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The “Bible Only” Theory: Part II

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

The assumption of the Protestant Reformers that the Bible contains an adequate account of all that is necessary for a Christian to believe accounts to a great extent for the widespread Protestant prejudice against “tradition,” which unfortunately is understood by them as implying a merely human tradition, far removed from Catholic doctrine on the subject. For, where it is a question of the transmission of revealed truths in the Church, the Catholic doctrine is concerned, not with any merely human traditions, but with what is known as divine tradition — that is, with truths originally revealed by God and handed down in the Church under the protection of the Holy Spirit against all dangers of distortion or perversion.

Now it is certain that there were many important doctrines taught by Christ and by the apostles which were not written down in the books of the New Testament, books which were essentially of a fragmentary character. As a matter of fact, as we have already seen, it was not until some twenty or thirty years after the foundation of the Church that even part of the apostolic preaching which we have in the New Testament was committed to writing.

What the first Christians treasured was the apostolic teaching, a teaching which has been preserved in the Church partly by the New Testament writings, partly by tradition. So St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:14). St. Jude speaks of the necessity of maintaining “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). He does not speak of that part of it only which was written in the books of the New Testament. Christian teaching in its fullness, not merely the part of it which was written in the New Testament, has been preserved in the official teachings of the Catholic Church.

The transmission of traditional doctrines, however, must not be thought of as a kind of mechanical and continuous handing on by word of mouth from age to age of every express teaching of Christ and of the apostles, over and above that written down in the New Testament. Some of these doctrines may be found recorded in the writings of the early Christian Fathers, but only those which came within the scope of the particular subjects which happened to engage their attention. Others may be discovered from a study of archaeological inscriptions, or of religious customs prevailing among the faithful, or of disciplinary canons and liturgical books. But all these are only points, as it were, where the living consciousness of the Church breaks through to the surface.

Stuck with a Partial Presentation

Tradition is essentially the living memory of the Church, manifesting itself primarily in her authentic and infallible teachings, in which the Holy Spirit, according to the promise of Christ, preserves her from the possibility of error and leads her into “all truth” (John 16:13). Those who will not hear the infallible voice of the Catholic Church and who take the Bible only as their guide are committed to a merely partial presentation of Christianity, even granted that they do accurately understand so much as is contained in the written Word of God.

Let us here go back to one other thought expressed by Professor C. H. Dodd. He tells us that to the irresponsible aberrations resulting from the “open Bible” theory of the Protestant Reformers “the Church of Rome replied by an increased rigidity in its control of Bible reading.” Such a reaction is surely not unintelligible. It was William Tyndale who imagined that even “the boy that driveth the plough,” if given the Bible in his own language, would find no difficulty in discovering its true meaning. But things have not turned out as he expected. And how differently Protestant scholars speak today! Thus we find Dr. W. K. Lowther Clarke writing, “To understand the Bible thoroughly one needs an equipment of wide and varied knowledge compared with which that needed by, say, a Shakespearean scholar is modest . . . We see men with their limited capacities grappling with ideas which they comprehend only in part; obscurities, misapprehensions, even contradictions, are inevitable.”

Translators as Traitors

In the first place it must be remembered that, where it is a question of translating from one language into another — and it is still more difficult in translating ancient languages into modern speech — it is not always possible to convey to us exactly what the original writers meant.

It is this difficulty which has given us the Italian proverb ” Traduttore traditore” – a “translator is a traitor.” In many passages, it is true, substantial accuracy can be attained, but in others, and very important ones, the true sense will almost necessarily be obscured in any other language than the one originally spoken. For even when words of practically identical meaning are chosen in the new language to translate words of the original language, there are characteristic differences of thought and culture between the two languages which introduce variations of meaning.

Scholarship no Guarantee

Besides a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek words and grammar, therefore, one who would understand the sense intended by the original writers of the books in the Bible needs a thorough knowledge of the ideas current in their time. A further element of difficulty also arises where the Bible is concerned from the fact that it is not an ordinary book. It contains a mysterious revelation of God, and the wisest men, left to their own resources, are not competent judges of revealed truth.

So we see even the most learned Scripture scholars, men profoundly versed in Hebrew and Greek, the fruit of years of study, falling into innumerable and serious errors, contradicting one another and engaging in endless controversies. There is but one way out. The interpretation of Scripture must be controlled by the constant Christian teaching handed down in the Church from the very beginning, if it is not to go astray, and only the authoritative voice of the Catholic Church can give us absolute certainty as to what that authentic and traditional Christian teaching really is.

