Which Came First? – Scripture and the Necessity of the Church
An excerpt from Challenging Catholics by Dwight Longenecker and John Martin.
Dwight: You have given a good explanation of the evangelical view of Scripture. There’s much there that the Catholic Church would agree with. From the beginning the Catholic Church has venerated The Bible as the supernatural Word of God. The Catechism says, ‘In Sacred Scripture the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, but as what it really is, the word of God.’ (CCC, 104) Furthermore, the Catholic Church teaches the divine inspiration of Scripture: ‘God inspired the human authors of the sacred books…God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written and no more.’ (CCC, 106)
Like you, the Catholic Church recognises in the Scriptures the living and powerful word of God and so encourages us to read and study the Scriptures: ‘Such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigour; and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul and a pure and lasting fountain of spiritual life.’ (CCC,131) ‘The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ (Phil. 3.8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.’(CCC,133) and Saint Jerome, that great Biblical scholar and translator from the fourth century, reminds us that ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’
So far so good, but I’m afraid I can’t buy your idea of the perspicuity of Scripture. There are two problems: First of all, if the Bible is so easy and clear to understand why do we have over 20,000 different Protestant denominations? When I asked this question years ago my evangelical Bible teacher said that the differences were only minor, and that we all really agreed on the basics. But the different groups don’t disagree only about minor things like whether women should wear hats to church or whether you should be sprinkled, dipped or dunked for baptism. They disagree about major questions—is baptism necessary for salvation? How does a person get saved? Can you lose your salvation or not? Do good works matter? What is a sacrament? It’s easy to say that the Scriptures are essentially clear, but experience doesn’t bear it out because all the different Christian groups and individuals appeal to the same Scriptures to make their conflicting points. Its been this way from the beginning. In the second century some Christians said Jesus was God incarnate, others said he was not, and the problem was—folks on both sides were good Christians and both argued their case powerfully from Scripture.
The second clear problem is what you do when Scripture doesn’t present a clear teaching on some matter of crucial importance. This is especially important in our day since so many important moral questions are products of the modern age. The Bible simply doesn’t discuss things like in vitro fertilization, human cloning, atomic warfare or global warming. When there are disagreements and when the Bible doesn’t speak clearly who decides? In other words, who interprets the Bible for our needs? It is either up to you and me or some authority greater than both of us.
John: I’m flattered that you seem to speak of perspicuity as my idea. You may not have meant it quite that way. But let me assure you, when I try to explain or represent my heritage of faith, I have an overwhelming feeling that I’m a pygmy who possesses a field of vision only because I sit on the shoulders of the giants of faith who have gone before. Having agreed with my quote from Calvin, I suspect you’ll now want to claim that here’s another Catholic position I’m taking!
Dwight: Well, its certainly a Catholic idea that we look to the faith of our fathers for guidance. Now that I’m Catholic I just find it rather arbitrary that Protestants look faithfully to the Christian giants from five hundred years ago, while being fairly neglectful of all the Christian giants from the first fifteen hundred years of Church history.
John: Let me take up your point about the multiplication of denominations. I think it’s simplistic to suggest that the existence of some 20,000 different non-Catholic denominations results from inability to agree about how the Bible is to be interpreted. Certainly it was one of the elements at stake in the sixteenth century reformation but even there it’s not the entire story. The emergence of nationalism and the politics of northern Europe and England certainly played their part in fuelling the split with Rome. Then there are black churches around where I live that exist in no small measure because their people didn’t feel welcome in predominately white churches.
There are others, like the Adventists, Baptists, the Holiness Churches or Kimbanguists (from Central Africa) who exist a result of what they believe to be a special revelation. Others are convinced that their community is called to witness to a some particular emphasis that has been lost sight of in the Christian mainstream. There is the effect of differing God-given personality types that prefer one kind of worship over another.
My view, for what it’s worth, is that the real source of the differences is that there are a pre-existing theological systems or emphases and these affect how a group reads the Bible and marks them off from other Christians. Take the Catholic Church. It’s great doctors, men like St Thomas Aquinas, created a theological system by bringing together the Hebraic and Classical thought worlds. This system has given it tools for resolving theological questions, but others may not view its basic theological methodology as entirely valid.
