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Protestant and Catholic View on the Bible

Updated on August 25, 2012
Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg Bible | Source

There are no distinction between Catholics and Protestants half a millennium ago, until Martin Luther protests against Rome in the event known as the Reformation. Catholics and Protestants differs in some aspects, like sacrament, tradition, scripture, etc. Scripture undoubtedly plays an important role in Protestant tradition, as it is stated in its statement of sola scriptura. Whereas the Catholics claimed that the scripture is derived from the church, hence the emphasis is upon the church as a community that guards the Scripture.

These discussion about God's word should be started first with revelation of God. Here we will specifically define revelation in terms of special revelation that is given from God to human beings, which is an interception to the natural world. These revelation from God in the Old Testament are given through prophets and written down either by the prophets themselves or by other people (some are of unknown origin). In the New Testament, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14a, NIV) which we know as Jesus Christ. This revelation of God is made in the person and work of Jesus Christ, which is the final revelation of God.

The question to ask is this: how do we contain and pass on this revelation, the reality of Jesus Christ, to the next generation? It could be orally or in writing, which is how we communicate to other people. This is how we know about the idea, person, reality, experience of the revelation that is given to the people long time ago, especially during the time of Jesus. Here we will examine how Catholics and Protestant tradition differs in the transmission of God's Word.

Catholics tradition

Catholics places emphasis on the apostolic succession and tradition. This is transmitted both orally and also in writing. The Gospel includes: how they live with Jesus, the word that Jesus preach, the example from the life of Jesus, that is passed on to them by the Lord himself, in other words the full reality of Jesus Christ that they are able to experience. Some of this Gospel is written down, which is known as the Scripture, but of course this full reality of Jesus Christ could not be totally contained in words. Those that is not written down is passed on orally to the community of believers, which is the body of Christ. “Revelation goes beyond Scripture, then, to the same extent a reality goes beyond information about it.”1

In other words, the Scripture is the material principle of revelation. This entails that we can read the Scripture without getting any revelation; we need to dig this deposit of revelation using the spade of faith. This Scripture is to be distinguished from Tradition. This Tradition will encompass everything that the Church has, not only the doctrines but also the life, mystery, and the communities themselves. “This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it.”2 Because this Scripture and Tradition has the same source, which is the revelation of God, both are to be treated with equal reverence.

Tradition (capital T) is not to be confused with tradition (small t) though. Tradition with T is the great tradition that is passed on by the apostles to the body of Christ about everything that Jesus passed on to them. Tradition with t is the different form of practices in local churches. With this Scriptures and Traditions, the whole deposit of faith, which is Jesus himself, lives inside the Church.

The Roman Catholic church teaches about divine inspiration in the Scripture. “Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”3 Both the Old and New Testament is accepted as the Word of God, with God as the author and hence there is an assurance that they will be free of error in the teaching of truth. Jesus himself promised that the Spirit of truth will guide the disciples into all truth (John 16:13).

This teaching of Scripture and Tradition is based on 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Before the New Testament was canonized, the church does not have the New Testament., what they have is only the teaching of the apostles and the Old Testament. They experienced the reality of Jesus Christ through the apostolic teaching before some of these teachings is written down and canonized as part of the Sacred Scripture. Hence this oral tradition and Scripture is inseparable; the latter originates from the former and it is written down so that it could teach and reach many people and also for the sake of preservation.

Protestant tradition

Protestants could agree to all the points above regarding Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Even more, evangelicals today should also claimed back the Tradition that is missing in the church practices. Our faith is a historical faith and not just faith of the Book. “It is time for evangelicals to reach back and affirm a truly “catholic” Tradition by returning to the ancient sources themselves, to correct the former correction...”4 Of course it doesn't mean that we want to revert the Reformation; the Reformation is protesting the tradition and not the Tradition. Even though we don't retain the structural continuity from the New Testament era, we have to make a connection to the apostolic era in terms of doctrines, practices and Tradition. The Tradition may include early church fathers' document, confession of faith, etc. This is done to get the full reality of Jesus Christ that is given to the apostles. “Scripture is an integral part of the Tradition, which possesses a unique authority.”5 The early church fathers did not recognize this distinction between Scripture and Tradition, for they are blended in one pot: the full reality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

