Is Scripture alone sufficient for understanding the person and nature of Jesus Christ?

Essay time! I think the answer to the question posed above is an emphatic, “no!” Scripture is certainly important, nay, essential, (“ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ”- Thank you, St Jerome!) but it is not the only thing that is essential. Read on to find out what the other thing is…

Why are dogmatic formulas as well as Scripture necessary for understanding the person and nature of Jesus Christ?
The mystery of the Incarnation is not readily grasped by the human intellect, and thus the person and nature of Christ have been frequently misunderstood through the history of Christianity. These misunderstandings take place as a result of the fallibility of human rationality, combined with the difficulties involved in understanding Sacred Scripture. This paper will attempt to show that not only are both dogmatic formulas and Scripture essential for understanding the truth regarding Jesus Christ, but that they complement and mutually nourish each other. First the importance of Scripture will be established, followed by an examination of the consequences of relying on Scripture alone. This will lead into an understanding of the necessity of the Magisterium of the Church, such that any dogmatic formulas it proclaims can be known to be true with certainty. Finally, an example of this process in practice from the early Church will be considered. Sacred Scripture will be taken to mean all the writings that the Catholic Church has discerned to be the inspired written Word of God, while dogmatic formulas will be considered to be statements of those truths that the Magisterium has declared to be divinely revealed.
Understanding the person and nature of Christ means to know Christ as He really was and to assent to the reality of the mystery of the Incarnation. This requires an encounter with Him through Sacred Scripture; “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”, said St Jerome.[1] This is possible since it is the written Word of God, which means that the Son, revelation itself, makes himself present to His Church through written words. This occurs most explicitly in the Gospels, which are the “principal source for the life and teaching of the Incarnate Word, our Saviour”.[2]The records contained in the New Testament, and the manner in which they fulfil the Old, reveal that Jesus was both truly a man, as he goes through the full range of human experiences; yet that also, His claims to divinity are substantial.
Essential and foundational as the Scriptures are, they are not enough by themselves. There are a number of practical barriers to reliable interpretation. At the root of most of them is human fallibility. The Bible is a collection of many types of writing, from many different contexts, and its meaning is not always plain. Lack of knowledge of context, original language, history and culture can easily lead to a person misconstruing the Word of God. Truths that the author intended to express through metaphorical language may be lost if the text is interpreted literally, while other times the author may have  intended his words to convey their plain meaning, yet the reader could interpret them metaphorically. This problem is compounded in that if one is reading a translation, one has to rely on the translator’s faithfulness to the original sense of the text, which is certainly not guaranteed to be free from error.[3] Even the relative explicitness of the New Testament with regard to Jesus is open to interpretation. Text that is read or heard is always done so through a person’s particular worldview lens, and the meaning of what they read or hear is shaped by that lens. Thus it is impossible to read Scripture without interpreting it, which means there are as many possible understandings of Jesus as there are readers of Scripture.[4]This is evidenced in the plethora of differing opinions about Christ, his being, his teachings, and his life existing in the world today.
Sacred Scripture itself testifies to its complexity. St Peter says “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”[5]St Paul attests to this also in Hebrews,[6]and St Luke in Acts.[7]The Word of God has many layers of meaning, in two categories- the literal and the spiritual senses,[8]due to its authorship being both divine and human. God being Scripture’s author means that the depths of the spiritual sense to be unearthed by limited human readers are immeasurable, and that new insights are always possible. It is likely that this contributes to the difficulties in understanding the Word of God. It is this “hard to understand” nature of Scripture, combined with a principle of private interpretation apart from the Church (a practice condemned by Peter[9]), that leads to misunderstandings or errors in theology, namely, heresies.[10]
Heresies are detrimental to the Church because they undermine the marks of the Church, which are that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. One aspect of both the unity and apostolicity is that the Church professes one faith received from the Apostles.[11]To have people within the Church disagreeing with what the Church has always believed since the Apostles, damages the unity of the Church. Augustine says that it also damages the faith itself.[12]This unity is meant to be one of the characteristics that makes the Church identifiable as the Church founded by Jesus, and He prays for its unity during His agony in the garden.[13]Paul exhorts the Ephesians to maintain unity of faith, so that they may not be led astray by novel doctrines.[14]Heresy, being a sin against faith,[15]weakens the holiness of a particular member of the Church and thus the Body of Christ as a whole.[16]The catholic mission to bring all nations to Christ is undermined in that if heresy in present in some areas of the world, the wrong Gospel may be preached, and thus it is not the fullness of Christ (who is truth itself) who is being taught in that region. As Tertullian expresses it, “they and we have not the same God, nor one- that is, the same- Christ”.[17]
In order to combat the “poison” of heresy when it “infects” the Church,[18]dogmatic formulations of what the Church believes (which is equivalent to what is really true), are essential. However, in order for these to have any weight, the Church itself must be an institution endowed with the authority of Christ to teach infallibly. This is just what the Catholic Church claims to be,[19]and such a claim is consistent with Sacred Scripture, and with reason. Christ gives the apostles the authority to bind and loose, with this binding and loosing that is to occur on earth to be mirrored in heaven.[20]This implies that what the Church teaches is to be preserved from error, as false or evil things cannot be bound or loosed in Heaven. Furthermore, Jesus is to send the Spirit of Truth to guide the Church into all truth.[21]In the Great Commission, Christ gives the Church its mission, to bring the Good News to all nations, and he charges the apostles and their successors with the task of teaching them to observe all that he commanded them.[22]Moreover, the Church is said to be the Body of Christ,[23]and to speak with the voice of Christ when she teaches.[24]
