Monday, June 15, 2015

IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH BIBLICAL?




A common accusation against my belief in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is that the teachings are "not Biblical."

To put the issue into a common form:
"Why do you believe the Catholic Church's teachings when they are not Biblical?"

I have divided the topic accordingly:
1. THE SHORTCOMING OF THE ACCUSATION
2. IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH BIBLICAL?
3. WHY I BELIEVE THE CHURCH'S INTERPRETATION AND NOT YOURS.

1. THE SHORTCOMING OF THE ACCUSATION

The accusation:
"The Catholic Church is not Biblical"

First of all, I've always regarded this as a loaded and, perhaps, unintentionally disrespectful way of presenting the issue. It implies that a thinking Catholic either must be knowingly contradicting the Bible or that he is maybe too unobservant or too complacent to realize that that is what he is doing.
It has never ceased to surprise me that few ever bother to present the issue in a way that might imply that we actually do think what we are doing is Biblical and that the disparity between the accuser's beliefs and our own might actually be attributed to a different way of interpreting the Bible rather than a blatant disregard for it.

A more appropriate way of breaching the subject would be,
"I don't agree with your interpretation of the Bible. Here's why."
Or even,
"I don't think what you are doing is Biblical and here is why."

But, instead, I more commonly hear,
"Why do you do that? It clearly isn't Biblical."
I mean this in as friendly a way as I can manage while still being honest, but it comes across as a very self centered way to approach someone outside your own religious culture.

No one reads the Bible and just get's a meaning out of it without some kind of external method for interpreting it. Whether that method is just your own cold reading of the text after it has been translated into your own language, informed by your own culture or life experience, or some external criteria, such as a religious tradition or historical or linguistic context, the interpretations are actually widely and demonstrably diverse between the billions of different people who read it. So to head off a conversation with any one of those people that declares an assumption that they believe what they are doing deliberately "isn't Biblical" is absurd and instantly shows them that you aren't actually interested in how they view the subject and doesn't give much incentive for them to offer a response or listen to what you think.

I can, after all, take every scripture that my accuser cites to me and show them how I actually see it in a completely different light than he does, implying that his own beliefs are not Biblical. Not that I have ignored these scriptures, but that they mean something different to me than they do to him. But this doesn't accomplish anything if we don't have any reason to believe either interpretation. And it certainly doesn't automatically give us a reason to assume the other guy has no reason to come to the conclusion that he has. So the real task here, if you think I am doing something wrong, is to show me why your method for interpreting Scripture is better than mine.

As usual, I don't mind if you disagree with me for what I believe, but I do mind if you disagree with me because of something that I actually don't believe or practice. So I'm going to explain to you where my interpretation of Scripture comes from and why it isn't the same as yours.

One thing I don't want you to gather from what I've said above is that I think the meaning of Scripture is relative.
I don't.
I believe it has a specific meaning and that there is an intended way for it to be understood.
In much the same way that a letter from my Dad would have contextual pertinence that would not make sense to you if you read the letter without knowing him, the time period he wrote the letter in, who he was writing it to and why he was writing it. I think that a lot of people think this way about the Bible, even if they don't admit it, but their methods for figuring out that context are diverse and that's why they still don't agree on what it means. All of them can make a sound argument, though, for why they think what they are doing in their lives is based on the Bible using their own method of understanding it's context.

So here's why I think the Catholic method is the right method.

2. IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH BIBLICAL?

That is a complicated question.
A well informed Catholic would say, "yes," but it probably wouldn't mean what you think it does, so I am not going to say that.

As a Roman Catholic, I believe that the Catholic Church is the original Christian Church, established by Christ himself. Being as the Church was established by Christ, it would have existed well before the books and letters of the New Testament were even written.
We believe that Peter was established as the first Pope (the term wasn't used at that time and in that region, obviously, since the word is simply a play on the word, "papa.") The apostles were the first bishops and Peter was their head. The practice of Christianity was then grown and spread through this Apostolic authority. Therefore, we would say that the Church is Apostolic before we'd say it is Biblical.

The line of Popes has been unbroken from Peter until now and the bishops of today come from the apostolic line. The purpose of the Apostolic line is to safeguard and pass on the Tradition of Christianity. What this really means is that we believe, first and foremost, that Christ established a people. Not a book. Even today, we regard this Sacred Tradition as inseparable from the Bible. As a part of the task of passing on the Christian Tradition, the books and letters of the New Testament emerged from that Tradition.

Therefore, The Catholic belief is that the New Testament is a product of Catholic Tradition, not the other way around.

This does not mean to us that the Bible contradicts our beliefs or that we are allowed to contradict the Bible. What it actually means to us is that the Bible reaches it's full meaning within that Tradition. Because that's where it came from.

