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The Teaching Authority of the Church
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  1. We 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.

    Holy Scripture:

  2. Both on the Catholic and on the Reformed side today, the problem is no longer presented in terms of the battle lines of post-Tridentine polemic.

    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 Verbum, 8).

    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.

  3. We 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.

  4. Since 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.

  5. In 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.

  6. 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 community.

  7. 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.


  8. 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 and tomorrow.

  9. The 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.

  10. The 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.


  11. 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.

  12. We 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.

  13. The 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.

  14. For 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.

  15. Practice, 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.


  16. Whereas 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 common.

  17. The 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.

  18. Catholics 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 Gentium, 25).

    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 fundamentally.

  19. The 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.

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