I have recently been reading the memoirs of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) which cover his life between 1927 and 1977. Amongst many interesting passages, there was one particularly interesting section that describes how the young Ratzinger, then Professor of Fundamental Theology at Bonn, who had been invited to act as an official Council theologian (or peritus) at Vatican II, was questioning the approach to Scripture of a contemporary scholar (a dogma specialist by the name of J. R. Geiselmann). Geiselmann’s reading of the Acts of the Council of Trent had led to the idea of material completeness in Scripture – i.e.; that the Bible could be considered as containing a completeness of revelation within itself, akin to the sola scriptura of the Protestant movement.
Ratzinger saw very clearly that if this reading of Trent (a mis-reading in his opinion) were to be endorsed and followed through, it would amount to a shifting of authority within the Church from the teaching office of the bishops to the exegete and scholar. He foresaw what is often the case nowadays, if not in theory at least in practice (even within the Catholic Church), that of an ‘academic magisterium’ wherein it is the most recent discovery or development (or just plain opinion) of the scholarly realms that shapes the faith of the Church, rather than the teaching offices. In his assessment of this situation, Ratzinger elucidated a key element of the very nature of revelation itself:
‘As I have already said in connection with my work on Bonaventure, both in the Middle Ages and at Trent it would have been impossible to refer to Scripture simply as “revelation”, as is the normal linguistic usage today. Scripture is the essential witness of revelation, but revelation is something alive, something greater and more: proper to it is the fact that it arrives and is perceived – otherwise it could not have become revelation. Revelation is not a meteor fallen to earth that now lies around somewhere as a rock mass from which rock samples can be taken and submitted to laboratory analysis. Revelation has instruments; but it is not separable from the living God, and it always requires a living person to whom it is communicated. Its goal is always to gather and unite men, and this is why the Church is a necessary aspect of revelation. If, however, revelation is more than Scripture, if it transcends Scripture, then the “rock analysis” – which is to say, the historical-critical method – cannot be the last word concerning revelation; rather, the living organism of the faith of all ages is then an intrinsic part of revelation. And what we call “tradition” is precisely that part of revelation that goes above and beyond Scripture and cannot be comprehended within a code of formulas.’
Milestones – Memoirs: 1927-1977 (1998), p.127, Ignatius Press.
Aside from the main point here (which one cannot tire of emphasising), that Scripture does not emerge pristine and self-interpreting ex nihilo and is itself part of an organic tradition, I feel that Pope Benedict’s insights back then hit upon something even more essential. When I read the words ‘the living organism of the faith of all ages’, it made a connection in my mind with my very recent memory of the feast of Epiphany, celebrated just the day before. At Epiphany, we celebrate the revelation of the Incarnation – that all the fullness of who God is has been revealed in the man Jesus of Nazareth. But this revelation is not limited to one life, born and lived two thousand years ago – Jesus also formed a Church, which was to be His Body. Thus the Incarnation continues through the Church, and continues to reveal the truth about God.
To return to the words of Pope Benedict, proper to revelation ‘is the fact that it arrives and is perceived – otherwise it could not have become revelation’ – i.e.; by its very nature, revelation requires an organic process wherein what is being revealed is received, nurtured and interpreted according to the spirit of the revealer. The Church, as the Body of Christ, does indeed have the spirit of the revealer – the Holy Spirit, of whom Jesus said ‘He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:14) – and is therefore not only the recipient of revelation but the living continuation of the presence of that One who reveals. Any attempt to divorce one element of that process wherein the Body preserves, recognises and develops its understanding of Jesus from another (e.g.; to lift Scripture out of its native context as part of ecclesial life and tradition) will inevitably lead to an attenuated understanding of the God who reveals.
Thus it seems to me that in some mysterious way – but no more mysterious than the statement that the Church is the Body of Christ – the Church is revelation. As Christ’s continuing presence through space and time, as the guardian of the deposit of faith revealed to the Apostles, as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, the Church is an ongoing epiphany, and contains all revelation within itself, no matter what form that may be in. This is by no means to undermine the special place Scripture has in that process of preservation and presentation of God’s truth, but to witness to both the wider context in which Scripture was born and now lives, and also the deep unity that exists between Christ and His Church. It is only by seeing the Church in this way that one can truly appreciate its fundamental importance in the economy of salvation. It is in fact to see the Church in the same way as the Second Vatican Council, which described it as the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ (Lumen Gentium, Chapter VII, Section 48) – I can think of few better descriptions than that.