Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Gospel According to Me: Why the "Bible Alone" is Not Enough

"If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't
like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself." - Saint Augustine
One of the most destructive beliefs among modern Christians, which has its origin primarily in the Protestant Reformation, is the doctrine known as "sola scriptura" (literally, "scripture alone"). Sola scriptura is the belief that the documents of the Bible are all that is necessary for a complete and proper understanding of the Christian faith, as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Catholic understanding of Divine Revelation is that such an understanding also requires Sacred Tradition––all of the teachings lived and taught by the Church throughout history, which are not explicitly found in the texts of scripture––as well as the Magisterium, which is the teaching office of the Church. Today, most Christians (and probably most Catholics included) tend to downplay or even outright reject any teaching authority or source of Christian doctrine that is external to the Bible itself. Many such people refer to themselves as "Bible Christians," and take pride in their claim not to follow any so-called "traditions of men." There are serious problems with this growing breed of Christianity: 1) it's not Biblical, 2) it's not historical, and 3) it's not logical.

"Where is That in the Bible?"

The most common objection I encounter to any given teaching of the Catholic Church is that it isn't found in the Bible. "Where is the Pope in the Bible?" "Where in the Bible does it say that I have to confess my sins to a priest?" "Where in the Bible does it say that Mary was conceived without sin?" "Where do you find purgatory in the Bible?" And the list goes on and on. The truth is, most of these teachings do in fact have a strong Biblical foundation, even if they are not explicit (the word "Trinity" isn't found in the Bible either). However, before offering any evidence from scripture to counter the claims against any particular teaching, the best question for the Catholic to ask is, "Why do I have to prove every Catholic doctrine or teaching from the Bible?" In demanding that every teaching be explicitly stated in the Bible, the non-Catholic person is assuming the truth of sola scriptura. This assumption is not only unwarranted, but ironically is itself unbiblical. Sola scriptura is self-referentially incoherent, that is, it disproves itself. Where in the Bible does it say that all the truths of the Christian faith are found in the Bible? It doesn't. On the contrary, there are many references in the Bible to the need for authority and tradition. For example, John concludes his gospel account by writing:
But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (Jn 21:25). 
Saint Paul too alludes to the importance of the unwritten, orally transmitted teachings of the Church numerous times in different epistles:
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you (1 Cor 11:2). 
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 Thes 2:15). 
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us (2 Thes 3:6).
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:1-2).
The most common Bible verses cited in favor of sola scriptura are John 20:31 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17. John 20:31 reads, "[T]hese are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name." This verse at most claims that John's gospel account contains sufficient information for a person to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. It in no way claims that the rest of the Bible (which hadn't even been compiled yet) is all that one needs for salvation, or even for doing Christian theology for that matter. The verses from 2 Timothy read:
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 3:16-17).
All Saint Paul is saying here is that Sacred Scripture is useful for many things. Saying that Scripture can make Christians "complete" and "equipped for every good work" doesn't mean that it is completely sufficient for understanding and living the Christian faith. To understand this, imagine a soldier equipped with the most state-of-the-art weaponry, armor, and other high-tech tactical gear, while at the same time having no training, guidance, or leadership for the use and employment of that weaponry and gear. Needless to say, he or she would in no sense be "sufficient" as a soldier. Making this important distinction requires that one understand the difference between formal sufficiency and material sufficiency. Like all the combined equipment of the soldier, the Word of God in Sacred Scripture is materially sufficient. In other words, if you have the complete Bible then you have all the raw data you need. However, there is an enormous gap between having all the necessary data and having the correct interpretation of that data.

Another fact that undermines a sola scriptura interpretation of Saint Paul's words was well stated by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (a convert from Anglicanism), who wrote:
Now, a good part of the New Testament was not written in his [Timothy's] boyhood: Some of the Catholic [universal] epistles were not written even when Paul wrote this, and none of the books of the New Testament were then placed on the canon of the Scripture books. He refers, then, to the scriptures of the Old Testament, and, if the argument from this passage proved anything, it would prove too much, viz., that the scriptures of the New Testament were not necessary for a rule of faith.
Inspired Table of Contents?

Speaking of the canon of Scripture (the list designating which books belong in the Bible), where is that found in the Bible? Where in the Bible does it say which books should be in the Bible? It doesn't. The canon of Scripture is in fact part of the Tradition of the Catholic Church, and any person who believes and trusts in the Bible also trusts, consciously or unconsciously, in the authority of the Catholic Church to compile and maintain the Bible with all of its contents down through the centuries to the present day. There were literally hundreds of different documents in circulation during the early centuries of Christianity, and yet the New Testament only contains 27 of them. Many of the documents not included in the canon are regarded to this day as historically, theologically, and spiritually valuable. The question is: Why didn't they make the cut? The short answer is, because the bishops and pope of the Catholic Church collectively decided that, regardless of whatever value those books and letters did or still do have, they were not inspired by God. Have you ever wondered why there are just the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)? There also exists the gospels of Peter, Judas, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, etc.. The reason is, apart from having sketchy historical origins, these claimed gospels contained teachings and events which contradict what is known as the "deposit of faith,"  the collected oral, written, and practiced teachings handed down from the apostles to the bishops of the time. This is the same reasoning that excludes later alleged revelations and inspired texts, such as the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon. These contradict what was already revealed by Jesus Christ to the apostles and handed down to the Church in every age. Without the existence of the Catholic Church from the time of the apostles, and her constant protection and teaching of the Bible, any claims about the Bible's authenticity, accuracy, and Divine inspiration are unfounded. That is why Saint Augustine wrote the following:
Should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, "I do not believe?" For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church ("Against the Epistle of Manichæus Called Fundamental").
Christ told the apostles, "Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20, emphasis added). Not "for a few hundred years," or "once the Bible is written," or "when true Christianity returns 1500 years from now," but "always, to the close of the age."

