Jesus knew the power of questions. In evangelization and apologetics, we often (myself included) present the truth by laying out the facts as if we were presenting a court case. That’s a necessary part of getting a message across. But recently I’ve come to appreciate a somewhat overlooked means of bringing others to recognize truth: the question.
Two things sparked my interest in questions. While reading the Gospel of Luke, I noticed that when the child Jesus was in the Temple amazing the teachers with his wisdom, he wasn’t—as he is sometimes pictured—lecturing them. Instead he communicated his wisdom by “listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2: 46).
After becoming attuned to Jesus’ use of questions, I began to notice how often they occurred in his preaching (e.g., Mark 11:29–30, 12:16). His inquiries were like arrows dipped in the oil of the Holy Spirit, piercing hearts and minds as they penetrated to the very core of the matter.
The second cause for my new interest in “question apologetics” was my own failure. Not long ago I had the opportunity to meet with someone who had questions about the Catholic faith. He asked and I answered—or tried to. Afterward, thinking he seemed little moved by our discussion, it occurred to me that I might have better revealed the truth—both of his position and of the Catholic faith—had I asked some questions instead of only trying to answer them.
That led me to think it would be helpful to commit to memory some questions dealing with issues most often debated by Protestants and Catholics. And what better place to begin than with the hotly contested topic of just what is the source of truth? If we could agree on that, on how much more could we agree?
A widely held, foundational belief in Protestantism is that all theological truth is contained in the Bible alone, and it alone is the sole rule of Christian faith. When this is asserted with sincerity and conviction, we Catholics often get mired in giving specific Bible references for every word we utter. Instead, I thought, in response to the question “Where’s that in the Bible?” why don’t we ask a few pertinent questions of our own?
A word of caution here. There is an inherent danger in listing questions out of the context of a conversation. It can give the impression of a cross-examination. For the best use of space and the easiest way to remember the key questions, I have listed them. But I don’t suggest that we ambush our friends or challengers with one inquiry after another. Instead, we would do better to listen with respect, as Jesus did in the temple, and then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, decide how to respond. Our goal is not to force-feed people the truth of Catholicism but to make them hungry for it.
The “Bible Alone”: How Does That Work?
The Challenge: Your Protestant friend contends that the Bible is the only source of Christian truth and asks you to show him in Scripture the supporting references for your Catholic beliefs. Since Catholicism is solidly biblical, your first instinct is to plunge ahead. But then you’d be accepting his premise that all truth must be found explicitly and only in Scripture. The real issue with is whether or not his assumption is correct. You begin by asking just how the “Bible alone” method works, inviting him to examine whether or not it is reliable in bringing him to the sure knowledge of the truth.
- Can I ask you just what do you mean when you say you believe in the “Bible alone”?
- Doesn’t someone have to interpret the Bible to determine what it means, even if it’s only the person reading it? Doesn’t that compromise the purity of the Bible’s message?
- To understand the meaning of Bible texts, don’t you listen to sermons, participate in Bible studies, and read Christian books?
- Are those sources Scripture? Do the pastors, Bible teachers, and authors guarantee that their interpretations are free from error?
- Without that guarantee, isn’t it true that there’s no way to tell for sure if you’ve been given the correct interpretation?
- If you can’t know the truth with certitude by using the Bible alone, how can the Bible possibly be enough?
- Do you know what renowned Protestant pastor A. W. Tozer said on this subject? He said, “I suppose more people would like me to declare that I preach the Bible and nothing but the Bible. I attempt to do that, but honesty compels me to say that the best I can do is to preach the Bible as I understand it” (The Tozer Pulpit, vol. 2, Christian Publications, Camp Hill, PA, , 10–11).
- Do you know what Pastor Tozer wished he had to insure that he’d come to the right understanding of Scripture? He would liked to have heard from “one of the apostles or any of the great early fathers of the church” (ibid., 9).
- Do you think that the apostles’ interpretation of Scripture would be reliable? More reliable than your pastor’s? Would you accept the apostolic teaching on scriptural topics like baptism and Communion if it were possible to know it?
Practically speaking, it is impossible to rely on the Bible alone. Those who claim to do so are in fact continually looking to other sources in an attempt to understand the Bible. And those sources do not guarantee that they will always give a correct explanation, i.e., one intended by the Holy Spirit.
No Protestant, “Bible-alone” Christian or denomination claims that they will always interpret Scripture without error. The result, which they may not often contemplate, is that they can never be completely sure of arriving at the truth. How can they know with certainty that their view of Scripture is correct and that the interpretation of the pastor down the block, which disagrees with theirs, is mistaken? The Bible alone can’t resolve this dilemma.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has never lost the reliable apostolic interpretation of Scripture. This authentic interpretation, found within the Church, enables all who will heed it to have the word of God in “full purity” (Dei Verbum 9), free from the admixture of human error—that ever-present danger that those who rely on the “Bible alone” must face continually.
The “Bible Alone”: Where Did That Come from?