Is it any wonder that those brought up in a Protestant environment should be bewildered by the host of conflicting sects confronting them or that they should be dismayed when they come across such words in their Bible as those of St. Paul: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye speak the same thing, and that there be no division among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10)?

In sheer despair, seeing the diversity of denominations, some have decided that it is wrong to belong to any of them, and they have washed their hands of them all, determined to live their own lives, attached to no particular church, but just following out the teaching of the Bible as they themselves have conceived it to be. Yet what, more often than not, has happened in such cases? Again and again the same phenomenon has occurred. Unable to keep their ideas to themselves, such people have gathered around them others whom they have persuaded to adopt their views, and the result in the end has only been to add further new denominations to the already existent multitude of sects, rendering “confusion worse confounded.” . . . Had the Protestant Reformers been true to St. Paul’s admonition they would never have left that Church in order to set up rival churches, with all the divisions and sub-divisions to which they have led. And those among their later followers who have realized this have returned to the Catholic Church as converts, now from this Protestant denomination, now from that, as the writer of this booklet himself has done from the Anglican Church to which he originally belonged.

Their Bible Is from our Church

One can understand, of course, the reluctance of present-day Protestants to turn back to the Catholic Church for the solution of their difficulties, however disconcerting the position at which they have arrived. They still treasure the thought of the “open Bible,” and the whole of their tradition is that the Reformers had to leave the Catholic Church in order to give it to them. Moreover, they have inherited the idea that if they returned to the Catholic Church they would have to abandon such devotion to the reading of the Bible as they may have retained. If we add to these the many charges they have heard or read of actual hostility to the Bible on the part of the Catholic Church, we are still less surprised by their refusal to so much as consider her claims to their allegiance.

Yet the fact remains that all such impressions are based upon a misunderstanding and that much more thought needs to be bestowed upon the subject than is usually given to it. There is no need to dwell at length upon the antiquated charge that the Catholic Church used to burn all the Bibles she could lay her hands upon in pre-Reformation times, in order to keep them out of the hands of the people. What the Catholic Church did condemn and order to be burned were false translations of the Bible, and that was out of her sheer reverence and respect for the Bible as the Word of God which she positively refused to allow to be corrupted.

We Could Have Obliterated It

Always the Catholic Church has held Holy Scripture in the highest esteem as constituting one of the greatest gifts of Almighty God to mankind. Through the centuries before the invention of the printing press her monks carefully multiplied copies of the Bible by hand in beautifully illuminated manuscripts, thus preserving Holy Scripture for later ages. Had the Catholic Church wanted to destroy the Bible she could easily have done so during the millennium and a half before the Protestant Reformation, when all the manuscripts of it were practically in her sole possession! Nor were manuscript translations into the vernacular wanting in pre-Reformation times, although naturally they could not be widely diffused before the invention of the printing press. But these versions were known and read and quoted by the writers of all the countries both in the East and in the West. Many people have labored under misconceptions on this subject, but as the facts are becoming better known less and less is heard of any charges that the Catholic Church has ever wanted either to suppress or destroy the Bible.

Even so, it is urged, although the Catholic Church has no wish to suppress or destroy the Bible, she does not regard it as necessary. Here we come to an impression which is not without some grounds for it. Indeed, Catholic apologists themselves have stressed the fact that even if the Bible should suddenly perish from the earth, through some great calamity, it would not affect one single doctrine of the Catholic Church nor imperil her existence (See Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:4:1 [A.D. 180]).

It is to be noted that such a loss would, in the estimate of Catholics, be a great calamity. They regard the possession of the Bible as a very great blessing. At the same time, they declare that the Bible is not necessary to the existence of the Catholic Church or to the continuance of her mission to mankind, and it is that which needs to be understood. We could be reminded from the outset, as mentioned above, that if the Bible has not perished from the face of the earth we owe it to the Catholic Church, for, as we have seen, she it was who preserved it in manuscript form through all the earlier centuries.

The Bible Is not Strictly Necessary

But a much more important aspect of the subject must here be considered. The actual statement under discussion is quite evidently true, for the Catholic Church existed before a line of at least the New Testament was written, and if she could exist then, she could undoubtedly exist and have continued existing had not a line of the Gospels and of the rest of the New Testament ever been committed to writing. We must remember that the tremendous tidings of the birth of our Savior and of his accomplishment of our redemption were made known from the very beginning by the preaching of the apostles, and certainly the three thousand converts from St. Peter’s first sermon in Jerusalem were not given New Testaments! In the Acts of the Apostles, written about sixty-three years after the birth of Christ, we have the remark added that when St. Peter had completed his first discourse in public “the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). And we have already seen the statement in an earlier verse that the first Christians were “all persevering in the doctrine of the apostles” (Acts 2:42).

