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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Rolling your own understanding of Revelation? Don’t.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 06, 2022

For some obscure reason, a person I do not know has decided to begin an email correspondence with me to insist that I have been wrong in my writings about the relationship among faith, works and grace. He claims to have given up on both the Catholic Church and the Protestants, though his position is a typically Protestant variant of sola gratia (“grace alone”, very close to “faith alone”). He has reflected on these questions as presented in the New Testament, and he is very willing to point out where others go wrong, so that on his own authority he can generously supply the correct understanding.

My first and only response was to point out that we cannot fathom these mysteries for ourselves without slipping into many different kinds of errors, and that we need the authority of the Church to guide us in our understanding. This authority is a critical part of Revelation, and the early Christians repeatedly testified to their awareness that Christ has provided just such an authority to carry on when He returned to the Father. This authority is the Church headed by Peter and his successors, who are heirs to the prayer and promise of Our Lord: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Lk 22:32).

This claim I made on behalf of the Church was, of course, rejected as a display of my own pride. It is true that I am a cradle Catholic, and I have no doubt that I want the church into which I was baptized as an infant to be the true Church founded by Jesus Christ. But it is also true that I do not remain Catholic because I was born into a Catholic family (few in the modern world are likely to be anything but nominal Catholics solely for that reason) but because I am convinced that the arguments in the Catholic Church’s favor are unassailable. A moment’s reflection should reveal to us that without the authority of the Church we cannot even know which writings are part of Sacred Scripture, inspired by God.

The authority of Peter and his successors in the See of Rome was universally recognized by Christians everywhere for more than four hundred years before it began to be questioned and in some ways usurped by those who preferred to control the increasingly influential Church, beginning with the Emperors in Constantinople. Even then, there was no major schism until the end of the first millennium, and it was not until fifteen hundred years had passed that we were treated to the “every man his own pope” approach of Protestantism—which inescapably helped to create our modern era of relativism.

But reality is not determined by our own preferences. From the first we see Peter exercising his authority in the selection of a new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (see Acts 1), and we also see him exercise that authority at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). We still have the letter written by the third successor to Peter (the fourth pope, Clement) to the fractious Christians in Corinth, exercising his apostolic authority over them. In the earliest centuries of the Church, even those accused of heresy by their local bishops appealed to Rome!

Moreover, the Fathers of the Church attest to this Petrine primacy. Even the fractious St. Jerome (d.420), one of the most recognized Christians of his era, acknowledged the primacy of Pope Damasus in Rome: “Following no one as my chief but Christ, I am associated with thy blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. I know that on that rock the Church is built.” Moreover, at the Council of Chalcedon, which settled the great Christological controversies of the early Church in 451, it was Pope Leo the Great who provided the definitional text. When they heard it read, the Council fathers said with almost one accord, “Peter speaks through Leo.” (For more details see my chapter in Reasons for Hope on The Authority of the Pope.)

The point is that the authority of the pope to officially clarify and define the rule of faith under Divine protection, despite his own personal weaknesses and shortcomings, was taken for granted among Christians for between five hundred and a thousand years before it was seriously challenged, first by Emperors who wanted to control the Church, later by bishops under Imperial influence who wished to control the churches in their own territories, and still later by heretics who wished to start their own churches. Even Napoleon, when he wanted to neutralize the Church, imprisoned the Pope.

Mysteries: Handle with Care

When it comes to the great truths revealed in and through Jesus Christ, we are speaking of mysteries. To express and explain in finite human terms an infinite God and His infinite love of His creatures requires the balancing of a great many particular expressions so that we may attain a limited understanding of the Divine mystery which is at least coherent and fundamentally truthful. We can (and many do) spend a lifetime exploring various facets of this mystery as we find them presented to us in what God has revealed—not only in Jesus Christ but through Scripture and Tradition, the twin repositories of Revelation conserved and protected by the Church He established to carry on His salvific mission.

Was Jesus to be understood as God taking the appearance of a man? Was he a man who was adopted by God? Is salvation a free gift of God? Does this gift require a human response to bear fruit in us? Is the purpose of religion to give glory to God or to be saved? What roles are played by grace, and by our free response to grace in professing faith and doing God’s will? Does guidance come through Scripture, tradition, ecclesiastical authority, interior illumination, private revelations, and/or prayer?

The questions are endless. “What,” we may well also ask, “must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)

There are many problems and pitfalls in all this. We rightly seek to break down infinite mysteries into concrete human expressions, which demand a certain selective particularization in order to be grasped and applied. We inescapably consider Christianity first under one aspect and then under another, finding that we must hold a wide variety of revelatory statements in a delicate balance in order to obtain a truthful understanding of the whole. The authority of the Church helps us by declaring some positions out of bounds and clarifying other positions—but still inescapably piecemeal—as questions and challenges arise from each new generation.

