Jason’s Questions: #9 Is It Really Just Me and the “Bible Alone”?

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, a significant factor in my journey towards the Catholic Church was my sense that, as a Protestant, I was on my own to figure out Christianity from the ground up.  This was because one of the bedrock premises of Protestantism is that there is no identifiable, visible person, group, or institution with the ability to speak authoritatively on issues of doctrine–regardless of what the doctrine is.  Rather, the claim is that the “Bible alone” is the sole ultimate authority for determining what is and isn’t Christian.  Indeed, it seemed to me as a Protestant that it was this doctrine of sola Scriptura (as the Protestant Reformers called it) that most fundamentally set Protestantism apart from Catholicism.  And, as a true believer in this doctrine, my primary problem with Catholicism was my belief that it had little use for the Bible and largely ignored it in favor of the “traditions of men.”  Yet again, my belief about Catholicism was exactly the opposite of the truth.

Over time, my belief in sola Scriptura began to be shaken for a number of reasons.  First, if we’re going to say that the words of the Bible, in and of themselves, constitute the ultimate authority for Christians, then we need to be absolutely sure that exactly the right words are in the Bibles we use.  But how, as a Protestant, could I be sure of this?  I rejected the notion that there was any infallible institution with the authority to determine what books should and shouldn’t be in the Bible, and this rejection prevented me from saying I accepted that the books in the Bible were the right ones simply because the “church” had determined they were.  So what was I to do?  Here, I had a big problem:  I couldn’t resort to Scripture itself to settle this question for me since the Table of Contents page in my Bible quite clearly was developed long after any of the books in it were written.  And if the “Bible alone” wasn’t able to tell me what books should be in the Bible, that meant I had to look to some authority other than the Bible to tell me which books should be there.[1]  But if that were the case, then the whole “Bible alone” argument fell apart because I wasn’t using the “Bible alone” to determine the answer to this critical question of what constituted the true Biblical canon.[2]

In addition to the fact that the “Bible alone” couldn’t tell me what books should be in the Bible, there was also the problem that the “Bible alone” never says that the “Bible alone” is the sole ultimate authority for the Christian.  The closest it gets in this regard is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which says that “[a]ll scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”  Nowhere in this verse, however, does it say that Scripture alone is useful for these various purposes, even less so that Scripture alone can resolve all apparent ambiguities and contradictions within Scripture.[3]

Even as I was becoming more and more convinced that sola Scriptura was untenable, which made it easier for me to accept that Christ had established an identifiable Church with the authority to, among other things, conclusively resolve debates over what books should be in the Bible, I remained skeptical about the Catholic Church’s view of Scripture.  Again, I’d always believed that the Catholic Church, in essence, kept the Bible locked away somewhere so that people sitting in the pews wouldn’t catch on to how utterly unbiblical Catholicism was.  That belief didn’t survive my first trip to Mass.[4]

I was utterly surprised to find that the Mass is full of Scripture.  In addition to all of the Scripture used in the various prayers throughout the Mass, the “liturgy of the Word” in each Sunday Mass contains no less than four readings from Scripture:  one from the Old Testament, one from the Psalms, one from the New Testament, and one from the Gospels.  For the Gospel reading, the entire congregation stands as either a deacon or priest reads the Gospel aloud, ending his reading by literally kissing the text.  And these were the folks I’d always thought didn’t have much use for the Bible?

Following the readings, the deacon or priest will preach a homily which, in the main, is much shorter than the typical Protestant sermon.  The homilies I’ve heard typically will discuss one of the four readings.  Sometimes it will cover them all, but that’s been rare in my experience.  What this means is that, for the most part in the Mass, the Scripture is allowed to speak for itself.  This is very different from my experience as a Protestant.  In this vein, it seems to me that most evangelical Protestant churches have pretty much abandoned reading Scripture separate and apart from the sermon. 

