Listening to the Church

It seems to me that you put more emphasis on what the Church teaches than on what the Bible says.  Why is that?

I think one way to approach the question is this: which came first, the Bible or the Church?

Answer: The Church.  The Church gave rise to the Bible; the Bible did not give rise to the Church.

For the first 300 years of Christian life, there was no New Testament, but there was a Church.  And there was a Church because Christ established it, and gave it the authority to teach and to protect the deposit of faith that He taught.  Christ did not write a book, nor did He direct His followers to do so, though ultimately, that is what happened. He established a Church to hold and transmit the faith, whole and entire.

In short, the model of Christian life is that we learn our faith from the Church, not just from the Bible.  It was in this context that the New Testament arose. The books that were ultimately included in the New Testament were gospels and letters that the Church, in a council of (Catholic) bishops decided were were inspired and authentic.  The entire canon, Old and New Testament, was decided on the authority of the Church; it did not fall intact from the sky. So, you see, even those who claim the Bible alone as authority are really relying on the Catholic Church for the Bible they use, though Protestants later excised some of the books from the Old Testament that the Catholic Church had included in the canon.  This leaves Portestants in the odd position of having decided their own Old Testament canon, but relying on the Catholic Church for the canon of the New Testament.

More importantly, it’s simply impossible to use the Bible without having an interpreter; the words of the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways, and modern man, removed from the context in which the books were written, is particularly prone to making mistakes. If an interpreter is needed, then the question becomes: who has the authority to interpret the scriptures?   The Bible says that that authority is the Church, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. (I Tim 3:15).  If that is the case, then the Church in question must be visible and able to articulate an opinion on the interpretation of scripture (as well as resolve disputes among believers Matt 18:17); it cannot be an invisible congregation of the saved known only to God.  (For the record, it’s unlikely that the Church referred to in scripture started 1500 years after the statement was made, either….)

This is why the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, maintained intact and passed on from generation to generation is so important.  It helps Catholics to understand the context and meaning of the scriptures.  It is because scriptures are so important that it is critical to have a valid basis for interpreting them.

Protestants reject the value of the teaching authority of the Church, which we call Sacred Tradition or the Magesterium.  But the fact of the matter is, Protestants have exactly the same kind of approach, but with more variation and less continuity.  There is always an interpretive system that helps believers understand scripture in the context of the individual denomination’s belief.  Take, for example, the interpretation of Christ’s words at the Last Supper:  This is my body…..

The Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church teaches that this line means exactly what it says: that the consecrated host and wine become in some mysterious way the body and blood of Christ.  The interpretive traditions of the various Protestant denominations, however, hold that this passage does not mean what it plainly states, though among themselves, they hold a variety of different interpretations short of accepting the plain meaning.

The reality is that no book can ever be self-interpreting; the Eunuch told Phillip as much: How can I understand when I have no one to explain to me?  Christ repeatedly explained scriptures to His disciples, indicating that proper instruction is essential to understanding.

Catholics look to the uninterrupted and consistent teaching of Sacred Tradition to transmit to them the meaning of scripture that was passed to the Apostles, and from them, through the Church and her Bishops, to us in the present day.  Protestants look to a looser collection of ideas, sometimes, entirely individual, to do the same thing, with the result that there is very little consistency among Protestant beliefs, even on such essentials as what is needed for salvation.

So, yes, I do pay attention to what the Church teaches, because I need her wisdom to transmit not just words to me, but the fullness of the faith, intact and entire, from the time of the Apostles.

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