Has Jesus Christ left us a rule by which we may know the truths He has revealed?
He has, and it is only by following this rule that we are preserved in that one true faith, of which the Scripture says, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” (Ephesians 4:5), and “without which faith it is impossible to please God,” (Hebrews 11:6). Hence St Paul, exhorting all to be of the same mind — that is, to believe the same truths and to have the same faith — commands us to continue in this rule, as the means to be so; “Nevertheless,” says he, “whereunto we are already arrived, that we be of the same mind, let us also continue in the same rule,” (Philippians 3:16).
Have we any description of this rule in the Scriptures?
Yes, we have. The prophet Isaiah, foretelling the glory of Christ's kingdom, describes this rule by which we are to walk under the Gospel, as a highway, plain, open, and easy to walk in; as a way of holiness, containing everything necessary for making those holy who walk in it; as a certain and secure way, in which even fools shall walk without danger of error; and, finally, as a way that leads to eternal happiness. The prophet's words are these: “And a path and a way shall be there, and it shall be called the holy way, … and this shall be to you a straight way, so that fools shall not err therein; … they shall walk there that shall be delivered; and the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and shall come into Sion with praise, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and mourning shall flee away,” (Isaiah 35:8).
What may be drawn from these words of the prophet?
That the rule which Jesus Christ has left for instructing us in what we are to believe and do, in order to be saved, has these three properties:
- It is easy and plain, fitted for all capacities.
- It is universal, and contains all revealed truth.
- It is certain, and may be securely depended upon.
Was it becoming the wisdom and goodness of God to leave us such a rule for our guide in these things?
It was not only becoming in Him to do so, but it was absolutely necessary for the end He proposed. For how could He require of man to believe His truths and obey His law, under pain of damnation, if He had not left us some plain and certain means by which we might know what all these truths are, and what His law requires from us?
What is the rule of our faith left us by Jesus Christ?
The Christian world, as it stands at present, is divided into two great bodies in regard to this point. All, indeed, agree in this, that the Holy Scriptures, being dictated by the Holy Ghost, are truly the Word of God, and therefore are infallibly true in what they teach, both as to what we are to believe, and as to what we are to do in order to be saved. But as the Divine truths contained in them cannot be known without understanding the true sense of these sacred writings, hence the great question arises, How is the true sense of the Scripture to be known?
One of the two great bodies of Christians — to wit, Protestants — affirm that the true sense of the Scriptures may be sufficiently known in all things necessary to salvation by every man of sound judgment who reads them with humility and attention; and therefore they hold that the rule left by Jesus Christ to man for knowing what we are to believe, and what we are to do, in order to be saved, is the written Word alone, interpreted by every man of sound judgment.
The other great body of Christians — namely. Catholics — affirm that the true sense of the Scriptures cannot be sufficiently known by any private interpretation, but only by the public authority of the Church; and therefore they hold that the rule left us by Jesus Christ is the written Word, as interpreted by the Church.
How shall this great question be decided?
This is indeed a very great and important question, on the solution of which the whole difference between Protestants and Catholics depends. But the decision of it is far from being difficult; it is shown in a very plain and simple manner by comparing these two rules with the qualities which, as we have seen above, both Scripture and reason prove the rule left by Jesus Christ must have, and seeing to which of them those qualities belong. Now the qualities or the properties of the rule left by Jesus Christ are, that it is plain and easy, comprehensive, containing all truths, and certain, so that we can depend upon it.
Is the written Word alone a plain and easy rule, fitted for all capacities?
A little attention will show that it is far from it; for
- It is impossible it should be such to those who cannot read; and yet what vast multitudes of these are there in the world ! To them it can be no rule at all, for they cannot use it. Before printing was invented, which was not for above thirteen hundred years after Christ, there were none but written books in the world, and, of course, very few learned to read — not one, perhaps,in some thousands. What must the great bulk of mankind have done during all that time if the written Word alone be the only rule? Did Jesus Christ leave a rule for knowing His truths which could be used only by the learned, while yet He obliges all, under pain of damnation, to believe these truths?
