Tradition and Biblical Interpretation

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Tradition, I think, is a scary word for evangelical Protestants. But all it means on its letter is something handed down — from Latin trado: trans (over, across) + do (give) — something passed from one generation to the next, from one group to the next. As I’ve pointed out before, all Protestants, whether they admit it or not, adhere to some form of tradition. As Christians, everything we believe is by necessity traditional: it was not handed to us by God directly, but given to us by the Christians before us. Even the Bible is a collection of traditional writings: documents that were handed down to us from the Early Church. All Christians follow in the tradition of someone, whether it’s the Roman Magisterium, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Wesley. Ultimately, all Christians hope they are following in the tradition of the Apostles. If they are not — if they claim to be rejecting all tradition — then their Christianity must be seriously suspect.

Likewise, the way we interpret the Bible is traditional. Christians do not approach the biblical books as texts in a vacuum. Our readings are generally viewed in the light of the whole of Scripture. We read the Old Testament in the light of Christ’s fulfillment of it (with notable exceptions, such as the translations of the RSV and NRSV); we read the New Testament Epistles in the light of the Gospels and of each other. We approach Scripture with preconceptions of theology and doctrine. A prime example is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: All orthodox Christians read the fullness of the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture, but it is not at all written on Scripture’s face. We recognize the Trinity because the Church’s ancient theologians and exegetes have fleshed it out for us, hammered it out by generations of successive argument and refutation of heterodox views. Likewise is the doctrine of the fully human, fully divine nature of Christ and His hypostatic union. Even the canon of Scripture itself — what documents we accept as part of the Bible and what documents we reject — depends on the tradition of the Fathers of the Church in the first Christian centuries, arguing for and against the inclusion of various texts. Protestants read Scripture in the firm paradigms of their doctrinal traditions, whether Lutheran, Calvinist, Arminian, or so forth, appealing to the traditions and commentaries of great theologians of the past — with the result that despite their proclamation of sola scriptura, their understanding of Scripture is by necessity deeply rooted in tradition.

The Catholic Church reads Scripture in the same way — only with the whole of apostolic and patristic tradition behind its interpretations. As an historian (revisionists aside) builds his interpretations on those of his predecessors, the Catholic Church’s doctrinal framework is founded upon the traditions of popes, councils, great theologians and thinkers, all the way back to the Church Fathers, the first generations of Christians after the Apostles themselves. The Church proclaims its adherence to Apostolic Tradition, both that handed down orally and that written, and it is the early Fathers who attest to our traditions back to the hands of the Apostles.

As I have written before, the New Testament writings handed down to us are at best a fragmentary record of the teachings of the Apostles and Early Church; the Sacred Tradition handed down through the Church Fathers fills in the gaps and completes our image. But the Fathers also read and interpreted Scripture; and it is only in the light of their Tradition that we can properly understand the Bible. As for the historian, one of the crucial tasks in approaching a primary text, in understanding the thoughts and intentions of a writer, especially one of an ancient time and culture, is to understand how his words were received and understood by their primary recipients. The earliest Church Fathers, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, are at most only thirty or forty years departed from the writing of the New Testament: they are the New Testament’s primary recipients, and within living memory of the Apostles. To separate the New Testament texts from the understanding of these early Christians, as a strict reliance on “sola scriptura” does — to read the New Testament in a presentist view, without the light of the interpretations of the Early Church — risks taking it out of context, or else grossly misinterpreting it.

Some Protestants do read the Church Fathers — but many are selective in their readings, reading the parts of Augustine especially, for example, that seem to support their Reformation theologies. Taking the Church Fathers, or any writer, out of their historical context in this way is as dangerous as it is with Scripture. For Augustine was a bishop of the Roman Church, operating in and upholding its traditions. His views must be interpreted against his position and his entire belief system; he would not have sanctioned his doctrines being used to support any theology that opposed the Catholic Church.

