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Interpretation Of Sacred Scripture And Tradition

December 12, 2013 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Last week, we spoke of the two means by which God, in His infinite wisdom, has chosen to make known to mankind the saving message contained in His supernatural divine Revelation, namely, through Sacred Scripture (the written word) and Sacred Tradition (the spoken word).
Taken together, they comprise the depositum fidei, or the Catholic “Deposit of Faith.” As expressed in the Compendium of the Catechism: “Tradition and Sacred Scripture are bound closely together and communicate one with the other. Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ. They flow out of the same divine wellspring and together make up one sacred Deposit of Faith from which the Church derives her certainty about Revelation” (n. 14). We also briefly discussed how, through continuous apostolic succession of bishops, God’s Revelation will be preserved and passed along until the end of time.
In closing our previous installment, reference was made to a third critical element upon which the authentic and authoritative transmission of the living word of God depends, that is, the Magisterium, or the teaching office of the Church. Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium were likened to the legs of a three-legged stool — if one leg is not present, the stool will give way and anyone sitting on said stool will fall with it. The necessary presence and stability of that third leg — an authoritative interpreter of the meaning of the written and spoken word — can be intuited even by common sense.
First, let’s consider Sacred Scripture, by which is meant both the Old and New Testaments. We know from the Bible itself that God is its author: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
In other words, even though the words of Scripture were written by human authors, the Holy Spirit guided those authors to write precisely what God intended. Furthermore, we know that God is Truth (cf. John 14:6) and that He “can neither be deceived nor deceive” (Dei Filius, chapter 3). Would it not be inconceivable that an all-loving God, who so desires that “all be one” (John 17:21), should leave mankind with His inspired word, oftentimes veiled and mysterious, without an indisputably authoritative means of interpreting that word? Indeed, He left us with His Church, “which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), as a reliable and trustworthy teaching authority on all matters of doctrine, most especially on matters of faith and morals upon which one’s salvation is dependent.
Before proceeding, it would be wise to define exactly what is meant by the Magisterium of the Church. Dei Verbum (DV) teaches that “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church [her Magisterium], whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (DV, n. 10 § 2).
Turning to Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary, we find that the Magisterium is defined as “the Church’s teaching authority, vested in the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, under the Roman Pontiff, as successor of St. Peter. It is vested in the Pope, as Vicar of Christ and visible head of the Catholic Church.” And the Catechism states that “the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (CCC, n. 88).
A distinction is made, however, between the “extraordinary” and “ordinary” Magisterium of the Church. According to Fr. Hardon, the extraordinary Magisterium is “the Church’s teaching office exercised in a solemn way, as in formal declarations of the Pope or of ecumenical councils of bishops approved by the Pope. When the extraordinary Magisterium takes the form of papal definitions or conciliar decisions binding on the consciences of all the faithful in matters of faith and morals, it is infallible.”
In contrast, the ordinary Magisterium is “the teaching office of the hierarchy under the Pope, exercised normally, that is, through the regular means of instructing the faithful. These means are all the usual channels of communication, whether written, spoken, or practical. When the ordinary Magisterium is also universal, that is, collectively intended for all the faithful, it is also infallible.”
Of utmost importance is to understand and fully submit to the belief that the Church through her Magisterium does not invent or make up doctrine — she neither adds to nor does she change the revealed word of God, but hands on, with divinely decreed inerrancy, what has been received from God Himself by the time public Revelation ended. As explained in Dei Verbum, “This teaching office [the Magisterium] is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission. . . . With the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws . . . everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (DV, n. 10 § 2).
Perhaps an analogy to how the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court should properly operate would be helpful in explaining the role of the Magisterium. Supreme Court justices have a sworn duty to interpret how to apply the Constitution, and not to engage in redefining or changing it. In other words, they are supposed to function under the authority of the Constitution. The Church’s Magisterium acts in a similar fashion with regard to the Deposit of Faith. However, its members enjoy an advantage of infinite proportions. The bishops, as successors of the Apostles, in union with the Roman Pontiff, have received and enjoy the certain charism of truth, a promise of divine assistance which guides their interpretative task. In other words, in doctrinal matters, we have the assurance of God Himself that the teaching office of the Church speaks in truth and with His authority.
Infamous Supreme Court decisions of recent decades that violate even natural law principles (e.g., Roe v. Wade) make it painstakingly clear that Supreme Court justices enjoy no such divine charism.
Our prior discussion, however, does not imply that the “development of doctrine” will not unabatedly continue under the watchful eye of the Magisterium. The Deposit of Faith can and does experience organic growth, growth from within like a living plant, but “not by alteration or construction from without….The Church can further explore and explain and interpret her original Deposit of Faith, drawing out more and more of its own inner meaning and applying it to changing times…[but] she cannot conform it to demands from the secular world” (Peter Kreeft, Catholic Christianity, p. 18).
Biblical scholars, theologians, and Scripture exegetes have been unpacking the richness of God’s word for two millennia, and will continue to do so until the end of time. The reservoir of truths contained in God’s Revelation is inexhaustible. Those readers who are interested in learning more about doctrinal development in the Church are encouraged to refer to Blessed John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
In basic terms, then, how does the Church grow in her understanding of the faith? Following the Catechism’s lead, Fr. Hardon lists three ways: “1) through prayerful contemplation, study, and research; 2) through the experience of living the Faith; and 3) through the preaching of the episcopal successors of the Apostles” (The Faith, p. 30; cf. CCC, n. 94). But for this to happen, Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium “are to be used together, not in competition but by each assisting the others for the salvation of souls.”

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. With the full blessing of Raymond Cardinal Burke, Fier is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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