Catholics and the Bible

The Bible is the Inspired Word of God

It can seem that the Bible is not very important to Catholics since your average Catholic doesn’t seem to know the Bible very well.  Because of this, some people think that the Catholic Church does not view the Bible as necessary to know God’s plan of salvation.

Jesus Christ, the Word of God

Nothing could be further from the truth. Without question, Catholics believe that Sacred Scripture, i.e. the Holy Bible, is the inspired word of God, and that through it, God accurately communicates the truth about Himself and His loving plan of salvation which He intends all humanity to come to know.  Since God, who is Truth Himself, is the primary author of Scripture, what He intended to communicate is true with certainty.  For Catholics, the Bible is certainly necessary for knowing God and His plan of salvation.

Saint Luke, the Evangelist

Even though the Bible is the infallible Word of God, this does not mean that there is no human dimension to Scripture.   God, in communicating His Word to humankind, made use of human beings who spoke in human language.  God chose to use human authors and their own speech and manner of expression just as much as He chose the message to be conveyed in these human terms.  This means that the message He wanted to communicate would be conditioned by the human elements He used.  But the whole package of Scripture, divine and human elements together, is a faithful representation of God’s Word, since even the human elements were chosen in order to convey what God intends.

As necessary and trustworthy as the Bible is, this does not mean that grasping the correct meaning of every passage is an easy or straight-forward thing.  In order to understand Scripture, you need to know both how a particular part of Scripture fits into the overall plan of salvation of mankind, as well as what the human author meant by the words, forms of expression, and literary style he uses.  But this does not take away from the Scripture being inspired and trustworthy, since even these words, forms of expressions and literary styles were also chosen by God to communicate His intended meaning.

This does mean, however, that one needs help in understanding God’s Word.  This help can come from scholars of the ancient languages, customs and social institutions of the times and places in which the books of the Bible were written.  But most especially this help comes from God Himself, in an equally dependable and common manner, namely through His Church.

Sola Scriptura – Is the Bible Alone the sole and complete source for the Christian faith?

One of the main points of disagreement between Catholic and non-Catholic (Protestant) Christians is over whether the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura) is complete and sufficient in itself to guide us in faith. Some Protestants believe that everything necessary for salvation and living the Christian life is taught clearly enough in the Bible for every believer to find and understand it there. Some Protestant Christians argue that while the church, other believers and pastors, are aids to following Christ and living fully the Christian life, nothing and no one besides the Bible is necessary for salvation; the Bible alone is both necessary and sufficient.  The Bible alone is all one needs to know how to follow Christ.

We Catholics, on the other hand, believe that Sacred Tradition, as preserved in the Teaching Authority (Magisterium) of the bishops in union with the pope, together with the authority of Sacred Scripture, determine what Christians do and should believe.

Proponents of the idea of Sola Scriptura most often cite 2 Timothy 3: 16-17

All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 

Revised Standard Version

This passage seems to say that Scripture is all one needs to belong to God, and some other translations clearly reflect this interpretation (“It gives the man who belongs to God everything he needs to work well for Him” (New Life Version)).

Unfortunately, this text does not really support the idea that Scripture alone makes every Christian complete in his or her faith.  First, the context of the passage clearly indicates that what Paul means by “the man of God” is a minister of the Church, not the average Christian.  He is addressing one who has the ministry of evangelist (ch. 4, v. 5).  Second, the Scriptures Paul is referring to are the ones Timothy has known from infancy (v. 15), so they could not include what we call the New Testament, but only the Jewish Scriptures.  Clearly, the Old Testament while necessary to understand the New Testament, by itself, it is not sufficient for a Christian to come to salvation in Christ.  Next, the Greek word that is translated as “complete” or “competent” is artios which simply means “suitable” or “fit.”

