On the Misuse of Sacred Scripture
Note: This article was originally published on my personal blog. Since then, several individuals (most of whom are Catholic) have kindly mentioned to me that this essay seems rather combative and extreme at points. However, I am unable to identify much that I can genuinely recant or replace, and thus have preserved most of the text in its original form. Nevertheless, my respect for the aforementioned individuals compels me to offer my sincere apologies to anyone who may share their opinion; I beg such persons to understand that my intentions are neither polemic nor radical. If I am wrong to say anything that I do, I desperately hope that it is because I have reasoned incorrectly, not because I am intellectually uncharitable.
“The sacred text was never intended to teach doctrine, but only to prove it.”
-Blessed John Henry Newman
The above quotation has spurred some contemplation on my part over the past several days. Having been raised in a household where the adjective “biblical” served as a descriptor for every kind of doctrine, philosophy, or presupposition that was deemed fitting for a Christian, I assumed without question that the Bible is the primary source of Christian doctrine. Following my acceptance of the Catholic dogmas in February of last year, I was compelled to modify this belief to a more modest form: that Scripture is, along with Tradition, the source of doctrine.
After reading the first seventy pages of Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, I think that the latter belief, while closer to the truth, is still a crude understanding of the Scripture’s doctrinal place in the Christian life. In reality, the Bible’s purpose is at once richer and less broad; the canonical books are intended to validate, rather than establish, religious truth. This fact does not detract from their infallibility or their usefulness for teaching and reproof. On the contrary, it reinforces both concepts. However, this same fact demolishes any attempt to construct systematic theology from purely biblical sources. “No creed but the Bible” attitudes, while doubtless well-meaning, make the Scripture out to be something it was never meant to, and cannot, be. Tradition is the source of doctrine, the Bible is its proof.
I believe this for seven reasons:
First, anyone familiar with the canon of Scripture must admit that no book of the Bible is theologically revolutionary: every text is meant to impress upon the reader doctrines that had already been established in tradition. Paul’s letter to the Galatians does not teach new doctrine, but rather rebukes them for adopting a “gospel contrary to that which we preached to you” (Galatians 1:8). The Gospel of Mark does not lay down novel teachings, but records events that had been preached for years before its composition (to be sure, Jesus did lay down doctrine for the first time, but these truths were spread by the preaching of his Apostles and only later written down in the books of the Bible). Doctrine, then, does not originate from Scripture. Scripture emerges in the context of doctrine already established by oral tradition. Even in Romans and Hebrews, Paul’s most theological works, no doctrine is laid down as if for the first time.
The Bible cannot be the source of doctrine if supernatural revelation does not begin with it. It is obvious that the doctrines of Christianity predate the Scriptures. Therefore, it must be understood that these unwritten theological traditions, not the Bible, are the original source of sound teaching. The Bible, I believe, accurately records some of these teachings (although not in a systematic way). However, we must do away with the unhistorical idea that the Bible is the source of supernatural truth.
Second, the structure of the Sacred Text does not befit an instruction in the principles of Christianity. It is clear that the sacred text does not concern itself with the exposition of every facet of Christian doctrine. The New Testament epistles especially, although often considered the ‘meat’ of biblical theology by Protestants, concern themselves almost entirely with correcting departures from tradition. They do not attempt to lay out the whole system of theology in detail, whether it is being challenged or not. Instead, these letters are deeply contextual. They respond to the exact questions asked by the churches, and deal with the precise arguments which are confusing the same.
If God had intended for the Scriptures to act as the vehicle by which we are taught doctrine, the Bible would look very different than it does today. I submit that this collection of letters, narratives, songs and prophecies is unsuited to the systematic teaching of theology, but a wonderful aid in proving a pre-existing set of doctrines. Think of it this way: in a murder mystery, it might be very difficult to deduce what exactly occurred from the clues the author provides. However, once the story of the murder has been told, each clue gives conclusive weight to the case against the murderer. The Bible is so filled with clues as to the “story” of Christianity that it might be tempting to throw out tradition and merely deduce from the text. However, this leads to slight yet significant differences in the story, as the 40,000 denominations of Protestantism can attest. However, if you know the story beforehand, the Bible becomes conclusive evidence that the tradition you received really is the correct tradition. That is what I think God meant to do when He gave us these wonderful, holy books.
Third, the biblical authors profess that the systematic teaching of doctrine is a task outside of the scope of their texts; they readily accept the necessity of tradition in such instruction. At the end of Romans, Paul concludes that believers should “take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition,” not merely to his letter, but more broadly “to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). This doctrine, a doctrine which the Roman Christians already knew well, is commended to the believers as a worthy guard of orthodoxy. This is notable because, if any book of the Bible were to be considered Paul’s attempt at writing a comprehensive summary of the gospel, it would be Romans. Yet even here the pre-existing set of doctrines is the ultimate fail-safe against any kind of wrong thinking. It is tradition that here serves as a comprehensive means of doctrinal teaching.