Advantageous. Not Essential

So the Church existed then, even though not a line of the New Testament had then been written. Yet those first members of the Church were equally Christians with those of later centuries who had the good fortune to possess copies of the Gospels. Nevertheless, although it was not absolutely essential to the existence and mission of the Church which Christ had founded, as an additional advantage to her in her work God was pleased to inspire the apostles and evangelists in their later years to commit the main part of their teaching – not all of it – to writing.

Even so, a general diffusion of the documents they left as a legacy to the Church, documents which had to be laboriously transcribed by hand, was not possible. The vast majority of Christians had still to depend on the teaching of the Church as their immediate guide to an understanding of their religion. And the invention of the printing press some fifteen hundred years later, which did make the distribution of printed Bibles possible, could not alter the age-long and God-appointed method of dependence upon the authority of Christ’s Church as the authentic source of doctrine.

There is a great difficulty here for Protestants who base their religion on the written Gospels. They are naturally puzzled by the period which elapsed between the death of Christ and the writing of the New Testament. How did Christians manage without the New Testament in the days when it did not exist?

Acutely aware of this difficulty, the prominent American Baptist, Dr. Stanley I. Stuber, declares that Protestants “believe that the New Testament preceded and paved the way for what we know today as the Church. If it had not been for the letters of Paul, the Gospels, and the Book of Revelation, there might have been no Church at all.” But that is simply to defy the facts of history. If there is one thing certain, it is that the New Testament depicts Christ as having called his twelve apostles and as having personally founded his Church upon them (Matt. 16:18, Eph. 2:20), although not a book of the New Testament was written until some twenty or thirty years after the death of Christ.

Insuperable Difficulty

The Catholic, who accepts the Church as his guide and knows that the Church existed before the New Testament was written, has no difficulty in this matter. If, however, a man thinks of the New Testament as his only guide, the difficulty for him is insuperable. But he has a mistaken notion. Not the reading of Scripture, but the teaching of the Church, was intended to be the guide of Christians. That is why Christ said, “I will build my Church,” and later commissioned that Church to go and to teach all nations (Matt. 16:18,28:19-20).

To complete our brief study of these matters, it is now necessary to consider the actual attitude of the Catholic Church in our own days toward Bible reading. For there are many misconceptions prevalent among non-Catholics from this point of view also. One can understand that this is almost necessarily so. The still-accepted idea that the Bible should be an “open book” and that everyone is capable of reading and interpreting it correctly for himself must make it difficult for those brought up as non-Catholics to understand the much more guarded attitude of the Catholic Church toward Holy Scripture. As a result of such an outlook, wise control is almost inevitably interpreted either as a prohibition of Bible reading or at least as reluctance that it should be engaged in at all.

Let’s Abandon Silly Notions

In this matter difficulties are due above all else to one’s initial mental approach to the subject, and to keep one’s mental outlook balanced it is necessary to take comprehensive historical views. In the first place, all thought that the Catholic Church, during the centuries before the invention of printing, kept her people in ignorance of the contents of Holy Scripture must be abandoned. Educated Protestants are more and more altering their conclusions on this point. Thus Dr. Cutts writes, “There is a good deal of popular misapprehension about the way in which the Bible was regarded in the Middle Ages. Some people think that it was very little read, even by the clergy, whereas the fact is that the sermons of the medieval preachers are more full of scriptural quotations and allusions than any sermons in these days, and the writers on other subjects are so full of scriptural allusion that it is evident their minds were saturated with scriptural diction.”

From Germany comes similar testimony. The Lutheran, Kropatscheck, says, “It is no longer possible to hold, as the old polemics did, that the Bible was a sealed book to both theologians and laity. The more we study the Middle Ages, the more does this fable tend to dissolve into thin air.” Another German Lutheran scholar, Dobschutz, writes, “We must admit that the Middle Ages possessed a quite surprising and extremely praiseworthy knowledge of the Bible, such as might in many respects put our own age to shame.”

Vernacular Nonsense

A great deal of nonsense has been written on the subject of translations of the Bible into the vernacular or current speech of the people. It is often asked whether it is not true that, before the Protestant Reformation, the Bible existed only in Greek and Latin manuscripts. It is forgotten that the Latin manuscripts themselves were translations from the Greek into the vernacular or current speech of the Latins. And from the earliest times, in all countries, there were further translations of Scripture into their various languages.