The fact of the multiplicity of Protestant readings and interpretations of Scripture — that there is less doctrinal agreement among Protestant churches than at any time prior — that there are more fragmented Protestant denominations than ever before (more than 33,000) — proclaims the utter failure of sola scriptura, and the danger of severing the interpretation of Scripture from tradition and authority. This is not a new phenomenon with Protestants: at the root of every heresy has been the decision to reject traditional doctrine and follow one’s own interpretation.

Before I began converting, the idea of giving up one’s personal, individualistic interpretation of Scripture to accept the teachings of a rigid and authoritative institution seemed to be an anti-intellectual subjugation of individual thought and will, and a recipe for abuse. For couldn’t the Church teach that Scripture said anything they wanted it to say, to justify their extrabiblical traditions? Wasn’t the freedom of the Christian to think and read the Bible for himself the only insurance he had against manipulation and deception? But I now see that the truth is just the opposite. The Christian who is “free” from authority is much more susceptible to being misled and exploited. It is the authority of the Church — the authority handed down from the Apostles — that protects us, that ensures the integrity and orthodoxy of our faith. And this protection is built into the system: Today’s prelates cannot abuse their authority, they cannot introduce inventions or radical reinterpretations, because the root of their authority and their interpretations is the Tradition of the Church — which is open, accessible, and visible for any Christian to investigate and in which to verify the truth.

By Scripture Alone; Alone with Scripture

(I am afraid this one gets a little preachy; possibly a little critical. As always, my heart is not to attack, but to rebuild.)

Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible. (Wikipedia)

So continuing from my thoughts yesterday:

One of the most strident cries of the Protestant Reformation, and of Protestants to this day, is sola scriptura: by Scripture alone. Scripture, the Bible, was to be the sole rule and authority of faith and doctrine.

From an academic standpoint, I can respect this. It holds Christian doctrine and tradition to a very high, legalistic standard of proof. It demands that all belief and practice be absolutely attested to in inspired writing and stamped with divine approval. It demands written attestation by the Apostles — or by God Himself — before Christians put any element of faith into action. But is this a reasonable expectation?

As I wrote yesterday, nothing in our New Testament represents itself as a compendium or catechism of the Christian faith. No book claims to contain the sum of Christian truth. There is no demand or expectation in the New Testament that the New Testament writings alone should support, nourish, instruct, or guide the Church. At the time these documents were written, there wasn’t even any such collection as the New Testament. How could Paul, at the time he wrote his letters, have expected that his words, with those of a few others, would be the sole rule of the Church’s faith? Arguably, he and the other writers were aware that their writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit; but it is doubtful that they at the time would have understood their words to be Scripture — which to them referred to the Old Testament (though St. Peter in 2 Peter 3:15-16 apparently places St. Paul’s writings on the level with Scripture by the end of their lives, ca. A.D. 63–67).

It is evident throughout the New Testament that the Apostles’ primary mode of transmitting the teachings of Christ was through spoken preaching and teaching, not writing. Most of the Apostles were too busy doing other things, like evangelizing to the ends of the earth and dying martyrs for the faith, to write much. That Paul was such an effective writer as well as a tireless preacher surely had a lot to do with why Christ chose him. On every page of Paul’s epistles, he refers to what he taught to the churches in person, teachings that he does not repeat in writing. The Early Church, living prior to the New Testament being collected, received their Christian faith directly through the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors, and could not have even comprehended an insistence on “Scripture alone.” It is a little ironic that a faith so focused on sermons and preaching should at the same time reject the oral tradition of the Apostles.

Some Protestant sects take this rejection further than others. Especially some of the older groups, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, have retained many of the external trappings of the Church’s traditions. I speak only anecdotally, I confess — I have a lot of reading to do about these churches — but I often hear Anglicanism referred to as “Catholic lite.” Many more conservative and traditional Anglicans are making the journey back to the Mother Church by the parish. I’ve never been a part of a Lutheran church, but through following Ken Ranos and talking to my friend Heather (who attends an ELCA church in California), I’m frequently nodding in agreement at all the similarities and parallels between our traditions. They take the attitude, it seems, that many of the traditions of the Church are valuable and beautiful and praiseworthy, and ought not to be discarded as long as they don’t hinder the Gospel of Christ.

