(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
EssentialsThere are many essential differences between Rome and the Reformers. It is always good to remember one stark fact: both sides charged the other of the most grievous accusation one can make against a body claiming to be a church of our Lord: apostasy. Both sides accused the other of preaching a different gospel. There is really only two broad conclusions:
- One or both sides did not actually understand what the other was teaching. After centuries of study, we can now safely say that they were both teaching the same thing (or close to it) but didn’t realize it. In other words, either the Reformers and/or the divines at the Council of Trent were wearing blinders.
- One or both sides is teaching a false gospel and is, in fact, an apostate church.
Make no mistake about it, this is an essential. As look at how the Catholic Church answers this question, we will recognize that we are in the domain of irreconcilable differences. On the issue of who has the authority to interpret scripture, there is no point of agreement between The Roman Catholic Church and the reformers.
As always, we want to present actual Catholic positions, not caricatures or slander. The best way to do that is to use official Catholic sources. None is more definitive than the pronouncement of the Council of Trent (1546):
Decree Concerning the Edition and Use of the Sacred BooksTrent makes its point in very strong language. No person may presume to interpret scripture in way that is in disagreement with Rome’s teaching. This is quite the opposite from the reformers view of Private Interpretation, which we have talked about in Lesson 2, and which, in a nutshell, teaches that every believer has the privilege and duty to study the scriptures responsibly, seeking a true understanding of the gospel. Do that, and according to Trent you are subject to arrest.
Moreover, the same holy council considering that not a little advantage will accrue to the Church of God if it be made known which of all the Latin editions of the sacred books now in circulation is to be regarded as authentic, ordains and declares that the old Latin Vulgate Edition, which, in use for so many hundred years, has been approved by the Church, be in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions held as authentic, and that no one dare or presume under any pretext whatsoever to reject it.
Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published. Those who act contrary to this shall be made known by the ordinaries and punished in accordance with the penalties prescribed by the law. (Fourth Session, April 8, 1546)
Nothing has changed since Trent, which continues to be the definitive source on many questions of Catholic doctrine. No doctrine of Trent has ever been magisterially revoked—all are in full force. In this particular instance, however, we can see the doctrine unambiguously reiterated in modern times:
But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church (The Magisterium), whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.So Rome reserves for herself the exclusive right to interpret scripture. Rome also, in agreement with (conservative) Protestants, affirms that scripture is inspired. However, we disagree on the justification for the inspiration:
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Vatican II, 1965, Dei Verbum, ii.10)
But the basis for one’s beliefs in its inspiration directly affects how one goes about interpreting the Bible. The Catholic believes in inspiration because the Church tell him so—that is putting it bluntly—and that same Church has the authority to interpret the inspired text. Fundamentalists believe in inspiration, although on weak grounds, but they have no interpreting authority other than themselves. (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”, Ignatius Press, 1988, p. 136)Keating gives the reasons for believing in the inspiration of scripture, and goes on to characterize the Fundamentalist (that would, presumably, be us) reasons for believing in this true doctrine as weak—we are accidentally correct.
Let us compare the two lines of reasoning for believing in the inspiration. We discussed this in a previous lesson, here I’ll remind you with a thumbnail sketch.
Protestant reasons for affirming inspiration
We examined this question, and addressed it with a seven-point “bootstrapping” approach:
- Jesus is a real historic figure
- The gospels are, at least, reasonable historic accounts
- Jesus performed miracles
- Miracles are a sign from God that the person performing them is a prophet
- As a prophet, Jesus would speak the truth
- Jesus affirmed the bible as the word of God
- Conclusion--Therefore, the bible is the word of God
The Bible is inspired because 2 Tim. 3:16 says it is inspired.We acknowledged that our proof would not be convincing to unbelievers. Indeed by 2 Cor. 1:18 we accept the impossibility to prove anything regarding the truthfulness of the Bible to unbelievers. It was an in-house proof—designed to give us greater comfort and faith in what we believe.
Roman Catholic reason for affirming inspiration
The Roman Catholic approach, as Keating stated so clearly, is much simpler. The Bible is inspired because Rome says the Bible is inspired. But where does The Catholic Church turn to in order to explain her authority? To scripture, most notably
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:18-19)The Catholic justification for believing in the inspiration of scripture is patently circular: Rome says the Bible is inspired. Rome has the authority to make such a decree, because it has been given the authority by inspired scripture.
The Protestant justification is linear and is based outside of scripture. The Catholic justification is circular, and based on a misinterpretation of scripture.