- With regard to those who can read, and who pretend to follow the written Word alone, as they interpret it for themselves, we see from experience that they never agree among themselves about the sense of it, but run into the most opposite and contradictory interpretations — the most convincing proof that it is far from being plain and easy; nay, on the contrary, that it is in many things obscure and difficult.
- The Scripture itself affirms, in express terms, that in the Epistles of St Paul there “are some things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction,” (2 Pet. 3:16). In which text it is declared that the Scriptures are “hard to be understood,” and that not only the unlearned, but also the unstable, who presume to interpret them according to their own judgment, instead of finding their true sense, pervert and wrest them to false meanings, and by so doing bring destruction on themselves. Consequently, this rule of the written Word alone is by no means a plain and easy rule, fitted for all capacities; on the contrary, it is a most dangerous thing for any one to pretend to follow it, for the number of the unlearned is immense, and even among those who are learned, who can answer for his own stability? Would Jesus Christ ever have left such a hard and dangerous rule to poor mortals?
Is the written Word alone a comprehensive rule?
It is very far from it: there are several things believed and practised by all Christians, for which no authority is found in Scripture; nay, which are contrary to the express words of Scripture; we shall only mention these three:
- The law of God laid down in Scripture commands the seventh day of the week, which is Saturday, to be kept holy, and no manner of work to be done on it. There is not, in the whole Bible, one single text annulling that law, or dispensing with it; and yet all Christians think it lawful to break that law, by working upon the seventh day, and think it a duty to keep holy the first day of the week, or Sunday, in its place.
- The Scripture expressly forbids to eat blood, or things strangled, as a command of the Holy Ghost (Acts 15:28). And yet this law is broken every day by Christians, without any scruple, though they have not the smallest authority from Scripture to do so.
- All Christians believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God, written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost; and this belief is the very groundwork of religion to those who follow Scripture alone as their rule; yet there is not the smallest proof from the Scriptures themselves of their being so. Nay, it is simply impossible to prove from the Scriptures that the books therein contained were written by the persons whose names they bear; that these writers were inspired by God; that the books, as we have them, are such as were written by them, without addition, diminution, or corruption; or that the translations made of them are faithful, and agree with the originals.
The Scriptures, then, are far from being a comprehensive rule, and far from containing all revealed truths, since the above particulars, and many others, are not to be found in them.
Is the written Word alone a certain rule?
It fails here no less than in the two former properties. The true sense of Scripture is, indeed, a most certain and infallible rule; but it is evident that those who interpret it by their own private judgment can have no certainty that the sense they put upon it is the true one; for:
- The Scripture itself declares, “that the unlearned and the unstable wrest it to their own destruction,” (2 Pet. 3:16). Now, how can any man be certain that he is not of this number? He may say he thinks he is right, but he can have no certainty. Nay, he cannot reasonably even think he is right; for:
- Those who follow their own interpretation as their rule, are perpetually disagreeing among themselves, and giving the most contrary and often contradictory interpretation to the same text. How, then, can any man among them reasonably think that the sense he puts upon it is right, when he sees it contradicted by numbers of others every way as well qualified to understand it as himself?
- Very often the same persons alter their opinion about the sense they put on Scripture; and what they believe to be the true sense today, they reject as false tomorrow, being continually carried about with every wind of doctrine. Now, what certainty can they have for their opinion at one time more than another? Their very change is an evident acknowledgment that they were wrong before, though they were persuaded then that they were right. What certainty can they have of being right now?
- All those who follow this rule have the whole weight of the Catholic Church against them which condemns all their peculiar interpretations of Scripture as false and erroneous. What security, then, can they have of being right, when such a numerous and respectable body of Christians con demns them?
What is the consequence of these reasonings?
That seeing the written Word alone, as interpreted by every man's private judgment, has not one of those qualities which the rule of our faith ought to have; therefore this cannot be the rule left us by Jesus Christ for teaching us the truths revealed by Him.
