Reviewed by Andrew J. Spencer
One of the biggest divides between Roman Catholics and Protestants continues to be the authority of the Church and Scripture. Roman Catholics tend to have a high view of both sources of authority, allowing for each to construct doctrine. Protestants, with their famous motto sola scriptura, tend to limit the importance of church tradition in understanding doctrine. Matthew Levering, who holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake, does not deviate from the historic Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of revelation in this recent volume. However, his application of careful research and in-depth analysis make this a volume that will benefit academics from different theological perspectives for years to come.
The foundation of Levering’s argument is a belief that divine revelation must be mediated through both canonical Scripture and the covenant community. His purpose in this book is, therefore, “to explore the missional, liturgical, and doctrinal forms of the Church’s mediation of divine revelation and to appreciate Scripture’s inspiration and truth in this context” (3). After the introduction, which surveys some of the previous academic volumes on this topic, the book is divided into eight chapters. In each chapter Levering explains how divine revelation is mediated by the Church through various means.
Chapter one begins with revelation mediated through the outward motion of the Church as she fulfills her mission. As the Church participates in the self-denying missio Dei, she demonstrates the very nature of God to herself and the world. The second chapter focuses on revelation experienced through the Church’s liturgy, which is considered a demonstration of God’s character on public display.
Levering then shifts to treating revelation and the hierarchical priesthood, arguing the accepted hierarchy of the Roman Catholic (and some “high church” Protestant denominations) affirms Jesus’ design for the Church, and represents divine revelation. This is the weakest of the chapters because there is no clear basis in the volume for the assumption that established liturgical forms represent Christ’s intention for the order of worship. Chapter four relates the relationship between the gospel and revelation. In contrast to chapter one, which focuses on the Church’s collective demonstration of revelation through action, this chapter explores the life of the individual as impacted by the gospel.
The fifth chapter explains the necessity of tradition and Levering’s belief that church tradition has been faithfully transmitted in much the same way Scripture has been transmitted. Levering seems to beg the question in this chapter, as he assumes that “divine revelation has a specific cognitive content that must be transmitted. Tradition cannot be less than this” (30). This is valid in the way that Levering intends it only if the premise of supernatural infallibility of tradition is assumed. Chapter six argues that the Roman Catholic Church has necessarily been faithful in transmitting doctrine in the same manner that Scripture has been faithfully transmitted. This is necessary if the authority of Church Tradition is assumed, but the chapter fails to show why this assumption must be accepted.
Levering deals with revelation and biblical inspiration in the seventh chapter. This is a more helpful shift in the discussion, though Levering’s conclusions concede too much ground. He points out the difference between modern expectations for historical and scientific accuracy, arguing for more latitude in interpreting Scripture so that contemporary hermeneutic constraints are not applied to an ancient document. At the same time, Levering’s approach allows the denial of the historicity of significant events without clear guidance as to how one would have faith in certain facts over others. Therefore, he affirms the historicity of the resurrection, which is of first importance, but the same arguments he uses to allow for denial of other historical events could be used to undermine that one. This is problematic and there are significant tensions left unresolved by the discussion.
The eighth chapter closes the volume exploring some of the relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and Scripture, particularly places where Levering believes such philosophical elements were imported, not merely referenced, into Scripture. His conclusion in this chapter is that Hellenistic philosophical culture was provided by God and authorized by God to communicate essential truths in revelation. It would be easy to overreact to this statement, because it seems to imply too strong a link between pagan philosophy and Scripture. It would have been better had Levering nuanced his position to argue Hellenistic philosophy provided a helpful framework for expressing truths about God, which seems more likely the case. In that sense, such philosophies shaped Scripture, but it does not seem they were a source for divine revelation, as it were.
Levering’s summaries of differing positions are fair and accurate. However, while his assumption that only the Church can mediate divine revelation is basic to the argument, it is insufficiently defended in this volume. This volume also seems to imply that the Church has faithfully done so through its history. Levering provides no reason to suppose this is so and history, at least as seen from a Protestant perspective, seems to argue otherwise. Levering argues that the Holy Spirit guarantees the Church’s ability to interpret the most important doctrines. But on the same page he argues, “We can accept the existence of errors within the Church’s works and teachings over the centuries, so long as we do not suppose that these (reformable) errors produced a rupture, that is to say a false definitive doctrine about faith or morals in the heart of the transmission of revelation.” (27)
Based on this approach, in trying to argue for the consistent mediation of divine revelation through the Church as a close analogy to that mediation through Scripture, Levering does more to denigrate Scripture than to elevate the Church. He admits there are errors in the Roman Catholic Church’s historic interpretation of doctrines, but not the most important ones. He has thus discarded a robust notion of infallibility of the Church and also Scripture by limiting the consistency of revelation to only the central aspects of doctrine. There is no mechanism provided that would help discern which sections of revelation are trustworthy and which are not.
Overall, this volume is well written and may replace Avery Dulles’ book, Models of Revelation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1992). It is the best explanation of a Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of revelation I have encountered. I would recommend it to those seeking to meaningfully engage in inter-denominational dialogue on this topic at either the pastoral or academic level. This book is a helpful addition to the discussion, but it is far from the final word.
Andrew J. Spencer is a PhD Candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina.
Buy the books
Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation