Monday, June 2, 2008

Christian Revelation

Catholics and the Orthodox see the primary repository of divine revelation (in the sense which Protestants call "special revelation", i.e., as distinguished from the revelation embodied in nature) as the Church. The inerrant and inspired Scriptures are the written tradition of the Church (the Church is the New Israel, so this includes the Old Testament), but the Church also expresses divine revelation in liturgy, oral tradition, the Councils and the Magisterium.[note 1] Protestants, on the other hand, tend to find divine revelation primarily in Scripture, though there are some Protestants who think that the Church is the primary respository of revelation, but that this revelation is only found infallibly in the Church's Scriptures.

It is often argued that seeing the Church as primary here makes much sense in light of the fact that the canon of Scripture is defined by the Church.

Here I want to suggest a different argument. The primary object of our faithful trust is Jesus Christ. But the Church is the mystical body of Christ. In trusting the Church, we are trusting Christ. Seeing revelation as embodied primarily in the Church fits well with the christological focus of our faith. While, of course, the Holy Spirit who inspires the Scriptures is perfectly trustworthy, New Testament faith is primarily a trust in Jesus Christ. Trust is an interpersonal relation, so it makes sense to distinguish the persons of the Trinity in respect of it. Seeing the Church, the mystical body of Christ, united as such by the Holy Spirit, as the primary respository of revelation fits particularly well with the christological nature of our Christian faith.


Enigman said...

Pardon my ignorance, but what kind of body is a mystical body, that Christ's could be the Church? You said (in reply to wwiw, last post) that the substance of Christ's physical body can nourish us spiritually when we consume it. Is that because such consumption makes the consumers into the mystical body; or did I guess that wrong?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the mystical body of Christ--the Church--is a body insofar as it consists of individuals, with Christ as the head, who cooperate for a common goal with different individuals having different proper tasks, in somewhat the way that the parts of our ordinary bodies cooperate together for a common goal.

I do think that our membership in the mystical body of Christ is deepened by the proper reception of Christ's physical body.

Tim Lacy said...

Professor Pruss wrote: "New Testament faith is primarily a trust in Jesus Christ."

I'm no expert in Church history, but this might be an unintentionally heretical statement. I would say, rather, that New Testament faith is trust in the Trinity. Christ is most certainly the most prominent visible (no pun intended) member of the Trinity in the New Testament, but the New Testament fulfills the Old---where God the Father is the most prominent character of the Trinity in Sacred Scripture. Moreover, the Trinity (according to Latin Rite Catholics) proceeds from the Father and the Son, so it could only become "visible" (used loosely) to us in the New Testament.

In sum, we can't elevate one member of the Trinity as higher than the rest. - TL

Alexander R Pruss said...

We cannot elevate one member of the Trinity over another, but there can be subtle differences in how we relate to the three persons. We worship the Father in the Son through the Holy Spirit. This must be understood in a way compatible with the identity of the relations ad extra, but this identity must be carefully understood, as this post notes.

It is certainly correct to say that because we have faith in Christ, we have faith in God, just as it is correct to say that because Mary is mother of Christ, she is mother of God. However, we cannot infer from Mary's being mother of Christ that she is mother of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, it is not clear to me that we can infer that we have faith in the Holy Spirit in the primary sense of Christian faith.

MG said...


You wrote:

"Here I want to suggest a different argument."

Does this statement imply you don't agree with the argument that because the Church sets the canon of Scripture, it therefore should be considered a repository of revelation?

Also, how would you respond to a Protestant if they said the following two things:

1. Body-language is just one kind of metaphor in Scripture for the Church, so we don't have to take it the way Catholics and Orthodox do, as entailing an identity thesis about the relationship between Christ and the Church.

2. Nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to believe in the Church, as the Creed says ("And I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church"). Faith is always and only directed toward Christ and the rest of the Godhead.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I accept the argument from the canon. But the argument from the canon only shows that the Church is the locus of revelation, not why the Church is the locus of revelation. The why question is answered by saying that the Church is the locus of revelation because of the Church's mystical identification with Christ.

1. I don't want to say that the Church is literally Christ. But there is a pretty strong identification there. I am inclined to think this identification is crucial for soteriological reasons. See this post.

