I am not a ‘Scripture Alone’ Christian because neither the Bible, nor history, nor simple logic can make sense of it.
Division and fracture have riddled Christianity for centuries. Though significant progress has been made towards Christian unity, there still remain issues to resolve. The central issue is in regard to authority; and the central question pressing down on us under the issue of authority is whether it is the Bible, or tradition, or the Church, or a combination, or all of the above that form the infallible authority of the Christian life. I suppose it could all be summed up in this question: what did Jesus originally intend for the Word of God and the Church that proclaims it? And more specifically for our present purposes: what was Jesus’ original intention for the Bible?
Did Jesus intend for the Bible alone to be all-sufficient in telling Christians what to believe and how to act? Protestants say yes. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox say no. An interesting initial observation is that the “new” Christian communities contradict the “ancient” ones. Historically speaking (we might ask), who is more likely to be correct in their views of Scripture and authority, and more in harmony with the teachings of the apostles?
As a Catholic I believe that the Sacred Scriptures, Old and New Testament, are inspired (or “God-breathed” as the apostle Paul puts it) and inerrant. I also believe that they are supremely authoritative. I just don’t believe that they are, all by themselves, enough to guide the Christian in faith and life. And I believe Jesus and the apostles would agree. Finally, I believe that Scripture, tradition, and the Church (the bishops lead by the bishop of Rome) form the tripod of authority, none of which can stand without the others.
I don’t believe these things because I am Catholic; I am Catholic because I am convinced of these things. I believe Protestants are Christians; many are certainly holier than I am. But I believe they are missing some of the best and most essential “stuff” God has on offer here on earth. In fact I often wonder what these non-Catholics could be with the total package.
In short, Catholics believe that the Bible is materially sufficient; it is “loose equipment without the instructions.”
On this view, although the Bible is the perfect Word of God and is thereby inerrant, the Holy Spirit guides the Church to interpret the Scriptures accurately. The Church then, as the “servant of the Word of God,” ensures that the fallible man has infallible assurance of his biblical understanding.
In contrast, Protestants believe that the Bible is formally sufficient; it is “equipment that requires no instructions.”
On the Protestant view, the Bible is the perfect Word of God and is thereby inerrant (no disagreement here), and so no Christian needs an interpretive authority outside of the Bible (this is where the controversy lies). Therefore, the Holy Spirit guides you to interpret the Scriptures accurately without the assistance of any external infallible source.
The fact is, however, that these positions are in perfect contradiction and they cannot both be correct. Moreover, until this issue is resolved, Christianity will remain divided. It is, therefore, of first importance that we figure this one out.
Now of course as a Catholic I believe firmly that the inspired and inerrant Bible is not formally sufficient. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were omniscient—but we aren’t. Therefore, we need an infallible interpreter to fully reap the fruits of the God-breathed Scriptures.
Here are some reasons why I just cannot believe that sola scripture is true:
1. The Bible doesn’t teach sola scriptura. It is a self-refuting doctrine, as the “Bible alone” position is not found anywhere in the Bible. Of course, non-Catholics may have something to say about this.
They may point to 2 Timothy 3:
“From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.” (2 Tim 3:15-17)
But there are several problems here. First, the writings Timothy has been acquainted with from childhood are the Old Testament Scriptures. Therefore, it seems St. Paul is deeming the Old Testament as sufficient and profitable. As the Anglican convert, Blessed John Henry Newman, has pointed out this passage proves too much for at the time of this letter from St. Paul, sacred writings such as the Gospel of John were not yet written and the New Testament canon had not yet been defined.
Second, the passage says all scripture is inspired and profitable—not only Scripture.
