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The Bible alone: what does that mean in practice?

This is an imaginary dialogue between a Roman Catholic and an Evangelical written to help Christians better understand the Reformation principle of “Scripture Alone”.

“Let my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word.” (Ps 119:169)

(Nigel’s words are from an anonymous pamphlet written and distributed by a Roman Catholic university group.)

Nigel, a Roman Catholic student, and his evangelical friend, Gus, are talking on their way to class …

Gus: Hey, you’ve got something on your forehead there…

Nigel: Those are ashes. Today we Catholics go to Mass and receive ashes. It gets us in the mood for Lent, so we remember our need for God’s forgiveness.

Gus: That’s something I can never understand about Catholicism. You seem to invent your own ceremonies and rituals. Take Mass—where is that in the Bible?

Nigel: Well, I don’t think the word “Mass” is in the Bible, but the reality of the Mass is there: Christ himself celebrated the first Mass at the Last Supper. But there’s a lot of Christian beliefs that are not found literally in the Bible: for example, we both believe in the Trinity, but where is that term “Trinity” found in the Bible?

Gus: What I mean is, what we believe and do as Christians should be in line with the Bible and its teachings.

Nigel: But does it have to be in the Bible? Is there anywhere in the Bible that says that?

Gus: The Bible says, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9)!

Nigel: Of course, St Paul says, “If anyone is preaching a gospel…”; he makes no mention of any Bible, nor even of anything written. When he says “gospel” he’s not talking about the written gospel. The word “gospel” means “good news”—that is, the message that the apostles received from Christ and which they passed on by word of mouth, in preaching and ordinary conversation.

Anyway, John 21:25 tells us there are “many other things that Jesus did” which were not recorded in the Gospel, and have been handed down to us by word of mouth by the apostles. These oral teachings of the apostles are just as truly the word of God as their written works which we find in the Bible.

Gus: Hold on, I know that passage from the gospel of John. John didn’t say “Jesus did lots of things, and I’ve decided to write a few down now and hand a few others down by word of mouth, but whether I’ve written it or not doesn’t matter”. No, in John 20:31 John tells us that he deliberately wrote certain things down about Jesus in order that we might believe and have life. So, he saw written Scripture as vitally important for matters of faith and conduct. All the important stuff about Jesus got written down. Anyway, what were you going to say about these oral teachings?

Nigel: These teachings have been handed on, from generation to generation, through the popes and bishops of the Catholic Church. Catholics believe that Tradition dating from Christ or his apostles, and the Bible, are equally important as sources of divine truth. We must draw upon both of them for a full knowledge of Christ and his teachings. In fact, many parts of the Bible would be difficult to understand correctly if we did not have Tradition to guide us in interpreting them.

Gus: That doesn’t make sense. You said that the Bible and Tradition are both equally important. But then you said that Tradition must be used to guide and interpret many parts of the Bible. That means that, when push comes to shove, you’ll rely upon Tradition before you rely on the Bible.

No, the Bible must be used to guide and interpret Tradition! That’s what I believe—that the Bible must be used to evaluate, interpret, guide and change our beliefs if necessary. That’s why it’s so important to read and understand it for ourselves.

Anyway, how do you know that what is called “Tradition” today has been transmitted accurately by word of mouth? It’s 2000 years, 80 generations, and there’s a lot of room there for error. If I got together a long line of 80 people, whispered a lifetime’s worth of information to the first person, got him to whisper it to the second, etc, down the line, do you think the eightieth person would have an accurate version of what I said? It’s pretty unlikely. With the Bible, on the other hand, it’s quite different. We can go directly to the source!

The Bible is true Tradition. How do you know whether what is called “Tradition” today is not simply human traditions which are not those of Christ? You’ve got to read the Bible, and then evaluate what you and your church does in light of Bible. That’s what we should all do, because the Bible is the word of God.

Nigel: But how do you know it’s the word of God?

Gus: Wait a minute—you’re Catholic and you’re saying that you don’t believe the Bible’s the inspired word of God?

Nigel: No, I’m not saying that. The Catholic Church certainly believes the Bible is the inspired word of God. I’m simply asking you why you believe it to be inspired.

Gus: Well, first of all you can tell by reading it for yourself.

Nigel: What about the Koran? It too has some beautiful, “inspirational” passages. Would you say that the Koran is the word of God? Also, some of the revelations that the Mormons maintain were made to Joseph Smith seem quite spiritual. Would you say that they are inspired?

Gus: No, when I say “inspired” I don’t mean “inspirational” or “spiritual”. I mean that the Bible is “God-breathed”—it comes from God, it tells us about God and what he’s like. I’m convinced because the Bible tells me about an awesome, powerful yet loving God who sent his Son to die to take the punishment for our sins.

