The primacy of Scripture
I threw a book in the trash the other day. Not a big deal, but as one whose favorite piece of furniture may be my beautiful bookcases (but only when filled with books), committing any bound volume to the dump is a decision I do not make lightly and have rarely done. I love the written word and like to employ it. But this compilation of words was frankly a waste of shelf space. Purporting to be a teenager’s guide to financial planning, I bought it for my son and I to read together as he prepares to enter adulthood. But on the very first page there were two glaring errors and further reading revealed many more. And it was so poorly written I began to suspect that English was a second language for the author. This was not a volume worth hanging on to, or even giving away.
How did so many errors get past the publisher? one may ask. Answer: the publisher and author are one and the same. It was a self-published book. There was no editor, no objective proof-reader, and nothing and no one to vouchsafe for its reliability, as you would have with a major publishing house.
I relay this simple but sad tale to make a simple but important point: the fact that something is written down, printed and published does not establish its worth. I understand that’s not news to most people, but from this common point of reference I want to argue for the supremacy of the Bible as a singular, special revelation of God over and above any other written work or oral tradition.
When I wrapped up my month-long series on why I left the Catholic Church, I said I was happy to leave the topic for awhile. Well, I find I’m not quite ready to leave it just yet. As I’ve read Catholic authors and apologists and pondered why anyone who knows the Bible would not reject many of the Church’s claims because of what they read in God’s Word, I’ve come to the conclusion that it may be because they don’t give it the primacy that I and many other Christians do. They claim to believe it to be the inspired Word of God but give it no more weight than their Sacred Tradition, which I tried to explain here. Tradition is a continuing source of inspired truth, according to the Church, given to her by the Holy Spirit through the popes whom she claims are successors to the apostles who walked with Jesus. It is also oral teaching the apostles are believed to have handed down, not included in the New Testament but told to others who told it to others and eventually was recorded.
So the Catholic Church has this supposedly equally authoritative body of teaching which she effectively elevates above Scripture as she uses it to interpret Scripture. But the doctrine of the authority of Tradition is a false teaching that the Church exploits in promoting other false teachings by rejecting the uniqueness of the special revelation preserved in the Bible.
Many Catholics will say, “The Bible does not claim to be the sole rule of faith.” But this is certainly not a good argument for maintaining that it is not. An examination of church history establishes the fact that great care was taken by the early church to determine which written documents in their possession were to be accorded with divine authority and to exclude all others, no matter how instructive or edifying. The exclusive nature of the canon of Scripture is one of its most distinguishing features. Only those documents written by an actual apostle of Christ’s, including Paul to whom Jesus appeared and spoke after his ascension into Heaven, or those directly associated with an apostle, were considered divinely inspired and included in the canon.
F.F. Bruce was one of the world’s foremost and most respected biblical scholars. In his book The Canon of Scripture he writes, “An issue of high importance for theologians in the church was the distinguishing of those books which might be used for settling doctrinal questions from those which were generally edifying. Only those books which carried apostolic authority (together with the Old Testament writings as interpreted in the New) were to be appealed to either for the establishing of truths to be ‘most surely believed’ in the church or for deciding disputed points in controversies with heretics.” For these early church fathers, “the unique authority of the canonical writings must be preserved inviolable.”1
By the time of the Reformation the Bible’s uniqueness was so completely denied by the Catholic Church that “Sola Scriptura” – Scripture alone – became one of Luther’s and other reformers’ rallying cries. It remains a rallying point for non-Catholic Christians today and, I believe, is the primary determining factor in whether or not one is willing to embrace Catholicism.
One of her most well-known and well-loved defenders bears this out. G.K. Chesterton was an English writer, journalist, and converted Catholic apologist. In his book The Catholic Church and Conversion he depicts one critical of the Church as a man on the street watching a procession where all her ritual objects and sacred items are paraded in front of him. Chesterton presents this critical spectator as nonsensical in singling out the Bible as authoritative over the Church’s other religious particularities. “I can understand his saying, ‘Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.’ But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of his one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned?”2
However orthodox, admired, and oft-quoted Chesterton may be, his beliefs and assertions are no more scriptural than the Church’s Sacred Tradition. Like so many other thinking converts, his embrace and defense of the Catholic Church can be traced to his relegation of the Bible as subordinate to the Church’s authority.
But if the apostle Paul condemned the teaching that to faith in Christ must be added circumcision, calling it “another gospel,3” is not the teaching that to faith must be added works, and to Scripture must be added Tradition even more so?
All Christians live by a “rule of faith.” If it’s not Scripture alone, then it’s not Scripture at all. Because if anything has supremacy over Scripture, then that is our rule of faith.
And I don’t know about you, but when I stand before God I don’t want to have to try and defend putting man’s word above his Word.
1 F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1988) 269
2 The Catholic Church and Conversion, Kindle edition