The Continuity of the Catholic Church
Further testimony about the constancy of the Gospel comes under the heading of revelation. It has always been the understanding of the Catholic Church that the revelation of doctrines came to a close with the Apostolic age, so much so that this understanding itself must be regarded as doctrine. This fact, I submit, is excellent proof that the Church has not added to the Gospel, as she has been accused of doing. Once having declared that the revelation of doctrines was originally complete, the Church certainly could not ask her people and the world to accept new doctrines as having been subsequently revealed.
Just here we touch an interesting contradiction in criticisms. On the one hand, there is the complaint against the Catholic Church that she does not recognise new or modern revelations. On the other hand, there is the complaint that the Church has added new doctrines to those of primitive Christianity. Obviously the two complaints point in opposite directions, a contradiction which is most extraordinary when both come from the same source.
It should be evident that if the Church were unfaithful to the Gospel, unfaithful enough to invent new doctrines, she would be ingenious enough, in attempted justification, to invent the theory of new and continuing revelations. That she has done neither is evidence that she has preserved the Gospel as it was originally entrusted to her.
Concerning the finality of revelations, there is ample testimony from the Scriptures. For instance, St. Paul wrote: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you that that which ye have received, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8,9).
Implying the same fact is this text from St. John: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book..."(Rev. 22:18).
More conclusive is the testament given by St. Jude: "Beloved," he wrote, "it became necessary...for me to write to you exhorting you to struggle earnestly for the faith which was given once and for all to the Christians" (Jude 3). Here I used the literal translation from the Greek text, as the King James version is incomplete. It is important to note that the Greek word which is translated "once and for all" indicates finality. It means that nothing can be added to the faith which has been revealed. It confirms the Catholic doctrine of closed public revelation.
As in the Scriptures so it is also on Tradition. The first notable publicity about the completeness of revelations came in defence against the heresies of a group known as the Gnostics, in the second century. Their claim to be a favored class, with a special contact with God through which they obtained secret information and new revelations, was emphatically repudiated by the Fathers of the Church. Such historians as Tertullian and St. Irenaeus declared that "the full truth of revelation in contained in the doctrine of the Apostles which is preserved unfalsified through the uninterrupted succession of bishops" (Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 6).
Perhaps the Gnostics should be given credit for helping later generations - credit in reverse. By the attention which they attracted to their peculiar beliefs they drew from the Fathers of the Church public pronouncements about articles of faith, pronouncements which we can quote today in defending against the revival of Gnostic errors. On the other hand, all that they accomplished in their own day was to create heresies and weaken Christian unity.
Similar difficulties would arise today if the Church depended upon and expected further revelations. Suppose that she announced a new doctrine as a result of revelation. Immediately she would be challenged. How do you know that you had a revelation? How can you prove that you had? To such questions, there could be no convincing reply. It would not be sufficient for the Church to say that she recognised the revelation from internal evidence, such as her own inner awareness. Such testimony would not convince any reasonable person.
Furthermore, dissenters would promptly come on the scene and announce that they had had revelations, insisting that the Catholic Church had no monopoly on communications with God. They would claim to have received doctrines differing from those of the Church. Each dissenter would present his unique appeal to the world and win a few followers. Christianity would descend into a chaos of contradictions and confusion. There would be no certainty about the Christian creed and no way of attaining certainty.
Aside from deliberate counterfeiting, the prevalence of honest mistakes would be equally fatal. Under circumstances where devout persons had prayed earnestly for guidance in finding truth and where deep convictions had come to possess their souls, they would easily be tempted to judge that their prayers had been answered by revelations. The next step in the watering-down process would be to accept such humanly formed convictions as the sum and substance of revelation. Mere human honesty, with all its proneness to error, would thus be substituted for the divine assurance of truth.
Then there would be the baneful effect upon theological scholarship. If scholars were looking for new revelations to answer their questions, there would be no point in exploring Scriptures and Tradition, for the simple reason that these sources of faith would have been demoted to a secondary place. The Church would merely fold her hands and wait for a message from God. There would be no stimulation to study; nothing to investigate. In the department of doctrines, the Church would be dormant and unprogressive.
All this is avoided in the constitution given to the Church by our divine Lord. The revelations from Him and the Holy Spirit make up a deposit or storehouse of truth which is infinitely deep and inexhaustible. When a question arises about an article of faith, the Church, not sluggishly waiting for new instructions from God, proceeds actively to look into the deposit entrusted to her, where she finds the answer. This she draws forth, defines explicitly, and proclaims to the world.
Thus to find a doctrine of faith the Church uses, first of all, the ordinary human processes of inquiry. The bishops of the Church, under the leadership of the Pope, and with the aid of the best scholars available, study the sources of revelation, the Scriptures and Tradition, with each problem accepted as a challenge to scholarship. There is nothing mysterious about the process and nothing to impose upon the credulity of seekers for truth. When finally the Church, as a result of exhaustive studies, officially announces a definition, she is protected against error by the Holy Spirit, as promised by our Lord. It is only then that she rises above the reach of human nature; and it is then that she brings each doctrine the guaranty of God.
Does this seem unreasonable? To the reader who is not convinced, let me pose this question: Do you believe in the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures? If so, you believe also that God, by His supernatural wisdom, protected the writers against teaching false doctrines. Is it more difficult, I ask, for God to protect His Church against error than it was to protect the writers of the Scriptures?
[Back to the Previous Page]
© 2009 Transporter Info Services, All Rights Reserved.