This Church defends the deposit of faith she has been charged with preserving against error when it arises, in the form of dogmatic formulations. These are discerned and distilled from surveying revelation through Scripture and Tradition as an organic unity, and reformulating the truths contained therein more clearly. They go on to become part of Tradition and provide unchanging boundaries outside of Scripture, such that interpretation of Scripture may be guided by them, and so be protected from falling into error, while also refuting false doctrines. Once certain truths are firmly established, this allows the Church to delve ever deeper into the mysteries of faith through exegesis of Scripture that is enlightened by these truths, building upon the foundations laid before. These formulations are not solemnly proclaimed as binding on all the faithful, until a particular belief of the Church is attacked in a serious way.[25]Then the bishops are forced to come together, and to examine the beliefs of the Church in the light of false doctrine, and to robustly proclaim its teachings with clarity.[26]
In the early Church, the person and nature of Christ were vigorously disputed. Various questions arose during the first centuries, such as whether Christ was God, whether he was human, how human or divine he was, and whether he was one or two persons. In order to answer these questions, theologians had to clarify what it meant to say that a being was a person, and whether that person was divine, or human (or angelic). Thus, the Church drew on the Greek philosophical tradition, employing the philosophical concepts of person and nature. These extra-biblical terms were essential for maintaining orthodox belief concerning the Incarnation of God the Son. This orthodox belief was summarised in the axioms of orthodoxy, namely, “only God can save”, and “all that is assumed is not saved”. This is a distillation of the three central Christological truths- Christ is fully divine; Christ is fully human; Christ is one Divine Person, God the Son.
Finally, let us consider an example of why dogmas are important, and how they come about. A particularly dangerous heresy emerged in the fourth century called Arianism. Arius denied both Christ’s complete divinity and his complete humanity, saying rather that he was created by the Father, yet with a dignity greater than that of normal human beings.[27]Hence he was not quite God, and not quite man. Arius supported his claims with scripture,[28]as St Vincent said that heretics do, in imitation of the devil, in order that they may deceive more easily.[29]To remove the disturbance in his empire that this was causing, Constantine called for the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. At this council, the assembled bishops, through the charism of infallibility granted to the Magisterium by the work of the Holy Spirit, declared with certainty that Arianism was a heresy, and that Jesus Christ is “the Son of God, born of the Father, the sole-begotten; that is to say, of the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; born, not made, consubstantial with the Father”.[30] There was debate among the bishops regarding the inclusion of the word for consubstantial, homo-oúsion. Some bishops were reluctant to use any terms not found in Scripture. However, the view that prevailed was that the Scriptures had not been written for refuting heretics with a philosophical approach, and that it was necessary to declare in some cases what Scripture meant.[31]This situation and succeeding events shows why dogmatic formulations by a living teaching authority are necessary, along with Scripture, since the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation can easily be misunderstood and such misunderstandings spread through the Church, leading the faithful astray.
In conclusion, attempting to interpret Scripture using only Scripture and relying on oneself as the ultimate arbiter of correct and incorrect interpretation, ultimately and inevitably leads to problems. This is true of all doctrine, and so includes those pertaining to the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Scripture is not perspicuous, and human beings are not infallible as individuals; such a gift is given specifically to the Church in her teaching office precisely in order to combat false interpretations with clarity and conviction. The Church carves out the guidelines within which authentic understanding of the truths conveyed by Scripture may take place, and condemns incorrect ideas when they arise. This is for the good of the Church and all her members, both in the present age and in the future, as part of her mission is to preserve the one faith deposited to her by the Apostles.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, No. 88, ML 37, 1140, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church VIII, 440, Phillip Schaff (trans.) (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904)
Catechism of the Catholic Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana: Citta del Vaticano, 1993)
(Accessed 26 October 2012)
Bray, Gerald. (Ed.), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Vol XI James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude (Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2007)
Darlap, Adolf (Ed.), Sacramentum Mundi Book 2, (London: Burns & Oates, 1969)
Davis, Leo Donald, S.J. (Ed.), The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1987)
Haddad, Robert. (Ed.), Answering the Anti-Catholic Challenge (Ballan, Australia: Modotti Press, 2012)
Haddad, Robert., Defend the Faith! (Sydney: Lumen Verum Apologetics, 2003)
Hughes, Philip, The Church in Crisis- The Twenty Great Councils (London: Burns & Oates, 1961)
Kevane, Eugene., Creed and Catechetics- a Catechetical Commentary on the Creed of the People of God(Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1978)
Latourelle, Rene, S.J., Theology of Revelation (New York: Alba House, 1966)
McBrien, Richard. (Ed.), The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995)
Moynahan, Brian., The Faith- A History of Christianity(London: Aurum Press, 2002)
New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 7, 2nd Edition, Berard Marthaler (ed.) (Washington, D.C.: Thomson Gale, 2003)
Oakes, Edward, S.J. & Moss, David. (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Rose, Devin, If Protestantism is True- The Reformation Meets Rome, (USA: Unitatis Books, 2011)
Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (18 November 1965).
<www.vatican.va> (accessed 26 October 2012)
Sheehan, Archbishop Michael., Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine (London: Saint Austin Press, 2001)
Stevenson, J. (Ed.), Creeds, Councils and Controversies- Documents illustrating the history of the Church, AD 337-461 (London: SPCK, 1989)
Tertullian, On Baptism, Chap. 15, ML I, 1216, Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325 III, 676, Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (Eds.), (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899)
The Catholic Bible Concordance Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition C.W. Lyons and Thomas Deliduka (compilers) (Steubenville: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2009)
The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 2004)
Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Translated by C.A. Heurtley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
< http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3506.htm> (Accessed 26 October 2012)
Willis, John., S.J. (Ed.), The Teachings of the Church Fathers (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966)


