Sacred Scripture and its place in the Church
Refuting Sola Scriptura Opening Essay
By. Matthew James Bellisario 2008
I will address in these series of essays the incorrect use of the Sacred Scriptures of those who reside outside of the Catholic Church. More in particular the fallacy that the Sacred Scriptures are the only source of Divine Revelation given to us by Our Lord. The simplistic refutations that are often used today in Catholic apologetics, while they have their place, are often void of the introspection needed to fully understand the proper place of the Sacred Scriptures within the Church, both the Old and New Testaments. Although I will point out where the Sola Scriptura position misses the mark in its assertion that Sacred Scripture is the only authority we need , or have as Christians, I will also focus in on the proper function of the Sacred Scriptures as they have been used consistently by the Church throughout the ages. We must understand how Sacred Tradition, or the Gospel lives and breathes within the Church. In this study we will find that not only were the Scriptures not used as an isolated vehicle to give us the Word, we will find that the Word is not a written Word, but a living one that cannot be contained in a written source. It is the living Gospel in practice among the faithful.
To say that the Sacred Scriptures were not used to help teach the faith, would of course be incorrect. We can see many Church Fathers using the Sacred Scriptures to admonish heretics and unbelievers. The Scriptures were held in high esteem by them just as they should be, and as they are now in the Catholic Church. To assume that this was the only source, or authority that they used would be an impossible conclusion to prove, and is quite unrealistic. We will find that in order for the Scriptures to exist in their rightful place, we must have their correct interpretation that coincides with what was taught by the apostles as well as their intimate union within Church worship. The coming of Christ drastically changed, or corrected the interpretation of the Old Testament, as well as also giving us the complete Divine Revelation not offered by Our Lord before His coming. So we must also focus in on Christ Himself in light of Divine Revelation. Jesus Christ is the Word that is being spoken and proclaimed by the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit, which is called the Gospel. We will find that this Gospel is not written alone, but is proclaimed through the Church, of which we have some of it in written testimony called the Sacred Scriptures (New Testament).
Before I get into the heart of this essay I wanted clarify a few terms. The use of the term Sacred Scripture today often includes both Testaments. When I use the term Sacred Scripture I will be referring to the New Testament unless otherwise noted OT for Old Testament. I will also use the abbreviation of NT for the New Testament. The distinction of noting them both separately will be important in understanding my essays.
Sacred Scripture in the eyes of the Jewish Rabbis
In order to gain a better understanding of the place of the OT/NT in the Church, we must look into the past to see how the ancient Jews looked at the OT and how they viewed the handing on of their faith. Although they did not have the guidance of the Holy Spirit that Jesus guaranteed we would have, they did use the same principals that would be handed down to the early Church. In reading many sources on Judaism one point is crystal clear. They did not hold to a Scripture alone position regarding God's Divine Revelation to them. In regards to the Torah, they believed that there was the written Torah and the Oral Torah (Torah she-be-al peh) that coincided with it. They believed that this oral tradition held the same weight and antiquity that the written text did. (1995 Ariel) This also mirrors the Catholic position on the OT/NT. To the Jews, the Torah was a living revelation and not a static written code. It is understood by the Jewish people that every written law must be accompanied by an oral one to preserve proper interpretation of the written. (2006 Steinsaltz) We can see this mentality mirrored in the writings of the Christian Fathers.
St. Basil the Great (A.D. 329-379) writes:
"Of the dogmas and kergymas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in manners ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject the unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce kergyma to a mere term" (Holy Spirit 27:66).”
In short we can see that Christianity developed largely out of the Jewish mindset as far as religious practices go, including an oral handing on of doctrine and law as well as written. We can see in the OT God giving authority to certain individuals to decide disputes among the community. We can see an example in Deut 17:8-9. In the book of Ezra we also see another clear example of an oral teaching side by side with the reading of the Torah to explain it correctly to the people. When Ezra read the Scriptures aloud we see a group of Levites standing by him expounding the full meaning of the text. (2006 Steinsaltz) Scripture alone was not a practice of ancient Judaism,, nor of ancient Christianity.