Thus, without the least contradiction, the Church has been infallibly growing in her authoritative understanding of the Divine dispensation for two millennia, whereas, apart from the Church’s guidance, each of us has been struggling through both strengths and weaknesses in our understanding for a very few years, with mixed motives and uncertain success.

As I indicated, the Church actually deepens her understanding of Revelation over time, without any contradiction, especially as demanded by new challenges to what has been revealed. Over the centuries those who refuse the guidance of the Magisterium of the Church have, whether slowly or quickly, entered into an ever-widening spiral from the truth, so that today we can find allegedly Christian groups which differ scandalously on even the most basic and central doctrinal and moral truths (Who is Christ? Where is Christ’s Church? What is salvation? How do we grow in grace? Did God create us male and female, and why? Is the murder of a child in the womb sinful? Is contraception a deliberate frustration of God’s plan for human flourishing? Can we set up any church we like?)

Our fallen human nature (another great mystery!) is subject to distractions and temptations as diverse as dyspepsia and depression, delusion and delight, diffidence and doubt. But God knows us better than we know ourselves, and He could no more ask us to know, love and serve Him without establishing a recognizable authority for us to follow than we could ask that of our own children. The mystery of God’s love is beyond our comprehension. Through centuries of discussion and disagreement, God could not expect us to achieve a balanced and firmly settled understanding of the Divine mysteries without ongoing guidance and assistance, any more than He could leave us orphans in the world, with no means by which we can be strengthened to live in accordance to what He has revealed.

This acute need for spiritual strengthening and ongoing instruction under the control of an ongoing Divinely established authority explains why Our Lord declared He would build His Church on Peter (Mt 16:18, the name means “rock”), why disagreements concerning fraternal correction should be referred to the “Church” (Mt 18:17), why the Apostles were commissioned to ordain successors (as we see in Acts and in the letters of St. Paul), why the early Christians understood the nature and structure and authority of this Church as Catholics understand it today (as we know from early Christian writings), and why—as the brilliant Patristics scholar St. John Henry Newman concluded prior to his conversion—we can recognize the church of the first centuries, with all its bishops, priests, sacraments and authority, in the Catholic Church of today...and nowhere else.

Catholicism is the only religion on earth with a genuine “authority principle”—an ongoing Divinely-established corrective to our own reckless passions, misunderstandings and inventions concerning the things of God.

The presumption of heresy

What, then, are we to say about so many erroneous opinions and the conflicts to which they lead—that is, about so many heresies? The original meaning of our word heresy was “choice”. The term was applied to a preference for one’s own particular understanding to that of the Church. It is the result of choosing a particular aspect of the truth and using it to exclude other aspects of the truth which must be held in tension with it in order to encompass the full mystery. Thus, for example, the classic Protestant heresy of salvation by “faith alone”, which finds no place in the mystery of salvation for putting our faith into practice through “works” (despite the letter of James). Or, for that matter, the choice to insist that all is grace, without reflecting on the need for our free response to that grace.

It is precisely the Magisterium of the Catholic Church which infallibly protects us against these fundamentally arbitrary “choices”, by which, in rejecting the richness of the whole, we can and do distort the full mystery of Christ. Like undisciplined children, we proceed even to the point of using our own opinions as reasons to reject the ecclesiastical authority Our Lord established to help us! When every person is his own pope, the result is a kind of theological chaos which permits each one to cling to the notions he or she finds most congenial, thereby forsaking an essential subordination to Christ and His Church.

It is impossible not to recognize this spirit of personal particularization today. I refer to the tendency, in individuals and in the culture as a whole, to latch onto one particular aspect of the truth so as to distort the overall understanding into a falsehood, conveniently permitting each person to pursue the course he or she chooses, whether in belief or action. The resulting intellectual, spiritual and moral waywardness of our culture is impossible to ignore. Every person insists on his own authority to determine and state what is true and false. Paradoxically, this always has one of two results: It leads either to astonishing peculiarities or, more commonly, to a slavish adhesion to fashion.

So let us not be fooled. We are the recipients of the whole of reality, seen and unseen, as a gift beyond our comprehension. If the Giver has not revealed Himself, we are lost in our ignorance, our mistakes, and our sins. But if, through an unfathomable mercy, He has both revealed Himself and established His Church for all of us “who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jon 4:11), then it is an astonishing presumption to insist on our own interpretations. For Our Lord has warned us specifically: “He who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory” (Jn 7:18).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - May. 06, 2022 6:25 PM ET USA

    We all want to be treated fairly, especially on judgment day b4 God. The OT often speaks to the moral rightness, the fairness, of God. But how is it fair for us to be judged by the same standard as those lucky enough to have heard Jesus in the flesh when we live 2K years after and 8K miles away from where Jesus preached? Because Jesus left us The Universal [Catholic] Church, & those who hear His priests hear Him. The CC IS fairness. Without the CC, God's moral rightness would be a dirty lie.