What is the rule of faith held by Catholics?
Catholics hold that Jesus Christ, well knowing that the dead letter of the Scriptures could never serve the purpose of a rule by which men could come to the knowledge of the truth revealed by Him, if left to every private person to interpret according to his own fancy, and that, on the contrary, such private interpretation must prove an unavoidable source of contentions and divisions among them, was therefore pleased to authorise the pastors of His Church to be the interpreters of His Word, and the depositaries of all the sacred truths He had revealed to the world: that He gave them power and commission to teach the people the truths of salvation, and requires all to receive their faith from them; and, in consequence of this, they hold that the rule of faith ordained by Jesus Christ is the Word of God as interpreted by the Church — that is, by the great body of the pastors of His Church spread throughout the world.
Is this rule plain and easy, and fitted for all capacities?
Nothing can be more plain, or more adapted to the infirmity of human nature. For let a person be ever so illiterate, and of ever so mean a capacity, if he have but the smallest degree of common sense, he can always be instructed in what is necessary for him to know by the living voice of his pastors, who can vary the manner of their instructions in every different shape, to adapt them to his capacity, and make him comprehend them. It was by this means alone that thousands and thousands, in all ages, have been instructed in the true faith, and in the practice of all Christian duties, though they had never learned to read a single letter. It is by this means alone that thousands are daily instructed in the truths of religion, who, though they have learned to read, have neither judgment nor capacity to understand what they do read; and it is by this means alone that all, even the most learned, have been instructed in the first rudiments of religion in their infancy. So that this is evidently a plain easy rule, fitted for all capacities, and for persons of every age, condition, and sex.
Is this rule comprehensive, so that all revealed truths can be learned by it?
It is; for as Jesus Christ taught all revealed truths to His apostles by word of mouth, so it was perfectly easy for them to teach their disciples everything they had learned from Him in the same manner. Thus, from generation to generation, the pastors of the Church, being thoroughly instructed in all revealed truths themselves by those before them, can communicate the whole, without exception, to their people. And, in fact, it is by this means alone we know for certain that the Scriptures are the Word of God; that the books we have for Scripture are genuine; that it is lawful to keep the first day of the week holy instead of the seventh, though there be no authority for doing so in the Scripture; and that it is lawful to eat blood and things strangled, though contrary to the express command of the Scripture; and, in general, it is by this means alone we come to know the true sense of Scripture, and every other point of religion which the written Word either does not or could not contain.
Is this rule certain so that we may safely depend upon it?
It is in this that the beauty and excellency of this rule chiefly shine forth, and show it to be the rule left us by Jesus Christ, and truly worthy of His Divine wisdom and goodness. The certainty of this rule appears chiefly from three considerations:
- From the nature of the rule itself; for this does not consist in the private opinion of a few particular persons, but in the unanimous doctrine of the great body of the pastors of the Church spread throughout the whole world. Now these pastors are exceedingly numerous; they are spread throughout all nations, and they differ from one another in their country, language, manners, government, and worldly interests, and even in their opinions about other matters of knowledge and learning. When, therefore, they all agree in giving us the same interpretation of Scripture, or in declaring to us any truth of religion, is it not infinitely safer to follow their decision than to trust to our own private judgment in opposition to them? Would not a man be a fool to prefer his own interpretation of the civil law of the land in opposition to the unanimous decision of the whole body of judges and lawyers? Besides, in so delicate a matter as religion, in which experience shows how jealous men commonly are of their own opinions, does not such unanimity evidently show the finger of God to be there? What but an overruling Providence could keep such multitudes of men united in religion who so widely differ in everything else? Among those who do not follow this rule, we can scarcely find two of the same opinion in every article, though of the same nation and language — yea, though of the same family; which evidently shows the uncertainty of their rule. How is it possible, then, that such vast multitudes, differing so much in all things else, should agree in every article of revealed truth, if the rule they follow were not perfectly secure? This will appear still further if we consider:
- The method they observe in declaring these truths; for when the pastors of the Church declare any article of religion, they never give it as their own private opinion, or as what they believe on their own private judgment, but they all declare and protest that what they teach their people is precisely the same, without addition or diminution, which they received by tradition from their forefathers. Their predecessors, from whom they learned these truths, declared the same, and pledged their salvation for the truth of their declaration; every preceding generation did the same, till we arrive at the apostles themselves; assuring us, in all ages, that they hold it as a damnable sin to add or diminish one single iota of the faith once delivered to the saints. Now, it is manifest, that a body of people faithfully observing this rule of tradition can never vary, alter, or change any article of their religion; and, therefore, that the faith they hold at present is the self-same that was held in all preceding ages, and first taught by Christ and His apostles. But what places the certainty of this rule beyond all dispute is:
- The sacred character of infallibility promised by Christ to His Church, and laid down in the plainest terms in the Holy Scriptures themselves.
