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Meaning of revelation

Revelation may be defined as the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature.

The truths revealed may be such as are otherwise inaccessible to the human mind — mysteries, which even when revealed, the intellect of man is incapable of fully penetrating. But Revelation is not restricted to these. God may see fit to employ supernatural means to affirm truths, the discovery of which is not per se beyond the powers of reason. The essence of Revelation lies in the fact that it is the direct speech of God to man. The mode of communication, however, may be mediate. Revelation does not cease to be such if God's message is delivered to us by a prophet, who alone is the recipient of the immediate communication. Such in brief is the account of Revelation given in the Constitution "De Fide Catholica" of the Vatican Council. The Decree "Lamentabili" (3 July, 1907), by its condemnation of a contrary proposition, declares that the dogmas which the Church proposes as revealed are "truths which have come down to us from heaven" (veritates e coelo delapsoe) and not "an interpretation of religious facts which the human mind has acquired by its own strenuous efforts" (prop., 22). It will be seen that Revelation as thus explained differs clearly from:

During the past century the Church has been called on to reject as erroneous several views of Revelation irreconcilable with Catholic belief. Three of these may here be noted.

Possibility of revelation

The possibility of Revelation as above explained has been strenuously denied from various points of view during the last century. For this reason the Church held it necessary to issue special decrees on the subject in the Vatican Council. Its antagonists may be divided into two classes according to the different standpoints from which they direct their attack, viz:

If the existence of a personal God be once established, the physical possibility at least of Revelation is undeniable. God, who has endowed man with means to communicate his thoughts to his fellows, cannot be destitute of the power to communicate His own thoughts to us. [Martineau, it is true, denies that we possess faculties either to receive or to authenticate a divine revelation concerning the past or the future (Seat of Authority in Religion, p. 311); but such an assertion is arbitrary and extravagant in the extreme.] However, numerous difficulties have been urged on grounds other than that of physical possibility. In estimating their value it seems desirable to distinguish three aspects of Revelation, viz: as it makes known to us;
(1) truths of the natural law,
(2) mysteries of the faith,
(3) positive precepts, e.g. regarding Divine worship.

(1) The revelation of truths of the natural law is certainly not inconsistent with God's wisdom. God so created man as to bestow on him endowments amply sufficient for him to attain his last end. Had it been otherwise, the creation would have been imperfect. If over and above this He decreed to make the attainment of beatitude yet easier for man by placing within his reach a far simpler and far more certain way of knowing the law on the observance of which his fate depended, this is an argument for the Divine generosity; it does not disprove the Divine wisdom. To assume, with certain Rationalists, that exceptional intervention can only be explained on the ground that God was unable to embrace His ultimate design in His original scheme is a mere petitio principii. Further, the doctrine of original sin supplies an additional reason for such a revelation of the natural law. That doctrine teaches us that man by the abuse of his free will has rendered his attainment of salvation difficult. Though his intellectual faculties are not radically vitiated, yet his grasp of truth is weakened; his recognition of the moral law is constantly clouded by doubts and questionings. Revelation gives to his mind the certainty he had lost, and so far repairs the evils consequent on the catastrophe which had befallen him.

(2) Still more difficulty has been felt regarding mysteries. It is freely asserted that a mystery is something repugnant to reason, and therefore something intrinsically impossible. This objection rests on a mere misunderstanding of what is signified by a mystery. In theological terminology a conception involves a mystery when it is such that the natural faculties of the mind are unable to see how its elements can coalesce. This does not imply anything contrary to reason. A conception is only contrary to reason when the mind can recognize that its elements are mutually exclusive, and therefore involve a contradiction in terms. A more subtle objection is that urged by Dr. J. Caird, to the effect that every truth that can be partially communicated to the mind by analogies is ultimately capable of being fully grasped by the understanding. "Of all such representations, unless they are purely illusory, it must hold good that implicitly and in undeveloped form they contain rational thought and therefore thought which human intelligence may ultimately free from its sensuous veil. . . . Nothing that is absolutely inscrutable to reason can be made known to faith" (Philosophy of Religion, p. 71). The objection rests on a wholly exaggerated view regarding the powers of the human intellect. The cognitive faculty of any nature is proportionate to its grade in the scale of being. The intelligence of a finite intellect can only penetrate a finite object; it is incapable of comprehending the Infinite. The finite types through which the Infinite is made known to it can never under any circumstances lead to more than analogous knowledge. It is further frequently urged that the revelation of what the mind cannot understand would be an act of violence to the intellect; and that this faculty can only accept those truths whose intrinsic reasonableness it recognizes. This assertion, based on the alleged autonomy of reason, can only be met with denial. The function of the intellect is to recognize and admit any truth which is adequately presented to it, whether that truth be guaranteed by internal or by external criteria. The reason is not deprived of its legitimate activity because the criteria are external. It finds ample scope in weighing the arguments for the credibility of the fact asserted. The existence of mysteries in the Christian religion was expressly taught by the Vatican Council (De Fide Cath., cap. ii, can. ii). "If anyone shall say that no mysteries properly so called are contained in the Divine revelation, but that all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and proved from natural principles by human reason duly cultivated — let him be anathema."

