«No prophecy of scripture is made by private interpretation. For prophecy came not by the will of man at any time: but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost.»
— 2 Pet 1:20-21 (DRV)
When I was rediscovering my faith, around the beginning of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, I relied heavily on the Catholic Answers Forums to learn more. At that time, I noticed that many of the discussions there were focused on debunking protestant theology. This was strange for me, since Portugal is traditionally very Catholic-oriented. Protestants were not a reality I had come across very often.
But still, those threads helped me deepen my understanding of Scripture, and how it should be interpreted. Namely, I learned that Scripture derives its authority from the Church (which wrote it and compiled it), not the other way around.
Sola Scriptura (so I was told) was inherently contradictory, in that there is no passage in Scripture where this doctrine is explicitly mentioned. Sure, there are Bible passages that say that all Scripture is profitable for teaching, but nowhere does it say that Scripture *alone* is acceptable.
Scripture was insufficient, in that people could come to radically different interpretations of it, even when reading the same passages. So, contrary to what protestants affirmed, Scripture was not perspicuous. If two Christians had a disagreement over which one of two opposing interpretations was correct, they should take it up to someone with authority to interpret… and that was the Church.
How wonderful it was to have a Church that was a *living* body, a thriving organism, enfleshed in real human beings! A Church that would always be present when we needed Her to guide us in the midst of a turmoil of conflicting interpretations and into the Truth! Or so the apologists acclaimed back then…
Of course that would mean I had to trust the Church even when it seemed pretty clear that Scripture contradicted Her teachings. It was extremely clear for me that the Bible had nothing but condemnation for graven images, so it seemed that protestants were right in shunning the statues of the saints that populate our places of worship. It was extremely clear from Scripture that Jesus treated His Mother with noticeable indifference, when not open contempt. It was extremely clear that Jesus and Paul contradicted the Law of the Old Testament, even when they claimed they didn’t. It was extremely clear that the marcionists had a point in that the God of the Old Testament didn’t seem to be the same as the God of the New.
However, as Catholic apologists showed me, those apparent contradictions were just… well, apparent. A touch of historical context and sound theology would clearly show that Scripture was not intended to be interpreted in those ways that seemed to be obvious to a modern reader. Taking on the “graven image” example, a more deep study of Scripture would show the divine command, hidden in the Book of Exodus, to carve statues of cherubim and to put them above the Ark of the Covenant. That was a small detail, which could easily be overlooked, but it made a whole lot of difference.
Scripture was insufficient and not perspicuous. Scripture was one of the pillars on which the Church relied to ascertain Truth… but not the *only* pillar. There were two more pillars: Tradition and Magisterium. Scripture and Tradition formed the deposit of the Word of God, but the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God had been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church.
The protestant’s error was to rely solely in one of those pillars while rejecting the other two, sometimes even making that lonely pillar go into war with the others. Oh, and with what skill they did it! I saw protestants engaging in those Catholic Answers threads, quoting the Bible like they had it memorized, throwing around biblical snippets that seemed to support their points…
But I had already learned my lesson! Those quotes were taken out of context. If we read the verses immediately preceding them or the ones immediately bellow, we would see those points were flawed. Also, the Bible could not be prooftexted into a series of isolated sentences and paragraphs: the Bible needed to be read as a whole. Lastly, these quotes were taken out of context, because they were taken out of the Church that produced them and from which they derived their authority.
Those were the lessons I learned in those years. And I think it is urgent to recall them today. Because I believe that those lessons need to be re-learned by some Catholic sectors these days… albeit with a twist.
Many of the Catholics that passionately defended the Church against Sola Scriptura have fallen prey of a similar, yet different, error. I shall name it Sola Traditio.
As generally happens with many errors, this one has a comprehensible origin. Since Scripture was being improperly used to attack Tradition, Catholics learned to defend Tradition as an antidote against Sola Scriptura. This meant that Catholics would value Tradition and place it in high regard. That was understandable and laudable.
Unfortunately, as generally happens with many errors, it doesn’t matter where its origin came from. Soon, it spun out of control. Just like Scripture before it, Tradition started to be overvalued and, ultimately, idolized. Eventually, Tradition would be used to attack the other pillars of Truth. This came to be in the pontificate of Pope Francis (although it seems to me that it was in a latent, subclinical state, long before).
