I wrote this little series of
articles some time around 1985. It was
printed in the Reminder, the bulletin of
FAITH AND MORALS
What to believe, and how to behave? Every decision we ever have to make boils down to one or the other of these two questions. Are there any answers?
Of course. God has the answers. And we can know God’s answers. All you have to... What? We can know God’s answers? Well, yes.
And you believe that. Or wish you
could; else you would not be hanging around
God has provided for us
an authoritative source of knowledge of truth about himself, the world, and
ourselves, and of what is right and wrong.
That source is the Church itself.
Jesus commissioned the Church to teach “all things whatsoever” he had
commanded. He guaranteed the Holy Spirit
would come and lead the Church “into all truth”.
This series of articles talks about the ways that God reveals his truth through the Church. In future articles, we will look at the threefold way God makes his truth known to us. We will then look at a currently widespread way that many are misled, and finally have a concluding article. For now, let’s dispose briefly of three errors often made by those seeking truth.
First, the truth about God is not a matter of anybody’s own opinion. God is real, not imaginary. The truth about him is factual. Facts do not bend themselves to fit opinions. “Whatever you believe, that’s what’s right for you”: that popular fiction doesn’t hold in law, medicine, or science, and neither does it hold in religion.
Second, sincerity of belief or action is irrelevant to correctness of belief or action. Nero and the Nazis sincerely believed their actions were right.
Third, the Church’s teaching is not a matter of its officials’ opinions.
Sometimes authoritative persons and bodies in the Church have foolish ideas. Yet in the long run the Holy Spirit guides the Church into truth. But the christian must be educated enough in the Faith not to be blown about by every wind of doctrine that sweeps through some convention or pulpit.
You can find bigotry and hypocrisy and stupidity in the Church, and that makes it hard to accept its authority in matters of faith and morals. But these things are all qualities of men, and the Church is not of men: it is of God. Even through corrupt men, God makes his truth know.
We all rebel against the Church’s teaching authority, and we think it is for the best of reasons. But that course leads us astray. If we are to belong to Jesus, we must hear his Church. For it was to the apostles of that Church, and to their successors, that Jesus said, “He who hears you, hears me.”
FAITH AND MORALS: SCRIPTURE
What to believe, and how to behave? The threefold way in which God makes his truth known to us is actually a single way involving the concurrent use of three sources of knowledge. We shall, however, look at each source separately. The first source is Holy Scripture.
The authoritativeness of the Bible is not self-evident. Rather, it is established by and through the Church. In our generation, we have been so long accustomed to having a Bible and recognizing its authority that we forget there was a time before the Bible existed. But the Church existed: the jewish Church before the old testament and the christian Church before the new. It was the Church, old or new, that selected certain few writings and declared them to be the words of God, and rejected countless other writings that it found less worthy of that distinction. This process of selection, called canonization, was guided by the Holy Spirit through the councils of the Church.
Neither is the meaning of the Bible self-evident. The meaning of, say, the U.S. Constitution would be obscure to someone who had no knowledge of history nor of our present government. The authority to interpret it is reserved to certain courts. Similarly, the meaning of the Bible is obscure when one is ignorant of its historical setting and of the present Church. The authority to interpret it is properly reserved to the Church, again acting in council and under guidance of Holy Spirit.
We do well to study the Bible and to struggle with its meaning. But we err if we think Holy Spirit will always lead us, individually, to an accurate understanding of Scripture. Holy Spirit speaks unerringly, but we do not hear unerringly. Only the Church as a whole body possesses the function of interpreting Scripture authoritatively.
In our age, “private interpretation” has led to a multiplicity of sects and denominations, to aberrations and even to atrocities. Private interpretation lets us say, like Humpty Dumpty, “When I use the Bible, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more or less.” The resultant “pluralism” is utterly contrary to Jesus’ intent. He founded only one Church, commissioned to preach one Body, one Spirit, one Hope, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.
FAITH AND MORALS: TRADITION
What to believe, and how to behave? Thinking people in every field turn to the experience of others, both past and present, for answers to these questions. In religion it is no different. Holy Tradition does not refer merely to custom or habit. Rather, Tradition means “that which is handed down” from one generation to the next. Tradition means the knowledge, the insight, the understanding which each generation in the Church has received through the Holy Spirit, handed down to following generations, tested and proved time and again by those generations, and found reliable.
