The Bible Interprets Itself
November 29, 2004
Stan Williams, Ph.D.
This is therapy.
Last night in a noisy jazz club I got into an argument with a few Lutherans who claim they're not Protestant but the original "catholic" church. Since Luther was excommunicated, so their thinking goes, and didn't voluntarily leave the Catholic Church he (and they) are not "protesting" anything and so they shouldn't be considered Protestants.
This is fascinating logic. If Lutherans are the original Catholic Church I wonder what happened to the church that kicked Luther out?
I was also informed that these particular folk are part of an independent Lutheran Church and left the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church (recently) and neither will they have anything to do with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American because they, too, teach wrong doctrine. Again, fascinating logic. I wonder how excommunications and defections enhance one's authority? And how do we know, just within Lutheranism, which the "true" Catholic-Lutheran Church? By what method, just within Lutheranism, is truth measured infallibly?
I was also told that Catholics have an erroneous Bible insofar as it has 72 books in it and the Lutheran Bible (?) has 66. This is fascinating reconstruction of Lutheran history, insofar as all of Luther's Bible translations had all 72 books in them.
By what authority do these Lutherans use only 66 books? Surely not Luther.
But the most fascinating thing I heard all evening was that the Bible interprets itself. I've head this before. But it leaves me slightly confused. Where in the Bible am I informed as to which of the 66 or 72 are supposed to be in the Bible? Or do we not need an infallible authority (e.g. a church council) to establish an infallible authority (e.g. the Bible)? And why does the Bible not include one or more of the dozen of letters and writings from the early Apostles such as the Gospel According to Peter, The Epistle of Barnabas, or The Didicae? Who determined what was to be in the Bible and what was to be excluded? If the Bible can interpret itself, then surely it can resolve it's own evolution. And if the Bible can interpret itself, then why are their 20,000 + different Christian churches all claiming that the other church is misinterpreting the Bible?
Before the Protestant Reformation, the answer was very simple. In fact, the answer now is the same as it was for the first 1500 years. There is an authority that listens and obeys the Holy Spirit as prescribed by Christ.
Or, where does the Bible say that the Bible is the only authority on morals and faith apart from men, led infallibly by the Holy Spirit, to interpret it?
As a Roman Catholic there is a very easy answer to the authority issue, because it is so explicitly stated in the Bible. And contrary to what many non-Catholics believe, the teachings of the Church are infallible not simply because they come from a man who is the head of an institution, but because they come from the Holy Spirit, as Jesus said they would. Here is the doctrine and process in a few Bible verses.
Jesus tells Peter, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Mt 16:19)
But such authority is not arbitrary but inspired and infallibly brought to the Church through the Holy Spirit. Again Jesus is talking: "The Holy Spirit...will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you." (John 14:26) "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, will guide you to ALL truth. (John 16:12-13)
And then, Jesus says to the Apostles, "RECEIVE the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (John 20:23)
Thus, infallibility ONLY comes through the Holy spirit, and yes through men in leadership who have been given that blessing.
Now non-Catholic Christians disagree with this, because in their Christian culture they've been taught that no one is infallible. And within their Christian upbringing they are absolutely right. There is no infallible promises to any of their non-Catholic church leaders. That is their experience, their life, their teaching, and even Catholics agree with that teaching. Why? Because somewhere in history non-Catholic leaders have either been excommunicated (as Luther was) or voluntarily defected from the church and by natural consequence excommunicated themselves. Therefore they have been separated from the above promise of infallibility.
It is only reasonable then, that non-Catholics are offended when someone tells them that what they believe about infallibility is true, but only for their own church. And what is true for their church does not, by logic or any other extension of authority, extend to another church. To do so is like someone with O+ blood claiming that everyone else must have O+ blood. Or, it's like the leader of one organization demanding that another organization follow the first organization's by-laws.
The verses quoted above explicitly state and define infallibility; and you will never read of a Lutheran theologian claiming them for himself or his church. Non-Catholic theologians will continue to say that no one is infallible (that is what they know from personal experience), and that is the claim echoed loudly, and clearly, and continually by all non-Catholics.
This, too, is fascinating. Because the non-Catholic proclamation about how no one or no church is infallible, IS in the form of an infallible statement. It is a universal, dogmatic, timeless declaration of fact...to those that say it.
And so, logically, if no one is infallible, how then does anyone know absolute truth? Or, how can one even be so infallible to prescribe that no one is infallible?
The Catholic Church has a simple answer. The Holy Spirit speaks through the Church (which contains all believers, including priests, religious, bishops and the Bishop of Rome) and through prayer, fasting, dialogue, debate, and study...the will of God about a particular issue is arrived at and proclaimed by the Church as true. The process in each case takes years. Never has a Pope arbitrarily, outside that normally very long process of discerning God's will, made any dogmatic proclamation. And never has a Pope made a proclamation of truth without the consensus of the other bishops of the church. Thus, while the Pope is said to have the office of the keys, he has never used them without being in union with the doctrine of the full church. Furthermore, no doctrine has ever been proclaimed unless the church can confirm that the doctrine was believed and held true during the lives of the Apostles and in keeping with their direct teachings. Therefore, although some doctrines have been proclaimed since the last apostle died, the Church can demonstrate that the first church under the Apostles' leadership held such beliefs. Like the law of gravity, the proclamation of the law later on does not create it, but only explains and articulates what has always been true.