Universitas, Number 9, September 2001
Many people are curious about revelation yet few understand what it means. This article examines the differences between public and private revelation and then goes into public revelation in more detail. Each section begins with a schematic guide.
Revelation is the act by which God makes known certain truths to us. There are many things which we can know without revelation, truths which are self-evident to us or to which we can reason easily. However God has also revealed certain truths to us; some of these are natural in themselves but difficult for fallen man to attain quickly and without error, and others which are supernatural, that is, about God's inner life and utterly beyond the capacity of any created mind to know.
Original sin has wounded man's nature. The wound in his intellect is called ignorance. This darkening of the mind makes it difficult for him to attain certitude about higher realities which in themselves are natural and the knowledge of which is essential for man's happiness. These natural truths are the existence of God and His perfections, the spirituality and immortality of the human soul, the freedom of the will and the existence and content of the natural moral law. These are natural truths and in theory a man without original sin and its effects could reason to them all perfectly. But in point of fact no man, since we all have a fallen nature (excluding Christ and Our Lady), has ever worked out all these truths perfectly by his unaided reason. With the help of revelation and the teaching of the Church, a very perfect and explicative understanding of these truths has been developed (chiefly by the Prince of philosophers and theologians, St Thomas Aquinas). God revealed these truths because we could not live a proper Christian life without knowing them and because they form a natural foundation for the supernatural truths He has revealed.
Since God has chosen to order us to a supernatural end, i.e. the beatific vision, it was necessary for us to know about this end and means which lead to it. God thus revealed to us truths which are utterly beyond the created intellect to know. These truths are supernatural and mysterious to us. Examples of these mysteries of faith are the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, grace and the sacraments. God as author of the supernatural order is God as He is in Himself and as He is unlike creatures. It is because of the fact that God as supernatural does not have commonality with creatures that we cannot reason from the existence of creatures to the content of the inner life of God. The best that unaided reason can say (with Plato) is: "wouldn't it be wonderful if we could see goodness (or beauty) itself, not as found mixed with potency in creatures." Without revelation we could never know what God is in Himself: the Blessed Trinity, nor could we ever hope efficaciously to see Him as He is.
Public revelation contains all the truths necessary for our salvation. Since knowledge of them is necessary for salvation they must be believed by all who are capable. "He who believes shall be saved, but he who believes not shall be damned." (Mark 16:16) These are the words of our Redeemer. Only those invincibly ignorant of this obligation are excused from believing actually. We are saved by faith (though not by faith alone). The basis for this teaching is that faith is the fundamental virtue of the Christian life. Without faith, we cannot have any other supernatural virtue. If we don't believe in Heaven then we cannot hope for Heaven, nor love a God we don't believe in. If we don't have faith, hope and love we can't have grace. Without grace we cannot enter Heaven because grace is the sole supernatural means to that supernatural end which is glory. Grace is the seed of glory. Faith is the seed of the beatific vision. If we don't believe in the Trinity at death we shall not see the Trinity after death. If we do not hope for Heaven when we die we shall not enjoy beatific happiness. If we do not love God above all things at death we shall not be united to Him in beatific love.
The truths of revelation are found in Holy Scripture (the Bible) and in Sacred Tradition. Public revelation was complete at the death of the last remaining apostle, St John the Evangelist. There will be no new public revelation before the end of time. Drawing on the riches of Scripture and Tradition the Church infallibly teaches what God has revealed to the faithful, generation after generation. There can be a deeper understanding of revelation, but no new (public) revelation.
Public revelation is not called public because many received this revelation, but because the public, i.e. all people, are bound to believe it.
Authentic private revelations, i.e. those which really do come from Heaven, are sent to motivate people to live better lives. They contain no new doctrine. Only the one who receives the revelation is bound to believe it, and then only when its origin is certain to be Heaven. The Church has the competence to determine the authenticity of a supposed revelation (e.g. vision, locution etc.). One should be extremely cautious in dealing with unapproved apparitions. The devil is able to manufacture many effects which can imitate what one might expect to witness in a vision. The saints were on their guard against false apparitions and were careful to test their authenticity. God can give the seer internal certitude that He is the source of the revelation, or He may prove it by authentic miracles.
