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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Catholics and Bibles and Ignorance - Oh My!

I was recently with some friends – all Protestant – talking about a semi-spiritual topic and they started referencing Scripture. This talent always amazes me! It really does. I grew up Protestant. I did the Bible drills, I memorized the order of the books of the Bible (something that makes me seem quite intellectual in Catholic circles, let me tell you), and I’m pretty familiar with most of the Biblical narratives.

But I don’t have verses memorized. I’m not sure I've ever met a Catholic who did who wasn't formally trained or a former Protestant. I’m fairly certain that at this point it’s an uphill battle that I wouldn't win. But Protestants whip these out like it’s second nature, and it’s really impressive.

But in Catholicism, it’s also just not as necessary. Catholics don’t believe in sola scriptura (Scripture alone) but instead have Scripture and Tradition. Both are regarded as necessary and both are equally authoritative. Scripture, which was inspired in the theological sense of the word, was also finite. All Christians reason that inspiration couldn't go on forever. But where Protestants and Catholics often diverge is that Catholics believe revelation is ongoing. And not just private revelation about your life but universal – catholic – revelation.

For Protestants the Bible is it. It's the cat's pajamas - the beginning and the end of all reference sheets. Sure, there are other resources but they all draw their strength directly from the Bible by supporting their arguments and ideas with Biblical references (i.e. Romans 8:28). The Bible is the sole authority for Protestants so reading it and returning to it often makes a lot of sense.

Not so with Catholics. We believe revelation began about 13 billion years ago with the creation of the universe and continues to the present age, including a lot of important developments in the last two millennia. If you picture the Bible as something like the U.S. Constitution and Tradition as something like all the other laws born out of it, then you can kind of understand the role ongoing revelation plays for Catholics.

It’s not that Scripture isn't important in Catholicism because it is. It’s just that it’s not the whole pie. It’s one half (though a very tasty one at that). Catholics have more than the Bible to turn to for authoritative knowledge and they have more authoritative resources: the rosary, papal bulls, church councils, theological works, spiritual readings, formulaic prayers, devotions, and above all, the mass. When Protestants ask themselves the question "What's the answer?" they know the one place to turn. But when Catholics ask themselves that same question, I think it's fair to say most are going to look to Tradition (often with a basis in the Bible) rather than the Bible itself.

This seems to be a simple misunderstanding. Protestants wonder why Catholics don't care about the most important thing and Catholics wonder why Protestants threw out everything else but the Bible. Both are exaggerations of course. But I'm beginning to think that ecumenicism, at its heart, means refusing to only validate others insofar as they meet our standards.

So for those who think that Catholics don’t read the Bible – they may or they may not. But it doesn't mean they aren't “good Christians” and it doesn't mean they aren't spiritual. They just have a different spirituality. And that’s okay. That's valid.


  1. Be careful with you say things like "All Christians reason that inspiration couldn't go on forever." All Christians DON'T think that. As you've pointed out, Catholics (and lest we forget LDS) both believe in ongoing and authoritative revelation that restore or preserve the one true church.

    Personally, I don't identify as either Catholic or Protestant. I was raised Protestant, but I'll refrain from referencing scripture despite my urge to do so ;-) It also drives me INSANE when Christians (Protestants especially) talk as if the Bible contains literal (yes, I do mean literal) "answers" to any and all life questions, when in fact it provides mostly cryptic allegories, dense philosophical jargon, and some very strange tales.

    What I think is important to remember is that all Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike do believe that the Holy Spirit lives and reigns on earth in our hearts and has the ability to reveal Truth to followers of Christ (John 16:12-13... sorry, sorry). I believe where I divert from most is that I think the Council of Nicaea was probably the biggest fail ever. It prevented continued revelation in the form of Scripture and froze the belief system of Christians in a 3rd century model. This was devastating, and some may argue it came at the cost of the prosperity of the world for the next 1,200 years. Maybe I'm getting carried away.

    Anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is that revelation can and should be a part of every Christian walk whether it's authoritative or not. I tend to not favor heavily codified doctrines, which is why I tend to shun highly organized denominations. I'm not nearly interested in Tradition enough to make a respectable Catholic... I'm much more interested in personal discovery. Maybe that marks me as a mystic, or even a lunatic. But I do believe the Lord is continually revealing Himself daily, and that scripture is just the beginning of discovering "the answers." If I believe in a Living God, I must always believe He still speaks.

    1. You know what, you're right - not all Christians believe that inspiration couldn't go on forever. I was wrong in saying that. As you've pointed out there are some who do not accept the councils of the early church - like Nicaea. Though most who identify as "Christian" hold that a belief in the Nicene Creed is a rubric for belonging to that label, others don't.

      But an important distinction in Catholic/Christian theology is the difference between "inspiration" and "revelation". These are terms that have distinct meanings in the field of theology, especially in relation to Scripture. I'll quote from The Catholic Encyclopedia since my understanding is pretty limited:
      "'These books are held by the Church as sacred and canonical, not as having been composed by merely human labour and afterwards approved by her authority, nor merely because they contain revelation without error, but because, written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author, and have been transmitted to the Church as such.' (Council. Vatic., Sess. III, const. dogm, de Fide, cap. ii, in Denz., 1787)."

      "Inspiration" is a higher form of revelation, having God as the true author. In Catholic theology, the actual moments of the quill hitting the parchment of these initial writers takes on a miraculously God-intervening context. This helps support the belief in biblical inerrancy. "Revelation" is different. It's still God revealing himself but it's not as hands-on. I could be wrong but I believe inspiration takes a premier spot in terms of God working through humans, almost guiding their will. Revelation doesn't necessarily have that connotation. So I was trying to use those terms accordingly.

