I recently came across a group of men from the Reformed Church we left to become Catholic who were gathered at our local Starbucks. They were discussing theology, and didn’t notice I was sitting next to them for several minutes while they talked about things like “once saved, always saved,” TULIP, and other Calvinist doctrine. It was interesting to listen in on this discussion on some of the very issues that led me from that church and into a life as a passionate Catholic.
This is a group of men who are adamantly Sola Scriptura. But they left the coffee shop that day, not with Bibles in hand, but with thick-as-the-Catechism sized copies of Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem clutched to their chests.
Is Anyone Sola Scriptura?
The belief in the sufficiency of Scripture, wherein one believes Scripture is sufficient to tell us all we need concerning the theological truths God desired to reveal to mankind, can only be believed to be true in light of accurate interpretation. Even to a non-Catholic it has to be, at the very least, Scripture + accurate interpretation.
The longer I look into these issues, the more I am convinced of the impossibility of truly being Sola Scriptura. Even the men from that Reformed Church, implicitly, are living out their faith through the interpretive lens of Grudem and his Calvinist interpretation of Scripture.
Now, this practical reality does not stretch as far as to encompass a Protestant substitute for the Catholic belief in Tradition and the Magisterium – and of course a Calvinist, for example, would say that even Grudem’s words are not infallible. But it does indicate heavily an implicit acknowledgement that Scripture requires an interpretive authority. We need to look at Scripture through some sort of lens. The importance of the accuracy of that lens cannot be understated because if we have a Bible, but can’t interpret it correctly, then we are in big trouble. And we can’t interpret it correctly on our own.
Who Do We Trust?
Even the strongest adherents to Sola Scriptura caution against a “Me, God and the Bible” approach to scriptural interpretation, though for many Protestant Christians, this is essentially what Sola Scriptura has become as denomination after denomination has diverged since the origins of the Reformation. What necessarily results is thousands upon thousands of Christians who are divorced entirely from any authoritative source, and they themselves become their own interpretive authority.
Others realize that we can’t divorce Scripture from its historical and cultural context, nor can we divorce it from the intent of the original authors, or the meaning of words in the original written language.
For those Christians, the question becomes: Who do we trust? How do we sift through the myriad of opinions on this section of Scripture or that? If the Bible is sufficient, how do we know what it is actually saying to the world? We are left on our own, or on the recommendation of our pastors, or the books of Christian authors and theologians like Grudem, Tim Keller, and others to help guide us in, what we hope, is the truth.
The “Ordinary Believer”
Reformed theologian Robert Godfrey writes: “The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand it.”
But is this what we practically see in the Church? How does sufficiency come into play with issues that are clearly addressed in the Bible, but differences in interpretation lead people to different conclusions? Take baptism, for example. Are we meant to baptize infants, or should we only baptize those old enough to make an independent profession of faith? It’s clearly addressed in Scripture, but we cannot agree on a meaning. Or what about Holy Communion? Is the bread and wine truly the Body and Blood of Christ, or is it meant to be a symbolic representation of the same? It’s addressed in Scripture. But what does it mean? We cannot understand these things unless we have an interpretive source we can trust.
I do agree that the “ordinary believer” can find what he/she needs to know to understand the basics of the gospel and salvation in the Bible. My 5-year-old can understand that foundation. She knows we have sinned, and Jesus died for us and rose again so we can be with Him. She knows we need to live for God. All things we can find and understand at a basic level in Scripture. But, I don’t agree that all things necessary concerning faith and life are clear enough for the ordinary believer to find it and understand it. The “ordinary believer” does not have a thorough enough understanding of the historical and cultural context of Scripture, nor does he/she have an understanding of the original language of Scripture to understand all things necessary concerning faith and life.
A Protestant Christian living in America with an ESV translation of the Bible will come to some different interpretive conclusions than a Protestant theologian who has access to and understands the original languages of the text. This is why it isn’t a matter of whether or not we need an authoritative interpretive source. It’s a matter of in which interpretive source we place our trust.
The Ultimate Question
Even if a Protestant claims their interpretive source is fallible, they still need to rely on an interpretive source. And it will be the one they think holds most closely to the truth. A truth determined by their own best understanding of how to approach Scripture.
And, in my final months as a Protestant, the ultimate question for me wasn’t whether or not I believed Sola Scriptura. My ultimate question became which interpretive source has the greatest biblical, historical, and logical claim to truth.
When I acknowledged that the Bible requires a trustworthy interpretive source, I didn’t know it then but I was a few months away from receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation in the Catholic Church. I have not found any authoritative person or source to even come close in terms of historical and cultural context, original intent, logical coherence and consistency, and theological and philosophical depth. It is my hope that we as Catholics can truly appreciate the gift we have in the authoritative interpretive teachings of the Church. I also hope that my Protestant brothers and sisters will begin an intentional search to begin to ask the question of who they trust to interpret Scripture accurately, and that they acknowledge the importance of the answer to that question. And when they make those inquiries, I hope they give the Catholic Church an equal chance among the other options out there.
I know it’s changed everything for me.
