Indice > Dialoghi Interconfessionali > E-RC > Christology; Holy Spirit; Mission; (part 1)

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  INTRODUCTION - selezionare
1. Revelation And Authority
  CONCLUSION - selez.

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.

2) 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 universe
10 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 like man
11." 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 (clear).
      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.

2) 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.

a) 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.

b) 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.

c) Biblical criticism

      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 religion—or 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 other.
      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.

d) 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 heard.

e) 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.

3) 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?

a) 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."
      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 and commentaries.
      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).

b) 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 between them.
      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 because erroneous.
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.

4) Can the Church be Reformed?

a) 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 Ecumenism, 6).
      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 the Church.
      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 believer.

b) 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 described?
      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.


  1. E.g. Ps 19:1-6; Rom 1:19-20.

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  2. Dei verbum, 13.

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  3. Dei verbum, 10.

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  4. Dei verbum, 22.

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  5. E.g. 1 Thess 5:14-15; Heb 3:12-13; 12:15.

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