Restricting ourselves here to England, we find St. Thomas More writing in the sixteenth century that “the whole Bible was long before his [Wycliffe’s] day, by virtuous and well-learned men, translated into the English tongue; and by good and godly people, and with devotion and soberness, well and reverently read.” The Venerable Bede died in 735 as he was finishing the translation of the Gospel of St. John. A manuscript containing a complete Anglo-Saxon interlinear translation of the Book of Psalms, dating from 825, is still preserved in what is known as the Vespasian Psalter.

King Alfred the Great also undertook the work of translating the psalms into the vernacular English of his time. The abbot Aelfric about 990 translated many parts of both the Old and the New Testaments into English.

This translation was condemned by the Catholic authorities mainly because it was issued with a prologue containing the heretical views of the Lollards, Wycliffe’s disciples. Later editions of it, without the prologue, escaped ecclesiastical censure and attained to a wide general use even among Catholics -as far, of course, as the laborious transcription by hand in the pre- printing press days would permit the multiplication of copies.

Ecclesiastical Permission Slips

From the time of the Lollards onward, and above all during the first years following upon the invention of the printing press and the flood of Bibles which then began to be circulated, Catholics had to obtain ecclesiastical permission to possess and read vernacular translations of Holy Scripture. But it was wisdom itself on the part of the Catholic Church to condemn unauthorized translations and to insist that those who did read approved copies must interpret them in the light of consistent Catholic teaching through the ages, granting permits for such reading only to those sufficiently well-instructed in the faith. The Catholic Church had learned by long experience the danger to the faith of the people themselves if, without sufficient knowledge and instruction, the reading and interpreting of Scripture without reference to any authoritative guidance became widespread.

The history of the heresies in the first years of the Church, and in the earlier and later Middle Ages, long before the Protestant Reformation, had amply proved the fallacy and danger of the private interpretation of Scripture. Every heretic made the Bible mean just what he wished. Misuse of the sacred text by the Albigensians in France, by the Lollards in England, by the Hussites in Bohemia, and by other heretics compelled the Church to adopt a conservative attitude and restrict permissions for Bible reading to persons qualified according to the judgment of local ecclesiastical authorities.

The Proof Is in the Pudding

The results which followed almost immediately among Protestants after the Reformation and their general acceptance of the “open Bible” theory are really the best possible vindication of the prudence exercised by the Catholic Church in this matter. The more thoughtful among Protestant scholars are themselves beginning to see this. Thus the Anglican Canon Wilfrid L. Knox wrote, “There can be no doubt that the Catholic claim that the Bible without some standard of interpretation cannot be applied to the daily life of the Christian individual was true. The Reformers’ claim that the Bible alone is the final and sufficient guide for Christian belief and morality was entirely untenable. In actual fact it involved not the appeal to the Bible, but the appeal to the Bible as interpreted by some particular Reformer. The result was a multitude of warring bodies, each holding a different system of belief and anathematizing all others, the only ground of agreement being their denunciation of the errors of Rome.”

To a great extent the heated controversies of the sixteenth century belong to the past, together with all the actions and reactions they provoked. In many matters accordingly the disciplinary laws of the Catholic Church have become much milder than those designed to meet emergencies then, and here it will be of interest to ask what the Catholic position is today where Bible reading is concerned.

In the first place it must be said frankly that until recently it has not been customary in Catholic churches to lay stress on the practice of Bible reading, although Catholics are certainly in no way discouraged from engaging in it. In Catholic churches stress is naturally laid on the fulfillment of necessary duties, attendance at Mass on Sundays and other days of obligation, reception of the sacraments, the duty of personal prayer, the observance of the Ten Commandments, and fidelity to the precepts of the Church. Outside these basically necessary duties, Catholics are encouraged to participate in extra and optional devotional functions and to increase their knowledge of their religion by keeping up their Catholic reading of religious books, magazines, and newspapers.

Bible Known Well if Indirectly

They cannot do all this without growing in their understanding of the religion of the Bible, even though they do little or no direct reading of the Bible itself. It is not an exaggeration to say that if a Catholic knows his religion well he knows the religion of the Bible, and that is far better than reading the Bible yet not understanding what it really means.

How many non-Catholics there are, hosts of them, who do give themselves to Bible reading and who end by being able to quote a veritable torrent of Scripture texts they misunderstand, and who equally end therefore with very little real knowledge of the Christian religion! Who has not encountered Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists, Witnesses of Jehovah, and others like them, who pour out streams of Scripture texts without rhyme or reason, and who seem to make almost the whole of their religion consist in their ability to do so!

