Bible-Only Christianity?

Christ Didn’t Write A Book. He Founded A Church.

The cooperation between Catholics and evangelical Protestants in pro-life work is an instance of authentic ecumenism. These Christians experience at firsthand what unites and what divides them. For example, there is an undeniable awkwardness when the Catholics take out their rosaries at a demonstration or rescue. The evangelicals for a while become almost bystanders, though no doubt some participate silently. The Catholics, if they had not already learned the lesson that it is pointless to alter one’s religion for human respect, might feel embarrassed or ashamed, as if they were unnecessarily introducing a novelty, an extravagance, or spoiling a consensus.

The irony is that the suspicions of the evangelicals are contradicted by the practice of the Catholics. The evangelicals, who hold firmly to the central Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura — that scripture alone has authority on faith and morals — view Catholics as Christians who have, perhaps unwittingly, mixed adherence to traditions of men into their devotion to Christ. Yet it is precisely because the Catholics view their love for Mary as a service rendered to Christ that they discount the feelings of the evangelicals and act without reservation as Roman Catholics.

Suppose now that Catholic and evangelical were to meet over a cup of coffee afterwards and discuss the doctrine of sola scriptura, Bible-only Christianity, with the same relentless honesty with which they are used to discussing abortion. What could be said for and against the doctrine?

The evangelical begins by pointing out that Christ Himself distinguishes between the Word of God and the traditions of men in His disputes with the Pharisees. The Pharisees went astray precisely because they gave human tradition an authority equal to or greater than that accorded God’s Word. “You put aside the commandment of God to cling to human traditions…. You make God’s word null and void for the sake of your tradition which you have handed down” (Mark 7:8,13).

“It cannot be otherwise,” the evangelical continues, “because no one can serve two masters at one time; either we give our full and exclusive devotion to God or we are led away from Him. Catholics may think that their traditions only add to and do not conflict with the Word of God, but that is not so; anything additional to the Word of God must eventually conflict with it — it is a competitor, it distracts us from serving Christ fully, it divides and weakens our loyalty to Christ.

“Look at how this in fact happened historically: for centuries the Bible was neglected by Catholics — even feared by them. Even after Vatican II, Catholics undervalue the Bible: How often are homilies commentaries on the scripture? How many Catholics read the Bible daily or take part in Bible study groups?”

The Evangelical pauses, awaiting a reply, but the Catholic asks him to continue. “We shouldn’t impose any unnecessary burdens on those who wish to follow Christ — Jesus Himself said, ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ To give traditions an authority equal to that of the Word of God is to place heavy burdens on others. Jesus attacked this trait of the scribes: ‘Woe to you scribes … because you load on men burdens that are unendurable, burdens that you yourselves do not move a finger to lift’ (Luke 11:46). And if you add on human traditions to the Word of God, you hinder Christian unity. Unity on essentials — this is possible, and this is what God intended.”

To the Catholic, this case was beginning to appear incontrovertible. “The New Testament is our direct link with the early church,” the evangelical continued. “The church of the apostles was faithful and strong. It is a kind of standard against which the church should always be measured. That is why the Bible has authority over the church and its traditions.

“Look, this is how I see it: we Christians have to be on our guard constantly against deviating from God’s truth, and the worst deviations are the unrecognized ones, when we think we are serving God. Take abortion, for example. The liberal Protestant churches have even said that it can be a Christian act to have an abortion! Liberal Protestants are open to strange views like this because they don’t hold to the absolute authority of the Bible; consequently, they compromise the gospel and take on the spirit of the world, not the mind of Christ. Catholics are vulnerable to forsaking Christ for similar reasons. How else do we explain the influence of Marxism among Catholics? The Marxist liberation theologians have substituted human teaching for gospel, and they don’t even know it.”

Gospel of Freedom

The evangelical paused and then made his final point, which he regarded as decisive. “Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is clear: the gospel of Christ is a gospel of freedom; it is a law within us, not a law imposed from the outside. If the Church alone can interpret the Bible, then the gospel is determined for us from the outside, and we are again under ‘the law.’ If, however, each Christian interprets scripture for himself before God, then he lives in the freedom of the Spirit. He is not bound to external observances and constraints.”

Strangely enough, in the interests of verisimilitude, it is necessary to interrupt discussion at this point, since it would be unrealistic to expect the Catholic to have a convincing reply. Very few Catholics today, even committed Catholics, would know how to reply to the evangelical’s arguments. There are both good and bad reasons for this. The good reason is that Catholicism is not defined with respect to Protestantism, as Protestantism defines itself with respect to Catholicism. As its name implies, Protestantism is a reaction to something else. We see this even in the phrase sola scriptura — “scripture alone” — which has meaning only by excluding other things. Hence, if a Protestant is to know what he is about, he must know how what he believes differs from Catholicism. But a Catholic is able to rest easily with an understanding of his religion in its own right.

The bad reason is that Catholics today have lapsed into a kind of apathy about evangelism, not understanding that the gift of the true faith implies an obligation to share that gift with others. They view their being Catholic as a kind of happy accident, which perhaps puts them in a better position to reach heaven. They say the creed, “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” without appreciating that Catholicism is essentially apostolic. Or, if they do appreciate this, they have been left unequipped for the task, after a generation of fuzzy or inept catechesis.

The Catholic might begin his reply by pointing out that the Protestant has been using “Word of God” and “scripture” synonymously, whereas Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh, and scripture has a derivative authority, as representing Him. If the Church is the body of Christ, as scripture says, then, prima facie, it can also represent Christ, and so could claim to have some authority of its own.

Christ was the complete and perfect revelation of God. The question then becomes: How did Christ intend His revelation to be preserved for future generations; by the Church, with the assistance of scripture, or by the scripture alone? If Christ wished His revelation to be preserved by a book alone, then why did he found a church but neglect to write a book? If, however, Christ intended His revelation to be preserved primarily by the Church, then it would make sense to leave the writing about Him to members of the Church.

Christ’s Dictation

In fact, there is no record that Christ ever instructed the apostles to write about Him, nor do any of the New Testament writers ever say that they are writing as Christ instructed them to do. This would be very odd, if scripture was intended to play the primary role in preserving Christ’s revelation.

It is evident that scripture could not possibly be the sole authority for a Christian, since there are suppositions in taking it to be such an authority which scripture itself could not provide. Scripture, for instance, does not establish its own canon, nor could it. The New Testament does not enumerate its own books, stating that these are inspired and only these; rather, the early church determined the canon. Suppose the New Testament did include such a list, say, in the book of Revelation. Then of course that list would be definitive only if that portion of scripture were inspired. The book could list itself, but that listing has authority only if the book already has it; a book cannot establish its own authority.

Anything written requires interpretation. In the New Testament, there are passages that are ambiguous, that seem contradictory, that appear hyperbolic but perhaps are not. An external authority is needed to provide the correct interpretation. Arius in the fourth century and the Jehovah’s Witnesses today quote abundantly from scripture to argue that Christ is not God but the highest created being. It required an ecumenical council of the Church (the Council of Nicea) to resolve the issue. Protestants who today affirm that Christ is one in being with the Father rely on the authority of the Church, since they are at bottom relying on the authority of that council. The sufficiency of scripture alone should have been doubted by Luther and Zwingli beginning in 1529, when they met together in Marburg and could not agree whether, according to scripture, the Eucharist was a reenactment or a mere remembrance of Calvary.

It might seem that there is such a thing as the “plain meaning” of scripture, which everyone with good sense can discern, and that no authority is needed to interpret this. But even when there is a plain meaning, it seems that some help is sometimes needed to recognize it as such. If anything is plain, it is that the bread is Christ’s body and the wine is Christ’s blood — that is, the doctrine of the Real Presence seems to be (as the Council of Trent taught) the plain meaning of Christ’s statements at the Last Supper. Yet it is precisely those Christians who try to rely solely on the plain meaning of scripture who reject this doctrine.

In their practice, if not in words, Protestants have recognized the need for an authority additional to the Bible; for centuries a Presbyterian was required to avow allegiance to the Bible and the Westminster Confession, a Lutheran to the Augsburg Confession, an Anglican to the 39 Articles, and various others to the Second Helvetic Confession. When the confessions are not given an authority equal to the Bible, then the doctrinal unity of a Protestant church cannot be maintained.

This is illustrated vividly by what has happened in the Presbyterian Church in the United States in this century. Its Declaratory Statement of 1903 finally made it clear that the authority of the Westminster Confession was wholly subordinate to that of scripture when it stated that the Presbyterian ordination vow “requires the reception and adoption of the Confession … only as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” This clarification has been taken to mean that Church ministers can interpret scripture other than as in the Confession and remain Presbyterians in good standing. As a consequence, agreement in doctrine has disintegrated in the Presbyterian Church, as in other liberal Protestant denominations.

Nearly all the Protestant confessions begin with the assertion of the doctrine of sola scriptura, thus contradicting themselves in practice, since that doctrine is extra-Biblical and needs to be asserted on its own. It is true that II Timothy 3:16 says “All scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy.” But it is a fallacy to reason that, because all scripture is inspired and profitable, only scripture is inspired and profitable.

Forgetting the Apostles

The New Testament in fact seems to witness to an authority more fundamental than its own, namely, apostolic authority. St. Paul urges “Stand firm, then, brothers, and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” (II Thessalonians 2:15), implying that unwritten apostolic teaching has the same authority as written. In Acts chapter 15, the apostles wrote a letter instructing gentile Christians in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. The letter evidently had force for the Christians before its being included in the Bible, simply because it was an exercise of apostolic authority. It was included in the Bible because it was apostolic; it was not counted as authoritative because it was included in the Bible.

It becomes clear that sola scriptura and the claim that there is a transmission of apostolic authority are mutually exclusive. Just as written apostolic teaching was not the only authority for Christians when the apostles were alive, so written apostolic teaching could not be the only authority for Christians if successors to the apostles are alive. Prima facie, we should expect that there would be successors of the apostles. As John Henry Newman wrote, “We have no reason to suppose that there is so great a distinction of dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians, as that they had a living infallible guidance, and we have not.” If it were otherwise, then the very nature of the Church would have changed with the death of the last apostle. There would be no question here of a corruption but rather of a discontinuity, a change in identity, from an apostolic church to a church acting on “scripture alone.” The church that Christ had founded, an apostolic church, would have passed away and been replaced by another church.

The New Testament gives some indication that the apostolic office was to be preserved and passed on. When the 11 apostles choose a successor to Judas Iscariot, they are clearly filling an office, not replacing a person. That St. Paul had apostolic authority shows that the authority could be expanded beyond twelve offices; and St. Paul appoints Timothy as his successor. The early Fathers of the Church, such as St. Irenaeus and St. Ignatius of Antioch, remove any doubt about the matter. Clement of Rome, writing in A.D. 97, is perhaps the most explicit: “Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full knowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these should fall asleep, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office.”

The Evangelicals’ rejection of Church tradition as authoritative depends upon a dichotomy between the “Word of God” and the “traditions of men.” But this dichotomy, relevant in relation to the Pharisees, cannot be uncritically applied after the Incarnation — after the Word of God became a man and men became incorporated into His body. Indeed, the Church, as the Fathers used to say, is the extension of the Incarnation in time. Christ said to His apostles, “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time”; “whoever receives you receives me”; and “when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth.” There is clearly implied here a presence of the Word among men more intimate than could be mediated by a text alone, even an inspired text. Vatican II said in Lumen Gentium that the Church is “in the nature of a sacrament.” The doctrine of sola scripture implies, ultimately, a denial of the sacramental character of Christianity. “Preaching is prior,” as a Protestant theologian recently wrote about the Lord’s Supper; the communion meal has meaning only insofar as it exhibits Biblical doctrine.

Catholics should not be disturbed by the charge that they are being unfaithful to Christ in accepting an authority additional to the Bible; for Church tradition has authority for them, like the Bible, because its authority is derived from Christ. “Your obedience to your bishop, as though he were Jesus Christ, shows me plainly enough that yours is no worldly manner of life, but that of Jesus Christ Himself” — these words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written in A.D. 100, could be repeated today by a Catholic, without change of meaning.