Third, the passage says Scripture is inspired and profitable, and to this every Catholic agrees; but it does not say Scripture is sufficient (and neither does the Greek—see Patrick Madrid’s article, The White Man’s Burden, for a clear treatment of this). The language used here is not that which is used to clarify or emphasize “authority” as in, for example the “binding and loosing” scenes (see Matt 16:17-19; Matt 18:15-20; John 20:21-23)
Fourth, the passage refers to the perfection of the “man of God,” but not the Bible (although the Bible is materially perfect). Now I agree—the Bible is profitable for making a Christian complete or perfect; but so is prayer, and faith, and good works. It does not follow that because words are inspired and inerrant, they will always be understood without error. The spread of tens of thousands of modern Protestant churches testify to this.
Fifth, the rest of the Scriptures seem to teach—in addition to the written Word of God—the equal worth and dignity of oral sacred tradition and the authority of the Church as Christ’s Body on earth (Matt 16:17-19; Matt 18:15-18; Matt 28:17-20; Lk 10:16; Lk 22:32; Jn 21:15-21; Acts 1:20; Acts 15; Acts 20:17-38; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 1:25)
Now there are other passages to consider as “proofs” for the Protestant view, but they get much less convincing from here.
For each passage we consider, it must be asked: “Does this passage teach clearly that the Bible alone is all that is needed for accurate interpretation and understanding?” You won’t find such a passage—without a bit of “twisting”, that is.
2. The Bible teaches the equal authority of apostolic Tradition (the oral Word of God) (1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Pet 1:25; 2 Tim:2; 1 Cor 11:2). Indeed the New Testament is oral tradition reduced to writing. For example, each teaching of Jesus written by St. Mark was passed on orally first. Then, at a time fitting to the Holy Spirit and to St. Mark, these oral teachings of Christ were written down—but they did not have their origin with the companion of St. Peter. They were passed down to him.
It must be considered that several centuries of Christianity had passed before the full canon of the Bible was discerned and closed. Until the end of the 4th century, Christians had to rely on an authority outside of the New Testament until they could be sure what the New Testament was.
Consider Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians (the earliest of Pauline letters):
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, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess 2:13)
Or his 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians:
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)
Now some translations say “teachings” instead of “traditions” but the original Greek word is the same—parodosis—which means “passed on”; in the context of these passages an unwritten authority of oral tradition is clearly assumed.
This begs the question: Where in the Bible does it say that all of these sacred oral traditions were written down by the New Testament authors?
3. An infallible book interpreted by fallible authority leads to doctrinal uncertainty and contradiction. Proving Scripture from Scripture is circular. This has been proved conclusively since the Reformation. With over 20,000 Christian churches now professing contradictory “biblical” doctrines (infant baptism, predestination, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, etc, etc) who should the Christian faithful believe? For truth’s sake, who is right? Only an infallible interpretive authority outside of the Bible—and complementary to it—could properly serve the Christian people and sustain unity.
Why would Christ institute the Church as a visible interpretative authority as a complement to the Bible? One must only consider the results of sola scriptura to find the answer.
Now forgive me for this brief digression:
In an attempt to divert attention away from the current topic, one might respond by saying, “But we all agree on what is important—the basic Gospel message!”
This, however, is not helpful to the current crisis of Christian division which is a direct contradiction to Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity in John 17 or St. Paul’s plead for “one mind and one spirit” in his Letter to the Philippians (1:27).
Consider the question of Baptism and its relation to salvation:
1 Pet 3:21 says “Baptism…now saves you.” Thus, Catholics believe that “Baptism now saves you.” But belief in the cleansing effect of sacramental baptism is still in wide dispute among christian denominations, despite its explicit biblical nature. No unresolved matter of salvation is unimportant.
Or regarding the Eucharist:
Catholics proclaim a Eucharistic Gospel. Jesus’ says in St. John’s Gospel (Jn 6:55 specifically), “my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” He loses scandalized followers because of His hard teaching, but He does not retract or clarify his explicit languge (in fact, the original Greek shows that He turns it up a notch). Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that He meant what He said; and if there was any confusion, He cleared that up at the Last Supper.