Private revelations are not called private because only a few witness them - 70,000 witnessed the miracle of the sun at Fatima and yet this is still private revelation - but because the public, i.e. the faithful, are not bound to believe them. Private revelations are not part of the deposit of faith. The faithful may believe approved private revelations. Only the seer is bound to believe a private revelation.
Formal revelation is what God actually said, as recorded in Scripture or Tradition.
Explicit Formal Revelation
Explicit formal revelation is God's word as expressed in the actual concepts of Scripture and Tradition. For example, saying that the Word became flesh, or that Mary is full of grace is stating revealed truth in the explicit terms of revelation.
Implicit Formal Revelation
The Church can express these same truths by different concepts arriving not at a new truth but understanding the same truth better. For contained in the truth is much that is implicit. By stating the same reality in more explicative concepts the theologian shows exactly what has been revealed. For example, it is explicitly revealed that Christ is both true God and true man. From philosophy we know that man has a rational soul and an intellect and will. Therefore, we conclude that Christ has a rational soul with a human intellect and will. The theologian thus unfolds in other concepts what was implied in the concepts of the explicit revelation. This is called theological explicitation. In the example given it is really the one mystery, i.e. the Incarnation, which is considered, first in the terms of explicit formal revelation, secondly in other terms drawing out what was implied in the very words of Scripture. Both expressions are formal revelation, that is, what God actually revealed.
Every truth formally revealed whether explicit or implicit requires the assent of theological (divine) faith and can be defined by the Church as dogma. The denial of a formally revealed truth, if it has been defined, is heresy.
A theologian may, using the raw data of formal revelation, arrive at a new truth. This truth is other than the formally revealed truth, but is deduced from it. It is thus only virtually revealed.
From what has been formally revealed theologians can conclude to other truths. These truths deduced by theological reasoning are said to be virtually revealed. This means that they were not immediately revealed by God, but are attained by deduction. Whereas formal revelation is the motive for faith, virtual revelation is the motive for theology. What is reached under the light of virtual revelation is a theological conclusion. Theological conclusions cannot be raised to the level of dogma and the denial of them is not heresy. The Church cannot bind the faithful under pain of heresy to believe a theological conclusion because it has not been formally revealed by God. The Church can, however, infallibly declare that the opposite of a theological conclusion is false. Our assent to the Church's declaration is not in this case one of theological or divine faith, but of ecclesiastical faith. Adhering to an error opposed to a virtually revealed truth, an error thus condemned by the Church, would not be heresy, but would be a mortal sin.
Examples of virtually revealed truths are that Christ always had infused knowledge, that Christ's human intellect was infallible and that there is a real distinction between substance and accidents. These truths were not revealed by God but can be deduced from what has been formally revealed and their denial would constitute an attack on truths connected with them which have been formally revealed. The infused knowledge and infallibility of Christ's human intellect are not formally revealed but are demanded by the perfection and dignity of a human nature hypostatically united to the Word. Belief in these (truths) which are supernatural is through faith in the Church (ecclesiastical faith), who assures us of their truth by infallibly condemning their opposite.
The real distinction between substance and accidents is a natural truth but is concluded to have been virtually revealed also. The doctrine of transubstantiation requires this distinction and transubstantiation is a truth of formal (implicit) revelation. Since this doctrine compels reason to conclude to the real distinction between substance and accidents, rejection of this distinction though not itself heresy (since God did not reveal it) leads directly to the denial of a dogma which would be heresy.
The Church's dogmatic power is her power to define dogmas and to bind the faithful under pain of heresy to believe what is defined. This dogmatic power is limited to what has been formally revealed, that is to what God has said, because she cannot bind us to believe as revealed what God never said. The Church's defining power is wider than but includes her dogmatic power. The Church can define truths which are deduced by way of conclusion from formal revelation. She is infallible here but cannot make them dogmas.
In regards to formally revealed truths the Church is acting as a herald. We believe these truths on the authority of God revealing, not on the Church's authority. Definition by the Church is only a condition for our belief, not the cause of our belief. After all, we have to believe in God and in His revelation of the Church as His divine instrument before we believe the Church.* The Church is there to tell us what God has said, not to verify it for us. We believe because God is infinite and perfect truth. Dogmatically speaking, at least, the Church never defines anything as true but as revealed. The truth of the mysteries we take on faith until we see their truth in the beatific vision.
* Ontologically speaking, that is, not necessarily in order of time.
Andrew Nimmo is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
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