Is it such a big scandal that there are 20,000 different denominations? A lot of people, many Catholics included, view the multiplication of denominations as a mistake. I’m not so convinced. I see this variety as part of the economy of God. He glories in the sheer variety of people he’s made. Emergence of new denominations (in the Protestant world) and new orders or movements (in the Catholic world) are part of God’s way of seeing that issues that are neglected by the mainstream are championed. We will no doubt touch on this issue again.
Dwight: I’m prepared to admit that God has used the 20,000 different denominations to further his work in the world, but He’s always in the business of pulling good out of our human sinfulness. As you’ve hinted, the Catholic church values diversity, but the Catholic model is not 20,000 different denominations existing as a law unto themselves. Instead the diversity of emphasis, culture and theological approach exist within the organic unity of the Catholic Church. We have unity, but not uniformity. Sectarian religion expects uniformity and only has internal unity because it has split from everybody else.
John: Back to the Bible. I need to make a couple of other points clear. One of the slogans of the Reformation was sola Scriptura(‘scripture alone’). It was part of a triplet, the other points being ‘by grace alone’ and ‘through faith alone’. For a long time I believed that the brand of Christianity I followed was genuinely based on them. But what the experiences of my late teens and early twenties made it clear was that plenty of Christians could assent to these slogans but still come to different conclusions than mine.
Dwight: That’s what I mean. If Sola Scriptura is fine and the Bible is perfectly clear, then why do all the different Protestant groups come up with such different interpretations that they have to split up all the time?
John: Let me finish. One of the possible solutions, of course, would have been joining a Church whose teaching office or magisterium claimed to take away the problem of multiple interpretations. The Catholic Church was the obvious candidate, but I found that it, too, had feet of clay. Pope Paul VI had just enunciated his teaching on contraception. Reading Hans Kung’s critique of papal infallibility re-enforced my inherited Protestant scepticism.
Dwight: We’ll talk about Papal Infallibility later.
John: Okay, but the problem is a real one and for much of my life there’s been a quest for a more thought-out understanding of the place of Scripture and its authority. The basic convictions stand. The Bible is God’s Book and it is the Christian’s final court of appeal. It will never lead me into error in matters essential to Christian living or my salvation. However, in contrast to my early days – and here is the Anglican influence – alongside I would want to affirm the place of reason (our God given wit), tradition (the Creeds and the accumulated teachings of the Church over two millennia) and experience (what we see around us of how God works) as tools we bring to help us understanding the Bible. There are two other considerations. First, biblical interpretation poses the challenge to ‘know thyself’. I need to approach the enterprise with humility because I am apt to read the Bible through lenses coloured by my own personality type, my particular experiences, and a Western culture that doesn’t naturally understand the biblical world so that reads it world-view into the Bible. Secondly, more positively – and this is most important – I can be confident that the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scripture and was promised in order to lead the Church ‘into all truth’ will do just that.
Dwight: This is certainly a stronger position than the extreme evangelical one which says, ‘It’s just me and my Bible.’ But I still want to press you on this because the basic problem still stands. Okay, you want to include reason and tradition to help interpret the Bible, but whose reason and which tradition? Just as we can prove almost anything from the Bible, so with our own agenda we can prove almost anything through reason and tradition. The Catholic Church insists that an objective, historical and universal interpretative authority is still required in order to correctly ascertain God’s truth.
I take your point that the Holy Spirit is of vital importance for interpreting the Bible, but I’m afraid my own basic point still stands. We all claim the Holy Spirit’s guidance for our own interpretations don’t we? No doubt all 20,000 Protestant denominations all claim the Holy Spirit’s work, and yet they all disagree. Was the Holy Spirit wrong? Did he lead some of them into the truth, but mislead others? In fact the Holy Spirit was given within the context of the community of faith. It is primarily the Church which is the Spirit-filled body of Christ according to the New Testament, and individuals are filled with the Holy Spirit as the fruit of that. Therefore the Catholic Church teaches that only through the Church can the Holy Spirit work authentically and most fully. Therefore it is only the Church which can most authentically interpret Scripture.
John: You say that issues like in vitro fertilization, human cloning, atomic warfare or global warming are not directly addressed by the Bible. In one sense that’s right. I would argue, however, that they can be dealt with by application of tradition, reason and experience to what the scholars call the biblical ‘meta narrative’ – the broad sweep of the biblical story and the doctrinal building blocks that underlie it. The full story of God as creator, human beings made in God’s image, God’s action in redeeming lost humanity, the cross and resurrection, and all the rest combine to give us guidance. But that’s a subject for a book on its own.
