The Catholic Quest Part 1: Tradition and the Canon of Scripture

20130115_canonToday is a big day in the history of this blog. Today marks the first of a series of posts on my exploration of Catholic belief and doctrine. I have been provoked to do this out of my own ignorance at some Catholic beliefs, and also at the promptings of others. I asked around for recommendations on websites and books to help me on my endeavour and have since bought some books and looked at some websites. I have chosen one text in particular to use as a resource and that is “Youcat” – the youth version of the Catholic Catechism – the list of beliefs and doctrines of the Roman Catholic church. I have no idea how long this “quest” will be, but I will continue through until I have completed the catechism. Comments and discussion is actively encouraged on these posts, especially from Catholic friends.

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Today’s post is a concentration on two disagreements that I have within the first two chapters of Youcat. In fact, the disagreements lie solely in Chapter 2, thus far. They are summarised in the title of this post, tradition and the canon of Scripture. Of course, I thought that these two things may well come up at some point in my exploration, and I was right. So without any further delay…

 

Tradition

 

How can we tell what belongs to the true faith?

We find the true faith in Sacred Scripture and in the living tradition of the Church. 

This point is harder to argue at one level because actually the catechism isn’t saying anything heretical (in my view), as such. Indeed, the Church is very instrumental in teaching people what belongs to the true faith. Yet in a subconscious way, it seems, the Catechism is raising tradition to a par with written Scripture. “Handing on the faith does not occur primarily through documents” says the Youcat. And this is true in one sense, it requires us the Church to hand on our faith. but there is a sense of scripture not being enough for people to know the way to God. Of course, I happen to disagree with this.

2 Timothy 3:

16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

 

And indeed, both Catholics and “the others” will agree with this verse! Yet Scripture is not enough on its own, as the “grown up” Catechism states. It must have the Church to validiate the Scriptures and indeed is another infallible source of God’s will and purpose in the world.

But that raises the questions such as “What happens when the Church gets it wrong?” – from my understanding, the Catholic Church states that it doesn’t get anything wrong, at least on the whole, anyway. But this is hard to believe when we are all falling short of God’s glory daily, and that the Bible exhorts us to test all the Spirits to see if they are the Holy Spirit or not.

In comparison to this Catholic teaching of the Bible and Tradition being together in a way that they coexist and cannot exist without one another, I believe in something quite different.

You may or may not have heard of the “Anglican Triangle” or the “Anglican Quadrilateral” – this is the idea that we draw on 3 major sources for getting our theology and doctrine. They are Scripture, Reason and Tradition. The triangle is drawn in such a way that Scripture is always at the highest point. For more information on this, please see this link.

I don’t want to argue that Tradition has no place in the life of the Church. Because it does, and it has a VERY important place. But to the tribesman in the wilds of the amazon rainforest, the traditions of the church are not going to help him in his salvation, per se. If he were to be given a scrap of paper in his own language with John 3:16 on it, or it was told to him plainly from scripture and he believed, then I have no doubt that he would obtain salvation.

It just so happens that we have access to the worldwide church in a very direct way and we have the knowledge of our brothers and sisters to learn from each other and enjoy the tradition of the Church when it’s keeping within scripture. The problem with tradition (and we’re not talking about bells and smells but the oral passing on of Biblical teaching and other doctrines) is that just like in a game of chinese whispers, things can be distorted. And it is for this very reason as to why I am writing this series. People, Catholics and non Catholics have told me so called teachings of the Church and have sworn them to be gospel truth, only to find out that they were far from what other Catholics believe.

I believe that the reason we have scripture in a readable format is to solidify the truth from the lies, as it were. Of course, the Church decided what went into the Bible, but the explanation of how God worked in this process differs depending on whether you’re a Catholic or something else!

So basically, this issue is a hard one to argue. Catholics have valid points and there is an excellent Catholic article on this here for you to read. But what I’m interested in are the following questions that don’t seem to be answered in the catechism:

  1. Can the Bible stand on it’s own without the Church? In other words, if someone picked up the Bible and read it independently, could they grow spiritually through it? This is assuming they had no access to the Church.
  2. Is believing the truths of the Bible sufficient to save someone? “Believe on the Lord with all your heart and you will be saved” is a core belief of mine. I believe that anyone who simply trusts in Jesus will share in salvation. Somehow, I believe this part of the catechism denies that.

