Thursdays will be Bible Day at “Thoughts and Prayers for the Faithful.” I begin with the article, “What Catholics Believe About Revelation,” from my book, Thy Word: An Introduction to the Bible for People in the Pews.
WHAT CATHOLICS BELIEVE ABOUT REVELATION
Divine Revelation is the truth God has told us about Himself, our relationship with Him, and His plan for our salvation. We can know with certainty that God exists by virtue of reason, by the evidence found in nature, by the design of Creation and the order of things. But, there are truths about God that reason does not disclose. In order to come to knowledge of this truth, it is necessary that God reveal it to us. As Catholics, we have confidence that God has done so, for the sake of our salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says, “Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness, formed from all eternity in Christ, for the benefit of all men. God has fully revealed this plan by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit” (CCC, n. 50). Divine Revelation comes to us through the Church by way of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Paul, in his second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, encouraged them to, “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
God’s Revelation came to us in stages. Creation itself was the first stage, for God revealed in His Creation His own existence and His great love for us. Despite our turning from Him in sin, God did not abandon us. He continued to reveal Himself in the covenants with Noah and Abraham, and in the formation of His people, Israel. Israel would be His instrument to reveal Himself to the nations (Ezekiel 20:41). Finally, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). The Letter to the Hebrews says, “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things, and through whom he created the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus Christ is the fullness of God’s Revelation. There is nothing more to come. “Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one” (CCC, n. 65).
Sacred Tradition is the truth of Jesus Christ revealed to the apostles by Christ Himself and the Holy Spirit that was not written down as Scripture. Sacred Tradition has been handed on to the faithful by way of the Church’s teaching under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (CCC, n. 81). Catholics often refer to Sacred Tradition as “Tradition with a capital T.” Small “t” tradition refers to what Catholics do, such as how we worship, how we pray, how we celebrate the seasons of the Church year, etc… Capital “T” Tradition refers to what Catholics believe that may not be directly found in the Bible, but that does not contradict the Bible. Examples include the Assumption of Mary, purgatory, and even our faith about what books belong in the Bible.
Sacred Scripture is the Bible. The Bible is the truth God revealed to us by way of the written word: the books, songs, poems and letters of his prophets, apostles and disciples (CCC, n. 101-104). The Bible is more than one book. It is a whole collection of books, written over many centuries by many different people. The word “bible” comes from the Greek ta biblia, which means “the books.” There are books of history, legend, poetry, prayer, prophecy, and there are several letters. There are seventy-three books and letters in the biblical canon (list of books), forty-six in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament.
Regarding the relationship between Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) wrote in Dei Verbum (“Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”), “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out of the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence” (DV, n. 9).
Divine inspiration is the guidance of the Holy Spirit given to those men who wrote the books of the Bible. Because of the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we trust that what these men wrote includes what God wanted to reveal to us for our salvation, and does so without error. The men who wrote the books of the Bible were still free to write according to their understanding of culture, history, geography, etc… (CCC, n. 105-108). Because of divine inspiration, we believe that, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Church’s Role in Revelation
St. Paul calls the Church, “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church is the instrument of God’s Revelation (Ephesians 3:8-12; CCC, n. 84). The Bible did not fall out of the sky. The books of the New Testament were written by men who were part of the Church. There were many dozens of books written in the years after Jesus. After years of prayer and reflection, the bishops of the Church decided which books would be included in the Bible. The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is necessary for understanding God’s Revelation so that the people of God will understand what is necessary for salvation, and will not be tempted to put their faith in false teachings. Even the Bible says that the Bible can be hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16). Because the Church is the instrument of God’s Revelation, only the Church has the authority to interpret Scripture and only the Church has the authority to discern what truths are part of Sacred Tradition (CCC, n. 85). This authority resides in the Magisterium of the Church, which is the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops in union with him (CCC, n. 2034).
“Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church. … It is clear, therefore, that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way under the action of the Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (DV, n. 10).
The Old Testament
The Old Testament (OT) is the part of the Bible written before Jesus. It tells the story of the people of Israel, their relationship with God, and God’s plan for revealing His truth to the whole world through His chosen people. There are forty-six books in the OT. The OT is also called the Hebrew Scriptures or the Jewish Scriptures, since they were mostly written in the Hebrew language and tell the story of the Hebrews, the nation of Israel, the Jews. The Jewish people divide their Scriptures into three sections: the Torah (the Teachings), the Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the Writings). The Jewish people often refer to the Bible as the Tanakh (or TaNaKh). Catholics divide the OT into four sections: the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophets. Jews and Catholics also put some of the books in different order. Catholics accept as inspired seven books and parts of two others that Jews do not. Protestant Christians eventually came to follow the examples of the Jews in rejecting these seven books as Scripture, though even as late as the eighteenth century Protestant Bibles included them in a separate section. In recent years, many Protestants have come to accept the value of these books as godly literature. There are slight differences in the OT canon accepted by Catholics and that recognized by Orthodox churches.
In the early centuries of the Church, some Christians wanted to discard the Old Testament in light of the New. Marcion was a bishop who taught that the Old Testament was rendered void by the New Testament. The Church has always opposed this idea. “The Old Testament is an indispensable part of the Sacred Scriptures. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value (Cf. DV 14), for the Old Covenant has never been revoked” (CCC, n. 121).
The New Testament (NT) is the part of the Bible that reveals the identity and mission of Jesus Christ. It includes the four Gospels, which tell the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, His Passion, death and Resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles, which is a history of the early Church, the letters of Paul and the Catholic letters, which reflect on how to live the Christian life, and the Book of Revelation, a book of hope and encouragement to Christians suffering persecution. Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions all accept the same NT canon of twenty-seven books. The Gospels hold a unique place in the life of the Church. They are, “the heart of the Scriptures” (CCC, n. 125).
Quoting St. Paul, St. Jerome, and Dei Verbum, the Catechism of the Catholic Church encourages all the faithful to read and study the Bible:
The Church, “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful … to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,’ by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.'” (DV 25; cf. Phil 3:8 and Jerome, Commentariorum in Isiam libri xviii prol.: PL 24, 17b). (CCC, n. 133)
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.