How does this infallibility of the Church appear from Scripture?
Among the numberless passages that show this, we shall here consider only these following:
- Almighty God, by the prophet Isaiah, lays down the covenant He makes with Jesus Christ and His church in these beautiful terms: “There shall come a Redeemer to Sion, and to them that return from iniquity in Jacob, saith the Lord. This is My covenant with them, saith the Lord. My Spirit that is in Thee, and My words that I have put in Thy mouth, shall not depart out of Thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of Thy seed, nor out of the mouth of Thy seed's seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever,” (Isaiah 51:21). Here two things are promised, as a covenant made by God with the Redeemer, in the most absolute and unconditional manner: first, that the Spirit of the Lord should never depart from the Redeemer, nor from His posterity; and, secondly, that the words put into His mouth, and by Him revealed to His seed, should never depart from His mouth, nor from the mouth of His seed, from henceforth and for ever. The seed or posterity of the Redeemer are His followers, or His Church; consequently. Almighty God here engages His most sacred promise that the Holy Ghost shall ever remain with the Church of Christ, and that the true doctrine of revealed truths shall never cease to be held and taught by her; for they shall never “depart out of her mouth.”
- This divine promise is renewed and confirmed in both its parts by Jesus Christ Himself in the Gospel, for, speaking to the pastors of His Church in the persons of the apostles, He says, “I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever, the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). And a little after He adds, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, is come. He shall teach you all truth” (John 16:13). Here we see a positive promise that the “Spirit of Truth” should be sent upon His Church, and “abide with her for ever,” and that the office of this Spirit should be “to teach her all truth.” Now, the first part of this promise was visibly accomplished on Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost came down upon the apostles and first Christians; it was frequently after repeated in the same visible manner upon the first converted Gentiles (Acts 10), and other converts. There can be no doubt, then, of the perfect accomplishment of the other parts of it also, that He will continue with the Church “for ever,” and “teach her all truth.”
- Jesus Christ declares “that He builds His Church upon a rock,” and positively assures us that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her” (Matthew 16:18). Now, what He means by saying He builds His Church upon a rock He Himself explains when He says, “Whosoever heareth these My words, and doeth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock,” (Matthew 7:24). Christ, then, is the wise builder, and by building His Church upon a rock gives her an absolute security against all storms, tempests, or assaults whatever, that may be made to destroy her; therefore He assures us that she shall never fail, never cease to be His Church, and, consequently, never be corrupted, never fall into error. In the other part of this text, He confirms this conclusion, positively declaring that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.”
What is the consequence of these reasonings?
That, seeing that the Church of Christ, teaching her children by the mouth of her pastors, is a plain easy way of instructing them in all the truths of religion, and that with the most perfect certainty, so that even fools can walk without danger of error under her direction, therefore she is the rule left us by Jesus Christ, by which we are to know what we are to believe and what we are to do in order to secure our salvation; by which also we know the Scriptures themselves, and the true sense of them.
Are there any other direct proofs to show that the Church is this rule?
