1. Revelation and Authority
It may well be asked why participants in a dialogue
on mission should spend time debating theological questions concerned
with divine revelation, the Scriptures, the formulation of truth,
principles of biblical interpretation, and the church's magisterium
or teaching authority. For these topics may not appear to be directly
related to our Christian mission in the world. Yet we judged a
discussion of them to be indispensable to our task, for two main
reasons. The first and historical reason is that the issue of
authority in general and of the relation between Scripture and
tradition in particular, was one of the really major points at
issue in the 16th century. Indeed, the evangelical emphasis on
sola Scriptura has always been known as the "formal"
principle of the Reformation. So Roman Catholics and Evangelicals
will not come to closer understanding or agreement on any topic
if they cannot do so on this tonic. Indeed, in every branch of
the Christian Church the old question "by what authority?"
(Mark 11:28) remains fundamental to ecumenical discussion. Our
second reason for including this subject on our agenda was that
it has a greater relevance to mission than may at first appear.
For there can be no mission without a message, no message without
a definition of it, and no definition without agreement as to
how, or on what basis, it shall be defined.
Revelation, the Bible and the Formulation of Truth
Roman Catholics and Evangelicals are entirely
agreed on the necessity of revelation, if human beings are ever
to know God. For he is infinite in his perfections, while we are
both finite creatures and fallen sinners. His thoughts and ways
are as much higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the
earth (Is 55:9). He is beyond us, utterly unknowable unless he
should choose to make himself known, and utterly unreachable unless
he should put himself within our reach. And this is what together
we believe he has done. He has revealed the glory of his power
in the created universe10
and the glory of his grace in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the
Scriptures which he said bear witness to him (e.g. John 5:39).
This process of special revelation began
in the Old Testament era. "God spoke of old to our fathers
by the prophets" (Heb l:1). He fashioned Israel to be his
people and taught them by his law and prophets. Old Testament
Scripture records this history and this teaching. Then the Father
sent his Son, who claimed to be the fulfilment of prophecy, himself
proclaimed the good news of salvation, chose the twelve apostles
to be his special witnesses, and promised them the inspiration
of his Spirit. After Pentecost they went everywhere preaching
the gospel. Through their word Christian communities came into
being, nourished by the Old Testament and the gospel. The apostles'
teaching was embodied in hymns, confessions of faith and particularly
their letters. In due time the Church came to recognize their
writings as possessing unique authority and as handing down the
authentic gospel of Jesus Christ. In this way the canon of the
New Testament was constituted, which with the Old Testament comprise
the Christian Scriptures.
We all recognize that in the Scriptures God
has used human words as the vehicle of his communication. The
Spirit's work of inspiration is such, however, that what the human
authors wrote is what God intended should be revealed, and thus
that Scripture is without error. Because it is God's Word, its
divine authority and unite must be recognized, and because he
spoke through human beings, its original human context must also
be taken into account in the work of interpretation.
But are human words adequate to describe
God fully, even if they are inspired? No. The infinite reality
of the living God is a mystery which cannot be fully communicated
in words or fully comprehended by human minds. No verbal formulation
can be co-extensive with the truth as it is in him. Nevertheless,
God has condescended to use words as well as deeds as appropriate
media of his self-disclosure, and we must struggle to understand
them. We do so in the confidence, however, that though they do
not reveal God fully, they do reveal him truly.
Roman Catholics and Evangelicals differ slightly,
in their understandings of the nature of Scripture, and even more
on what the proper process of interpreting this Word should be.
Both groups recognize that God spoke through the human authors,
whose words belonged to particular cultures.
Roman Catholics speak of this relationship between the divine
and the human in Scripture as being analogous to the divine and
the human in Christ. As the Second Vatican Council put it, "
indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in
every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal
Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became
Thus the written testimony of the biblical authors is inscribed
within the logic of the Incarnation.
Evangelicals also sometimes use this analogy,
but they are not altogether comfortable with it. Although it has
some validity, they do not believe it is exact, since there is
no hypostatic union between the human and the divine in Scripture.
They usually emphasize instead the model of God's providence,
namely that he is able even through fallen human beings to accomplish
his perfect will. So he has spoken through the human authors of
the Bible in such a way that neither did he suppress their personality
nor did they distort his revelation.
Thus together we affirm that the written
Word of God is the work of both God and human beings. The divine
and the human elements form a unity which cannot be torn asunder.
It excludes all confusion and all separation between them.
With respect to the process of interpretation,
Roman Catholics affirm that Scripture must be seen as having been
produced by and within the Church. It is mediated to us by the
inspired witness of the first Christians. The proper process of
interpretation is determined by the process of Scripture's creation.
We cannot understand it in its truth unless we receive it in the
living faith of the Church which, assisted by the Holy Spirit
keeps us in obedience to the Word of God.
