Let us imagine a Jesuit astronaut who encounters disaster on a missionary space flight to a distant planet. His fuel system ruptures, and he loses most of his retro-rocket fuel before the leak is repaired. Now, if he is to have any chance of maneuvering into the planet’s orbit, he must strip his spacecraft of all excess weight. The fuselage of the craft is lined with cargo pods. Some contain books, because the planet is surrounded by an electromagnetic field that will cut off communication and almost assuredly destroy electronic files as the craft passes through. The priest begins pushing buttons to jettison pods containing food supplies, scientific instruments, works of art and literature, until two pods remain: one full of Bibles, the other filled with copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Mission control tells him he can keep only one pod. Bibles or catechisms?
The Bible is the word of God. The prophets, Gospels, and epistles all tell the story of salvation through Christ and the gift of eternal life. Scripture is revered by the Church as the body of Christ, and fed to the faithful from the altar with the Eucharist. He must keep the Bibles. His finger hovers over the button to jettison the catechisms, but he hesitates.
If he makes it to the planet, it will be decades, even generations before another mission arrives. He will the first Christian in an alien culture, translating Christ’s truths into a language yet unknown. He will select the first catechists and give them whatever they need to teach the faith without corruption. The catechism contains the Creed and a system for teaching this ancient rule of faith. It is the Creed that was handed down in every language and culture so that one God is worshiped, one faith is preached. The catechism presents the Christian moral life, sacraments, and prayers as they have been lived and prayed in all ages. How can he jettison the wisdom acquired from twenty centuries of teaching and living the faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?
He remembers Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Guard what has been entrusted to you” (citation). He offers up a quick prayer—”Jesus, Mary, and Joseph protect me!”—and presses a button. A muffled bang signals the launch of a pod. He turns and watches through the porthole as it drifts back through space, diminishing in size until it disappears in the deepening void.
He transmits a report of his action just before entering the planet’s electromagnetic field. When his transmission reaches earth, a cry of outrage rises up. He has jettisoned the Bibles and taken the catechisms with him. The Bible Answer Man weeps openly on the air. There is rioting outside the Vatican. A response is demanded from the pope by the World Council of Churches. The holy father ponders the priest’s dilemma, then replies that the priest did the right thing. He explains that “Sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it, and if we would learn doctrine, we must have recourse to the formularies of the Church, the catechism and the Creeds.”
Finish the story however you wish. The question is whether the priest could possibly have been right in keeping the catechisms rather than the Bibles. If you think not, and believe the Bible is far more important than anything contained in the catechism for spreading and teaching the faith, let me propose that both history and the Bible suggest another answer.
From the beginning it has been not the Bible the Church has handed on to new Christians but the deposit of the faith. This consists of four pillars: the Creed or rule of faith as taught by the Apostles, the Christian way of life and fellowship based on the Commandments, a sacramental life entered through baptism and centered on the Eucharist, and Christian prayers (with pride of place given to the Lord’s Prayer). This fourfold deposit took shape among the Apostles under the guidance of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Its pattern is evident on the day of Pentecost when the newly baptized converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [the rule of faith] and fellowship [the Christian way of life], to the breaking of bread [the Blessed Sacrament], and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Knowledge of the deposit was handed on by way of formulas, prayers, hymns, and rules of faith delivered orally. In this system of education, the Creed as the rule of faith—not the Bible—contains the foundational truths the convert must learn regarding the nature of God, the Church, the salvific act of Jesus Christ, and the gift of eternal life. These rules and formulas preceded the writing of the New Testament, and portions of them appeared in the epistles of Paul before the Gospels were written. In his letter to the Hebrews, Paul reiterated a rule of the faith he had already taught them: “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrines of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Heb. 6:1–2).
He reminds the Corinthians that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve” (1 Cor. 14:3–5). Having reiterated the Creed, he asks: “Now, if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15:12). In other words, how can you believe anything that differs with our Creed?
Entry to the Church was premised on learning and professing the Creed, article by article, in the manner of an oath. This is the origin of the Apostle’s Creed. Since the early Christians studied the Creed as their first rule of faith, it served as their first catechism. It laid the foundation for the Christian way of life, sacraments, and prayer. In this way, entire Christian communities were established and thrived without the need for Bibles. This indicates that having and reading the Bible was not essential to being Christian. It was through the Creed that they knew and declared what they believed. This is why the Church scrutinized the catechumens on the articles of the Creed and why early Christians carried the Creed in their hearts as the symbol of who they were.
This does not mean that Scripture played no role in the first years of the Church. Scripture then was the Old Testament, which provided the evidence that Jesus was who he had shown himself to be, the Messiah. It also prefigured the Christian life, liturgy, and sacraments. The mystery is that some of those most steeped in Scripture could not look up from the written page to recognize the Messiah standing before them, while others, for whom the Torah was an alien book, simply believed the Good News declared by living teachers. For these, the study of Scripture was not necessary.
When the New Testament was finally collected and compiled, it was not meant to replace the catechetical system, and the Church did not suddenly switch to teaching directly from the Bible. All the Church Fathers made ample use of Scripture to inform and buttress their arguments, but it is through their rules and traditions that they taught and governed the Church. Clement, ordained by Peter as bishop of Rome, wrote to quell a controversy among the Corinthians over the hierarchy before the end of the first century, calling on them to return to “the rule of our tradition” (citation).
