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Father Nick Nelson: Where's that in the Bible?

Very often people will chide Catholics about a particular belief, saying, “Where is that in the Bible?” Or even well-intentioned Catholics sometimes will ask me to show them where this or that teaching is in the Bible.

Father Nicholas Nelson
Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

And while we can find good evidence, if not clear proof, in the Bible for what we believe, the very question “where is that in the Bible?” implies and presumes some-thing that we as Catholics don’t believe.

Someone asking that question is under the impression that the Bible is the sole authority for the content of Christian faith. When someone asks that question, they are presuming the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”), which rejects the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and says Scripture is the ultimate authority. Sola scriptura is unbiblical, untrue, and therefore un-Catholic. It’s similar to the question, “Did you stop stealing from your employer?” By even beginning to answer that question, you are admitting that you had at least in the past been stealing from your employer.

So, before getting our Bibles out and going from verse to verse showing evidence for this or that teaching, and then having the other person show verses that they think disprove the teaching, and going back and forth, it’s important to call the erroneous presumption of sola scriptura into question. Because by going right to your Bible you are already ceding ground in the debate. You are implying that the Bible is the sole authority on matters of faith.

Before going to Scripture, it’s important to say something like, “Wait, you think that Scripture is the ultimate authority? Well, we Catholics don’t believe that. The Bible was never intended to be the ultimate authority on what God revealed to us and what we are to believe.”

Then the question that needs to be asked is, “Where are we to learn the content of the faith that Christ wanted us to know? Did Christ make provisions for the authentic handing on the faith he revealed?” By provisions we mean, “Did Christ do anything, set up anything, or provide for us in a way that guarantees the authentic transmission of his teachings?” Yes, he did.

And what was that? It wasn’t the Bible. Jesus did not hand each of the Apostles a Bible and say, “Why don’t you copy these, make some more of them, and just hand them out to people, and that will be good enough.” He never did that.

What were the provisions he made for handing on the faith? If we look at the Gospels, we see that: 1) He passed on an oral tradition by what he said and did. 2) He gave his very own divine authority to other men for the authentic handing on of that tradition. And 3) he promised his divine assistance until the end of time. The best text for this is Matthew 28:18-20. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’”

God never intended the Bible to be the last and only word concerning the content of faith. The first disciples never had the New Testament. The Gospels and letters that make up the New Testament weren’t complete until the end of the first century. He never expected us all to learn Greek so that we could each interpret it ourselves in order to come up with the content of the faith.

History has shown us the absurdity of the idea of sola scriptura. There are billions of Christians, and thousands of denominations of Christians who all believe that the Bible is the only necessary and sufficient authority, yet they all believe different and contradictory things on very important questions such as the sacraments and morality and eternity.

Rather than handing us a Bible and telling us to interpret it ourselves, we who have a darkened intellect, disordered passions, and weakened will, Jesus did something much more simple and greater for us. He gave us a visible church with his very own divine authority and assistance to infallibly interpret the sources of faith, i.e., Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. This living voice continues to authentically protect and transmit the deposit of faith down through the centuries. So by trusting in the trustworthy authority of the church as a child trusts his mother, we have everything we need to know and do for salvation.

Maybe we should turn that first question around and ask, where’s sola scriptura in the Bible? If someone says everything needs to be explicitly found in the Bible, then where in the Bible does it say that the Bible is the only and ultimate authority on the content on faith? You can look all day long. You won’t find it, because it isn’t there. But you will find this. St. Paul writing to St. Timothy, “...The household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The church is the pillar and foundation of truth, not the Bible!

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]