Other churches, especially those descending from the Calvinist tradition, take the rejection of tradition much further. Here I’m on much more familiar ground, having been a part of Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The iconoclasm of Reformation Calvinists toward religious images is well known. It is evident to anyone who has ever seen or set foot in an evangelical church the extent to which their sects have rejected the artistic, ornamental, and architectural aspects of tradition. In doctrine, to a further point than Lutherans or Anglicans, these churches reject anything that is not written explicitly on the face of Scripture. The Sacraments of Confession and Confirmation are completely absent, for example — if not the notion of sacramentality itself. The veneration of saints, the very idea of sainthood, is gone. The attitude here, as I’ve heard from many Protestants, is that the absence of a tradition from Scripture is reason in itself not to do it.

This can, and has, been taken to extremes. The Seventh-Day Adventists and their ilk reject Sunday worship — which has been practiced by the Church since the earliest days — because it is not commanded by Scripture. The Churches of Christ reject the use of musical instruments in worship because there is no evidence of it in the New Testament. I encountered a “new wave” church in Alabama that had no pastor but professed to practice a “New Testament model of church organization.” I am not quite sure what that means, since the New Testament never lays out a model of church organization; but presumably it included elders and deacons. It is common to hear of Protestant churches that try to reconstruct the New Testament Church — but the New Testament gives only glimpses of the faith and practice of the Early Church; most evangelicals reject the authorities that would shed the most light, the Church Fathers. Some churches are even rejecting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and returning to such ancient heresies as Sabellianism and Arianism. I’ve talked to Protestants who readily acknowledged that some of the traditions of the Church are good things to do and hold, and have value and merit — but that their churches nonetheless reject them because they can’t find them in Scripture.

This seems to me to be an awfully lonely and barren place to be. By their strictness in living by Scripture alone, these churches are left entirely alone with Scripture. They have shorn themselves of all of the beautiful and wonderful things that have clothed and ornamented the Church over the ages: all of the history, all of the scholarship, all of the art, all of the music. They have spurned the fellowship of the heroes and martyrs, the great cloud of witnesses, who are a part of our spiritual communion in Christ. Even more seriously, they have cast away elements of the faith — the Sacraments, Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession — that make the Gospel work, that guide and nourish the Church, that protect her teachings and sacraments, and that keep her in communion with the Holy Spirit.

Most tragically, with these nuts and bolts and hinges removed, the Church has lost her unity. Since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the breakaway Protestant sects have split, and split, and split again, until there are estimated to be upward of 33,000 distinct Protestant denominations (and this is a conservative estimate). There have been more new denominations formed in the past century than have ever existed in all the prior centuries combined. Many churches — the hundreds of thousands of independent or nondenominational churches — really are completely alone. Only the Catholic Church remains one and coherent in the face of this disintegration. The Protestant churches beyond are splintering.

But wasn’t the Reformation supposed to restore the Church? Wasn’t sola scriptura supposed to bring the Church back to the Gospel? Whatever may be said about the doctrine’s aims, without any kind of magisterial authority to guide the Church, disagreement about the interpretation of Scripture only multiplies. Sola scriptura is the linchpin of the whole Reformation, without which it would not have been possible to reject the Catholic Church, its hierarchy, or its Sacraments. It, more than any other doctrine, is the root of our continued disagreement, and our failure to reunite the Church. And it has fostered the individualistic, private interpretation of Scripture, which to this day has been more divisive than any other element in Christian spirituality.

Sola Scriptura and Sacred Tradition


This weekend I met with my friend Josh the Baptist, my oldest and dearest Christian friend. Over the years he has not been the most amenable to Catholicism — he once told me, years before either of us had any idea I would end up here, that he didn’t believe Catholicism was Christian. But he has nonetheless been very supportive of my faith and my journey. We picked at some doctrinal and theological points the other night. Both of us realized points where we needed to learn and firm up our arguments. Iron sharpens iron.