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One of the big concerns I had as a non-Catholic was that Catholics don’t believe in Sola Scriptura, or Bible Alone theology. Catholics accept the Authority of the Catholic Church on interpretation of the Bible, and to discern other Truths important to the faith though Tradition and the Magisterium.
I now view the Authority of the Church as the lens through with I view Scripture. And making sure that lens contains Truth is very important indeed. Which is why I don’t place my trust in myself. Because I don’t have to, and, I suggest, was never meant to in the first place.
What is Essential?
When I was Protestant, I enjoyed the idea that: “In the essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things love.” And now, as a Catholic, I still appreciate the sentiment. However, at some point during my conversion journey, I started asking these questions: Who decides what is essential? What gives them the authority to do so? Who decides what isn’t essential? What if we think something is a non-essential, that actually is an essential?
Case in point. There are some churches that believe infant baptism is essential. Others that believe adult or “believers” baptism is essential. Still others that don’t believe baptism is essential at all. Who is right? How can we be sure?
Most people, when they are talking about essentials, in essence, mean the Gospel. Which, is pretty much agreed upon by everyone. But, we can’t even agree on the implications of this essential. Some believe in Once Saved Always Saved… that you can’t lose salvation once you convert. Others believe that you have free will and could genuinely convert, but then choose to genuinely reject God at a later point in life. Again, who is right and how do we know?
I started thinking that all this hubbub about essentials and non-essentials goes against our common understanding that Absolute Truth is important. Is some Truth worth more than others? Did God allow any part of Scripture to be written where he was like… “meh, this part isn’t that important?” And, if its all important… why are we so keen on tiering the value of different Truths? And, how do we know we are weighting them correctly?
A Simple Message
I’ve also heard it said many times that people over complicate things when it comes to the Gospel. That it’s a really simple message, and is easy to understand.
In many ways I still agree with this. The Gospel, for example, was explained to me as a young girl. I understood it, and was able to accept it with my childlike, yet still very valid, faith.
But, as simple as the Gospel message is on the surface, I think it is also important to remember that we are talking about a God who is infinite. That compared to God, our minds work like babies. And that though, yes, many aspects of the Gospel and also the Bible as a whole can be understood by most with relative ease, the Bible is actually not a ‘simple’ book.
And what I mean by that is, yes, we can get a lot out of the Bible through personal study. And as Christians we should be in personal study, frequently. But, like any great book ever written, what you can garner from a surface-level understanding and what you can garner as you peel back the many layers are two different things.
And the Bible has many, many complex and beautiful layers.
And how do we ensure we are understanding those layers as they were meant to be understood? Herein begins my exploration of the problems involved in not having an authority.
Peeling Back the Layers
A few examples:
If we do not understand Jewish culture and practices, we could possibly misunderstand some things in Scripture. Specifically… we can read about the Last Supper in the Gospels, and have a decent, basic sense of what went on that night. However, we miss out on the deeper meaning of what Jesus was doing if we do not understand Judaism, as Jesus’ actions in the Last Supper were ripe with meaning for his disciples… who were all Jews. They would have understood Jesus’ actions and words in a much deeper way, simply because they understood the culture they were living in. It was a given for them. For us, 2,000 years removed from the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day… we are in danger of missing a lot.
If we do not understand the literary forms used in the Bible, we could misinterpret things. What was meant to be historical, what was meant to be allegorical, what is poetry, what is parable, what is symbol, what is fact? If we don’t understand the original language, and the specific meaning of the words Jesus chose… then we could be interpreting things wrong. John 6, and the Bread of Life Discourse is a prime example of this. Catholics use John 6 to substantiate our belief in the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Those who don’t subscribe to this belief, might argue that Jesus wasn’t being literal. That he was using symbolism. But, when you look back at the original language, and the reaction the people who heard Jesus speak had to what he was saying… it is very hard not to understand that Jesus meant what he said. Literally. We are reading the Bible in English, and sometimes imperfectly translated from the original languages. And therefore, if we don’t understand Greek and Hebrew… we, on our own, might be interpreting things incorrectly. (And which English translation are we to use anyway?!)
The same applies if we don’t understand the politics and history of the times in which books of the Bible were written. So many times books of the Bible relate to the historical context of the times. They mean certain things for certain people at a certain time in history. We can learn from and apply the purposes of many of these things to our world and life today, but we cannot assume that context is irrelevant. Again, we can lose meaning, or conclude meaning incorrectly if we are going at this on our own.
This was a difficult pill for me to swallow. Looking back, I think I didn’t want to believe that I couldn’t figure out the whole Bible on my own. Or that it wasn’t okay for me just to pick a theologian I liked and trust their interpretation. I had grown up believing that it was simple, and that I didn’t need an authority. Initially, realizing that I was wrong was difficult.
The Fallacy of Individual Interpretation
Most Christian people I speak with would agree that God has a specific intention and purpose for every word that he has, through human beings guided by the Holy Spirit, written in Scripture. That there is Absolute Truth. Yes, either God intended “This is my body” to be literal, or figurative. Not “either or” and definitely not both.
