We hear much talk, and rightly so, of the idea of the need to evangelize, and of the “New Evangelization,” the need to re-evangelize in many cases. In our part of the United States, evangelization can also mean reaching out with the right kind of spirit to many of our evangelical Protestant brothers and sisters. This doesn’t mean that we should engage in foolhardy tit for tats, because no one “wins” in that way, it only creates adversaries. Instead, Catholics need to know how to respond to the well-meaning questions that many of them will get. Chief among these questions are variations on “why do Catholics believe things/do things that aren’t in the Bible.” The first thing that has to be understood is that when people ask this question, many of them subscribe to a kind of Christianity or Christian experience that says that the Bible alone is their sole rule of faith and practice. This is called sola scriptura, and it has its roots in the Protestant Reformation. One place you won’t find this doctrine articulated is…in the Bible. It isn’t in there because if the apostles of the Lord and the early Fathers of the Church who either wrote or compiled the New Testament as we have it had held to a standard of sola scriptura, we wouldn’t have a New Testament at all.
Speaking of that truth does not mean that Catholics less reverence for Scripture, quite the contrary. The reality of how the Bible was compiled and accepted over the centuries does not make it any less wholly the Word of God. However, the Bible does not tell us that God’s Word consists of it alone. In fact, St. Paul tells us quite the opposite. In 1 Corinthians 11:2 the Apostle writes:
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.
In the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul is even more explicit about the need for the local Church in Thessaloniki to keep these “traditions” that he was teaching to them (2:15):
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
St. Paul goes so far as to say that the traditions that he has taught the Thessalonians and others, which would be the teachings of the apostles, are to be observed whether they have been handed down in written form or by word of mouth.
The Bible did not just fall out of the sky, the Church survived literally for centuries without an officially completed New Testament, its doctrines handed down by faithful bishops and maintained over the years. Truth did not begin with the written page, nor will it end with it. So while Catholics understand that the Bible is the Word of God, it is not the sole rule of faith. All Scripture is inspired of God and can be used for doctrine, reproof, correction, and training (2 Timothy 3:16), but nowhere does the Bible say that it alone can be used for these things. That is not the historic Christianity of the apostles and Fathers of the Church.
Dr. Scott Hahn, who spoke at our Diocese of Knoxville Eucharistic Congress last year, came to understand these realities after years of Scripture study and historical analysis. In the late 1980’s, he initially shared his conversion story at a California parish. He did so in a way that was truthful and charitable, and a version of it is still floating around the internet via YouTube today. If you have the 90 minutes or so, even as you do other things, it is well worth the listen if you haven’t ever heard Dr. Hahn’s conversion story from the “fresh perspective” of something that very recently happened in his life.
Dr. Hahn’s story is important not just because he is a notable scholar who became Catholic, but because he has a deep reverence for Sacred Scripture, understands that it is God’s Word, and he explains just how he came to the conclusion that the Catholic faith, and the Catholic approach to Scripture was, to his initial bafflement, historically and theologically correct.
The Church predates the Bible as we have it, but we can know that the Bible is true because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, which is the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17), to keep the Church from error, and the tradition of the Church tells us what the New Testament should look like.
In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1), and the Word was around a long time before pens, ink, paper, or the printing press.