The Catholic Thing
Revelation, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 16 September 2011

This past Tuesday, September 13, I taught my first RCIA class, offered at St. Peter’s Catholic Student Center at Baylor University. Although I have been teaching philosophy to college students for twenty-five years, I was a bit nervous. Thankfully, I have a minor role in the class, leading only one session this semester with perhaps another one or two in the Spring. Our RCIA team consists of several seasoned parishioners, with St. Peter’s gifted pastor, Fr. Anthony Odiong, overseeing the entire enterprise.

I spoke on the topic of Revelation, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium, focusing on how I came to accept the Catholic understanding of this subject in my own journey from Evangelicalism and back to the Church. (I am a revert).

As a Christian philosopher I had always had a keen interest in how faith and reason interact and what that means for both the life of the mind and our walk with Christ. Although I had read many books and articles on these matters by both Catholics and Protestants, the ones that seemed most sensible to me were those that I would later learn were more “Catholic” than “Protestant” in spirit and approach.

So, even though I was an Evangelical, I read with great interest John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio: On Faith and Reason  soon after it was released in September 1998. After reading it, I concluded that the most important lessons that Evangelicals can learn from this document were the pope’s insights on how certain philosophies will, because of their own internal logic, undermine confidence in the truth of the Gospel message.

John Paul II was interested in saving souls, and he understood that bad philosophy, if not challenged by good philosophy, would make the Church’s mission of soul saving more difficult. Although he notes that there is no one official Christian philosophy, there are limits to the extent to which a philosophy can be employed to illuminate Christian truth. For example, a Christian scholar cannot incorporate scientific materialism, deconstructionism, or moral relativism into Christian theology without distorting fundamental truths about the order and nature of things taught in Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

That is to say, Biblical scholars and systematic theologians, who think they can extract doctrine from Scripture unaided by the resources of philosophical analysis, are kidding themselves and are not doing a service to the Church. That’s why, for John Paul, an interpreter of Scripture must be conscientious in ensuring that he is approaching the text with sound philosophical principles.

As a Protestant who embraced sola scriptura, I found myself not entirely comfortable with the pope’s critique of “Biblicism,” which he defined as a perspective “which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth.” Although my discomfort was the result of the late pontiff’s appeal to the Church’s Magisterium as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture,  I concluded that he was correct that Scripture could not by itself be the source of theological knowledge without the assistance of philosophical reflection.

        Rome is home

Thus, it became obvious to me that every major doctrinal dispute in the first six centuries of the Church could not have been resolved by mere citation of Bible verses. Rather, it required an elegant and rationally defensible interaction between the text of Scripture and certain philosophical categories.

Consider just two examples. The First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) asserts that the Church believes in “one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ek tēs ousias] of the Father.” The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) affirms that Jesus Christ is “the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity” and “at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.”

Both councils are in fact employing philosophical terms of art – e.g., “substance,” “rational soul,” “consubstantial,” “nature,” “subsistent,” and “perfect” – that provide a conceptual framework by which we may better understand the depiction of Christ in Scripture. 

Just as the rules of grammar are essential to reading Scripture (even though these rules are not derived from Scripture), the philosophical categories integral to the creeds are essential for deriving theology from Scripture even though they are not themselves contained in Scripture.

But from this concession – that one cannot do Biblical theology without philosophy – I could not avoid the next step, one that placed me at the edge of the Tiber. Although I had concluded that the Church employed both Scripture and philosophy in settling the disputes at Nicaea and Chalcedon, it took me nearly a decade to see clearly that they were only truly settled ecclesiastically when a Church Council, with real binding authority, affirmed one side as orthodox and the other as heretical.

For this reason, the Catholic Church believes – as I came to believe – that these conciliar judgments cannot be mere theological theories that are nothing more than another era’s winds of doctrine about which St. Paul warns us we should not be “tossed to and fro.” (Eph. 4:14). Thus, I was driven to a conclusion that I could find no reason to reject: they are the deliverances of the Church’s Magisterium, in its service as interpreter of Scripture, guided by the Holy Spirit, and acting in its role as the authoritative arbiter on doctrinal matters.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He tells the story of his journey from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again in his book, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic (Brazos Press, 2009).

