We continue this series of posts on the basics of Catholic understanding of revelation, now moving from natural revelation to supernatural revelation.
In addition to the revelation of God available in nature, God has also communicated directly with mankind through history, which may be called supernatural revelation. Supernatural revelation communicates to humanity truths that which transcend human reason although are not opposed to it (e.g. the Trinity, or the divinity of Christ), as well as those truths available through the effort of human reason contemplating natural revelation (such as God’s existence and his basic attributes), in order that “they can be known
by all men with ease, with solid certitude, and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race” (DV 6). Thus, certain truths, such as the existence of God and his omnipotence, can be known both by reason (natural revelation) and by faith (through supernatural revelation), whereas other truths, such as the mystery of the Trinity, are only known through faith.
Modes of Supernatural Revelation
Supernatural revelation is sometimes simply identified with the Bible, but reality is more complex. Supernatural revelation comes in several modes, only one of which is Scripture.
First of all, God reveals himself through both deeds and words in the course of human history. Deeds, such as the liberation of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage, and words, such as the communication of God’s will through Moses and the other prophets. As the creed confesses, “He has spoken through the prophets.” Both the revelatory deeds and the words of God in history are mutually supportive in communicating the truth about God. The words of the prophets explain the meaning of God’s deeds; the deeds in turn confirm the truth of the prophetic word. Without the words, God’s deeds would be ambiguous; without the deeds, God’s words would be empty. For example, with respect to the Exodus, the words of Moses explain that the plagues and other wonders are the acts of the LORD, the God of Israel, and not a meaningless, random series of natural disasters. On the other hand, the plagues and wonders confirm Moses’ prophecies and attest him as a true spokesman for God, not merely a political revolutionary or deluded visionary.
The culmination of God’s self-revelation in history is the incarnation of his Son, who is the definitive Word of God made flesh:
Heb. 1:1 In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; 2 but 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.
For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. (Dei Verbum §4)
The entire life and ministry of Jesus Christ is revelatory: his birth, childhood, silent years of work, his baptism, preaching, miracles and ministry of healing, but especially, his Passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. For the Catholic faith, the primary referent of the “Word of God” is always Jesus Christ, God the Son: the doctrine of revelation must have a Christological focus.
After the ascension of the Lord, the supernatural revelation of God continued in the preaching of Apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and some of this preaching was committed to writing in what now forms the New Testament Scriptures, which together with the writings of the prophets of the Old Testament forms the complete written Word of God. The Word of God, however, continued to be handed down also in unwritten form, by word and example, beginning from the apostles to their immediate successors and continuing from generation to generation within the Church:
2 Th. 2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
This transmission of the Word of God from the apostles in unwritten form constitutes Sacred Tradition, and its privileged expression is the liturgy. Together with Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition constitutes “one sacred deposit of the Word of God, committed to the Church” (Dei Verbum §10).
To summarize: supernatural revelation has come to humanity in at least the following ways: (1) the deeds of God in history, (2) the words of the prophets, (3) the life and ministry of the Son of God, (4) the preaching of the apostles, (5) Sacred Tradition passed down from the Apostles and perpetuated by the Church, and (6) the written Word of God in the Scriptures. Thus, the Catholic faith is a religion of the Word of God, but not a “religion of the book,” since the Bible represents only one form, albeit a singular one, of God’s Word, which “precedes and exceeds” the Scriptures (Verbum Domini §17).
Ultimately, there is a certain unity between natural and supernatural revelation which is taught in Scripture itself:
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God; 3 all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.
Heb 1:2 In these last days he has spoken to us by a Son … through whom also he created the world.
In these statements, John the Evangelist and the author of Hebrews assert an ultimate unity between the natural revelation of God in creation and the supernatural revelation of God in Jesus Christ, to whom the prophets and the apostles bear witness. One God speaks in both creating and redeeming the world.
Supernatural Public Revelation is Complete in Jesus Christ
The faith of the Church holds that, since Jesus Christ inaugurated the “new and definitive covenant,” no new public revelation is to be expected before the return of Christ (Dei Verbum §4). An implication of this faith is that, with the passing of the apostles and the apostolic men who recorded their preaching and bore witness to the lives and ministries and those of Jesus himself, the written Word of God is complete. This conviction of faith distinguishes the Catholic Church from other religions (e.g. Islam and Mormonism) which have accepted additional public revelation after the apostles, and who indeed regard the Christian dispensation as a preparatory stage for God’s climactic self-disclosure within their own communities.
Private Supernatural Revelation
Although God can and does continue, throughout history even to our own day, to communicate immediately to human persons, both individuals and groups, through signs, visions, words (locutions), and perhaps in other forms, the Church holds any such revelations to be private as opposed to public, and therefore not binding on the faith or consciences of the faithful. The content of such private revelations on faith and morals must be judged by the standard of public revelation. The Church regards genuine private revelations as contributing to the understanding or application of public revelation, not as adding to its content. Thus, the writings of certain saints or mystics who have had the privilege of visions or communications with our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, or other saints, are not on par with Scripture and ought not to be treated as such, either theoretically or practically. Nor are the messages and exhortations associated with local apparitions, even approved ones, binding on the faithful; although it would be a failure of piety to withhold all assent to the supernatural character of certain apparitions which have been so recognized by the Church as to be included in her liturgical calendar.
The Purpose of Supernatural Revelation
God does not communicate to mankind is a supernatural way in order to entertain or to satisfy curiosity. Rather, the revelation of God is always aimed at the salvation of humanity and the incorporation of human beings into the communion of love that is the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit:
Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. (Dei Verbum)
For this reason Church documents will speak of the “saving truth” of Scripture, or its truth “for the sake of our salvation.” The purpose of such statements is not to imply some limitation of the truth of Scripture only to things directly relevant to our salvation, but rather to emphasize that all the revelation of God is purposeful and intended to draw us into communion with Him.