“The Contradictions of ‘Scripture Alone’: Part II

Last week I began writing about the inherent contradictions of one of the fundamental principles of the Protestant Reformation: sola Scriptura or ‘Scripture alone’.

In sum, the meaning of Scripture is not evident and so the authority of Scripture is not sufficient to resolve controversies about the meaning. As a result, the Protestants departed from the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church and ended establishing their own traditions and authorities, which were in turn undermined by the very principle they had used to attack the Catholic Church.

This week I want to give an example of how the letter of Scripture can simply be inconclusive on important matters.

St. Matthew’s Gospel records the reaction of the people of Nazareth to Jesus’ teaching: Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this? (Mt 13:54-55, cf. Mk 6:2-3) There are also other references, in the Gospels, to Jesus’ brothers.

A typical Protestant interpretation takes as evident that the reference to Jesus’ brothers means that Mary had other children. Catholic teaching (as also Orthodox teaching) holds that Mary is ‘ever Virgin’, both before the birth of Jesus, during his miraculous birth, and after his birth. Hence she had no other children. To the Protestant mind this seems an evident contradiction to Scripture.

Logically and grammatically, though, the Scripture is not nearly so evident as it first seems. For example, Jesus’ brothers could very well refer to children of Joseph by a previous marriage. That I believe is the ancient interpretation of the Orthodox churches. Catholic tradition, however, going back at least as far as St. Jerome and St. Augustine (late 4th century), holds that the word ‘brother’ in Scripture actually has a wider usage referring more generally to ‘kin’. In other words, ‘brother’ could refer in a restricted way to children of the same parents, or be extended to include uncles, nephews, and cousins. A case in point: Abraham’s nephew, Lot, (cf. Gen 12:5) is referred to as his brother (Gen 13:8), though the Hebrew word is often translated as ‘kinsman’. Logically and grammatically then any one of above interpretations of the reference to Jesus’ brothers is possible.

Now the question of Mary’s virginity really is of great importance because it bears on her whole role in God’s plan of salvation, the reverence we give her, and also the role of consecrated virginity in the life of the Church. Nevertheless, while the reference to Jesus’ brothers turns out to be ambiguous, there is no passage in Scripture that clearly and unequivocally declares Mary to be always virgin.

In other words, ‘Scripture alone’ does not provide an answer to this important question, either for Protestant or for Catholic. As a result, following ‘Scripture alone’ leads to the reduction of the meaning of Scripture to a minimum because of the lack of conclusive arguments. Mary’s perpetual virginity is an extraordinary, marvelous reality. If we could only dare believe such a thing on the basis of a clear and unambiguous teaching of Scripture, then we would indeed have to discard the doctrine as ‘unscriptural’.

That is precisely what happens in Protestantism; the meaning of Scripture is minimized to what is clear and plain. Nevertheless, even what is clear and plain, when put to the test turns out to be not so clear and plain, as the endless controversies among Protestants have shown.

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, however, serves as an excellent example of how tradition, confirmed by the teaching of authority of the Church, interprets Scripture, leading us surely to a fullness of meaning that befits the wisdom of God.

In the first place we can observe that the references to Jesus’ brothers appear in two types of passage. The reference might appear in passing, where the evangelist is merely reporting the opinion of the crowd (which also believes that Jesus is the son of Joseph), with no intention to teach us anything specific about Jesus’ earthly family. Or the reference might appear in order to inform us that Jesus met with opposition from his own kin. So St. John reports, His brothers did not believe in him. (Jn 7:5)

Reference to Mary’s virginity, however, is by no means incidental, but lies at the heart of the Infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. In the first place, Mary’s virginity bears witness to the divine origin of her Son, Jesus. Mary’s witness was continued through her presence in the midst of the early Church after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, by which time also his brothers had come to believe in him. (cf. Acts 1:14)

For the Church Mary is not just a name on the page of a book, but a living person in her midst. The Church knows Mary and knowing Mary quickly came to recognize (quite apart from the details of family history) that she is not just a virgin, but the Virgin. Her virginity is so much the secret to her identity and role in the history of salvation that it would be unthinkable that she should have had relations with Joseph after bearing the very Son of God in her womb. Knowing the living presence of Mary in her midst, the Church is able better to understand the real message of Scripture.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.