Scripture on a Billboard, and the Problem of Authority
Streaking across Nebraska, working on CatholicCulture.org in the back of an old Ford van (now repaired), I see out my window a billboard which proclaims: “The Holy Bible. God’s word. Absolute. Final.”
That’s about as flat as the Nebraska landscape. I suppose it would be nice if it were that simple, if there were no wrinkles to be ironed out. Unfortunately, for every ten people who would think it helpful to put up a billboard like that, there would be ten different opinions about what the Bible actually means. And perhaps even different opinions on different days.
And little wonder. No book—even one that is Divinely inspired—can be a guide to itself. One can argue, of course, that part of Biblical inspiration is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of each believer which enables him to rightly understand the sacred text. But if that were true, then different believers in the proposition that the Bible is absolute and final would not fight so often as they do over what they read there.
We would not have hundreds of Christian sects, but one Church.
In fact, this approach to Scripture inevitably results in a sort of splintering relativism. Either believers break from each other into a thousand truth fragments, or they give up altogether and insist instead that the Word of God is nothing more than the pious sentiment of a particular age, to be reimagined in each succeeding age. This results, in other words, in exactly what we have in the Christian world today.
It is not, of course, that the Bible is not God’s word. It’s just that we cannot figure out for sure what God intends to teach us through the Bible without someone with the authority to explain it to us. Read again Acts 8:26-40 about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and particularly these lines:
So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
God did not inspire the Scriptures, and then send Our Lord and Savior to both fulfill and explain them, and then leave us orphans when Christ returned to the Father. No, Our Lord established a Church, and established an authority in that Church, so that we should continue to have the guidance we need to understand all of His words. Yes, He said that He would send the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth, but He also commissioned Peter with the keys to His kingdom, prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail, and charged Peter to confirm his brothers.
The Holy Spirit works pre-eminently through the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and in fact works definitively in matters of truth only through that Magisterium. In the absence of that authority, there is cacophony, contention, and fragmentation. But under that authority? Harmony, agreement, unity.
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