“You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of the painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse rolls about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support (Plato, Phaedrus, 275d-e).”
Christians believe that God revealed himself to humanity. Besides redeeming our sins, he also acquainted us with the supreme realities of our being and answered the most important questions of our lives. From the philosophy of God we also know that God is perfect. “Imperfect God” or “failing God” is a contradiction in adjective. Therefore, if the Christian Revelation is truly divine, it must be flawless.
Flawless revelation of the most vital truths must ensure that those to whom it is addressed can identify and embrace the revealed truths objectively. It is absurd to assume that perfect God could fail to effectively communicate his Revelation in a humanely intelligible manner. This would leave us to sort through incomprehensible chaos and insurmountable uncertainty. That would be his failure and God cannot fail.
This conclusion leads us to the first serious question of the Christian faith. How can a Christian know with certainty what God concretely revealed to us and what moral imperatives does this imply? What logical criteria should this Christian use for leading his life towards the salvation that Christ prepared for him? In short, what is the principle of orthodoxy for Christians? We already know that there must be a humanely understandable principle of orthodoxy based on our reasoning about God’s perfection.
Many Christians unfortunately jump over this crucial methodical question and simply assume that they can find all the answers in the Bible or in some written sources of the Tradition. Other Christians just more-or-less uncritically rely on the personal opinions of other people based on their human qualities. But both of these approaches are logically inconsistent with the perfection of God and with the flawlessness of his Revelation. Indeed, it is the Catholic doctrine about the Living Magisterium that is the formal, radical, and ultimate principle of orthodoxy that doesn’t suffer from the same defect.
Some Christians turn to the Bible and try to use it as the principle of orthodoxy. Among major proponents of this approach belong Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. All of them were sure that the Magisterium of the Church deviated from God’s Revelation as expressed in the Bible. They were convinced that Christians should study the Revelation directly from the Bible in order to discover those deviations in the Church’s Magisterium. Afterward, they must profess the biblical teachings and dissent from the Church’s Magisterium whenever the Bible contradicts it.
This approach necessarily assumes that the Bible was intended by God to serve as a self-sufficient resource for individual study. The Bible however doesn’t exhibit the requisite qualities of a well-written textbook. A well-written textbook uses optimal means for conveying its content to its readers and respects their perceptive capabilities. Ideal communication addressed to humans uses precisely defined terms, clarifying explanations and systematizations. Precisely defined terms remove ambiguities, clarifying explanations show why presented assertions are true and systematizations show mutual logical relations between individual assertions and make the overall message tidier and more transparent. The Bible is obviously not written in this way. It is highly contextually interdependent and terminologically volatile. It often uses figurative and vulgar language. Furthermore, the Bible largely lacks explanations of why presented assertions are true, and frequently even the scopes and meanings of those assertions are unclear.
All of these factors contribute to the notorious fact that different Christians interpret many crucial passages of the Bible very differently. For example, in his Bread of Life discourse, Christ said that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we won’t have life within us (John 6:53). He is clearly saying something here that is very important for our salvation. But Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin not only disagreed with the Church about what these words mean, but even among themselves. They differed on questions about what “flesh” Christ was talking about and the essential characteristics of this flesh. And none of them could conclusively prove his position from the Bible with any hint of certainty.
If a Christian honestly tries to resolve complex doctrinal issues using exclusively the Bible, he usually cannot escape unpleasant doubts such as: Do I interpret the text correctly? Do I really understand it? My acceptance of Christ’s message depends on that. Am I not missing it? And what about others? They face the same difficulties. Can they overcome them? All of them? Even the simple and uneducated ones? Christ indeed told us that he came for the little ones. Did God really just send a book to his people that sparks endless theological controversies? Did he truly intend that everybody must face those controversies on their own? Can anybody responsibly present their own personal interpretations of the Bible and honestly claim to others that they are objectively trustworthy? How can I know with a non-fanatical certainty that my interpretations of the Bible are correct? How do I discern that I am not impeding the operation of the Holy Spirit with my own interpretations and that somebody else with opposite interpretations is impeding it?
