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What Catholics Believe: Faith, Grace and the Holy Scripture
When Martin Luther broke away from the Catholic church and began what has come to be known as the Protestant Reformation, he built his theological philosophy on three legs; Sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture alone is sufficient for teaching and to use anything else is to invite heresy, Sola Fide, the idea that by faith alone are we justified, and Sola Gratia, the belief that grace alone is what merits us for salvation, basically that it is not by our own worth but only by the grace of God through Jesus Christ that we are afforded salvation. And this sounds like good philosophy on the surface. However, when you look just below the surface, and you don't have to dig very far because these doctrines are very shallow indeed, you begin to see that they have no Scriptural substance.
Is Faith Enough?
Let's examine, for example, the doctrine of Sola Fide. Are we saved merely by faith and faith alone?
Well, according to Scripture, no, we are not. Faith alone is not enough. Protestants like to point to St. Paul when he wrote in his epistle to the Romans, which talks about the subject of faith pretty much throughout it. Romans 4, for example, talks of Abraham and how he was saved by his faith in God, and it goes on to say that he wasn't even circumcised at the time of his faith, which is important because circumcision was a requirement to be a Jew in good standing, just as it is now. However, the example here falls apart when you take into account that Abraham actually put his son on the sacrificial altar and he was poised to plunge the dagger into his son't heart. He would have sacrificed his only child right then and there had God not stopped him. God didn't just ask Abraham, "Hey, if I asked you to sacrifice your child to me, would you do it?" No, God made Abraham prove his faith with action. What Paul is writing about is not that we are saved by faith alone, just that we are not saved by works alone. Works without faith isn't going to get.
Romans 3: 28 states "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law." Again, here Paul is not saying that our works have no meaning, he is simply saying that works alone don't get it done. He goes on to compare grace with wages owed to a worker. Your wages aren't paid to you out of some supreme act of kindness by your employer. Wages are earned through our works on behalf of our employer. Eternal life is a free gift, given out of grace and not out of some sense of having earned it by our works. And Catholics don't dispute this. The Catholic church has never taught that we are saved by works apart from faith. What the Catholic church does teach, and to be quite honest, most Protestants don't really disagree with this, is what St. James teaches, that faith without works is a dead faith.
"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:14-17) In this passage James does not contradict that men are saved by faith, as Paul taught. He also doesn't contradict that works alone are not going to get you into Heaven. What he does state is that if you are truly faithful, you will be compelled to do good works, and you are required to do them. Jesus did not command us to pray for the poor, he commanded us to take care of the poor. He stated quite plainly that whatever we do to the least of his brothers, meaning humanity, we do to him. So if we honor the least of humanity, we honor Christ. If we rebuke the least of humanity, we also rebuke Christ. We are not commanded to pray for those who are cold, or hungry, or in prison, by Christ's own words we are commanded to clothe the cold to feed the hungry and to visit those in prison. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15), He did not say "If you love me, you will have faith in me."
Is Scripture All You Need?
"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Well, there you have it. All scripture is sufficient for teaching, nothing more to see here, case closed. At least, that is what the Protestants will have you believe, but is it true? Well, not really. You will never find a Catholic that disagrees with this, or any other Scripture, however, there is one thing that the Sola Scriptura crowd tends to overlook. Timothy says all Scripture is sufficient, and it is, but what he doesn't say is that only Scripture is sufficient. Catholics don't advocate that you can't go by Scripture and nothing else, and be able to teach the truth of what God has revealed to us. In fact, that is my intention here. To communicate the validity of every Catholic Tradition using only the Bible. So no, we don't argue that Scripture by itself is not enough. Quite the opposite, all of our Traditions are in complete harmony with Scripture. There is not a single Tradition that contradicts the Scripture. It doesn't exist. The Sola Scriptura crowd, however, can't make that same claim. They can't make that claim because the very doctrine of Sola Scriptura itself is found nowhere in the Bible. It isn't there. In fact, Scripture says quite the opposite. And Protestants don't really follow Sola Scriptura anyway. As I demonstrated above, faith alone is shot down once you take the words of James into account, so that is an extra-Biblical doctrine, and it is a counter-Biblical (thus false) doctrine as well.
There are some commonly universal traditions that are seen as completely valid and without question that are not found anywhere in the Bible. Traditions accepted by both Catholics and Protestants. One of these is the idea of a triune God. The Holy Trinity is a doctrine Christians have always just accepted as being so, even though it is found nowhere in the Bible (unless you read a King James Bible, but we'll get to that a little bit later). How can you profess to be a Christian, yet not believe in the Holy Trinity, the idea that God, while being a single being, has three facets to His existence; The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit? By that same degree, how can you profess to adhere to Sola Scriptura and yet accept a doctrinal teaching that is found nowhere in the Holy Scriptures? I have heard a lot of Evangelicals say that if someone could prove even one part of the Bible to be false, they will prove all of it to be false, and I absolutely agree with that. The Bible is accurate in its teachings, all of them, all the time. But then, wouldn't it follow that if you could prove Sola Scriptura false in one thing, wouldn't that make it false in all things? So how can you reconcile this? Catholics reconcile it by not claiming something as absurd as that Scripture alone is the only place where we can find infallible teachings of the word of God.
