Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

The “Bible Only” Theory: Part I

If the average man were asked what was the main achievement of the Protestant Reformation, he would probably reply that it substituted the Bible for the Catholic Church as the final authority in religion. William Chillingworth (1602-1644), in his Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation, summed up the position by giving us his famous declaration: “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestants.” And to the Bible Protestants have ever tended to attribute all the blessings, even in temporal things, which have seemed to come their way.

Thus it became traditional for Englishmen to say that the secret of England’s greatness and tolerance was to be found in the “open Bible.” They were, of course, insular in their outlook, not adverting to the fact that lesser Protestant countries, equally devoted to the “open Bible,” did not reap the same material benefits and apparent prosperity as that which fell to their own lot.

Nor did they see the danger of linking the truth of their religion with their progress in earthly wealth and power, an argument which would prove the Catholic religion of Spain the true religion when she was the dominant nation in the world and which would prove Protestantism false with the decline of England’s prestige! As for the Bible being the source of England’s love of freedom and spirit of tolerance, history scarcely vindicates its possession of such attributes. It was to escape intolerance and to enjoy freedom of religion for themselves that the first English settlers fled to America.

But there have been delusions here also. Those first settlers were children of their age, and the Protestants among them still subscribed wholeheartedly to Chillingworth’s dictum that “the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants.” They brought their Bibles with them, and they honestly believed that they had come to America to escape tyranny and to practice the freedom and liberty which they had learned from the Scriptures. But if they declared themselves to be “free men in Christ and determined to remain so,” history shows that they too failed, as England had failed, to apply their principles impartially. Their concern was to have freedom themselves, not to grant it to others who did not happen to share their own religious convictions. All that, of course, at least to a very great extent, belongs to a past age. No one could say that religious intolerance no longer exists, but it is undoubtedly much less than it was even a generation ago. Yet it has often been observed that, although there is no necessary connection between the two things, the growth of a spirit of tolerance has been accompanied by a decline of interest in the Bible and an increase of indifference to religion generally….

Without fear of being accused of exaggeration, one could certainly speak in a similar way of America, and this state of growing indifference to the Bible surely compels us to ask ourselves whether there has not been something radically wrong with an approach to the Bible and to the reading of it which did away with the traditional safeguards and guidance accepted throughout the whole of Christendom until the sixteenth-century Reformers persuaded their followers to stake everything on the Bible alone, each man reading it for himself and making of it what he could.

The “Open Bible” as Guide

In the first place we must ask whether the Bible alone was ever meant by God to be the one and only authentic source of doctrine for Christians. No question here arises as to the truth of what is contained in the Bible. If a Protestant declares it to be the inspired Word of God, containing the “untold beauties and glories of Christ,” no instructed Catholic would dream of disagreeing with him. Difficulty arises only when the claim is made that the Bible is complete, simple, and clear, telling us all that we need to know as regards doctrines to be believed and all that we need to do in order to conduct ourselves as Christians should throughout our lives in this world.

From the outset, for those willing to think into this matter, the claim that the Bible is a complete guide creates an insuperable problem owing to the fact that it expressly declares that it is not complete. All that is in the Bible is true, but not all that is true is to be found written within it. Christ commanded his apostles to teach mankind “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Yet St. John concludes his Gospel by saying, “There are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25).

One who declares that the Bible by itself is a complete guide is therefore professing a doctrine not only not contained in the Bible, but one at variance with it. In the last analysis, we cannot escape the conclusion that he is but voicing a purely human and Protestant tradition, strongly as he may protest against the reliability of any tradition.

Again, the claim that the Bible is simple is negatived by the Bible itself. Far from supporting that idea St. Peter, in speaking of St. Paul’s epistles, declares that in them there are “things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). That does not sound as if the Bible were so simple.

Finally, if the Bible were indeed clear, how can we account for the fact that Protestants who have taken it as their only authentic guide have so failed to agree among themselves as to what it means that they have split up into over four hundred different and conflicting sects?

What Did Christ Intend?

It can be said here, a thought to which we shall return later, that the man who declares that he accepts only the Bible as his authority in religious matters does not really mean it. For he really believes in what he himself thinks any given passage of the Bible to mean, which might not be what the Bible means at all. For such a person, the only ultimate authority in religious matters is not that of the Bible, but that of his own judgment concerning it, and he has no assurance that his own judgment is any more reliable than that of others whose interpretation differs from his and who honestly believe his interpretation to be quite mistaken.

