Catholic Sense 14

Searching the Scriptures and Finding the Church

By David Mills

Perhaps the criticism our Protestant friends most often make of the Catholic Church is that she doesn’t really believe the Bible. They will say, “You may have your Church tradition but we have the Scriptures,” as one might way, “You may have a pair of twos but I have a full house.”

They may then thrust upon you all sorts of quotes about Scripture from the Bible itself and demand to know what you have to say, as if all these verses obviously disprove the Catholic teaching about Scripture and Tradition. They sometimes say this with all the satisfaction of a policeman who’s just caught you in the bank vault at the three in the morning.

I have seen Catholics get very discouraged by this. Piling on the Scriptures sometimes works just because most of us aren’t that quick on our feet. We assume the argument must be a good one because the person makes it with such certainty, or else we just get buried under the mass of verses, like a rookie quarterback when all three linebackers blitz.

There is a simple way of responding, however, whether the critic has produced one or twenty verses. Ask him: “How exactly does that disprove Catholic teaching?” The answer in every single case will be, if he is honest, “It doesn’t.”

It doesn’t disprove Catholic teaching because it can’t. The Church asserts the inerrancy of Scripture, and therefore nothing she teaches about Scripture will contradict what Scripture says about itself.

The people who articulated the Church’s teaching weren’t stupid enough to say something anyone could disprove with a simple quote from the Bible. They read the Bible too. They read it very carefully. They looked to it as an authority. This argument is a bit like claiming that Einstein made such a blunder that a twelve-year-old kid in Iowa with a cheap telescope could spot it.

As it happens, the verses some people produce don’t in fact teach that Scripture is the sole authority for Christians. All they say is that Scripture is to be revered, studied, and followed, and this the Church teaches too. The Bible itself doesn’t say — it doesn’t even imply — that the Christian only needs the Bible to know everything he ought to know.

As the Second Vatican Council put it in Dei Verbum: the Scriptures “firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.” The authors “consigned to writing whatever he [God] wanted written, and no more.” As Dei Verbum explains, he wanted other truths passed on to us in other ways, which it calls “Sacred Tradition.”

One reader of the sixth column, “It is Too in the Bible,” sent me a long list of verses that she insisted disproved Catholic teaching. They were not convincing. If anything, they proved the opposite.

Let me take one example. She invoked the verses in Acts that describe the people of Berea responding enthusiastically to St. Paul’s message and examining the Scriptures (our Old Testament) to see if he was right (Acts 17:10-11). Her argument seemed to be that the Bereans depended only upon Scripture to find the truth and didn’t need any tradition at all, and that the author of Acts praises them for this, and therefore that is the way we ought to read Scripture.

This is not actually the story those verses tell. The Bereans search the Scriptures to find out if Jesus is who this visiting preacher says he is. They had to receive the tradition of the Church through Paul even to know what to look for. They had not seen Jesus in their Scriptures before that, because they did not have the Church’s tradition to tell them he was there. In other words, they had to know something the Bible didn’t tell them to know what the Bible was really telling them. (Jesus did this himself with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.)

Paul undoubtedly also told them about the first Christians, especially the apostles, and about events like Pentecost, and about the way Christians lived, not least about the sacraments and morality. These were all things they had to know if they were to live as followers of Christ, things that had to be handed on to them (the word “tradition” means handed on) their Scriptures did not tell them.

The Church today comes to us as St. Paul came to the Bereans. She says “Here is what you need to know to see what the Scriptures really say, and here are many other things you need to know as well.” The Scriptures themselves teach us that we need Sacred Tradition if we are to be faithful to Scripture.

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 February 12, 2010.