(3) The older (Deist) School of Rationalists denied the possibility of a Divine revelation imposing any laws other than those which natural religion enjoins on man. These writers regarded natural religion as, so to speak, a political constitution determining the Divine government of the universe, and held that God could only act as its terms prescribed. This error likewise was proscribed at the same time (De Fide Cath., cap. ii, can. ii). "If any one shall say that it is impossible or that it is inexpedient that man should be instructed regarding God and the worship to be paid to Him by Divine revelation — let him be anathema."

It can hardly be questioned that the "autonomy of reasons" furnishes the main source of the difficulties at present felt against Revelation in the Christian sense. It seems desirable to indicate very briefly the various ways in which that principle is understood. It is explained by M. Blondel, an eminent member of the Immanentist School, as signifying that "nothing can enter into a man which does not proceed from him, and which does not correspond in some manner to an interior need of expansion; and that neither in the sphere of historic facts nor of traditional doctrine, nor of commands imposed by authority, can any truth rank as valid for a man or any precept as obligatory, unless it be in some way autonomous and autochthonous" (Lettre sur les exigences, etc., p. 601). Although M. Blondel has in his own case reconciled this principle with the acceptance of Catholic belief, yet it may readily be seen that it affords an easy ground for the denial not merely of the possibility of external Revelation, but of the whole historic basis of Christianity. The origin of this erroneous doctrine is to be found in the fact that within the sphere of the natural speculative reason, truths which are received purely on external authority, and which are in no way connected with principles already admitted, can scarcely be said to form part of our knowledge. Science asks for the inner reason of things and can make no use of truths save in so far as it can reach the principles from which they flow. The extension of this to religious truths is an error directly traceable to the assumption of the eighteenth-century philosophers that there are no religious truths save those which the human intellect can attain unaided. The principle is, however, sometimes applied with a less extensive signification. It may be understood to involve no more than that reason cannot be compelled to admit any religious doctrine or any moral obligation merely because they possess extrinsic guarantees of truth; they must in every case be able to justify their validity on intrinsic grounds. Thus Prof. J. Caird writes: "Neither moral nor religious ideas can be simply transferred to the human spirit in the form of fact, nor can they be verified by any evidence outside of or lower than themselves" (Fundamental Ideas of Christianity, p. 31). A somewhat different meaning again is implied in the canon of the Vatican Council in which the right of the intellect to claim absolute independence (autonomy) is denied. "If anyone shall say that human reason is independent in such wise that faith cannot be commanded it by God — let him be anathema" (De Fide Cath., cap. iii, can. i). This canon is directed against the position maintained as already noted by the older Rationalists and the Deists, that human reason is amply sufficient without exterior assistance to attain to absolute truth in all matters of religion (cf. Vacant, "Etudes Théologiques", I, 572; II, 387).

