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The Authority of the Bible


What do Protestants think we believe about Scripture? That it is second to the Church and that the Church teaches things quite independent of it. They think that we, like the Pharisees condemned by Jesus, confuse human tradition with divine revelation, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men, . . . making the word of God void through your tradition (Mk 7:7, 13). Their information is mistaken, but their motives are high. In fact, given this mistake, their criticism is admirable. But we must now look at the mistake.


Protestants come in two different sizes: traditional, or orthodox, Protestants, who follow the teachings of the Protestant Church Fathers, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox; and Modernist, or liberal, Protestants. The clearest litmus test to distinguish the two is their attitudes toward the Bible. Modernists reduce the Bible to a human book. This low view of Scripture they (naturally) call higher criticism. They are the demythologizers. Because they dis-myth the Bible, let us dismiss them for now and explore the dialogue between orthodox Protestants and Catholics.

We should explore four questions, not just one: how orthodox Protestants experience the Bible, how they think Catholics experience it, what they believe about the Bible, and what they think Catholics believe about it. It is important to begin with experience, with the spirituality of the Bible, for this is the key to understanding the beliefs about it.

How, then, do Protestants experience the Bible? First of all, it is sacred. It is Gods word to man, not mans words about God. In it God spoke and continues to speak, not only to humanity at large but also to the individual.

Second, it is what Catholics would call sacramental: that is, it helps to effect what it signifies. It does not do this by its own power (ex opere operato) but only by the power of the readers faith; so in Catholic terms it is not a sacrament but a sacramental.

Third, it is truthnot just truth as logical correctness, but truth as food, nourishment, solid substance. Protestants echo the words of Jeremiah (15:26): Thy words were found and I ate them, and thy words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.

Fourth, it is certain and sure, a rock in a marshmallow world, an absolute in a relativistic age, an anchor in a stormy sea. For Protestants, Scripture rather than Peter is the rock on which the Church is founded.

Fifth and most important of all, it is a place where we meet Christ. Christ, the word of God, comes to us through Scripture, the word of God. It is no coincidence that the same title is given to the man and the book, for the whole point of this book is this man. (See Jn 5:39.)

All this is quite Catholic, you say. How then do Protestants think we experience the Bible? The classic Protestant suspicion is that Catholics fear the Bible; that the Church forbade the laity to read it for centuries because if that had been allowed, the people would have seen how unscriptural Catholic doctrines were.

This is simply historically untrue, of course, but it is still widely believed by Protestants. The belief is dying, though, in the face of the strong encouragement by Vatican II and all recent popes to Catholic laity to read Scripture regularly. This encouragement has done more to win Protestant respect than anything that has come from Rome since the Reformation.

Protestants fear that we have feared the Bible ever since Luther discovered its dynamite. The Reformation really began when Luther experienced the liberating power of the gospel in his Bible but not in his Church; when grace replaced guilt and faith replaced legalism in Luthers life upon the occasion of his reading the New Testament, especially Romans. That is where he found his keystone doctrine, justification by faith.

We shall explore this doctrine in the next essay. Suffice it to say now that Catholicism is not legalism, though this is often news to Protestants; that we read and believe the same Bible, including its clear teaching that we are saved by Gods free grace, not by working our way into heaven. Protestants often simply cannot believe their ears when we tell them this, as the pope told the German Lutheran bishops.

Orthodox Protestant belief about Scripture can be summarized in three main points: Scripture is inspired, infallible, and sufficient. First, it is inspired. Each of its books has at least two authors, one human and one divine. The primary author is God, whose Spirit inspired (in-breathed) and guided each human author as an instrument to say exactly what God wanted to reveal to the world.

Second, it is therefore free from error, or infallible, for God does not goof. Fundamentalists insist on even scientific and historical infallibility, though it seems to other Protestants unnecessary nitpicking to make the divine authority of the Bible depend on whether the soldiers in Sermacheribs army were counted accurately.

It is the third belief, the sufficiency of Scripture alone (sola scriptura), that separates Protestants from Catholics. Protestants do not believe any doctrine they do not clearly find in Scripture (e.g., transubstantiation, Marys Assumption, the seven sacraments).

What do they think we believe about Scripture? That it is second to the Church and that the Church teaches things quite independent of it. They think that we, like the Pharisees condemned by Jesus, confuse human tradition with divine revelation, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men, . . . making the word of God void through your tradition (Mk 7:7, 13). Their information is mistaken, but their motives are high. In fact, given this mistake, their criticism is admirable. But we must now look at the mistake.

We have seen (1) the Protestant experience of Scripture, (2) the Protestant idea of the Catholic experience of Scripture, (3) the Protestant belief about Scripture, and (4) the Protestant idea of the Catholic belief about Scripture. The first and third points are largely right and admirable; but the second and fourth are mistaken. Catholics can and do agree with all the positive Protestant points about Scripture but correct the negative ones. These are the sola scriptura and the misunderstandings of Catholic attitudes and doctrines. Let us now summarize what such a fraternal correction should be.

There are at least four things wrong with the sola scriptura doctrine. First, it separates Church and Scripture. But they are one. They are not two rival horses in the authority race, but one rider (the Church) on one horse (Scripture). The Church as writer, canonizer, and interpreter of Scripture is not another source of revelation but the author and guardian and teacher of the one source, Scripture. We are not taught by a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher, but by one teacher, with one book, Scripture.

Second, sola scriptura is self-contradictory, for it says we should believe only Scripture, but Scripture never says this! If we believe only what Scripture teaches, we will not believe sola scriptura , for Scripture does not teach sola scriptura.

Third, sola scriptura violates the principle of causality: that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. The Church (the apostles) wrote Scripture, and the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, decided on the canon, the list of books to be declared scriptural and infallible. If Scripture is infallible, then its cause, the Church, must also be infallible.

Fourth, there is the practical argument that private interpretation leads to denominationalism. Let five hundred people interpret the Bible without Church authority and there will soon be five hundred denominations. But denominationalism is an intolerable scandal by scriptural standardssee John 17:20-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

Fifth, sola scriptura is unhistorical, for the first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the Church, to teach them.

Finally, we must clear up two misunderstandings.

First, the Catholic Church does not claim to be divinely inspired to add any new doctrines, only divinely protected to preserve and interpret the old ones, the deposit of faith. It does not affirm additions but denies subtractions.

Second, all the doctrines of the Church derive from Scripture. Saint Thomas Aquinas identifies sacra doctrina, sacred teaching or divine revelation, with Scripture.

Even the Marian doctrines fit these two criteria. For example, Christians believed in the Assumption from the beginning, not from 1954, when it was defined. And the Marian doctrines are based on what Scripture tells us about Mary.

Our answer to Protestant objections must come on two fronts, for the objections come on two fronts: experiential as well as doctrinal. Protestant arguments spring from Protestant loves and fearslove of Scripture and fear that Catholics miss or mitigate that love. Only by loving and living Scripture can we prove to Protestants that we are brothers and therefore should not remain separated. Ecumenism and the road to reunion begin here, with Scripture as our common road map. How dare we know and love it any less than Protestants? Its our own Book!



Kreeft, Peter. The Authority of the Bible. Chapter 43 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 272-276.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College.  He is the author of many books (over forty and counting) including: Ask Peter Kreeft: The 100 Most Interesting Questions He's Ever Been AskedAncient PhilosophersMedieval PhilosophersModern PhilosophersContemporary Philosophers, Forty Reasons I Am a Catholic, Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story, Forty Reasons I Am a CatholicYou Can Understand the Bible, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer,  Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press
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