I mention this here merely to bring out the fact that the Catholic position is not affected by such difficulties. For it holds that Christ never intended the Bible alone to be each man’s “guide book” to religious truth. His method was to establish a Church authorized by him to teach mankind in his name. He chose his apostles, trained them, and commissioned them to go and to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, “teaching them all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). He did not tell them to write any books. No books of the New Testament were written until years after his death.

But the first Christians were not without guidance. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that they “were persevering in the doctrine of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). Christ, therefore, meant the official teaching of the apostles and of their successors in the Church to be our guide, not the written Bible which is so liable to misinterpretation by its various individual readers, however sincere they may be. The Bible, as the very Word of God, is true in itself, but not all the conclusions people choose to draw from it are necessarily right. And this brings us to a further and very vital point of divergence between the position of Protestants generally and that of the Catholic Church.

“Private Interpretation”

Apart from the question of the adequacy or inadequacy of the Bible, the problem of its interpretation is one of the first importance. It can have authority for us as the Word of God only provided we rightly g.asp exactly what God intended to say. No meanings other than those he intended to be read into the text by men have any divine authority at all.

It has been said that once one admits that the Bible contains the revelation of God himself, then we have to admit that no man can go wrong if he is guided by it. If he were really guided by it, that would of course be true, at least as regards that part of divine revelation which has been recorded in its pages. But the trouble is that a man can wrongly think he is being guided by the Bible when in reality he is not, owing to his having misunderstood it. And is it not true, passing over for the moment the fact that for over a thousand years before the invention of the printing press it was impossible for each man to have a Bible, that when universal distribution became possible sincere and earnest Bible readers arrived at a multitude of conflicting conclusions? If private interpretation were God’s way, the same Holy Spirit would have led all confiding in his assistance to one and the same truth.

Against these considerations, the command of Christ has been urged that we “search the Scriptures” (John 5:39). But the thousands of well-intentioned Protestants who have quoted those words as if indeed they were a command have been led astray by the translation in the Protestant Authorized Version of the Bible, a translation which has been corrected in the Protestant Revised Version to “You search the Scriptures.” Christ was stating a fact, not giving a command. He was addressing a group of Jews and blaming them for not recognizing him as the fulfillment of all that the Scriptures had predicted about him. The . . . Protestant Revised Standard Version describes him as saying, “You do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.”

As a matter of fact, the whole passage is fatal to the contention that by searching the Scriptures one will necessarily arrive at the truth. The very ones to whom Christ was speaking had searched the Scriptures in the sincere belief that by such means they would learn all that was necessary for eternal life. Christ acknowledged that they really thought in such a way. And yet they had not arrived at the truth!

“Bible Its Own Interpreter”

A way out of these difficulties was thought to be found in the contention that the Bible, as no other book can boast, is its own interpreter. After all, it was urged, since the Bible contains the inspired Word of the infinite God, no interpretation of it by any finite mind could possibly do it justice. We must therefore hold that the Word of God interprets itself to each sincere reader of the Bible.

It is really impossible, though, to maintain such a position. Although sacred Scripture is inspired by the “infinite God,” we cannot escape accepting the interpretation placed upon it by finite minds. After all, Scripture must mean something. To declare that meaning is to interpret it. And as human beings have only finite minds, they must either rely on meanings derived from it by their finite minds or refuse to attribute any meaning to Scripture at all.

No book, even one inspired by God, can be its own interpreter, and the very suggestion that the Bible is self-interpreting is opposed to its own teaching. For not only does the Bible nowhere claim to be “its own interpreter,” it declares the very opposite. Thus we read in the Acts of the Apostles that, when Philip found the Ethiopian reading the Bible, he said to him, “Thinkest thou that thou understandest what thou readest?” The man replied, “And how can I, unless some man show me?” Then Philip, in the name of the Church, interpreted the Scriptures for him (Acts 8:27-39).

Writing to Timothy, St. Paul tells him that it is the Church of the living God which is “the pillar and the ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Again, he tells him, as a bishop of that Church, to “keep the good thing committed to thy trust by the Holy Ghost…Preach the word…reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine” (2 Tim. 1:14, 3:2). What does that mean but to interpret Scripture correctly and insist on the acceptance of the true interpretation declared in the name of the Church wherever it is a question of such doctrines as are contained in the Bible? The choice, then, is between interpretations proposed by unauthorized and fallible human minds and those of an authorized and infallible teacher in this world if such exists. The Bible contains the truth, but not everyone, even with the best of good will, is able to discern the truth it contains.

