Bible and tradition

The issues raised in yesterday’s post about change are even clearer if we frame them in the longer term – not least if, following the Catholic Lectionary, we read them in the light of the Acts of the Apostles. Those who wish to refer everything to the Bible for adjudication, are not only really appealing to their own interpretation of it, they are not behaving like members of the early Church, who possessed no such book. The early Christians possessed the Jewish Scriptures, and to those were added letters from Paul of Tarsus, followed by the various Gospels, Catholic epistles and the Apocalypse. These were part of the unfolding revelation of God’s message to us. As Paul told the Thessalonians, it was what was passed on orally and in writing which was to guide them. It would be naive in the extreme to suppose that the only writing which occurred was what is in what the Church called ‘the New Testament’. That was the final stage of the written form of revelation.

Newman was correct in noting that for there to be the sort of unfolding revelation we see in oral and written tradition there had to be an authority which pronounced on it. We know that by the second century there were various other ‘gospels’ and ‘act of the apostles’ in circulation, some of them very popular and widely read such as Paul and Thecla, which recounted the exciting further adventures of St Paul. It still makes for a good read, and it is not surprising it was in wide circulation, as were the ‘Acts of Andrew, Peter and John’. On the other hand, St John’s epistles had a very small circulation, limited, geographically, to parts of the east; Peter’s first epistle had a limited one in the west, whilst his second one was hardly known in the East; the west never received the Apocalypse early on, and St Jerome himself was at a loss what to do with Hebrews, which he knew was not by St Paul.

The picture has been needless obscured by the nonsense of Dan Brown, which mistakenly attributes the Canon to Constantine the Great. Long before then the Churches had identified most of the books now in the New Testament, and in the cases of disputed books such as the Johannine and Petrine epistles, and Hebrews, the verdict of men like St Athanasius that these books had been received as genuinely Apostolic, was accepted. Without the existence of a teaching authority there would have been chaos, as men would have argued to and fro about the books they had received, rejecting the ones they had not. But Jesus had not left the Church without a teaching authority. The successors of the Apostles were able to verify what was and was not genuine revelation; the idea that their successors cannot do so in matters of faith and morals seems a dangerous novelty, needed by those who are not within the Catholic fold, but unnecessary for Catholics (and Orthodox).

The wider point here is clear. There is a teaching authority, there always has been, it has often worked messily in terms of it taking time to agree, but it has worked surely. If God had wished the Church to be a museum tending a script from generation to generation, He would surely have said so, dictated the script (as Muslims hold to be the case), and made it clear that that was that. Instead, He proceeded as just described. We can know these things only by some authority. Some say it comes from the Spirit operating within them, but how are the rest of us to test that when there are so many different versions of what the Spirit is saying? Some of us stick with a tried and trusted method.