I realized talking to him, as I am realizing more and more talking to other Protestants, that one of the fundamental obstacles standing between Catholics and Protestants, if not the fundamental obstacle, is sola scriptura for Protestants and Sacred Tradition for Catholics. For Protestants, Scripture is the sole, exclusive authority for doctrine. Catholics found their doctrine on the union of Scripture and Tradition. Not only is this divergence an obstacle to agreement, it’s even an obstacle to understanding. Protestants are so fixed in the sola scriptura mindset that the very idea of rooting beliefs in Tradition is foreign and incomprehensible. Likewise for Catholics, the idea of rejecting Tradition because it’s not in Scripture seems absurd.

Because Scripture and Tradition are two different vessels for transmitting the deposit of faith — both that which was written down and that which was spoken (2 Thessalonians 2:15 ESV). It makes little sense to a Catholic to reject the oral tradition of the Apostles simply because it was oral tradition. The Gospels themselves were written from testimony that had persisted in oral tradition for at least thirty or forty years. Neither Christ nor the Apostles made any attempt to compose a formal, encyclopedic, or exhaustive compendium or catechism of the Christian faith. The writings that make up our New Testament never purport to be the whole, complete body of Christian Truth — in fact, they admit of themselves that they are not (John 21:25 ESV). The Law of the Old Testament was self-consciously the whole, written legal code of the Hebrews, given to govern their people and their relationship to God. But the New Testament is a scattered collection of various documents, comprised of selective narratives for specific audiences; epistles written to specific recipients to address specific concerns; and an apocalyptic prophecy. We should receive these writings for what they are, and not expect them to be something they are not.

The Protestant argument is that the Holy Spirit preserved for us the sum of what we needed in Scripture. The Catholic argument is that the Holy Spirit preserved for us the sum of what we needed — in Scripture and Tradition. Personally, I find the Catholic argument more palatable and reasonable. As an historian, I highly value primary sources written by the hand of people who experienced an event, but I don’t reject other sources that received information secondarily and then declare that the only knowledge I will accept as true comes from the primary documents. A fair portion of the New Testament documents are actually secondary sources, not written by Apostles (Mark, Luke, Acts, probably Hebrews) but by their followers, who wrote down the testimony and teachings of others as they were passed down to them. (That number is even more, if you consider that Matthew and Luke appear to have used Mark as a source.) Yes, the Holy Spirit guided and inspired the New Testament writers — but just so, we believe that the Holy Spirit guided and protected the passing down of apostolic teachings through Sacred Tradition.

The New Testament never claims to be the sole rule or source of faith. No one prior to Luther attempted to make it so, nor would early Christians have found sola scriptura in any way comprehensible. St. Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) — but neither Paul nor anyone writes that Scripture alone is profitable or acceptable. In fact, just a chapter before, he had said otherwise (2 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV):

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

What Paul is describing is oral tradition, the passing down of sacred teachings from generation to generation by word of mouth. This is the beginning of apostolic succession. Men chosen and approved were ordained to receive the deposit of apostolic teaching; so that by the succession of consecrated bishops, whose lineages could be traced back to the Apostles themselves, the Christian faithful were assured of the integrity, orthodoxy, and wholeness of their faith. As Clement of Rome wrote in ca. 95-96, a mere generation after the Apostles, himself a successor of Peter (1 Clement 42, 44):

Through countryside and city [the Apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.

And St. Irenaeus, a century later, in ca. 180 (Against Heresies, III.3.2):

[We confound the heretics] by indicating that tradition derived from the Apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops.