So, how do we know who has it right?
I believe I am paraphrasing a famous theologian and Catholic convert Dr. Scott Hahn when I say that I believe God is loving. And that a loving God wouldn’t leave us with an inerrant Bible, but only broken means to interpret it.
Most Christian, non-Catholic people that I speak with also firmly believe that the Holy Spirit guides Christians to interpret Scripture correctly.
But… with our general assent that God did, in fact, have a meaning in mind for what he allowed in the Bible, and the absolute fact that there are over 30,000 Christian denominations worldwide… we can only conclude one of two things.
1- That the Holy Spirit actually isn’t guiding us all to individually interpret things correctly… because this Christian believes in Calvinism, and this Christian believes in Arminianism. Because this Christian believes in believers baptism, and this Christian believes in infant baptism. Because this Christian believes in ordaining women, and this Christian does not. Because, because… If the Holy Spirit is genuinely guiding all those who are genuinely seeking him through their own personal interpretation of things… why are so many Christians coming to so many different conclusions? If this is the case, God gave us a Bible, and didn’t give us any way to know for certain what he meant! That doesn’t sound very loving to me.
2- The other option is Jesus never intended for us as individuals to carry the weight of correct interpretation on our shoulders at all. This would be the Catholic perspective. Catholics don’t believe that Jesus left us only a Bible. Which, he actually, definitely didn’t do, because the New Testament wasn’t even a thing for quite a while after Jesus’ life on earth. No, he didn’t leave us just a Bible. We believe he left us a Church. And that Church has been granted the discernment of the Holy Spirit through the ages, to correctly interpret the Bible.
1 Timothy 3:15 states: “This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Here’s a good article on the matter, but in essence, historically, prior to very recent Christian history, no one believed we should interpret the Bible individually. It was accepted and believed that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide The Church to discern truth. The Church he himself established.
I don’t really think it’s that much a stretch for this to make sense. Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant. That God used dozens of authors, over hundreds and hundreds of years to give us an infallible book. God also gave the Church the Holy Spirit, with dozens of Popes over hundreds and hundreds of years to help the Church interpret that book infallibly.
John 16:13 says that when the Holy Spirit would come, He would guide us into all truth. Not just truth on the essentials (whatever those are determined to be), not just some of the truth, but all of it. He planned, from the very start, to give us a means to interpret Truth accurately.
We All Assent To Authority
Regardless if someone is Catholic or Protestant now, everyone assents to the authority of the Catholic Church on some issues.
For example… the Trinity is never mentioned in the Bible. Not once. But, interestingly enough, I was at a small group at my old Protestant church prior to my conversion, and the leader not only admitted that the Trinity isn’t in the Bible, but he acknowledged that we’ve trusted the Church to correctly form that doctrine for us. Now, I don’t think he was meaning to specifically reference the Catholic Church… but at the time the doctrine of the Trinity was formalized…. there was no Protestant Church. It was just Catholics everywhere. So, for all of us Christians that believe in the Trinity, we are assenting to the authority of the Catholic Church on that matter.
We also trust the authority of the Catholic Church with the Creeds of our faith. And we trust the Catholic Church to determine the Canon of Scripture (though Luther did have a few books removed during the Reformation… which in itself is another post).
At what point did God decide that submitting to the authority of the Church He established was no longer the way to do things, and that it was now up to the individual Christian to discern for him or herself what was true? I argue that He didn’t.
I honestly believe, based on the issues that Luther contended with at the time of the Reformation, and given the landscape of Christianity today- Luther would be Catholic. The issues he contended with aren’t issues anymore. He was right- the Church did need reforming at the time. And it did, most certainly, reform. And through it all, sound interpretation of our faith has been preserved. Even in times when there has been a corrupt Pope, or a heresy popping up, nothing doctrinally has been altered to the detriment of Truth. The bad Pope’s didn’t change things. The heresies were called out for what they were and snuffed out. Just like with the writing of the Bible, God is using fallible people to help preserve Infallible Truth.
The long and short of this post is to explain some of the reasoning behind why I accept the Authority of the Catholic Church.
I still read my Bible. Every day (much thanks to Lent for helping me solidify this discipline). But, when something comes up that I’m not sure about, I know where to go. There was just this sort of rabbit hole for me when I was Protestant that became very concerning. I was seeing people even within my own Church have different opinions on different issues in Scripture. How were they to know who was right? They may have taken their concern to the Pastor… well how were they to know the Pastor was interpreting things correctly? The Pastor might refer to a commentary or expository writing on that particular issue… but how were they to know that the author of that writing was interpreting things correctly? And on and on it goes… I’ve come to the conclusion that without a Pope, through whom the Holy Spirit works to protect Church teaching in matters of faith and morals, everyone is kind of their own. And that based on Scripture, that isn’t what Jesus was setting us up to be.
That’s why, ultimately, I saw no other way forward than to accept the Authority of the Catholic Church. Because I believe there is Biblical evidence that Jesus established a Church, and that He promised the Holy Spirit would preserve that Church in all Truth. And because I believe God keeps his promises.
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