Evangelicals acknowledge the wisdom of listening
to the Church and its teachers, past and present, as they seek
to understand God's Word, but they insist that each believer must
be free to exercise his or her personal responsibility before
God, in hearing and obeying his Word. While the Church's interpretations
are often helpful, they are not finally necessary because Scripture,
under the Spirit's illumination, is self-interpreting and perspicuous
Thus, contemporaneity has come to mean different
things in our two communities. Each recognizes that the Word of
God must be heard for and in our world today. For Roman Catholics
God's Word is contemporary in the sense that it is heard and interpreted
within the living Church. For Evangelicals it is contemporary
in the sense that its truth has to be applied, by the illumination
of the Holy Spirit, to the modern world.
Despite these differences we are agreed that
since the biblical texts have been inspired by God, they remain
the ultimate, permanent and normative reference of the revelation
of God. To them the Church must continually return, in order to
discern more clearly what they mean, and so receive fresh insight,
challenge and reformation. They themselves do not need to be reformed,
although they do need constantly to be interpreted, especially
in circumstances in which the Church encounters new problems or
different cultures. Roman Catholics hold that "the task of
giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God whether
in its written form or in the form of Tradition has been entrusted
to the living, teaching office of the Church alone."12
This seems to Evangelicals to derogate from Scripture as "the
ultimate, permanent and normative reference." Nevertheless,
both sides strongly affirm the divine inspiration of Scripture.
Principles of Biblical Interpretation
Our understanding of the nature of the Bible
determines our interpretation of it. Because it is the Word of
God, we shall approach it in one way; and because it is also the
words of men, in another.
Humble dependence on the Holy Spirit
Because the Bible is the Word of God, we
must approach it with reverence and humility. We cannot understand
God's revelation by ourselves, because it is "spiritually
discerned" (1 Cor 2:14). Only he who spoke through the prophets
and apostles can interpret to us his own message. Only the Spirit
of truth can open our hearts to, understand, to believe and to
obey. This is "wisdom," and the Holy Spirit is the "Spirit
of wisdom and of revelation" in our knowledge of God (Eph
1:17). Moreover, the Spirit operates within the Body of Christ,
as we shall elaborate later.
The unity of Scripture
Because the Bible is the Word of God, it
has a fundamental unity. This is a unity of origin, since he who
has revealed himself does not contradict himself. It is also a
unite of message and aim. For our Lord said the Scriptures "bear
witness to me" (John 5:39; cf. Luke 24:25-27). Similarly,
we read that "the sacred writings... are able to instruct
you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim 3:15).
Thus God's purpose through Scripture is to bear testimony to Christ
as Savior, to persuade all men and women to come to him for salvation,
to lead them into maturity in Christ, and to send them into the
world with the same good news.
In the midst of great diversity of content,
therefore, Scripture has a single meaning, which permeates and
illuminates all the partial meanings. We renounce every attempt
to impose on Scripture an artificial unity, or even to insist
on a single overarching concept. Instead, we discover in Scripture
a God-given unity, which focuses on the Christ who died and rose
again for us and who offers to all his people his own new life,
which is the same in every age and culture. This centrality of
Christ in the Scriptures is a fundamental hermeneutical key.
Since the Bible is God's Word through human
words, therefore under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who is
the only one who leads us into the understanding of Scripture,
we must use scientific critical tools for its elucidation, and
we appreciate the positive gains of modern biblical scholarship.
Human criticism and the Spirit of God are not mutually exclusive.
By "criticism" we do not mean that we stand in judgment
upon God's Word, but rather that we must investigate the historical,
cultural and literary background of the biblical books.
We must also try to be aware of the presuppositions
we bring to our study of the text. For none of us lives in a religionor
culture-free vacuum. What we must seek to ensure is that our presuppositions
are Christian rather than secular. Some of the presuppositions
of secular philosophy which have vitiated the critical study of
the Bible are (a) evolutionary (that religion developed from below
instead of being revealed from above), (b) anti-supernatural (that
miracles cannot happen and that therefore the biblical miracles
are legendary), and (c) demythologizing (that the thought world
in which the biblical message was given is entirely incompatible
with the modern age and must be discarded). Sociological presuppositions
are equally dangerous, as when we read into Scripture the particular
economic system we favor whether capitalist or communist, or any
One test by which our critical methodology
may be assessed is whether or not it enables people to hear the
biblical message as good news of God revealing and giving himself
in the historic death and resurrection of Christ.
The "literal" sense
The first task of all critical study is to
help us discover the original intention of the authors. What is
the literary genre in which they wrote? What did they intend to
say? What did they intend us to understand? For this is the "literal"
sense of Scripture, and the search for it is one of the most ancient
principles which the Church affirmed. We must never divorce a
text from its biblical or cultural context, but rather think ourselves
back into the situation in which the word was first spoken and
A contemporary message
To concentrate entirely on the ancient text,
however, would lead us into an unpractical antiquarianism. We
have to go beyond the original meaning to the contemporary message.