Yes; we have also these following, among many others:
- Because Jesus Christ did not give His apostles any commission to write the Gospel, but only to teach and preach it; which plainly shows that His intention was, that preaching and teaching by the living voice of His pastors should be our rule, and not the dead letter of the Scripture.
- It is a certain truth that it was by preaching and teaching, and not by writing, that the world was converted unto Christianity; that several of the apostles wrote nothing; and that those among them who did write never converted any person or nation by their writings, but first converted them, and established the faith among them by their preachings, and then wrote to those whom they had before converted, for their instruction, on some particular occasion, and for their consolation.
- Because the Scripture nowhere sends us to the Scripture itself, as to our rule, but, on the contrary, it expressly declares that “no prophecy of Scriptures comes by private interpretation,” (2 Peter 1:20).
- Because the Scripture, as we shall see by-and-by, sends us only to the Church and to her pastors for our instructions; and obliges all, under the severest penalties, to submit to her doctrine in all things relating to religion.
- Because the same Scripture expressly assures us that the pastors of the Church were instituted and ordained by Jesus Christ, to bring us all to “the unity of the Faith,” and prevent us from “being carried about by strange doctrines” (Ephesians 4).
All this will appear more fully when we have explained the nature of tradition.
What is meant by tradition?
The handing down from one generation to another, whether by word of mouth or by writings, those truths revealed by Jesus Christ to His apostles, which either are not contained in the Holy Scriptures or at least are not clearly contained in them; of which we have seen above several instances.
What is the principle upon which tradition proceeds?
It is the laying down, as an invariable rule, to be observed in every generation, that it should firmly adhere to the doctrine received from the preceding, and carefully commit the same to the succeeding one, without addition or diminution.
Was this principle of tradition established by the apostles?
It was most firmly established by them, and they used the most efficacious means to preserve it.
What were these means?
We find the following laid down in their sacred writings:
- They warmly exhorted the faithful, and strictly commanded them to stick close to the doctrine which they had delivered to them, and to teach the same inviolate to those after them. Thus, “O Timothy,” says St Paul, “keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding the profane novelties of words, and oppositions of knowledge, falsely so called, which some promising, have erred concerning the Faith” (1 Timothy 6:20). “Hold the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith, and in the love which is in Christ Jesus. Keep the good things committed to thy trust by the Holy Ghost, Who dwelleth in us,” (2 Timothy 1:13); “And the things which thou hast heard of me before many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). “Continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee, knowing of whom thou hast learned them” (2 Timothy 3:14). Such are the injunctions which he laid upon the pastors of the Church in the person of his disciple Timothy. And to show that the bishops, or chief pastors, are particularly charged with the obligation of adhering to the doctrine delivered to them from the apostles, when relating to Titus the qualities of these chief pastors, among others, he says that a bishop ought to “embrace that faithful Word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine, and convince the gainsayers, — who must be reproved, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not for filthy lucre's sake” (Titus 1:9); where we see the strict charge laid upon the pastors, both to adhere to the true doctrine themselves, and to defend it against seducers. The same injunction of adhering to the doctrine they had received, by tradition, from the apostles, he lays upon all the faithful in these words: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:14). St Jude also writes his epistle expressly to enforce this duty, and says “I was under a necessity to write to you, to beseech you to contend earnestly for the Faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Such strong and repeated injunctions laid upon all, and especially upon the pastors of the Church, who are appointed by Jesus Christ to be the guardians and teachers of the Faith, could not fail to make the deepest impression upon their minds, and have in all ages been considered as the great rule of their conduct in preserving the true doctrine inviolate.