In fact, Paul, the biblical writer who most often ponders the deep and abstract aspects of our faith, is the writer who most willingly admits that his letters must be considered within the broader tradition of Christian doctrine. “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us,” he enjoins the Thessalonians, “either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). He commends the Corinthians for “maintain[ing] the traditions even as I have delivered them” (1 Corinthians 11:2). Neither can these traditions merely be considered optional additions to the doctrinal structure found in Scripture; it is clear from the Apostle that they carry grave weight: “keep away from any brother […] not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). This should be unsurprising; the Apostle often spent weeks and even months teaching his church plants the truths of the Gospel. Far more theological information can be conveyed through this medium than even the longest of his epistles.
Fourth, while Christian orthodoxy can be proved from Scriptures, it seems highly unlikely that it can be humanly deduced from them. The lived experience of Christianity is perhaps the best evidence of this claim; throughout the centuries Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Pelagians, Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans and many others have appealed to Scripture as supporting their views. They cannot be all be right, of course. In fact, I tend to believe that Scripture definitively refutes all of these systems, with the exception of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. My point is merely that, given this lived experience, I would not trust that even a perfectly impartial and very intelligent man would be able to arrive at Christian orthodoxy if he merely studied the Scriptures. In fact, I am not convinced he would even be strongly Trinitarian, let alone have a solid understanding of the mystery of Christ’s full humanity and full deity. And these are doctrines crucial to the very essence of Christianity!
Perhaps I should return to the analogy of a murder mystery. A given clue might be obviously important in the case of such a mystery, and might even provide irrefutable proof that a crime must have occurred in such and such a manner. That does not mean that you or I have the imaginative and intellectual abilities to deduce precisely what occurred merely by finding the clue. I am fully convinced that the Scriptures provide an irrefutable case for Catholicism. That does not mean that I could arrive at Catholicism purely by deduction from the Scriptures.
Fifth, if tradition is properly defined, it is impossible for the Scripture to be comprehensible without tradition. Religious tradition, like any kind of intellectual tradition, gives meaning to the words of its texts. Christianity gives a special meaning to words like sanctification, justification, regeneration, etc. The Bible does not define these terms. Rather, the original readers presumably understood what the authors meant because they both came from the same religious tradition. If anyone reads books of the holy canon that contain the aforementioned words, and thinks she understands what the author is arguing, then that is because she is using a tradition in which those words have certain meanings. She may be operating from a woefully incorrect tradition; she may be a Pelagian or a Jansenist. But nevertheless, a pre-existing tradition is necessary to understand these portions of the Scripture.
Sixth, this method best describes the way in which Scripture treats Scripture. Can anyone seriously believe that the story of the Messiah could be reconstructed from verses like “he shall be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23) or “out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matthew 2:15)? Can the honor due to presbyters be guessed at from the commandment, “you shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)? Yet the Bible makes it clear that these exact verses from the Old Testament foreshadow the New Covenant. This is how the Bible operates: it says many things that are mysterious and impenetrable without the proper frame of reference. That frame of reference has been fulfilled by Christ and preached by His Apostles in the form of a tradition. This tradition allows us to understand the Bible in a deeper and more meaningful way than we ever could without it.
Seventh, this method best describes the way in which Christians have used Scripture in practice. Regardless of which branch of doctrine you hold to, it is undeniable that your branch came from some tradition, formulated at some time, through which the Bible was interpreted and understood. Tradition is no more unique to Catholicism than words are to an English speaker.
My conclusion might strike some ears as belittling the importance of the holy canon. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, I am attempting to stop the kind of impiety that demands Scripture serve as something it is not. It is blasphemous to treat God as a kind of Santa in the Sky that will serve our beck and call. Similarly, it is irreverent to pretend that the Scripture can be our systematic theology. When used rightly, every verse of the Bible should fill us with unshakeable confidence in the truth of the Christian religion. These chapters and books are the crowning glory of the Church, the power by which she can rest confidently in her teachings. But the Scripture cannot, by itself, guide us to the full truth of the Christian religion.
As Cardinal Newman wrote in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, “We are told that God has spoken. Where? In a book? We have tried it and it disappoints; it disappoints us, that most holy and blessed gift, not from fault of its own, but because it is used for a purpose for which it was not given. The Ethiopian’s reply, when St. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, is the voice of nature: “How can I, unless some man shall guide me?” To mistake the Scripture’s role for Tradition’s role is to substitute the clues for the story. Both are necessary, and without the former we cannot prove the latter. But without the latter, there is no solid thing that the clues can serve. We are left without an anchor.
We are called to be Bereans in our treatment of Scripture. The Bereans searched the Scriptures, not looking for an exact deductive proof of the Christian gospel, but to see whether the Old Testament proved the new tradition that was being preached to them. If they had waited for the former, they would not have been praised. They would have been following in the footsteps of the Pharisees, who refused to accept that the Christ might be different from their preconceived (albeit, by itself, mostly reasonable) deduction as to what He might be.
I do not believe that this argument proves that tradition is infallible, or that the Catholic tradition is the right one. After all, Dr. Newman was convicted of this truth well before he considered abandoning the English Church. Neither was the thought original to him; rather, he was caused to reflect upon its veracity after a sermon delivered by another Anglican priest. But it certainly is compatible with Catholic teaching, and perhaps incompatible with the kind of Protestant attitude that is most prevalent and active in the world today.
Image originally found here.