The night before He died, Jesus holds up bread at the Last Supper and says “Take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26:26). If there was any question as to how we are to eat His flesh and drink His blood of the New Covenant, this question was also resolved at the Last Supper. His divine, glorified flesh is to be consumed in the form of bread, and His saving blood, in the form of wine (making it thereby substantially different from cannibalism). And from the Last Supper onward, the meaning of the Eucharist was “case closed.” At least for the first thousand years of Christianity.
Indeed, for the first one thousand years of Christianity there was no serious theological dispute about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. All of the faithful believed it. Today, however, there is wide disagreement on whether “communion” is symbolic versus a literal, sacramental event. The Eucharist—to the Catholic and for all Christians—is no symbol or small matter. It is the second eternal person of the Trinity and, therefore, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). No doctrine could be more clear from Scripture.
One who denies the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, like one who accepts sola scriptura, is at odds with the entire body of early Church Fathers. As for a merely symbolic Eucharist or the doctrine of sola scriptura in the early Church writings, they’re just not there.
4. Sola scriptura prevents certainty about the New Testament canon. Which books belong in the New Testament? Is the NT canon closed? Can it be added to? I believe that the New Testament is complete and cannot be added to because that is the tradition of the Church since apostolic times. But no passage in Scripture teaches this explicitly.
Moreover, if I believed sola scriptura, I couldn’t be certain that the New Testament books belong in the New Testament. Burning in the bosom doesn’t cut it—even readers of the Book of Mormon experience this sense-driven “certainty” in its truth (or the Koran or the Vedas, etc). The Bible clearly does not lay out a blueprint for the New Testament. All Christians must look elsewhere for an authority to tell them which books belong in the Bible. This is a Catholic tradition that all Christians adhere to, thanks to the 4th century synod in Rome, and the councils of Hippo and Carthage.
One cannot deny the authority of the Church (like in matters of giving the canon of the New Testament to the people of God) because, as former Calvinist, Dr. Peter Kreeft, points out, “a fallible cause cannot produce an infallible effect.” The Holy Spirit was involved, yes, but not as a puppeteer of the bishops. The bishops of the early councils, by the strength of their own will, needed to participate with the movements of the Holy Spirit in discerning the inspired Word of God.
5. The Bible calls the Church, not the Bible, the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). To say that the Church cannot be infallible due to its sinful members commits the illogical “fallacy of composition.” A single part (or parts) of an elephant is light as a feather, but it does not follow logically that the elephant is light as a feather. Similarly, the Church indeed has sinful parts but as a whole—as the literal, mystical Body of Christ—it functions with the inability to err in matters of religious faith and morals.
Sure, this is only one verse isolated from the entire New Testament context but it seems to be as clear as any biblical statement could be (especially in light of the many supporting NT passages).
Some Final Thoughts
St. Hilary wrote:
“Heresy is in the understanding, not in the Scripture, and the fault is in the meaning, not in the words.” (Lib. 2 de Trin. 18)
Likewise, St. Augustine wrote:
“Heresies arise simply from this, that good Scriptures are ill understood, and what is ill understood in them is also rashly and presumptuously given forth.” (In Joan. Tr. 18, 1)
This is my position. That infallible Scriptures that lack an infallible authority are destined for misinterpretation and heresy. This is why I could never adopt the sola sciptura position. It just comes with too many difficulties—biblical, historical and logical.
It must be emphasized: The Catholic Church loves and reveres the Bible. In one of its recent official documents it states:
“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord.” (Dei Verbum, 21)
In the past, when I have had similar discussions as this with Protestant friends, they have gotten the impression that we are saying, “We are better than you.” But that is not at all the Catholic apologist’s intent (that would be a direct violation of 1 Pet 3:15). Simply and as a missionary Church, we as Catholics boldly proclaim the Gospel as we know it with a genuine hope of greater Christian unity according to the will of Christ. Charity is of foremost consideration—lest we lose our soul in the midst of an argument.
It must be said in closing that in a modern culture where indifferentism has sterilized the minds of many, we cannot afford to tippy-toe around these issues of eternal importance.
I’ll leave you with these words of St. Paul:
“Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16)
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