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Is History the Source of Revelation?

In my book, The Trojan Horse in the City of God, I spoke of the various ways of idolizing history, whether it be in the form of historical relativism or of a false interpretation of the “kairos.” However, we intend here to turn our attention to the form which deifies history by claiming that Revelation did not stop with the Apostles, but that it continues through and in history. This error is unfortunately widespread today.

In it “salvation history” is no longer seen in its uniqueness, whereas profane history is placed on the same level as salvation history.

Of course this does not refer to the continuing formulation of the Divine Revelation handed down from the apostles, which goes hand in hand with the condemnation of heresies. This is the development from “implicit” to “explicit,” which finds its expression in dogma, in the depositum catholicae fidei, the deposit of the Catholic faith. This development occurs under the protection of the Holy Spirit. But this clearly has nothing to do with the course of profane history, and is also no new revelation.

The claim that the supernatural revelation of God in the strict sense of the word still continues in history is also a failure to recognize the radical difference between the role of history in “salvation history” and in profane history. One does not notice the difference between that which is proper to history as such or which is ascribed to it as such, such as the imaginary Hegelian World-Spirit and unique, supernatural intervention at a particular moment in history.

The Holy Father gave a clear answer to this question in an audience on January 19, 1972:

“The question is this: is the contact with God which issues from the Gospel a moment which belongs to the natural development of the human spirit, and is thus subject to continual change and to being continually surpassed? Or is it a unique and decisive moment on which we can nourish ourselves without ceasing, wherein we nevertheless recognize the essential content to be unchangeable? The answer is clear: this moment is unique and decisive. That means that Revelation has entered time and history; it is a precise datum, tied to a particular event, which must be considered as finished and for us completed with the death of the Apostles (cf. Denzinger-Sch. 3421). Revelation is a fact, an event, but at the same time a mystery which does not spring from the human spirit, but from divine initiative, which was progressively manifested in the course of history throughout the Old Testament, and which reached its highpoint in Jesus Christ” (cf. Heb. 1:1; I John 1:2-3; Constitution Dei Verbum, Nr. 1). 24

The Church distinguishes unambiguously and clearly between this unique Revelation of Christ, which is finished with the death of the last Apostle, and all private revelations, even when these are recognized as genuine and are distinguished from all pretended or ungenuine private revelations. But these private revelations never refer to dogmatic questions of faith and morals, as does Christian Revelation. Many saints and mystics have had visions and dialogues with Christ, for example, St. Gertrude, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. John of the Cross. But all these refer to unique experiences, to the relationship between the saint and Jesus, or to concrete instructions but all within the framework of the official depositum catholicae fidei. If anything occurred in these private revelations which contradicted the depositum catholicae fidei, the saintly mystics themselves viewed it as a deception. But there is no obligation for the Catholic believer to include the content of these private revelations in his faith. 25

Moreover, there are supernatural appearances, such as in Lourdes or Fatima, which are clearly distinguished from all Revelation of God in Christ, for this ended with the Apostles. They are great miracles in part miraculous healings, in part supernatural warnings but they represent no additions whatever to Revelation in the strict sense of the word, which terminated with the Apostles. The latter apparitions are not private apparitions, as in the case of the holy mystics, for their messages were directed to all. The persons who experience them have more the character of a mouthpiece: in Guadalupe, it is a simple Indian, who had no other visions or mystical experiences; in Lourdes, a very young girl, Bernadette; in Fatima, children who, while they did become saints, were not typical mystics. Here again it is not a matter of revelation in the sense of divine revelation of the content of faith and morals, as is the Revelation laid down in the depositum catholicae fidei.

But many progressivists view history as revelation in the full sense, as an enlargement and continuation of the Revelation of God in Christ through the Apostles. There is talk especially of the revelation through the Holy Spirit in history. This is decidedly false, and expressly marked by the Holy Father as an error.

But, it could be objected, the old saying, “vox temporis vox Dei” (“the voice of the times is the voice of God”) has real meaning, and can in no way be interpreted as an expression of modern historicism. This saying gives clear expression to the fact that God speaks to us in history, and indeed in the present moment in history. The present epoch thus contains a message from God to men, and this message must be understood and assimilated. We must follow the call which lies in this message. To be deaf to this message so they think would be very wrong; it would be disobedience to God.

This may sound plausible to many people. But as soon as the true meaning of vox temporis vox Dei is more carefully analyzed, it becomes quite clear that it means something completely different than what is meant by the slogan that “God reveals Himself in history,” in the sense discussed above. The vox Dei refers to special tasks which are assigned to us but in no way to Divine Revelation. Of course the particular age in which we live makes special requirements of us. When orders were founded in the Middle Ages to free the Christians who had been captured by the Moslems, special historical circumstances contained a call of God to such an undertaking. The splendid relief work done by Father Werenfried van Straaten, the so-called “bacon-priest,” is a typical response to the awful spiritual and physical need into which many have been thrust by the great evil of Communism. 26 The appeal of God for this relief work did not exist one hundred years ago.

Each age poses problems which previously had not existed. But the new problems are not posed by the “spirit of the age,” but rather by new facts. The solution of these problems, however, should never come from the “spirit of the age” but from the spirit of Christ. The “spirit of the age” in the sense of the prevailing ideology, only sets the task of combatting the errors which were formerly not influential. Certainly the encouragement of whatever good is to be found in the spirit of the age is a divinely ordained task. But all this clearly has nothing to do with a revelation of God in the sense of the disclosure of the divine mysteries. There is no question of new truths of faith, but a call to fulfill certain tasks which are presented by the respective era. The vox Dei in a particular age is not revelation in the strict sense of the word. It has no supernatural character.

An era also does not teach us principles with regard to moral questions. We are confronted with new tasks in a particular historical situation; the call of God here is to fulfill them. But the epoch does not instruct us about good and evil. God often calls us precisely to resist all false teachings which present themselves as Christian, according to the words of St. Paul: “For the time will come when they will not stand wholesome teaching, but will follow their own fancy and gather a crowd of teachers to tickle their ears. They will stop their ears to the truth and turn to mythology” (2 Tm. 4:3-4).

The radical difference between that which is meaningfully expressed by the saying vox temporis vox Dei, and Divine Revelation, can be seen clearly when we compare profane history with salvation history. The salvation history in the Old Testament contains revelations in the full sense of the word. The Revelation of God, whether it be to Abraham or through Moses and the prophets, is a divine intervention at a particular historical moment. This is incomparably more true of the self-revelation of God in Christ. All the deeds of Christ take place in history. But this direct intervention of God in history is separated by an abyss from that which profane history can tell us about God. And especially all the words of Christ are a revelation which took place in history at a particular moment, but which themselves, as such, go completely above and beyond salvation history.


24. Address of Pope Paul Vl to the general audience of January 19, 1972, Osservatore Romano, English Edition, Jan. 26, 1972.

25. It suffices if he deeply venerates the holy mystics and if possible asks for their intercession, and treats reverently the private revelation as a great gift of God to the saint. This is what is required, but this is not to say that express concern with these private revelations cannot be a source of edification and help in one's spiritual life. Indeed, the fact that there is such a thing as this direct supernatural relation of the saintly mystics to Christ, should fill us with joy. To be edified by this belongs indeed to the fully religious life of every truly believing Catholic.

26. This great project began right after World War II, originally also as a help for starving Germany. Today it extends to the “third world,” but especially to Communist-dominated countries.


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