Theological controversies, such as when Arius taught what he taught or when the “Pneumatomachians” taught what they taught, caused an almost visceral reaction within the Church. “Jesus is God just as the Father is God!” the Church seemed to scream at Arius. “The Holy Spirit is to be ranked with the Father!” the Church seemed to shout to the Spirit-fighters. We will “never surrender this truth,” St. Basil exclaimed (“On the Holy Spirit,” No. 10.25).
Why did these Fathers of the Church almost instinctively know these ideas were heretical, that they didn’t belong to the Faith? The short answer is the rule of faith. This is what keeps everything together in reading Scripture. This is how we make sense of Scripture.
Some Fathers in the early Church talked about something called the “rule of faith,” sometimes also called the “rule of truth.” Remember that the core belief of the Gospel is that God became man, born of the Virgin and that he died, rose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father, and that he now dwells in us by faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This core message — the Gospel, basically — was around and was being communicated long before anything was written down. This core message is the Christian assumption, so to speak — the Christian hypothesis. And so, when the Scripture comes along, this basic Christian assumption, this core message, becomes the “rule of faith.” It becomes the pre-scriptural theological lens through which we interpret the Bible. For example, if someone comes along with an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark, arguing (as some did) that Christ is not fully divine, the rule of faith insists that such an interpretation is wrong. Why? Because we know, even before there was the Gospel of Mark that Jesus is God. Because that belief predates any written text; no text can change that. That’s what the rule of faith is. They are our assumptions, our presumptions, the a priori claims we hold in faith as Christians, the most important being that Jesus is truly God.
That Christians hold such a rule shouldn’t shock anyone. Every philosophy and each science holds its a priori commitments, its hypotheses. This has always been the case, even before the Christian era. “Prejudice” is a bad word today, but before the Enlightenment, it was a good word. To be a cultured and educated person you had to hold certain prejudices. The idea our intellectual inquiries begin tabula rasa, or with a clean slate, is simply a modern myth. Even the Enlightenment rationalists who said so didn’t see their own prejudices as prejudices. They all thought the rational mind was basically white, male, aristocratic and European. No, intellectual inquiry always begins with some set of assumptions, some givens. Christian thought is no different. Such is what St. Clement of Alexandria said, citing (of all people) Epicurus — that faith is a “preconception of intelligence,” for it’s impossible “to conduct an investigation” without some “preconception” (Stromateis, No. 126.96.36.199-3). For Christians, that “preconception” is our belief in the core message of the Gospel. That’s our rule of faith. And it’s what makes all other theological exploration possible. Fides quaerens intellectum, or Faith seeking understanding, is the shorthand phrase describing this theological principle. In order fully to know the Catholic faith, strangely, you must first fully believe the Catholic faith. To understand the Scripture correctly, you must first believe in Christ.
Another way to think about how the rule of faith works is to think of it in terms of human relationships. Think of it as a high school dance. If a pretty girl asks my son to dance, my advice to him will be to not waste time asking silly questions, but rather, to just dance. For bliss and enlightenment will be sure to follow. That similarly is how we should approach the Scripture. When you come to the Gospel, don’t ask too many silly scientific or critical questions, important though they are. Rather, just enjoy the story, and — trust me — you’ll love it and be changed. Any sort of intellectual project begins with certain givens. In the scientific method, we call it a hypothesis. For Christians, our hypothesis, our faith, is that Jesus is God. Belief in the core message of the Gospel is the Christian given.
In St. Irenaeus, we see this clearly. Sharing what must be an early credal statement, we see what was for him the Christian rule of faith. He said: “The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith … in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit” — and so on (“Against Heresies,” No. 1.10.2). Such is the Faith, which no later interpretation or theology may challenge. That is the Christian assumption. And it’s what is necessary to any reading of the Bible or later theological speculation or argument.
So when you open your Bible with your emerging faith and you read the Bible by yourself, whether you know it or not, various preconceptions are at work in you — various understandings of the text are at work. You may think you thought something up yourself, but you didn’t. It was “traditioned” in some way. When this happens, however, this traditional reading, carried out within the communion of the Church, becomes sacramental. That is, when this happens, Jesus mystically confronts the reader in heart and mind.
Again, this more properly is what we mean by revelation. Revelation, to speak theologically, names an event, not just a collection of sacred texts. And that, remember, is because of what we understand the Church to be: namely, communion in the body of Christ. Encountering the word of God in the event of revelation is how we encounter Christ. It’s just that this dynamic, sacramental event always in some sense happens within the Church, the body of Christ. The traditioned environment of the event of revelation is always 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.