Our focus in the last three “Why I’m Catholic” blog posts has been on whether or not the New Testament presents us with a Christianity in which the Bible functions as the only real authority, all other authorities, when you get down to it, being merely advisory.
So far, from my reading of the writings of the apostles, I don’t see a hint of this. I see no evidence that Paul and John and Peter and the others had it in their minds that when they had passed from the scene Christianity would become “Bible only” Christianity—believers gathered around the Scripture, reading and discussing, asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and, ultimately, deciding for themselves what the true teachings of the Christian Faith are.
I don’t see sola scriptura in the New Testament.
But if sola scriptura isn’t the mindset of the New Testament authors, a key question immediately comes to mind: Why do Protestants, who insist that one should accept only what is clearly taught in Scripture, not only embrace sola scriptura but embrace it as the very foundation of their worldview as believers? Why?
A moment of self-reflection
I think back to my own experience as an evangelical Protestant for more twenty years. I ask myself: How did I think about this issue of authority? How did everyone I knew think about it?
The answer isn’t hard to find: I assumed sola scriptura. Every Christian I knew assumed sola scriptura. And we assumed it not because we could point to specific passages in the New Testament that actually taught a Bible only Christianity but because there was no other option in our thinking.
After all, we knew from the teaching of Scripture that Scripture itself was inspired and authoritative. What else was?
In other words, our assumption of sola scriptura followed from another assumption: that the authoritative Church we see functioning in the New Testament no longer exists. A Church that could meet in council, decide issues of faith and practice, issue decrees stating “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28) and expect those decisions to be received with joy and accepted as authoritative—our assumption was that this kind of Church no longer exists. And in the absence of such a Church, what alternative is there but to look to Scripture alone, and hope we can agree on what it’s teaching?
Let me say this another way. When we read the Gospels and watch Jesus establishing his Church, he surely seems to be establishing the kind of Church that will speak with his authority.
There should be no debate on this. Our Lord breathes his Spirit into the apostles, the Church’s living foundation stones. He sends them out to heal the sick and raise the dead in his name. Those who listen to them will be listening to him. He tells them that whoever’s sins they forgive will be forgiven, that whatever they bind on Earth will be bound in heaven. He promises that the Spirit will lead them into all the truth and that he will be with them to the end.
He’s clearly establishing the kind of Church that will speak with his divine authority. And then, when we read the book of Acts and watch this Church actually functioning in the New Testament, we see that it clearly was this kind of Church.
Again, Acts 15: As the apostles and elders met in council, their decision was the decision of the Holy Spirit. The Church at that time possessed a “magisterium” that spoke with Christ’s authority.
Finally, when we read the letters of the apostles . . .
When we hear John saying he’d rather speak with his spiritual children face to face and not write to them at all . . .
When we see Paul writing to Timothy—specifically about the preservation of his teaching—and focusing entirely on how Timothy must take everything he’s “heard” Paul teach and guard it “by the Holy Spirit” and “entrust” this teaching to faithful men who will be able to pass it on to others—and saying nothing about writing…
In short, when we listen to how the apostles speak in their letters, when we attempt to grasp their mindset, we see that the sorts of things they say make complete sense on the premise that they believed in the kind of Church in which the substance of their teaching could and would be preserved by the Holy Spirit, especially through their successors.
On the other hand, the way the apostles act and speak doesn’t make sense at all on the premise that they were looking forward to a Church in which what they had written would function as the sole infallible rule for faith and practice.
The key difference
Catholics simply believe that the Church we see Jesus establishing in New Testament, the Church we see actually functioning in the New Testament, is the Church that still exists.
That’s it in the simplest of terms.
Catholics believe that this is the kind of Church our Lord intended to continue in the world after the death of the apostles, the Church that has continued in the world, the Church that still exists.
It’s a Church filled with sinners and yet enabled by the Holy Spirit to preserve and pass down the truths of the Christian Faith so that individual believers and communities of believers can embrace, love and put into practice the truths of the Faith, rather than spending their entire lives trying to figure out what those truths are.
This is what Catholics believe about the nature of the Church. And this is why the Catholic Church speaks as it does in a way that to Protestant ears sounds like unimaginable arrogance.
For instance, take a moment to read carefully the following statement from Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican II.
It begins with a description of the inspiration and authority of Scripture that would warm the heart of any Protestant. “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”
But then it proceeds to speak of the authority of apostolic teaching as it has been preserved and passed down in the Church:
And [holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.
This notion—of the substance of the apostolic teaching as having been transmitted to the successors of the apostles and preserved by the Holy Spirit within the Church—amounts to the abandonment of sola scriptura. It sounds like heresy to a Protestant.
It also happens to sound an awful lot like the things St. Paul said to St. Timothy in 2 Timothy chapters 1 and 2! In fact, it sounds exactly like what we see when we look at the Church functioning in the New Testament!
Catholics simply believe that this is the kind of Church Jesus intended to continue in the world after the death of the apostles.
Protestants do not. Rather, Protestants believe that, with the end of the apostolic era, the authoritative Church of Acts 15 disappeared and became a Church functioning under the sole authority of Scripture.
Christianity became “Bible Christianity.”
And, again, I don’t think it’s because our Protestant brothers and sisters see “Bible only” Christianity as actually taught in the New Testament. I think it’s because they don’t believe the sort of Church we see in the New Testament exists any longer.
And in the absence of this “kind” of Church, what option is there but to look to Scripture alone?
In other words, I believe sola scriptura is what a Christian comes to when he or she has abandoned belief that there exists on earth an authoritative Church, designed by Jesus and led by the Spirit to accomplish the work of guarding, preserving, and faithfully handing down the apostolic faith. Sola scriptura is a default position.
And of course, this is precisely what happened at the time of the Reformation. The Reformers didn’t suddenly “find” sola scriptura in the New Testament. What they did was reject the authority of the Catholic Church and were left with Scripture alone.