Is Catholicism Biblical? That question is backwards!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 20, 2015

The other day I referred to Dave Armstrong’s fine collection of essays, Proving the Catholic Faith is Biblical (see What I learned on my vacation, about God and man). But anyone who demands that we prove that Catholicism is properly rooted in Scripture has his religious fundamentals all wrong. The key question is not whether Catholicism stands the test of Scripture, but whether Scripture stands the test of Catholicism.

Before I explain what many will regard as shocking, let me state clearly that I have no quarrel with Dave Armstrong or his book. It is extraordinarily useful to show the deep connection between the Catholic Faith and Scripture. It can also allay the suspicions of Protestants, as well as those (including a great many Catholics) who have been influenced by Protestants to pick up the wrong end of the stick.

Ignorance of Scripture, said St. Jerome, is ignorance of Christ. But we must still recognize that the question is too often asked backwards. The Bible did not give rise to the Catholic Church; the Catholic Church gave rise to the Bible.

Why, after all, should anyone care what some set of “scriptures” says? We can, of course, understand why religions like to have “scriptures”: They lend authenticity to the claim that, at a certain time and place, there really was a Revelation. So Islam has its own scripture, but it is just the unverified claims, teachings and experiences of Muhammed and his followers. And Mormonism has its own scripture, which Joseph Smith claimed to have discovered on golden plates buried in the dirt. And so on.

But Revelation was not given to a book but to persons. Revelation was not even given originally in and through a book. It was given by Jesus Christ to His apostles and disciples. It was Our Lord’s plan that some of this Revelation should be carried on through the Tradition of the Christian community; that other aspects of it should be written down under Divine inspiration; and that the whole should be protected, preserved and interpreted by the Church’s infallible authority.

The earliest Christians, of course, had only the Jewish scriptures and the testimony of Christ as preached by His apostles. The first of the books of the New Testament were written by St. Paul in the 50s, and the last by St. John in the 90s. Quite a few other Christians wrote books in this same period that were not inspired (the kind of writing I am doing now). Ultimately only the Church could identify which books were the inspired Word of God and which were merely human. That’s because Scripture is the Church’s book.

The reason Protestants always ask the question backwards is that they insist that Scripture is the source of Revelation to which everything else must conform. But in reality, the Church came first. She created the Bible by definitively proclaiming which early writers were inspired and which were not. In the first and second centuries (and beyond) the relevant question was not whether Catholicism passed the test of Scripture, but whether alleged inspired texts passed the test of Catholicism.

A hypothetical example may help. Suppose someone were to write a book today (or, more likely, were to claim to discover an unknown ancient text). Now suppose this person and his adherents claimed this text was the inspired Word of God and should be considered part of the Bible. Only an idiot would submit the Church to the judgment of the text, condemning the Church if she differed from what was recorded there. No, the question would be simply this: What is the judgment of the Church about this text? Does the Church judge it to be inspired? Is the Church prepared to add it to the Canon of Scripture?

Now we know (and we know it only by the authority of the Church) what the books of Scripture are. We know they are inspired. Therefore, we are wise both to read Scripture and to learn from the Tradition and teachings of the Church so that we can know God, love God, and grow in union with Him. But the key originating question is not whether the Church is Scriptural. The key question is whether Scripture is Catholic—whether what we call “scripture” is or is not part of the original Revelation which the Church received.

It is only in the context of the authority capable of answering this question that the contents of the Bible can be properly understood. In fact, only an affirmative answer to that question makes the Bible worth reading at all.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Aug. 23, 2015 10:46 PM ET USA

    So true. But we can take Revelation back farther. Bishop Bossuet refers to this extension back before Christ as "the continuity of religion," religion here meaning "true religion," the knowledge of God revealed to Adam and Eve through the preternatural gift of infused knowledge and through personal experience, the wisdom of the Patriarchs, including Enoch, who walked with God, the less certain knowledge of God preserved through the flood that Noah survived, then the Israelites, the Jews, and us.