Most Protestants, whether they admit it or not, adhere to some form of extrascriptural tradition. It permeates the entire Church, in all that Christians do and how they do it. The basic order of worship, the singing of hymns following by the reading of Scripture and a sermon, is as old as the Church, but found nowhere in the Bible. The celebration of the Lord’s Day on Sunday, in commemoration of the Resurrection, rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, is a nearly universal Christian tradition (excepting Seventh-Day Adventists and the like), but found nowhere in Scripture. The bare bones of the Church’s liturgical calendar, Easter and Christmas, are observed by nearly all Christians and even most of the secular world, but not mandated by Scripture. Even the canon of Scripture itself, on which sola scriptura depends, cannot be derived from Scripture alone. The canon of the New Testament was hammered out through questioning and disputation by successive Church Fathers and councils over the course of the first three centuries. Likewise, the doctrine of the Trinity, taken for granted by most Christians today, is nowhere laid out plainly in Scripture. It took centuries of theological wrangling by the Fathers and councils, disputation with heretical sects and condemnation of numerous heterodox views, for the orthodox Trinitarian dogma to fully emerge.

More subtly and seriously, the schools of scriptural interpretation which shape the Protestant reading of the Bible, through sola scriptura, are firmly ensconced in tradition. Most Protestants raised up in a particular theological tradition — in Calvinism, or Armininianism, or Lutheranism, or Wesleyanism — tend to adhere to the interpretations that they are taught. They are likely to read and understand the Bible the same way their pastors do, and possibly the same way their fathers and grandfathers did. Protestants appeal to great theologians and exegetes of the past — to the tradition of biblical interpretation having been handed down — all while not recognizing that their Christian understanding is colored and supported by anything but sola scriptura.

Letting go of sola scriptura is probably a significant hurdle for many Catholic converts from Protestantism. It never was for me. I had been reading the Church Fathers for five or six years before I converted. I have admired the traditions of the Church for as long as I can remember. By intellectual training, I have learned to operate in a traditional paradigm, through history and historiography, citing authorities of the past as support for truth. A good year or two before I made any move toward the Church, I found that I had already given up sola scriptura.

Another Analogy for Church Authority

Here’s another brief analogy I thought of for the authority of the Church:

The U.S. ConstitutionTake the United States Constitution. It’s a two hundred-year-old document that has been amended twenty-seven times, and has been subject to constant and continuous interpretation and reinterpretation throughout its history. Suppose, though, you hand it to the founders of a new republic, and ask them to re-create the American government from nothing but that document. They could probably come up with something — but it would be rough, lacking definition. The Constitution lays out the framework of government that needs to exist, but it conveys nothing of how to implement such a government. It conveys nothing of the historical context in which the document was produced. It conveys nothing of the specific interpretations and definitions that have been worked out by the courts over the years.

In the United States, we’ve inherited a rich and complex legal tradition, not just from the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, but from English common law, several centuries of statute law, and other precursors and precedents. Whatever your position on constitutional interpretation — whether you are a strict constructionist, believing that the Constitution means what it says, on its letter, and that we should follow the original intent of our Founding Fathers in writing it; or a loose constructionist, believing that the Constitution is a living document, constantly evolving with the nation’s views — our understanding of the Constitution is informed by our legal tradition. To understand the original intent of the Founders, we have to read what they wrote and understand what they believed. To understand the Constitution as a living document, we have to understand the definitions and interpretations that legal minds of the past have hammered out. To create a replica of the United States government, we would need not just the Constitution, but the web of statutes that Congress has woven to implement it.

The Supreme Court, by virtue of holding the entire, unbroken legal tradition of the United States in its hand, and of being made up of nine men and women held to be learned and capable legal minds, is the highest authority of law in our nation. It alone has the power to interpret the Constitution with binding effect. In making their decisions, the justices of the Supreme Court consider all of the resources at their disposal: case law, the past decisions of the Court, the writings of the Founding Fathers and other legal minds, just to mention a few. Those decisions and those thinkers haven’t all agreed with each other, it is true; but considering this entire body of law, the Court can arrive at the correct interpretation. The Supreme Court has the authority to interpret the Constitution because that is the authority it was given; that’s what it was created to do; that is its purpose.

The Delivery of the Keys (Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome)

Christ giving the keys to St. Peter.

