Catholic Church or the Bible: who has the final say?
by Fr. John Trigilio, PhD, ThD.
Clear and concise Catholic Moral guidance on Church Teachings
Q. What is the final authority, the Church or the Bible?
A. During his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that Catholic Christianity is the religion of the great BOTH/AND rather than the EITHER/OR. It is therefore not a contest of either the Scripture or Tradition and neither is it a battle of either the Church or the Bible. The First Vatican Council taught that Divine Revelation has one common source (God) and has two distinct modes of transmission: both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (CCC #80).
God is the ultimate source of Revelation. Natural revelation is what can be known by human reason just looking at nature and using our intellect. 2+2=4 and water is H2O are naturally revealed to anyone who has the use of reason.
Divine revelation, on the other hand, is only known by faith. It is the WORD of God. The written word is what we call Sacred Scripture (or the Bible). The unwritten or spoken (oral) word is what we call Sacred Tradition. The word tradition comes from the Latin word traditio, meaning ‘to hand down.’ Saint Paul says in his epistle (1 Corinthians 11:23) “for I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you …” That ‘handing on’ is what is meant by ‘tradition’. There are human traditions which are often called ‘customs’ but then there is Sacred Tradition which comes from God. Saint Paul received from God and handed it on (tradition) to the early Christians.
When Jesus preached his sermons and worked his miracles, no one took notes. There were no reporters present at the Wedding Feast of Cana when Christ turned water into wine. No one was writing down the Sermon on the Mount. What did happen, however, is that after Jesus said what he said and did what he did, his disciples verbally told people what happened. The message was first preached orally and only later was it written. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were not written until at least 45-69 AD. That means the Gospel was first spoken (unwritten) from 30-33 AD for more than ten years.
Chronologically, the Church existed before the first written Bible ever existed. The Old Testament was not finished until 250-150 BC. The first one volume Bible containing both Old and New Testaments in one language was done by Saint Jerome in 400 AD. He translated the Hebrew and Greek scriptures into Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire and of the Catholic Church. Before those dates, however, many Christians heard and learned of the Gospel message by word of mouth rather than written text. Acts 5:11 shows the first Christians using the word ‘church’ after Jesus used it himself in Matthew 16:18. So the Church predates the Bible as we know it.
In fact, it is the Church herself who gives the name “bible” to Sacred Scripture. The word ‘bible’ never appears even once IN the Bible. It is printed ON the cover of it. Sacred Scripture was called the ‘Bible’ by the Church after Saint Jerome translated the first one volume single language version in 400 A.D. It comes from the Greek word byblos meaning ‘book’.
The Church is also the one who decided which books belong in the Bible. The sacred texts are silent on which books should be considered inspired. Who decided there should only be four Gospels? Why is the Gospel of Thomas not in the Bible? If the Bible is the sole authority, then there is no answer, for the text is silent on the matter.
The Church, however, felt empowered to make the necessary decision. The Church determined which books of the New Testament were inspired and which were not. 27 books were deemed authentic and the rest were rejected.
Likewise, all 46 books of the Old Testament as found in the Vulgate Bible of Saint Jerome (400 A.D.) as well as the Guttenberg Bible of 1456 were designated as inspired. It was Martin Luther who removed seven of those books (Baruch, Maccabees I & II, Tobit, Judith, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom). He placed them in a section called the Apocrypha which subsequent generations would completely omit. Luther’s Old Testament was reduced to 39 books even though the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible from 250 B.C.) known to Jesus and his disciples has the original 46 books.
If the Church therefore has the authority to decide which books belong in the Bible and even the authority to call this book ‘the Bible’, she must also possess the same authority from God to authentically interpret the inspired text. ‘Sola scriptura’ (scripture alone) never appears in the Bible though Luther made it his battle cry.
The Church is not superior to the Bible, however. The Bible is the written word of God and the Church is the Bride of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ on earth according to Saint Paul and Pope Pius XII. Whenever and wherever the biblical text is silent or ambiguous, the Church makes an authentic interpretation. So when Jesus says in the Gospel to cut off your right hand if it causes you to sin, the Church interprets that metaphorically, whereas when He says “this is my body” over the bread at the Last Supper, the Church interprets that quite literally.
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Holy Mother Church has always encouraged the faithful to venerate the Sacred Scriptures. The Church has also urged and continues to urge all followers of Christ to frequent reading and earnest study of the Holy Bible. It is important for Catholics to read the Bible in order to better know Our Lord Jesus Christ. As St. Jerome stated in his commentary on Isaiah, "ignorance of the Scripture is ignorance of Christ".
Daily reading of the Bible is an excellent devotional and spiritual practice. Bible study groups provide wonderful opportunities to learn the priceless lessons and teachings contained therein. It is, however, of the utmost importance to always remember that only the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, guided and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, has the legitimate authority to authentically interpret Sacred Scripture.