- Not content with laying such strict commands upon the faithful to adhere firmly to the old doctrine handed down from the beginning, they also warn them against all broachers of new doctrine, describe their manners, foretell their reprobation and damnation, and command the faithful to avoid them. St Paul writes to Timothy: “Now the Spirit manifestly saith, that in the last times some shall depart from the Faith, giving heed to spirits of error, and doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy, and having their consciences seared” (1 Timothy 4:1). What an impression must this description make upon the minds of all serious Christians ! What a horror must it raise in them against all innovations ! “Know this also,” says the same apostle, “that in the last days shall come on dangerous times; for men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, — lovers of pleasure more than of God; having an appearance indeed of godliness, but denying the power thereof: now these avoid, for of this sort are they — who resist the truth, men corrupted in mind, reprobate concerning the Faith” (2 Timothy 3:1). St Peter also is very strong upon this head, when he says, “There shall be among you lying teachers, who shall bring in sects of perdition” (damnable heresies, as the Protestant translation has it) — “bringing upon themselves swift destruction — whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their destruction slumbereth not” (2 Peter 2:1). St Paul also to the Romans saith “Now I beseech you, brethren, to mark them who cause dissensions and offences, contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and to avoid them; for they that are such serve not Christ our Lord, but their own belly” (Romans 16:17); and in his epistle to Titus he says “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid; knowing that he that is such an one is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned by his own judgment” (Titus 3:10). Again, to Timothy he saith, “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to that doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but sick about questions and strifes of words, … corrupted in mind, and destitute of the truth” (1 Timothy 6:3). St John also speaks to the same purpose, saying “Whosoever revolteth, and continueth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. … If any man come to you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into thy house, and say not to him, God speed you; for he that saith to him, God speed you, communicateth with his wicked works” (2 John 9). Could anything more efficacious have been uttered than these oracles of the Holy Ghost, to excite in the hearts of the faithful the strongest aversion to the very smallest deviation from the doctrine they had received? Could anything more firmly establish the sacred principle of tradition?
- But to fix this principle upon the most solid footing, besides what is above, these sacred writers pronounce a dreadful curse upon, and deliver over to Satan, all those who shall dare to alter or corrupt the Faith once delivered to the saints, though but in one single article. Thus when some false brethren, in St Paul's absence, had persuaded the Galatians that it was necessary to unite circumcision with the Gospel, he wrote his epistle to them, on purpose to correct this delusion; and though it was but an error in one point, and that in everything else they adhered to his doctrine, yet he calls it a “removing from the grace of Christ, … and a perverting the Gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6,7). And then he adds “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a Gospel to you, besides that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed; as we said before, so I say now again, If any one preach to you a Gospel besides that which you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). So also he mentions two heretics of his own time, who erred only in one point, and says “Their speech spreadeth like a canker, of whom are Hymeneus and Philetus, who have erred from the truth, saying that the resurrection is past already, and have subverted the faith of some,” (2 Timothy 2:17). But he had told his disciples before in what manner he had dealt with Hymeneus and Alexander, who “had made shipwreck of their faith; whom,” says he, “I have delivered to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20). Nothing surely could more effectually imprint in the minds of the faithful the firmest attachment to the truths of the Gospel than this judgment of the apostle, or more excite their attention and solicitude to preserve these sacred truths whole and undefiled, and to deliver them entire and uncorrupted to their posterity.
All this is exceedingly strong indeed; but how can it be applied to show the preservation of the truths revealed by Jesus Christ throughout all ages?
It is manifest, from these Scripture oracles, that the great principle or rule of tradition was laid down and established by God Himself at the beginning, and that it was delivered by the apostles to their disciples, along with the other truths of the Gospel, as the fence and safeguard ordained by God for the preservation of the Faith throughout all generations; and it is no less evident that as long as this rule is faithfully observed, any change in the faith is absolutely impossible. For if the Christians of the second age believed nothing as revealed truth but what they had received from their predecessors of the first age, then it is manifest that the faith of the first and second age was exactly the same. And if those of the second age delivered the sacred deposit entire and unchanged to their successors, then their faith can have differed in nothing from that of the two preceding ages. The same may be said of every succeeding age to the present time, and even to the end of the world.
Is it certain that the Church always adhered to this rule of tradition, and never deviated from it?