The Bible needs an authoritative teacher to explain its meaning in innumerable passages if misunder-standings are to be avoided. If a teacher is needed in schools to explain the text-books dealing with the mysteries of nature itself, how much more necessary is a teacher to explain the mysteries of divine revelation contained in Holy Scripture! The Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church alone, claims to be the divinely-appointed and infallible teacher at hand for this purpose, and hers is the only truly biblical position.

“Holy Spirit Speaks”

Lacking faith in the Catholic Church and not finding her claims acceptable, Protestants go on to declare that even if the Bible as a book cannot be its own interpreter, at least the Holy Spirit is infallible, and he can render each reader infallible in his interpretations provided he has faith in Christ and is prepared to rely entirely upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But if each sincere reader of the Bible is rendered infallible by the Holy Spirit in discerning the meaning God intended to reveal, what is this but to claim for each believer an infallibility before which the much more modest claims of Catholics to one infallible pope pale into insignificance!

But descending from the ideal plane to that of the real, is it not astonishing that millions of would-be infallible readers of the Bible are not dismayed by the fact that they arrive at a multitude of mutually-exclusive conclusions? Results in practice make it almost a b.asphemy to say that the Holy Spirit has anything to do with such a host of contradictory interpretations.

Just consider the multitude of different Protestant churches which have been established in accordance with the immense variety of opinions arising from the private interpretation of Holy Scripture! Thus we have Lutherans and Calvinists, Anglicans and Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, and the host of more recent sects, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Witnesses of Jehovah, and an almost unending list of others, each claiming to be based upon the Bible.

The height of absurdity is reached by such extravagances as those of the Kentucky snake cults whose members believe they can be bitten at will by poisonous reptiles without any ill-effects, thinking their practice to be justified by a passage in St. Mark’s Gospel: “They shall take up serpents…and it shall not hurt them” (Mark 16:18).

In reality, they base their practice on their own wrong interpretation of those words. Christ did not say that the miraculous sign he promised would be always operative for everybody. Among the signs shown by his followers sometimes even such things as being unharmed by serpents could be expected. But always it would be a miracle wrought by God when God willed, not a kind of magic within the power of deluded people when they willed. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that St. Paul was bitten by a viper and that God preserved him from harm (Acts 28:5). But St. Paul was not guilty of presumption, deliberately allowing himself to be bitten and then challenging God to protect him–a form of presumption which our Lord expressly condemned (Luke 4:12).

When the devil told Christ to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, quoting Scripture to show that no harm would come to him, our Lord replied, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matt. 4:7). Men have not the right to dare God to do even what they think, rightly or wrongly, that God has promised to do.

Even in the earliest years of the Protestant Reformation, during the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare made Bassanio say, “In religion, what damned error, but some sober brow will bless it, and approve it with a text” (Merchant of Venice, III:2). But it is doubtful whether Shakespeare himself foresaw such grotesque outbreaks resulting from the so-called principle of private judgment as those of the Kentucky snake cults!

What has to be noticed, however, is that such fantastic cults are the effect of the same principle as that claimed for themselves by the more sedate and respectable Protestant denominations which reject the authority of the Catholic Church and declare that they have the right to be guided by their own individual interpretations of Holy Scripture.

Bible and Reunion of Churches

There is a growing consciousness of the evil of all these divisions among Protestants today. They pay much more attention than they once did to the prayer of Christ “that they all may be one as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee” (John 17:21). More and more we hear them speaking about “the sin of our disunity.” But the astonishing thing is that they still believe that the only thing needed to bring about unity is for all men to take up the study of one and the same Bible for themselves. This is merely to propose as a remedy for their divisions the very thing that caused them in the first place.