 

Canon of Scripture

 

I guess the first area of tradition leads us to the canon of Scripture. Reading what Catholics view as scripture is very different from what I see as Scripture. This is due to the Aprocrypha, which isn’t even distinguished in the catechism. It is given as red that the Apocrypha is a part of the Old Testament in the Catholic Church. Again, there is a very good Catholic article which explains the Apocryphal texts and what the Catholic Church believes about them here.

Again, I have issues with the Apocrypha being accepted as Scripture. Being an Anglican, I don’t believe that the books are heretical on the whole. The Anglican church affirms that they may be used for devotional purposes, but that they are not to be attributed as Holy Scripture. There are probably a few reasons as to why this is:

  • The ancient Jews did not class the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament. (Please see this article for a very short answer!)
  • Jesus did not quote any Apocryphal texts, but did refer to the Old Testament as “protestants” would know it. (Please see this article for more)
  • Not all the Church Fathers accepted the Apocrypha. Yes, many did, but many didn’t. (Note, Jerome who produced the Vulgate stated that he did not believe the Apocryphal books to be divinely inspired, using the Jewish rejection of them as evidence for his claim.)
  • There are some questionable teachings in some of the books that supposedly contradict other teachings in Scripture. (Please see this article for some examples, but note that this is not an article that I agree with 100% and I am no expert in reading the apocrypha!)

(If you want an aggressive Protestant’s view on this please see this link)

From my understanding, there is therefore good basis to say that the books are not divinely inspired and are therefore not scripture. Of course, this is not to say that they aren’t useful for growing spiritually. I’ve looked for quite a while on the web to see the dialogue between Catholics and Protestants on this issue, and surprisingly, there isn’t much. It’s just both sides stating facts and figures and no discussion.

Added to the fact that the traditions of the Church has equal authority to Scripture, then from a Catholic point of view there is nothing to talk about, is there? This makes dialogue pretty hard on these two issues that I have with the Catechism at this early stage in my quest. From these findings I will probably encounter further problems because of this primary issue – that of the Canon of Scripture. I’m expecting that many other disagreements that I have will be due to teaching from the apocrypha, but that’s a hunch.

 

So quick conclusion of my findings and my opinions:

1. Tradition is fine, but I think that one can be saved without it and by merely reading the Bible.

2. I don’t think the Apocrypha is divinely inspired, though I accept that many may find it good to read for their spiritual growth, though only in a way that I would read other devotional Christian books. Aside from that, I believe that many of the reasons given against canonising the apocrypha are well thought out and valid.

This post is not meant to be exhaustive, or bullet proof. I have left a lot out and said some things to provoke discussion in the comments. I may have also misunderstood or got something wrong. Don’t worry if I have, just mention it in the comments and then explain, please 😉 It will help us all a lot, especially me! I would love to see discussion happening. Another post will arrive soon, so until then, get chatting with me and with each other. Please throw resources in when you can, too. Thanks!

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Dean Roberts

Dean is a Minister in the Anglican Church. Currently he is Curate in the parishes of Bedwas, Machen, Michaelston-y-Fedw and Rudry in South Wales. He was born and bred in Wales, is married to Megan, and has two dogs called Taliesin and Melyn, and two cats named Sinsir and Hâf. He graduated from Cardiff University with a BA Hons. in Theology & Religious Studies, and has studied for an MA in Theology, Ministry & Mission at Trinity College Bristol. He also holds a Cert.RSCM from the Royal School of Church Music. He loves playing music, walking, reading, blogging and horse riding as well as going to the cinema and theatre. Read More @ http://deanroberts.net/about

  • I’m not going to pick through this thoroughly, else my Catholic friends will believe they have convinced me :-p

    You’re right in pinpointing the issue of authority as a core issue in deliminating denominations. The thing is, any denomination has its own tradition – the Anglican church has the 39 articles, there’s Baptist statements (which declare the Pope to be the Antechrist), … What Catholics do is *explicitly* draw from both these sources, considering them to be on an equal footing of sorts. Of sorts, because (and I asked that specific question to a Catholic priest) if tradition were found to contradict Scripture, Scripture would trump tradition. “But that wouldn’t happen anyway”… 😉
    Infallibility is a big one in that context, though, as the Pope technically has infallibility. Well. That is to say, he (or she someday?) can declare something to be Truth. But that’s used far more rarely than you’d expect – see the wikipedia article on it.
    One of the things I’d say is that, what Catholics do explicitly, we do ourselves. We believe in the Trinity (in the Nicene creed, mostly!) when that concept is far easier to derive from tradition than from Scripture. We believe in Scripture in the current form based on tradition too – yes, we believe there *was* some inspiration in the selection of canon, but how is that different from a Catholic view?

