What is Revelation? (CCC 74-100)
One of the key points of contention between Catholics and non-Catholics is in the concept of revelation. Many Protestants accept no source of revelation except Sacred Scripture (the so-called sola scriptura doctrine) while Catholics have a fuller and more correct understanding of what revelation is.
Revelation comes from the word “reveal” and refers to the truths about Himself that God has made known to humanity. There are two main types of revelation – general and special revelation. Each is defined by how that information is conveyed to humanity.
As the name implies, general revelation is the information and truths which God has revealed via ordinary means. Because human beings have a spiritual soul made in the image of God, we are capable of love, understanding and choice. With this, we are able to determine certain things about God by observing the world around us and contemplating the natural law which all men are endowed with.
The obvious order, power and beauty of the material world are a clear indication that the universe did not come into existence randomly, but is rather the result of an action or actions taken by an all-powerful, divine being. The book of Wisdom in the Old Testament explains this best in chapter 13 where it says that “all men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature.” (Wisdom 13:1). In Romans 1:20, Saint Paul says that the hand of God is clearly visible in the natural world which He has made.
The other source of general revelation is the natural law. This does not refer to the physical laws or the “laws of nature”, but rather “the law written in our hearts” (Romans 2:15) as it is often described.
The natural law can be fairly accurately described as “those things everyone knows are right (or wrong)”. Throughout history, all men have instinctively known that there are certain things which are good (honesty, helping others, keeping your word) and things which are bad (lying, cheating, murder). These universal moral constants are what the Church means when she talks about the natural law.
The natural law is not simply an expression of a survival instinct; it has been placed in the hearts and minds of humanity. The “natural” refers to nature – the human nature all humans share. God has encoded this law in our natures, and it reflects His own law. By studying and considering the natural law in our hearts, we can learn much about the nature of God.
While general revelation is a very good guide to the nature of God, it is not complete or sufficient. In order to gain a more complete and full understanding of God, we need access to special revelation.
Special revelation is the information about the universe and Himself that God has revealed to humanity via more direct methods. This includes details of what humans must do in order to achieve the destiny which God has planned for us, and information about the nature of God which is not immediately clear from studying the world and the natural law.
God chooses to reveal this special revelation to humanity via inspired prophets and other individuals. We see many examples of this in the Bible – prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah are spoken to directly by God, Moses is given the Decalogue on Sinai and so forth. One form of special revelation described in the Bible (which many people do not immediately see as special revelation from God) is all the words, commandments, parables, instructions and so forth given by Our Blessed Lord during the Incarnation.
There are two types of special revelation – private, and public revelation. Private revelation is a particular revelation to a specific Christian. Beliefs in such revelations is not obligatory for Catholics; only belief in universal or public revelations are obligatory. An example of private revelation would be the Lourdes Apparitions of the Virgin Mary, or the message of Divine Mercy received by Saint Faustina. While private revelation is (once it has been approved by the Church) valid and truthful, it is not part of the deposit of faith which Catholics must believe and which forms public revelation.
Public revelation is the special revelation which God began with His direct communication with His inspired prophets and which ended with the death of the last Apostle (Saint John the Evangelist, around 100 AD). This public revelation is also known as the deposit of faith.
Private revelation can never supplant, contradict or replace public revelation – any private revelation must be in accord with the public revelation, or it is clearly false. This important aspect of private, post-Apostolic special revelation is ignored or denied by groups such as the Mormons, who constantly rely on new alleged “revelations” to support their novel and constantly changing doctrines.
Public revelation is found in two forms; Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
It is at this point that the greatest divide between Catholics and Protestants concerning revelation occurs (there are other divides – many Protestants do not accept the notion of private revelation, for example – but this is the main one). Protestants who hold to a notion of sola scripture (“scripture alone” - the false and heretical doctrine that the Bible alone provides the sole rule of faith and that all spiritual truths are contained in the Bible) reject the fact that there are two forms of public revelation. They only accept one; Sacred Scripture.
Sacred Tradition is possessed by the Church and is the oral Traditions of the Apostles handed down through the centuries (as we can see in the letters of Saint Paul (II Thessalonians 2:15) he instructs his disciples to stay faithful to both the written and the oral Traditions). Much (if not all) of this oral Tradition has now been written down in catechisms, encyclicals, council documents and so forth – but it is called oral Tradition to distinguish it from Sacred Scripture. It is – as Saint Paul's words to us in II Thessalonians 2:15 show – just as important and vital to a Christian as Sacred Scripture for determining doctrine.
But what is Sacred Scripture? We have seen that it is a form of revelation (information about the nature of God and the spiritual universe revealed to us by God). It is a form of special revelation (that is, revelation communicated directly to humanity by God). It is also written down under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and is therefore considered to be inspired and free from error (as Jesus says, the Holy Spirit will teach us “all truth”.)
Therefore, we can safely say that Sacred Scripture is the divine special public revelation which has been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As the Lord makes clear in Jeremiah 30:2, He does command people to write some things down. However, there are many things which are not written down but are still of God – John 21:35 makes it very clear that not even all the things Jesus did during the Incarnation are written down. To attempt to write down everything there is to know about God would be impossible.
Sacred Scripture is the portion of the deposit of faith which has been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by inspired men. It occupies a unique position in the Church, but is not our only source of information about the nature of God.
There are several types of revelation;
General Revelation is the understanding of God and His nature which we as humans can learn via our own senses and reason. We can obtain general revelation through observing the natural world and the natural law.
Special revelation is that revelation which is directly revealed to humanity through a special communicative act of God.
Private revelation is a form of special revelation which is provided to support and exist in harmony with public revelation. It does not seek to replace or redefine the deposit of faith, but rather seeks to provide a greater understanding of particular devotions which can lead to a growth of spirituality. No private revelation is a source for new teachings (because there are no new teachings) although it can provide confirmation and support for a newly defined doctrine.
Public revelation is the form of special revelation given to the Church by Jesus Christ and passed on via the Apostles and their disciples. This revelation ended with the death of the last Apostle (Saint John, around the year 100 AD) – meaning that all the truths of Christianity were imparted at or before this time and that no new doctrines or teaching can be invented or created – nor can any be removed – if Christianity is to remain authentic.
Sacred Oral Tradition is the form of public special revelation which was not written down under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, although it may have been committed to paper.
Sacred Scripture is the public special revelation which has been written down under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and has been assembled through the actions of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church (acting in accord with the will of God) in the Bible.