Likewise, the Church, by virtue of holding the entire, unbroken tradition of the teachings of Christ and the Apostles in her hand, and of being made up of the body of bishops held to be learned and authoritative by their merits and their inheritance from the Apostles themselves, has the authority to interpret the Scripture and Tradition of the Church. In making her decisions, the Church considers all of the resources at her disposal: Scripture itself, the writings of the Church Fathers, the dictates of bishops and popes and councils over the ages, just to mention a few. Most of all, she prays and seeks the guidance and discernment of the Holy Spirit. The Church has the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition because that is the authority she was given by Christ — the authority to bind and loose, to decide points of interpretation of the law with binding effect, given explicitly to St. Peter.

Handing the Constitution alone to founders of a new government, detached from its history and tradition, is like handing the Bible to a new religious sect and asking them to create a church, sola scriptura. This is essentially what many Protestant groups have done — sought to create a “pure,” “biblical” church, with Scripture alone as their guide, without any accretions of tradition. Some have taken it further than others. Most Protestants, whether they admit it to themselves or not, are as rapt followers of tradition as any Catholic: they follow, with little deviation, the traditions of Luther, or Calvin, or Cranmer, or Knox, or Wesley, or even of their own grandfathers or great-grandfathers. Tradition pervades the way they worship, the way they practice, and most of all the way they interpret Scripture. They adhere to a body of essential Christian tradition that not even Protestants have abandoned: Sunday worship; the shepherding of a Christian flock by a pastor; the liturgical practice of baptism and Communion; the celebration, according to an established liturgical calendar, of Easter and Christmas; the canon of Scripture itself. Take even a “contemporary,” “hip,” “non-denominational” evangelical “worship center.” A worship service will begin with songs, followed by a sermon, in a tradition of order as ancient as the Church, but found nowhere in the Bible. Typically such a church’s doctrine — whether it even admits it has doctrine — is loosely Reformed or loosely Arminian; relaxed but nonetheless exclusive of certain doctrines rejected by the Protestant tradition (“oh, we definitely don’t believe that“). If sola scriptura is followed as rigidly as some Protestants insist, then some practices and doctrines must be excluded because they are not explicitly described in the Bible — for example, the Churches of Christ’s insistence on no instrumental worship, or the Seventh-Day Adventists’ insistence on Saturday worship. A church that literally followed sola scriptura, with no inkling of tradition anywhere in it at all, would be a strange-looking beast indeed.

Tradition and Authority

Eyes to SeeOne of the greatest struggles in my journey of faith has been finding a point of authority in matters of faith. Protestants stress sola scriptura as a rule of faith — that Scripture alone is their authority. Especially those Protestants of an evangelical or fundamentalist bent believe that biblical doctrine is clear on the surface of Scripture, without any interpretation. But at once this presents a problem. If Scripture is so clear, and if biblical doctrine is so self-evident, then how do various Christians and various denominations reach such diverse interpretations and such diverse doctrines? And more important, how could I, observing intelligent, rational people supporting each position, and finding merit and value with each, discern between them? What gave me, a man, the authority to dismiss some views as incorrect and declare another the right one?

This problem perplexed and frustrated me for years. It was the source of unending turmoil, every time I dared approach it. During my time in the wilderness, and especially more recently, I tried on many occasions to study doctrine and theology and Scripture, and determine, once and for all, what it was I actually believed, and therefore what church I belonged in. But I couldn’t do it. Time and time again, I reached an impasse at the point of authority.

After years of beating my head against it, I reached a solution to the problem that satisfied me, I thought. If there was no authority — no point from which to argue that any position was any more correct than any other — then they all must be equally correct. The correctness of doctrine must be relative. If God saves souls and changes lives in a variety of different Christian traditions — and this I observed, and believed, and still believe — then all of our doctrinal differences don’t amount to a drop in a bucket in God’s eyes. It was a position of thoroughgoing ecumenism, or even doctrinal relativism; a belief that all (or at least all orthodox) Christianity was equally valid. One’s choice of a church was merely a matter of preference, of what worked for each person individually. This was comfortable. I learned to respect and value all different Christian traditions, to learn from them and seek to understand them (this is a lesson I hope I never lose). Deep down, though, my position felt empty. If the correctness of doctrine was relative, then ultimately, doctrine was meaningless and inconsequential.

