In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Hallelujah! All faithful Christians believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Holy scripture is a huge gift to humanity. St. Paul says:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
St. Jerome, translator of the original canon of scripture (the Vulgate, which remains the official Catholic Bible), says simply: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” No Christian community is more “Bible-based” than the Catholic Church, its very self inseparable from Christ. The Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – Catholic worship – was instituted by Jesus and is tied directly to Holy Scripture from start to end.
To know Christ, God’s revelation, and His will for us – to live on the “straight and narrow” path (Matthew 7:13-14) – we must know scripture.
The canon of scripture is the fruit of Sacred Tradition and infallibly known through the Magisterium. Without both, we would not have the Bible. Without both, we would not be able to correctly understand it today. For the first 4 centuries, there was no official canon of Holy Scripture. Around 400 A.D., the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, infallibly declared the 73 sacred books, determined their order and numbered their verses. All translations for 1,100 years, the New Testament writers themselves and the Church fathers were Catholic.
It’s all a matter of interpretation…
No, I am not suggesting relativism. There is only the truth, unchanging and certain, that will set you free. The problem is, how do you know what that is? The fact is, words are ALWAYS interpreted and can mean quite different things to different people.
Patrick Madrid uses a very simple 6 word example: “I never said you stole money.” It seems straightforward, containing easy words, obvious in meaning — or not. Read that sentence, without emphasis then put emphasis successively on words 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6. You get 6 very different interpretations.
Holy Scripture is far more complex. It is a translation, so those who understand ancient Aramaic and ancient Greek have an advantage. The words must also be understood culturally as they would have been thousands of years ago. Different books use different types of prose. Finally, and very importantly, it must be taken as a whole.
Those scholars who are on-top of all of this, still differ. Reasonable, well educated, well-intentioned people can make plausible cases for very, very different interpretations. There is also a temptation for all readers to see in the words what they want to see and not see what they do not wish.
The false Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura posits that scripture is the ONLY authority (a claim not made by scripture itself) and that the authority of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium somehow ended upon the canonization of scripture. This was of course, a necessary invention of the Protestant revolution in order to be separated from the authority of the Church given by Christ.
In this novel doctrine, created 1,500 years after the time of Christ, proper understanding is generally assured by personal guidance of the Holy Spirit. This quite flawed assumption has resulted in countless Protestant denominations and ever increasing division among the faithful. While they may cringe at the description, each denomination has their own “tradition” to guide their flock in the “correct” interpretation.
This is precisely why Christ established a VISIBLE CHURCH, His bride, joined together in the Communion of Saints to form the Body of Christ. This Church is ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC (universal) and APOSTOLIC. To His Church, he gave real and infallible authority to know and teach faith and morals — despite their personal failings.
Learning the Bible
We Catholics have an advantage in addition to our Bible based liturgy: every Mass focuses on different scripture readings (uniform, throughout the world). Those readings are proclaimed then reflected on in a homily (from the Greek homilia meaning explanation) given by an ordained priest or deacon. This provides an excellent baseline understanding.
Deepening one’s knowledge of scripture can be advanced by simply reading it. While that is a start, there will be questions. A good Catholic study Bible or commentary will help immensely. There are many good choices such as the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible and the Navarre Bible. There are good online resources too, including free ones such as Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary.
Perhaps the very best way to learn the Bible is in a class, a “Bible study.” There you will read scripture, discuss it, and use various resources to explore and understand it. These include the leader, printed materials, audio and video presentations, and so on.
Bible Studies are Always BIASED
I bet that heading got your attention! Many people presume that the Bible is the Bible and any study of it is comparable to any other. This is simply not true as I explained above.
Those offering Bible studies genuinely hope to share the Word of God and have no intention to deceive. Yet, their interpretation will be seamlessly interwoven throughout the class. This is true for Catholic Bible studies and Bible studies offered by each of the numerous Protestant communities. It is unavoidable.
