Our focus in the last two lessons (here and here) has been on whether or not the New Testament presents us with a Christianity in which the Bible functions as the only real authority, all other authorities, when you get down to it, being merely advisory.
So far, from my reading of the writings of the apostles, I don’t see a hint of this. I see no evidence that Paul and John and Peter and the others had it in their minds that when they had passed from the scene Christianity would become “Bible only” Christianity — believers gathered around the Bible, reading and discussing and ultimately deciding for themselves what the true teachings of the Christian Faith are.
I don’t see sola scriptura in the New Testament.
And so the question comes to mind: Why do Protestants not only embrace sola scriptura, but embrace it as the very foundation of their worldview as Christians? Why?
I think back to my own experience as an evangelical Protestant for over twenty years. I ask myself: How did I think about this issue of authority? How did everyone I knew think about it?
The answer isn’t hard to find: I assumed sola scriptura. Every Christian I knew assumed sola scriptura. And we assumed it not because we could point to passages in the New Testament that actually taught a Bible only Christianity but because there was no other option in our minds. Scripture was inspired and authoritative. What else was?
In other words, our assumption was that the authoritative Church we see functioning in the New Testament — a Church that could meet in council like in Acts 15, decide issues of faith and practice, issue decrees stating “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” and expect those decisions to be received with joy and accepted as authoritative — our assumption was that this kind of Church no longer exists. And in the absence of such a Church, what alternative is there but to look to Scripture alone, and hope we can agree on what it’s teaching?
Think with me for a moment.
When we read the Gospels and watch Jesus establishing his Church, he surely seems to be establishing the kind of Church that will speak with His authority. He breathes His Spirit into the apostles, the Church’s living foundation stones. He sends them out to heal the sick and raise the dead in His name. Those who listen to them will be listening to Him. He tells them that whoever’s sins they forgive will be forgiven, that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven. He promises that the Spirit will lead them into all the truth and that He will be with them to the end.
He’s establishing the kind of Church that will speak with His authority.
And then, when we read the Acts of the Apostles and watch this Church actually functioning in the New Testament, we see that it clearly was the kind of Church that could and did speak with Christ’s authority.
We think about how most of the apostles never bothered to write down what they were teaching. We look at the New Testament epistles and notice that even those who did write wrote primarily to deal with specific issues in specific churches and seem to have had little concern to preserve in their writings anything approaching a clear summary of Christian doctrine.
We listen to the apostle John say he’d rather not write at all but much prefers being with his spiritual children and teaching them face-to-face.
We listen to St. Paul, preparing for his departure from the world and thinking specifically about the preservation of his teaching after he’s gone. And rather than speaking a word about “writing,” we hear him instruct Timothy to “guard” by the Holy Spirit what he has “heard” him teach in the presence of many witnesses and “entrust that” to others who must be “faithful.”
Why faithful? Because these will also need to guard by the Holy Spirit what has been entrusted to them by Timothy so that they can in turn entrust this deposit of Christian doctrine to others, and so forth and so on.
And here’s the thing: the way the apostles act and speak — all of it makes perfect sense on the premise that they believed in the sort of Church in which the substance of their teaching could and would be preserved by the Holy Spirit, especially through their successors.
On the other hand, the way the apostles act and speak doesn’t make sense at all on the premise that they were looking forward to a Church in which what they had written would function as the sole rule for faith and practice.
The Key Difference
Catholics simply believe that the Church we see Jesus establishing in New Testament, the Church we see actually functioning in the New Testament, is the Church that still exists.
It’s the Church our Lord intended to continue in the world after the death of the apostles, the Church that has continued in the world, the Church that still exists. It’s a Church filled with sinners and yet enabled by the Holy Spirit to preserve and pass down the truths of the Christian faith.
This is what Catholics believe, and this is why the Catholic Church speaks as it does, in ways that sound to Protestant ears like pure arrogance.
For instance, in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation from Vatican II, the Church speaks of the Magisterium’s Spirit-given authority to define Christian teaching.
Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone….
Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this [Word of God, deposit of faith] devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully.
Now, Protestants listen to these claims. They hear the Catholic Church speaking forthrightly of its authority from God to preserve and expound and define and decide issues of Christian doctrine and practice. And it sounds to them like craziness, nearly-inconceivable arrogance.
And yet notice that it happens to also sound exactly like what we see when we look at the Church in the New Testament.
Catholics simply believe that this is the kind of Church Jesus intended to continue in the world after the death of the apostles.
Protestants do not. Rather, Protestants believe that with the end of the apostolic era the authoritative Church of Acts 15 disappeared and became a Church functioning under the sole authority of Scripture.
Christianity became “Bible Christianity.”
And, again, I don’t think it’s because our Protestant brothers and sisters see “Bible only” Christianity as actually taught in the New Testament. I think it’s because they don’t believe the sort of Church we see in the New Testament exists any longer. And in the absence of this “kind” of Church, what option is there but to look to Scripture alone?
In other words, sola scriptura is what one comes to when one believes in the divine inspiration of Scripture and yet has abandoned the idea that there exists on earth an authoritative Church, designed by Jesus and led by the Spirit to accomplish the work of guarding, preserving and faithfully handing down the apostolic faith. It’s a default position.
And of course, this is precisely what happened at the time of the Reformation.