Revelation, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium

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

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).