This does not mean that we reject sola scriptura. Sola scriptura does not mean that we isolate the Scripture from people, history and Tradition. Sola Scriptura means the sufficiency and clarity of the Scripture for humanity to achieve salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Granted, the revelation of God is more than Scripture, but although those apart from Scripture is helpful, they are secondary and supplementary for knowing the saving truth of Christ. In the Old Testament, Moses wrote down the law and ordered the people to read the and follow them (Deut. 31:9-12), where these words will give them life (Deut. 32:46-47). Paul also taught Timothy about the sufficiency of Scripture that will lead to salvation through faith (2 Tim. 3:15). Roman Catholics are blending Church, Tradition and Scripture into one big pot that serves as the vessel of revelation of God. However, the church is given the primacy: “...for Rome, the only real authority is the church: sola ecclesia.”6 Protestants gives primacy to the Scripture alone, for the Scripture is the one who established the church. This is the case that happens to the Berean church. Paul commended the Berean for checking what he taught to them whether it agrees to the Scripture. He placed a primacy on what is written as Scripture as compared to what he said. Human beings may fall, but the Word of God stays forever.

Protestant may protest that the oral transmission of Tradition is unreliable, especially after the apostolic era. Roman Catholics teaches that “...sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known.”7 There is no explicit teaching in the Scripture that the apostle's successors will also be guided by the Spirit of truth, except if Rome claimed what is probably not theirs. Of course if they are the leaders of the church we would expect that God would guide them, but it is quite difficult to sustain the notion that the Tradition is transmitted 'in its full purity'. In addition, many examples of perversion of truth happens throughout the ages. Hasn't God gives us already the Truth that is contained fully in the Scripture?

Adding to the critic above in Dei Verbum section 9, the burden of proof is on Rome to explain how are they able to preserve the unwritten Tradition:

Following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates with a feeling of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and New Testaments, since one God is the author of both; also the traditions, whether they relate to faith or to morals, as having been dictated either orally by Christ or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church in unbroken succession.8

“Specifically, demonstrating the existence of this inspired “oral tradition” that exists outside of Scripture and has been passed down directly from Christ and the apostles is a tall order.”9 Therefore it is more appropriate to propose that these oral tradition are merely interpretational in content and uninspired by God. They may be a good practice to follow as long as it is in accord to the teaching of Scripture. It is always beneficial to experience the additional reality of Jesus Christ outside of Scripture through Tradition, although it is not primary. Scripture, thence, served as the judge and primer for the church; it's primacy, sufficiency and clarity is clearly demonstrated in the Scripture itself and throughout history.

Papyrus 106; Jhn_1_29-35
Papyrus 106; Jhn_1_29-35 | Source

Canonization and the authority of Scripture

Now, regarding the authority of the Scripture, The Roman Catholic church acts as a magistrate, to determine and canonize the book as Scripture. Catholics views that Jesus established first his disciples (first Church), then his disciples is advancing this Church and this Church serve as the living and visible body of Christ that contains the revelation of God. The Church acts as the cause and the Bible is the effect. Hence for the Bible to be infallible, the Church has to be infallible. This infallibility is partly derived from Matthew 16:18 (NIV): “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” In other words, God will guide His Church as His living and visible body on earth. The Church is given power by Christ to canonize the writings that the Church possessed. This makes up a big difference with Protestant tradition, such as the decision to accept Apocrypha in the Sacred Scripture.

This is in contrast to the Protestant tradition which acts as a minister and witness towards God’s Word. This means that Protestants are only recognizing the Scripture as God’s Word. Before the Scripture is canonized in AD 382, the congregations already had these documents, and it had been and will always be God's Word. The authority of the Scripture is determined by God and not by man. This is in accord with divine inspiration of the Scripture: it is God who chooses to inspire the Scripture. Hence, the Church acts as the effect, whereas the Bible (God’s Word) is the cause. God’s Word is the pillar of the Church and not vice versa. Even though everyone did not admit that Jesus is the son of God, he is still the son of God. In the same way, even though God's Word is not canonized, it is still God's Word. And “God’s Word is His Son Jesus Christ...The sovereignty of this our God is therefore the sovereignty of the Word of God.”10 We should not separate God and His Word, for they are one.

God is responsible for inspiring the writings, whereas His Church is responsible to discover and recognize them as the Scripture. The process of canonization is done by the early fathers through several criteria, mainly it's apostolic relation and the truth that the writings bore. Even though the New Testament was not yet written after Jesus' death, the apostles had God's Word in the heart and mind. God gave them the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13) and they served as the writer, bearer, speaker, and guardian of the Truth. The writings that they leave us and the Tradition that they taught to the people are the Truth. Those writings that is not written or authorized by the apostles are to be rejected.