This passage clearly does say that the minister of God needs to know the Scriptures, and that such knowledge contributes to his competence.  But it does not say that the Scriptures alone are completely sufficient for the minister’s fitness for his ministry.  Instead, Paul commands Timothy to also remain faithful to what Paul himself taught him (v. 14).  The context clearly shows that St. Paul himself believes that Scripture is not a sufficient guide all by itself for the Christian life.

Moreover, other passages of Scripture seem to attribute completeness for the Christian life to things other than Scripture.  For instance, James 1:4 says: “And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect (teleioi) and complete (holoklepoi), lacking in nothing.” Perseverance, here in James 1, seems to make the Christian just as complete and perfect as Scripture is said to do in 2 Timothy 3, but teleioi and holoklepoi are much stronger Greek words than artios.  Perseverance would then seem to be more important than knowledge of Scriptures.

There are other passages, too, that indicate that things other than Scripture make Christians perfect: good works (Titus 3:8), purity from idle and profane talk (2 Timothy 2:16-21), and prayer (Colossians 4:12).  Most Christians will admit that perseverance, good works, purity and prayer are all necessary for salvation, but that none of them alone are sufficient.  So, while Scripture is good and necessary to know and serve God, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 does not say that Scripture alone is sufficient for salvation.  (For a further discussion of these points, please visit www.scripturecatholic.com.)

Martin Luther, theological innovator

The theory of Sola Scriptura is not taught in Scripture, but is instead a tradition of man (originating in the 16th century with Martin Luther).  Scripture does not claim to be a complete and sufficient source of those things necessary for salvation.  Instead, it indicates that the very composition of Scripture itself derived from the Tradition given to the Apostles and handed on to their successors.  Moreover, Scripture itself commands the adherence to this earlier Apostolic Tradition, that this Tradition has been preserved in a visible, historical Church.  Finally, Scripture also declares that its interpretation is neither easy, nor is it up to an individual.

Apostolic Tradition is the Source of Scripture

The central theme of the Gospels is that the life and teaching of Jesus is the rule of faith.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

Matthew 28:19-20; emphasis added.

The Gospels themselves, however, tell us that they are not a complete account of all Jesus taught and commanded.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of (his) disciples that are not written in this book.

John 20:30

It is this disciple who testifies to these things and has written them, we know that his testimony is true. There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.

John 21:24-25

Jesus embodied in His life and words the saving Gospel, the Good News that God had come to save us from our sins.  This Gospel was first preached by Jesus, and then by His Apostles with His authority.  “Whoever listens to you, listens to me” (Luke 10:16).  A trustworthy and sure record of this Gospel was later written down, but as John tells us, a complete and total record of the Gospel of Jesus’ life could never be written down.  Jesus’ life, though, is preserved in the community of disciples, the Church, He calls to Himself.  “Remain in me, as I remain in you” (John 15:4).  He gave the Church the word He received (John 17:14), and this is the word which the Church preaches so the world may believe (John 17:20).

So, when St. Paul tells the Christians what they should take as their rule of faith, he points to the preaching he left them, the Tradition of the Gospel he handed on to them.

Now I am reminding you brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.  For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. . .. Therefore, whether it be I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

1 Corinthians 15: 1-4, 11

He even calls both what he preached orally and what he wrote the “Traditions” that they are to hold on to.

Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.

2 Thessalonians 2: 15

Furthermore, just as Jesus gave to the Apostles the Good News He wanted preached, so they handed it on to their successors, the bishops and pastors they appointed, so that the transmission of this Tradition should continue.

You have learned, from many who can witness to it, the doctrine which I hand down; give it into the keeping of men you can trust, men who will know how to teach it to others besides themselves.

