I was recently doing some internet research on various theories of the atonement. I happened upon a couple discussion boards/forums featuring some fierce debate between different adherents to various Protestant theologies. Each side vigorously (and quite rudely) defended their position by quoting various scriptures as proof texts while simultaneously accusing the other side of only selectively choosing or taking out of context the scriptures they used to defend their position. All this got me thinking about the fallacy of sola scriptura and the rejection of the Church as an authoritative interpreter of revelation.
As Catholics, we believe that God’s divine revelation is transmitted to us via two methods; Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Furthermore, we believe that these modes of revelation have been entrusted to the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church made up of the pope and all bishops in union with him. The books of the New Testament were written sometime between the early 50’s to as late as the end of the first century. The final canon of the New Testament wasn’t formally settled until the fourth century. For 300 years the Church existed as a community of faith without the benefit of an official New Testament. While it is popular for some to refer to Christians as “people of the book” a more accurate description would be to call the Bible “the book of the people of God.”
Imagine a book written about your family, by members of your family, primarily for your family. Great care was taken to ensure every detail contained in the book was completely accurate and without error. The book contains all the essential information anyone would need in order to know all about your family. Of course it would be impossible to write down everything that could possibly be known about your family; after all, it’s only one book. This book could carry on through the generations to communicate to others about your family; but it is the living memory of your family members that’s able to enrich and flesh out the details of the book. Who better to provide the proper context and interpretation of the stories communicated in this book than your family?
This (imperfect) analogy explains the role of the Church in interpreting scripture. Christ founded a Church, and promised that he would be with that Church to preserve and hand on his teachings. He promised to give authority to that Church to carry on after his ascension. That Church, that family of God, began to collect the written stories of its members to make sure the essentials were preserved even if they couldn’t write it all down. These writings were attested to by the men who wrote them, or men who knew the authors. The writings were measured against the collective memory and knowledge of this faith community to verify they properly reflected the truth. Elder after elder passed on the living knowledge and memory of the faith from one generation to the next. This deposit of the faith, guided and protected from error by the promise of Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, is what makes up the teaching authority of the Church. It is what has preserved catholic unity for 2,000 years within the Catholic Church.