St. Paul acknowledged the primacy of Holy Tradition when he wrote his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians: "Hold fast to the traditions whether they come in oral or written form" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The Apostles knew that not everything the new Church needed to know was going to be written in an Epistle. Indeed, the Apostles often visited these various congregations and taught them orally. The Epistles were written to specific congregations to address specific concerns they were having. They were not intended to address everything Jesus wanted them to teach. Now, some Protestants out there would point out that we don't just have one or two Epistles, but that we have many by many authors, and in addition to that we have four separate Gospels that detail the teachings and actions of Christ, and, of course, all of this is true. But John himself writes at the end of his Gospel "24This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. 25And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:24-25). John knew he didn't recount everything. He knew that any other Gospels wouldn't recount everything. He knew that if everything Jesus did and said had been written down, it would take up all of the libraries in all of the world and still we wouldn't have enough room. Now, the Jewish people of the time were often given to hyperbole. In fact, Christ himself often spoke in this manner, so it is a very safe bet that when John wrote those words he was greatly exaggerating. But his point still stands, there were many, many teachings of Jesus that just didn't make it into the Bible. Some of these were written in the Epistles. Some of them were written in Gospels and Epistles that just didn't meat the requirements to prove they were divinely inspired when the early Church Fathers set down the New Testament canon. Keep in mind, that just because an ancient Church writing isn't inspired that it doesn't still have good teachings in it. It just means that the text wasn't inspired.
The idea of Sola Scriptura also breaks down when we look at it through the prism of simple logic. Where does Scripture get its authority? Protestants will say God, and that's what Catholics believe too, but how do Protestants know this? Nowhere does the Bible itself lay down what are inspired texts, there is no infallible and inspired Table of Contents, after all. And even if there were, how could a book grant itself authority as the infallible Word of God? I could write a book and say within it that it is inspired by God, but that statement wouldn't make it so. And again, the Bible makes no such statement, so for Protestants where does the Bible get its authority? Of course, the answer is that the Church gives the Bible its authority, through Tradition. When the canon of the Bible was decided on, the (Catholic) Church who compiled it looked at several qualifying factors, and one of those factors was "Is this text in harmony with what we've always believed through the teachings of Tradition?" Tradition and Scripture are symbiotic. Tradition gives authority to the Bible and the Bible supports what we believe through Tradition, either explicitly or implicitly. Another tradition a lot of evangelicals hold to is the tradition that the King James Version of the Bible, and only the King James Version, is the infallible and inspired translation of the Bible in the English language. Again, this is not Biblical, because the KJV didn't exist when the Bible was written, and it certainly wasn't written in Elizabethan English, so where does the KJV get its authority? This lack of authority behind it makes traditions like King James Onlyism especially dangerous, because the KJV is very flawed in its translation. Now King James Onlyists, when you point out the errors in the KJV will tell you that the flaws aren't with KJV but with whatever demonic translation it is that you're using. But they have no God-given authority to make that claim. And a knowledge of history throws King James Onlyism out on its face when you look back on the original Greek texts that the Bible was originally compiled from. For example, 1 John 5:7 in the KJV states, "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." Well, this verse supports the idea of the Trinity Scripturally, right? And we all believe in the Trinity, so if the KJV supports the idea of something everyone believes, that's a good thing, right? It isn't, because that just simply isn't in harmony with the original texts, and the translators appointed by King James didn't have the authority to change Scriptures willy nilly, which they did. Remember earlier when we said that if you could prove one thing false, it makes the entire thing false? Well, it isn't looking good for King James Onlyism, or for Sola Scriptura, is it?
The Catholic Church doesn't really take any issue with Sola Gratia, the idea that it is by the grace of God alone that allows us to be saved. Yes, only God's grace, shown when He sent His only begotten Son to Earth to die for the sins of the iniquitous, because He acknowledges that it would be impossible for us to merit salvation on our own. God spent the old covenant giving the Jews the laws and the requirements for His people to earn their salvation. And they failed, over and over again. Finally God decided that He would just do it for us, because He is an all loving and all merciful God. It is the hope of God that all will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. So He gave us the grace of the gift of Christ's death that we might have salvation. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24). Everyone is a sinner, but through the grace of God we are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ.
Protestants and Catholics don't really disagree on these subjects. We both believe that it is by grace alone that salvation is even possible. We both believe that it is by faith alone that we are granted this grace, this is, all God expects in return is that we have faith in Him and that He will save us, but we also agree with what James wrote, that your faith is justified by the works you do in that faith. Martin Luther didn't agree with James, and in fact wanted to take James out of the Bible because it disagreed with him. However, most modern Protestants have begun to accept James and believe something really close to the Catholic teachings, while still clinging to that phrase "Faith Alone." Your works alone will not save you, but if you are truly one of the faithful, the Holy Spirit will compel you to do the good works talked about in James. And, finally, neither Protestants nor Catholics believe that Scripture alone contains everything God has revealed to us. The difference is that the Church has God-granted authority to pass on Sacred Tradition, as given it in Matthew 16 when Jesus gave to Peter the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Protestants don't have this authority, because they have left the source of Apostolic Succession. So, Protestants have their own extra-Biblical traditions, but they have no authority to authenticate these traditions, which is why many of them are actually anti-Biblical and not just extra-Biblical. I pray that one day Protestants will realize that they don't really adhere to these three solae, and will one day reject them.