The New Testament reference to Scripture, and Tradition
In reading many passages from the NT we often see references to Sacred Scripture. In reading the NT we must understand the the NT does not understand itself to be Scripture in its own text. In other words, when the term Scripture is used in the NT it is always referring to the OT, while the teaching about Christ is “Spirit” which teaches us how to understand the OT. As Pope Benedict XVI points out, “Before the idea of a “canon” of NT Scripture had been formulated, the Church had already developed a different concept of what was canonical; she had as her Scripture the OT, but this Scripture needed a canon of NT interpretation, which the Church saw as existing in the traditio guaranteed by the succio.” (2008 Ratzinger) It is important to understand this principal when reading the NT. In the early Church we have not only the complete Divine Revelation revealed to us, but also a new and complete understanding of the OT, in light of the coming of Christ. Throughout the NT we see authority being given to preach the Gospel. We can see this succession being established in the pages of the NT. Examples are witnessed in Acts 6:6-7, Acts 1:20-26, Act 14:23, 2 Tim 1:6 and 2 Tim 3:14. We can see from the NT that it is not only what doctrine is passed down, but by whom it is being passed down from. This in turn is forming a consistent apostolic line that would be passed down in the Church until the end of time, which the Holy Spirit is given to guide. Jn 14:25.
I am amazed to see the texts used to justify Sola Scriptura. Usually you will see I Tim 3:15-17 or Acts 17:11 sited as a proof-texts. The Church has always held that Sacred Scripture is authoritative as it is the written form of the Gospel. But the church has never held that the Scriptures were to stand alone as some kind of standard or rule, separated from the complete Gospel, which includes Tradition and the Church. In fact no place in the Sacred Scriptures, OT or NT, will make this claim, nor is it ever implied. In II Timothy 3:15-17 we can see this calling for people to use Scripture as a source for Doctrine and correction. We must also understand that the OT is the Scripture that is being referenced here in this passage. This being observed as such, we can also deduce that this concept would also carry over to the NT when it was finally given to us as “Scripture”. So we see how Scripture is indeed a source for doctrine and correction, but an authority must accompany it in order for it to be understood correctly as St. Paul says in 2 Thess 3:6 and 1 Cor 11:2. Saint Paul and the NT writers are following right in the footsteps of Judaism in regards to the use of Sacred Scripture. They understood the importance of an authority to correctly spread the Gospel, as well as an accompanying oral tradition.
What is Sacred Tradition as understood by the Church?
Many seem to understand Tradition as being an addition to the Sacred Scriptures. This however is an incorrect, or incomplete way to view it. In fact Sacred Tradition properly understood includes the Sacred Scriptures, both OT and NT. To view it as something in addition to, or going along side with Scripture gives us a reduced understanding of how and what the Word of God is, and how it is given to us. We can see the how the Church in its battle with Gnosticism clarified its view as to what Tradition is. In fact the Church viewed it as the relation of the living faith in reference to the apostolic succession of the bishops, while the Gnostics viewed it as a secret oral tradition handed down from the apostles. There is a big difference in the two views. Pope Benedict XI points out, “The Church invoked Tradition, not in order to set unwritten apostolic doctrine alongside Scripture, but precisely in order to dispute the existence of any such secret heritage.” He also points out that apostolic succession and apostolic tradition define each other. He says, “ the succession is the form of the tradition, and the tradition is the content of the succession”. (2008 Ratzinger)
We can contend that Sacred Tradition is the preaching and passing on of the Word of God, or the Gospel. As we see in Rom 10:14-15, the Word is heard, preached, and not read. There must be a sending, or mission as commissioned by Christ through his apostles, as continued in the same manner to those following in the apostles footsteps. This is witnessed in Heb 13:7, Gal 1:8. This is upheld by the early Christian Fathers in their writings, sermons and homilies. Saint Chrysostom in his homily on the Second Letter to the Thessalonians speaks on the 2nd Chapter and 15th verse, “So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours. ”Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. Here he shows that there were many who were shaken.” As to the existence of Tradition in the Church as a source of Divine revelation there can be no doubt .
