Catholic Sense 6
It is Too In the Bible
By David Mills
What can you say when someone says of a Catholic belief like the Assumption, “Look, that’s just not in the Bible,” when you can’t point to a verse that gives it outright? There are always answers to this question, as I mentioned last time, but they are often complicated and most of us don’t know them anyway.
Even if you know the answer, and think the person asking the question might listen long enough to understand it, you might do better to push the question one step back by asking: “Where is the New Testament in the New Testament?” You can, in other words, suggest that the question itself is the wrong one to ask. It’s a good question, but it’s not the basic question. It can only be answered if a more basic question is answered first: what is the relation of Church and Scripture?
The New Testament does not declare itself to be Scripture. St. Paul sometimes invokes his authority as an apostle, but he does not say that everything he wrote is authoritative Scripture in our sense. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do not make even that claim. They claim to be telling the truth, of course, but that’s not quite the same thing.
You can’t, from the New Testament itself, decide that these books — a collection of a few biographies, a history, a whole bunch of letters, and a book on the end of the world — are the New Testament. If someone who didn’t know anything about Christianity were to get the New Testament packaged as a collection of ancient writings — in a book titled Sources in Early Christianity, say — he would not realize that here is an authoritative and infallible Word of God. That teaching is not there.
Someone had to discern which books, of all the many books written in the Church’s early years, make up our sacred works — and indeed someone had to decide that we have in fact been given an eternally authoritative collection of writings. Indeed, someone had to carry the Christian story and instructions for several decades until all the books we have were even written.
This the Church did over three centuries, discerning which books were inspired, which were valuable though not inspired, and which were rubbish. The list was first given officially in the late fourth century, and that is the list we still accept. We know from history that the choices were not always obvious. Several books like the Shepherd of Hermas were included in some lists of inspired works but were eventually dropped, while some Church Fathers questioned books like Hebrews and the Apocalypse almost to the end.
The Church, in other words, tells us something Scripture does not. Something really basic, in fact. The Church alone tells us what Scripture is and why it is to be accepted as the Word of God. “Where is that in the Bible?” is not as crucial a question as “What does the Church teach?”
If you want to press the point, you might ask a question about a belief your questioner holds that can’t be proven from the Bible. “Do you think Jesus was married?” is a good one. I have talked about this question with Protestant friends, and they scramble for reasons to explain their belief, since they can’t invoke Scripture to prove it.
They tried to use the Bible’s silence as an argument, claiming that it would have told us if Jesus had been married. But of course we have no reason to assume that. The four gospels leave out a lot, including Jesus’ life from thirteen to thirty.
Sensing the weakness of the argument from silence, my friends offered pragmatic arguments about the problem of Jesus having children and not wanting to leave a family when he died. They also offered theological arguments about Jesus’ celibacy as a sign of the Kingdom in a culture that expected men to be married.
Their arguments are certainly sound. But they cannot show you where their belief can be found declared in Scripture. They depend upon a knowledge of Jesus brought to us through history in Sacred Tradition, which helps us better understand the knowledge of Jesus brought to us through history in Sacred Scripture.
The Church knows something that can’t be found stated in Scripture. And more to the point, the Protestant who demands to know “Where is that in Scripture?” believes this just as much as the Catholic. Maybe, you can point out to him, the Church knows other things too.
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on October 26, 2009.