Why do you believe that the Bible is inspired?

Nigel: I believe the Bible’s inspired because the Catholic Church said so.

Gus: When was that?

Nigel: Way back in the fourth century. You see, at that time a number of different gospels began to circulate, such as the gospel of St Thomas, the gospel of Nicodemus and others. A few of them were written to mislead, but others were written by pious people with good intentions. As it was easy for people to confuse these new “gospels” with the real gospel, there arose the need to distinguish them from each other. The Catholic Church studied the matter and in the Council of Hippo (393) and two Councils of Carthage (397 & 419) determined and approved the canon or official list of inspired books of the Bible as we have it today.

Gus: Hang on there a minute! I’m impressed by your knowledge of history, but you’re drawing a few conclusions that are not warranted.

You said that the Councils of the Church “determined and approved” the canon. There’s a big difference between “determining” and “approving”. If the Councils “determined” the canon, it means they made arbitrary decisions about which books were in and which were out based on their own authority. If the Councils “approved” the canon, it means that they carefully investigated what had already been accepted as Scripture for four centuries, then formalised and published the approved list based on their research.

We can work out whether the canon was “determined” or simply “approved” by asking a simple question. Were the books of the Bible accepted as “inspired” Scripture before the councils, or did they suddenly become “Scripture” when the Councils made their pronouncement?

If you read the Bible, you’ll see that the books of the New Testament were accepted as Scripture right from the start, even by those who wrote them. In 2 Peter 3:16, Peter calls the letters of Paul “Scripture”. In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes Luke’s gospel alongside the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and calls both of them “Scripture”. The books of the Bible were self-consciously the Word of God right from the start. So, all the Councils did was approve and publish the list of books that had been accepted as Scripture for four centuries, so that people wouldn’t get confused about the other books.

What point are you trying to make by saying this, anyway?

Nigel: My point is that if you don’t believe in the Catholic Church, you have no solid reason to believe in the Bible because we know the Bible to be inspired only because the Catholic Church has said so.

Gus: But that’s not true. The writers of the Bible knew it to be inspired because God said so. The early readers of the Bible knew it to be inspired because they read it and realised that it was. Similarly, the Councils of the fourth century knew it to be inspired because they read it and realised that it was. And you and I can know that the Bible is inspired because we can read it and realise that it is.

You shouldn’t believe that the Bible is inspired simply because the Catholic Church says so. You should read it for yourself and realise that it is inspired, and then rejoice that the fourth century councils came to the same conclusion. When I read the Bible, God’s Holy Spirit guides me to understand its meaning.

Nigel: But what you just said goes against Scripture. St. Peter, referring to the letters of St. Paul, warns about the dangers of relying on private judgment alone in interpreting Scripture: “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16)

Besides, if what you say is true, how is it that the Holy Spirit does not lead all Bible readers to understand the same passages in the same way? You know as well as I do that honest people have come up with different interpretations of particular passages.

Gus: I think you’ve misunderstood me. I don’t mean that there’s some sort of magical process whereby you as an individual merely need to glance at the words on the page of the Bible and then suddenly everything will become crystal clear because of the Holy Spirit. You’ve got to work hard at understanding the Bible. You’ve got to put in the effort to do the comprehension: read it, work out the meaning, look at the context, think about it, re-read it. Anyone can do that—but you’ve got to work at it.

And like you said, Peter wisely pointed out that there are reasons why we don’t understand the Bible. The main reason is that we aren’t “honest people”, we are sinful. For example, we are “ignorant”—we don’t put in the effort. Instead, in our laziness, we sit back and are content to let other people tell us what the Bible says or let our own prejudices and ideas dictate what the Bible says. I know I’ve been guilty of that at times, and I’m sure you have too.

And our sinfulness makes us “unstable”. We read the Bible in order to make it fit our own ideas and make us comfortable in our own sinful lives rather that let it challenge our thinking and our actions.

What’s the solution to being “ignorant” and “unstable”? Relying on the Catholic Church isn’t the solution. No the solution is simple—the Holy Spirit needs to change you to make you “informed” and “stable”. You need to read the Bible yourself and put in the hard work. You need to ask God to work in you by his Holy Spirit to make you understand and to stop you being blinded by your own sinfulness. God will answer that prayer—and he will often graciously provide other Christians to help.

Why don’t you and I read a few Bible books together and then we can compare what we come up with to what the different churches and interpreters think? That may make the issues a bit more concrete.

Nigel: Okay, mate, let’s do it.

Published inChurchEpistemologyRevelation

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

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