    Apocryphal texts are a biiiiig can of worms that I’m not going to go near with a bargepole; I’ll just say that current canon was debated too… especially books like 2 Peter or Revelation. There’s a cool book called “Why 27?” on the issue of the NT canon. (and did Jesus quote from Ruth? Or Esther? that’s not as clear-cut an argument as you’d like)

    Anyway, glad you embarked on the Quest of Quests, looking forward to the next post in the series!

  • Ah, and I forgot to mention the Anglican view on Tradition. Quoting Hooker here:
    the power of the Chutch in the “ordering of spiritual affairs [is] no less to ordain that which never was, than to ratify what hath been before”

  • Frances

    Interesting.

    The thing that seems to undercut all this, which may seem initially like straying away from the point, is the nature of salvation. There’s a lot of talk about saving and being saved, which seems to colour much of the points about the ‘usefullness’ of the Scripture verses Tradition. I think that it’s this, and not the Scripture / Tradition question, that is actually the difference between Catholicism and (evangelical?) Anglicanism here. You don’t hear talk of ‘being saved’ in Catholic circles, and salvation isn’t viewed in remotely the same way: I think the Protestant view of this comes down to salvation sola fide, and if you believe that faith is the only path to salvation, then you (quite naturally) have a moral obligation to spread it. In character, Catholicism isn’t actively evangelistic, because it doesn’t take the same view: the belief in both faith and works allows a slightly looser interpretation.

    Something to look up, which you may have already have found in the Catechism, is Karl Rahner and the idea of the anonymous Christian, which is in the Catechism as: “Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” What this is saying is, to come back to Questions 1 and 2, that the Bible may be a sufficient condition to ‘save’ someone but even it isn’t a necessary one, as Catholics have a different way of seeing salvation (it includes Purgatory, which is a whole other can of worms).

    The question of whether the Bible or Tradition is more ‘useful’ is as a result not really a valid one. It’s rather like saying that, if you had to choose one thing to give to someone, then you’d pick the Gospels rather than Acts or Matthew and rather than Mark – you can’t really slice a coherent entity in half and then try and ask which is more important. Another obvious point in reply to ‘what happens when the Church gets it wrong?’: human beings, obviously, are imperfect (and a cynic would say that Catholicism perhaps has a better idea of the nature of all as sinners than Protestantism does) and get things wrong sometimes but this doesn’t leave Scripture in a better position than tradition: the Gospel writers were human, as were the people that translated them. (That it took the Church 400 years to apologise about Galileo is a fair point, and probably one that falls under ‘human error’). I think that most Protestants would agree that the Bible is a record of the Christian story, and not Christianity itself (which got on fine without the Bible for the first couple of hundred years).

    I think I may have to come back on the Apocrypha…:-P

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anonymous_Christian
    http://www.tboyle.net/Catholicism/Lumen_Gentium.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lumen_Gentium

  • Frances

    I realise that I’ve strayed away from the point a bit, so the summary of the above is:

    If you have different beliefs about salvation, the question of ‘which is more important to help us save people’ isn’t really a question. What it comes down to, fundamentally, is different beliefs about what Christianity actually is: an evangelical would reply that the main reason is to save the unconverted?

  • Frances

    (I now have the feeling that we’re going to find that we’re more different than we did when we started…!)

  • Keep the replies coming!

    I think you both raise really good points which I will write back to once others have had the chance to read and an opportunity to comment.

    But I think some of the points you both raise are there because of other doctrines that stem from these two doctrines! Aghhh!!! Nature of Salvation is very very interesting… more discussion soon!

