“Knowing the Bible” Isn’t Enough

Growing up Protestant, I took it as a given that the “typical” Protestant could knock the socks off the “typical” Catholic when it came to “knowing the Bible.”  Why, those Catholics probably didn’t even know what a sword drill was[1], let alone stand a chance of being able to find Habakkuk 1:7 faster than we could.[2]

Once I started reading the writings of contemporary Catholics, and now that I’ve actually met some, I’ve been struck that a good number of Catholics also have this sense that the average Catholic doesn’t “know the Bible” like an average Protestant does, and a few of them have something of an inferiority complex about it.  The purpose of this post is to encourage these Catholics:  (1) not to be so intimidated by Protestants who seem only-too-eager to try to make Catholics feel bad for not knowing the name of Jacob’s seventh son off the top of their heads or not being able to rattle off Ephesians 2:8-9 from memory; and (2) to dust off their Bibles and their Catechisms so they’re prepared to help Protestants understand what “knowing the faith” is really about.

Speaking from my own experience, when (as a Protestant) I’d say of someone:  “That guy really knows his Bible,” here’s what I meant:  he’s got the table of contents and a fair smattering of Bible stories and verses committed to memory (mostly ones from the Protestant hit parade of supposedly anti-Catholic proof texts, such as John 3:16, Romans 3:23, the aforementioned Ephesians 2:8-9, etc.).[3]  I most emphatically did NOT mean something like:  “That guy has a great understanding of soteriology, ecclesiology, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, Church history, and the relationship of faith to reason.”  And, yet, saying of someone that they “really knew their Bible” was considered about the highest honor that could be given–kind of like designating them a Jedi master.

My point is this:  what often passes for praiseworthy “Bible knowledge” within Protestantism (and Catholicism, for that matter) takes little more than a good memory—it has nothing to do with whether the so-called Bible scholar is correctly interpreting the Bible or has a proper understanding of any (let alone most) Christian doctrines.  And there’s nothing in Scripture that indicates that sheer recall ability is some sure sign of spiritual wisdom.  We’re not trying to pass a theology exam–we’re trying to get to Heaven.

So, for any Catholic readers of this post, there’s no need to feel inferior when your Protestant friends start unloading Bible verses on you.  You, unlike they, have the key to understanding how to rightly interpret key Scripture passages—the Church’s Magisterium (best accessed in our day by recourse to the Catechism, which provides comprehensive citations both to Scripture and to key Church documents).  A Catholic feeling inferior to a Protestant who can simply quote a lot of Bible verses is like a person who has the answer to a riddle feeling inferior to someone who’s memorized some of the clues but hasn’t figured it out yet.

All of that said, of course, it is infinitely preferable for a Catholic to be able to defend the Faith using both the Scriptural data and the Church’s authoritative teaching.  The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to sit down with the Catechism in one hand and a Catholic Bible in the other and work your way through the Catechism’s systematic presentation of what the Church teaches.  If you do, you’ll have what is always missing from Protestant Bible studies:  context and authoritative guidance.[4]

Without degenerating into proof-texting by suggesting that a few select verses in Scripture are the be-all-and-end-all on any particular issue, it also would help in any conversations with Protestants to have at-the-ready a few questions regarding specific Scriptural passages that I have always found Protestants to have trouble answering, such as:

(1) how Jesus’ “bread of life” discourse in John 6 relates to Communion;

(2) how His promise in John 8 that His followers would “know the Truth” and that the Truth would “set them free” jives with the existence of so many separate Protestant denominations, all espousing different doctrinal truth;

(3) how His prayer in John 17 that His followers would be “one” is consistent with the just-referenced proliferation of Protestant sects;

(4) how it has been “better” for Jesus’ followers since He ascended back into Heaven than when He was on earth, as He said in John 16 it would be; and

(5) what Jesus meant when He told the Apostles (also in John 16) that, after His Ascension, the Spirit would come and “guide” them into “all truth” and how that “guiding” has been accomplished over time.

The bottom line of all of this, of course, is simply that the Bible and the teaching of the Church go hand-in-hand and that the Bible is not a book that Catholics have any reason to be afraid of.  “Knowing the Bible” without knowing the teaching of the Church, though:  now that’s scary.  I know–I was there.

[1]               For those who don’t know, a “sword drill” is a game in which the contestants try to be the first to find a given Bible verse.

[2]               I swear I picked this verse completely at random.  I had no idea it states:  “They are terrifying and dreadful; their right and their exalted position are of their own making.”  That pretty much sums up Protestantism.

[3]               Looking back on my own schooling in private Baptist schools, I’m now struck that the focus of our Bible memory work (particularly in the New Testament) was on these verses that allegedly support the Protestant position on the various issues on which Protestants dissent from Catholic teaching.

[4]               I also believe that the Catholic Church has not emphasized memorizing individual scripture passages as much as Protestant churches because the Catholic Church rejects the proof-texting method of Scriptural interpretation in general.  When your position is that every verse in the Bible must be read in light of all of the other verses (which is the Catholic position), the Bible is less conducive to being broken down into easily memorizable chunks with which to beat up your doctrinal opponents.  That said, and all other things being equal, it’s naturally better to have Scripture memorized than not to have it memorized, and I do not mean to suggest that the Church is opposed to the memorization of Scripture.  But having Scripture memorized and then misinterpreting and misusing it causes as much (if not more) damage than total Scriptural ignorance.  If you don’t believe that, give me a call–I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy.

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6 Responses to “Knowing the Bible” Isn’t Enough

  1. Vivien says:

    Thanks for this post! As a recent convert (still in progress) to Catholicism it’s encouraging to read this. I have many friends who keep spewing the same verses at me trying to convince me to turn back around. I’ve tried explaining to them that knowing and being able to repeat verses isn’t all that God had planned for us and that it isn’t enough, but so far no luck. I guess all I can do now is pray and for them and others. Keep up with the amazing blog! Like I said, it’s very encouraging and relateable(is that a word?)!

  2. Sue says:

    I love this post. I always had an inferiority complex as a former Protestant because I was not very good at memorizing and spouting verses. Becoming Catholic has been so freeing! ;o)

    Seriously, though, I have been amazed over and over by Catholic teaching on those “pet” Protestant verses that I always thought I knew and understood so well. Even more, I love it when I read or hear the Catholic interpretation on one of those “ignored” verses that are just too hard (or, impossible) to explain from a Protestant point of view

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