Foundations of the Faith Part 3: Navigating the deposit of faith

The Catholic Church has proclaimed from its beginning that the Christian faith is handed on through both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture. St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians saying, “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thes 2:15). Implicit in Paul’s words (and something he reminds people often) is the authority he has as an apostle to hand on the authentic teaching about Jesus and the Church.

Today the Church continues Paul’s service through its teaching office, the magisterium. The magisterium is a gift that has as its main purpose to protect the deposit of faith that has been handed down through sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture. One can imagine the confusion that would result in a community without such a teaching authority. To appreciate its function, however, one must be clear about how the Church defines sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture.

By Tradition, the Catholic Church means all that the apostles handed on from their experience of Jesus and from what they learned by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This includes their rich Jewish heritage and the blessings they received as they practiced their faith in Jesus after he ascended into heaven (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 83).

Obviously the Gospels and the other parts of the New Testament were not written until after the events of Jesus’ life. The apostles on their missionary journeys would hand on orally the content of the Faith: the words and deeds of Jesus, his interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the signs he performed, etc. Moreover, the Faith was not only proclaimed but also celebrated when the people gathered together in the breaking of the bread (what we call the Mass). When there were disagreements, the apostles met in the Holy Spirit to resolve them. The Council of Jerusalem was the first such meeting, at which the question of how gentile converts would become members of the Church was posed and answered (see Acts 15).

The early Church

Very soon, however, it became evident that Jesus was not going to return as quickly as the early Church thought, so the evangelists and the other authors of the New Testament decided to put into writing all they had witnessed and learned. Obviously, though the modes of transmission differed, the content remained inspired. In order to resolve conflicts concerning authentic content, the early Church would meet and pray to the Holy Spirit for a resolution, as it did at the Council of Jerusalem. In fact, the apostles established the office of bishop precisely to protect the deposit of faith, which led to the magisterium, as we shall see after considering sacred Scripture.

Scholars have uncovered the earliest surviving New Testament written in Palestinian Aramaic. CNS photo/courtesy Museum of the Bible

It’s important to keep in mind that, for the original followers of Jesus, Scripture was what we now refer to as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament, which came about in much the same way as the New Testament: The Israelite community put down in writing for future generations what it received from the Lord. It’s possible that as the New Testament was being written, the writers had a sense that they were complementing the books of their Jewish ancestors. They did know that they were putting into writing what they had received from the apostles and their successors. Certainly the content of the New Testament manifests the authors’ Spirit-driven work to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, the Church is confident in declaring the divine origin of the Scriptures (both Hebrew and Christian): “In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities … [to write] everything and only those things which he wanted. Therefore … the books of Scripture … [teach] solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (Dei Verbum, No. 11).

When the Church says Scripture teaches “without error” what God wanted his people to know for the sake of their salvation, it is respecting the intent of the authors (including the Lord himself, who is the Author behind the authors, so to speak) and what they wanted to convey. For example, when Isaiah writes, “All flesh is grass” (Is 40:6), he does not mean that human skin is grass; he is expressing the truth of human mortality. God uses human language and human authors to carry his truth to us (just like he took on human nature to save us). This includes different kinds of literature — poems, short stories, histories, myths, parables, Gospels, letters, encomiums — and different writers to express his truth. A reader has to be aware of what he or she is reading to be able to appreciate what God is saying.

Inspired texts

When we approach the Scriptures, therefore, we should do so with great reverence. This is true for all Scripture. As Christians, we understand the New Testament as fulfilling the Old, but this does not mean that the Old Testament is less important or lacking divine inspiration. Quite the contrary, the Church believes that the Old Testament foreshadows and anticipates the coming of Christ. Therefore, we read the Scriptures as a whole; both testaments shed light on each other.

Books of the Bible
The Old Testament:

We also read the Scriptures in relationship with the Church, which brings us back to Jesus, who is the head of the Church. If Jesus is the fullness of revelation, then there is no more revelation to be received. Everything we need to know about God, about his will and about salvation has been made known to us by Jesus. However, recognizing the need to correct errors and combat confusion, the apostles established the office of bishop to carry on the duty of teaching and to protect the deposit of faith they had received from Jesus.