REFERENCE LIST:
Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, No. 88, ML 37, 1140, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church VIII, 440, Phillip Schaff (trans.) (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1904)
Catechism of the Catholic Church (Libreria Editrice Vaticana: Citta del Vaticano, 1993) < http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a7.htm>
(Accessed 26 October 2012)
Haddad, Robert., Defend the Faith! (Sydney: Lumen Verum Apologetics, 2003)
Hughes, Philip, The Church in Crisis- The Twenty Great Councils (London: Burns & Oates, 1961)
Kevane, Eugene., Creed and Catechetics- a Catechetical Commentary on the Creed of the People of God(Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1978)
Latourelle, Rene, S.J., Theology of Revelation (New York: Alba House, 1966)
McBrien, Richard. (Ed.), The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995)
Moynahan, Brian., The Faith- A History of Christianity(London: Aurum Press, 2002)
New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 7, 2nd Edition, Berard Marthaler (ed.) (Washington, D.C.: Thomson Gale, 2003)
Second Vatican Council. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation Dei Verbum (18 November 1965).
<www.vatican.va> (accessed 26 October 2012)
Sheehan, Archbishop Michael., Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine (London: Saint Austin Press, 2001)
Tertullian, On Baptism, Chap. 15, ML I, 1216, Ante-Nicene Fathers. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325 III, 676, Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (Eds.), (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899)
The Holy Bible Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, Translated by C.A. Heurtley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
< http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3506.htm> (Accessed 26 October 2012)
Willis, John., S.J. (Ed.), The Teachings of the Church Fathers (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966)


[1] CCC 133; DV 25
[2] CCC 125; DV 18
[3]Archbishop Michael Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, p.156
[4] Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, 2,5- “owing to the depth of Holy Scripture… it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.”
[5] 2 Pet. 3:16
[6] Heb. 5:11-12
[7] Acts 8:30-31
[8] CCC 115
[9] 2 Pet. 1:20; Archbishop Michael Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, p.157
[10]Heresies may be about any matter of the faith, but in this paper we are considering only Christological heresies. All that is said here applies to both kinds.
[11] CCC 815, 857; Eph. 4:4-6
[12] The Teachings of the Church Fathers, p.58; St Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, No. 88, ML 37, 1140, NPNF VIII, 440
[13] Jn. 17:20-26
[14] Eph. 4:13-14
[15] CCC 2088-2089; one must be wilfully remaining in opposition to the Church for it to be a sin
[16] 1 Cor. 26-27; CCC 1469- “Sin damages or even breaks fraternal communion.”
[17]Tertullian, On Baptism, Chap. 15, ML I, 1216, ANF III, 676; The Teachings of the Church Fathers, p.57
[18]“Poison” and “infection” are words St Vincent of Lerins uses to describe heresy in his Commonitory, e.g. Chapter 7, paragraph 19; and 4, 10.
[19] CCC 888-892
[20] Mt. 16:19; 18:18
[21] Jn. 16:13
[22] Mt. 28:19-20; Robert Haddad, Defend the Faith! p.100
[23] 1 Cor. 12:27-28
[24] Lk. 10:16; CCC 87
[25] Eugene Kevane, Creed and Catechetics- a Catechetical Commentary on the Creed of the People of God,  p.217
[26] Brian Moynahan, The Faith- A History of Christianity, p. 111
[27] Richard McBrien (Ed.), The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, pp.92-93
[28] Prov. 8:22; Col. 1:15; Richard McBrien (Ed.), The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, pp.92-93
[29] St Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, 25, 64-67; 26, 68-69
[30]Denzinger, Enchiridion, no. 54 Greek; Barry, Reading in Church History, p.85 Translation; Found in Philip Hughes, The Church in Crisis- The Twenty Great Councils, p.21
[31] Philip Hughes, The Church in Crisis- The Twenty Great Councils, p.21

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