“Deacon Mike, why do we believe that it belongs to the Church to interpret the bible? Can’t we just read the bible for ourselves? The guys I do bible study with say that we (Catholics) add things that are not there.”
A young man who participates in a “non-denominational” bible study asked me this question. This question comes up from time to time, so I thought we might look at the question again in a slightly larger context.
One of the “pillars” or founding principles of the Protestant Reformation is the teaching of Sola Scriptura. Simply defined, Sola Scriptura is the belief that the Bible alone is the sole rule of faith for the believer. In other words, if a teaching is not contained in the Bible, then it is to be rejected as having no authority over the individual Christian.
Therefore, if Sola Scriptura was true, the Church’s teachings (or a pastor’s—or anyone’s teachings, for that matter) are true only as far as they are found in the bible. Another aspect of Sola Scriptura is that each believer, guided by the Holy Spirit, will be led to the proper interpretation and understanding of what he reads in the Bible.
There are several problems with this teaching:
- First, Sola Scriptura is not found anywhere in the Bible, therefore, by its own definition it is untrue.
- Second, the Bible teaches a far different doctrine; God’s revealed word consists of both Divine Revelation in written form (Sacred Scripture) and Divine Revelation in oral form (Sacred Tradition) and the interpretation of Divine Revelation is entrusted to the Church’s teaching office (Magisterium).
- Finally, it is clear from both the Bible and history, that Christians who lived prior to the Protestant Reformation had a decidedly different experience and understanding of the place of the Bible in the Church.
Approach to the Question
In examining the question of whether the Protestant teaching of Sola Scriptura is true, we need to take the following approach:
- First, we will look at what the Bible has to say about the rule of faith and the private interpretation of its contents. This is only reasonable if we expect to reach the hearts and minds of those who believe the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. After all, that is their approach.
- Second, we will look at the experience of the first Christians and see how they received and made use God’s Word. This will include, to a limited degree, commenting on the experience of the period from after the death of the last apostle to the Reformation and then to the experience of Protestants over the last, five-hundred years.
What Does the Bible Say about Sola Scriptura?
As already mentioned, the Bible says nothing directly supporting this Protestant teaching, but it has a lot to say in opposition to it. But let’s begin with a passage that is often cited by Protestants in support of it. One of my closest childhood friends was a wonderfully devout and zealous Presbyterian. James and I often spent hours together sharing and debating our respective beliefs. His Christian witness for Christ and what He had done for him was inspiring, uplifting and powerful. I wanted to learn from James. But also, I particularly wanted to persuade him that Sola Scriptura was false because it is so crucial to Protestantism. My thinking was the if this one pillar is untrue, then it is open-season on many other doctrines he held because they are built upon this foundational belief.
Invariably, James would point to two verses above all others to support his case. For example: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Observe carefully, that these verses say that scripture is “useful” (I believe his translation said “profitable”).
The Catholic Church would agree fully—scripture is indeed useful and profitable—but those verses do not even imply that scripture is the only source “useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training.” Quite the contrary, the Bible says that there is another source that is the “pillar and foundation of truth.”
“I am writing you about these matters, although I hope to visit you soon. But if I should be delayed, you should know how to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:14-15).
Catholics do not depend upon an isolated text for the proof of a teaching. Instead, the context of the passage within its surrounding chapters, book, testament, and even in relation to the whole of the Bible is important. The Church calls this principle of reading and understanding the meaning of what the bible says the Canonical Approach. That the Protestant reading of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is taken out of context is demonstrated by also reading 1 Timothy 3:14-15.
What is this “Church” that is the pillar and foundation of truth?
The passage from 1 Timothy refers to the Church, so let’s look at what that Church is. We will look at two, longer passages from St. Matthew’s Gospel:
“When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus said to him in reply, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’”
“If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…”
In the first passage from Matthew 16, Jesus established His Church and entrusted it with authority. It is outside the scope of this post to dive deeply into the meaning of the images of the keys, binding and loosing, Peter’s name-change or even the great rock and location of this event at Caesarea Philippi. It is sufficient to see that the Church was founded by Christ. And it is also important to understand that this Church is something more than an invisible collection of believers—no it is much more than that.
In the passage from Matthew 18, we see the Church as an institution that Jesus instructed to exercise the authority He entrusted to it. If all efforts to resolve a problem are unsuccessful, even after three have gathered to attempt it, then the problem is to be brought to the Church; and the Church will provide a binding resolution. This is contrary to what most of my Protestant friends would acknowledge, even if it is seen in their practice.
What does the bible teach about private interpretation of the Scriptures?
Matthew 18 speaks, at least indirectly to the matter of who has the authority to interpret what the Bible contains. In taking the above, very short overview of verses from the Bible, we have to look at other passages that expressly address private interpretation of the Bible and the consequences of doing so.
“We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.”
2 Peter 1:18-21
St. Peter states that “we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable.” But how is it reliable given that he also says that “there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation”? How can so many well-meaning Christians—of our day and days past—whose hearts are aflame in their love for Christ; whose lives are devoted to the service of their fellow-man because of that love; how can these good people disagree with such certainty on doctrines that are central to our salvation, if this message is reliable? The answer is that their very belief in and exercise of private interpretation has torn the unity of the Church and resulted in the very uncertainty of their many differing beliefs.
