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Sola Scriptura Doesn’t Work

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One of the most common reasons people choose to reject Catholicism is because they don’t see Catholic teaching explicitly supported in the Bible.

Sure, that’s not the most common reason people decide not to be Catholic. It doesn’t rank as high on the scale as “the church is outdated” or “the church is corrupt.” But coming from a Protestant background myself, to many it is a big deal that Catholic doctrine adds teachings to the simple Bible message.

Even in the public arena, how many times have you heard this? “Jesus never talked about ________, so why do you make such a big deal about it?” What that implies is that you need to actually see written in Scripture the explicit denunciation of, for example, polygamy before you can say the Bible condemns it. This is called “Sola Scripture” – the Bible alone.

But there are problems with reading the Bible this way. Aside from the Bible not actually teaching that the Bible is the only thing a Christian should believe (a topic for another day), the idea that a Christian should derive all their doctrine from the Bible does not make sense. Here’s why.

The Bible Author’s Intent

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First rule of interpreting the Bible: no one talks about interpreting the Bible. Wait… no…

First rule of interpreting the Bible: figure out what the author intended to say. And by that I also mean, figure out what the author did not intend to say.

Do any of the authors of the Bible intend to lay out every single doctrine and teaching the church is supposed to believe in? Of course not.

The New Testament authors wrote either to address specific issues in churches or to give overviews of basic Christian topics or both. The Gospels themselves are different to varying degrees because the authors were trying to bring out certain aspects of Jesus’ life for certain purposes.

Nowhere does any writer say, “What I am writing here is everything you ought to know about Christianity.” Nowhere.

Piecing Together the Truth

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So where does that leave those who run to the Bible only? They piece together various disconnected letters, bits of poetry, law books, and histories to form some kind of coherent picture of the Judeo-Christian tradition. You can go a long way with that, but it is no wonder that so many denominations have sprung up because people take that viewpoint. Scripture is big and hard to piece together.

Imagine trying to give a full account of a couple’s marriage by looking at just the letters they wrote to each other. You will certainly get a feel for their relationship, but you have no idea whether the coarse words in one letter were because of something deep and profound that happened years ago in their marriage or something superficial that happened recently or even if it was sarcasm and indicated nothing at all. Maybe it is hyperbole and not literal.

None of us today knew Paul or the other Apostles personally. We guess at the full meaning of what they wrote, but we can never be sure of it just by reading the plain text.

The Distance of Time and Culture

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But it really is worse than that. If we look at the letters of a married couple we don’t know, we are at least perhaps familiar with the language we are reading. Maybe we live in the same culture. Words have the same meanings.

This is not anywhere near the case when studying documents from 2000+ years ago. The Bible was written by people who lived in a completely different culture with completely different values. They spoke in languages that have morphed and changed over the centuries, or are dead altogether. The context of their lives is something we have no access to.

This makes the Bible easy to misread.

So How Do We Interpret the Bible?

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Is all lost? Are we doomed to never know what the content of the Christian faith ought to be? No.

We ourselves may not have a great grasp on the text of Scripture, but there are countless writings of theologians who lived much, much nearer to the time of the original apostles. There is also the guiding light of the living tradition of the church – it’s practices and ways of understanding the faith lived out in the liturgy on Sundays.

We can understand what Scripture really means because we can read it with the rest of the church throughout history. These ancient brothers and sisters, as well as the traditions they have passed on to us, help us see the Bible with proper vision.

Take Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, for example. He spoke these words over the bread and wine: “This is my body… this is my blood…”

During the Reformation around 500 years ago, there was much debate over what Jesus actually meant by this. Was he speaking figuratively? Was it a nice bit of poetry? Did he mean it literally?

Read the text itself, and your guess is as good as mine. But the church for the first thousand years had no doubt what Jesus was doing. Yes, he did mean it literally. He was instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist. That was the first Catholic Mass ever celebrated.

For these reasons and more, Sola Scriptura is untenable.

©2020 Catholic Anonymous

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