Halloween marked the 499th Anniversary since Martin Luther fired the first theological shot of the Protestant Revolution by presenting the Bishop with his Ninety-Five theses. Since then, Christians have remained divided, even among those that would identify themselves as Protestants. But one thing that they all agree upon is that the Bible is the sole rule of faith. Many Protestants are quite vocal in their opposition to the Church on this one point. For example, Pastor John Piper recently posted to his website, desiringGod.com, an interview he gave in which he addresses the following question from a listener named Dan:
“Dear Pastor John, several of my Evangelical friends have converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years. One key issue has been over whether the Bible is our sole rule of faith. After reviewing some of the Catholic arguments, I’ve come to appreciate their persuasive force. As I’ve engaged Protestants, however, I have not yet found an equally persuasive defense of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Pastor John, I was wondering if you could please help persuade me.”
Dan had to be somewhat disappointed by Pastor John’s first response because it is one that appears in one form or another anytime the subject is broached.
“If the Bible is God’s word, by definition no human authority or human institution can serve alongside the Bible with equal authority. Neither the pope nor any human counsel or any scholar or priest or pastor or human tradition has the authority of the Bible if it is God’s word. And it is.
Not only that, but the Bible itself nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own. There are pastors and teachers which Christ gives to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Their job is not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 14:38 that the authority of those in the church must always give an account to the Scriptures, not themselves. That is the first response.”
When confronted with this or similar arguments, the Catholic will almost always respond with 1 Tim 3:15, “the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” What normally ensues is a back and forth of different passages with no ground gained on either side. What I would like to suggest is that the Catholic take a different approach, one that is outlined in the opening chapter of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, beautifully.
Pastor John opens his response by saying “If the Bible is God’s word…” As Catholics we would not dispute this. However, as the rest of his response seems to indicate, he is assuming that God’s word is the Bible. What I mean by this is that, like nearly all his Protestant brethren, Pastor John assumes that the Word of God and Sacred Scripture are the same thing; that Sacred Scripture somehow exhausted all God has to say.
Anyone who carefully reads the Prologue to John’s Gospel will reject this. John speaks of the “word of God” in various ways. He is eternal, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). God’s Word took “flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) in the Person of Jesus Christ. His word has been expressed through creation—“the world came to be through him” (John 1:10). Turning to other books we find that His Word has been expressed “in partial and various ways through the Prophets” (Hebrews 1:1) and through angels (Acts 7:35). His Word is expressed through the word preached by the Apostles (Mk 16:15). We could multiply the examples, but what should become clear is that Pastor John and friends are making not so much a theological error, but a logical one.
When we use any two terms, they may equivocal, univocal or analogical. Equivocal terms are those that have completely unrelated meanings (such as a river bank and a bank where we store our money). In contrast to this we may use them univocally where the two terms express the same essential meaning. Between these two poles there is also the opportunity to express the set of terms as having an analogical relationship. An analogy is where you take two things which are different, but have a certain proportionality to them. We use analogies with the hope of gaining knowledge of the latter which you don’t know by looking at how it is like a thing you do know. For example, when we say that “Pastor John is good” and “God is good” we don’t mean exactly the same thing. But we can gain a knowledge of God’s goodness which we don’t know fully by looking at Pastor John’s goodness which we do.
The Protestant error consists in using the terms “Word of God” and “the Bible” univocally, rather than analogically. Each of the places we find the “Word of God” expressed throughout salvation history represent degrees or proportions. The Word of God is eternal and yet is always expressed to man through a limited human language. This is even the case with the Word Made Flesh. Our Lord is the fullest expression of the Eternal Word, but not the Eternal Word expressed fully. Pope Benedict XVI expresses it succinctly when he says that, “[A]lthough the word of God precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (Verbum Domini, 17).
The Word of God has always been mediated through the words of men through the working of the Holy Spirit. In this way, we can see that all the ways in which God spoke are analogates of the Word Made Flesh. It is always the Divine Word spoken using human instrumentality. That is why you cannot pit human authority against God the way that Pastor John attempts to do. Men who speak the Word of God, speak with the same authority, because the authority comes from God Himself Whose Word is spoken.
This is where Pastor John and many of his Protestant brethren set up Catholic strawmen only to knock them down. No Catholic believes, nor does the Church teach, that the Pope or any man is above the Word of God. The Church, as the Body of Christ extended through time, is like Christ’s earthly body, at the service of the Word. Like Christ’s Incarnated Body, the Church also can speak the Word of God. To think that the Word of God only is spoken in a book is to deny that it is living and active.
Protestantism doesn’t just differ in its view of authority but in what it means to be a disciple. Pastor John and many of his friends believe Christians are a “people of the Book.” But Christians are “people of the Word of God” that is incarnate and living (VD, 7). It is living because He is alive and has never ceased speaking through the Holy Spirit. He did not dwell among us temporarily but “with you always, until the end of the ages” (Mt 28:20). The Incarnation did not cease with His Ascension, He simply took on a new body with a new voice on Pentecost. It is not mere men who speak in the Church, but mere men whom Christ uses as His voice (c.f Lk 10:16). He may have nothing new to reveal, but He still speaks.
Before closing, I want to mention briefly a hidden danger of a sect of Christianity that defines itself the way Protestantism does. Protestantism is obviously broad, but it is essentially defined as “not Catholic.” With this comes not only a tendency to protest all things Catholic, but it also leads to a giant blind spot that causes one not to actually take the time to learn what it is that Catholics believe. Pastor John’s second paragraph is a good example.
Not only that, but the Bible itself nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own. There are pastors and teachers which Christ gives to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Their job is not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
There is a self-refuting quality about this argument. On the one hand, he says that no ecclesial office has an authority equal to that of the Bible, but then mentions that pastors and teachers are “not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” What are apostles other than ecclesial officers (1 Cor 12:28)? He is describing what Catholics actually believe. We already believe that public revelation is closed but must still be handed on (or in Latin tradere from which we get the word Tradition). Therefore, we believe that Scripture and Tradition, both of which are guarded and handed on, “form one sacred deposit of the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, II, 10).