In Catholic Answers’ seminars we try to emphasize the point that you should always demand that a missionary who comes to your door first establish his authority for what he is going to tell you, and only then proceed to discuss the particular issues he has in mind.
By “authority,” we don’t mean his personal or academic credentials. We mean his authority to claim he can rightly interpret the Bible. The missionary (unless he is a Mormon, of course, in which case his authority is the Book of Mormon) will always claim to fall back on the authority of Scripture. “Scripture says this” or “Scripture proves that,” he will tell you.
So before you turn to the verses he brings up, and thus to the topic he brings up, demand that he demonstrate a few things.
First, ask him to prove from the Bible that the Bible is the only rule of faith (if he’s an Evangelical or Fundamentalist Protestant he holds to the Reformation theory of sola scriptura—the Bible alone).
Second, have him tell you how he knows which books belong in the Bible in the first place.
And third, require that he prove to you both that he has the authority to interpret the Bible for you (remember that his doctrines will almost always be drawn from interpretations of the sacred text rather than the words themselves) and that his interpretations will always be accurate.
Imagine the conversation goes something like this:
“Good afternoon, neighbor. May I share a few words of Christian truth with you?”
“Sure,” you say. “Where do you get this truth?”
“From the Bible, of course.”
“That’s your authority? The Bible?”
“Yes, it’s the only authority for Christians.”
“Can you prove that from the Bible?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t believe the Bible claims to be the sole rule of faith. I mean the doctrine of sola scriptura is itself unbiblical. Please show me where the Bible claims such a status for itself.”
A Sufficient Rule of Faith?
At this point the missionary probably will bring up one of several verses. The passage most commonly brought up by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists is 2 Timothy 3:16–17. In the King James Version, the verse reads this way: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
Many claim that 2 Timothy 3:16–17 claims Scripture is sufficient as a rule of faith. But an examination of the verse in context shows that it doesn’t claim that at all; it only claims Scripture is “profitable” (Greek: ophelimos), that is, helpful. Notice that the passage nowhere even hints that Scripture is “sufficient”—which is, of course, exactly what Protestants think the passage means.
Point out that the context of 2 Timothy 3:16–17 is Paul laying down a guideline for Timothy to make use of Scripture and tradition in his ministry as a bishop. Paul says, “But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; and that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (Greek: theopneustos = “God-breathed”), and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:14–17).
In verse 14, Timothy is initially exhorted to hold to the oral teachings—the traditions—that he received from the apostle Paul. This echoes Paul’s reminder of the value of oral tradition in 1:13–14, “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us” (RSV), and “what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2:2). Here Paul refers exclusively to oral teaching and reminds Timothy to follow that as the “pattern” for his own teaching (1:13). Only after this is Scripture mentioned as “profitable” for Timothy’s ministry.
The few other verses that might be brought up to “prove” the sufficiency of Scripture can be handled the same way. Not one uses the word “sufficient”—each one implies profitability or usefulness, and many are given at the same time as an exhortation to hold fast to the oral teaching of our Lord and the apostles. The thing to keep in mind is that nowhere does the Bible say, “Scripture alone is sufficient,” and nowhere does the Bible imply it.
Understanding the Bible’s Role
After you have demonstrated that the verses the missionary brings up simply don’t prove this point, continue the discussion this way:
“If you recognize Scripture for what it is, you’ll see it wasn’t intended to be an instructional tool for converts. In fact, not one book of the Bible was written for non-believers. The Old Testament books were written for Jews, the New Testament books for people who already were Christians.
“Just look at the 27 books of the New Testament. You won’t find one that spells out the elements of the faith the way catechisms do or even the way the ancient creeds did. Those 27 books were written for the most part as provisional documents addressed to particular audiences for particular purposes.
“Most of the epistles,” you continue, “were written to local churches that were experiencing moral and/or doctrinal problems. Paul and most of the other New Testament writers sent letters to these local churches (e.g., 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians) in order to rectify these problems. There was no attempt on the part of the writers to impart a vast body of basic doctrinal instruction to non-believers nor even to simply summarize everything for the believers who received the letters.”