Indeed, there is an urgent need for the Church to apply the teaching
of Scripture creatively to the complex questions of today. Yet
in seeking for relevance, we must not renounce faithfulness. The
ancient and the modern, the original and the contemporary, always
belong together. A text still means what its writer meant.
In this dialectic between the old and the
new, we often become conscious of a clash of cultures, which calls
for great spiritual sensitivity. On the one hand, we must be aware
of the ancient cultural terms in which God spoke his word, so
that we may discern between his eternal truth and its transient
setting. On the other, we must be aware of the modern cultures
and world views which condition us, some of whose values can make
us blind and deaf to what God wants to say to us.
The Church's Teaching Authority
It is one thing to have a set of principles
for biblical interpretation; it is another to know how to use
them. How are these principles to be applied, and who is responsible
for applying them?
The individual and the community
Evangelicals, who since the Reformation have
emphasized both "the priesthood of all believers" and
"the right of private judgment," insist on the duty
and value of personal Bible study. The Second Vatican Council
also urged that "easy access to sacred Scripture should be
provided for all the Christian faithful."13
Both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, however,
recognize the dangers which arise from making Scripture available
to all Christian people and from exhorting them to read it. How
can they be protected from false interpretations? What safeguards
can be found? Whether we are Evangelicals or Roman Catholics,
our initial answer to these questions is the same: the major check
to individualistic exegesis is the Holy Spirit who dwells and
works in the Body of Christ, which is the Church. The Scriptures
must be interpreted within the Christian community. It is only
"with all the saints" that we can comprehend the full
dimensions of God's love (Eph 3:18).
Roman Catholics also say that Scripture is
interpreted by the Church. Yet the Church's task, paradoxically
speaking, is at one and the same time to submit totally to the
witness of Scripture in order to listen to God's Word, and to
interpret it with authority. The act of authority in interpreting
God's Word is an act of obedience to it.
But how in practice does the Christian community
help us towards truth and restrain us from error? We are agreed
that Christ has always intended his Church to have gifted and
authorized teachers, both scholars and pastors. When Philip asked
the Ethiopian whether he understood the Old Testament passage
he was reading, he replied, "how-can I, unless some one guides
me?" (Acts 8:31).
Many of our teachers belong to the past.
Both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have inherited a rich legacy
of tradition. We cherish creeds, confessions and conciliar statements.
We peruse the writings of the Fathers of the Church. We read books
Christ also gives his Church teachers in
the present (Eph 4:11), and it is the duty of Christian people
to listen to them respectfully. The regular context for this is
public worship in which the Word of God is read and expounded.
In addition, we attend Church Synods and Councils, and national,
regional and international conferences at which, after prayer
and debate, our Christian understanding increases.
Respectful listening and mutual discussion
are healthy; they are quite different from uncritical acquiescence.
Both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics are troubled by the authoritarian
influence which is being exerted by some strong, charismatic leaders
and teachers of different backgrounds. The kind of thoughtless
submission which is sometimes given to such was firmly discouraged
by the apostles. The people of Beroea were commended because they
examined the Scriptures to see whether Paul's preaching was true
(Acts 17:11). Paul urged the Thessalonians to "test everything,"
and John to "test the spirits," i.e. teachers claiming
inspiration (1 Thess 5:21; 1 John 4:1). Moreover, the criterion
by which the apostles exhorted the people to evaluate all teachers
was the deposit of faith, the truths which they had heard "from
the beginning" (1 John 2:24; 2 John 9).
The regulation of Christian belief
We all agree that the fact of revelation
brings with it the need for interpretation. We also agree that
in the interpretative task both the believing community and the
individual believer must have a share. Our emphasis on these varies,
however, for the Evangelical fears lest God's Word be lost in
church traditions, while the Roman Catholic fears it will be lost
in a multiplicity of idiosyncratic interpretations.
This is why Roman Catholics emphasize the
necessary role of the magisterium, although Evangelicals believe
that in fact it has not delivered the Roman Catholic Church from
a diversity of viewpoints, while admittedly helping to discern
Evangelicals admit that in their case too
some congregations, denominations and institutions have a kind
of magisterium. For they elevate their particular creed or confession
to this level, since they use it as their official interpretation
of Scripture and for the exercise of discipline.
Both Roman Catholics and Evangelicals cherish
certain creeds and confessions which summarize their beliefs.