I must confess I find all of this somewhat ironic.  As a Protestant, I cried sola Scriptura from the rooftops but, in the services I attended, was perfectly content to witness the words of Scripture be overwhelmed by the words of my ministers.  In contrast, the Catholics, whom I always accused of not taking the Bible seriously enough, were much more open to simply hearing the Scripture read without their priests’ commentary.  It sure seems to me that the Catholic approach is more consistent with trusting God’s promise that His Word “shall not return . . . empty.”  He never made that promise about the words of ministers–or priests, for that matter.

Having witnessed first-hand that Catholics, despite all my long-held beliefs to the contrary, actually demonstrate a high regard for Scripture week-in and week-out in the Mass, the last of my objections to Catholicism on this score fell in the face of the evidence.  As a consequence, in the place of sola Scriptura, I instead have come to accept the Church’s teaching that the authority of the Church (including its Sacred Tradition) and the authority of the Bible go hand-in-hand.[5]  As the Catechism says:

Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture . . . .

This linking of the authority of Scripture with the authority of a visible Church, at least to me, was amazingly comforting.  I no longer felt alone in having to decide what books should be in the Bible, how it should be interpreted in all respects, etc.  As a Protestant, “Bible alone” had eventually made me feel like it was “me alone” on this journey of faith. 

Along these lines, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve been struck that the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation was a series of five “alone” statements, including the one on which I’ve concentrated in this post:  “by Scripture alone,” “by faith alone,” “by grace alone,” “through Christ alone,” “glory to God alone.”  Each of these “alones” (or solas if you prefer Latin) supposedly “freed” Christians from the institutional Church by emphasizing God’s sovereignty and grace independent of anything any person or any “church” could or couldn’t do:  God would speak directly through Scripture without any need for a visible, unified Church; He would save by faith “alone” without any good works by anyone other than Christ “alone” and without any sacraments to provide grace to the receipient; and no one could be recognized for having lived a life of heroic virtue because that recognition would somehow detract from the glory due to God “alone.” 

The bottom line of all of this, though, wasn’t freedom.  Rather, to me, it ultimately felt more like solitary confinement or a rigged chess game.  Instead of being part of a living interpretive community, as a Protestant I felt I only had black-and-white words on a page that I might as well read silently to myself in the cell of my own mind.  Instead of being in communion with saints throughout time and space cheering me on as I ran life’s race to the best of my ability, I felt I was God’s solitary pawn in a game whose end was determined before it had even begun. 

From where I am now, it is no longer surprising to me that all of these “alone” doctrines made me feel so terribly lonely.  Doctrines aren’t just interesting concepts we carry around in our heads—they make up the framework by which we live our lives.  Like the Sabbath, doctrines are made for man, not man for doctrines.  For this reason, and based on my own personal experience, I can’t help but conclude that, if your doctrines are “alone,” you’ll ultimately feel that way, too.  And it is not good for man—or the doctrines by which he lives—to be “alone.”


[1]               And, of course, there’s also the whole issue of translation.  If the “Bible alone” is the ultimate authority, we’re forever at the mercy of the Hebrew or Greek “expert” who purports to tell us what the text really means in the original language, despite how it’s translated in our vernacular version.  Also, without an identifiable church with authority to speak on issues like this, we can never be confident that whatever vernacular version we’re using is actually a reliable one.  The sense that this is a pretty big problem is what, in my opinion, has led some Protestant churches (albeit a dwindling number of them) to insist on the use of the King James Version as the only authoritative English translation.

[2]               I realize there are Protestants who will argue that the Bible is “self-authenticating” so that anyone who fairly reads the Bible will clearly see that the books it contains were divinely inspired in a way that no other books ever written have been.  While I do believe that the books of the Bible are divinely inspired in a way no other books are, I don’t think that conclusion is so obvious that anyone who doesn’t see it immediately must be stupid, evil, or crazy.  If you’re inclined to believe otherwise, I suggest reading the Didache, a writing of the early Church which even made its way onto some folks’ lists for inclusion in the New Testament.  If you’re like me, I think you’ll conclude it’s not obvious that the Didache isn’t Scripture while the Epistle of Jude is.  