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Manfred , September 16, 2011
Thank you Prof. Beckwith. As someone trained and educated in the preconciliar Church, I found it interesting to read on philosophy in the Church with nary a mention of Thomism, as Thomism was the philosophy of the Church as Pope Leo XIII insisted on it. If Thomism were still vibrant, do you think you would have Catholic apologists for same-sex intimacy or marriage? Forget the first six centuries as important as those Councils were: the Catholic world of fifty years ago had very clear rules. The non-Catholic "christian" churches were understood to be populated with people who either rejected or could not live by those rules. The proof was evident when, at the time of the Council's reach-out, many/most Protestant "churches" began to ordain women, after 5,670 years of Judaeo-Catholic male priesthood. That is the central argument of pre-conciliar Catholics-the Church has been incoherent for fifty years.
written by Martinkus, September 16, 2011
Would that the Magisterium enhanced its God-given authority by making explicit (1) that the doctrines it teaches are objectively true and 2) its prudential judgments and social analyses are not authoritative thereby reserving its most authoritative tone for teaching Revealed truth.
written by Achilles, September 16, 2011
Professor Beckwith, I wish you had been my RCIA teacher, we had a leader still trying to live out the glory days of woodstock.
Manfred, your apparent myopia is impressive. I highly question your use of the word 'educated'. You must mean you attended school, Mass and perhaps university before Vatican II. Life in the Church was far from perfect 50 years ago. There is a book called Liberalism is a Sin, you can read it for free, just google it. Read at least the intro, it was written well over 100 years ago and it was attacked by liberals all the way to the Vatican. You must also read, Popes against the Modern Errors. A wonderful collection of beautiful encyclicals warning us of the dangers of modernism. These two books alone, if read properly, have the potential to disabuse you of some of your ideological catch phrases that seem to prevent you from full assent. However, there are many sources, and very credible ones, that illustrate the philosophical and societal geneology of our monstrous condition today. It has much less to do with Vatican II than you can imagine.
written by Peregrinus, September 16, 2011
One of your main points, Professor Beckwith, is an important one; but it is not made clearly in the column. You try to explain, I believe, that the truths of the philosophical sciences can aid in explaining the truths of theology. This is certainly the case; and the Church has, as you note, used these sciences, especially physics and metaphysics, in this way since the time of its earliest ecumenical councils. The service that the philosophical sciences give to theology is not, however, one of helping to “extract doctrine from Scripture,” precisely speaking. The content of theology (i.e., its doctrines or dogmas and the conclusions reached from them) comes from divine revelation, and not in any way from the philosophical sciences (see ST Ia, I.1). Each science has its proper and separate area or object of inquiry (i.e., the world revealed by rational inquiry for the philosophical sciences and the world revealed by God for theology). The truths of theology are determined apart from philosophy, but philosophy can aid in helping to explain the rationality or possibility of these truths (i.e., it can help to defend these truths against criticism). The philosophical sciences cannot, of course, prove the truths of theology.
written by Kevin Offner, September 16, 2011
I am a Protestant and am no expert on the Reformation so I may not be reading the reformers correctly here. But my sense is that when they insisted upon sola scriptura they were not saying that one couldn't also use philosophy in the attempt to understand or communicate Holy Scripture better...any more than they were not saying that one couldn't use good preaching to understand Scripture better.

Surely they would have agreed on "Scripture Plus" many things. Scripture plus philosophy, Scripture plus preaching, Scripture plus 'good exegesis' (Calvin quoted Augustine constantly), Scripture plus ordained church leaders' use of discipline, etc. Holy Scripture must be understood, and the Spirit uses many different means to bring the truth of Scripture into an individual Christian's head and life.

But the reformers wanted to distinguish between Scripture's authority and all derivative authorities. As important as they held the historic creeds to be, they still distinguished them from Holy Scripture: Holy Scripture is God's Word; the Nicene Creed is not God's Word. Holy Scripture is God's Word; Holy Tradition is not God's Word.

I think Roman Catholics and Protestants would agree: *theoretically* the Nicene Creed could be revised/improved/changed. It's theoretically possible that the Church could one day see fit to change one word in the Nicene Creed in a way that she thought more accurate and helpful (e.g. filioque?). But if such a change were ever to take place, it would be by using Holy Scripture as the measure. But it is not even theoretically possible for Christians to change Holy Scripture. For Scripture is God's unique revelation to us, to *some* degree in a different way than any creed is.

Holy Scripture stands below, is foundational to, the Nicene Creed; the Nicene Creed does not stand below, is not foundational to, Holy Scripture.

In coming to understand what Holy Scripture teaches, Christians must of course use their reason. We need philosophy. We need preachers. We need Tradition. We need the best commentaries. Amen. But I don't think any of this conflicts with affirming sola scriptura.

written by Bill Walker, September 16, 2011
Prof. Beckwith,
Thanks very much for your outstanding column. I am not schooled in Theology or Philosophy, but a few years ago, as I got older, (63) I started to investigate my Church. I did not realize how many discussions on the definition of the Trinity, and of how to read scripture. Using the internet, I have read some of our Popes' writings and if I follow slowly and use google, and dictionaries, and prayer I have found them fascinating, as these learned men slowly explain the Revealed words of God. I have fell back in love with my church.
written by Howard Kainz, September 16, 2011
"Credo ut intelligam," says St. Anselm. After faith, comes the rational process of understanding, as much as possible, the revealed truths. St. Augustine's multiple attempts to develop analogies to the Trinity are a good example. St. Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle and Plato and Maimonides and others to clarify the meaning of revealed truths. It would be a bit difficult to use Kant or Nietzsche of Sartre and many other philosophers for this purpose. I would except Hegel, whose philosophical analyses of the the Genesis account of creation, the Atonement, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, etc. earned him the title of the "Protestant Aquinas" from Karl Barth.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 17, 2011
"When the Marcionites, Valentinians, and the like," says Origen, "appeal to apocryphal works, they are saying, 'Christ is in the desert;' when to canonical Scripture, 'Lo, He is in the chambers;' but we must not depart from that first and ecclesiastical tradition, nor believe otherwise than as the Churches of God by succession have transmitted to us."
written by Manfred, September 17, 2011