The first century Christian was unique then, as the apostles are still alive. They are the main receiver of revelation of Jesus Christ that has received the power of Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). The prophets and the apostles serves as the foundation, and Jesus as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:18-20), “...therefore, the full and final revelation of God in Christ was given by the apostles.”11Just as in the Old Testament the prophets serves as God’s spokesmen, God uses the apostles in the New Testament. Paul is aware of this when he said that his writings are “a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). “From the “Thus saith the Lord” of the prophets to the “It is written” of the apostles, the biblical writers recognize that God has spoken and that the Scripture records for us His Word.”12 For this very reason, the Protestants did not accept the Apocrypha in the Canon, for they are not founded on either the prophets or the apostles. Granted, they may be beneficial and edifying to the Christian faith, but they are not inspired and are secondary to the Scripture. They could not be placed as the Canon, but they should be examined by the Scripture.

The Catholics maintained that God gave them His Truth first to the apostles, then to the Church. Hence, the Church is claimed as the bearer of truth that has the power to determine the canonicity of the Scripture. However, this means that whatever is canonized by Rome is divinely inspired. Doesn't this mean that God obeyed his Church to inspire what the church has chosen? God's Word are eternal and it exists even before the Church was formed. It's canonicity is not determined by man, but by God. The Catholics, then, view that the Church are the bearer of God's Word and that the Scripture is part of the written tradition of the Church. On the other hand, the Protestants view that the Church are bearing the truth that God has given to them sufficiently through the Scripture. The Truth lives in the Church for the Catholics, whereas it lives in the Scripture for Protestants and hence Protestant are struggling as fallen human beings to manifest the Truth in their life. For Rome, the canonization process serves to distinguish the Gospel and the gnostic teaching. Protestants claim the same thing, but for an additional purpose of recognizing and preserving the primary saving truth that God has given to the apostles.

Conclusion

The differences between the Catholics and Protestants should be a lesson for each other. Protestants today are losing their origin, from the early church fathers up to the point of reformation. The Protestants are just about 500 years old, as compared to the Christian tradition of about 2000 years old. There is an immense lesson that we can learn, from doctrines, tradition and spirituality. These remains to be retrieved back by the Protestants today, lest we are lost in this era. It is not a jump from first century Christians to the Reformation, but it is an evolution of our faith from the first century until the end of time. Protestants should not condemn the Tradition, for what they should condemn is the erroneous tradition. On the other hand, Catholics should reexamine their hard-to-defend claims, e.g. papal infallibility, Immaculate Conception, and the purity of the transmission of Tradition. Many Protestants find them dangerous and arrogant claims. God forbade the people of Israel to add or subtract word from the laws in Deuteronomy 4:2. It is hence precarious to teach anything that is not based in the Scripture. Catholics should also reconsider the relation between the Church and the Scripture, lest the Word of God is chained in the jail of Church and not used effectively.

The views on Scripture is the one that unites Christians altogether, both Catholics and Protestants. It is also the one that has separated them. Both could agree that Scripture is the inspired writing that contains the revelation of God. These discussions should aim to provide the Church with a system that enables them to experience a fuller reality of the revelation of God.

References

1Joseph Ratzinger, God’s Word (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), p. 51

2Catechism of the Catholic Church, ss. 78

3Dei Verbum, ss. 11

4Daniel H. Williams, Retrieving the tradition and renewing evangelicalism (Michigan: Grand Rapids, 1999), p.15

5Ibid, 215

6W. Robert Godfrey, ’What do we mean by Sola Scriptura’ in Sola Scriptura (Lake Mary, Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), p. 8

7Dei Verbum, ss. 9

8The Council of Trent: Session IV - Celebrated on the eighth day of April, 1546 under Pope Paul III, Decree Concerning The Canonical Scriptures, http://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/trent4.htm accessed on 6 August 2010.

9Godfrey, p. 19.

10Karl Barth, God Here and Now (New York: Routledge Classics, 2003), pp.15-16).

11Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), p.534

12James R. White, Scripture Alone (Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 2004), p.20

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    • k12rswow profile image

      k12rswow 4 years ago from New England

      Hey brother, look at my bio, and find a hub I wrote about christians and catholics.

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