Minimalist Christianity

The evangelical tends to equate sola scriptura with a kind of minimalist Christianity, as if any doctrine not obviously deducible from scripture would have to be unnecessary or burdensome. But many very important questions are not obviously decided by scripture — whether scripture alone is the rule of faith; whether infant baptism is acceptable; whether and often public worship is necessary; whether there is a state between death and resurrection. Certainly to rely on tradition to decide such matters is not to introduce extravagances. Furthermore, sola scriptura is no foolproof safeguard against the extravagant; witness the many Protestant sects that require their members to accept some bizarre interpretation of specific symbols in the book of Revelation.

Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that we cannot succeed in imitating the ancient Greeks by trying merely to imitate them, because the ancient Greeks did not merely imitate others. An analogous point could be made aobut Christianity: we do not succeed in imitating the early Christians by following what is said in “scripture alone,” since the early Christians themselves did not follow scripture alone.

“Scripture alone” seems to the evangelical to prevent deviations from Christian truth, but historically this has not been the case. Within the lifetime of Luther, central doctrines of Christianity — even the doctrine of the Trinity — were being denied on all fronts by those who argued from scripture alone. Protestantism has fragmented into countless denominations and sects, though only one sect, at most, can preserve the gospel without deviation. Again, holding to “scripture alone” cannot help on those matters central to Christian life but not treated obviously or explicitly in scripture. The evangelical had cited Marxist liberation theology as an example of the corruption of the gospel, but a Catholic who is submissive to the Magisterium of the Church would not go astray on this matter, since the Magisterium has clearly taught what sort of liberation theology is and is not compatible with Christianity. And the case seems similar with respect to other heresies.

It should be said also that it is sola scriptura, and not merely fundamentalism, that makes Christians especially prone to become skeptics after encountering the results of modern scripture studies. It seems indisputable that some of what we find in the New Testament was itself once oral tradition; this is an unproblematic result for the Catholic, who gives Church tradition, including oral tradition, an authority equal to scripture. Again, it is undeniable that the books of the New Testament vary according to the character of the writer, the audience to whom he was writing, and his particular reasons for writing at that time. This, too, is unproblematic for Catholics, who believe that the Christian revelation was entrusted primarily to apostles and that scripture was written by them, with the inspiration of the Spirit, as a sagacious use of their teaching authority.

The final point made by the evangelical was that Protestantism implies freedom, since each individual interprets scripture for himself, and Catholicism implies external constraint, since an external authority interprets scripture. Here we see a strand of Enlightenment thought which has been assimilated by many forms of Protestantism. Suppose we say that obedience to Christ is more important than freedom for a Christian (we are “slaves to Christ,” as scripture puts it), and that the freedom that really matters is freedom from sin. The question then becomes: Do we serve Christ and avoid the snares of sin best by adopting sola scriptura, or by accepting also the teaching authority of the Church? The evidence suggests the latter.

A Revelation with Credentials

Newman said that Christianity is a “revelation with credentials.” Just as a person can know a truth without knowing it to be true, so a revelation can be given without its being known to be a revelation. For a Catholic, Christianity is a revelation known to be a revelation. This implies that the content of revelation should be a matter of intersubjective agreement, that it should be accepted and recognized by a group or community, and not merely by individuals. This kind of objectivity cannot obtain given the doctrine of “scripture alone,” and hence Protestantism is in an important sense inherently subjective.

A Protestant explains consensus among Christians in this way: the Holy Spirit, acting as a kind of invisible hand, guides individual Christians simultaneously to the correct understanding of scripture. This is a kind of individualism of revelation, which allows for no true revelation to the community, and hence no possession of revealed truth as an authentic common good.

The doctrine of sola scriptura, which at first glance appears quite plausible and attractively simple, is seen on closer examination to be intrinsically incoherent, impossible to practice, and inconsistent with known facts. If one scans the writings of the Protestant Reformers, it is astounding how infrequently this central doctrine is argued for. Its mere assertion must have seemed an argument to many Christians disgusted with corruption in the Church. It would have made sense for sixteenth-century Christians to urge that the Church be reformed through a revived attention to scripture — or that, indeed, from the nature of the case, scripture would have to play a central role in any reform. But the move by which this thought was transformed into a dogma — “scripture alone has authority” — was pragmatic, without support in reason or revelation. Is it too much to hope that evangelicals, accustomed to following the truth in the abortion controversy, might come to examine “scripture alone” with the same objectivity?


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