There is no such thing as a truly non-denominational or inter-denominational Bible study, despite claims to the contrary. It simply is not possible. At most, interpretation would have to be severely restricted to a least common denominator and even so, remain open to interpretation. I see this all the time between Christian communities. Words are said, everyone nods agreement, but if you scratch below the surface you quickly find understanding differs.
Due to the unfortunate nature and results of the Protestant schism, this issue is especially prominent for Catholics. To be blunt, Catholics should not accept invitations to non-Catholic Bible studies. Here is a partial list of issues:
- How exactly one is saved (justification) will be wrong. This will probably include false (and non-biblical) doctrines such as being saved by faith alone and/or once saved, always saved.
- The novel Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura will be pervasive. The equal, supporting and non-contradictory roles of Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium will not be recognized.
- The visible Church founded by Jesus Himself will likely be denied. In its place, a non-biblical theory of an invisible Church of all believers will likely be substituted. (You will also find the definition of “believer” to be problematic.)
- The authority of the Vicar of Christ, successor of Peter, and those bishops in communion with him will be rejected. Either there is no authority (you are on your own) or their denomination’s leaders are correct (by some vague authority).
- No ministerial priesthood will be acknowledged – those ordained by a Sacrament of Holy Orders and uniquely configured to act sacramentally for Christ. (If it comes up at all, Matthew 23:9 will be woefully misinterpreted.) Apostolic succession will be seen as irrelevant.
- All or most of the sacraments instituted by Our Lord will be denied. The gifts of their sacramental graces will be unknown.
- The real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is denied. At most, communion is a symbolic ritual.
- Baptism may or may not be understood as required for salvation. If baptism is believed to be necessary, its regenerative nature may not be understood.
- The indissolubility of marriage will probably not be accepted. The nature of marriage itself might not be understood. Liberal Protestant communities sometimes believe that homosexual unions are possible, normal and good.
- Life is not necessarily sacred from conception to natural death.
- Understanding God’s mercy and justice probably differ. Likewise, understanding the forgiveness of sins and perhaps the need for the forgiveness of sins may differ.
- Most denominations do not recognize the Communion of Saints. Most believe that praying for each other is possible only among those currently on Earth.
- Mary, the Mother of God, her role in salvation history, her perpetual virginity and her assumption into heaven is disminished or denied.
- The existence of purgatory is not understood, nor the authority of the Church to grant indulgences.
- The non-biblical and false (and relatively recent) novelty of rapture doctrines like a 7 year tribulation may be taught.
As there is no single Protestant theology, the above list is both incomplete and not applicable to all denominations. It is however at least possible to attend a Protestant Bible study where the differences to Catholicism are not great — depending on the particular study, the leader and their denomination. Protestants are, after all, Catholic too… just not in full communion with Christ’s Church. That said, the only safe path is to avoid Protestant Bible studies.
A Cautionary Tale
I met a very nice Catholic man recently who has attended a large, Protestant “inter-denominational” Bible study for several years. He really enjoys it and feels that he has learned a lot about scripture. Actually, it was through my encounter with him that I decided to write this piece.
My discussion with Bob (not his real name) was not exhaustive, but I could see that his Catholic faith was undermined. He expressed that the Bible was the sole authority for truth. He noted that religion was the creation of men. He dismissed the importance of differences between ecumenical communities.
Bob is sincere in his search for truth, but is unwittingly being lead away from it. The group he is with genuinely believes that they teach only the truth. Yet, they have their own statement of faith and supporting study materials. They use the Protestant NIV Bible, a dynamic (less literal, more interpretive) translation. Leaders must pledge fidelity to their beliefs so Catholics are not accepted as leaders. For all practical purposes, while not their intention, this group has none-the-less become simply another Protestant denomination.
The bottom line is this: seek the truth. I believe you will find it only in the Church directly founded by Jesus Christ. If you are Protestant and think that all Protestants have mostly the same beliefs, look closer. You will be surprised to learn how different they are on core Christian beliefs. If you are Catholic, depend only on the numerous Catholic sources of information.