The Contradictions of ‘Scripture Alone’: Part IV

As the world commemorates the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I have been writing about the contradictions contained in the notion of ‘Scripture alone’ upon which Protestantism is based.

So far, I have set forth three contradictions. The first two are consequences of the meaning of Scripture not actually being so clear and evident.

First, when the authority is not clear and evident, then the interpretation of the meaning becomes decisive. Logically, ‘Scripture alone’ sets each person’s private interpretation of Scripture as the highest authority. Practically, however, that problem has led to establishing new traditions and new authorities for the interpretation of Scripture, after having rejected the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church.

Second, the reality of conflicting interpretations leads to the attempt to find unity by means of reducing the meaning to a minimum that can be agreed upon. Instead of being a revelation of the depths of God’s wisdom, the Bible becomes a rather simplistic ‘how to guide’.

Third, by setting ‘Scripture alone’ as the standard of authority, Protestants have artificially leapfrogged over 1500 years of lived Christianity, in order to recreate church communities from the pages of a book. The Bible, however, in no way presents itself as a guidebook to organizing a Christian church, but presupposes the already existing Church.

Today I want to add a fourth and final point. The doctrine of ‘Scripture alone’ takes it for granted that a certain collection of books (the Bible is not really a single book, but a collection of books that has for a long time been put together beneath a single cover) is the inspired word of God. What is the basis for such a claim?

The Bible makes reference to ‘the word of God’. It often reports speeches attributed to God – ‘Thus says the Lord’. Nowhere, however, does it set forth a list of books and declare that these books, and only these books, in all their parts, are the inspired word of God. St. Paul, in writing to Timothy, does indeed declare, All scripture is inspired by God. (2 Tm 3:16) Nevertheless, the context shows that he is only referring to what we now know as the Old Testament, which is what Timothy had learned from his youth. (cf. 2 Ti 3:15) Further, St. Paul does not even specify what books are contained in the Old Testament.

It is not as though the inspiration of the books is self-evident. Certainly, some of the books can seem quite uninspiring. Further, there are other books from both Old Testament times and the time of the early Church that present themselves in a manner similar to the books of Scripture, but are not recognized as ‘inspired.’

Martin Luther, though he did not get his way, wanted to remove some books from the New Testament. He also opted for the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, which was not definitively established until after the time of Christ, and rejected the so-called ‘deuterocanonical’ books that were found in the Greek Bible and had been used in the Church since ancient times. As a result the Catholic Bible and Protestant Bible contain different books to this day.

So how did certain books come to be accepted as the ‘inspired word of God’?

The New Testament, starting with the example of Jesus, makes clear that the Jewish people already accepted certain books as ‘Scripture’.  The exact limits of this canon were not yet defined, but the inspired books were those read in the synagogue services. While certain books and additions, written in Greek, might have been used in synagogue services, eventually after the death and resurrection of Christ, the Rabbis did not accept these books as Scripture. In other words, it was through the authority of the Rabbis and through the use of books in divine worship, that certain inspired books had become known among the Jewish people.

A similar process took place in the Church. Certain apostolic writings, together with the writings of the Greek Old Testament, began to be read in the Church’s worship, the celebration of the Mass. This took place under the guidance and authority of the bishops. During the first few centuries there were some disputes about certain books, but by the end of the 4th century those disputes had been settled. In 382 a Council of the Church of Rome, presided over by Pope Damasus, defined the entire canon of Scripture, listing all the books currently found it the Catholic Bible.

In a word, the Bible that was in use at the time of Martin Luther’s birth in the late 15th century, had been defined by the tradition and authority of the Catholic Church. Protestants, then, have accepted the authority of the Rabbis in determining the canon of the Old Testament and have accepted the authority of the Catholic Church in determining the canon of the New Testament. Accepting the authority of the Catholic Church so as to believe in the Bible as ‘the word of God’, they make use of that same ‘word of God’ to reject the authority of the Catholic Church.

In sum, ‘Scripture alone’ leaves us with a multitude of conflicting interpretations, with no way to resolve them, empties the Scriptures themselves of the richness of meaning, and relies on the very tradition and authority of the Catholic Church that it rejects.

 

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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.