Tradition, then, includes the Holy Scripture itself. As we saw last time, Scripture is simply a record of what God, through the Holy Spirit, revealed to persons in a particular place and time, and which was subsequently handed down to and received by later generations. “Scripture and Tradition” are not two separate ways that God reveals truth to us. Scripture is just the most important, most sacred part of Tradition. We say Scripture is paradigmatic in the formation of Tradition. That means all subsequent Tradition can be tested against Scripture. Whatever is in conflict with Holy Scripture cannot be admitted as the Church’s teaching, no matter how reasonable it may seem. But we must also recall that all revelation was originally given as Tradition, and not all was codified into Scripture. Tradition cannot be contrary to the Bible, but it may contain revealed truth that is not recorded in the Bible.
We must be careful not to mistake custom or habit for Tradition. The only way to avoid such an error is to study the teachings of the Church in all the centuries of its history. When we find that the Church has consistently taught a given doctrine, then we may have confidence that the teaching is true. When we find that our cherished beliefs and practices only go back to the rector’s predecessor, or to the founding of the parish, or even only to the Reformation, then they do not qualify as Tradition. Such “new” teachings may not be regarded as Catholic truth, but must be referred to custom or perhaps pious opinion, or perhaps just plain error. This applies as much to the new doctrines invented by the Reformers as to those invented by heretics of old.
Conversely, we may not discard a doctrine that Tradition has consistently supported merely because we disagree with it or because a modern council of the Church finds it restrictive. If we say, “God has shown us a new truth,” when the new “truth” contradicts Tradition, we are really saying that God allowed millions of his children, for two thousand years, to wander in error until we came along to straighten things out. Alas, people have always been proud and foolish, as we are, but God has always honored his promise to lead the Church into all truth nevertheless. We look back and see where some part of the Church came up with a new doctrine, or new practice, and a couple of hundred years later everyone agreed the new teaching was in error. Yet we confidently invent new teachings, not having learned from the earlier examples of those who ignored the guiding light of Tradition.
Tradition is never
static or stagnant, but is ever living, growing, being applied to each
generation anew, just as is Scripture.
Next time we will look at the third source of knowledge about God: the one through which Scripture and Tradition
are developed and used.
What to believe, and how to behave? In the past two articles, we have examined Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition as guides to knowledge of the truth about God and his expectations of us. However, these two sources alone are not complete. While they offer specific information on some matters, at best they are only guidelines in other areas. It is not possible to write a guide covering every possible moral decision we might ever have to make. There must be a means of applying the principles expressed through Scripture and Tradition to specific cases. That means is Reason.
At its best, Reason is enabled and enhanced through the working in us of the Holy Spirit. One of the Gifts of the Spirit is called Prudence, an old-fashioned word for common sense. Common-sense Reason, then, is not opposed to revealed truth and traditional authority, but is rather their companion when it is used with humility and conscientiousness. Similarly, highly developed intellectual and scientific Reason finds its most noble use in the study of God and the service of others.
Reason is by far the most personal of the three sources we have looked at. The Bible is the product of the Church, as is the corpus of Tradition, and the interpretation of both is reserved to the Church acting under guidance of Holy Spirit. In contrast, we all as individuals must use Reason repeatedly, whether we are christian or not. Note that Reason is here called a source of knowledge of God’s will, not just an intellectual tool. At its best, when we are steeped in the Bible and the Church’s teaching, when we worship with the Body and submit to daily discipline, then Reason becomes a pretty reliable guide to action. When Reason is not thus adjusted and honed, it becomes dangerous and can do a lot of damage.
We misuse Reason in two principal ways. The first is the prideful way, when we elevate Reason into Truth, instead of a means for finding Truth. When Reason is informed by worldly, fleshly, or demonic values, when it is steeped in the appetites of Self and not in the fear of God, then it is not a proper guide for belief and action. An old, bent, rusty sextant will not help you find your way across any sea. An organ that has not been tuned will not play beautiful music. An athlete without discipline does not take the gold. Neither does Reason guide correctly apart from Scripture and Tradition, prayer and fasting.
The second misuse of Reason is the fearful way, when we refuse to use it at all. The prideful way overinflates Reason; the fearful way renounces it. Renunciation of Reason usually entails fundamentalism or pentecostalism, two easy ways of mistaking one’s own ego for the voice of God. There is not merit in either position. Reason is God’s gift, a talent, if you will, to be used in humble obedience to him: not made into an instrument of rebellion, neither buried and left in disuse. It is a resource of which we are expected to be responsible stewards.
