The Teaching Church

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"This gospel was to be the source of all saving truths and moral discipline.  This was faithfully done: it was done by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received" (DV, 7).

When Our Lord left the Church the deposit of faith, his final command to the apostles was to teach all that he had instructed them.  He relied on his apostles and their successors to carry his message to the world.  This is made known to us today through the living voice of the Church - the Pope, the bishops, the priests - even the laity.  Each of these conveys to us the message of Christ, especially the clergy, who are, by their office, the representatives of Christ.  The Church bases her teaching on the deposit of faith revealed to us by God.  Before we look at the source of this teaching we should first consider what is meant by revelation.

What Is Revelation

Revelation literally means to "draw back the veil" or to uncover.  God is primarily a mystery to us.  On our own we can have only a limited knowledge of him.  However, God has unveiled some of the mysteries about himself so that we might come to know and love him.  He has helped us to know who he is and what he expects of us.

In other words, revelation is the communication by God to man of the truths about himself that he wants man to know but that man could never uncover alone.  These truths are known as doctrines or teachings of our faith.

God did not reveal truths about himself all at once but only gradually with the passing of time.  The process of public revelation began with Abraham and ended with the death of the last apostle, St. John.

The first phase of God's revelation can be found in the Old Testament.  Because this revelation took place long before the birth of Christ, we call it "pre-Christian" revelation.  If we look at the Old Testament, we can see that God gradually revealed more about himself as the centuries passed.

This revelation was completed when God fully showed himself to us by becoming man and living among us.  This phase is known as "Christian" revelation.  It contains the truths revealed by Jesus Christ to his apostles.  These revelations include the most important mysteries of our faith.  Among them are the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist.

Source of Revelation

"God graciously arranged that the things he had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations" (DV, 7).  The sacred deposit of the Word of God has been entrusted to the Church.

There is only one single sacred deposit of the Word of God, but from it flow both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, the Bible.  It is important to recognize that Tradition and Scripture are bound closely together and communicate one with the other.  "Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.  And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit" (DV, 9).  By means of Tradition, the books of the Bible are known to the Church, and the Scriptures are more thoroughly understood and interpreted.

Sacred Scripture, the Bible, is the written Word of God.  It is made up of a collection of books written at various times by different men who wrote under God's inspiration.  As we know, the Bible is made up of the Old Testament, which contains pre-Christian revelation, and the New Testament, which contains Christian revelation.

The New Testament, however, does not contain all that Jesus did and said.  In fact, the various books of the New Testament were not even begun until some twenty or thirty years after the death of Christ.  The apostles began to preach the message of Christ first, and only later were some of these teachings committed to writing.  Scripture itself testifies to the fact that the Gospels do not include all of Jesus' words.  At the end of his Gospel, St. John says, ". . .there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (Jn 21:25).

What Jesus taught his apostles was passed on to their disciples.  For example, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Clement of Rome all lived during the last part of the first century and the beginning of the second century.  Because they were personally taught by the apostles, they are known as Apostolic Fathers.  Their writings contain some of Jesus' teachings that are not explicitly found in the New Testament.

Over the centuries many varied and contradictory interpretations of the Bible have arisen.  Who had the authority to decide which was the right one?  It is important to note that the Church - which, as we have seen was given authority by Christ (Mt 16:19) to settle all disputes on earth - is the interpreter of Sacred Scripture.  She is the custodian (or guardian) of Scripture and Tradition because she was promised the guidance of the Spirit of Truth. 

The Second Vatican Council says, "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church" (DV, 10).


An important written expression of Tradition is found in the creeds, or statements of belief, of the Church.  These creeds are summary statements of the main doctrines proposed for belief by the Church.  The earliest of these dates back to very early times and is called the Apostles' Creed.

The Nicene Creed, formulated at the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, is an expansion and explanation of the Apostles' Creed.  In the first creed, and in fact in the early days of the Church, most doctrines were stated in plain and simple language.  Over the years questions and difficulties arose concerning many of these doctrines.  The later creeds, particularly the Nicene, were written to explain more fully some of these doctrines.


A second written expression of Tradition is found in the statements of the twenty-one Ecumenical Councils of the Church.  A Church council is a gathering of all bishops - under the authority of the Pope - to discuss matters of concern to the Church.  We call them ecumenical, meaning whole or worldwide, because they involve all the bishops.  Over the centuries councils have frequently been called in response to controversies over basic doctrines of the faith.  The councils have given the Church the occasion to explain more completely and accurately certain beliefs.

The earliest controversies were over the Trinity and the human and divine natures of Christ.  The Council of Nicea addressed these questions.  It is evident that when there was controversy there had to be an arbiter (or umpire) to decide what the true teaching was.  Later councils addressed questions about which books were in act inspired and thus to be included in the Bible, the nature and number of the sacraments, and the nature of the Church.  The decisions of these councils clarify or define the teaching of the Church.

Father and Doctors Of The Church 

The writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are also written records of witnesses.  The Fathers of the Church are saintly Christian writers of the early centuries of the Church who are recognized as special witnesses of the faith.  Among the more well-known are the following: St. Athanasius, a bishop during the late third century who defended the doctrine that Christ was both God and man against the Arian heresy; St. Augustine, a bishop of the fourth century who converted after leading a life of great sin and became one of the greatest theologians in the Church; and St. Jerome, a monk and a scholar during the fourth century who translated the Bible into Latin, the common language of the people at that time.

The Doctors of the Church are the saintly theologians and teachers of the later centuries whose writings are outstanding in guiding the faithful at all times.  One of the foremost among these is the great Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in Italy during the thirteenth century.  Two women are included among the Doctors: St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. 

The writings and decrees of individual Popes are another expression of the teachings of Christ.  Some of these are known as encyclicals, letters sent by the Pope to the bishops and the faithful, expressing the teaching of the Church on matters of faith, morals, social responsibility, and other important topics.

There is also the "sensus fidelium".  Literally, this phrase means "the sense of the faithful".  This testimony is from what the faithful have believed over the centuries and what the saints have thought, meditated, and believed, and from the actions, prayers, etc. of the faithful.

The Church teaches us that the "whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the Holy One cannot err in matters of belief.  This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when, 'from the bishops to the last of the faithful' they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals" (LG, 12).

Development of Doctrine

One last point remains to be made about the teaching of the Church.  Although the deposit of faith was completed with the death of the last apostle, St. John, our understanding of it has developed over the last twenty centuries.  We call this the development of doctrine.  This is the gradual unfolding of the meaning of many things that Christ revealed to us.  It is this development of doctrine that we find in the councils of the Church, the writings of the Fathers and Doctors, and the practical experience of the faith among the faithful of the Church.  Since the Holy Spirit, who continues to guide the Church, is the Spirit of Truth, any further development can never be - and never has been - in contradiction to any previous doctrine.  One example to illustrate this is the definition of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady.  This doctrine is hinted at in Scripture ("Hail, full of grace", Lk 1:28), was defended by St. Augustine and the later Doctors, and was part of the sensus fidelium for centuries.  Yet it was not officially declared until 1854, by Pope Pius IX.  It was not a new revelation, but rather an unfolding of one doctrine over time.  Something that is implicit in a doctrine becomes explicit, or it can be the logical consequence of a doctrine. 

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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