It would, however, be an understatement to say of Catholics merely that they are “not discouraged” from taking up the study of Holy Scripture for themselves, leaving it at that. They are positively encouraged to do so. Thus it is usual to find in the introductory pages of Catholic translations of the Bible various papal commendations of the regular habit of Bible reading. Catholics are there informed that Pope Leo XIII granted an indulgence of 300 days to all the faithful who devoutly read the Scriptures for at least a quarter of an hour each day, that Pope Pius X conferred special blessings upon Catholic societi~s established to propagate ever more widely among Catholics the reading of the Bible, and that Pope Benedict XV declared, “Our one desire for all the Church’s children is that, being saturated with the Bible, they may arrive at the all-surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ. ”

We must not, of course, misinterpret these exhortations as constituting a law. The reading of Holy Scripture for themselves still remains optional for Catholics, not necessary. There is no room in the Catholic religion for the “bibliolatry” which would like to make Bible reading the very foundation of the Christian religion. It is not.

We must not lose sight of what has been said earlier in this booklet. Christ never ordered a line of Scripture to be written. He did not command his apostles to go and distribute Bibles. He commanded them to teach all nations as he had taught them and said to them, “He who hears you, hears me” (Luke 10:16). His religion is not the “religion of a book,” but the “religion of a Church” – the religion of the Catholic Church founded by himself. . . .

Even in reading approved Catholic versions, since there is always the possibility of individual readers misinterpreting the Bible, Catholics are obliged to make sure that they do not adopt any interpretation which is opposed to the defined teachings of the Catholic Church. Catholics at least have the humility to admit that, where it is a question of the meaning of Holy Scripture, they themselves are more liable to be mistaken than the Catholic Church, with its accumulated wisdom of two thousand years and the abiding protection of the Holy Spirit promised to their Church by our Lord himself.

We Aren’t Fetishists

It is sometimes said by non-Catholics that Catholics do not read their Bibles or that at least they give no signs of being familiar with them. Now it is true that Catholics do not make a fetish of memorizing an endless list of isolated Bible texts in order to be able to quote from them, whether intelligently or unintelligently, whenever an opportunity occurs. But in the majority of Catholic homes, if not the complete Bible of both Old and New Testaments, there would be at least copies of the New Testament. And far more Catholics read Holy Scripture for themselves than is commonly supposed by non-Catholics.

But, as we have seen, it would not really matter if they did not. Bible reading is not necessary for salvation, and it is even better not to read it than to read it and be led astray through one’s own incompetence, “wresting it,” as St. Peter says, to one’s “own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).

If any individual Catholic is ignorant of any particular aspect of biblical knowledge, it would obviously be because he had had neither the time, nor perhaps the ability, nor even perhaps the inclination to devote himself to the study of the particular.aspect in question. But whatever may be said from that point of view, no ordinarily well-instructed Catholic is ignorant of the substantial contents of the Bible.

Even though he does not devote additional time to reading the Bible for himself, he has been taught his Bible history during his school days, he hears the Bible read and explained to him at Mass on Sundays, he finds biblical truth enshrined in all forms of Catholic devotion, and he knows how to live the faith which the Bible teaches.

In conclusion, let us sum up briefly the position maintained in this booklet. Firstly, without the authority of the Catholic Church there can be no absolutely certain guarantee that the Bible is the Word of God. Secondly, the Bible is a book which needs an interpreter. Thirdly, the Bible itself tells us that it is not the only source of religious truth and that Christian tradition is also a source from which we can learn what God has revealed. Fourthly, the Bible tells us that Christ instituted his Church to teach us in his name what we must believe and do in order to be saved.

Our immediate standard, therefore, is the official teaching of Christ’s Church. The Bible and tradition are remote standards of doctrine, to be understood as interpreted by the Church. The Catholic Church insists that all men must accept the true religion of Christ and that all those teachings she has defined as articles of faith truly represent the religion of Christ. And however else they may differ, she does secure the complete unity of over four hundred and fifty millions of Catholics throughout the world where the essential teachings of their religion are concerned.

She outnumbers in membership all other Churches separated from her, and these other Churches are ever lamenting their divisions among themselves and their inability to devise ways and means to attain to a unity which is a reality in the Catholic Church.

It is in the Catholic Church, then, and in the Catholic Church only, that the unity for which our Lord prayed is to be found, and the innumerable converts who have become Catholics in order to share in that unity are unanimous that the Bible itself, properly understood, leads only in the direction they took and which led them to that “peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ” which he wills all his followers to possess.

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