      I disagree about Nicaea. But I completely agree that there are a lot of false and bad ways to interpret Scripture, many of which are practiced even by Christian leaders. Unwavering commitment to literal interpretation will really limit the depth that Scripture is meant to offer. Refusing to see humanity's part in salvation history and even the writing of that history will do the same. I don' think there's anything wrong with personal discovery or revelation. But I think you always have to hold it up to what God has revealed before. And if it's new, can it be integrated into the tradition? God is big enough to encompass all truth, whether new or old but there's a real danger when we think by our own reason, prayer, and insights that we know better than 2000 yrs. of history. A perfect example is Pastor Rob Bell's book about the nonexistence of hell and the interpretation of Christ's message. Here's a man, educated but by no means a theologian, who's deciding on his own a theological problem that was decided by a vast community of much wiser persons hundreds of years before. A good Catholic example would be visions of Mary that, surprise surprise, have nationalistic connotations (i.e. Veronika Luekin at Bayside).

      Of course God still speaks! But he never rewrites. He is immutable and so only ever increases or adds to. That's my take.

    2. Of course I wouldn't expect you to agree with me about Nicaea—most Christians don't, and that's ok. I realize that my personality is one that is self-reliant to a fault sometimes. I do have to remember that sometimes it's ok to yield to a "higher" power or an "older" tradition.

      I think for me, the sticky part is how do we differentiate between inspiration and revelation? Who gets to make that decision? Whose revelation was responsible for the indication that inspiration no longer happens? Is the meristem of scripture dead? God is indeed immutable, and therefore He is not silent. The idea that scripture is no longer being revealed implies a kind of silence, which makes me uncomfortable—I don't think that's consistent with what I know about God. Scripture may not be rewritten, but our understanding of it continually is. The church's position has changed on many issues over the last two millennia, not because scripture changed, but because our understanding changed.

      I agree 100% that new revelations must not directly contradict the writings we already have. 1 Timothy 4 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible - the reminders it has for our personal development as Christians are invaluable:

      vs. 4-5, "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer," (key here is the Word of God AND prayer - both are necessary!)

      and later, vs. 16, "Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers."

    3. I think those are some solid points. I know some of the answers from a Catholic perspective to those answers but maybe they're better left for another blog post. I've done a blog post roughly about Scripture. Maybe it's a good idea to do one about Tradition. Thanks for sparking that idea! And for what it's worth, I admire how deeply you're thinking about these things. I always enjoy encountering those views.

  2. Sam, you know that I am a Protestant so I won’t go into detail right now about what I feel regarding sola Scriptura (it won't let me italicize). If you don’t mind I would like to delve into your knowledge of Catholicism a little bit. The thing I don’t understand about Tradition in Catholicism is how do you know you can trust those Traditions to be from God? How do you know those Traditions hold authoritative power from God?

  3. I say this with full understanding that my beliefs differ in what may seem like (or be) pretty significant ways from previous posters. However, in the LDS Church we believe in continuing revelation, including writings that have been canonized as scripture and other writings or teachings that are considered divinely inspired (and therefore, scriptural in their own right). Here, as with the Catholic belief in Tradition as a legitimate source of spiritual authority, Trevor's question becomes a relevant one: How do you know this is from God?

    I would venture to say that you can know something is from God in the same way you hopefully came to know for yourself that the Bible is His word. What's to say the Bible is divine and not just a historical text? There is no proof for that that meets the world's standards of knowing something. (In spite of what we may think, divinity is not always self-evident; many did not recognize Christ for who He really was.) But as Christians, we believe that faith and unmediated confirmations from God through the Spirit can testify of truth in ways that elude science and history and every other epistemological system we humans have in place. Thus, we know the Bible is true because we've studied it, we've prayed about it, and we've received a confirmation from the Spirit that we are engaging with the divine. We feel that the Bible is true (we know it!) in a deep place in our hearts, and we've hopefully applied its precepts in our lives and tasted the sweet fruits of Christian living. When Christ is in my life, my life is happier and richer and fuller. No one can take that knowledge away from me.

    I think that same way of knowing can be applied to revelations we've received post-Bible, whether we believe them to be universal or personal. You can measure something's truth simply by going to the source of all knowledge: God Himself. Through prayer, you can receive answers and confirmations to any question. In fact, I would venture to say that God absolutely wants us to come to Him with earnest questions about His Gospel. So whether you're struggling with the meaning of a verse in the Bible or wondering whether the leader of your church is really called of God, the source is the same. We should follow a model of sincere study, prayer, and faith, and eventually we receive what I would call a personal revelation about the truthfulness of a principle or, more generally, God's will for us. These answers don't often come immediately or easily, but they do come because God hears and answers prayers, which at its core means He still speaks (and to all who will listen).

  4. This is a really good discussion, and I like that other traditions can weigh in, since I think there are significant differences in vantage point for the four of us. But it's inspired me to write another post about "How can we know other revelation is from God?" Others have answered that more eloquently than I could but I'll give it a go based on one Catholic's view. Maybe that will be a good launching point for a lot of these questions and additions.
    And thanks for the LDS explanation, Richelle. It's often not considered and I apologize if I haven't made a space for it so far. That will change.

  5. This is so very interesting Sam! Thank you! I'll have to read this more and give it more thought. (I don't have many Catholic friends, so this is very helpful. And while I may technically be Protestant, a lot of my beliefs are currently in development.)

    1. "Beliefs in development" - I love that! I hope to offer a Catholic perspective but I'm realizing I can't represent Catholicism as a whole and that I don't really want to. I hope to convey that my outlook is very Catholic but not necessarily representative of Catholicism as a lot of people see it. So hopefully it's all taken with a grain of salt.
      Thanks for reading!