  • From Mo:

    Dean,
    Thanks for the interesting post and I look forward to the rest of your quest.
    I think that we (as in people who engage in discussion) fall into mucky waters when we start talking about things as canon i.e. as objective truth. This is because essentially we all represent different stances on the same argument/discourse with God. Although we define ourselves to be different e.g. Anglican, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, we all still agree that if we are to take Jesus words and teachings it actually doesn’t matter what denomination we are. As you point out in your article no one disagrees with the sentiment of 2Tim3:16 – 17, so who is then to say that the version of truth from which one church does the correcting etc from is more right or less right than the other church’s one? This all leads to what may seem pluralistic statement but I hope that it isn’t heretical – when the fullness of God’s plan is taken into consideration then regardless of your faith heritage neither scripture nor tradition is actually that important. I say because the law / scripture / Bible / Word has always been around… (see John 1: 1 – 18). The coming of Jesus marks the start of a 2 part paradigm shirt: (i) the law is no longer just written and contained in a building rather it is alive and contained in a being (ii) the word made alive can now inhabit imperfect beings. To conclude, I am not saying that Scripture is not important but I think that sometimes to place over emphasis on the written word is to miss the point that if the Holy Spirit resides in you then scripture is being written onto your heart.

  • Jamie

    Hi Dean,

    Firstly, thank you for starting this series. Both the fact that you’ve started it and in the tone you’ve written it, show that you’re clearly open minded and an honest guy searching for the truth.

    I thought I’d have a go at answering your questions. Although I am a Catholic, my answers should in no way necessarily accurately portray the Church’s teachings!

    You ask:
    “1.Can the Bible stand on it’s own without the Church? In other words, if someone picked up the Bible and read it independently, could they grow spiritually through it? This is assuming they had no access to the Church.”

    I’m sure any Catholic would answer that of course if you pick up the Bible and read it idnependently, they could and would grow spiritually through it.

    Although the Church is still necessary, to preserve the teachings revealed to us in Scripture and as an authoritative interpreter of revelation. Since words on a page are inherently subject to different interpretations, (the thousands upon thousands of Protestant denominations created since the rejection of the Catholic Church’s authority is testament to this), a Church with divinely guided authority is required.
    This post goes into this point in far more detail:
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/whats-black-and-white-and-misread-all.html

    ‘Can the Bible stand on its own without the Church?’. To a Catholic I think, this is a strange question. The Bible didn’t drop down from the sky on its own – the Canon was put together by the Bishops of the Church in the late 4th century. The reason we can trust the Bible and belive it is inspired must be that we believe the Church was divinely guided when putting the Canon together. Jesus gave us the Church and the Church gave us the Bible. So to a Catholic it doesn’t make much sense to ask can the Bible stand on its own without the Church, it wouldn’t exist without the Church!

    “2.Is believing the truths of the Bible sufficient to save someone? “Believe on the Lord with all your heart and you will be saved” is a core belief of mine. I believe that anyone who simply trusts in Jesus will share in salvation. Somehow, I believe this part of the catechism denies that.”

    As Frances has already said, Catholics don’t believe in salvation through faith alone – so no knowing the truths of the Bible is not necessarily sufficient to save someone (and might not be necessary). Though no doubt you will get to discussing this later in your series!

    And as Frances rightly points out, this seems to colour what you’ve discussed about Tradition. Tradition isn’t important because it’s useful as a means to ‘being saved’, it’s important because it’s Truth. Interestingly, you don’t seem to have a problem with Tradition per se, though you do comment that the Church isn’t wrong ‘is hard to believe when we are all falling short of God’s glory daily’. Which of course is true, but the Catholic’s view of the Church is that in spite of all its weaknesses, it is kept from error by God.

    You write ‘it seems, the Catechism is raising tradition to a par with written Scripture’. This sort of reminds me of the question sometimes asked of Christians ‘Which do you trust more the Bible or science?’. To me, a Christian shouldn’t answer either way since both are true and truth cannot contradict truth. But is this ‘raising science to a par with the Bible’ – sort of, but not in the sense you mean. In the same way, Catholics view both Traditon and Scripture as Truth, and it doesn’t make any sense to have them competing against each other.

    I hope that helps at least a bit. Unfortunately I also know very little about the Apocrypha. Although I do think it’s not as big an issue as you make out and I think your hunch is wrong that it’s going to cause any more problems further down the line. I don’t think any Catholic teachings are based purely on verses from the Apocrypha.

    I look forward to the rest of the series!

  • I was going to write basically what Jaimee has written.

    I think your comments about Tradition and the Bible are a bit confused.

