Foundational and Dependent Revelation

Furthermore, we should recall here how Dei Verbum also portrays revelation as an ongoing reality which is ever being actualized and constantly invites human faith: 'The "obedience of faith" (Rom. 16: 26).must be given to the God who reveals' (no. 5). People are called, in one generation after another, to accept in faith the divine self-manifestation that was completed with Jesus and his first disciples. Dei Verbum associates revelation as it happened then with revelation as it happens now (in the Church) in these terms: 'God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the spouse of his beloved Son' (no. 8). Vatican Il's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium ('the Sacred Council'), apropos of the various ways Christ is present in the Church's public worship, acknowledges that 'it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church'; in the context of worship 'Christ is still proclaiming his gospel' (nos. 7, 33). Other documents of Vatican II and the teaching of Pope John Paul II, most notably his 1979 Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis in Our Time, Catechesi Tradendae ('Handing on Catechesis') and his 1980 encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia ('Rich in Mercy'), portray revelation as also being a present reality which is repeatedly actualized here and now. Just as faith is a present event, so too is the light of divine self-revelation that comes through the Eucharist, the other sacraments, preaching, reading the scriptures, public and private prayer, and many other channels that summon forth faith.

In using 'revelation' of what repeatedly happens now, John Paul II was not alleging that God reveals new truths and so enlarges the original foundational divine self-manifestation conveyed by Christ and his first followers. Those who still think of revelation as being primarily propositional truths can easily spring to that false conclusion. What the Pope wanted to underline in speaking of revelation in the present was God's living and enlightening voice speaking now and calling human beings to respond, also here and now, with faith. John Paul II was certainly not alleging that there is or could be an 'increase' in the content of the essential truths revealed once and for all through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

In short, modern Catholic teaching has portrayed God's revelation not only as reaching its unsurpassable climax in the past (with Jesus Christ) but also as a present and future event. We can express this triple time reference by distinguishing 'foundational' revelation, which took place back there and then in the first century AD, from 'dependent' revelation, which is ceaselessly actualized now for those who hear God's revealing word, and from 'eschatological' (final) revelation, which will be the definitive self-revelation of God at the end of history. These terms, especially the first and the second, call for a little more explanation.

Without using our terminology, traditional Catholic theology spoke of foundational revelation 'ending with the death of the last apostle'. This language pointed to a truth: aided by the Holy Spirit, the apostles and other early followers of Jesus took decades to discern, interpret, and express their experience of Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection. In fact, they spent a lifetime plumbing and proclaiming the meaning of what they had experienced in the crucified and risen Jesus. Collectively and individually they gave themselves to interpreting and applying the meaning, truth, and value of their total experience of Jesus and his Spirit. Understood this way, the period of foundational revelation covered not only the climactic events (Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, with the coming of the Spirit), but also the decades when the apostles and their associates assimilated these events, proclaimed the good news about Jesus, fully founded the Church for all peoples, and wrote the inspired books of the NT. During those years the apostles were not receiving new truths, as if Christ had failed to complete revelation by all that he did, said, and suffered. Rather they were being led by the Holy Spirit to express, interpret normatively, and apply what they had directly experienced of the fullness of revelation in the person of Christ. Thus the activity of the Spirit through the apostolic age also entered into foundational revelation—in its phase of immediate assimilation. That age belonged to the revealing and redemptive Christ-event and normatively did so in a way which would not be true of any later stage in Christian history.

When the apostolic age closed—roughly speaking at the end of the first century—there would be no more founding of the Church and writing of inspired scriptures. The period of foundational revelation, in which the activity of the original witnesses brought about the visible Church and completed the written word of God, was finished. Through the great tradition (which includes the scriptures, the sacraments, preaching, and teaching) launched by the apostolic Church, later generations could share 'dependently' in the saving self-communication of God mediated through the climactic and unrepeatable events surrounding Jesus and his apostles. Without using our term 'dependent' revelation, the prologue of Dei Verbum cites 1 John 1: 2—3 to indicate how till the end of time all later generations of Christian believers will be invited to accept and depend upon the witness of those who announced what they had personally experienced of the full divine revelation in Christ: We proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.'

We remarked above on the way some still resist talk of (dependent) revelation occurring here and now. The problem may be a verbal one: namely, a sense that revelation always happened (or happens) dramatically—through supernatural visions, divine oracles, and other special phenomena. But divine self-revelation also took place (foundational revelation) and continues to take place (dependent revelation) in ordinary ways and is not limited to extraordinary events and remarkable episodes.

Before moving on from this account of divine revelation, one should recall that not only Dei Verbum but also some of the other fifteen documents from the Second Vatican Council fill out what revelation entails. The last and longest document from the Council, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes ('Joy and Hope') of 7 December 1965, for example, adds some important themes: above all, the way that divine revelation also throws light on the human condition. The disclosure of the mystery of God illuminates such basic and painful 'enigmas' as those of suffering and death; the revelation brought by Christ manifests to human beings what they are and what they are to become. Christ lifts the veil on both God and the human condition; the disclosure of God simultaneously reveals the origin, nature, and destiny of human beings (Gaudium et Spes, 10, 22, 41).62

Vatican II also had important things to teach about God's saving revelation to all peoples. That issue, which is more crucial than ever, will be treated in the final chapter of this book.

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