[3]               As I’ve also mentioned before, I do not believe that the Bible is an unambiguous book.  If any of my readers have doubts about this, I suggest going through the New Testament and making two lists:  one of the verses which seem to indicate God in His sovereignty has predestined our eternal destinies and one of the verses which seem to indicate that we make autonomous choices that determine where we’ll spend eternity.  I think you’ll find both lists are quite long.

[4]               If attending Mass hadn’t been enough, checking out the Catechism would have driven a stake through this mistaken belief.  Contrary to everything I’d been led to believe about the Catholic Church’s desire to keep the Bible away from the laity, the Catechism clearly states:  “The Church ‘forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn “the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,” by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.  “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”’”

[5]               For more on how Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture work together, I highly recommend Mark Shea’s By What Authority?:  An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.

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5 Responses to Jason’s Questions: #9 Is It Really Just Me and the “Bible Alone”?

  1. thewaffledog says:

    Well, for almost its entire history scripture readings in the mass were in Latin, no matter where or when it was held. Furthermore, there is a long list of people who were persecuted and killed for translating the Bible into the vernacular. Even a good Catholic like Fray Luis de Leon could spend 4 years in prison for translating the Song of Songs into Spanish. What you’re looking at is a somewhat Protestantized modern Catholicism.

    • Jason says:

      Thanks for the comment. As I understand it, Latin was initially used in the Mass because it was universally understood. And it’s also my understanding that it has long been customary, in Masses said in Latin, for the Epistle and the Gospel to be read in the vernacular as well, as stated here.

      With regard to the more general issue of vernacular translations (regardless of what language in used in the Mass), as Devin Rose points out here, the Catholic Church had a long history of vernacular translations of Scripture before Luther came on the scene. Also, again as I understand it, in the fallout from the Reformation, the Church was very much concerned, not with vernacular translations per se, but with bad vernacular translations. Did the Church in certain areas perhaps go too far in suppressing vernacular translations? Perhaps–and the priest who led my RCIA acknowledged as much during my preparation to be received into the Church. But I’m not aware of anything in the Church’s Magisterium, any ecumenical Council, or any statement by any Pope necessarily forbidding translations into the vernacular in all circumstances. And isn’t the Church’s concern about the reliability of vernacular translations (even if it sometimes goes overboard) more consistent with a high regard for Scripture than the free-for-all we see with Bible translations in almost all Protestant churches which claim the “Bible alone” as their final authority?

      Before I can respond to the claim about the long list of folks who were persecuted and killed, simply because they translated the Bible into the vernacular, I’d appreciate a reference so I can understand exactly how many people we’re talking about and exactly why they were brought under scrutiny. Otherwise, on the general contention that there were Catholics who behaved badly during the Counter-Reformation, you’ll get no argument from me.

      Finally, I recommend checking out this very detailed analysis of the Catholic view of the Bible over time, including the tranlsation issue. I find it compelling.

      Blessings to you.

  2. Fr. Bryan says:

    Jason,

    I enjoyed this article a lot and it resonated with my thoughts that we let scripture speak for itself. Furthermore, as Catholics we see the entire liturgy as something that teaches the faithful, rather than the homily. As a priest, this brings me great comfort that even if I botch an interpretation truth is still taught through the entire celebration of the Mass. One area in particular where I find a lot really good teaching is the preface to the Eucharistic prayer. This is the part that comes immediately after the “Lift up your hearts” dialogue. The theology here is so rich, and those who are attentive to it gain from it greatly.

    Blessings,

    Fr. Bryan

  3. Pingback: If You Want a “Christian Worldview,” Read Chesterton and Become a Catholic | The Roman Road

  4. Pingback: GYPSY Religion | The Roman Road

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