    Of course someone COULD just pick up the Bible and be saved, of course someone COULD be saved who has never seen a Bible in his life. But the Church would not recommend either as a particularly good strategy. Might suffice at a pinch, but it is better to know the full richness of wisdom stored in both the Bible and holy Tradition.

    The point is that the fullness of truth is contained in both the Bible and Tradition together and harmoniously. The Bible is the beating heart of the body of tradition, both of which come from and are validated by the Church, God’s established community and instrument.

    Also I think Catholicism draws a distinction between two cases. Your metaphorical Amazon tribesman who has a Bible but never encounters the Church can surely be saved. But the Church believes the Bible clearly points to both the Church and the role of Holy Tradition, and hence if you have the Bible and are aware of the Church, but choose to reject the Church (as opposed to being ignorant thereof) that is a sign of sin, and itself an impediment to salvation.

    There is considerable discussion as to exactly how that works and how grievous it is, but that is the fundamental point (as far as I understand it).

    “The problem with tradition is that just like in a game of chinese whispers, things can be distorted.”

    That is kind of the main theoretical separation point between Catholics and Protestants. Catholicism is based on the belief in the infallibility of the existing Church in matters of faith and doctrine, known as the Magisterium. The Holy Spirit is supposed to ensure that official Catholic doctrine is infallible truth. Once a question is settled it is settled forever, by God, and hence not even the Pope himself has the right to change it in any way.

    This of course all gets a bit difficult when one defines exactly what counts as doctrines of faith and morals, which are infallible, and what falls outside that (even Popes can and will still sin and fall short, as can Church administration).

    The Reformation obviously requires the denial of this doctrine, either that the Holy Spirit does not protect Church doctrine from error, or that the current Catholic Church doctrine and hierarchy is not the True Church and hence is not protected from error. (But Catholicism denies God would allow that to happen either).

  • That last comment does not of course mean that reconcilliation is impossible on matters of doctrine, but requires either the Catholic Church significantly modify the entire concept of infallibility, Protestants to change their ideas, or for both sides to agree that their statements don’t actually fundamentally contradict each other, but only vary in differences of semantics and emphasis, and misunderstandings that arise form them, rather than fundamental theological doctrines. I think that’s possible in a lot of areas, but frankly impossible in others (see women priests).

  • Jack Mowll

    Good work, Dean, very interesting! Also I like what Mo said. Being friends with Holy Spirit should too both scripture and tradition.

    Frances – With regards to the Catholic system not being evangelistic in the literal sense, what about the many calls in both Bibles – even given by Jesus – to go out and spread the good news/ bring the kingdom? Isn’t the belief we share necessarily evangelistic?

    Great to see this stuff being explored and discussed. Love you brothers and sisters!

  • Thanks for all the replies, people. Really encouraged by you all.

    I think two things have come out from the comments:

    1. Some Catholics believe that there is a difference in understanding of what it means to be saved.

    2. For Catholics, to separate scripture and tradition is a painful dichotamy.

    As far as I understand it, it is faith alone that saves you. Good works (and I will no doubt discuss this later on in the quest) is very important to both Catholics and other branches of mainstream Christianity (I don’t say Protestants as the Anglican Church isn’t a protestant branch of Christianity… but that’s another story). Acts 16:31 says that believing will result in salvation, no works are mentioned. Yet, not one genuine Christian believes in “cheap grace” and so will want to demonstrate an active, loving relationship with God by works. Faith without works is dead and Jesus said that if we love him, the works should follow, but notice that faith and love always preceed works and actions.

    The tradition dialogue is difficult to harmonise when there are clearly such distinct differences on the idea of the Church. Obviously, the Church is the people, but I somehow find establishment and institution wrapped up in the thinking behind tradition for Catholics – that is, not the Church as the people *as such* but rather the Church being the Vatican (even though they know that the Church is the whole people of God, the power comes from the Vatican alone – no doubt due to opinions and beliefs on Papal authority – again another thing to be discussed). Of course, I could be incorrect by thinking this, but that’s what it seems.

    Comments?

  • Well yes, at least in terms of defining doctrine. I think Catholicism states that broadly infallible power was passed on specifically to the Apostles (and then the Bishops) rather than Christians in general.

    So the Church is every Christian, but the right to define ‘Christian’ lies solely with the Hierarchy (themselves constrained by the decisions of previous hierarchy back to the Apostles and Jesus himself). Or at least that is my understanding.

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