The Bible and the Church
I’d like to open this treatise with the disclaimer that I, in no way shape or form, intend to demean the written word of God. But, I do, indeed, intend to place the written word of God in the context that God has intended it for man.
This article will be in three parts. Part one will discuss the Bible and its use in early Christianity, and how it came to be the Bible. Part two will discuss the Reformation Era, and its effect on the Sacred Writings. And lastly, part three will deal with some common objections to the Catholic use of, and interpretation of the Bible.
Let’s begin by showing the importance of the sacred writings in the Catholic Church. This from the Catechism of the Catholic Church; “ . . . the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body. In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, “but as what it really is, the word of God.” “In Sacred Scripture, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet His children.” (#103-4)
Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wish to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures (#107)
Now, with that explained so beautifully by the Church, let us delve into this topic.
PART I: HOW THE BIBLE CAME TO BE!
Any discussion or research regarding the Bible in the first centuries after Christ rose from the dead centers on this question: “How did the Bible come to be the Bible?” As we traverse back in time to the first century, say 55 AD, what do we find? Well, we can see St. Paul preaching the Gospel message to the Gentiles, and St. Peter doing the same with the Jews. The rest of the Apostles are sent of to other lands, where, they too, preach the Gospel message. There were no bibles as we know them today. Sure, there were parchments (2 Tim 4:13), and scrolls lying around, but no book containing all the sacred writings of God.
One reason for that, of course, was that the writings of the New Testament were not yet completed, and wouldn’t be for some time. Yes, maybe the church in Corinth had a couple of Paul’s letters, and maybe the Gospel of Mark, but little else. Each community had its own sets of writings, yet none had a ‘complete’ New Testament. How then, was the Gospel spread to “all nations” (Matt 28:19)?
It is necessary to note, that Jesus only commanded His disciples to preach (Matt 28:19; Mark 13:10; Luke 24:47), never to write in a bound volume all of His teachings. St. John excludes the possibility of this by himself writing: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25).” The beloved disciple also says; “but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).”
Notice John only says, “these are written so you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,” and not “these are written that you may know all there is to know about everything Jesus taught.” In essence, saying we can read the Scriptures and come to know Jesus as the Messiah, but not necessarily know everything He taught. So the Gospel then, was spread by the Apostles and disciples going out and teaching, by word of mouth, the “Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Certainly, there were times of trouble in the early church, and the Apostles wrote letters to the various churches to deal with the issues. They didn’t tell them to open their bibles and study it, and then come to the right decision. No, they taught them through their word as well as their letters (2 Thess 2:15). This was the method the whole church followed. These letters, in fact, make up the majority of the New Testament.
History tells us the early Christians would gather on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20:7). It was during these gatherings, that some of the extant letters and/or Gospels would be read to the faithful. The problem arose that some of the letters (or gospels) had some not so familiar names. Take, for example, The Shepherd of Hermas, the Gospel according to the Hebrews, Epistle of St. Clement etc. These were being read in some churches, and regarded as inspired literature.
In fact, the writings floating around in that age are now assigned three categories: 1) books acknowledged by all as canonical.
2.) books disputed, or controverted,
3.) books declared spurious, or false. (Where We Got the Bible, p 33)
Those in the first class included the four Gospels, 13 Epistles of Paul, Acts of the Apostles. Christians recognized these everywhere as inspired writings of the Church. In that second class, we find the Epistle of James, Hebrews, 2nd & 3rd John, 2nd Peter, and Revelation of St. John. We also find the Gospel according to the Hebrews, Epistle of St. Clement among others. And in the third class, those acknowledged by all as false included Acts of Paul, Acts of Pilate, the Gospel of James and so on.
So, what happened? At the Council of Hippo (393 ad), the hierarchy of the Catholic Church sat down and weighed the evidence. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the council proclaimed the 73 books that Catholics have in their bibles today as inspired and canonical. Later, the Council of Carthage (397 ad) confirmed and approved the previous councils decision. It is interesting to note here, that the councils sent their findings on to Rome to have the Bishop of Rome approve their decision. (Papal authority rears its beautiful head). Then a second council of Carthage (419 ad) over which St. Augustine presided, renewed the findings of the previous ones.
Thus, we have the creation of the Bible as we (Catholics, at least) know it today. It is fascinating to discover that prior to these councils, there was not another list of canonical books comparable to the findings of the councils. You had Fathers of the Church who listed what they believed to be inspired and canonical, but none matched exactly the list drawn up by the council. This, then is a proof of the authority of the Church even in the early centuries. Once the pope ratified the decision of the council, there were no more debates, all Christianity accepted the bible from the hands of holy mother Church. That is, all Christendom for the next 1100 years used the same bible.
PART II: THE REFORMATION AND THE BIBLE
Now we come to that great upheaval in the Church, the Reformation. In this time period, we have many men coming forth, attempting to put their own “autographs” on the sacred writings. Men like Tyndale, Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin. There are numerous fables being bandied about by the anti-Catholic in today’s society when speaking of these men. All of them speak of the Catholic Church as having a hatred for the bible, and refused to let the common man read it. We’ll look at these accusations later to see if they are true.
