I believe in the following Christian principle: everything the Bible tells us is true. I do not, however, believe that everything the Bible tells us is clear. Along with Protestants and Catholics I stand with Saint Paul who wrote that the Holy Scriptures are inspired by God. They are therefore inerrant, or free from all error. But this does not change the fact that the Scriptures are not always simple to interpret. Take for example Paul’s letter to the Colossians in which he writes:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions…” (Col 1:24)
What are we to make of this? Was something lacking in Christ’s suffering? On the surface this seems to indicate that His death on the cross was not enough. But elsewhere we are told with full assurance that we have been saved once and for all through Christ(see Hebrews 7:27). Either the Bible is contradicting itself—or a very subtle interpretation must be applied to the given text in order to square it with the rest. I obviously opt for the second option (for more on this particular passage read this).
Saint Peter warns us that there are things in the Sciptures that are hard to understand “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). He also warns us that “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pet 1:19). The bottom line is this: interpretation of the Bible is serious business.
A core tenet of Protestantism is sola scriptura, or the belief that the Bible alone possesses infallible authority to instruct the Christian in regards to faith and doctrine. They completely reject, therefore, the infallible authority of Sacred Tradition (oral teaching passed down by the apostles) and the teaching authority of the Church.
Catholics believe something different: we believe that the Bible and Sacred Tradition both together bear the Word of God. Furthermore, we believe that Jesus gave his Church the authority to teach infallibly, or without error, in matters of faith and morality. In other words the Church—through the teaching office of the bishops—works hand-in-hand with the Bible and Tradition as their official interpretor “because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21).
Catholics have a special interest in evangelizing their Protestant brothers and sisters because they have a special interest in Christian unity. Jesus prayed that we “may be one” and, unfortunately, we are now far from it. Since the Protestant Reformation and the widespread acceptance of “interpret for yourself” Bible study, Christian denominations have drastically multiplied. Without the guiding and unifying authority of the Church, Protestant denominations now number in the thousands. Doctrinal contradictions abound.
How should Catholics challenge their Protestant friends to reconsider sola scriptura? We might start by asking the following four questions.
Question 1: Where does the Bible teach that the “Bible alone” is God’s Word?
The Word of God comes to the believer in three forms. First in the person of Christ: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1). Second it comes in the written form of the Old and New Testaments. Third it comes to the believer in the form of oral tradition. Consider:
“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God…” (1 Thess 2:13)
“but the word of the Lord abides for ever.”
That word is the good news which was preached to you. (1 Pet 1:25)
These passages are not knock-out arguments for the inspired authority of Sacred Tradition but they certainly suggest that God’s Word may be written or spoken. Keep in mind that Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the earliest New Testament letter, which means that little if any other New Testament Gospels or letters had been written (or preached) at this time. The next verse helps to put this in better context:
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess 2:15)
Apparently Paul believes that Christians should “stand firm” and “hold” to both written and oral traditions. This indeed has been reflected by the Catholic Church for two thousand years, keeping in sync with the Bible which tell us that God’s Word comes to us three forms: in a written tradition, in a spoken tradition, and unltimately in the form of a Divine Person.
Question 2: Where does the Bible say that the “Bible alone” has infallible authority?
In short: it doesn’t. Often the passage about the Beroeans (Acts 17) is invoked or Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert where he counters the evil one’s temptations with Scripture verses (“It is written…”) but these passages say nothing about the Bible alone being the sole rule of faith. The verses only affirm what Catholics agree with: that the Bible is true and authoritative and worthy of serious study.
I have often welcomed my Protestant friends to provide a biblical basis for their belief in sola scriptura. The best verse I have been presented with is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Still this passage fails as definitive proof for “Bible alone” theology. Again it asserts nothing that Catholics would disagree with: All Scripture is inspired (check). All Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (check). All Scripture is profitable in making the man of God complete, equipped for every good work (check). But this passage says nothing about only Scripture being infallible. Neither does it say anything about Scripture being complete and fully equipped.
Indeed Scripture is fully equipped in the sense that it is a closed canon and thus cannot be changed or added to. But it is incomplete in the sense that it does not interpret itself. This is evident in the proliferation of contradictory “Bible alone” churches and congregations that exist today. These churches not only contradict each other in faith and doctrine. They also contradict the teachings of the apostles and the early believers who followed after them.
Question 3: Where in early Church history did Christians profess belief in “the Bible alone”?
Again the Protestant will come up empty handed here. Some Protestant apologists have attempted to quote early Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers like Ireneaus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, or Athanasius but to no real avail. The quotes are usually fragments of larger works, ripped from their context.
They might quote Clement of Alexandria, for example, who says “They that are ready to spend their time in the best things will not give over seeking for truth until they have found the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves,” (Stromata 7:16:3).” But Catholics agree with Clement! We should search the Scriptures (like the Beroeans) to confirm our doctrines. This resembles the passage above where Paul writes that “All Scripture is inspired…” which, in fact, says nothing at all about the Bible being the sole rule of faith.
It is also noteworthy that in another letter Clement affirms the authority of apostolic tradition:
“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul….came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds (Miscellanies 1:1).
Often the same early Church Fathers that are quoted by Protestant apologists can be found elsewhere in their writing affirming apostolic tradition. Furthermore, Ireneaus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, Athanasius, Augustine and the other cited authors also collectively affirm and defend doctrines such as salvation and regeneration through baptism, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, special honour due to Mary, the primacy of the Pope, the sacrifice of the Mass, and others. These are doctrines that most Protestants will readily reject. It is no small wonder why they, nonetheless, give these Catholic authors the authority they do when it comes to affirming sola scriptura.
Question 4: How do you know what belongs in the Bible?
Every Protestant must accept at least one tradition that cannot be found anywhere in the Bible: namely, the New Testament canon. This is sometimes called the “tradition of the Table of Contents.”
How does the Protestant know what belongs in the Bible? How does he know that the Bible—or what we call the canon of Scripture—cannot be further added to today? Protestant theologian R.C. Sproul has recognized the difficulty, going so far as to suggest that perhaps the New Testament is “a fallible collection of infallible books.” But how does he know that the New Testament is not a “fallible collection of fallible books”?
Catholics look to the authority of the Church for assurance regarding the New Testament. Since the fourth century, the bishops of the Catholic Church have repeatedly affirmed “what belongs in the Bible” through synods and ecumenical councils. The Church did not decide this on its own authority; rather it was guided by the Holy Spirit to discover (rather than invent) the New Testament. From this it follows that Protestants—provided they accept the New Testament as infallible—unwittingly hold to what amounts to a tradition of the Catholic Church.
The point of all this is not merely to show Protestants that they are wrong. It is to show them that they are right when it comes to the Bible’s infallibility; that they are right when it comes to the veneration they give to the written Word of God; that they are right about the importance of testing our beliefs by turning to Scripture. It is not that they believe too much; it is that they believe too little.
In Shakespearean fashion we might ultimately want to say to our dear non-Catholic friends that “there are more things in Christianity, dear Protestant, than are dreamt of in your theology.” By rejecting sola scriptura and accepting the authority of apostolic tradition and the Church, we Catholics along with our Eastern brethren are offering much more. We are offering the fullness of biblical Christianity; and we are offering what Christ offers.
In evangelization it is always easier to ask questions than to assert facts. These four questions will hopefully be a helpful starting point for you in future ecumenical discussions.