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If God reveals truth, why do we need a teaching authority?

If God reveals truth, why do we need a teaching authority?

The interplay between the acts of the teaching authority and the response of the community takes place in a broad context.

I am not suggesting that we should not try to be efficient; there are many parables about provident administrators as well. But at times the desire for order and clarity can go beyond the evangelical limits.

context: it is part of an on-going communication between the Creator and his creatures. To see this broader picture will help us to achieve a better understanding of the interplay we are interested in.(16)

16. What we describe here is certainly of scriptural inspiration. The passages which affirm that it is the Spirit who moves a person to surrender to God in faith are too numerous to be quoted; also, the passages which say that the Spirit is the one who helps the hearer to recognize the truth in the message of the preacher, are frequent, too.

Much effort has been expended by theologians to organize the scriptural data into a cohesive system. Some of the more recent ones who should be mentioned are Pierre Rousselot (t878-1915) among the French; he spoke of the “eyes of faith,” les yeux de la foi", better translated “the eyes that faith gives”; Karl Rahner among the Germans who insisted on the openness of our human nature to the infinite, hence to the transcendental gift of grace; Bernard Lonergan who taught in Rome but did much of his work in Canada and spoke of a “conversion” at the invitation of the Spirit and of “belief” in accepting the message.

1. God touches the heart.

Any first encounter between God and human persons happens in the depth of the human spirit, without words and without signs. The Spirit of God reaches out for human beings, who in a gentle and mysterious way are invited to surrender to God. In this encounter the first promptings toward faith are perceived, the initial stirrings of hope are experienced, and an invitation to love a transcendental being is sensed. Such communications are inarticulate (ineffable would be a better word), but no less real for that. They are not (as yet) bound to any profession of faith. They may happen to anybody (we believe that it does happen to everybody), independently from what a person may or may not know in a conceptual way about God.

This initial encounter is the first stage in a dynamic pattern, which is meant to continue, for the simple reason that God lives and wants to communicate with his creatures.A t this level the teaching authority has no role to play; no more need be said.

2. God speaks.

In the second stage of his encounter with human beings God speaks. He speaks externally, using the language of those to whom he has chosen to speak; words, sentences, signs—anything through which a meaning can be conveyed. (17)

17. In the Hebrew tradition God appears right from the beginning as the “Speaking God.” With his Word he creates the universe; he keeps talking to his creatures in and out of the garden of Eden; he instructs Noah; he calls Abraham and keeps conversing with him as a friend; he appoints Moses to lead his people out of Egypt; he never ceases to communicate with his prophets; and then in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. (Heb 1 2-3)

This communication reached its peak when the Lógos, the eternal word of God, “was made flesh” and proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom and the universal call to salvation. This proclamation was in a language that we could understand, as that mystery which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit . . . (Eph. 3 5)

But no matter how close God may be to his creatures and what language he may be using, if he speaks about his mysteries, there is a problem in communication: the truth of his speech cannot be tested by our ordinary criteria; the proofs we can handle do not reach up to his mysteries. (18)

18. It should not really surprise us that there is such a problem, after all as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts [says the Lord] (Is. 55 9) —and that is the problem: there is a gap; and it cannot be bridged by the operations of our mind.

We Christians believe that God has appointed the church (the whole church) to continue to speak his Word by proclaiming to all nations the good news of salvation, and also by speaking with power in the sacraments the word of sanctification. (It is interesting to note that the most powerful word of sanctification is spoken in baptism, which brings a participation in the divine nature and gives a capacity for other sacraments, and that this powerful word can be spoken by every Christian.)

He may well be speaking, but how can we know that he is the speaker; how can we know that the content of the speech we hear is true?

The Spirit of God it is who comes to our rescue

. . . no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. (1 Cor.2, 1l-12)

That is, the gap is bridged by the Spirit. He does it by lifting up our minds and hearts to recognize the one who speaks, to understand his speech and then to surrender to the truth of what he says. We accept what we hear externally on the testimony which we perceive internally. The acceptance is not the fruit of logically compelling proofs. Paul’s words are to the point:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is the Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12: 3)

To conclude: when someone says, “.Jesus is the Lord” the encounter is completed; the first and the second stage blend into one. The closing act is a profession of faith.

