Public Revelation: What, Who, When, Where, How
Every so often, a preacher or group announces a date for the end of the world. The secular world meets such pronouncements with skepticism; and the Catholic world does as well—but for different reasons. It is true that God has revealed a great deal of Himself to humanity, out of love for us and for our salvation. Yet God has not revealed everything; there are limits to our knowledge. Plus, there is one key characteristic of God’s revelation that a preacher of the end times doesn’t fully understand: the period for what is known as “public revelation” has closed. The first chapter has been finished; humanity awaits the final chapter of public revelation at the end of time, when Jesus will come again in all His glory (cf. 1 Tim 6:14, Tit 2:13). So, these sorts of modern day apocalyptic pronouncements cannot claim the authority of public revelation. This article will discuss what “public revelation” is and why it is considered to be complete, and all the other interrogatives in between.
The Two Main Channels of Revelation
God’s revelation of His will and His own nature has been manifested through two main channels: words and deeds. From the very beginning, one of the essential characteristics of revelation through words is God-given authority. In the Old Testament, God spoke directly to the patriarchs like Abraham, Noah, and Moses. Their words and commandments to the people of Israel were not of their own fashioning; they were the words of the One Who sent them. This continued with the prophets, who spoke to the people of Israel in the same manner. Their addresses to the Israelites frequently began with “thus says the Lord” (e.g. Isaiah 49:1, Jeremiah 29:11). The message was clear: these were the words of God, not the words of men.
A new type of authority accompanied the revelation of Jesus in the New Testament. Instead of God speaking through patriarchs and prophets, God spoke for Himself. Jesus made this claim, that He was not only the messiah but that He and God the Father were one (cf. John 14:9). The eternal God, whom no one could look on and live (cf. Ex 33:20), once more walked among humanity (cf. Gen 3:8). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews marvels at this, that “in many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (1:1-2).
In both the Old and New Testament, however, God has accompanied His words of revelation with deeds, or acts of revelation. Knowing the human heart, God chooses to communicate with humanity in this particular two-fold way. In the Old Testament, God spoke to the patriarchs and prophets; however He also did mighty works, the most dramatic being the exodus from Egypt. Jesus continued this pattern of words and deeds in revealing the kingdom of God. The early portion of Matthew’s gospel illustrates this dual structure of revelation. From ch. 5-7, Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, handing down a new law. Immediately following in ch. 8-9, Jesus performs miracle after miracle. He heals a leper, heals the centurion’s servant, calms the storm, casts out demons, and cures the blind and the mute. The works “show forth and confirm the doctrine and realities signified by the words; the words, for their part, proclaim the works, and bring light to the mystery they contain” (Dei Verbum #2).
The Close of the Period for Public Revelation
The Second Vatican Council and the resulting Catechism of the Catholic Church teach very clearly that all which God intended to reveal publically was passed down completely to the apostles. At the close of the Apostolic Age there was nothing more to add. Christ was no mere prophet or teacher, but “the Father’s one, perfect, and unsurpassable Word. In him [God] has said everything; there will be no other word than this one” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #65). Public revelation is therefore confined to the teachings, preaching, miracles, and signs of God written down in the scriptures and passed on through sacred Tradition. Together, sacred Tradition and the sacred scriptures comprise the deposit of faith.
The Role of the Magisterium in Public Revelation
The teaching office of the Catholic Church, the Magisterium, was set in place by Jesus to be the guardian of this deposit. Although God’s public self-revelation is complete, this does not mean that revelation was completely explicit; the early ecumenical councils of the Church are evidence enough of that. And this is where the Magisterium becomes necessary as the interpreter of the deposit of faith. It is a mistake to look at the role of the Magisterium as a mere custodial one. The Magisterium of the Church continues to interpret of God’s revelation of His will and His own nature and guide the faithful toward deeper understanding of that revelation. God’s self-revelation of His nature and His relationship with His creation and creatures was not just for the Church, but for the whole world. Matthew’s gospel ends with a dynamic command from Jesus to go out to all the nations, teaching and baptizing (cf. Matt 28:19-20). All three—Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium—work in communion with each other toward the salvation of the human race. By nesting of public revelation within the Church established by Christ and by granting her divinely-given authority, God has ensured that His gift of revelation would continue to be given to his people from the beginning to the present day.
The very compilation of sacred scripture is one example of how God has granted His Church the guidance necessary to identify His authentic revelation. Many gospels and writings claiming to be truthful, accurate, and authoritative accounts of Christ’s life, words, and deeds circulated through the ancient world before the canon of scripture was settled. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church was able to sift through all these to establish which works and writings (our current gospels, epistles, etc.) represented God’s divinely inspired revelation of Himself to His people. Fortunately just the claim of apostolic authorship was not enough for a gospel to be canonical. A quick read of the “Gospel of Thomas,” for example, should raise repeated alarm bells in the mind of a faithful Christian. By the end of the 4th century, the Church had a uniform list of which books did and did not belong in Scripture.
The “Why” of Revelation
Of course, God reveals Himself to His people in subtle ways constantly through His grace and His providence in our lives. And surely, some of the faithful have had private revelations of a more explicit nature. First, however, it is important to remember that the authenticity of these sorts of “private revelations” must always be measured against what has already been publicly revealed by God to His whole Church; and second it is important to distinguish between the nature of these sorts of revelations and “public revelation.” Everything publicly revealed by Jesus had one sole motivation: that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Identifying the different ways in which God reveals himself to individuals and to the Church as a whole; and identifying which revelations are meant for the entire people has critical impact on our salvation. Certainly, in His infinite wisdom, our God anticipated the confusion and disharmony that would arise in the community of His Church if each member was guided by his or her own personal understanding of our God. God chose a specific way to reveal Himself to the world as a whole, and He did so out of concern for us and out of His profound, personal understanding of His creatures. He communicated to us in the way humanity needed to hear the message, through words and deeds. He founded the Catholic Church and endowed her with His own authority to safeguard the deposit of faith, and to spread it to every corner of the world.
While the revelation He provided is closed until the end of the world, it is inestimably deep. For two thousand years theologians, bishops, priests, and the faithful have reflected on the revelation of Jesus Christ, and never has anyone fully understood the mystery. From the sharpest mind to the simplest heart, Jesus reaches out to all of us and His grace is never exhausted. Although in many ways we are deprived of understanding now, God will not hold it from us forever. By the grace of God, we will one day see the glory and beauty of God fully revealed.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
Dei Verbum, Second Vatican Council. Ed. A. Flannery. Costello, 1996.
Scripture quotes used from:
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Ed. Ignatius, 1966