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‘But That’s Not in the Bible’

Avoid the scriptural ping-pong match by focusing on the underlying issue.

“Where is that in the Bible?” is a challenge Protestants commonly issue to Catholics when disputes over doctrine arise. Two common response strategies include trying to find a biblical reference to support the belief in question or to return the challenge by asking, “Where in the Bible does it say something must be in the Bible before you can believe it?” While both of these have merit, I would like to suggest a third strategy that can cut to the deeper issue more quickly.

Before getting into this third way, imagine what Catholic-Protestant doctrinal discussions might look like if

  • Baptists (who believe that baptism is merely a picture of salvation) found a verse in the Bible that said, “Baptism does not save.”
  • Calvinists (who believe that salvation comes through faith alone apart from works—AKA sola fide) discovered a passage that said, “Faith without works is useful. . . . A person is not justified by works, but by faith alone.”
  • Evangelicals (who think communion is just a symbol of Jesus’ body) came up with a proof text that read, “Any one who eats and drinks without discerning the symbolism of the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.”

If Protestants had proof texts such as these above to support their doctrines, they would rightly insist that Catholics answer for ignoring the clear word of God.

Of course, these verses are not in Scripture. So, instead, Protestants build their scriptural cases for these beliefs from more indirect passages that likely seem clear to them in the light of their prior theological positions.

Now, Catholics must do the same thing in many cases. Certainly not all Catholic beliefs have clear biblical proof texts, either, and in these cases, verses must be called forth that are open to reinterpretation from those who disagree. When interpretation becomes necessary, the Church often relies on more than just Scripture for help. Because the Church is not limited to biblical proof texts for doctrinal support, we can cite authoritative Church teaching to determine the correct interpretation.

In the above examples, though, such a procedure is less necessary because Catholics do in fact have rather clear biblical proof texts to support what they believe:

  • As to baptism, the Bible says, “In the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Pet. 3:20-21).
  • When it comes to salvation, the Bible says, “Faith apart from works is barren. . . . You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:20-24).
  • As to Communion, the Bible says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

What is interesting is that although what the Bible says in these three examples is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches, it is exactly what most Protestants deny. Of course, Protestants have had 500 years to come up with alternative interpretations of these passages that get around a theological contradiction—but that’s not the point. Rather, it is that even if Catholics do produce statements from Scripture that clearly state exactly what the Church teaches, most Protestants remain unfazed. Thus, whether a given belief can be found in the Bible is almost a moot point.

So, when a Catholic is challenged by a Protestant that a given belief is “not found in the Bible,” instead of arguing over disputed interpretations or trying a little apologetic judo and flipping the question around on him, a good strategy might be to simply ask, “Would it matter to you if it were?” Such a question will be shocking to a Protestant who prides himself on his commitment to the Bible. Not only would it matter—nothing else would!

The Catholic can then point out that although the Bible says “justification is not by faith alone,” Protestants believe that justification is by faith alone. And although the Bible says baptism saves, some Protestants believe that it does not save. And although the Bible says Communion is eating the body of Christ, Protestants believe that it is only a symbol. In other words, both sides have “clear proof texts” that say things the other denies. Thus, “where is that in the Bible” is often a non-starter.

What this strategy does is keep the conversation from turning into a scriptural ping-pong match, and focuses on the true underlying issue: namely, that the Bible can often be understood in numerous ways and that without an authoritative body to interpret it, disagreement and division are inevitable. Indeed, Protestantism itself is the best evidence of this tendency.

Moreover, it shows that in many cases the Protestant does not actually have the scriptural high ground he is told he does when dealing with Catholics. For the Protestant apologist who sees himself as always having the Bible on his side, this can be an eye-opening realization.

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