They also agree that new formulations of faith may be written
and affirmed for our times. Other doctrinal statements may be
either revised, or replaced by better statements, if this seems
to be required by a clearer proclamation of the good news. All
of us accept our responsibility to listen ever more attentively
to what the Spirit through the Word is saying to the churches,
so that we may grow in the knowledge of God, in the obedience
of faith and in a more faithful and relevant witness.
What, then, Evangelicals have asked, is the
status (and the authority for Roman Catholics) of the various
kinds of statement made by those in a ministry of official teaching?
In reply, Roman Catholics say that the function of the magisterium
is to regulate the formulations of the faith, so that they remain
true to the teaching of Scripture. They also draw a distinction.
On the one hand, there are certain privileged formulations
e.g. a formal definition in council by the College of Bishops,
of which the Pope is the presiding member, or a similar definition
by the Pope himself, in special circumstances and subject to particular
conditions, to express the faith of the Church. It is conceded
that such definitions do not necessarily succeed in conveying
all aspects of the truth they seek to express, and while what
they express remains valid the way it is expressed may not have
the same relevance for all times and situations." Nevertheless,
for Roman Catholics they do give a certainty to faith. Such formulations
are very few, but very important. On the other hand, statements
made by those who have a special teaching role in the Roman Catholic
Church have different levels of authority (e.g. papal encyclicals
and other pronouncements, decisions of provincial synods or councils,
etc.). These require to be treated with respect, but do not call
for assent in the same way as the first category.
We all believe that God will protect his
Church, for he has promised to do so and has given us both his
Scriptures and his Spirit; our disagreement is on the means and
the degree of his protection.
Roman Catholics believe that it is the authoritative
teaching of the Church which has the responsibility for oversight
in the interpretation of Scripture, allowing a wide freedom of
understanding, but excluding some interpretations as inadmissible
Evangelicals, on the other hand, believe that God uses the Christian
community as a whole to guard its members from error and evil.
Roman Catholics also believe in this sensus fidelium. For in the
New Testament Church members are urged: "let the word of
Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another"
(Col 3:16). They are also exhorted to "see to it" that
their brothers and sisters stand firm in truth and righteousness.14
Can the Church be Reformed?
The need for reform
So far in this first section of our Report
we have concentrated on the Church's responsibility to teach.
Can it also learn? Can the Church which gives instruction receive
it? More particularly, can Scripture exercise a reforming role
in the Church? Is the Church itself under the Scripture it expounds?
These are questions which the Roman Catholic
Church put to itself anew during the Second Vatican Council, and
has continued to ask itself since (see the Vatican II Decree on
Evangelicals, however, to whom continuous
reformation by the Word of God has always been a fundamental concern,
wonder whether the reform to which the Roman Catholic Church consented
at Vatican II was radical enough. Has it been more than an aggiornamento
of ecclesiastical institutions and liturgical forms? Has it touched
the Church's theological life or central structures? Has there
been an inner repentance?
At the same time, Roman Catholic have always
asked whether Evangelicals, in the discontinuity of the 16th century
Reformation, have not lost something essential to the gospel and
Yet we all agree that the Church needs to
be reformed, and that its reformation comes from God. The one
truth is in God himself. He is the reformer by the power of his
Spirit according to the Scriptures. In order to discern what he
may be saying, Christian individuals and communities need each
other. Individual believers must keep their eyes on the wider
community of faith, and churches must be listening to the Spirit,
who may bring them correction or insight through an individual
Our response to God's Word
We agree on the objectivity of the truth
which God has revealed. Yet it has to be subjectively received,
indeed "apprehended," if through it God is to do his
reforming work. How then should our response to revelation be
We all acknowledge the difficulties we experience
in receiving God's Word. For as it comes to us, it finds each
of us in our own social context and culture. True, it creates
a new community, but this community also has its cultural characteristics
derived both from the wider society in which it lives and from
its own history which has shaped its understanding of God's revelation.
So we have to be on the alert, lest our response to the Word of
God is distorted by our cultural conditioning.
One response will be intellectual. For God's
revelation is a rational revelation, and the Holy Spirit is the
Spirit of truth. So the Christian community is always concerned
to understand and to formulate the faith, so that it may preserve
truth and rebut error.
Response to God's truth can never be purely cognitive, however.
Truth in the New Testament is to be "done" as well as
"known," and so to find its place in the life and experience
of individuals and churches. Paul called this full response "the
obedience of faith" (Rom 1:5; 16:26). It is a commitment
of the whole person.
Understanding, faith and obedience will in
their turn lead to proclamation. For revelation by its very nature
demands communication. The believing and obeying community must
be a witnessing community. And as it faithfully proclaims what
it understands, it will increasingly understand what it proclaims.
Thus reform is a continuous process, a work
of the Spirit of God through the agency of the Word of God.
E.g. Ps 19:1-6;
E.g. 1 Thess
5:14-15; Heb 3:12-13; 12:15.