There are some that claim that the oral passing on of Revelation ended with the apostles. We can see that this was not the case. Saint Chrysostom wrote of this Tradition in the 4th century. There are also other early Christian witnesses that attest to the authority of Tradition, such Saint Epiphanius of Salamis who wrote in his Panacea against all heresies, “It is needful also to make use of Tradition; for not everything can be gotten from Sacred Scripture. The holy Apostles handed down some things in the Scriptures, other things in Tradition.” Some also claim that once the NT canon was defined that the use of Tradition was discontinued. That is also not a reality. The reality of the Gospel being a living Word passed on by oral Tradition, with some of it written in Scripture is a matter of fact as attested to by the Sacred Scriptures themselves as well as the witness of Christians throughout the history of the Church. We can also deduce that there must be an established authority in order to guarantee the living Word throughout the world. Tradition and Scripture are one in the same. They are the same Word of God in two forms, one in substance. Just as water can be liquid and solid, the Word of God is oral and written, one and the same substance.
I would like to point out an example of how Tradition has given us dogma which is not found explicitly in Sacred Scripture, only implicitly. Genesis 38:9-10 deals with the improper use of the sexual act. Without Tradition we have no clear understanding of this passage. I often witness Protestants accusing the Catholic Church of changing its doctrines, yet we see a clear fundamental teaching of the Christian faith changed by nearly every Protestant church over the last 70 years or so. In 1930 at the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican church decided it was OK to use contraception, and almost every Protestant church soon followed in their footsteps. Once again we see what happens when you dismiss the authority of Christ and His Church, and privately interpret Scripture. We now have millions of people calling themselves “Christians” yet committing an unspeakable abomination against Almighty God. Not only is contraception intrinsically evil, but millions of those using the “pill” are also unwittingly adding to the list of abortions by the millions. What I find interesting is that even Protestant heros such as Calvin and Luther opposed the use of contraception. (Provan 1989)
I would like to add one final thought to sum up the definition of Tradition as it relates to the Scriptures. Although interpretation is an important function of Tradition, it is much more than that. It is more than exegetical interpretation, but it is also a partaking in the spiritual authority that God has given us in the very being of the Church's existence as well as her faith and Liturgy. So the deposit of faith is comprised of the OT Scriptures in light of the coming of Christ, Christ the Word Himself which includes oral and written, living in the heart of the faithful as guided by the Holy Spirit within the apostolic authority (Church) given to us by Christ Himself. As Pope Benedict XVI says, “We can further note that the New Testament Scriptures do not appear as one principle alongside apostolic tradition; still less (as in the case with us), do the New Testament Scriptures together with the Old Testament, stand as one single entity “Scripture”, which could be contrasted with “tradition” as a second entity. Rather, the complex of New Testament event and reality appears together as a developing dual yet single principle, that of Gospel; as such, it is contrasted on the one hand, with the Old Testament and on the other, with the specific events in the subsequent age of the Church. Its inner unity is quite visibly stronger and more important than its division into written and unwritten, so that despite these two forms of realization it can be contrasted as a single principle with the Old Testament.” He continues to say, “the implanting of the gospel in men's hearts, articulated in the second principle (the second principal being the preaching of the Christ) , which goes beyond what can be captured in the Scriptures.” (2008 Ratzinger)
Tradition is not just quoting Church Fathers. Yes, they can provide evidence of what the Church believed throughout history, but we cannot rely on these writings, and Scripture alone either. Adrian Fortescue wrote, “We must not forget that the early Fathers did not write their letters or preach their sermons with a view to supplying evidences of the faith of their time for future controversialists.” If we had no early church Father writings today, the Church would still be teaching and preaching the same living Gospel. I hope that this will end the misunderstanding that many “Reformers” have about Tradition. It is my hope that they will no longer refer to it as an addition to the Scriptures, since it has been demonstrated that it is not. They are one in the same. As Vladimir Lossky rightly says, “One can neither confound them or separate them without depriving them of the character of fullness that they possess together.” (Lossky 2005)
Sacred Scripture and Church Worship
