Friday, January 21, 2011

Bible Basics, Day 3: The Transmission of Revelation

"The almighty and most holy Word of the Father pervades the whole of reality, everywhere unfolding his power and shining on all things visible and invisible. He sustains it all and binds it all together in himself. He leaves nothing devoid of his power but gives life and keeps it in being throughout all of creation and in each individual creature."-St. Athansius, Discourse Against the Pagans

The Transmission of Revelation

I.  Handing on the Good News
We learned in the last lesson that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to communicate to mankind those truths which we need to know for our salvation.  This is called "Revelation".  Because of this revelation, we also know that:

     God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth": that is, of Christ Jesus. Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth:
     God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed
for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations--CCC 74

So, as was mentioned in the last lesson, Jesus commanded His disciples to preach the Gospel, or the "good news" about Who Jesus was and what He had taught and done while on earth with them.  There are two main ways in which the apostles communicated this Gospel and passed it on to those who came after them (and, eventually, on to us).  We can imagine these as two streams flowing forth from the fountainhead of all Truth, Jesus Christ.  These "streams" are Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.

"Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other.  For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing and move towards the same goal." Dei Verbum 9

II.  Sacred (or Apostolic) Tradition 

     The first way in which the apostles handed on the Truths which had been entrusted to them was orally.  Some of the ways the Gospel was handed on orally included:
     -oral preaching
     -personal example
     -establishment of institutions  

Sacred Tradition transmits such teachings of Jesus as how the Mass is to be said and what it means, what are the sacraments and how are they performed, how should the Church interpret the Scriptures and the words and actions of Christ, how to worship God, the apostolic succession of bishops, and the seeds of all later doctrine.  Sacred Tradition is not a "list" of facts and sayings to know, rather it is a worldview, a mindset, a way of life; it is everything the Church is and believes.  Such written documents as the Creeds or the ancient liturgies would be part of this Tradition, but all of Sacred Tradition is not in a written form.  

Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes."  The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.--CCC 78
References to the Catechism of the Catholic Church are usually given in this form:  CCC 278.  The CCC stands, of course, for Catechism of the Catholic Church.  The number which follows (in our example, 278) is the number of the paragraph from which this quote was taken, not the page number.  So, for instance, in my copy of the Catechism, paragraph 278 is on page 73.  Every paragraph in the Catechism is numbered in bold on the left-hand side.

Three important points to remember about Sacred Tradition:
     1.  The "deposit of Faith", which is basically everything Jesus did and taught, was CLOSED with the death of the last apostle (John).  After this time, nothing new could be added to Divine Revelation.  We will discuss private revelation another time.  
     2.  Sacred Tradition is not the same as local church traditions involving such things as customs of discipline (e.g., Friday fasting), customs pertaining to the liturgy (e.g., colors of vestments), devotional practices (e.g., the Rosary), or even theological opinions (e.g., which way the priest is to face while saying Mass).  It does include all the doctrines Jesus Himself taught (e.g., only men can be priests, there are seven sacraments, the Bread and Wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ, etc.).
     3.  All the infallible proclamations of the Church are based on Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture together and flow from them.  Development of doctrine is possible, but change of doctrine is not.  We are really not discussing this here, but I wanted to mention it.

III. Sacred Scripture

      Ah, ha!  Now we're getting somewhere!  We have arrived at the written transmission of Revelation.

In addition to oral transmission, "those apostles and other men associated with the apostles...under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing."--CCC 76  And this is the collection of writings we call "The Bible".   We have learned why some parts of Revelation were committed to writing (for our salvation, remember?), and the rest of this series will discuss Sacred Scripture in great detail.  But for now, we need to move on to one more important gift Jesus gave us.

IV.  The Magisterium of the Church  

     Jesus entrusted the "deposit of Faith" to His apostles and they handed it on through the means of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.  These two ways of transmitting knowledge can be thought of as two streams coming from the same source, and both of these streams are necessary for us to have a complete understanding of everything Jesus did and taught.  However, without a way to properly interpret Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, we would have a very difficult time applying all of this knowledge to our lives in the 21st century.  Think for a minute of all the issues we are facing today that are never mentioned directly in the Bible---contraception, IVF, cloning, genetic engineering, and on and on.  How are we to know God's will on such matters? How can we be sure we are properly interpreting what Scripture and Tradition teach on topics pertaining to these questions?
     The teaching office of the Church, called the Magisterium (from the Latin "magistra", or teacher), was established by Jesus Christ.  Just before He ascended into Heaven, He gathered His disciples around Him,

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." Matthew 28:18-19

  So, we see that Jesus commanded His apostles to teach everyone to "observe all that I have commanded you..."  Our Lord never gives a command without giving us the means to carry out that command.  In this case,  He would send the Holy Spirit on the apostles to make it possible for them to know what to teach and how to teach it.  This power of teaching was then passed on from one generation of bishops to the next.  "This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, bishop of Rome."--CCC 85

      So, we now understand the "three-legged stool" of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium.  Each of these three elements is essential in order for us to have a balanced and correct understanding of the Faith.  Each of these elements transmits crucial knowledge which is illuminated by the Holy Spirit so that we can know with certainty the Truth of the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

God’s word is thus spoken throughout the history of salvation, and most fully in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. Then too, the word of God is that word preached by the Apostles in obedience to the command of the Risen Jesus: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). The word of God is thus handed on in the Church’s living Tradition. Finally, the word of God, attested and divinely inspired, is sacred Scripture, the Old and New Testaments. All this helps us to see that, while in the Church we greatly venerate the sacred Scriptures, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book”: Christianity is the “religion of the word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word”.[19] Consequently the Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable.[20] Verbum Domini

Your Assignment

1. How can we know that the books that are in the Bible are really the books inspired by the Holy Spirit?  (just for you to think about...)
2. How do you think God "inspired" the writers of the Bible?  Did He dictate to them?  Did He put thoughts in their heads?  Did He force them all to write in the same style?
3. Read 2 Timothy 3:16.  

Main Idea:  Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, when understood according to the Magisterium of the Church, together contain the full Revelation of God that Jesus Christ came to communicate for the salvation of mankind.

Next lesson: The Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture

For an in-depth article on the Catholic view of Scripture and Tradition vs. the Protestant idea of sole Scriptura (Scripture only), go to  Catholic Answers.


  1. What a beautiful explanation of Sacred Tradition. I know one thing that made my coming back to the Church easier was turning to the Holy Spirit. I think I was very influenced by other Catholics who saw everything in the Church as political - no doubt, an institution put in the hands of humans with all our frailities will have troubles - but what helped me so much was to keep at the forefront of my mind the constant presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. May the Holy Spirit watch over all of us involved this study!

  2. Donna, thank you for your comment. Truly, when we think of the Church, we need to see beyond the faces of the sinful human beings to whom God has (incredibly!) entrusted it and to the heart of the Father and Son who send the Holy Spirit to preserve and protect and guide the Church through the ages. I'm so glad you mentioned this, because I had been meaning to add the Prayer to the Holy Spirit to the blog...which I did today! Prayer is crucial when we seek to learn the truths of the Faith; only by the illumination of the Holy Spirit can our knowledge result in spiritual growth.