Revelation, therefore, is intrinsically bound with apostolic succession. Jesus gave the apostles the gift of the Holy Spirit, which established their teaching authority and kept them from error in matters necessary for the salvation of the faithful. The apostles in turn passed on this charism (through the laying on of hands) to the bishops and their successors (priests and deacons share in the bishops’ authority vicariously).

The magisterium

The pope (or bishop of Rome) and the bishops in union with him form the magisterium. Its main task is to authentically interpret God’s word, whether written or handed on orally. The magisterium prepares for its task by meditating on Scripture and Tradition and by praying constantly for God’s guidance. The magisterium is a true gift to the People of God, because it protects revelation from relativism.

What is the Magisterium?
Dei Verbum, the 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, offers the following insight into the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the Catholic Church:

Throughout the Church’s existence, the magisterium has corrected errors and defined truths. For example, the teaching office came to the aid of all believers by defining, after first appealing to Scripture and Tradition, that Jesus is both divine and human. We may have difficulty understanding this truth, but the magisterium defined it because so many people were arguing about it.

Therefore, when we approach Scripture or a teaching from the magisterium, we do so as members of the Church, members of the Body of Christ. We do not come to the Bible or Tradition as mere individuals. We have our individual minds, of course, and we certainly can question and ponder and test what we receive. However, we should adopt a spirit of openness to the Holy Spirit’s grace that has so evidently worked through the Church.

Church authority

The Church, for its part, gives guidance to the People of God by assigning different levels of authority to documents and teachings. Scripture, of course, has been defined as God’s revelation in written form (and coming out of Tradition), so the truths conveyed through Scripture deserve our full assent as to their veracity. On the other hand, the magisterium is able to guide the Church to a deeper understanding of Scripture as it yields to the Holy Spirit.

Retired Bishop Edward J. Slattery of Tulsa, Okla., lays hands on Bishop-designate David A. Konderla at his June 29, 2016, ordination Mass. CNS photo via Dave Crenshaw, Eastern Oklahoma Catholic

The magisterium comes to the aid of Church members by assigning different levels of authority to particular documents and teachings. A statement delivered and defined ex cathedra by the pope, or a document released by all the bishops together (including the pope), has the highest authority. The magisterium’s authority, at whatever level it is exercised, extends over faith and morals, what members of the Church need to know for salvation.

If a pope or a bishop expresses an opinion on a sports team or a favorite food, or any subject clearly outside his role as teacher of the faith, then we can take it or leave it.

The pope has a number of ways to express his authority as the vicar of Christ. There is the apostolic constitution that solemnly announces a papal teaching on a doctrinal or disciplinary question. A papal bull may also be used as a dramatic way to present a solemn pronouncement. The pope might also release an encyclical, which is a letter explaining more clearly a doctrine or serious pastoral issue within the Church. Although not as solemn as the former two, it deserves the respect of the entire Church.

“Doctrine” refers to a teaching of the Church regarding faith and morals. “Dogma” refers to doctrines that have been explicitly defined by the magisterium; they are truths contained in sacred Tradition and/or sacred Scripture that oblige everyone in the Church to an irrevocable commitment of faith (for example, the divinity of Christ or the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist).

Goal of salvation

Whether a teaching is explicitly mentioned in Scripture or not, the magisterium at times finds it appropriate to offer certain definitions. Dogmas, for example, are teachings that the magisterium declares are part of the deposit of faith (again, for example, the two natures of Christ). Other teachings, like the content of the Bible, which was defined at the Council of Trent, do not rise to the level of dogma but are clearly important to the life of the Church and so come under the teaching authority of the magisterium.

Scripture alone?
Some Christian traditions maintain that all revealed truth is handed on through Scripture (sola scriptura). The Catholic Church, in contrast, has always maintained that the one wellspring of divine revelation is communicated through two fonts: sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture. The Church notes that, before there were written Scriptures, the Christian community (and the Jewish community, too) handed on God’s Word through preaching.

The important thing to remember is that the goal of both sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture is our salvation. God reveals himself to us so that we remain united to him forever. He therefore provides us with the means to enter into relationship with him, not merely as individuals but as brothers and sisters in Christ, who remains the fullness of revelation. Scripture and Tradition, along with the teaching authority of the magisterium, are divine aids to help us put on the mind of Christ and journey with him, in the Spirit, to the Father.

David Werning writes from Virginia.

Nihil Obstat: Msgr. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum


Keys to reading and understanding sacred Scripture