As a Catholic Christian, I am aware that the Christian Church pre-dates the Bible, that the Apostles preached the gospel prior to any New Testament autograph, and that Jesus perpetuated His message into all generations by establishing a primitive institutional body for which to carry His lantern; but members of the Protestant Church of Christ, I have found, have largely never thought about such facts. The Church and her Sacred Tradition is the message of God, is the word of God; and her Scriptures are the word of God as well. Both are message. Both are authoritative. Both are the word of God.
Your group cannot accept that the Catholic Church maintains authority, and has determined by its own self-assigned authority—and with no scriptural merit—to accept the Bible as its proclaimed sole and all-sufficient authority. But when did the original ecclesial authority, as you must know existed with the Apostles and those they ordained as elders, become non-authoritative? When, in your collective mind, did the pattern cease? In what way? And, as a “Bible-only” Christian must demand, by what scriptural mandate? Would you argue that authoritative Tradition ceased upon the Apostles’ deaths? Where, specifically, does the Bible reveal that secret? When did sola Scriptura begin!
For a group that claims to practice biblical Christianity, how contrary to the Bible your theory is! Where does the Holy Word support your circle of logic, suggest that the Bible teaches that the Bible is all-sufficient? Is there any place within Scripture, explicit or implicit, that teaches “Bible-only” Christianity? Can your ministers point to any scriptural example of a “Bible-only” Christian, any example of either Jesus or the Apostles teaching “Bible-only” Christianity? Your model, your concept, your mantra, your Rule of Faith, your entire theory and identity, is one that you adopted from the group whose label you deny: Protestantism. It is a needed unexamined premise to support your preference, to change the household of God into a house of glass; and I will illustrate the vulnerability of your glass fortress and then beseech you to consider a more biblical perspective: Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are, together, not separately, not one to the exclusion of the other, the word of God, which is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12).
You do not recognize the authority of the Catholic Church, I understand, and so my counterarguments must make use of the less-than-half deck of the full word of God you have not completely discarded. An exhaustive case for the primal model would include every word from Scripture, because every word is a product of the primal model, of the Catholic bishops who recognized and declared each iota and dot (cf. Matthew 5:18) as inspired. Curiously, though, you consider her declaration as valid, yet you simultaneously refuse her perpetual authority; you accept the Bible as the word of God, yet maintain that an evil institution begat a Holy Library, or that some theorized pre-Catholic body unknown to history declared the scripturally-absent, yet inspired, Sacred Table of Contents. With either case, however, a tradition of some sort was involved, and you must come to grips with that fact and consider what history reveals, or else remain divorced from the Church you try to argue against by forcing the Scriptures to communicate your Rule of Faith when they certainly do not—forcing “the word of God” to equal the “Bible only”.
Were the Thessalonians who heeded St. Paul’s words convinced the Church’s oral teachings were not “the word of God”? Would you argue with St. Paul, who wrote:
When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:13, emphasis added).
Was the Ethiopian eunuch, who had the humility to acknowledge that Scripture requires an authoritative interpreter, wrong to accept St. Philip the Evangelist’s interpretation? As the eunuch was reading Isaiah the prophet, St. Philip asked him, Do you understand what you are reading? The eunuch answered, How can I, unless someone guides me? (Acts 8:30-31). Did the eunuch refuse the Church’s interpretation? Would he have become a true “Bible Christian” if he had denied St. Philip’s interpretation, denied being a “Catholic” Christian, and remained a “private” Christian? Perhaps he would have figured out the Sacrament of Baptism by chance, perhaps he would have eventually found an article of not-yet-existing New Testament Scripture, and perhaps he would have interpreted it correctly by chance; or perhaps he, like non-Catholics who refuse the authoritative teachings of the established Church, would have denied himself the enjoyment of the fullness of Christianity.
If it is true that the Scriptures are so clear, if any person should privately interpret them, if they are so easy to understand, and if legitimate authoritative interpreters are only Catholic figments, then the Bible does not reflect these secret facts—does not provide any command, example, nor intellectually dignified necessary inference. What the Bible overwhelmingly communicates, however, is not your love for ecclesial Docetism, but a Faith that is Catholic through and through. The entirety of the New Testament canon portrays a Sacred Magisterium that was given the Spirit of truth, which would be guided into all truth (John 16:13), and through the Church (not the “Bible only”) the manifold wisdom of God might now be known (Ephesians 3:10).
Love for Scripture does not present it as what it is not; love for Scripture presents it as it is. Pope Benedict XVI taught the world’s Christians, “Whenever Sacred Scripture is removed from the living voice of the Church, it becomes victim of the experts’ disputes.”5 Was he wrong? Are the Scriptures not in dispute among the Protestant sects? Has the removal of the Sacred Scriptures from the Sacred Tradition proved to unite non-Catholic Christians, to advance Christ’s prayer for unity? Where sola Scriptura exists, unity does not.
Of course, you are a “Bible-only” Christian, a Christian who, essentially, has decided that, when the rubber meets the road, one’s private interpretation of the Holy Book is the word of God; you are your own personal sacred magisterium—your own pope. And so you might discard Pope Benedict’s homily as an extra-biblical distraction, inject your own commentary as valid, and decide that your tradition is the living voice. For those within your paradigm, it can be difficult to understand how “Bible-only” Christianity is a misty dream; nobody can fully achieve the unlofty, anti-scriptural, and rebellious goal. We all approach the Scriptures with an interpretive lens, and yours is sola Scriptura, which is theological code and a euphemism for “solo” Scriptura. But I ask that you remove your lens as best you can, and come to realize that your group’s best and most often utilized scriptural proofs for sola Scriptura are not proofs, but ungodly traditions of men.
As a “Bible-only” Christian, you should only appeal to the “Bible only” for your arguments, but you do not restrict yourselves to the text, because the Bible does not make your arguments; your arguments are derived from the insertion of your own traditions into the Bible. In other words, the Bible does not “speak”; people interpret the Bible and then speak. Catholics listen to the Sacred Magisterium; you listen to yourselves, like a ventriloquist holding a Bible on her palm who says, without moving her lips, “Speak where the Bible speaks, be silent where the Bible is silent.” And so I will present the Bible passages your group most often speaks about as proofs for sola Scriptura or “Bible-only” Christianity, what your group says the passages mean, and then show you a more reasonable understanding of the passages.
5 Homily delivered upon taking possession of the cathedral of Rome, October, 10, 2005.