This was the position at which I stood when I began this Catholic journey. I had written at length to myself about the characteristics and values I was looking for in a church, and planned to go “church shopping.” My ideal looked very little like the Catholic Church — at least, not like my preconceived image of the Catholic Church. It was only by a happy accident that I stumbled onto this road. Once again, I don’t believe in happy accidents.

In the very first conversation I had with Audrey about Catholicism — the first time she invited me to Mass — I mentioned to her, off the top of my head, one of the problems I had with Catholicism. It wasn’t even the chief problem, I thought, but one that seemed innocuous enough for an initial conversation. “I don’t like that the Church insists on interpreting Scripture for believers.”

Her response was simple, rational, clear. It made sense. It didn’t sink in at the time that it was the key to unlock my riddle, or that she was the only person who could have answered it for me this way. “I see it like authority for an historian. We base our arguments on authority, on the arguments and interpretations of the past. Each generation builds on what was done before and gains a deeper understanding of the truth. And the Church has 2,000 years of authority behind her interpretation of Scripture.”

The Gettysburg Address

A primary source (the autograph of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address).

As an historian, how do I discover the truth? I go to the source: I take the testimony of the most reliable, most primary sources toward the event in question. But sources don’t speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted. No source says, “This is exactly how it happened, and these are exactly its implications” — if there were such a source, then it, too, would have to be interpreted: Who would have the authority to write in such a way, and how could they be so certain? And so historians, naturally, also look to other interpreters of a source, to understand how that source has been interpreted in the past. Due weight is given to those interpreters who speak from authority — who were closest in time to the event, who knew the people and events and circumstances involved, or whose interpretations were qualified by extensive study or academic credentials. Historians build their interpretations on these older, authoritative interpretations, creating an historiographic, interpretive tradition, with each generation adding to the store of knowledge and furthering their understanding of the truth.

Likewise it is with the Church and Scripture. Protestants may treat the Bible as a contemporary, self-evident source whose meaning is clear to the modern reader; but the truth is that it is an ancient, 2,000-year-old collection of documents. The first step in interpreting it, necessarily, has to be understanding how it was received in its own time — how the first generations following Christ received and understood his words and teachings, and how the faith of the Apostles was passed down. This tradition is the essential context to interpreting Scripture. The Church Fathers — those learned men of the Church’s first centuries — commented on Scripture at length. Their interpretations necessarily have far greater authority than mine, that of a layman 2,000 years departed.

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of the Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

And even more important, the Church itself claims the ultimate authority to interpret Scripture, through the Holy Spirit. The Church, because of who she is, because of the tradition she has inherited, has a far greater authority to interpret Scripture than I do. The Magisterium of the Church — the bishops in communion with the pope, as successors of the Apostles — is alone in a position to speak with true authority.

This kind of claim to authority simply isn’t present in the Protestant world. The Protestant Reformation consciously severed all ties to authority. In most evangelical churches, the highest authority in matters of doctrine and discipline is the local church: authority rests with the pastor or the body of elders. And that person’s authority is only as strong as his personal integrity and ability. If the congregation doesn’t respect it, then its members are free to — and so often do — split away to form their own churches or denominations. Since the Reformation, in the absence of any unifying authority, Protestant churches have splintered into so many thousands of fragments.

But the Catholic Church has the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition. It has the authority to teach the truth of revelation and doctrine. When my path lacked any definition at all, the Church showed me the marked road, and gave me a compass. And this is key that has at last made sense of my journey.

The waters have come up to my neck…

69  1 Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love
answer me in your saving faithfulness.
14 Deliver me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
15 Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
16 Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
17 Hide not your face from your servant;
for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.
18 Draw near to my soul, redeem me;
ransom me because of my enemies!
Psalm 69:1-3, 13-18 ESV

Paper grading this week. This Psalm is what keeps coming to my mind, as I struggle against the rising flood…