Dwight: I agree, and the Catholic Church turns to these principles as well as competent medical and scientific authorities to help her come up with the right decisions. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, my basic point still stands. Even with all the professional consultation and discussion in the world somebody still needs to make the final decision. Who is best placed to make a decision on global issues like this? Who is best placed to decide the Christian position? I would argue that the best authority to decide is the one which is oldest, biggest and most universal, and therefore sees the biggest picture. In other words, the Catholic Church.
We all turn to the Scriptures for the answers, but what authority decides how the Scriptures are to be interpreted? Down through history that authority has been the Church. The Scriptures were written by the Church, and used by the Church in worship and teaching. Then it was the Church who determined over a period of time what books were to go into the Bible. The Church was first and the Bible came from the Church—not the other way around. The Holy Spirit inspired the Church first at Pentecost, and from the leaders of the church and for the Church’s needs the Bible was written. Therefore the Catholic Church still says that the Church is the authentic authority to interpret the Bible today.
There’s another weakness with sola Scriptura. Let’s put the circular logic objection to one side and allow that the Bible might actually teach sola Scriptura. When we begin to look for proof in the Bible it’s not there. We can find many verses which show the permanence, the holiness and the power of the Word of God, but none which say it is the only or final authority on earth. The classic proof text for sola Scriptura is 2 Timothy 3.16 which says, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’ This is a great verse and Catholics would agree on the inspiration and usefulness of Scripture; but the verse itself doesn’t actually say the only authority is Scripture. So what is the foundational authority for our knowledge of the Truth? The New Testament actually points to the Church as that universal authority. You say the Bible is the Christian’s final authority and court of appeal, but St Paul says in Ephesians 3.10 that ‘through the Church the manifold wisdom of God will be made known,’ and in I Timothy 3.15 he says it is the Church which is ‘the pillar and foundation of the Truth.’
John: I suspect our readers may be wondering why it was you, not me, who first who cited 2 Timothy 3:16! You will have seen I’ve been careful to root the argument elsewhere, in the attitudes and example of Jesus. Even so, taken at face value this verse makes enormous claims and I don’t think your circularising quite does it justice. If the Scriptures are God-breathed then they come into a very special category of literature which I must take with enormous seriousness and leave no stone unturned in seeking to understand their message. I find it helpful, too, that the text draws some lines about what exactly the Scriptures are there for. There are all sorts of issues and debates where I’m not obliged by this verse to look to the Scriptures for guidance or an authoritative word. I am encouraged here to look to them for ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’
I think our argument revolves around what comes first, the Scriptures or the Church. Your position seems to be that the Church is the primary factor, with the Church defining the Canon of Scripture in the first place and offering its accumulated wisdom as the authoritative interpreter. My position is that the actions of God in history, in speaking and inspiring human agents to write come first.
Over many years a broad consensus has emerged as to which books and writings authentically bear a ‘ring of truth’ and the a priori commitment of the Christians (from the Pope downwards) should be to believe and obey what the Scriptures contain and teach. I may, of course, resort to reason, tradition and experience to assist me in the task.
Dwight: I’m not sure your analysis of our disagreement is quite right. The main question is not, ‘Which comes first the Church or Scripture?’ We don’t believe either the Scriptures or the Church come first. Instead Jesus comes first. The primary revelation of God to mankind is in his Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Bible is the secondary revelation which bears witness to God’s work in Christ. The Book of Hebrews puts it this way, ‘In many various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.’ (Heb.1.1-2) The Catechism says, ‘the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the Word of God. Not a written and mute word, but incarnate and living. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ the eternal Word of the living God, must through the Holy Spirit open our minds to understand the Scriptures.’ (CCC, 108)
So God’s work in and through real people’s lives down through history is his primary revelation. This story is told in the inspired Scriptures and his ultimate revelation is through the Word of God incarnate—His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus commanded and prophesied a Church which would be his body on earth and that Church produced the Scriptures which bear witness of him. That same Church used the Scriptures for worship and teaching, and eventually they came to define which books were to go into the New Testament.