“I don’t agree with any of that,” replies the missionary. “The New Testament is the basis of the Christian faith.”
“But how can it be,” you respond, “since the Christian faith existed and flourished for years before the first book of the New Testament was written? The books of the New Testament were composed decades after Christ ascended into heaven, and it took centuries for there to be general agreement among Christians as to which books composed the New Testament.
“And that brings up another point. How do you know what constitutes the New Testament canon? How do you know for certain that these 27 books here in your New Testament are in fact inspired and should be in the New Testament?”
“Well, the early Christians agreed on the 27 books,” answers the missionary. “The Holy Spirit led them to this agreement.”
“Sure the Holy Spirit did, but only over a pretty long period of time, and a study of early Christian history shows that there was a considerable disagreement among Christians until the issue of the canon was finally settled. Some early Christians said the book of Revelation didn’t belong in the canon. Others said Pope Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians (written circa A.D. 80) and The Shepherd, an early second-century allegory written by a Christian writer named Hermas did belong in the New Testament. How do you handle that?”
“We know by examining the contents of the books. Some books—like 1 Corinthians and Revelation—obviously belong. Others—like Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians—obviously don’t.”
“But is it really so obvious? Tell me, what is so obvious in Philemon to indicate that it is inspired? And what is so obviously unorthodox in The Shepherd or the Didache or Clement’s letter or any of the other first- and second-century Christian writings? You’ve never even seen the autographs (originals) of the 27 books in the New Testament. Nobody today has. The earliest copies of those books we possess are centuries newer than the originals. Like it or not, you have to take the say-so of the Catholic Church that in fact those copies are accurate, as well as her decision that those 27 books are the inspired canonical New Testament Scriptures. You do accept her testimony as trustworthy, or else your Protestant Bible would not have those 27 books.”
“Look, the fact is, the only reason you and I have the New Testament canon is because of the trustworthy teaching authority of the Catholic Church. As Augustine put it, ‘I would not believe in the Gospels were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church’ (Against the Letter of Mani Called “The Foundation” 5:6). Any Christian accepting the authority of the New Testament does so, whether or not he admits it, because he has implicit trust that the Catholic Church made the right decision in determining the canon.
“The fact is that the Holy Spirit guided the Catholic Church over time to recognize and determine the canon of the New and Old Testaments in the year 382 at the synod of Rome, under Pope Damasus I. This decision was ratified again at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397 and 419). You, my friend, accept exactly the same books of the New Testament that Pope Damasus decreed were canonical, and no others.
“Furthermore, the reason you accept the books you do is that they were in the Bible someone gave you when you first became a Christian. You accept them because they were handed on to you. This means you accept the canon of the New Testament that you do because of tradition, because tradition is simply what is handed on to us from those who were in the faith before us. So your knowledge of the exact books that belong in the Bible, such as Philemon and 3 John, rests on tradition rather than on Scripture itself!
“The question you have to ask yourself is this: ‘Where did we get the Bible?’ Until you can give a satisfactory answer, you aren’t in much of a position to rely on the authority of Scripture or to claim that you can be certain that you know how to accurately interpret it.
“After you answer that question—and there’s really only one answer that can be given—you have some other important questions to ask: ‘If the Bible, which we received from the Catholic Church, is our sole rule of faith, who’s to do the interpreting?’ And ‘Why are there so many conflicting understandings among Evangelicals and Fundamentalists even on central doctrines that pertain to salvation?’”
“We Agree on the Essentials”
“Well, that I can answer easily enough,” responds the missionary. “Evangelicals and Fundamentalists agree on the essentials, but we disagree on secondary matters.”
“Is that so? Where in Scripture do we find some doctrines listed as essential, others as ‘secondary’? The answer is: ‘nowhere’. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists disagree on central issues such as baptismal regeneration and the necessity of baptism (is it merely a sign to other Christians, or does it have a real role in the process of justification?), whether or not one can forfeit salvation (some Protestants say that’s impossible to do, others say it is possible). You all claim to be ‘Bible-only Christians,’ but which group is right?”
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004