It would not be an understatement to say that the NT canon was formulated, articulated, preached and interpreted in the Divine Liturgy worship services of the worldwide Church. (Hahn 2005) In fact the Sacred Scriptures were predominantly used within her Liturgy throughout the first 1400 years of the Church, until the invention of the printing press. I have witnessed many people saying that the Catholic Church tried to keep the Scriptures away form the common laity. This fallacy however shows a clear misunderstanding or ignorance of the state of society during the ancient periods of the Church. These Biblical manuscripts were handwritten, and took many years to complete. Therefore it would be no surprise to anyone that the Scriptures would be confined to the churches. The Divine Liturgy was the primary vehicle the Church would use to teach the masses the Word of God. The Sacred Scriptures would be read and expounded upon just as the Jews did in the synagogues. The living witness of the Holy Spirit within the Church gave the proper and complete interpretation of the living Word of God. We have today many homilies preached by the Fathers of the Church during the Divine Liturgy. The Divine Liturgy, Sacred Scripture and Theology have an intimate union that cannot be separated. (Fagerberg 2006)
How do we know that the Body and Blood of Christ become present during the consecration at the Divine Liturgy? We know precisely because this is what was taught, and is taught by the Church in living Word. How do we know that the Catholic and Orthodox Church interprets the Gospel of John correctly referring to this doctrine? We can see that this was the consistent interpretation throughout Christendom, as revealed in her worship. Saint John Chrysostom in his homily given during a Liturgy in the 4th century confirms that he interpreted it the same way. I don't have the space to print his whole homily here. There is no ambiguity in his interpretation of the Gospel of John 6, or 1st Corinthians 11:24-27 where he speaks of eating the flesh and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in detail. He in turn passed on this teaching, and interpretation of the Scriptures to others, who in turn passed it down and so forth. The very fact that we have the canon of the NT today is because they were used in the Divine Liturgy of the Church as giving witness to the faith that was being lived out in the Church. More clearly, the Sacred Scriptures are a written witness to the living faith of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Divine Liturgy has always been the vehicle of faith for the Church and her faithful. It was not until the Reformation that the Divine Liturgy would be done away with by the Protestants, and the use of the Scriptures would become a tool for private interpretations.
The authority and reverence of Sacred Scripture in the Church
It must be noted that the Sacred Scriptures have always been held in high esteem in the Church. This especially being the case after the NT canon was formulated by the Church and began to be used in its totality versus individual books being used in different places. In fact the Church began to create a calendar that revolved around the Gospels. The Scriptural readings in the Divine Liturgy reflected certain readings at different times of the year reflecting a certain Christ event. This is maintained in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, while the Protestant churches have done away with this. In reality we can see a higher reverence for the Sacred Scriptures within the Catholic and Orthodox Churches than the Protestants who claim to hold a Sola Scriptura position. In fact in the Catholic church we celebrate many feast days pertaining to Christ events that stem directly from the Sacred Scriptures. We don't just celebrate Christmas and Easter as feast days. We include Christ's Ascension into heaven, the Healing of the Blind Man, the Transfiguration, the Feast of Pentecost, etc, etc. The Catholic Church has always held the Sacred Scriptures in high esteem. We also see the Catholic Church using the Scriptures, within Tradition to defend and to teach doctrine and dogma.
The Church's Councils and documents on the Sacred Scriptures
I wanted to include here a few statements from the Catholic Church on the Sacred Scriptures to demonstrate again the rightful place of Sacred Scripture. We can plainly see that the Catholic Church holds the Sacred Scriptures in very high esteem. We can also see the consistent teaching that the Church guided by the Holy Spirit , within Tradition, is a necessity for proper interpretation.
Vatican I (Chapter 2 on Revelation) states:
Now since the decree on the interpretation of holy scripture, profitably made by the council of Trent, with the intention of constraining rash speculation, has been wrongly interpreted by some, we renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that
* in matters of faith and morals,
* belonging as they do to the establishing of christian doctrine,
* that meaning of holy scripture must be held to be the true one,
* which holy mother church held and holds,
since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of holy scripture.
Pope Leo XIII Encyclical on the Holy Scriptures (PROVIDENTISSIMUS DEUS paragraph 3.)
3. Among the reasons for which the Holy Scripture is so worthy of commendation - in addition to its own excellence and to the homage which we owe to God's Word - the chief of all is, the innumerable benefits of which it is the source; according to the infallible testimony of the Holy Ghost Himself, who says: "All Scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, that the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church States
105 God is the author of Sacred Scripture. "The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit."69
"For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself."70
107 The inspired books teach the truth. "Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures."72
110 In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression."76
111 But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."77
113 2. Read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (". . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church"81).