2 Timothy 2:2
Jesus teaching the apostles

Jesus Christ Himself authorized the Church He founded on His Apostles to preach and preserve the Good News of salvation.  The Apostles handed on this Gospel in their preaching and care for Christ’s flock as a Sacred Tradition, and this was the sole rule of faith and the Christian life before there was any Christian Scriptures. This is why St. Paul says that the Church, not any set of writings, is the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Sacred Scripture and Tradition in the Church

The Good News which Jesus and, by His authority, the Apostles preached before His death on the cross is the same word of God which the Apostles gave to the trustworthy men who succeeded them as bishops and pastors.  This Gospel of Jesus Christ was first preserved and handed on as Sacred Tradition, and eventually came to be written, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as the books and letters of the New Testament.

Just as there would be no Scripture without the Sacred Tradition which historically preceded it, so Sacred Tradition, functioning in the Church, defines, guarantees and preserves the authentic Scriptures.

Second Vatican Council

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently, it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore, both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.

Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, no. 9.

Teaching Authority of the Church Determined Which Books Belong in the Bible

As necessary and inspired, trustworthy and enriching as the Bible is, the Bible, in and of itself, is not complete and sufficient to stand alone apart from the authority Jesus gave to His Church.  The Bible is not a single book, but a collection of different works of literature.  Included in it are a total of 73 texts: 46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament.

There are, however, many works of literature, both Jewish and Christian, written at the same times of works which are considered inspired and with similar themes, which are not included in the Bible.  For instance, the Third Book of Esdras was written around 300 BC at about the same time as the Biblical Book of Ezra, and the Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve) and the Letter of Barnabas were written around 70 AD, the same time as other texts of the New Testament.  Each of these texts have been considered inspired by different communities of Christians at different times, but they are not part of the Bible.

So, how have Christians been able to tell which texts are inspired?  Clearly, it just doesn’t happen that each Christian puts together a Bible for himself or herself, and that each of these Bibles just happens to contain all the same books.  Do the publishers of Bibles look to some text of Scripture to tell them what belongs in the Bible?  No, they and all Christians, Protestant and Catholic, are following some tradition which their church has given them about what the Bible is and which books it should contain.  The real question is which tradition is authoritative.

The Bible alone and by itself does not indicate which books should be included in it; there is no inspired Table of Contents for the Bible.  (This is further evidence that the Bible alone does not contain everything necessary for salvation.  Knowing which books are inspired is certainly necessary to understand and accept God plan of salvation, but this knowledge is not in the Bible.)  Instead, the books in the Bible are the ones which the Church, acting through various councils and popes, has determined to be inspired.

Why do Catholic Bibles have more books than Protestant ones?

In the early Church, the question of which books were inspired, and which were not, didn’t seem as urgent as it has become since then.  It was not until the Council of Rome (under Pope Damasus I) in 382 AD, and the Councils of Hippo (393) and III Carthage (397) that the exact number and names of the books which would be considered inspired was agreed upon.  Since then, all Christians, Protestant and Catholic, accept the set of 27 New Testament books which these councils recognized as inspired.

But when the pope and these councils of bishops determined the make-up of the New Testament, they also recognized as inspired the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) called the Septuagint.  (Its name derives from the Greek word for 70 since it was said to have been translated by 70 scholars in 70 days.)  This Greek Old Testament was the most common in the Mediterranean world and was the one which all Christians had been using up until that time.

This version of the Old Testament is composed of Greek versions of the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Isaiah, etc.) but also includes seven other books for which there were no Hebrew copies at the time: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Wisdom, Baruch, Tobit, and Judith, and parts of two others, Daniel and Esther.  (Hebrew versions of some of these texts (Sirach and Tobit) were discovered between 1947 to 1956 among the Dead Sea Scrolls; this discovery undercuts the rationale which had been given for not considering them inspired.)

The fact that there were not Hebrew versions of these books at the time made some, especially the Jewish authorities in the first century AD, question their authenticity.  In reaction to the growth of the Christian believers as a separate group within Judaism, the Jewish authorities adopted the 39 books of the Old Testament written in Hebrew as their official Scriptures (partly because the Greek works referred to a future resurrection of the dead (e.g. 2 Maccabees 12: 43).)  But for Christians, from the first centuries until the 16th century, the only version of the Bible that was considered inspired contained all 73 books, including all those found only in the Septuagint.

