Faith of Our Fathers
There is a pious tradition that, when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles on Pentecost, each enunciated one of the 12 articles of the Apostles’ Creed.
Though this is not historical, the early Church made use of this story to teach an important truth: The faith of the apostles is the foundation of our faith.
In the readings for the liturgy after Easter, the Church celebrates the progressive spread of faith of the apostles in Christ throughout the world of Christ’s time. This begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome.
The apostles’ faith is their response to their personal relationship with Christ, but it does entail logical conclusions. One can think about their faith and express it in propositions.
In our anti-intellectual age, it is customary to seek to play off ideas in the mind against vivid personal experience. One author said that the great problem of thinking in our age is that the universal idea has become an impoverished sensory experience. The rose is less fragrant if I can define it. This is the origin of what Pope Benedict has called the "dictatorship of relativism."
Catholic ideas about truth are very far from this. True Catholic thinking about faith affirms that the act of faith is an act of the intelligence, but this action does not end in the conclusions people arrive at in their minds. Instead, it plunges on to the reality expressed: In this case, the Trinity, Christ and Mary. "The believer’s act [of faith] does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities they express" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 170).
One wonders why these propositions are so important. Many Christian denominations hold that we all believe in the same Christ and that trying to define him just dilutes the experience.
The propositions are important for two reasons. First, one cannot love what one does not know, and if one is mistaken about the person he loves, his love is not real. Instead, he loves a creation of his own mind.
Either our love for Jesus must be for someone who established a Church with seven sacraments, a hierarchy headed by the pope and a magisterium that maintains things like same-sex "marriage" and contraception are evil — or not.
Second, since the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one, the faith that assents to their revelation on earth must also be one and the same. Truth cannot affirm at one and the same time and in the same respect that a thing is both x and not x. Someone has to be right. Until there is clarity as to the truth which these persons reveal about themselves, one can never be sure that one’s love is real and true.
Since faith is a supernatural knowledge and a grace that one cannot attain by any human power or effort, God channels the truth about himself, the Word of God, through a knowledge that goes beyond ordinary human reason.
In the history of the Church, the channels of this knowledge have been determined to be two: Scripture and Tradition.
Jesus is the Prime Revealer and the Prime Revelation: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" (John 14:6). He is this because he is the Word of God made man. Both Scripture and Tradition have their foundation in him. Scripture is the word of God written; Tradition is the word of God spoken.
As is well known, the Protestant reformers rejected Tradition as the source for Revelation and held that only Scripture could serve. This is perhaps because of the confusion between traditions and Tradition and also because of the seeming emphasis on human works as the origin of faith. The reformers were right to emphasize the necessity of Scripture as a source of the faith and not limiting access to the Bible to chosen elite. They were also right to state that mere human traditions could not serve as the origin of such an exalted knowledge as faith.
Their trouble was that the term "Tradition" as it is used in this context does not refer to human traditions instituted by man. It refers, instead, to the teaching and practice of the apostles.
The faith of the apostles is the origin for Catholic truth, and both Scripture and Tradition seek to draw out what the apostles either explicitly taught, implicitly believed or carried out in practice.
Practices like infant baptism would be an example of this Tradition, which is not found in Scripture but follows logically from the teaching and practice of the apostles.
The teaching of the apostles is also the source for determining which books form the canon of holy Scripture. Why, for example, is the Gospel according to St. Matthew considered to be inspired by the Holy Spirit but not the Gospel according to St. Thomas or the Protoevangelium of St. James?
It is because the Church determined that Matthew’s Gospel expressed the faith that has always been taught from the time of the apostles — and the others did not.
The authority of the Church to determine these things comes from the teaching that the pope and bishops are the successors of the Apostolic College who have no right to change the teaching of the apostles. This is why formal Revelation closed with the death of the last apostle.
These facts can be seen in the ancient manuscripts, which date the origin of the Gospels in a very different way than modern Scripture scholars. According to these sources, Matthew was written for the Jewish mission; Luke, the companion of Paul, wrote his for the Gentile mission.
When Peter was under house arrest in Caesar’s household, towards the end of his life, he was asked to comment on the similarities and dissimilarities between Matthew and Luke. Mark was his scribe and published Peter’s reflections after Peter’s death. This is why there are no "Infancy Narratives" of Jesus’ early life in Mark: Peter was not there.
At the Council of Trent, there was a concerted attempt to deal with the question of the relationship of Scripture and Tradition. The Church Fathers could not decide which of these was more important. Their decree expresses their teaching: "Following, then, the example of the orthodox Fathers, it [the Council] receives and venerates with the same loyalty and reverence all the books of the Old and New Testament — for the one God is the author of both — together with all the traditions concerning faith and practice, as coming from the mouth of Christ or being inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved in continuous succession in the Catholic Church" (Denzinger 1501, edition XLIII).
The Catechism reflects this discussion in the present emphasis on the need to study Scripture as one channel of the communication of Revelation, which forms our faith and is also equal to Tradition. "As a result, the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’" (82). The last part of this is a quotation from Vatican II, Dei Verbum (9), and cogently expresses the Catholic faith concerning the formation of faith.
Dominican Father Brian Mullady
is a mission preacher and adjunct professor
at Holy Apostles Seminary in
- June 16-29, 2013