The Bible ALONE?
by Mark Shea
Do you understand what you are reading?” asked Philip. “How can I” said the Ethiopian, “unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:30-31).
Many lay Catholics are getting interested in studying their faith. And for a large percentage of these folks this means increased Bible study, which the Church heartily commends. However, when we try to put that into action, we can often run into a problem: the Invisible Contact Lens Syndrome. Most people don’t realize it, but the air is actually filled with millions of invisible contact lenses. These contact lenses–with names like “skepticism,” “New Ageism,” “materialism,” “conservatism,” “liberalism,” and countless other “isms” are especially concentrated in schools, near TV sets, around close friends, and near magazine racks. Silently and imperceptibly, they stick to your eyes as you watch TV or read the paper or watch a movie. As they do, they begin to alter the way in which you see everything, including Scripture. And the fact is, no matter what you do, you can’t keep your eyes free of them. Nobody does anything–including reading Scripture–without some set of contact lenses. So the question is not whether we will read Scripture through such lenses. It is, rather, whether we will read Scripture with the lenses God intends us to use.
Now the great thing about the Catholic Faith is that our Lord Jesus has, in fact, given us a wonderful set of contact lenses. This set of lenses is called “Sacred Tradition” and the “Magisterium” or teaching office of the Church, which is His Body. Many people, unaware of the contact lenses stuck to their eyes by American culture, imagine the lenses Jesus offers us are optional. “I’ll just read the Bible Alone,” they say. “I don’t need the Catechism or all that Tradition stuff.”
But the fact is, this is like saying “I want a one-sided coin.” For the Bible is just the written portion of a much larger Tradition handed down by Jesus to his apostles. And the Magisterium is simply the continuation of the office of those apostles who were told (by Jesus himself) “he who listens to you, listens to me” (Luke 10:16) and who appointed bishops to succeed them in preserving the fullness of the Faith. To try to learn the Faith using “the Bible Alone” is not really to read Scripture without Tradition; it is merely to substitute the traditions of men for the Tradition of God. It is to see Scripture through some set of man-made lenses.
If you don’t believe it, consider this. Many an ex-Catholic Protestant has told me they rejected the Church because some Catholic teaching (say, Purgatory) was “not mentioned in Scripture” But these same ex-Catholics usually believe in the Trinity when that is not mentioned in Scripture either. They are usually pro-life though abortion is never explicitly mentioned in Scripture. They always believe the books in their Bibles are apostolic, inspired, and trustworthy despite the fact that the authorship of many is completely unknown. Why?
Because they have unconsciously retained a whittled-down part of the Sacred Tradition Jesus gave the Church. It is only the bits of Sacred Tradition they reject which they call “additions” to Scripture. But if my ex-Catholic friends apply the same treatment to the rest of Sacred Tradition that they apply to Purgatory, they will soon find there is no reason left to believe in the Bible at all, for Scripture exists only because the Body of Christ, under the Spirit’s guidance, wrote, edited, compiled and canonized it.
In short, when you pit the Bible against the community that produced it, you logically find yourself calling into question, not just supposedly “extra” doctrines like Purgatory, but the whole of Sacred Tradition, including the Bible itself. The deal is, Sacred Tradition and Scripture: Both or neither.
If you opt for “both”, you suddenly find yourself in communion with armies of people who have not only studied Scripture, but become holy and wise by contact with our Lord in its pages (and, among other things, found a very clear biblical basis for Purgatory there). If you opt for “neither” you lose, not only Tradition, but Scripture as well.
So the Church’s understanding of written and unwritten Tradition and her divinely created teaching office look like a pretty good deal to me. After all, we wouldn’t have refused the help of a professional mechanic friend as we struggled through a car repair manual when we were in college. We wouldn’t have pooh-poohed the insights of a pro quarterback as we tried to learn about football when we were 10 years old. Why then should we ignore 2,000 years of accumulated insights from saints, theologians and scholars who are a lot more mature in Christ than we are?
The Ethiopian Eunuch knew this. When confronted with a mysterious passage from Isaiah (and there are many mysterious passages in Scripture) he made a common sense observation: he said he didn’t understand it. Moreover, he followed this with a common sense deed: he asked the Church (in the person of Philip the Evangelist) for help in understanding it. And the Church gave it. That is what the Church does, for the Lord who breathed his Spirit into Scripture and the Lord who breathed his Spirit into the Church is one Lord (John 20:22; 2 Timothy 3:16).
That’s why I think if the Ethiopian Eunuch were around today, he would drool over the Catechism of the Catholic Church. How wonderful to have the compendium of the Magisterium’s teaching concerning the fullness of Sacred Tradition, both biblical and extrabiblical–the very thing the Ethiopian asked for! Any Catholic who wants to study Scripture should start by learning from the Ethiopian’s sterling example. For as St. Paul told the Thessalonians, we are to stand firm and hold fast to the Traditions the apostles passed on to us, whether by word of mouth (that is, by Sacred Tradition) or by letter (that is, by Scripture) (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The Ethiopian Eunuch would not settle for part of God’s gift; he wanted it all. So should we.