Another deep reason to take this metaphor seriously is the Suffering Servant texts in Isaiah. I suspect modern scholars are right that one of the primary meanings of these texts had Israel be the Suffering Servants. But the New Testament sees these texts as fulfilled in Christ. Hence there is a close identification between Israel and Christ. But the Church is the New Israel. Hence, a fortiori, etc.

I think certain Scriptural metaphors are to be taken more deeply than others. How do we tell? Well, one way is by looking at how important they are to the arguments in the sacred text. The view of the Church as the body of Christ seems very important to Paul, and, moreover, a pretty strong reading of it is needed for the argument against sex with prostitutes in 1 Cor. 6:16-17.

2. We are told, at least, that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth in 1 Timothy 3:15. Furthermore, we are told that he who hears the Apostles hears Christ.

And if we see the Church as closely identified with Christ, so closely that salvation comes from being in some important sense crucified with Christ as a member of his mystical body, then from the claim that we trust Christ, we get the claim that we trust the Church.

Apolonio said...


Have you read Giussani at all? You might be interested in Why The Church? and "Is It Possible To Live This Way?"

Pretty much, faith is certainty of things unseen. He gives an analogy to testimony. I do not see that Sally ate a hot dog today, but I know she did because Billy told me (plus certain conditions of course). This is the way we know Christ, that is, through a witness. When we say "Church" it isn't an abstract entity, but concrete, in people.

Anonymous said...

Your proposal seems initially to center on the person of Jesus Christ, however is it in fact more ecclesiocentric? Many protestants might be concerned about centering the revelatory locus on the church in light of certain historical periods where the institutional church was wayward (i.e. the crusade era or perhaps the German church under the Nazis). This isn’t a very sophisticated argument but it could be problematic for your proposal. How would you respond?
Also, coming from a protestant background, I would probably side with those who see the Scriptures as the principal revelatory act primarily because they contain the words and story of Jesus Christ. I see the appeal of what you called the 'argument from the canon,' however I think a more nuanced view of scriptural revelation might navigate around it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good questions. First, I think that the dichotomy between ecclesiocentric and Christocentric is a false one. The Church is the body of Christ. Insofar as we are living the life of the Church, it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us. He who hears the Church, hears Christ.

As for bad episodes in the history of the Church, the Church is not limited to time and place. Certainly, particular members of the Church have done and preached bad things. But that is different from the Church, as such, teaching error.

Finally, I want to put a bit of pressure on the idea of seeing the Scriptures as the words and deeds of Jesus. First, we have a difficulty with the Old Testament. It is true that the Old Testament always points to Christ. But it is not clear that one can reduce the Old Testament to the words and deeds of Jesus, except insofar as Jesus is God, and God speaks in all revelation (but there we have to contend with the fact that the inspiration of Scripture is more specifically attributed to the Holy Spirit). I think some subtle work can help here.

A second problem here, related to the canon problem, is that there seem to be two aspects of faith here. (1) We believe the Scriptures to give us the words and deeds of Jesus. (2) We believe what is revealed in the words and deeds of Jesus. Now, part 2 of faith is indeed a trust in Christ. But part 1 of faith is a trust that the Scriptures accurately give us the words and deeds of Jesus, and here the trust seems to be in the Holy Spirit who inspires the Scriptures.

Of course one might think I do too much distinguishing of the persons of the Trinity here. That might be. If so, then my argument is wrong.

Finally, as my next post pointed out, a difficulty with the Protestant model is that can make the commitment of faith too cheap. For while the likelihood that some teaching of the Church will correct a doctrinal misunderstanding of the Trinity or the Incarnation is moderately high. Let me do this by way of example. Suppose that I propose that although according to Chalcedon, Christ has two intellects and two wills, nonetheless he has only one center of consciousness, and this is what makes him be one person. If I am a Catholic and I make the claim, then my deference to faith is not cheap: for it is quite possible that I will come across a patristic teaching, or a teaching of some Council, or maybe a new teaching will come up that will contradict my claim, and then I will have to deny what I had claimed. But if I am a Protestant and I make the same theological claim, the likelihood that I will find a contradiction to it in Scripture is relatively low, because it is often very easy to reinterpret Scripture. So while I can defer to the Scriptures on the point, there is little danger of being taken up on the deference.

(By the way, I am inclined to say that Christ had two centers of consciousness, while being one person. But of course I defer to the Church, and this is a very, very tentative opinion.)