Part II: Why Sola Scriptura is not a Christian Teaching
The Westminster Confession, and its authority.
I could have started this essay with the same old arguments on why Sola Scriptura is false. I thought that I would take a different position for a change and show how the Scriptures are to be understood correctly as I have done in the first 3/4 of my essay. I want to look at some of the claims that the Westminster Confession makes. The first being on Holy Scripture in which the confession says, “and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing;” So this confession would have us believe that the complete Gospel has been committed to writing, to better preserve the the truth? My first question is, why should we believe this confession? It certainly holds no authority from God to make this matter of fact statement. The problem with confessions, and private interpretations of Scripture and the like, is that the claims they make are always usurped by the their own authority. In more clearer terms, the one who says that Scripture alone is the authority, becomes a greater authority than that which they are proclaiming has the authority. The Catholic does not have this problem, since Jesus Christ Himself gives us the authority through His apostles as guided by the Holy Spirit. We do not have a problem of authority, as the “Reformer” does whether he will admit it or not. One cannot say the Scriptures are the only authority, and then go on to tell us how they are to be interpreted, and furthermore what the Scriptures are even to be comprised of. The authority of the Scriptures becomes usurped by the one telling me what they really mean, and what they are, since the Scriptures are not going to speak to me themselves to give me a clear exegesis.
The problem of the Canon
The “confession” says, III. “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.” I would like to ask once again, says who? The “confession” written by mere men? This is to whom I should answer to? We can find many different opinions throughout history as to what books should be in the Canon and what should not be. Once again, the Church given to us by Jesus tells us that they are (the Deuterocanonical books) Sacred Scripture. Who is to ultimately decide upon the variations of opinions? Although we can find ample evidence proving that the Deuterocanonical books were considered Scripture by most Christians for the first 300- 400 years, who is to say they were not wrong? Who is to say they were correct? If we are to know God's will, then the authority must come from Him alone, in the means that He said he would give to us, that is through His Church, not through a manmade confession.
The Early Church and the “Apocrypha”
The Protestant Scripture scholar Bruce Metzger says in the Oxford RSV notes, "During the early Christian centuries most Greek and Latin Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertulian, Clement of Alexandria, and Cyprian (none of whom knew any Hebrew), quoted passages from the Apocrypha as "Scripture," "divine Scripture," "inspired," and the like. In this period only an occasional Father made an effort to learn the limits of the Palestinian Jewish canon (as Melito of Sardis), or to distinguish between the Hebrew text of Daniel and the addition of the story of Susanna in the Greek version (as Africanus)." Here we can deduce that the Deuterocanonical books were viewed as Sacred Scripture by the vast majority of early Christians. Why should I, or anyone for that matter believe the Westminster Confession, telling me they were all wrong? The Sacred Scriptures were given to us by the Church, they are part of the living Gospel, and they are only interpreted within this God-breathed entity. The entity being the Church that has apostolic succession back to the apostles with the authority given to them by Jesus Himself. The Westminster Confession cannot prove itself to be Divinely inspired, nor apostolic, and therefore cannot be trusted. It holds itself up to be a higher authority than the Scriptures by its own action. If we eliminate the Westminster Confession here, then in short we must conclude that those who hold to Scripture alone without some confession, are those who believe in the clock pendulum swinging, but no clock for it to swing from.
Ariel, David S. What Do Jews Believe. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.
Ratzinger, Joseph. God's Word. San Francisco: Ignatius P, 2008.
Hahn, Scott. Letter and Spirit. New York: Doubleday, 2005
Fagerberg, David. The Liturgical Mystery and the Mystery of God (Letter and Spirit Journal Vol2) Steubenville, Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology 2006
Provan, Charles D. The Bible and Birth Control. Monongahela PA: Zimmer Printing 1989
Steinsaltz, Adin. The Essential Talmud. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Lossky, Vladimir. In the Image and Likeness of God. Crestwood NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2005
Fortescue, Adrain. The Early Papacy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2008
Metzger, Bruce M., and May, Herbert G., New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha Expanded Edition RSV. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Libreria Editrice Vatican 1997
Holy See, ed. "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Vatican.Va. Vatican/Holy See. .
Monday, June 2, 2008
Sacred Scripture and its place in the Church