THE TEACHING AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH
are agreed that the Church has its authority to the extent that
it listens to the Word Christ speaks to it ever afresh.
In the history of the Church, the difference between Catholics
and Reformed has always focused on the alternative : "Scripture
and Tradition" and "Scripture only". Catholics
stressed the need for and the authority of the Church's teaching
office in the interpretation of Scripture, whereas the Reformed
declared that Scripture interprets itself and, as God's Word,
must be strictly distinguished from all human tradition, desiring
in this way to do justice not only to the doctrine of justification
but also to the total witness of the Old and New Testaments.
on the Catholic and on the Reformed side today, the problem
is no longer presented in terms of the battle lines of post-Tridentine
Historical researches have shown not only how the New Testament
writings are themselves already the outcome of and witness to
traditions, but also how the canonization of the New Testament
was part of the development of tradition.
Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholic teaching has stressed
the very close connection between Scripture and Tradition: "springing
from the same divine source, both so to speak coalesce and press
towards the same goal" (Dei Verbum, 9). Scripture and Tradition
thus constitute "the one holy treasure of the Word of God
bequeathed to the Church" (Dei Verbum, 10) with a special
dignity attaching to the Scriptures because in them apostolic
preaching has been given especially clear expression (cf. Dei
In the light of these facts, the customary distinction between
Scripture and Tradition as two different sources which operate
as norms either alternatively or in parallel has become impossible.
are agreed that as creatura Verbi the Church together with its
Tradition stands under the living Word of God and that the preacher
and teacher of the Word is to be viewed as servant of the Word
(cf. Lk 1:2) and must teach only what the Holy Spirit permits
him to hear in the Scriptures. This hearing and teaching takes
place in a living combination with the faith, life and, above
all, the worship of the community of Christ.
We are agreed that the development of doctrine and the production
of confessions of faith is a dynamic process. In this process
the Word of God proves its own creative, critical and judging
power. Through the Word, therefore, the Holy Spirit guides the
Church to reflection, conversion and reform.
we approach our dealings with the Scriptures from our own particular
tradition, in each case, we tend to hear God's Word in different
ways: we understand even central affirmations from different
standpoints and emphasize them in different ways.
Since Scripture is clothed in the language and concepts of
the ancient world and is related only indirectly to our modern
problems, all churches must perforce go beyond the immediate
letter of Scripture.
In addition there is the internal diversity of Holy Scripture
with which we are more closely familiar today.
For all these reasons the Church is compelled and obliged
constantly to reinterpret the biblical message.
this area of interpretation different forms of tradition have
been developed, the legitimation of one's own particular practice
occasionally providing one of the motivating elements. On the
whole the Reformed sought a direct support for their doctrine
in the apostolic witness of Scripture, whereas the Roman Catholic
Church perceived the apostolic witness more strongly in the
life of faith of the whole Church, in the measure that it constantly
strove in the course of the centuries to apprehend the fulness
of the divine truth (cf. Dei Verbum, 8).
This difference in attitude may rest on a difference in pneumatology:
Catholic thought is primarily sustained by confidence in the
continuing presence of the Holy Spirit, whereas the Reformed
Church experiences the presence of the Spirit as a constantly
renewed gift of the ascended Lord.
- In the Reformed Churches, the
so-called "Scripture principle", i.e. the confidence
that the Word of God constantly creates the understanding of
itself afresh, postulates in the life of the Church a carefully
maintained relationship between the theologically trained servant
of the Word and the theologically informed, responsible total
- The Catholic Church stresses
within the community the special service of those who with the
aid of the Holy Spirit accept pastoral responsibility and must
also make provision, therefore, for the right interpretation
and proclamation of the Word of God.
- The conviction of the Church
is that it hears the voice of the living Lord which also speaks
today out of the writings of the apostles and prophets. Since
it is the same Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the sacred
books and who enlightens the Church's readers today, the Church
has the promise of hearing God's Word from the Bible even today
Scriptures were accepted by the ancient Church because these
writings attested the living tradition of the Gospel (summed
up in the so-called regula fidei) because they were written
by the apostles as eyewitnesses or by their disciples, handed
down by the Church which itself has an apostolic origin. In
accordance with both the Catholic and the Reformed tradition,
the Church played its part in the process whereby the canon
was formed, even if we cannot define this part more precisely.
In the light of this common understanding, the traditional
controversy as to whether canonization was the decision of
a "possessing" Church or the receiving recognition
of an "obeying" Church is out of date.
ancient Church took the view that the different voices speaking
in the Canon can and should come to expression side by side
in the Church, since despite their differences, they all point
to the same center, namely to salvation in Jesus Christ.
The apostolic witness has primary significance therefore.
It remains a continuing task of both Churches to explicate
and to ensure respect for the not merely historical but also
theological precedence of the apostolic period.