Since you are recommending books, why don't you pick up: Vatican Council II, a Debate That Has Not Taken Place by Msgr. Brunero Gherardini? He asks how the innovations introduced at Vat. II have ANYTHING to do with the traditional Magisterium of the Church. Ben XVI cites the "Hermeneutic of Rupture" in a famous 2005 sermon when he refers to the same innovations. BTW, I have raised seven children during the last fifty years-three of whom attend traditional chapels-all of whom attend weekly Mass and frequent confession. Why don't you share your credentials with us?
written by JOSEPH, September 17, 2011
Thank you Mr. Beckwith for your column,
As we know Faith and Reason go together.But we can think ourselves out of our faith.As we see everything is fine when his disciples see him cure the blind,heal the sick,raise the dead.But when he says"Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you will not have eternal life."
Not many stayed for the answer,they reasoned themselves out of their faith.A question for our Bible alone brothers,Christ died 2000 years ago,"How is it possible that he died an rose again, an him in heaven at the right hand of his father, how we are to eat his flesh an drink his blood?.Did he not say at the last supper "This is my body this is my blood"This is why today we can relie on his words that in the EUCHARIST we eat the body,blood soul and divinity of Christ.Please don,t think ourselfs out of our faith. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.
written by Achilles, September 17, 2011
Dear Manfred, Thank you for the book recommendation. You and I would agree that the innovations are, as our Holy Father explains, the “hermeneutic of Rupture.” There is no doubt about that. Your credentials are very impressive, I am joyful to hear that all your children attend weekly mass and frequent confession. Congratulations on raising good kids in bad times, something all too rare today.
My comments to you are about your comments and the appearance that you dissent from a legitimate council when it might benefit you to oppose the innovations and perversions instead of the Council itself.

My credentials? I would be happy to tell you, but it would be even ruder if I posted it here. If you would like to email me go to and search Achilles, my email address is there.

Manfred, there is no doubt that you are by far the better man, and quite honestly, I have no real right to comment on your comments as you are not only my elder, but my superior in intellect, faith and devotion. I will be doubly pained if I am wrong about how I see your comments, but on the off chance I am not completely wrong, maybe you will consider the possibility that some of your statements are reactionary. I wouldn’t disagree with a single point of the Doctrine and Dogma of Mother Church, or of Her traditions, or the Magisterium or with the legitimate councils. I am suggesting, not that you give up anything but that you take on more by putting the Vatican Council II in its proper order and recognize the real factors behind Satan’s influence inside the Church. It is a win win and the only sacrifice would be personal pride, unless of course I have misunderstood you, then I would be an even bigger idiot than I had suspected. Augustine also said "credo ut intelligam"
Pax Christi tecum, Achilles
written by Achilles, September 17, 2011

Manfred, on second thought, my credentials would be an utter waste of your time. How about the cliff notes and hopefully we can remain amicable despite the canyon of difference between us.
I am an incorrigible sinner whom God, out of his infinite mercy, has called out of darkness. I come from a family of invincible ignorance and nearly supernatural pride and arrogance. God has sent an army to help me, from my confirmation Saint Augustine, my guardian angel, the Church Doctors and Saints, to countless people in my parish to confirm and reaffirm Christ’s gospel. I am humiliated more than I ever thought possible and for the first time in my life as I wallow in the mud in abject misery of which I am the architect, in my heart is a joy I could have never imagined.
written by Ben Horvath, September 18, 2011
Interesting article. According to JH Newman, one of the tricks the Arians used to prevent opposition to their disgusting heresy and to disfigure the truth was to insist that only 'Biblical' language to describe Christ. Therefore the sophisticated philosophical language used to describe our Lord's incarnation could not be used - those words weren't in the Bible!
written by Michael PS, September 19, 2011
Ben Horvath

You are right. When the Monophysite heretic Eutiches protested that the language of the Council of Chalcedon was not to be found in Holy Scrtipture, the papal legates retorted, "Neither is the ὁμοούσιος [the "one in Being" of the Nicene Creed] to be found in Scripture, but in the Holy Fathers, who well understood and faithfully expounded them."
written by morrie , February 03, 2012
Authority decides on disputes. I always imagine two Sola Scriptura(ists) having prayed to the Holy Spirit but having disagreed on their infallible interpretation of a verse in the Bible, they then stare at the Bible as it just sits there. If only it could speak. If only the Author (in the word Authority) could explain what he meant by the passage, the dispute would be resolved.

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