You’re told that, from the very start of Christianity, it was the practice of believers to depend on the Bible alone as the one authoritative source of doctrine. The Catholic Church is accused of innovation by straying from this early Church standard of sola scriptura.
- Where did the teaching come from of relying on the Bible alone? Can you show me when it started?
- Did the first-century Christians bring their Bibles with them to church?
- No? So the doctrine of “Bible alone” doesn’t go back to the beginning of Christianity? It wasn’t started by Jesus or the apostles nor practiced in the early Church?
- If Christians were intended by our Lord to rely only upon the Bible for truth, then from the start Bibles would have to have been available to the average believer, don’t you agree?
- So when was the Bible available to the average believer?
- In order to have the Bible, it was necessary first to determine which books were inspired by the Holy Spirit, right? Otherwise, how would a person know that what they’re reading was the word of God?
- Did you know that the canon of Scripture wasn’t fully settled until the end of the fourth century?
- But even after that, the average Christian couldn’t have gotten his hands on a Bible, because the printing press wasn’t invented until the fifteenth century—and even then most people couldn’t read. Since it was impossible for the vast majority of Christians to have regular access to a Bible for at least the first fifteen centuries of Christianity, how could the doctrine of “Bible alone” have been the teaching of the early Church and the standard for Christianity?
- Have you ever heard of the doctrine of “Bible alone”— sola scriptura—being a part of Christian teaching before the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century?
- Since it began with the Protestant Reformers and over the course of Christian history was not practiced by the vast majority of believers, on what grounds do you claim that sola scriptura should be the standard for all true Christians?
Clearly, the doctrine of “Bible alone” was not part of early Christianity. Nor could it have been the standard practice of Christians for at least fifteen centuries. The Reformation did not bring back the teaching of sola scriptura; the Reformation brought it about.
The “Bible Alone”: What If God Gave More?
True Christians, it is claimed, believe that the Bible—the written word of God—is the only source of authoritative truth. To add any other source then—such as Apostolic Tradition—to Scripture is to deviate from authentic Christianity.
- Would you say that you consider the early Church—the New Testament Church—to be the model of authentic Christian belief and practice?
- We’ve already seen that, practically speaking, it was impossible for these first believers to rely on the Bible alone as their sole guide to truth, but certainly they were not without the truth. The question then becomes, what was their source of truth?
- In a number of places in Scripture we see that the source of truth for the first Christians was the oral teaching of the Apostles (e.g., Acts 2:42, 16:4; 2 Tim.1:11–14). Do you think this apostolic teaching was a valid and reliable guide? Even when this teaching was given orally and not in writing (2 Thess. 2:15)?
- Paul went so far as to commend the Thessalonians for the fact that they received this apostolic teaching “which you heard from us [the apostles] . . . not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13, emphasis added). Would you agree with Scripture that the teaching of the apostles, which they received from Christ, was the word of God?
- So then, like you, the early Christians looked to the word of God for the truth. The difference is that they recognized the word of God as being found in the teaching of the apostles—most of it passed on orally and not in writing. Would you say they were wrong? If we really want to be like the early Church, shouldn’t we follow their example?
- Were those first Christians true Christians even though they didn’t rely on the Bible alone as their source of truth? Do you think those who follow the teaching of the apostles—oral and written—like the first believers should be thought of as lesser Christians than those who rely on the Bible alone?
- Does the Bible say that there would come a time when we should no longer follow the teaching of the apostles handed on in the Church and look only to written Scripture? Or does it support the validity of the apostolic teaching?
- Is the Holy Spirit is able to preserve the oral teaching of the apostles as he has the written word? And if he has, would you want to know it?
- Although it may seem too good to be true, what if I were to tell you that the Holy Spirit has preserved the apostolic teaching in full—oral and written? Would it be worth the effort to investigate and find out? What if, as we see in the New Testament, God has given us more than the Bible alone as a means to know the truth? Would you accept it?
- By the way, do you know what that Tradition is you hear Catholics talk about? It’s not referring to manmade customs, but to the very thing we’ve been discussing: the teaching of the apostles handed on and lived in the Church. We use the word Tradition because it means “a handing on.”
From the witness of New Testament, we see it was not the Bible alone that was the Christian’s guide to truth, but the teaching of the apostles, preserved and handed on within the Church. If we really want to be like the early Christians, we should continue to follow the teaching of the apostles—written and oral, Scripture and Tradition—and not just the Bible alone. If God gave more than the Bible alone, shouldn’t we accept it gratefully?
A final mindbender: If you don’t believe the Holy Spirit infallibly guides the Catholic Church, how can you believe the Bible is the word of God? This very Church discerned and declared which early writings were Scripture and which were not. Without the Catholic Church there would be no Bible. And do you know what, according to the Bible, is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)? Scripture? No—the Church. Who, then, can do without it?
Suggested Resources: To read about the teaching of the apostles as it was passed on in the early Church, check out:
The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1, translated by William Jurgens, published by the Liturgical Press.
Early Christian Writings, advisory editor Betty Radice, published by Penguin Classics.
Documents of the Christian Church, edited by Henry Bettenson, published by Oxford University Press.