique, 16 October 1966, cols. 1738-39,1732.

26. J. Mouroux, L'Expérience chrétienne: Introduction à une theologie (Paris, 1952).

27. Angelus Silesius, Cherubinischer Wandersmann 1.61.

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

This version: 27th April 2010

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