St. Peter speaks to this as well.
“And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation, as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, also wrote to you, speaking of these things as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures. Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability.”
2 Peter 3:15-17
Very clearly, St. Peter warns against private interpretation of the Bible and even cites examples of people who practice it to their own destruction. What stronger warning could we need? Some might say that the oral teaching of the Apostles is of higher standing than that of their successors. But this is untenable and contrary to the practice recorded in the Pastoral Epistles of the New Testament which instructs bishops, such as Timothy, to teach others what they have received from the Apostles.
What was the experience of Early Christians—and Later Christians Too?
Consider the following points often overlooked by many today.
- The first book of the New Testament was not written until the late 40s A.D. at the earliest.
- St. John’s Gospel was not written until the 90s A.D. or later.
- The bible itself records that the official teaching of the Church, exercised in the form of a Church Council, and not the private interpretation of individual Christians, answers questions of faith. (see the Jerusalem Council; Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 15)
- There was not a definitive list (or canon) of books accepted as Sacred Scripture until the late 300s A.D. and later. (Local Council of Hippo in 393; Local Council of Carthage in 397; Letter of Pope Innocent I in 405)
- Protestant reformers removed portions of the Old Testament that had been held by the Catholic Church to be a part of the canon of scripture for centuries. Where did they receive that authority? They relied upon the “authority” of Jewish rabbis exercised 60+ years after the Crucifixion and Pentecost; 60+ years after when Jesus had established His Church and authorized it to teach. Martin Luther even wanted to remove the Epistle of James and the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation). He was prevented from doing so by the other reformers.
- It is estimated that fewer than ten percent of those who lived in the Roman Empire could read. Even if the people had been more literate, there was no printing press, and therefore, no easy or affordable access to the written word prior to the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.
So, the earliest Christians lived before there was a New Testament. And it was 300+ years after the writing of the New Testament before Christians had a definitive witness of the Catholic Church regarding the list of books that were a part of the Bible. Who decided which of the hundreds of writings by the apostles and their successors would form that canon of Scripture? It was the Catholic Church, in the decisions of its councils and the teaching of its Popes that gave witness to what books should be considered a part of the Bible. And it was not until the fifteenth century that the printing press made it possible to own a copy of the Bible, even if the owner could not read.
How could the Bible be the sole rule of faith during all that time? It has already been mentioned that the private interpretation of the Bible that came from the Reformation in the 1500s A.D. has resulted not in unity of faith and belief, but just the opposite; non-Catholic Christianity is comprised of more than thirty thousand denominations by Protestantism’s own counts.
Christians today should read the Bible and read it prayerfully, meditating on its contents. One who honestly and humbly seeks and embraces the Truth who is the Word of God cannot help but be transformed by Him. But this is not how we arrive at an orthodox belief, apart from the Church. It must be acknowledged that the vast majority of Christians who have lived, received and experienced Sacred Scripture the way it was intended: proclaimed and taught within the Liturgy of the Church, which has always claimed the authority to interpret and teach.
The apostles established local churches; they formed them and taught them, they appointed bishops to continue their work once they were gone. For centuries, it was the handing down of the Word of God in oral form—Sacred Tradition—that was the manner in which these Christians received the Word of God. This is simply a historical fact. It is also supported by St. Paul writing in the bible:
“Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.”
2 Thessalonians 2:15
St. Paul also writes:
“So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.”
Protestants might object that Jesus warned not to follow tradition. “You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition. Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts’” (Matthew 15:6-9). However, the traditions that Jesus condemns are those that “nullify” the Word of God. Sacred Tradition does not nullify the Word of God; it is a part of the Word of God as demonstrated by the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15.
What Does the Catholic Church Teach?
Simply look at the following sequence:
- In prior times, God spoke to us through prophets in varied ways and through a succession of covenants.
- In present times God spoke to us through His Son.
- Divine Revelation was fulfilled, completed and perfected in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word of God. We await no further Divine Revelation.
- Jesus Christ gave this perfected revelation (the Deposit of the Faith) to the apostles.
- The deposit (word of God) has been passed on (transmitted) to us in writing (Sacred Scripture) and oral preaching (Sacred Tradition) from the apostles through their successors (the bishops).
- It is not by scripture alone that we receive God’s word. (cf. 2 Th 2:15)
- The authority to interpret and teach the Word is entrusted to the Church’s Magisterium. (cf. 1 Tim 3:15; Matthew 16; Matthew 18; 2 Peter)
The above can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation that was issued by the Second Vatican Council which has this to say about the Word of God.
“The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body”
Dei Verbum #21
Indeed, the Catholic Church holds the written Word of God in such high esteem, that she has painstakingly seen to it that it was preserved and handed on from generation to generation, all the way down to our own. The Church gives witness to the Word of God, that which has been handed on as Sacred Scripture and that which has been handed on as Sacred Tradition; faithfully teaching with the authority of Christ.
Into the deep…
Readings at Mass—Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (A): Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalms 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20;
Image credit: “Saint Jerome Writing” (detail) | Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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