It is, therefore, kind of logical that the people who tend to subscribe to Sola Traditio are the ones that have more passionately fought against the errors of protestantism. We can see they are the ones most likely to criticize Pope Francis for his ecumenical approach to protestants, or to accuse the hierarchy of having become protestantized. But, logical as it may be, it is above all tragic, because these antiprotestant folk cannot seem to grasp how their error mirrors Sola Scriptura so well. Let me try to enumerate the more flagrant parallels:
Both claim that they are achieving a purer Christianity, closer to the original, before the popes introduced unscriptural/untraditional innovations.
Both think that their idol is perspicuous, confusing their personal interpretation of Scripture/Tradition with the only correct one.
By doing so, both pit their idol against the pope. They do not afford the pope the same legitimacy in interpreting Scripture/Tradition they self-anointed upon themselves. It is the pope’s interpretation, not theirs, that must be wrong.
Both postulate that the Church derives its authority from Scripture/Tradition and not the other way around. So the pope’s teachings must be constricted to their take on Scripture/Tradition.
Both are very proficient in quoting and prooftexting authoritative documents to support their position.
Sola traditionalists borrowed a lot of arguments from protestants, namely the oversimplification of the historical episodes of the alleged “heretical” popes Honorius, Liberius and John XXII. Or Paul’s correction of Peter. Yup, protestants mentioned those first.
Also “papolatry” was coined by protestants as a pejorative term to designate those who sided with the pope against them.
Finally, both seem to subscribe to a “Great Apostasy of the Church” narrative. They just disagree with the timing at which the apostasy took place. Even so, they agree that they, and only they, are the remaining faithful left.
But there is an instance where the similarity between Sola Traditio and Sola Scriptura is more striking and important: Both seem to think that Scripture/Tradition is something fixed. Something “dead”. The texts say what they say and they teach nothing beyond what they plainly say. The Holy Spirit can surely talk through their preferred means… but the texts themselves are unyielding.
Which begs the question… when they postulate that the Holy Spirit talks to them through those predetermined sets of texts, is it really the Holy Spirit talking? Or is it just an illusion, cast by themselves interpreting the text without being contradicted by a voice of another real human being?
They do not understand that both Scripture and Tradition only have meaning if they are “alive”. In other words, they cannot be mere books on a shelf that a person can consult whenever needed. Rather, they are incarnated in a Church of living, breathing, talking men, who have the authority to interpret both Scripture and Tradition according to the circumstances which are presented to them. Only in this way can Scripture and Tradition be truly “alive” in us. That’s why we need a Church.
So let us suppose you claim that Pope Francis is overturning Church doctrine on matters where Tradition and previous magisterial teachings have weighed in on the past. You have, for example, a quote from a previous pope that Pope Francis *clearly* contradicts.
Well then, I will reply to you that it is not clear to me that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church doctrine, just mere discipline. At least, it doesn’t seem more glaringly contradictory than the current Catholic praxis regarding statues and the scriptural prohibitions against graven images. For these contradictions seemed obvious too.
It seems we’re at an impasse. You have an interpretation of Tradition and I have another. Both are mutually exclusive: either Pope Francis is overturning Church teaching or not. So, what do we do? We take it up to the Church, of course, which has the authority to interpret correctly the Word of God. We then go talk to a priest. But which priest? There are priests that agree with either interpretation! So, we take it up to the bishops. But again, which bishop? Well, then, all that it remains is to take it up to the… pope.
How wonderful it is to have a Church that is a *living* body, a thriving organism, enfleshed in real human beings! A Church that is always present when we need Her to guide us in the midst of a turmoil of conflicting interpretations and into the Truth! This praise is as actual now as it has ever been.
I then urge my fellow Catholics to re-learn these lessons that they have taught me so many years ago. It is not sufficient to rally against the protestants’ errors, if you do not remain vigilant to not fall in the same traps, even if the bait is different.
Trying to uphold Tradition while fostering dissent from the pope is just as untenable a position as trying to defend Scripture while fostering defiance to the scriptural authority of the petrine and apostolic faith. It is a paradoxical endeavor. No good will come out of it. Because one of the more traditional tenets of our Catholic faith is precisely the obedience due to our pope.
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.