Necessity of revelation

Can it be said that Revelation is necessary to man? There can be no question as to its necessity, if it be admitted that God destines man to attain a supernatural beatitude which surpasses the exigencies of his natural endowments. In that case God must needs reveal alike the existence of that supernatural end and the means by which we are to attain it. But is Revelation necessary even in order that man should observe the precepts of the natural law? If our race be viewed in its present condition as history displays it, the answer can only be that it is, morally speaking, impossible for men unassisted by Revelation, to attain by their natural powers such a knowledge of that law as is sufficient to the right ordering of life. In other words, Revelation is morally necessary. Absolute necessity we do not assert. Man, Catholic theology teaches, possesses the requisite faculties to discover the natural law. Luther indeed asserted that man's intellect had become hopelessly obscured by original sin, so that even natural truth was beyond his reach. And the Traditionalists of the nineteenth century (Bautain, Bonnetty, etc.) also fell into error, teaching that man was incapable of arriving at moral and religious truth apart from Revelation. The Church, on the contrary, recognizes the capacity of human reason and grants that here and there pagans may have existed, who had freed themselves from prevalent errors, and who had attained to such a knowledge of the natural law as would suffice to guide them to the attainment of beatitude. But she teaches nevertheless that this can only be the case as regards a few, and that for the bulk of mankind Revelation is necessary. That this is so may be shown both from the facts of history and from the nature of the case. As regards the testimony of history, it is notorious that even the most civilized of pagan races have fallen into the grossest errors regarding the natural law; and from these it may safely be asserted they would never have emerged. Certainly the schools of philosophy would not have enabled them to do so; for many of these denied even such fundamental principles of the natural law as the personality of God and the freedom of the will. Again, by the very nature of the case, the difficulties involved in the attainment of the requisite knowledge are insuperable. For men to be able to attain such a knowledge of the natural law as will enable them to order their lives rightly, the truths of that law must be so plain that the mass of men can discover them without long delay, and possess a knowledge of them which will be alike free from uncertainty and secure from serious error. No reasonable man will maintain that in the case of the greater part of mankind this is possible. Even the most vital truths are called in question and are met by serious objections. The separation of truth from error is a work involving time and labour. For this the majority of men have neither inclination nor opportunity. Apart from the security which Revelation gives they would reject an obligation both irksome and uncertain. It results that a revelation even of the natural law is for man in his present state a moral necessity.

Criteria of revelation

The fact that Revelation is not merely possible but morally necessary is in itself a strong argument for the existence of a revelation, and imposes on all men the strict obligation of examining the credentials of a religion which presents itself with prima facie marks of truth. On the other hand if God has conferred a revelation on men, it stands to reason that He must have attached to it plain and evident criteria enabling even the unlettered to recognize His message for what it is, and to distinguish it from all false claimants.

The criteria of Revelation are either external or internal: (1) External criteria consist in certain signs attached to the revelation as a divine testimony to its truth, e.g., miracles. (2) Internal criteria are those which are found in the nature of the doctrine itself in the manner in which it was presented to the world, and in the effects which it produces on the soul. These are distinguished into negative and positive criteria. (a) The immunity of the alleged revelation from any teaching, speculative or moral, which is manifestly erroneous or self-contradictory, the absence of all fraud on the part of those who deliver it to the world, provide negative internal criteria. (b) Positive internal criteria are of various kinds. One such is found in the beneficent effects of the doctrine and in its power to meet even the highest aspirations which man can frame. Another consists in the internal conviction felt by the soul as to the truth of the doctrine (Suarez, "De Fide", IV, sect. 5, n. 9.) In the last century there was in certain schools of thought a manifest tendency to deny the value of all external criteria. This was largely due to the Rationalist polemic against miracles. Not a few non-Catholic divines anxious to make terms with the enemy adopted this attitude. They allowed that miracles are useless as a foundation for faith, and that they form on the contrary one of the chief difficulties which lie in faith's path. Faith, they admitted, must be presupposed before the miracle can be accepted. Hence these writers held the sole criterion of faith to lie in inward experience — in the testimony of the Spirit. Thus Schleiermacher says: "We renounce altogether any attempt to demonstrate the truth and the necessity of the Christian religion. On the contrary we assume that every Christian before he commences inquiries of this kind is already convinced that no other form of religion but the Christian can harmonize with his piety" (Glaubenslehre, n. 11). The Traditionalists by denying the power of human reason to test the grounds of faith were driven to fall back on the same criterion (cf. Lamennais, "Pensées Diverses", p. 488).

This position is altogether untenable. The testimony afforded by inward experience is undoubtedly not to be neglected. Catholic doctors have always recognized its value. But its force is limited to the individual who is the subject of it. It cannot be employed as a criterion valid for all; for its absence is no proof that the doctrine is not true. Moreover, of all the criteria it is the one with regard to which there is most possibility of deception. When truth mingled with error is presented to the mind, it often happens that the whole teaching, false and true alike, is believed to have a Divine guarantee, because the soul has recognized and welcomed the truth of some one doctrine, e.g., the Atonement. Taken alone and apart from objective proof it conveys but a probability that the revelation is true. Hence the Vatican Council expressly condemns the error of those who teach it to be the only criterion (De Fide Cath., cap. iii, can. iii).