So, in this sense, because the Bible conforms to our Tradition, I suppose you could say we are Biblical, but it's not really an expression that does justice to what the Church is. We would more normally describe the Church as One, Holy, Catholic (meaning universal) and Apostolic.

There are aspects of our Tradition that do not seem to be obviously mentioned in Scripture to someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Tradition, which shouldn't be surprising considering that many Jewish traditions in the Old Testament don't seem very clear to someone unfamiliar with Jewish Tradition either if their understanding is based strictly on the reading of Scripture by itself. In other instances, you will find more specific correlations to what we do, but others disagree with them as a source for the practice because the Scripture doesn't go into enough detail. Again, the reason for that is that our Tradition doesn't come exclusively from Scripture. The Scripture comes from the Tradition and is meant to serve it. You don't find an itemized instruction list for how to celebrate a Mass in one of Paul's letters, but it doesn't mean that they didn't celebrate Mass. There would be no reason for something like this to be included since these books and letters were all developed by and directed at communities who were already extremely familiar with how to celebrate a Mass.

To expect the Bible to tell a modern man why he should be going to Mass and exactly what that Mass will look like when he gets there without any external interpretive context would be like a guy who has never heard of breakfast picking up a menu from your local diner and expecting it to explain what coffee is and why people drink it.

Such an expectation is a total misunderstanding of the purpose of the Bible in the Catholic Tradition. Look at the Last Supper, in which Catholic Tradition interprets Christ officiating the first Eucharistic Liturgy in history. For Catholics, this is a fairly plain connection as it immediately points to the ancient Tradition that they are participating in, but still, many people on the outside do not find this a direct enough depiction of the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist outside of the context afforded by Catholic Tradition. For a Catholic, that assessment means very little since he believes that the Scripture is referencing his Tradition, not that the Scripture is the source of his Tradition.

A lunch menu is not the reason I recognize the value of eating a hamburger, nor does it tell me how to make one. But there I am, reaping all the benefits of a hamburger, nonetheless. How is such a thing possible unless there is some greater living Tradition that exists in conjunction with this document? That perhaps is even the reason this document exists? What is a lunch menu without the Tradition of making hamburgers?

So, to revisit the point, a Roman Catholic holds Sacred Tradition and Apostolic Authority in equal regard with the Bible and believes that none of those things can be used separately from one another within the Catholic Church. This is, we believe, how you preserve the Truth and allow the the living Tradition of Christianity to grow in unity and within the correct context.

3. WHY I BELIEVE THE CHURCH'S INTERPRETATION AND NOT YOURS.

The basis for the initial accusation that "the Catholic Church is not Biblical" tends to be the concept that the Bible alone is the sole authority in all matters of doctrine and practice and that nothing outside of it is a valid authority.
This is the Protestant doctrine known as "Sola Scriptura." (Latin for "By Scripture Alone.")

For the sake of clarity, I'll put it bluntly. The Catholic Church does not agree with this concept in any way and neither do I. My reasons for taking that position are many, but my most fundamental reason is that the "Bible alone" idea is conspicuously un-Biblical in my experience. There is no particular command within the Bible that comes close to mandating such a doctrine and even if there were some reference to a so called "Sola Scriptura" ideal in the canon of the Bible, the notion becomes problematic and contradictory to a Catholic when you consider the fact that the books of the modern Biblical canon were not officially and finally declared until the Catholic Council of Rome in 382 A.D. which means that any such reference within any one of the individual books or letters could not actually be talking about the canon in it's entirety because the canon didn't officially exist before 382. And if a person doesn't believe that the Catholic Church ever had the authority to do something like this, this begs the question of just what "Scripture" we are talking about when someone says, "Sola Scriptura." Without an authoritative declaration about which of the scriptures are canonical, this term could literally refer to anything. Then again, if someone other than the Catholic Church claims authority for this declaration, where does that authority come from if the rejection of such an authority is already requisite?The reality is that the Bible wouldn't make any sense to me as an authoritative volume unless a provably authoritative living Tradition declared it authoritative. Without that, it seems to me, you just end up with a bunch of people contradicting themselves. How can a specific collection of books and letters have authority when no one is willing to authoritatively declare it's authority? I'm told the Bible has authority by a lot of people outside the Catholic Church, but not by anyone who claims to have the authority to make such a claim.

In short, I find it very difficult to take the alternatives seriously because they are all interpretations of Scripture that require external context, but pretend not to require it. Therefore, I choose the only one that is honest with me as well as makes a strong historical and authoritative claim. The one that admits the absolute need for external context. That context being the Sacred Tradition established by Jesus Christ and perpetuated in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

As I've stated earlier, I am not bothered by the prospect that you might disagree with me because of what I believe. But I am bothered by the prospect that you might disagree with me because of what I do not believe. So I hope this has helped somewhat in at least providing some kind of clarity.

May God bless you.