The preeminent rule is the rule of faith we now call the Creed. Irenaeus, born before the middle of the second century, said “we must keep strictly, without deviation, the rule of faith” (citation). He believed that this Creed had been received directly from the Apostles. Tertullian, writing in the same period, said we have the Creed “so that we may acknowledge at this point what it is we defend” (citation). Origen (185–254) wrote: “Since many of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule” (citation).
Cyril of Jerusalem, in the middle of the fourth century, wrote, “Although not everyone is able to read the Scriptures, some because they have never learned to read, others because their daily activities keep them from such study, still so that their souls will not be lost through ignorance we have gathered together the whole of the faith in a few concise articles” (citation). He advised his followers to retain the Creed for their “nourishment throughout life” because the Creed “keeps in its heart . . . all the religious truth to be found in the Old and New Testament alike” (citation).
Augustine believed that men living according to the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity could live entirely independent of Scripture. But he did not feel the same way about the Creed. The Creed, for Augustine, was the faith upon which hope and charity were based: “On receiving the Creed, write it in your heart, and every day recite it among yourselves. Before you fall asleep, before you proceed to anything, grid yourselves with your Creed . . . . The words you have heard, scattered all across the sacred scriptures, are here gathered up and reduced to a tight unity . . . [so] everyone should be able to say and practice what he believes” (citation).
Thus we see the Christians of antiquity placed the same emphasis on the Creed as Catholics do today. Does this mean that the faithful should not be reading Scripture on their own? Hardly so. Eleven centuries before Luther, John Chrysostom encouraged laymen to read scripture themselves before coming to Mass. Jerome, living in the same period, translated the Bible from Greek to Latin because that was the language of the common people in the Roman Empire. Contrary to popular Protestant myth, the Church never hid the Bible from the faithful. But the Church maintains that Scripture is to be read in the same spirit in which it was written: that is, by believers. The faithful must first have recourse to the catechism and the Creed before entering into all other things Christian, including the Bible.
The Protestant attempt to teach the faith directly from the Bible has led only to dispute and division. There are over 28,000 distinct Protestant denominations in the world, each springing from a different interpretation of Scripture, and the number grows. Paul Johnson, in The History of Christianity, describes the proliferation of sects in Africa, most stemming from the influence of American Evangelicals. In 1948 there were over one thousand distinct African sects. By 1968 the number had risen to six thousand. Protestants may see this as the healthy growth of simple Christianity, but the practices found in some of these sects are bizarre, including nonsense liturgy, sacramental vomiting, and the rewriting of Scripture with racial overtones. Many of these sects would not be considered Christian even by mainstream Protestant standards—which brings us back to the point of our original story of the Jesuit astronaut.
The old joke is that even God does not know what a Jesuit may do next, and an interesting story can be written with the ejection of either the Bible or the catechism or both. Perhaps the most important thing to make it to the distant planet would be a living teacher with the ability to consecrate the host. You might imagine that the Jesuit might take the catechism rather than the Bible because it contains the unequivocal statement of the faith as it has been learned and lived from the beginning. It provides a system for handing on the fourfold deposit of the faith that was received by the Apostles from Christ himself.
It could also be imagined that, knowing now the experience of Protestantism, he would not want to risk introducing the Bible independent of the Creed and the catechism should anything happen to him. Scripture is in some ways like a high explosive: When handled by the misinformed or uncommitted it has been used to work great mischief around the globe, as can be seen from the recent experience in Africa. If in our space story Bibles do not make it to the planet for generations to come while the catechism does, the inhabitants would be no worse off than the early Christians on Earth. The opposite is not necessarily true.
What is the larger point in the real world? For Bible Christians it is that sending crates of Bibles to people who have no recourse through the Church to the catechism and the Creed has led only to dispute and division, confounding our Lord’s prayer that all Christians be one as the Father and Son are one (citation). The point for Catholics is that it is wrong to leap over the catechism and dive directly into Bible studies. If you want to deepen your faith, you need to crack open your catechism before you crack open your Bible. Catholics should also understand that when they leave the Catholic Church for Bible churches, they are distancing themselves from the faith of the Apostles, not getting closer to it. Bible Christians claim to live like the first Christians, but nowhere in the Bible do we find Christians carrying around Bibles the way Bible Christians do today.
The truth is that the first Christians were Creedal Christians, not Bible Christians. Theirs was a simple faith, based on the Creed they received from the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. They wrote it on their hearts, taught it to their children, recited it daily, and pondered its mystery, as did all the Christians for the next fourteen centuries, and as do faithful Catholics today. If you want to return to the simple faith of the first Christians, the last thing to do is go to a church where the members have never heard of the Creed, or if they have heard of it, they have abandoned it or emptied it of all meaning.
Never go to a church that cannot trace its teaching back to the apostolic Church that gave us the Creed before giving us the Bible. If you are reading the Bible regularly, by all means continue. It is the great gift to the Church by the Holy Spirit. Scripture can stir our hearts to a great love for the Lord and give us the courage to live and defend the faith. For those who are willing to put in the effort and who will remain faithful to the Magisterium, it is the richest source of theology known to man. But do not fool yourself into believing that reading the Bible is the first step on the road to deepening your faith, and do not confuse the Bible with the deposit of the faith that can be received and lived even in the total absence of Bibles.
One last point. The words placed in the mouth of the pope in this fictional space odyssey are the actual words of John Henry Newman upon encountering historical Christianity as a young Protestant at Oxford (from Apologia pro Vita Sua).
Do you want to deepen your faith? Inscribe the Creed on your heart, study the catechism, and, like Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Then, when you read Scripture, you will never be drawn into a false and fallible form of Christianity. You will be able to say Credo Domine—”O Lord, I believe”—and know what you are believing.