A few years ago a series of letters on this very subject appeared in the British Spectator. Toward the conclusion of the correspondence a most significant comment was sent in by Mr. Hamilton Fyfe, of the Rationalist Press Association–by a man, therefore, who, far from being a Catholic, repudiates all belief in the Christian religion. Here is what he wrote [March 30, 1951] to the editor of the Spectator:

“Sir: I felt sure someone would write to you in answer to the astonishing suggestion of W. L. C. Bond that more intense study of the Bible would lead to a reunion of all the Christian sects. As no one seems to have done so, may I point out that it was precisely Bible-reading which created this disunion? As soon as people were allowed to interpret the Scriptures according to their own fancies, prejudices, or craziness, a great many sects were formed, and the unity of Western Christendom, which had prevailed until the sixteenth century, was broken forever.To suppose it could be restored by further doses of the poison which killed it is fantastic.”

Not for a moment does the citation of that letter imply approval of the unbelief of so-called “rationalists.” But this particular rationalist has seen at least how inevitably divisions must result from the Protestant principle of the private interpretation of the Bible.

Catholic Attitude

In the light of all this, surely it is not difficult to understand the objections of the Catholic Church to the idea that each reader individually should constitute himself an independent judge as to the meaning of the Bible. As I have suggested earlier, this is practically to claim that each reader is rendered infallible by the Holy Spirit as often as he devotes himself earnestly to the reading of Holy Scripture, a claim far in excess of any claim made by Catholics even for that one man only, the pope, whose infallibility is exercised on isolated occasions only and within the limits of the most exacting conditions.

Even Bernard Shaw was fully alive to this.aspect of the subject. “Perhaps,” he wrote, in the preface to his play Saint Joan, “I had better inform my Protestant readers that the famous dogma of papal infallibility is by far the most modest pretension of the kind in existence. Compared with our infallible democracies, our infallible medical councils, our infallible astronomers, our infallible judges, and our infallible parliaments, the pope is on his knees in the dust confessing his ignorance before the throne of God, asking only that as to certain historical matters on which he clearly has more sources of information open to him than anyone else his decision shall be taken as final.”

What, then, does the Catholic Church say? She permits and encourages the private reading of Scripture. But she says definitely that no one has the right to interpret the Bible for himself in any way opposed to the official teachings of the Catholic Church. Passing over the fact that the majority of people lack the required training in the many different sciences bearing upon scriptural interpretation necessary even for a merely natural understanding of the Bible, we have to reckon with the positive provision made by Christ for our instruction in his religion.

The Bible itself tells us that “no prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20). It tells us that Christ established and guaranteed his Church, that he commissioned that Church to “teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19) in his name, and that he said of it, “he that heareth you, heareth me” (Luke 10:16), and also, “If a man will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen” (Matt. 18:17). No wonder St. Paul declared the “Church of the living God” to be “the pillar and the ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

That, then, is the Catholic position. Christ never made his religion dependent upon each individual’s private interpretation of the Bible. His infinite wisdom would not choose a method which would lead, and has led, as we have seen, to division, chaos, and driftage from religion altogether. He established the Catholic Church, and that Church can say with her divine Master to those who profess to believe in the Bible that the very Scriptures upon which they claim to rely bear witness of her (John 5:39). She is the appointed guide to which, in obedience to Christ, we Catholics submit.

Speaking of the sixteenth-century Reformers, the eminent Congregationalist Scripture scholar, Professor C. H. Dodd, says, “In placing the Bible at the disposal of the uninstructed they took a fateful step. It could now be read, and was widely read, ‘without note or comment,’ without the guidance which had been supplied by tradition. To allow and encourage this was inevitably to admit the right of private judgment in interpreting it. [It was now] exposed to the possible vagaries of private interpretation, an absolute authority displacing the authority of the Catholic Church. The Church of Rome replied by an increased rigidity in its control of Bible-reading. The cleavage which ensued had unfortunate results. In the churches of the Reformation…the claim that the Bible could be read, just as it stood, without the guidance of tradition…exposed it to the dangers of a chaotic individualism. Where there was no longer a common standard or perspective, the line was not easily drawn between a just freedom of responsible judgment and the play of arbitrary preference….The demand for unqualified freedom opened the way to limitless aberrations. An extreme example is to be found in the exploitation of the more obscure ‘apocalyptic’ writings such as the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New, which became the licensed playground of every crank” (The Bible Today, 21-23).

It is true that Professor Dodd stops short of the final goal to which such thoughts should logically lead. But that merely means that he has not yet attained to the positive and supernatural grace of the Catholic faith in all its fullness. What is encouraging is to find a Protestant biblical scholar glimpsing something of the Catholic outlook on this subject.

This is the first in a two-part series. You can access part two here.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!