Last Sunday I began my ‘Year of Faith’ cycle of homilies covering the Catechism cover to cover … or, at least, the best I can. And I started, as the Catechism does, with why we should believe in a God at all. We saw that both the design of the natural world itself, and the spiritual nature of the human soul, point to there being a God. And then how God Himself came to our aid, to reveal steadily more and more about Himself to man: first to individuals, at the dawn of Israel’s history; then to that people as a whole; and then of course in coming amongst us Himself, the Son of God made man, Jesus, the Christ. But that’s only the beginning of our salvation, isn’t it? We do not live in OT times, nor in 1st c. Palestine, during the earthly ministry of Our Lord. How are we to hear the saving Word of God? How are we to participate in salvation?
Well, the next section of the Catechism explains that: it treats the ‘transmission of divine revelation’: how does the Good News get from then till now? The Lord has saved his people, proclaims Jeremiah in the 1st reading today. Yes, but what about us, many centuries later: how are we saved? Well, the divine revelation is transmitted in two ways, which are interlinked. One, way is in Scripture, the Bible, those sacred narratives that inspired authors committed to writing. The oldest writings of the OT are probably from 6th c. BC; the newest writings in the NT are from the end of 1st c. AD. The bible is more a ‘library’ than a ‘book’: a whole series of very different writings, by many authors within Israel, and then from amongst the apostles and other early Christians. Whilst having been recorded by true authors, using their skills as writers, yet we treat the Bible as having been inspired in its entirety by God, so as to lead us to salvation. That is why we have readings from Scripture in pretty much every single act of worship, sacrament and liturgy of the Church: the Word of God, in Old & New Testaments; and most especially the words and deeds of Christ given to us in the Gospel, are treasures of inspiration: God speaking His Word to us, so that we should also know Him, love Him and serve Him, as those did who heard that Word for the first time.
But in fact, the Sacred Scripture is not the primary way in which Revelation is transmitted. The written word of the Bible is precious to us; but it does not come first. What comes first is the People of God: before Christ this meant Israel; in Christ this people is the Church. The Tradition of the Church, its life and worship, its charity and teaching, is what comes first. Out of that life and Tradition then come Scripture; but it is the Tradition that comes first. Let me explain: after the Resurrection/Ascension of Jesus, and after the Anointing with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Church was born and flourished, spreading the Gospel of the Lord as the apostles went out from Jerusalem into the world. Now, this would have been some time in the 30s of the 1st c. We have no word of the NT written prior to the early 50s of the 1st c. So, in those 20yrs, of course, there was already a living Christianity, a vibrant Church, Mass, sacraments, evangelization … but no NT text. The text of the NT wouldn’t be completed and settled on until well into the 2nd c. The same is true of Israel prior to Jesus: Israel lived its faith in God, guided by His Word and commandments long before any of the OT was written down.
So, what we see is that it is the People of God — the Church — that is itself the primary transmitter of Revelation. She herself is the conveyor of the living Word. We can have no true knowledge of God without the living voice of the Church: she it is who carries from generation to generation the opportunity for salvation in Christ. She, inspired by God’s Spirit, informed and encouraged by the sacred words of prophets and apostles, and guided by the God-given ministry of our Pope and bishops, leads us forward to know, love and serve the One True God, made known to us in Christ Jesus. One of the Church’s most precious treasures, then, is Sacred Scripture; but it must and can only be interpreted authentically by the Teaching Authority of the Church, and not apart from the Church. We can’t just say, “let me be a Bible Christian” unaffected or unaligned with the Church that through the ages has written that text, and transmitted life in Christ to successive generations. Without the Church, the Bible is a dead letter; it comes alive in the community which wrote it, namely, Jesus’s people, the Church.