Listening to the Holy Spirit
The concept of listening to the Holy Spirit suggested by the Synod of Synodality entails study of the nature of God’s revelation to mankind. In an earlier blogpost, we discussed the sensum fidelium or spiritual instinct of the believer. In this blogpost, we will discuss man’s openness to God’s revelation and revelation itself. On another occasion, we will examine Tradition and Infallibility in the Church.
Regarding such things, St. John Henry Newman would say that if there is a God, there is antecedent probability that He would wish to communicate with his creation, and if this be so, there would be a need for an oracle, an authentic interpreter of his communication with men.
There is an echo of the Creator’s voice in creation; its order, beauty and magnitude reveal attributes of its Creator. Man’s higher faculties also reveal the Creator. Through reason we perceive a likeness with our Maker. We can understand the words of Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27).
Furthermore, Newman explained that man knows God through his conscience, the inner voice of God that speaks to man with authority, ordering certain ways of acting and prohibiting other ways. All men and women, whether Christian or not, can perceive God’s natural law through this voice of conscience. Out of His great goodness God has revealed himself to fallen man by making His will known to man through the prophets and a written law, namely the ten commandments given to Moses.
God’s revelation of Himself and His commandments and precepts are normative for man. The very purpose of revelation is the glory of God expressed in the goodness of his creatures. St. Irenaeus conveyed this through the celebrated formula: “Gloria Dei homo vivens.” Newman paid close attention to God’s revelation to man in history, through the history of cultures and natural religions, perfected with the Jewish dispensation, and in turn with Christianity as the fulfillment of that dispensation (see Grammar of Assent). The Sacred Scriptures unveil the mystery of God’s plan for man throughout successive covenants, beginning with Adam and Eve, to the perfect and eternal covenant established through Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit inspired the sacred writers to put into writing truths and precepts that He wished God’s children to know and practice. The fullness of the revelation came in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son. Thus, believers have before them what they need to live as God’s children and disciples of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are normative; God asks his children to obey his laws and precepts, and He promises reward or punishment respectively for those who keep or disobey his commandments.
Aside from explicit commandments, doctrinal truths about God, revelation itself, man, the Church, etc. involve discernment between truth and error. As a young Anglican clergyman Newman studied the Christological heresies of the fourth century which gradually led to his theory on the development of Christian doctrine explained in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). At first he posited in Catholicity (St. Vincent of Lerins’ dictum “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”) as the criteria for distinguishing between authentic development and error. Later he realized the limits of this and turned to antiquity as the determining criteria. However, he also realized the limits of this and looked to the papal authority as the necessary element to adjudicate between authentic development and error. Once a Roman Catholic, he presented a nuanced account of infallibility in doctrine. In an 1859 article On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine he explained that infallibility resides in the Church as a whole.
In the 1878 Letter to the Duke of Norfolk Newman insisted that the scope of papal infallibility is limited and that pronouncements ex cathedra must be in accordance with the Scriptures and Tradition. In other words, as Newman had written in his 1859 article, the tradition of the Apostles committed to the Church functions “per unius modo,” (“in one way),” that is, with the body of the Church functioning as a whole. Listening to God is done keeping in mind the normative value of the whole of Tradition and of the Church’s Teaching.
Man will always need to listen to the Holy Spirit, but the believer does not do this in a vacuum or without the teaching of Tradition and ecclesial authority. Openness to the Holy Spirit means, in the first place, acceptance of what God has revealed as normative to countless generations of Christians with the assent of the Magisterium. Listening entails foremost a conversion of heart which leads to an obedience of faith (Rom 16:26).