The Bible or Tradition?—A Dilemma for Sincere Catholics
THE Bible has become increasingly available in Catholic countries in recent years. In Spain, for example, more translations of the Holy Scriptures in Castilian have been published over the past 50 years than during the previous 500 years. Similarly, French Catholics now have at their disposal several church-approved Bibles translated from the original languages. English-speaking Catholic scholars have also produced some new translations of the Bible.
So today any Catholic who wants to read the Bible can do so. But he must read a duly approved version, which must be provided with explanatory notes. Why does the Catholic Church make this proviso? Because it claims another source of divine revelation—tradition—and such notes are deemed necessary to reconcile the one with the other. Now which of the two sources—the Bible or tradition—is considered by the church to be the more important?
Allowed But Not Essential
The book A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture asks the question: “Is Bible Reading Necessary for Salvation?” In answer it states: “There is no universal precept, either divine or apostolic, that all the faithful—every man, woman and child—should personally read the Bible.”
Thus, while the Catholic Church now permits its members to read the Holy Scriptures, even granting a plenary indulgence “if the reading continues for at least one half hour,” it does not consider such Bible reading to be indispensable.a Explaining why, the French Catholic Dictionnaire de la Bible states: “Tradition is the most normal channel by which all teaching of the faith reaches mankind. Use of the New Testament Scriptures came later. They do not contain the entire deposit of faith, and their use is not essential.”
Tradition Put Above the Bible
The Bible is not, therefore, required reading for Catholics. And even if they do read it, it must take second place, behind tradition. The Catholic Church claims that the early Christians depended on oral tradition before receiving the written Word and that, accordingly, Scripture must be understood in the light of tradition as preserved by the church.
Confirming this viewpoint, a book designed to help French-speaking Catholics to read the Bible states: “The divine revelation, even that expressed predominantly in the Scriptures, has been committed to a faithful community, the living Church; this raises the vital question of the relationship between the Bible, Tradition and the Church. . . . This added light [in the Scriptures], once given, joins and completes the treasure of Tradition. . . . The Scriptures are, therefore, entirely dependent upon Tradition.”—Initiation Biblique, pages 963, 971. Author’s italics.
How much confidence will a sincere Catholic have in the Bible when he reads in a book written by a Catholic professor of Sacred Scripture: “Tradition precedes, envelops, accompanies and goes beyond the Scriptures”?b Or what will he think if he picks up A Catholic Dictionary and reads: “The Church . . . affirms that all Scripture is the word of God, but at the same time it maintains that there is an unwritten word of God over and above Scripture”?
A Dilemma for Bible-Reading Catholics
For centuries the average Catholic accepted church dogma without questioning because laymen had no yardstick by which to measure the truthfulness of church doctrines. Most Catholics learned their faith by rote at catechism classes. If they asked the catechist or their priest to explain such hard-to-understand doctrines as the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception of Mary, they would more than likely hear by way of an answer: “It is a holy mystery.”
But the Second Vatican Council changed things. The Roman Catholic Church underwent an aggiornamento, or updating, that opened the way for unprecedented heart-searchings among Catholics. Vatican II gave the green light for the publishing of additional “suitable and correct translations” of the Bible, and it instructed Catholic bishops “to give the faithful entrusted to them suitable instruction in the right use of the divine books.” Thus, rank-and-file Catholics can at present obtain Bibles, read them, and compare what they read with what they have been taught.
However, this radical change has not taken place without creating problems. Many Catholics are discovering for the first time in their lives that much church dogma is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Among such teachings are devotion to Mary, prayers to the “saints,” veneration of relics, indulgences, purgatory, and limbo.
Concerning the latter, A Catholic Dictionary admits: “There was a natural repugnance to the belief that those who had committed no sin should be tortured in hell, and this difficulty led theologians to adopt various theories as by way of escape.” Limbo is one such theory.c
However, the Bible states that the dead are asleep in the grave, awaiting the resurrection. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; John 5:28, 29) Since there is no immortal soul, there can be no hell torture. So there was no need to invent the theory of limbo to get out of a theological predicament! This is just one example of the dilemma in which many Bible-reading Catholics now find themselves. Which are they to believe, man-invented traditions or the Bible?
A Dilemma for the Catholic Church
But the problem is deeper than that. A priest would likely elude the above-mentioned dilemma for individual Catholics by saying: ‘There is no problem. The revelation in the Bible has been completed by tradition. Accept the tradition of the Church.’ However, things are not that simple.
Jesuit professor Paul Henry, of the Catholic Institute in Paris, wrote: “Scripture is normative [establishes an authoritative standard] for the life, the worship, the morals, and the theological doctrine of the Church. Normative, not in the sense that everything revealed or desired by God is explicitly written in Scripture, but inasmuch as nothing done or taught infallibly by the Church can be contrary to Scripture.”
It is bad enough to claim that tradition completes the Holy Scriptures. This in itself is contrary to what Catholics can read in their Bibles at 1 Corinthians 4:6. But to teach dogmas—such as hellfire, purgatory, and limbo—that not only cannot be found in the Bible but also are clearly “contrary to the Scripture” places the Catholic Church on the horns of a dilemma.—Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Romans 6:23.
Measure Tradition Against the Bible
At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church publicly urged “all the Christian faithful” to engage in “frequent reading of the divine Scriptures.” Moreover, A Catholic Dictionary states: “The Catholic is fully justified in believing with perfect confidence that the Church cannot teach any doctrine contrary to the Scripture.” We invite sincere Catholics to heed the encouragement of their church to read the Bible and to see for themselves if any Catholic doctrine is “contrary to the Scripture.”
This is all the more important if they wish to heed the call that was made at the Third General Assembly of the Catholic World Federation for the Biblical Apostolate—namely that Catholics should become Bible teachers. This call and its implications will be considered in the following article.
a Enchiridion Indulgentiarum, 1968, no. 50.
b La Parole de Dieu, page 26.
c Limbo has been defined as “a region bordering upon hell, the abode after death of unbaptized children and righteous people who lived before Jesus.”
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Is there “an unwritten word of God over and above Scripture”?
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Is it true that “nothing done or taught infallibly by the Church can be contrary to Scripture”?
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The Second Vatican Council changed things