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Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Scriptural, Part III

We saw in Part I that while the apostles were still on the earth, Christians had the benefit of a living magisterium.

In Part II we asked the question: are there hints in the writings of the apostles that indicate they understood that after they died, Christians would become “Bible only” Christians and the Church a “Bible only” Church? Do we see evidence that the apostles had this in their minds?  Do we see them preparing the Church for a time when their sole infallible rule would be that which had been written?

In answer to the question I made two observations.

  1. If this was indeed the mindset of the apostles, I wonder why so many of them were content to evangelize and establish churches all over the known world, to instruct them in what they were to believe and how they were to live, and never bother to write down what they were teaching.
  2. I wonder why those who did write wrote in the way they did.  St. John composes a few very short letters and in them twice comments that he’d rather not be writing at all but would much prefer to see his spiritual children face to face. St. Paul launches into subjects and then breaks off with (essentially), “I don’t need to explain further since I told you this when we were together!” None of them bother to give anything approaching a systematic statement of Christian doctrine.

It just doesn’t seem to me that the apostles were thinking like good Protestant apostles.

I mean, if I was an apostle and I believed that when I died the sole infallible authority for the churches I established would be only what I and the others had written, I would want to sit down and spell out everything I taught in the clearest of terms. We don’t find anything approximating this in the New Testament epistles. No, the apostles seem to be operating with a different set of assumptions.

In fact, when we look at one case we have in the New Testament where an apostle actually talks about the preservation of his teaching beyond his death, we find him clearly operating with a “different” set of assumptions.

The case of St. Paul

I’m referring to St. Paul and his letters to Timothy. Paul’s second epistle to Timothy appears to have been his farewell address to his spiritual son and successor in his ministry.

In chapter 4 the apostle speaks of his soon-to-come departure from this world: “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed, the time of my departure has come.” With this in mind, he gives Timothy these instructions:

Follow the pattern of sound words, which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells in you (2 Tim 1:13-14).

Notice first that the very issue here is the preservation of Paul’s teaching after his death. Notice too that not a word is spoken about “writing.” Instead Paul talks about a “pattern of sound words” that Timothy has “heard” from him. Timothy is to “guard” this pattern of sound words that has been entrusted to him, primarily through Paul’s oral teaching, “by the Holy Spirit” who dwells in him.

And then a few words later:

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).

Again, notice Paul speaks only of what Timothy has “heard.” Putting these two passages together, it seems that what St. Paul wants is for Timothy to guard and preserve everything he’s heard Paul teach by the Holy Spirit who dwells in Timothy and then to “entrust” this body of teaching to faithful men who presumably will do the same.

I’m wondering why Paul isn’t saying to Timothy, “Take these letters I’ve written, get down to the nearest Kinko’s, and have a million copies made, pronto!” Or better yet, “Let me sit down and write a clear and systematic summary of exactly what we believe and teach about every important issue relating to faith and practice.”

Why isn’t Paul acting like someone who believes that after his departure from this world Timothy and everyone else will be practicing sola scriptura? Why isn’t his focus on what he has written? Why all this talk about what Timothy has heard, about a “pattern” of sound words Timothy is to guard and preserve by the Holy Spirit and pass down? Paul doesn’t sound at all like a good Protestant apostle would sound in similar circumstances. Paul doesn’t seem to be thinking in the terms Protestants think in.

Rather, in sharp contrast, Paul seems to believe that the Holy Spirit could preserve the substance of his teaching through something like apostolic succession, and this is what he’s thinking about as the time of his death nears.

Like father, like son

Now, Paul’s way of thinking here is not without context. In fact, it fits a pattern of thinking that is really at the heart of the New Covenant promise of the Spirit.

For instance, I’m sure Paul noticed that when God the Father wanted to speak his most authoritative and eloquent Word, he spoke that Word by sending his Son, endowed with the Spirit, to teach by word and example. The book of Hebrews begins:

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . . who is the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb. 1:1-3).

I’m sure Paul noticed as well that when the Son of God wanted to ensure that his teaching would continue in the world after he had ascended to the Father, he didn’t sit down and write a book. Instead, he did exactly what his Father had done: he chose men (this time twelve), taught them, endowed them with his Spirit and authority, and sent them out to do as he had done.

And this is exactly what they did.

Yes, when there were particular needs to be addressed in various churches, the apostles wrote letters to address those needs. But in reading what they wrote, we don’t get the sense that they conceived of writing as being their primary work. Rather it was preaching, teaching, establishing churches, and training and ordaining leadership for those churches.

It’s within this context that what Paul says to Timothy makes sense. As the Father had sent the Son, as the Son had sent his apostolic messengers, so as Paul prepares to leave this world and wants to ensure that his teaching will be preserved and faithfully passed on, he doesn’t think first about writing. He doesn’t think as one would naturally think who had sola scriptura in mind.

Instead, what he thinks about is teaching Timothy everything he wants him to know and sending him forth. Timothy will guard by the Holy Spirit the truth entrusted to him and pass that truth on to other faithful men, who will likewise guard by the Holy Spirit the truth entrusted to them and pass that truth on, and so forth.

In short, we don’t see Paul preparing his spiritual children for the onset of a “Bible only” Christianity.

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