Divine and Catholic FaithMay 29th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Q. What evidence do we have that the [Ecumenical Councils’] exercise of apostolic authority was legitimate, and has remained infallible?
A. In order to answer this question, it is helpful to consider the implications of the visibility of the Church in relation to Christ’s promises. I have addressed that indirectly here (in January of 2008) and then more directly here (in January of 2009).
St. Paul Preaching in Athens
Sanzio Raffaello (1515)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Sacred theology (that is, revealed theology) is above the power of natural reason. In what sense is it above? Much of the content of sacred theology exceeds our ability-to-know-through-our-natural-power-of-reason. That is why we need divine grace to know it. We need divine assistance to grasp divine things, precisely because they are above us. That is why theological rationalism (i.e. requiring that all theological claims be verifiable or demonstrable by human reason) is methodological atheism. Faith is not a stunted or diminished form of reason; faith is an elevation of reason above its natural reach, an initial stage of the superperfection of reason that is the Beatific Vision. That’s why what is seen now by faith is seen through a glass darkly. One day, we will see face-to-face the One who immeasurably transcends us, as He is; then faith and hope will be done away. But now we do not see clearly the object of faith.
The mistake of the rationalist is equivalent to the mistake of Plato’s cave-dweller, only another level up. The prisoner in Plato’s cave laughs at the philosopher who returns to the cave and is no longer able to compete well in the game of recognizing the shadows, thinking that the philosopher’s eyesight has been ruined. Socrates then says:
Anyone with any understanding would remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light. Realizing that the same applies to the soul, when someone sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something, he won’t laugh mindlessly, but he’ll take into consideration whether it has come from a brighter life and is dimmed through not having yet become accustomed to the dark or whether it has come from greater ignorance into greater light and is dazzled by the increased brilliance. (Republic, 518a)
The rationalist sees a person who cannot lay down syllogisms for the content of his faith, and assumes that he is either in or in the process of first emerging from Plato’s cave. But the rationalist has failed to consider the possibility that the man of faith cannot play the rationalist’s game not because he isn’t accustomed to the Sun, but because he has just encountered “a light from heaven, brighter than the Sun.” (Acts 26:13)
Reason can show that there is no internal contradiction within sacred revelation, and no contradiction between sacred revelation and what we can know by reason alone. But, reason cannot verify or confirm much of divine revelation. That’s because what makes sacred revelation true, (i.e its truth-maker) is above and beyond the reach of our reason to grasp on its own. And that’s precisely why faith is required to accept it. If we could know it by reason alone, faith wouldn’t be required to accept it, and it wouldn’t be supernatural. Whatever in this life does not require faith to accept, is not above the range of our natural power of reason to know. And so if everything in a proposed religion were verifiable by the natural power of reason, that proposed religion either would not be about anything above us, or it would not be a supernatural religion, that is, supernaturally revealed. When Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven”, He said this because Christ’s identity as Son of the Father could not be known by the natural power of reason alone; it could only be known by supernatural revelation.
One important difference between Protestants and Catholics in this respect is that Protestants tend to believe (at least in practice) that the only instrument through which we have faith in Christ, is the Bible. Catholics, by contrast, believe that the Bible (and the whole of the Apostolic deposit of faith) properly comes to us through the Church, and so we believe that the definitive words of the Church as she unfolds the deposit of faith contained in both sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, are that by which and through which we have faith in Christ. In other words, we show our trust in Christ, by trusting the Church which He established and promised to protect, preserve and guide by His Spirit, just as, had we lived in the middle of the first century, we would have shown our faith in Christ by trusting those whom He had appointed and authorized to speak in His name as His rightful representatives.
This is not circular reasoning, because we are not starting from the assumption that the Church has authority to define and teach the faith. Reason leads us to recognize that man cannot naturally do the miracles that the Apostles did, and that therefore they had some divine authorization and empowerment, a kind of divine seal of approval, and that we should therefore take heed to what they say. And part of what they said, as passed down to us both in Scripture and in the Tradition preserved in the Church fathers, is precisely that magisterial authority in the Church is passed down by succession, by the laying on of hands by those who were themselves already authorized, and so on, back to the Apostles.
The idea is a handing down of magisterial (i.e. teaching and shepherding and sanctifying) authority, from God the Father to Christ, from Christ to the Apostles, and from the Apostles to the bishops, down to the present day. Given that, then faith in Christ is rightly expressed not just as faith in what the Apostles said as recorded in Scripture, but also as faith in what their successors said when defining doctrine, specifying what is orthodoxy and what is heresy, and interpreting and clarifying the Apostolic deposit of faith, continually deepening the Church’s understanding of these things. Just as we could not confirm or verify the teaching of the Apostles regarding what Christ taught them (excepting those things that He taught in public), so we usually cannot confirm or verify the Church’s definitive teachings on matters of faith and morals. (I say ‘usually’ because in some cases the Church does teach definitively things that can be known by the natural power of reason, but need to be taught because the darkness of our minds has obscured the truth of these things to us.) But we accept both what the Apostles said, and what their authorized successors say, by faith, a faith in Christ and in His promise to preserve and guide His Church.
“The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.” (Luke 10:16)
Protestants limit the “you” to the Apostles. But Catholics believe that the “you” is not limited to the Apostles, but extends perpetually through the line of the Apostles’ successors, until Christ returns. Jesus uses this principle when He said:
“If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me.” (John 8:42)
Our love for the sender of the messenger is revealed by our acceptance and love of the messenger authorized by the sender. So we show love for Christ by accepting and loving those whom He sent (from which the word ‘apostle’ is derived). And likewise, we show our love for the Apostles (and thus for Christ and the Father) by accepting and loving those whom the Apostles sent. We see this idea in the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died around 107 AD, approximately seven years after the Apostle John died. I wrote about St. Ignatius’ epistles here. Notice there the way St. Ignatius enjoins the believers to think of the bishops, and presbyters and deacons.
This is why, from the Catholic point of view, a faith that is limited to what the Apostles wrote (and to the Old Testament of course) is a deficient faith, not necessarily in the intention or in the will of the believer, but in the believer’s awareness of the scope of the authorized instrument Christ provided through which we are to believe in Him, and thus thereby in what has been supernaturally revealed concerning Christ, the object of faith. One form of this deficiency is what I have called ecclesial deism, which I have written about here. The Protestant sees the Catholic Church as adding man-made extras to the ‘simplicity of the gospel’. But the Catholic sees the Protestant as falling into a quasi-rationalism, treating in a rationalistic manner something (i.e. the Magisterium) that should be treated as a divinely-authorized instrument of faith.
To perceive acceptance of the Church’s teachings as burdensome or restrictive or sacrificial is to ‘see’ them as merely man-made or man-derived. The Catholic perceives the Magisterium as the authorized messenger of the divine, and thus perceives Magisterial teaching as divine gift, quite like the Protestant perceives the written teaching of the Apostles as divine gift. The problem, when the Protestant says, “I won’t become Catholic until the Church changes teaching x”, has nothing to do with teaching x. The cause lies deeper, in a difference of perception of the Magisterium. One sees a bunch of old men in pointy hats; others see the divinely authorized representatives of Christ, the Son of the Living God.