Monday, October 1, 2012

How did Sola Scriptura undermine Scripture Reading?

Ok, so no one actually asked me that question, but since this blog is written in a question/answer format, I thought I would tackle it anyway.  This is a question that I have been thinking about for some time.  Every week for the past 2 months, Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door and we have a chat about the Bible and what it means.  While discussing scripture with them, we keep coming back to the fact that Catholics do not read the Bible the same way that Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses do.   I knew what was wrong with how they read it…. I just couldn’t articulate before what was different about how we read it!
“Sola Scriptura” was one of the battle cries of Martin Luther when he effectively started the Protestant Church.  Since Jehovah’s witnesses are basically an off shoot of American Fundamentalism, they just took Sola Scriptura to it’s logical end.  The idea of Luther was that the Church did not have authority on doctrinal matters, and so the only authority was the Bible.  (Sola Scriptura means “Scripture alone”.)  Simple apologetics on this matter; the Bible does not teach “Sola Scriptura”, and therefore the principle is self refuting, since the only thing you can accept as an authority is the Bible.  The Bible does teach that there is a teaching authority, established by Jesus- namely, the Church.  CF Matt 16:17-20, 1 Tim 3:15, hold firm to traditions, etc. It could also be pointed out that the Bible does not contain a list of books which ought to belong in it, and that this was determined by the Church.  So to accept the authority of the Bible, you have to accept the authority of the Church- at least up till then!
At any rate, Protestants begin with this precept, and then interpret the Bible as they see fit, and presumably guided by the Holy Spirit.  Now if this method worked, it would be demonstrated by the fact that all Protestants drew the same conclusions. The existence of Jehovah’s witnesses, who do not even believe Jesus is God, have demonstrated how this method cannot work, since no one has come to a consensus!
Part of the difficulty comes in how to interpret.  Protestants are reputed to have excellent scriptural knowledge.  They can site chapter and verse, and play games of scripture memorization in their Sunday schools. This is partly because they have taken a lawyer like approach to scripture.  Lawyers need to apply the law, and need to be able to reference particular sections of the law to make their point.  Since every protestant denomination exists because of a discrepancy of interpretation from another denomination, each one needs to be able to quickly site, chapter and verse, the basis of their argument.
And so they read the Bible in much the same way as an American Lawyer would read the constitution… which is not how the Bible was ever intended to be read!  Ironically, this way of reading has greatly limited the actual truths being revealed in scripture, because you end up with Fundamentalists, so called because they reduced the faith to a set of fundamentals we can all agree on, to allow for debate elsewhere.   And our friends the Jehovah`s Witnesses will quickly point out that even those fundamentals, like that Jesus is God, or that Hell exists, are not clearly illustrated in scripture!  An apologist, seeing this point, would quickly refute me by stating all the verses that do seem to indicate that Jesus is God or that Hell exists… and indeed there are plenty… but Jehovah’s Witnesses have made a whole institution of denying the points based on the same reading of the same (essential) Bible!  And protestants themselves will argue themselves silly about whether the world was created on Oct 23rd, 4004 BC, or whether the rapture is coming, or whether it is the millennium yet.  Again demonstrating the failure of the principal, Sola Scriptura.
So how do protestants get it wrong? They treat the Bible as though it contained all theological truth, neatly laid out for the reader to grasp.  How, then, do Catholics read it?
The way it was intended to be read by the author! 
Bold statement, no?
Everyone agrees that some sections of the Bible are historical narrative, some are apocalyptic, some are poetry, some are letters, some parables, some are Exultant prose.  Even the literalist does not believe that God has feathers.  Different sections were written with a different end in mind.
But here’s the thing… no part of the Bible can be described as “Catechetical” or “Doctrinal” or “Creedal”.  Sure, there are sections of teaching… but usually they are parables or teachings about moral behaviour or wisdom.  The Bible makes no attempt to explain the nature of the Trinity, or of the Incarnation, or the nature of Grace or eternal life.  I dare say it does not even attempt to explain the history and age of the planet!  So, to read the Bible as though this was what it was attempting to do, is to read it in a way that was not intended. 
The Bible does not have to explain doctrines like purgatory or sexual morality, because it was written for and read by people who were members of the Church.  It was to be read in the context of a community that already understood these things.  Scripture in fact presupposed the teaching authority of the Church!
The Church chose which books belong in the Bible in much the same way as it chose which Saints can be acknowledged as being in Heaven.  In both cases, it is called the “Canon”.  The books in the Bible were deemed by Church Authorities (who incidentally believed everything that Catholics still believe today!) to be worthy of being read within the Mass.  This is why for 2000 years, the Church continues to read from Scripture at Mass, while neglecting the much more concise writings of St Augustine or the other Church Fathers, or St Thomas Aquinas, or even Pope John Paul II. 
But here’s the thing…  if John Paul II can write in a way much more contemporary and concise, and explicitly apply teaching principals, then what makes the Bible such a big deal?
The thing about Scripture is that it reveals God in a much fuller, not so doctrinal way, than how it has been reduced by people who want to use it to argue.  For example, Christians have always read the Bible through the lense of typology, where they read something in the Old Testament and see in it a “type” of something in the New Testament.  
So, Noah’s ark is a type of the cross.  The Passover is a type of the last supper and Eucharist.  The Ark of the Covenant is a type of Mary.  These things can be demonstrated from scripture, but not proven.   If you are forced to read the Bible like a lawyer, to prove your doctrine, you cannot find these deeper meanings! 
God is revealed in Scripture, between the lines, between the pages, through it all.  Reading sacred Scripture is an encounter with God, as he has been revealed and continues to be revealed. 
Catholic apologists sometimes fall into the trap of reading the Bible the way that protestants read it.  Not only is this a more superficial reading of the Bible, but it actually gives to protestants the precepts upon which they built their whole argument.
I too can explain from the Bible alone the majority of contentious teachings of the Church.  But I do not need to.  Catholics don’t go to the Bible alone precisely because we wrote it.  It was written within the context of what we believe. 
Practically speaking, if I get in a debate about this, I point out that we cannot have the Bible without accepting the authority of the Church that gave it to us.  Then I demonstrate that the Church already taught and believed everything Catholics teach and believe when the Bible was written.  Authority is everything.  Without it, if we’re just guessing, the Evangelicals are as likely to be correct as the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the Seventh Day Adventists…. And frankly the likelihood that any of them are right is extremely slim!
I would encourage all my readers to read scripture in prayer, and to come to know the God that is revealed through it.

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy your reads.

    Jehovah's Witnesses are in *breach of the preach*.
    Jehovah's Witnesses proselytizing is a false Gospel. (Gal. 1:8)

    Straight up doctrinal facts on Jehovah Witness.
    The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach preach that Jesus had his return aka second coming October 1914,then they spin all sorts of doctrinal embellishments on that date.
    They teach only 144,000 go to heaven,on and on and on with made up man made dogmas……They have infighting,crime and child abuse as bad as any church out there.

    Jehovah’s Witnesses promotion of their Watchtower sect has the net effect of stumbling and turning people off to the real Gospel.
    Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte; and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt 23:15)
    Danny Haszard born 3rd generation Jehovah's Witness
    *Tell the truth don't be afraid*