The Implications of Sola Scriptura

The doctrine of sola scriptura is logically inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus Christ, who himself prayed:
"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (Jn 17:20-21).
Believing in the "Bible alone," or in a purely subjective version of Christianity that is about "Jesus and me," is not only harmful to one's own spiritual health, but also greatly undermines the credibility of the message of Christianity to the rest of the world. When non-Christians see the tens of thousands of different interpretations of Christianity in the world today, how can we blame them for doubting the possibility of ever finding the true church, or for thinking that it's all merely man-made? Instead of seeing a strong, clear, and united witness of the Good News, they see what looks like a complicated spider web of conflicting and contradicting traditions, doctrines, and practices. This makes Christianity look like a private, do-it-yourself project instead of the Body of Christ, the "light of the world," the "city set on a hill" that cannot be hidden (Mt 5:14). A typically modern view of the Body of Christ, that is, of the Church, is that it is an invisible, purely spiritual reality with no concrete human institution, structure, hierarchy, or organization. What this view ultimately translates to is an illusion of unity among Christians, with the reality being widespread division, rampant relativism, and a complete distortion of the true Christian faith. Again, this is a tragedy not only for the many Christians who are led away from the truth themselves, but also for the unbelievers who are deprived of the opportunity to experience that truth in a way that is complete, consistent, and compelling. It is a beautiful gift to believe that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is inspired by Him and therefore infallible (without error) as a source of truth. However, an infallible textbook without an infallible teacher is open to every conceivable misinterpretation. If you've ever had Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons come to your door, then you've experienced this firsthand. Saint Peter himself warned the early Christians about private interpretation, in this case regarding the letters of Paul:
[O]ur beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability (2 Pet 3:15-17).
The Humility to Be Led

The relativism that plagues our culture is becoming more and more of a problem within Christianity itself. When a person becomes convinced that finding the truth is impossible, they are naturally led to despair––to despair about God and, consequently, to abandon any hope that one's life has any objective meaning. The idea that we can assign our own meaning to our lives, that we can be "free" from the "oppression" of dogmas, creeds, and all other authority, is initially exciting and seemingly liberating. However, there is an overflowing library of human experience that disproves this philosophy, and reveals it to be empty, unfulfilling, and unworthy of our human nature, which longs for so much more. Jesus Christ never wrote anything, nor is there any evidence that he commanded his disciples to write anything. He did, however, tell them to, "...make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Mt 28:19-20). In their wisdom and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and other Christians did eventually decide to write down the message of the gospel. The Bible thus belongs to the Church and in the Church, not for her to wield as an instrument of power or manipulation, but for her to serve and safeguard as God's living and active Word spoken to His children. The role of all Christians is to be steeped in Scripture, to read it, study it, pray it, and live it. However, we do all of this in a way that does not contradict, but rather conforms to, the constant teaching of the Church handed down and developed since the time of the apostles. To do this requires the humility to be led, to relinquish total control over your life, having hands that are open to receive the gifts God wants to give us through His Church. 

Who is Your Final Authority?

When it comes to understanding Sacred Scripture, everyone has some final authority for interpretation. The question is: Who is that authority for you? Is it yourself? Are you following the true gospel or "The Gospel According to Me?" Many people claim that the Holy Spirit guides their reading and interpreting of the Bible. It's true that the Holy Spirit is active in the lives of all baptized Christians, and Christians of every tradition and creed prove that everyday by the way they live their lives and seek to follow Christ. However, Christ promised that after his Ascension, he would send us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (Jn 16:13). The Holy Spirit does not guide Christians into the "truth" of over 30,000 denominations––that would be a contradiction––for he is the spirit of unity, and "God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (1 Cor 14:33). If you're a Christian and you find yourself subscribing to doctrines or practices that were not taught or lived by any Christians (except perhaps a few condemned heretics) for the first 1500 or more years of Christianity, then it's time to reconsider why you believe those things. I'll close now with the words of Saint Paul:
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. . . . Is Christ divided? (1 Cor 1:10,13)
Christ is of course not divided, and just as he promised, he has not left us orphans (Jn 14:18), but instead placed us gently in the arms of Mother Church, against whom the gates of hell shall not prevail (Mt 16:18). Let us all continue to pray for the unity of all Christians, in response to Christ's prayer that we "may all be one."  Thank you for reading––God bless!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Sources:

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Augustine of Hippo. “Against the Epistle of Manichæus Called Fundamental.” St. Augustin: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists. Ed. Philip Schaff. Trans. Richard Stothert. Vol. 4. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887. Print. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series.

John Henry Newman. “Inspiration in its Relation to Revelation." 1884. Web.












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