What to believe, and how to behave? In the past three articles, we have explored the Church’s threefold way for knowing what God wants us to believe about him and how he expects us to behave. We are to master the full content of the canon of holy writings. We are to immerse ourselves in the thinking of past generations of christians. We are to maintain careful discipline of these minds of ours that must apply to particular cases the substance of Scripture and Tradition. All this sounds like hard work, and in fact it is.
Throughout the history of the Church there have come along persons who seek to bypass this cognitive labor of the christian life. They say, Just read your Bible, and God will show you what’s right. Just get full of the Holy Ghost, and trust your feelings. Just pray, and you will receive guidance. Just get saved. The variations are multiple.
All such doctrines have two things in common: They fracture the Body, and they fracture the Gospel.
The Body of Christ is fractured whenever any individual, or congregation, or denomination, becomes autonomous in believing, paying no heed to the content of the faith of believers in other time, places, and groups. The Gospel is fractured when one or a few legitimate aspects of it are blown up to the exclusion of the rest of it.
Our Lord never gave us any one simple rule or formula to follow. The christian life demands that we produce faith and works; that we pray and learn; that we confess Jesus Christ and be baptized. We are not to pick one or two aspects of the Way: we are to embrace all of it.
Our Lord also never promised that anyone would, as a lone individual, have the infallible leading of the Spirit. That leading, that revelation, is promised only to the Church as a whole. The silliness of the claim of the Holy Spirit reliably leading a lone individual or independent congregation is amply shown by the scads of sects it has spawned, all at variance in doctrine.
No, there is one Truth,
one Faith, and one Church. It is our
task to give up our self-will and obey the living Truth: To renounce our opinions and believe the
whole Faith: To extinguish our pride and
allow God to reveal the oneness of his Church.
As long as we have “pluralism” of belief and organization, we are in the
wrong. When the kingdom is fully come
there will be one fold, and one shepherd.
What to believe, and how to behave? This series of articles set out to consider the ways we learn the truth about the nature of God, ourselves, and others, and of God’s will for us. We considered the Church’s threefold way of scripture, tradition, and reason, by which we know what God is like and how he wants us to behave.
The three parts of this way are, as we said earlier, really only one. For what happens in each part is that God reveals his truth to us. Some truths are available to natural reason. But other truths can be known only by revelation. Tradition is the process by which these specific revelations of Truth to specific persons are verified, distilled, and synthesized into a corpus of knowledge. Scripture is the codification of the central Truths of Tradition. Reason is the faculty by which we apply Truth in our lives.
Any person, without training, can still look around him and infer that there is an intelligent Creator. Any person, without special study, can see that honesty and kindness and decency are better than their counterparts. Special revelation is not necessary for these insights, and many religions and philosophies promulgated them long before the Church came along. These insights are available to any thinker, without the authoritative pronouncements of any councils, without reference to any sacred writings. Where, then, does the Church’s teaching differ from that of the religions and philosophies, and why is its magisterium, or teaching authority, necessary?
The Truth that the Church teaches is not a proposition. The Truth we believe is a Truth that took on flesh, and became materially, visibly, present in our world, a Truth we can see and feel and talk with, a Truth visible and knowable, a Truth we can be in love with, and on whose breast we can lay our heads. The Truth walks the Way that we all must walk, and shows us how to walk that Way, just by following him as he walks. The Way includes living and dying, and the Truth died as cruel a death as anyone can die. But the Way and the Truth was also Life, and death fled powerless before him. The Life offers Life to us, asking us to die into his Life; to hold his hand and walk the Way; to look Truth in the eye and say: I believe.
Why then the Church? For the propagation of the Truth. Any thinker can infer there is a God, but no amount of philosophizing can reveal the Christ. In the incarnate Jesus, God made his fullest revelation. God appointed the Church as the witness to that Truth revealed.
But more even than telling the past, the Church exists as the means of the continuing presence of that Person who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. For the Incarnation did not consist in converting divinity into humanity, but in the taking of Manhood into God. We are not meant merely to assent to a truth, live life, and follow some way. We are meant to be born again into membership in God through the God-Man. We are baptized, not into an institution, but into the Life. We say I believe, not in an idea, but in the Truth. We walk, not our way, but his Way.