The perfect agreement of a religious doctrine with the teachings of reason and natural law, its power to satisfy, and more than satisfy, the highest aspirations of man, its beneficent influence both as regards public and private life, provide us with a more trustworthy test. This is a criterion which has often been applied with great force on behalf of the claims of the Catholic Church to be the sole guardian of God's Revelation. These qualities indeed appertain in so transcendent a degree to the teaching of the Church, that the argument must needs carry conviction to an earnest and truth-seeking mind. Another criterion which at first sight bears some resemblance to this claims a mention here. It is based upon the theory of Immanence and has of recent years been strenuously advocated by certain of the less extreme members of the Modernist School. These writers urge that the vital needs of the soul imperatively demand, as their necessary complement, Divine co-operation, supernatural grace, and even the supreme magisterium of the Church. To these needs the Catholic religion alone corresponds. And this correspondence with our vital needs is, they hold, the one sure criterion of truth. The theory is altogether inconsistent with Catholic dogma. It supposes that the Christian Revelation and the gift of grace are not free gifts from God, but something of which the nature of man is absolutely exigent; and without which it would be incomplete. It is a return to the errors of Baius. (Denz. 1021, etc.)

While the Church, as we have said, is far from undervaluing internal criteria, she has always regarded external criteria as the most easily recognizable and the most decisive. Hence the Vatican Council teaches: "In order that the obedience of our faith might be agreeable to reason, God has willed that to the internal aids of the Holy Spirit, there should be joined external proofs of His Revelation, viz: Divine works (facta divina), especially miracles and prophecy, which inasmuch as they manifestly display the omnipotence and the omniscience of God are most certain signs of a Divine revelation and are suited to the understanding of all" (De Fide Cath., cap. iii). As an instance of a work evidently Divine and yet other than miracle or prophecy, the council instances the Catholic Church, which, "by reason of the marvellous manner of its propagation, its surprising sanctity, its inexhaustible fruitfulness in all good works, its catholic unity and its invincible stability, is a mighty and perpetual motive of credibility and an irrefragable testimony to its own divine legation" (l. c.). The truth of the teaching of the council regarding external criteria is plain to any unprejudiced mind. Granted the presence of the negative criteria, external guarantees establish the Divine origin of a revelation as nothing else can do. They are, so to say, a seal affixed by the hand of God Himself, and authenticating the work as His. (For a fuller treatment of their apologetic value, and for a discussion of objections, see MIRACLES; APOLOGETICS.)

The Christian revelation

It remains here to distinguish the Christian Revelation or "deposit of faith" from what are termed private revelations. This distinction is of importance: for while the Church recognizes that God has spoken to His servants in every age, and still continues thus to favour chosen souls, she is careful to distinguish these revelations from the Revelation which has been committed to her charge, and which she proposes to all her members for their acceptance. That Revelation was given in its entirety to Our Lord and His Apostles. After the death of the last of the twelve it could receive no increment. It was, as the Church calls it, a deposit — "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude, 2) — for which the Church was to "contend" but to which she could add nothing. Thus, whenever there has been question of defining a doctrine, whether at Nicæa, at Trent, or at the Vatican, the sole point of debate has been as to whether the doctrine is found in Scripture or in Apostolic tradition. The gift of Divine assistance (see I), sometimes confounded with Revelation by the less instructed of anti-Catholic writers, merely preserves the supreme pontiff from error in defining the faith; it does not enable him to add jot or tittle to it. All subsequent revelations conferred by God are known as private revelations, for the reason that they are not directed to the whole Church but are for the good of individual members alone, They may indeed be a legitimate object for our faith; but that will depend on the evidence in each particular case. The Church does not propose them to us as part of her message. It is true that in certain cases she has given her approbation to certain private revelations. This, however, only signifies:

  • that there is nothing in them contrary to the Catholic Faith or to the moral law, and,
  • that there are sufficient indications of their truth to justify the faithful in attaching credence to them without being guilty of superstition or of imprudence.
It may however be further asked, whether the Christian Revelation does not receive increment through the development of doctrine. During the last half of the nineteenth century the question of doctrinal development was widely debated. Owing to Guenther's erroneous teaching that the doctrines of the faith assume a new sense as human science progresses, the Vatican Council declared once for all that the meaning of the Church's dogmas is immutable (De Fide Cath., cap. iv, can. iii). On the other hand it explicitly recognizes that there is a legitimate mode of development, and cites to that effect (op. cit., cap. iv) the words of Vincent of Lérins: "Let understanding science and wisdom [regarding the Church's doctrine] progress and make large increase in each and in all, in the individual and in the whole Church, as ages and centuries advance: but let it be solely in its own order, retaining, that is, the same dogma, the same sense, the same import" (Commonit. 28). Two of the most eminent theological writers of the period, Cardinal Franzelin and Cardinal Newman, have on very different lines dealt with the progress and nature of this development. Cardinal Franzelin in his "De Divina Traditione et Scriptura" (pt. XXII VI) has principally in view the Hegelian theories of Guenther. He consequently lays the chief stress on the identity at all points of the intellectual datum, and explains development almost exclusively as a process of logical deduction. Cardinal Newman wrote his "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine" in the course of the two years (1843 45) immediately preceding his reception into the Catholic Church. He was called on to deal with different adversaries, viz., the Protestants who justified their separation from the main body of Christians on the ground that Rome had corrupted primitive teaching by a series of additions. In that work he examines in detail the difference between a corruption and a development. He shows how a true and fertile idea is endowed with a vital and assimilative energy of its own, in virtue of which, without undergoing the least substantive change, it attains to an ever completer expression, as the course of time brings it into contact with new aspects of truth or forces it into collision with new errors: the life of the idea is shown to be analogous to an organic development. He provides a series of tests distinguishing a true development from a corruption, chief among them being the preservation of type, and the continuity of principles; and then, applying the tests to the case of the additions of Roman teaching, shows that these have the marks not of corruptions but of true and legitimate developments. The theory, though less scholastic in its form than that of Franzelin, is in perfect conformity with orthodox belief. Newman no less than his Jesuit contemporary teaches that the whole doctrine, alike in its later as in its earlier forms, was contained in the original revelation given to the Church by Our Lord and His Apostles, and that its identity is guaranteed to us by the infallible magisterium of the Church. The claim of certain Modernist writers that their views on the evolution of dogma were connected with Newman's theory of development is the merest figment.

OTTIGER, Theologia fundamentalis (Freiburg, 1897); VACANT, Etudes Th ologiques sur la Concile du Vatican (Paris, 1895); LEBACHELET, De l apolog tique traditionelle et l apolog tique moderne. (Paris, 1897); DE BROGLIE, Religion et Critique (Paris, 1906); BLONDEL, Lettre sur les Exigences de la Pens e moderne en mati re apolog tique in Annales de la Philos: Chr tienne (Paris. 1896). On private revelations: SUAREZ, De Fide, disp. III, sect. 10; FRANZELIN, De Scriptura et Traditione, Th. xxii (Rome, 1870); POULAIN, Graces of Interior Prayer, pt. IV, tr. (London, 1910). On development of doctrine: BAINVEL, De magisterio vivo et traditione (Paris, 1905); VACANT, op. cit., II, p. 281 seq.; PINARD, art. Dogme in Dict. Apolog tique de la Foi Catholique, ed. D AL S (Paris, 1910); O DWYER, Cardinal Newman and the Encyclical Pascendi (London, 1908).

Among those who from one point of view or another have controverted the Christian doctrine of Revelation the following may be mentioned: PAINE, Age of Reason (ed. 1910), 1 30; F. W. NEWMAN, Phases of Faith (4th ed., London, 1854); SABATIER, Esquisse d une philosophie de la religion, I, ii (Paris, 1902); PFLEIDERER, Religionsphilosophie auf geschichtlicher Grundlage (Berlin, 1896), 493 seq.; LOISY, Autour d un petit livre (Paris, 1903), 192 sqq.; WILSON, art. Revelation and Modern Thought in Cambridge Theol. Essays (London, 1905); TYRRELL, Through Scylla and Charybdis (London, 1907), ii; MARTINEAU, Seat of Authority in Religion, III, ii (London, 1890).

Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Revelation'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​r/revelation.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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