- Raising the question whether
the establishment of the confession of faith is for the Church
a creative activity or an advance in its perception of the fulness
already given, we noted once again that the dialogue was made
more difficult by questions of terminology, since the term "confession
of faith" occupies a different position in our two traditions
and we recognized the importance of remembering the different
functions which confessions of faith can have in the Church
and in society.
tried, nevertheless, to bring out certain points of convergence
and to identify, too, the different and opposing positions.
For its witness in the world, the Church must always express
its faith by confessions in which it interprets the Word of
God in the language of today, a task which is never completed.
Such a confession of faith is always the expression of an experience
of salvation as lived in the Church at a given moment of its
history of Christian doctrine presents us with a process of
constant interpretative efforts with discontinuous stages of
restructuring, each of which represents the Church's effort
to reformulate its faith in a particular age and cultural environment.
But this discontinuity of structuring is not opposed to a homogeneity
of meaning: the transcendence of this meaning is thus emphasized
in relation to these formulations. In consequence none of the
proposed formulations is definitive in the sense that there
will never be any need for a new interpretation in a new social
and cultural situation. The more so since the inexhaustible
riches of the revelation deposited in Scripture constantly compel
us to return to the foundation event to discover again and again
in it new aspects unsuspected by previous generations.
the Catholics, the affirmations of the past are normative as
guides for subsequent reformulations. For the Reformed, they
have a real positive value which is nevertheless subordinate
to the authority of Scripture.
So far as instruction is concerned, for the Reformed it is the
community as a whole which is responsible and which delegates
qualified people; whereas for the Catholics there is a distinctive
responsibility of the pastoral ministry: the latter is rooted
in the believing community but does not derive its authority
from an act of delegation on the part of the latter.
however, often differs somewhat from theoretical affirmations,
either because these are illegitimately hardened or because
in fact compensatory elements play a part. Among the Reformed
there are people, whether or not invested with official authority,
who in fact play a considerable role. Among the Catholics stress
is laid on the importance of the "sense of the faith",
common to the whole of the believers, by which they discern
the Word of God and adhere to it (cf. Lumen Gentium, 12), and
which finds concrete expression in, among other things, the
actual "reception", constantly renewed, of councils
and the decisions of the teaching authority.
the Reformed note that the expression "the infallibility
of the Church" is almost never used in their tradition,
Catholics note for their part that this word is relatively a
recent one in theological terminology and seems hardly a happy
term because of the maximizing interpretations to which it often
gives rise. As for the theology of infallibility, apart from
the fact that too often there has been a tendency to reduce
the question of the infallibility of the Church to the particular
problem of the infallibility of the Pope, and even to a certain
manner of exercising this latter, it should be stated that it
has been developed into a onesidedly juridical problem which
makes it all the more irreconcilable with Reformed thinking.
We are nevertheless able to formulate a certain viewpoint in
promise made by God to the Church is this: God remains faithful
to his covenant and, despite the weaknesses and errors of Christians,
he makes his Word heard in the Church.
hold that God's faithfulness to his Church necessarily means
that when the People of God unanimously declares that a doctrine
has been revealed by God and therefore demands the assent of
faith, it cannot fall into error. And in particular that those
who have been specially charged with the teaching mission are
protected by a special charisma when it is a matter of presenting
the revealed message. "The bishops taken in isolation do
not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility; yet, even though
dispersed throughout the world and conserving the bond and communion
between them and with the successor of Peter, when in their
authentic teaching concerning questions of faith and morals
they declare with full agreement that it is necessary to support
unhesitantly such and such a point of doctrine, they then announce
infallibly the teaching of Christ. This is all the more evident
when, assembled in an ecumenical council, they teach and decide
on questions of faith and morals for the whole Church; and their
definitions must be adhered to in the obedience of faith"(Lumen
This is equally the case when the bishop of Rome, in the rare
cases specified by Vatican I, expresses himself ex cathedra.
Nevertheless, what has just been said does not imply that all
the expressions chosen are necessarily the best available nor
again that the ecclesial authorities enjoy this charisma in
a permanent manner or that they cannot be mistaken in a certain
number of affirmations on which they do not commit themselves
Reformed rejection of any infallibility which is accorded to
men derives from a repugnance to bind God and the Church in
this way, in view of the sovereignty of Christ over the Church
and of the liberty of the Spirit, a repugnance strengthened
by the experience of frequent errors and resistances to the
Word on the part of the Church. In addition there is a fear
lest confidence in the infallibility of a formulation should
distort the personal character of faith in the living Christ;
further, the fact that many Reformed take the resistance of
man to the Spirit of God so seriously today that any assertion
of the infallibility of the Church becomes impossible. Apart
from that, for Reformed sensibility, any claim to infallibility
in the modern world represents an obstacle to the credibility
of the proclamation.
The misgivings concerning the idea of ecclesiastical infallibility
do not detract from the decisive though subordinate weight given
in the Reformed tradition to the ancient Ecumenical Councils
in the transmission and interpretation of the Gospel. For the
Reformed, however, what alone is infallible, properly speaking,
is God's fidelity to his covenant, whereby he corrects and preserves
his Church by the Spirit until the consummation of his reign.