Martin Luther, editor of Scripture

Martin Luther decided in the 1500’s to exclude the seven Greek books from those to be considered authoritative Word of God (the Bible) and accept only the Hebrew Old Testament. He also excluded the New Testament books of Hebrews, James and Revelations, but later Protestants nevertheless considered these three as authoritative. To correct this new tradition of Luther’s, the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-1564) finally and authoritatively defined the Bible as containing all 73 books identified by the Councils of Rome, Carthage III and Hippo in the 4th century.

Besides being recognized as inspired by the Church (even though this is what really matters), the fact that Christians have always considered the Greek Old Testament to be inspired is reflected even in the undisputed books of the New Testament.  Most of time, when the human authors of the New Testament quote the Old Testament, they cite the Greek version which also contains the disputed books.  (For a detailed study of the use of the Septuagint in the New Testament see the study of R. Grant Jones.  According to Jones, fully two-thirds of the references in the New Testament are to the Greek (not the Hebrew) version of the Old Testament.)

Tradition Interprets the Meaning of Scripture

Scripture itself tells us that it is neither easy nor a personal matter to decide what God intends to communicate in the words of Scripture.

Saints Peter and Paul

In them (the letters of St. Paul) there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.  Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability.

2 Peter 3:16-17

Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation.

2 Peter 1: 20

Instead, Jesus promises to send the Spirit to remain in the Church to help them understand and apply the truth of the Gospel He left to them.

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.  But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.  He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.

John. 16: 12-13

The successors of the Apostles, the bishops in union with Peter’s successor, the pope, primarily have the ministry of determining the authentic and authoritative meaning for Scripture in accordance with Sacred Tradition.  The authority is also exercised through different offices of the Church, and in our own time has been clearly presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

It is not surprising, therefore, that those Christians who claim their own authority to interpret scripture privately have varying interpretations of key passages.  One where the Catholic Church believes Jesus was speaking plainly and literally (though of a Sacramental reality) is when He calls Himself the Bread of Life.

Jesus Christ, Bread of Life

[Jesus said,] “. . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?”  Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.  Whoever eats flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. . ..”

John 6:51-56
Jesus giving Apostles a share in His authority

Another is where Jesus gives the Apostles the authority and power to forgive sins.

He breathed on them said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

John 20:22-23

In these two passages, Jesus is telling His disciples that He gives Himself to them in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist and forgives sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), and that His Apostles have the authority to hand on these Sacraments in the Church He has founded.  Not surprisingly, Christians who believe Jesus did not institute these Sacraments or found this kind of Church have a different interpretation of these Scriptures.  But the very fact that there are different interpretations (and hundreds of different Christian denominations) at least shows that Scripture is not so clear that every ordinary believer is able to completely understand core teachings of Jesus unaided.

Protestant leaders from whom hundreds of Christian denominations derived.

If every Christian were able to get by himself alone everything God meant for us to understand in Scripture, there would not be the many, many differing interpretations among genuine and sincere Christians, nor would Peter have been right to warn the readers of his letter against the danger of personal (mis)interpretation.  Happily, Jesus has not left us unaided.  He has given us the aid of the Holy Spirit present in the Catholic Church to understand Scripture correctly, just as this Holy Spirit was present to inspire the writing of Scripture, and to recognize which texts were inspired.

Conclusion

The Church receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Scripture, then, is obviously important, even essential, to the Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church is fundamental, indeed foundational, to the Scripture, as the human means by which God, the Holy Spirit, inspired the writing, recognition and canonization of Scripture, and the proper, authoritative interpretation of Scripture. The Bible is necessary for faith, but Scripture alone is not sufficient unto itself, apart from the Church in which it is at home.

If you have questions or comments, please share them below.

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