At this stage, the specific role of the episcopate, which is the teaching authority, is to bring witness to the word that God has spoken; nothing more, nothing less.

The Spirit assists them (protects them) in such a way that in their collective and solemn declarations they cannot bring false testimony to the Word. Through their ministry the scope and purpose of the Incarnation is safeguarded, the Word once proclaimed cannot be lost in the vagaries of history or among the passions of human minds.

3. Faith seeks understanding.

The interplay (a sacred play) does not end there: faith seeks understanding. The mind that receives the Word is not satisfied with simply repeating it, but with a steady effort will seek to penetrate it deeper and deeper. There the work of systematic theological reflection starts. Indeed, the beginnings of it are already in the Scriptures: the prophets reflected on Yahweh’s words and deeds and tried to explain their fuller meaning to the people. In the New Testament, there is no piece that does not carry some reflections on the events of Jesus’s life and his words; such reflections abound especially in the writings of Paul and John.

Indeed, ever since the beginning of Christian times, the faithful and the church did not cease to meditate on the events of our redemption and on the meaning of the saving message we have heard. Insight followed insight, and they were expressed in the writings of the great Fathers of the church in the early centuries, in the voluminous disputations of the scholastic theologians in the middle ages, and in the penetrating reflections of outstanding thinkers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Faith was seeking understanding, and the church has become immensely enriched in the intelligence of faith.

Faith seeking understanding is again a part in the dynamic process of the encounter between God and human beings; a stage which can never exist separately, it is the fruit of the earlier ones and leads also to another one. Therefore, to draw too sharp a line between these “stages” would be wrong; they flow from, and into, each other; they compenetrate to some degree; they form an organic unity. Yet, each retains its distinctive character within the whole.

The role of the teaching authority at this stage is different because the emphasis is not any more on witnessing the truth but on penetrating deeper into its meaning in a systematic way. To this all are called who are in possession of the revelation. It is an activity sustained by the Spirit, but feeding also from human ingenuity. Besides, while there is a simplicity in witnessing the truth and surrendering to it, at this stage the complexities and sophistication of human thought patterns play an increasing role. Some of the early Fathers approached revelation with Platonic images and ideas; the scholastic theologians borrowed their thought pattern from Aristotle; more recent theologians reached out for fresh methods and new categories into the world of modern philosophers; dispersed seeds of truth can be found in unexpected places! The episcopate has this capacity of seeking a systematic understanding as much as the rest of the faithful (in God’s Providence can have it even more), but it is not the specific charism conferred on the bishops at their ordination. Hence, there is no divine guarantee that at any given moment of history the bishops have the deepest insights into the divine mysteries

4. Faith seals action.

The interplay (or sacred play) continues: faith is seeking action. Human persons cannot grow unless they move from thoughts to deeds; human communities cannot develop unless they reach out for values and make them their own. Jesus himself spoke of his ministry of preaching and teaching as the sowing of the good seed destined to bear fruit—a hundredfold. The fruit of the Word received is in godly deeds.

The episcopate has the power to guide the church toward the fullness of the kingdom. It has also the role to proclaim the basic Christian values which the faithful, individual persons and communities, must seek. Also, it is called to uphold basic human values which the “eyes of faith” can perceive. But there could be complex issues of morality about which “witnessing” in the ordinary sense is difficult to the point of being nearly impossible because the revelation is silent about them.

Further, in ordering the practical life of the church, all kinds of human considerations can enter into the decisions and actions of those who have authority; considerations which do not come from the Spirit.

With this, I conclude this all too brief presentation of the pattern of the encounter that takes place between God and human beings. A description of the whole process was necessary in order to understand each part in it and appreciate the various roles that different members of the community can play in it.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 1. Read the whole chapter here.

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