I am currently reading a book on ecclesiology by Charles Cardinal Journet, entitled Theology of the Church, which is a shorter version of a two volume work the Cardinal wrote in the early 1940s. (The book I am reading was first published in the 1950s.) Even though this is a condensed version of the original work, it is still pretty intense reading, and is full of insightful passages.
I came across the following lines recently and thought I would add a few thoughts of my own. Cardinal Journet is writing here about the Apostles and their leadership of the Church in the First Century:
“As long as they [the Apostles] were living, the Church was, through them, ‘in the act of revealing’ and above the ‘revealed’ Sacred Scripture. But at the death of the Apostles, the Church lost this privilege: she ceased to be above Scripture.” [page 120, emphasis added]
Very often Catholics are accused of putting the Church in a position above the Bible. This is of course not what the Church teaches. The Catholic Church teaches that the Church’s Magisterium (her teaching office) is subordinate to Scripture, as the Catechism clearly states:
86 "…this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith."
The Church is not above Sacred Scripture. Sacred Scripture is the divinely revealed Word of God. This revelation from God ceased after the death of the last Apostles. Nothing more will be revealed as pertains to the salvation of souls. The Church can only function as guardian and expositor of that which has already been revealed. And to do this she remains subordinate to God’s Word, only teaching that which has been handed on.
But, as the Cardinal points out, there was a time when the Church was in fact above Scared Scripture. When the Apostles were still alive and had not yet written down all that would be revealed, they had in their own minds all that they had witnessed and all that had been revealed to them through the Spirit. They were in a sense “walking Bibles” before the Bible was completely written.
Since the Bible was not yet finished, the only complete revelation was found in the Church herself, that is, in the Apostles who were members and leaders of the Church. So the Church was in a position above the Bible as she herself contained the source for complete revelation from God. As Cardinal Journet puts it, the Church was ‘in the act of revealing’ as long as the Apostles still lived.
So clearly the Church was the instrument by which we received the Word of God. And even after the death of the last Apostle, when the Church ceased its role as revealer of God’s Word and became the servant of God’s Word, the Church still had a vital role to play. The various books had to be collected together into one volume (which we now call the Bible). This took centuries and it required a divinely guided Church which could teach with real and binding authority so that we can be certain that we would receive the RIGHT books and not FALSE ones. Certainly, the Church ceased to be above the Bible, but the Church still had authority from God to gather the books together accurately and collect them into one volume.
This authoritative Church is the only reason that Protestants have their Bibles today. They may reject the Catholic Church, but in doing so they reject the very institution that God gave to us so that we would have the Bible they hold so dear. The Bible is certainly the Word of God and is superior to the Church, but without the Catholic Church we would have no Bible.