Over the last 25 years I've had more debates than I can count with Christians of various denominations. These conversations varied as widely as the perspectives of the different people I debated, but nearly every one eventually included the question: "Where is that in the Bible?" Why "sola scriptura" falls short and misses the mark.
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GAITHERSBURG, MD (Catholic Online) - Recently I was reading a newspaper article in which a prominent Evangelical Christian stated, "Every Christian's core beliefs ultimately rest upon the same foundation: the Bible." Over the last 25 years I've had more debates than I can count with Christians of various denominations. These conversations varied as widely as the perspectives of the different people I debated, but nearly every one eventually included the question: "Where is that in the Bible?" Whether the topic is infant baptism, purgatory, justification by faith alone or the Assumption of Mary, Scriptural support is demanded. And for good reason - after all, the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and therefore, if a belief is found in the Bible, then surely it is true.
However, there is a false presupposition lurking behind this question and the statement made by that Evangelical leader, one that is commonly held by Christians today. It is the presupposition that the Bible is the source of Christian doctrine - that the Bible contains all the teachings of the Christian Faith and its purpose is to be a catechism of sorts for our teachings and beliefs. If you read just about any book from your local Family Bookstore (a chain of Protestant Christian bookstores), the language used is soaked with this premise: "The Bible teaches.", "The Bible says.", "we see from the Bible that.". Unfortunately, this foundational tenet of Protestantism is also held by many Catholics.
This presupposition, however, is not only false, it is illogical and contrary to history. Let us take a brief look at salvation history and see how the Christian Faith was passed on to us - what is its source?
1) After the Fall, God raised up a nation (Israel) to be His people. He sent them prophets, kings and priests to teach them about the ways of God.
2) At the fullness of time, God sent His Son. This Son, Jesus Christ, preached, did mighty works, and suffered, died and rose again for our salvation.
3) The followers of Christ, especially the apostles, went about preaching the Gospel to the known world. What is this "Gospel"? It is the revelation of God centered on the person of Jesus Christ - which includes the preparations for his coming as well as his teachings, mighty works and redemptive death and resurrection.
4) Some of these followers wrote down this Gospel in letters, histories and "gospels."
5) The successors to the apostles - the bishops - continued to preach the Gospel handed on to them, guarding and protecting it from error.
The content of our Faith, then - the "Gospel" - was passed on to future generations by two methods: (oral) preaching (Tradition) and writings (Scripture). The college of bishops - the "Magisterium", or teaching office of the Church - continued to preach that Gospel through time, making sure that it was not deformed or altered. But it is important to know the order in which these things flow: the Gospel is the content of the Faith, and oral preaching and writings are the methods by which they are passed on.
An objection might be raised here that the way we know about salvation history is through the Bible, so the Bible is "before" the Gospel. However, this confuses the method in which we receive history with the history itself. One would not think that a book about Socrates is the source of his life and teachings; instead, it simply recounts what we know about him. It is a written means of teaching about who he was.
So if we want to know the source of our beliefs, we must look to the Gospel, which includes the life of ancient Israel and is fulfilled completely in the person of Jesus Christ and his life, teachings, works and redemptive suffering and death. This Gospel was passed on to the apostles, who then passed it on through their preaching and through their writings.
There is one pre-existing Gospel, then, and two methods by which we receive that Gospel, as has been the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church since its earliest days. In the second century, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Gaul, wrote Against Heresies, which defended the Catholic Faith against the various false teachings of his day. The work is a rather difficult read, but if you are able, read Book III from the Preface through Chapter 3. In that famous section, Irenaeus lays out why the heretics' teachings should not be believed, whereas the Faith proclaimed by the Catholic Church is trustworthy:
1) The Gospel was given to the Church through the apostles (Preface-Chapter 1).
2) The Gospel was passed on to us through Scripture and Tradition, and the heretics contradict both of these pillars (Chapter 2).
3) The Gospel, passed on to us through Scripture and Tradition, is defended and protected by the successors to the apostles, the bishops (Chapter 3).
4) Therefore, if we follow the bishops, especially the bishop of Rome, then we can be assured that we are following the true Gospel (Chapter 3).
The Church today follows this same divine logic. In Dei Verbum, Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Church beautifully and clearly articulates the relationship between the Gospel (also called "Revelation"), Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Sections 1-6 discuss Revelation being given from God, and sections 7-9 note the two ways in which that Revelation is handed on to us. Finally section 10 notes the role of the Magisterium in guarding and teaching that deposit of faith.
None of this means, of course, that any part of the Gospel will contradict Scripture, Tradition or the teaching of the Magisterium. The "glue" which holds all these parts together in one unified whole is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the originator of the content of the Gospel, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the guide of Tradition, and the protector from error of the Magisterium. Left to his own devices, man would be unable to sustain consistent teaching for even a few decades, but with the Holy Spirit as its guardian, the Church faithfully passes on the authentic and saving Gospel to all generations.
So when someone asks, "where in the Bible does it say?", you can know that if the Catholic Church teaches it, it is part of the saving Gospel, which precedes the Bible and is the source of its content.
Eric Sammons is the author of the book Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew, published by Our Sunday Visitor in September 2010. Eric, his wife and their five children live in Maryland. You may purchase Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew here
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