These doubts are largely unsolvable because most biblical assertions regarding Jesus Christ and our participation in his life are purely revealed. We accept them only through faith and it’s impossible to clarify them using philosophical principles or empirical experiments and our natural reasoning. Therefore, if the Bible is unclear about something and different people understand it differently – even in highly substantial questions – it is impossible to believe that our perfect God intended that the Bible should be our ultimate principle of orthodoxy.
Other Christians understand that treating the Bible as a self-sufficient textbook inevitably leads to subjectivizing distortions of Revelation. Yet, those same people have no problem with doing the same thing with the Tradition or with its written sources. Among major proponents of this approach belong Ignaz von Döllinger, Leonard Feeney, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, and Cardinal Raymond Burke. Such people are, again, quite certain that the Magisterium of the Church contradicts the Christian faith as expressed by the Tradition. And they believe Christians are bound to reject Church’s Magisterium whenever it deviates from the Tradition.
The proponents of using Tradition as the principle of orthodoxy also vehemently disagree on crucial questions of the Christian faith. For example, Döllinger rejected the universal jurisdiction of popes based on his interpretation of Tradition. Feeney, Lefebvre, and Burke disagreed with Döllinger based on their interpretations of Tradition. Feeney, unlike Lefebvre and Burke, believed that people without formal membership in the Catholic Church cannot be saved. He came to this conclusion by interpreting dogmatic definitions. Finally, Burke disagrees with Lefebvre on fundamental questions regarding canonical mission in times of a (presumed) crisis in the Church. All four of them agree that Tradition is the ultimate principle of orthodoxy, but each of them interprets it very differently from the other three in substantial questions of faith and salvation.
When we honestly assess the practicality of trying to use Tradition as the principle of orthodoxy, we will quickly discover that it is impossible to read the entirety of Tradition, let alone understand it. If we limit ourselves arbitrarily to dogmatic definitions, we will run into similar hermeneutic problems as we do with the Bible, especially with older definitions with vaguely specified scopes or unclear meanings. Besides that, dogmatic definitions cover just a small subset of Revelation. How can we find the principle of orthodoxy for all the other revealed truths? Finally, even for ordinary Christians, it doesn’t take too much effort to find comprehensive and authoritative explanations from the Magisterium on why the Tradition cannot serve as the principle of orthodoxy. Including the ideas that the absence of a divinely established living authority inevitably leads to doctrinal variations, that individual interpretations without a living authority destroy the faith, that the principle of orthodoxy must be simple enough even for uneducated and unintelligent people, and that the Bible and Tradition are not simple enough, not even for theologians. Tradition itself, therefore, explains why it cannot serve as the ultimate principle of orthodoxy.
Written texts in general
The fact that Bible and Tradition are not well-written textbooks is however not the most fundamental problem of written texts serving as the ultimate principle of orthodoxy. A deeper problem is that written texts as such are unsuitable judges regarding any philosophically complicated topic. And the Christian Revelation is philosophically very complicated. It is more complicated than any teaching authored by humans because it deals with realities that are unrecognizable by natural human reason. For example, one person being a real God and a real man at the same time (the mystery of Incarnation) or three different persons being of the same substance (the mystery of Trinity).
Complex realities must be analyzed from various angles and in various ways and it is necessary to address all meaningful questions during that process. Without this intellectual process, it is impossible to understand them sufficiently. A written text can hardly meet these criteria for approaching reality just because of its limited length. Plato deals exactly with this problem when defending his unwritten doctrines (“ágrapha dógmata”) mostly in his 7th letter and in his dialogue Phaedrus. Languages are not absolute and they don’t exhaust the described reality. That is obvious from the evolution of human languages. Attempts to absolutize them (by treating a written text as a complete and definitive description of reality) are doomed to fail. An idea incorporated into a written text is like being imprisoned into an unbreakable armor that violently blocks its living flow. A living idea has a broader maneuvering space because it can be formulated again and again with new words and in a more comprehensible manner. Since the written text is fixed once and forever, the possibility of subsequent (often very needed) explanations and clarifications is destroyed.