As to Luther and Calvin, they only “mutilated” the Word of God. They threw out seven Old Testament books! Luther wanted to discard some New Testament books too, but his friends dissuaded him. He wanted to divest the Christian Bible of James, calling it an “epistle of straw”, and Hebrews and Revelation. So much for the Protestant notion self-authenticating Scripture, eh? Luther failed to remove the New Testament books, as I said before, but he did dismember the Old Testament. Gone are 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Esther, Tobit, Sirach, & Baruch. These are no longer considered Scripture among our Protestant brothers and sisters. And why?? Because Luther (a man) found them distasteful to his personal vices! My question is: “Where did Luther get the authority to decide what was, and was not Scripture?” “Where is his pedigree?”
You know, whenever a “new fangled” Gospel was preached in the first centuries, the cry of the Christians was “Where is your pedigree!” “Who sent you!” “Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men
should succeed them in their ministry” (1st Epistle of Clement 95 ad, Chap 44). And St. Iraneaus says “we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere” (Against Heresies Book 3 chap. 3 190 ad).
So we again ask Luther: “Where is your pedigree?” From his great apologetic work “The Catholic Controversy” (Tan), St. Francis De Sales takes Luther and Calvin to task. He first quotes from their “protestation of faith”: “After having placed on the list, in the third article, the books they are willing to receive, they write thus in the fourth article: “we know these books to be canonical and a most safe rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which gives us to discern them from the other ecclesiastical books.” De Sales says how “they throw themselves into the interior, secret, and invisible persuasion of the Holy Spirit”(p104).
Then he says: “Good heavens! What obscurity, what dense fog, what shades of night! Are we now not enlightened in so important and grave a difference! The Question is how one can tell these canonical books; we wish to have some rule to distinguish them; - and they offer something that passes in the interior of the soul, which no one sees, nobody knows save the soul itself and its creator” (p 105)!
And again: “You say that you feel this persuasion within you. But why am I bound to believe you? Is your word so powerful that I am forced under its authority to believe what you think and what you say? . . . I find neither your ideas nor your words steady enough to serve me as a base” (p 106). St. Francis goes on to ask how is it that the Holy Spirit is directing Luther to throwout books that the same Holy Spirit is directing Calvin to keep in! Then adds quite beautifully that it is “the Spouse in whom the milk is produced, then the children suck it from her breasts. But you (Luther) would have it on the contrary, that God inspires private persons, and by these means the Church; that the children receive the milk, and the mother is nourished at their breasts; - an absurdity” (p 107-8).
Enough now with Luther and Calvin. Let’s go on to Wycliff and Tyndale. These two names are synonymous with Catholic haters the world over. Tyndales bible was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church, while Wycliffe, himself was burned at the stake. Let’s look at the two accusations made most often when these names come up”
The Catholic Church hates the bible!
The “only” bible the Catholic Church hates is the bible that is improperly translated. This includes the “Tyndale Bible,” the “Wycliffe Bible,” and those put forth by Luther and Calvin. This is true, as even Protestants attest today. Tyndales translation was bad, and Wycliffes was worse, that is why the Church, in her role as mother of the faithful, not wanting her children to be poisoned by these pseudo-bibles, burned them all! It is noted in Henry Graham’s “Where We Got the Bible” that even King Henry VIII (the founder of the Church of England) censored bible reading when it came to Wycliffes abusive translation. The Catholic Church does not hate the bible, but as quoted in the beginning of this article “venerates it as she venerates the body of the Lord.” That is why it is read at all masses. If the Church wanted to hide the bible from the common man, why would she read it ALOUD at EVERY mass? Again, it should also be noted that Protestants burned many a Catholic Bible in Reformation times, as noted in Graham’s book.
The Catholic Church did not let the common man access to the Scriptures!
This is another silly charge brought against God’s HolyChurch. The Protestant claims that if it weren’t for Luther, the bible would never have been translated into the language of the people. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As history shows, the Catholic Church went to great lengths to see that a bible was in the hands of the laity. Protestants are all familiar with the famous translation of St. Jerome, the Vulgate that was approved in the fourth century (realize that Latin was the common language at this time). At the end of the seventh century, we have the venerable Bede’s Anglo-Saxon translation.
Now, check out this quote from St. Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII : “The whole bible, long before Wycliff’s day, was by virtuous and well-learned men translated into the English tongue, and by good and godly people with devotion and soberness well and reverently read (Dialogues III). And “The clergy keep no Bibles from the laity but such translations as be either not yet approved for good, or such as already reproved for naught as Wycliff’s was. For as old ones that were before Wycliff’s days, they remain lawful and be in some folks hand. I myself have seen, and can show you Bibles, fair and old which have been known and seen by the Bishop of the Diocese, and left in laymen’s hands and women’s too, such as he knew for good and Catholic folk, that used them with soberness and devotion (quoted in Where We Got the Bible, Graham p100).” ‘Nuff said!
In closing, I’d also like to ask the Protestant: “If Luther was right in jettisoning those Old Testament books, then Jesus must have been wrong in saying “The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matt 16:19).” Why was Jesus wrong? For the Church to accept as God’s word, something that isn’t God’s word would be a grave error. Thus, in this case, the gates of hell prevailed against the church by convincing her to accept erroneous books as Scripture. Being that it is His “church,” if error had crept in (as would have been the case had those books been erroneous) then it would no longer be his church! I’m sorry, but I think I’ll side with my Lord and Saviour on this one. He speaks only the truth. Therefore, the Church, which is His body (Eph5:23) as He is its head and Savior, likewise speaks only the truth!