By: Fr. Scalia
This verse, introducing the pronouncement of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-30), is one of the most curious in Scripture. And one of the funniest: as if the Holy Spirit awaits or needs the approval of the Apostles. It is also an important verse, as it expresses the character of revelation. Like our Lord, revelation exists as a paradox. It is both human and divine: conveying divine truths in a human manner. And any attempt to “solve” this paradox, to separate or oppose these two dimensions, leads either to fundamentalism or modernism.
Consider Scripture first of all. At every Mass we hear the reading proclaimed as “The Word of the Lord.” And our response assents to that. It is indeed God’s Word – that is, His truth spoken to us. He is the author. But His Word comes to us through human means. God inspired the human authors to write in such a way that His Word takes flesh in their particular styles and genres. Their humanity is not an obstacle but a means of revelation. Just as the Word Made Flesh spoke and acted in a specific time and place, in a particular manner and style, so also the written Word of God carries the particularities of its human authors.
This means that the interpretation of Scripture can be somewhat tricky. In order to interpret accurately the divine truths we must appreciate the human mode in which they arrive – the style, genre, vocabulary, setting, context, etc. But this human enfleshment also brings a great richness. Scripture is not just a flat recording of truths and events. Rather, we get to appreciate and enjoy the various styles of the authors. We have straight historical texts, the beauty of the Song of Songs, the awe-inspiring (and confusing) imagery of Ezekiel and Revelation, Luke’s simplicity, John’s lofty dialogues, Paul’s powerful personality…and so on.
Contrast this with the Muslim understanding of revelation. Allah did not employ Mohammed’s human intellect and will. Mohammed’s style and personality do not show up at all. Instead, he was caught up in ecstasy and dictated word for word what he heard from the angel. He was not an author in any sense but merely a recorder. The human dimension has no place in Islamic revelation.
There is, of course, a Christian fundamentalism. It seeks to defend Scripture as the word of God by insisting on a literal interpretation of everything – leaving little to no room for the human dimension. This does not work, because Scripture was not written to be read that way. Thus fundamentalism requires some serious mental gymnastics. It means insisting on an absurd interpretation of some verses (Call no man father…) and denying the sane interpretation of others (For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink…).
On the other extreme we find those who insist on Scripture’s human dimension to the exclusion of the divine. Although done to varying degrees, this always has the same result: the eventual reduction of the Bible to mere human opinion. Useful, to be sure, but just another volume in the canon of religious literature. This modernist view has found hearing most especially in the mainline protestant denominations, whose decline witness to its danger.
The divine and human dimensions of revelation we find also in the Church’s decrees. When the Church teaches doctrine, she communicates divine truths (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, etc.) in a human manner (Councils, Encyclicals, etc.). Some have a fundamentalist approach to Church teaching – not brooking any development of doctrine or diversity of language. Others see doctrines as, again, expressions of human religious sentiment. They are time bound statements that “evolve” according to (surprise!) what the world thinks.
“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” Scripture and dogma reflect the divine/human paradox of our Lord Himself. Evidence again that the Incarnation is more then one dogma among others. It is a paradigmatic truth of our faith. If we hold the paradox of the Incarnation in our minds and hearts, we will also hold other doctrines accurately and peaceably.