Nothing can be more certain, for several reasons:
- Because the Church, in the apostolic age, most certainly adhered to it, as all the above testimonies of Scripture show. In every succeeding age she professed her constant adherence to it, as the acts of her councils and the writings of the holy Fathers in every age declare; and at the present time she openly avows the same, protesting that she received this rule, along with the other truths of Christianity, from those before her, as handed down to them from the preceding generations; therefore she has never, in any age, deviated from it.
- Because this rule, as we have seen, is so strongly, so frequently, and under such dreadful penalties, inculcated in the Holy Scriptures, that it is morally impossible the whole Christian world should, in any age, renounce it, unless we suppose the whole world at once renouncing all concern for their salvation.
- Because no deviation from this rule could be introduced by degrees; for the first that should begin to teach such a deviation would immediately be condemned by all those adhering to it.
- Because by this rule alone the Church ever condemned all who broached new doctrines, as is manifest from her councils and the writings of Christians in every age, some of whom, as St Vincent of Lerins and Tertullian, wrote entire books on this very subject, as the shortest and easiest means of confuting all novelties in doctrine.
- Because it is manifest from the writings of Christians in every age since the apostles, that the doctrine of Faith has ever been uniformly the same in the Catholic Church; and that those revealed truths which the apostles delivered by word of mouth only, as well as the true sense of their sacred writings themselves, have been handed down throughout every age, not only by the constant teaching of the pastors, but also by the writings of many of her members who were eminent for their sanctity, and distinguished by their learning. Which evidently shows that she has never deviated from this rule; and that by adhering to it, the sacred “words of God, once put into her mouth, have never departed from her,” as God, in His covenant with her, had expressly promised by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 49:21).
Can it be evidently proved that the Church never altered or corrupted any of the truths revealed to her at the beginning?
We observed in the last question, no. 5, that this is manifest from the writings of Christians, in all preceding ages, and in all the different nations of the world; in which writings we uniformly find the same sacred truths taught, explained, and inculcated, which the Church teaches at this day. It also follows as a necessary consequence from the principle of changing nothing, neither adding to nor taking from the sacred body of Divine truths, but delivering the same inviolate to every generation, for it is evident that a Church which constantly adheres to this rule can never change her faith. Besides, as her attachment to this principle and practice is itself one of the very points delivered by tradition, it is evident that a Church professing to believe and follow this principle must have strictly observed it, and must always have maintained the same faith. Add to this the number of persons interested in the preservation of this rule, spread from the beginning through all nations, and differing from each other in everything but religion. Add also how tenacious men commonly are of their religion, especially those who hold it as an article of their faith itself that not one iota of it may be changed. Join to all this how vigilant and careful the Church has ever been to oppose the slightest attempt to alter or corrupt her doctrine, and it will easily appear how impossible it is that she should ever change one point of revealed truth. And if we also consider the promised assistance of the Holy Ghost, to teach her all truth and abide with her for ever, the matter is put beyond the possibility of doubt.
In what does this promised assistance of the Holy Ghost properly consist? To what does it extend?
To understand this, we must observe that Jesus Christ revealed to His apostles, by word of mouth, all those Divine truths, both regarding faith and morals, which God was pleased to communicate to man. This He Himself declares when He said “But I have called you friends; because all things whatsoever I have heard of My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Now these truths the apostles taught to the world, partly in their writings and partly by word of mouth; but as both are equally the Word of God, and revealed by Him, therefore both are equally to be received and believed. “Therefore, brethren,” says St Paul, “stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:14). In these sacred traditions, both written and unwritten, some things are not so clearly and explicitly expressed as others. There are many, as the Scripture itself says, “hard to be understood;” and there are also others, essentially connected with what is there expressed, which are not mentioned there at all; but which, nevertheless, are implicitly revealed by God, in those with which they are necessarily connected.
When, therefore, a difficulty arises on any point of doctrine, the Church immediately has recourse to revelation, contained in the written and unwritten Word, in Scripture and tradition, and examines the point in question by this sacred rule; in doing which, she is so effectually assisted by the Spirit of God, as infallibly to discover whether or not the point in question be contained in, connected with, or conformable to, revelation. If it be, she adopts it as a sound doctrine; and if not, she condemns it as false and erroneous. So that the Church never proposes to her children any new article of faith, but only brings to light and unfolds the truths originally revealed by Jesus Christ; but which, till her declaration, had been obscurely or ambiguously contained in Scripture and tradition; and this is the principal thing in which the Holy Ghost gives her His infallible assistance.
All this is manifest from our Saviour's own declaration “He had made known to His apostles all things whatsoever He had heard of His Father;” but many of those things were little understood by them, and many were so delivered that they could not understand them — at least, as to the full extent of what His words meant. To remedy this. He promises to send them the Holy Ghost, and shows what His office would be, in these words: “But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my Name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you” (John 24:26). And again, “I have yet many things to say to you: but you cannot bear them now; — but when He, the Spirit of truth, is come. He will teach you all truth” (John 26:12).
This then is the office of the Holy Ghost; and as Christ declared that He “would abide with His Church for ever,” this office He continually performs, teaching the pastors of the Church all truth, and bringing to their mind, as occasion may require, all those things contained in the revelation which Christ made at the beginning to
What conclusion follows from all this?
From this we see still more fully the perfect security we have in relying upon the authority of the Church, as the guide which Jesus Christ has ordained to conduct us in the way of salvation, and by which alone we can come to the certain knowledge of all those Divine truths which He has revealed, whether with regard to faith or morals.
Is it therefore necessary for the Christian people to be well instructed in what our holy Faith teaches concerning the Church?
The knowledge of the Church is certainly one of the most necessary points of the Christian religion, because the Church is the very foundation of all the rest, being the sacred rule appointed by Jesus Christ by which we come to the knowledge of all the truths of revelation, even of the Scriptures themselves, and of the true sense and interpretation of them; the Church is the organ of God, by which He speaks to His people, and discovers to them the great truths of eternity; and the true doctrine concerning the Church being once properly established, an end is put to all uncertainty, doubt, and controversy on religion. Hence we find that, in the Apostles’ Creed, after professing our belief in the ever-blessed Trinity, the Incarnation, and other mysteries of our redemption, the article which follows is that of the Holy Catholic Church as next in importance and as firmly to be believed as the sacred truths of the Trinity and Incarnation; it stands upon the same ground with them, the Divine revelation; and is the sacred channel by which the revelation of those Divine truths is conveyed to us.
Is this article of the Creed, The Holy Catholic Church, a proof of the continual existence of the Church upon earth?
It is certainly a most convincing proof both of the continuance of the Church of Christ and of all those sacred prerogatives with which her Divine Spouse has adorned her. For the Apostles’ Creed is universally admitted, by Christians of all denominations, to contain the fundamental articles of the Christian religion, as revealed by Jesus Christ to His apostles, consequently all the articles of the Creed are Divine truths, and, as the Church of England teaches in her thirty-nine articles, ought thoroughly to be received and believed, for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture (Art. VIII.); therefore they must be true at all times and in all places. Consequently, as it was a Divine revealed truth, when the Creed was made by the apostles, that Christ had then a Holy Catholic Church upon earth, so it is no less a Divine truth that He has a Holy Catholic Church upon earth at present, that He has had such a Church ever since the Creed was made, and will have to the end of the world. And as this Church never could cease to be the true Church of Christ, so never could she cease to be what Christ at first made her, nor fail in any of those sacred prerogatives with which Christ at first adorned her; consequently she is always Holy, always Catholic, always a visible body, consisting of pastors teaching and people taught by them — always one, always apostolical, always infallible in what she teaches, for these, as we have seen in part, and shall see more fully by-and-by, are the sacred prerogatives which He bestowed upon her. For if ever she lost any of these, she could no longer be the Church of Christ, and then that article of the Creed would be false, which it were blasphemy to suppose.
The Rule of Faith