If somebody doesn’t understand a written text (which is inevitable when treating any complex topic), they won’t receive authoritative answers to his questions from the dead words without their author or authentic interpreters. Written text is a frozen exteriorization of a living flow of ideas and as such lacks the characteristics of life. It cannot react to questions and circumstances and it cannot even defend itself when it’s unfairly attacked or misinterpreted. This clearly indicates that no written text can serve as the principle of orthodoxy and that the ultimate principle of orthodoxy must be living. Christians must therefore first and foremost obey somebody instead of studying any texts if they want to understand with certainty what God revealed to them.
But who concretely should Christians obey in the questions of faith and salvation? Should they listen to the most entertaining YouTuber and treat him as the ultimate principle of orthodoxy? Or should they rather obey the smartest theologian? Or the holiest preacher? All personal qualities are insufficient for being a competent principle of orthodoxy because some revealed truths are purely revealed, so nobody can responsibly interpret them using only human capabilities. The ultimate principle of orthodoxy must be instead established by God and protected by divine charisms so that it doesn’t fall into any errors (or at least no serious or unsafe ones). Finally, this divinely established living authority must be prominent and widely known. If all are enlightened (John 1:9) and all are called (Matthew 28:19), all must also have access to the principle of orthodoxy, at least in the long-term perspective. A secret or hidden principle of orthodoxy wouldn’t fulfill its purpose and that would contradict the understandability of God’s Revelation.
If a Christian agrees that God is perfect and that Christian Revelation must be consistent with that perfection, there is no reasonable option other than to seek the principle of orthodoxy in a living authority who is well-known and has a trustworthy claim that their authority has been divinely established for this purpose. Needless to say, in all of Christian tradition, it is only the Catholic pope – based on Christ’s promise to Peter of never-failing faith (Luke 22:32) – who meets those requirements seamlessly.
 Blessed Pius IX, Apostolic Letter Per Ephemerides (1869): “Since in fact these sects lack that living authority established by God especially to teach men the truths of faith and the norms of morality, to guide and direct them in all that concerns their eternal salvation, it follows that there is a continual variation in their teaching. This is also why mobility and instability are never at an end in these same societies.”
 Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Caritatis Studium (1898): “It was her Divine Founder’s function to provide that the treasure of heavenly teaching in the Church would never be destroyed, and this would necessarily be the case if this treasure had been abandoned to the judgment of individuals. Therefore it follows that, from the very beginning of the Church, there had to be a living and eternal authority to which was entrusted, by the authority of Christ, both the other doctrines of salvation, and the certain interpretation of Scripture. It was necessary that this authority, relying on the assiduous help of Christ Himself, should be incapable of falling into any doctrinal error.”
 Saint Pius X, Allocution Con Vera Soddisfazione (1909): “Jesus Christ, who knew our weakness, who came into the world to preach the gospel to the poor above all, chose for the spread of Christianity a very simple means adapted to the capacity of all men and suited to every age: a means which required neither learning, nor research, nor culture, nor rationalization, but only willing ears to hear, and simplicity of heart to obey. This is why St. Paul says: fides ex auditu (Rom 10:17), faith comes not by sight, but by hearing, from the living authority of the Church, a visible society composed of masters and disciples, of rulers and of governed, of shepherds and sheep and lambs.”
 Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis (1950): “For, together with the sources of positive theology God has given to His Church a living teaching authority to elucidate and explain what is contained in the deposit of faith only obscurely and implicitly. This deposit of faith our Divine Redeemer has given for authentic interpretation not to each of the faithful, not even to theologians, but only to the Teaching Authority of the Church.”
Image: Adobe Stock. By Vladimir Voronin.
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Anthony Steinhauser was born in Czech Republic. He has PhD in Computer security and Masters at Law. Currently he lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works as a software engineer. Among his interests are dogmatic theology, epistemology, moral theology, and philosophy of God.