“But where is THAT in the Bible?” If I were given a penny for every time I’ve heard or read this statement, either in person, on social media, or on Catholic radio, I’d be living far from frigid North Dakota.
Not that I’m complaining about our state. Most of the time, I love it, but February can be — and is this year — a bit brutal.
However, the fire within burns brightly as I claim the treasures of my Catholic faith — still! Yes, even in these tumultuous, confusing times.
What’s hard about explaining the Catholic position on the Bible is that it can so easily come off as minimizing Scripture, when, in fact, the Catholic Mass is replete with Biblical references and realities. Scripture drips from within and without our walls. It’s not that we don’t hold Scripture in the highest regard, but that it isn’t, and was never meant to be, the sole authority of our faith.
But how to explain this in a way that satisfies? As I’ve learned, the task often proves impossible, but, while chopping onions for a baked cheese dip for our family Superbowl party the other night, I caught something on Catholic radio by the very eloquent and learned Jesuit priest, Fr. Mitch Pacwa, attempting just that.
Sadly, I cannot find a podcast to the show. Thankfully, I had the paper with the dip recipe printed nearby, so, mid-chop, I paused and quickly turned it over, grabbed a pencil, and began scribbling away.
Fr. Mitch began with a rather startling pronouncement, saying the notion of the Bible alone as a final authority was a late, man-made invention within Christianity. His word choice grabbed me, since I’ve heard relentlessly lately by some that Catholicism itself is a “man-made invention.” (Sigh…)
Pacwa said the idea didn’t even come along until the 14th Century, when it was proposed by Marsilius of Padua, a medical student, and his colleague William of Ockam. The men, Pacwa said, were influenced by the philosophy and theology of an Arabic commentator on Aristotle, who had presented this “Bible alone” idea, based on how the Koran is approached in the Muslim religion.
The problem, Pacwa said, is that in the Bible itself, particularly in 2 Thes. 2:15, Paul says firmly: “Hold onto the tradition which you were taught, whether by word or by letter…” indicating that we are to use teachings passed on both orally and in letters. And yet some Christians dismiss these important words of Paul. My question is, why not Scripture and Tradition, given Paul’s clear instruction?
“For us as Catholics,” Pacwa continued, “this does not mean ANY tradition, but the ones that go back to the apostles that are authoritative.”
He explained that Tradition isn’t just extraneous. It is necessary to explain the letter of the book. For further emphasis, he used a sports analogy — baseball. To understand this game, one needs a rule book (the “Bible” of baseball), but if you just read the rule book, you’re not likely to master how to actually play it. For that, you need to see it being done (Tradition).
“Without the lived tradition to teach you how to play the game,” Pacwa said, “the rules are going to seem very odd.” Trying to understand the Bible without the Tradition to explain it, he continued, is like engaging in a type of “theological algebra.”
Pacwa said, for example, that we know from Tradition that Baptism is required for entry into the Christian life. After all, Jesus said, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit,” a direct command, not just mere words, meant for all Christians. Where is the evidence for this? Well we know that baptisms were being done by the earliest Christians, and continued in apostolic tradition, as today. This is pretty awesome. Yet some Christians reject Baptism as a starting point for Christianity.
Fr. Pacwa said it better, and if I can ever locate that podcast, I’ll embed it here. It matters a lot in our discourse with other Christians and non-believers, too. It’s unfair to say Catholics aren’t Bible-believing, when we in fact embrace (and helped record) the Bible, not to mention the Tradition from which it came. Just like learning baseball without being shown the game would confuse, without the oral history showing us how to be a Christian in the practical sense, we are apt to become lost along the way.
The two just don’t make as much sense when separated. You can get partway there, but there will be holes.
Now, consider these different thought processes: “Catholics aren’t Bible-believing,” as opposed to “Catholicism is based on the Bible, which is explained by Tradition.” The Bible, after all, sprang FROM Tradition, and precedes it.
May you be blessed this week by discovering the blessing of “both/and”!
Q4U: Do you struggle either explaining or understanding the Catholic embrace of Scripture and Tradition? If so, why?