As we turn now to tradition, it’s helpful, as with so much else we’ve explored thus far, to remember what we learned about the Church as communion.
Remember that the Roman Catholic Church can be viewed in several different ways: as an ancient civilizational institution, older than empires and nations; as a broad social or spiritual movement with a history long enough to be both grotesque and glorious; or bureaucratically, politically, and so on. And, in these historical, sociological and organizational terms, the Catholic Church is indeed, in some ways, all these things.
However, the Church’s ultimate reality is communion. It’s a Trinitarian communion: a communion with God the Father in Christ the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a communion we experience together as we live our faith in Jesus as brothers and sisters in peace. Such is the ritual significance of the exchange of peace at Mass, for instance. It signals our genuine and mystical relationship with each other in the peace we have together in Jesus. This, by the way, was a ritual highly significant in early Christianity, marking who enjoyed (or didn’t) the fellowship and peace of the Church. In its earliest form, the ritual was a kiss of peace, which is why early Christians (calling each other brother and sister, as they did) were sometimes accused of incest. But that aside, the point is the exchange of peace signified what the Church truly is, our communion with one another and at the same time our communion with God — one mysterious communion both earthly, human and horizontal, as well as heavenly, divine and vertical.
And at the heart of this communion of the Church — a billion people broad — this communion of God, angels, saints, and those who have gone before us in death, the “democracy of the dead” — is one’s individual search for the personal love, personal touch, the intimate spiritual kiss of Jesus himself. That’s what’s beautiful, that in the Church, one can have this broad experience but also this intimate, personal experience, this unique loving relationship with the Lord. That’s what it means to belong to the Church. It’s to experience both: to encounter Jesus Christ within the broad communion of the Church.
And as we’ve just explored, we encounter Jesus Christ scripturally through the word of God proclaimed and heard in the Church. The Scripture offers us an encounter with the genuine Christ, not a false one we fabricate. To put it simply: We encounter Christ in the communion of the Church and that encounter is scriptural. This is why the Bible matters; it’s what the Bible is for — to offer us that encounter.
But, of course, that wasn’t the way it was at the very beginning. At the start, there was no Christian Bible. At the beginning, people came to faith in Jesus because other people who knew Jesus and believed in Jesus told others about him. At the beginning, it wasn’t so much scriptural transmission but oral transmission. In this early oral transmission, people encountered the living Jesus, not so much through reading, but more through evangelical conversation.
But, as generations proceeded, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the message did take written form, finally in what the Church recognizes today as sacred Scripture, offering what the Second Vatican Council simply says is “the honest truth about Jesus” (Dei Verbum, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” No.19). Undoubtedly, it took centuries for the Church to articulate what we call the “canon of Scripture,” the authoritative collection of texts we call the Bible, the Word of God. Nonetheless, the Church has always believed that when you encounter the written word of God — either in its proclaimed form as you hear it in Church on Sunday or when reading it privately — something more than hearing or reading is going on. That is, when you encounter the Word of God, there is something sacramental about the experience; that is, we believe that when we encounter the Scripture, Christ is really, albeit mystically, speaking to us (cf. Verbum Domini, “Word of God,” No. 56). To use a loose analogy: if a husband long separated from his wife were to read a letter she wrote to him, his experience reading her letter would be something more than mere reading. That is, reading her words, he would also experience her love; there would be some extra-verbal communication of affection, something more than a mere display of information. That’s kind of what it’s like reading the Scripture. We come into contact not just with a spouse’s love or a friend’s affection but with the mystery of Christ. To encounter the Scripture is to encounter something alive and real, something bigger than us, something risen, never a dead academic text. When we encounter the Word of God, we’re changed.
So, the experience of encountering Christ within the communion of the Church is an experience that is oral and scriptural but always mysterious. That is, it’s always an encounter that transcends the mere physical experience of hearing or reading words. And that’s because hearing or reading the words of the Scripture brings us into contact with the living Christ; it is not simply an intake of information about Jesus but a genuine meeting with Jesus. But it’s at this point that we should note something equally important about this encounter, and that is that this mysterious scriptural or oral experience of encounter with Christ in communion is also always a human experience, always embodied, always something we experience within a web of relationships, within communion, within the Church.
To put it simply, when you come into contact with the written word of God, it’s because someone gave you that written word of God. You can’t read it without recognizing that other people are reading it and have read it. That is, this mystical communion coming to you also comes by others, and we each share what we’ve experienced with other people, inviting them also into this mystical communion. That is, we never encounter the Scripture in a vacuum, in isolation. The encounter is always inscribed upon us by others. This is what theologians mean when they talk about mediation — that the truth of God almost always comes to us through someone or something. We Catholics, for instance, believe grace is mediated: that it comes through the work, ministry and love of others. Mediation is not a difficult concept; we experience something like it every day. My daughter, for example, learns about love because my wife and I love her. My daughter will learn how to be a woman because my wife is a woman in front of her. Of course, our daughter’s personality is undoubtedly her own, but it is, in a very real sense, mediated through us. We as her parents, for good or ill, have a profound effect on her.
The Gospel works the same way. It comes to us through human mediation as well. That’s why we have saints and preachers. In their lives, the Scripture is interpreted for us. We learn about what the Bible means and what holiness looks like not from books but from saints. Also, on Sunday it wouldn’t work if we simply pushed play on some recording or passed out an essay for people to read. No, the Church insists that someone stand up to read or preach. A human must speak. And that’s because it’s not just about the delivery of information but the communion of persons. Because truth and grace are mediated.
Which is why we call the Scripture apostolic. Because Scripture always comes from and is embedded with and connected with a certain group of people — the apostles and their successors, those human beings who over the generations have been part of this human community that talks about Jesus. Remember again the First Letter of John: “What we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you,” he begins. That’s mediation — the mystery of Christ coming through people.
And the thing is, this people still exists as the Church, and this process, described in John, continues in Scripture and Tradition communicating with one another, “flowing out of the same divine well-spring” (Dei Verbum, No. 9). As we’ll explore next time when we look at a few of the early fathers — particularly St. Irenaeus of Lyons — we’ll see in action how the Scripture and tradition relate and function together all for the sake of true faith and the mission of the Church.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.