All Christians agree that the Bible is the Word of God. Its text is believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is the written source of Revelation from which doctrines are formed, and moral and spiritual guidance is assimilated. Prophets and Apostles were guided by the Holy Spirit to write words of this ancient text, and these writings were compiled into what is called “Holy Scripture” or the “Bible.” This book has been preserved down through the centuries by faithful Christians. No Christian would dispute the importance of Scripture in the life of the believer in Jesus Christ.
The question then arises: Does the Bible ALONE guarantee the soundness of Christian doctrine? Did God give us ONLY the Bible for the preservation of His Word?
There are many thousands of Christian denominations and sects, which claim that “Scripture Alone” is in fact the sole source for Christian teaching. They reject the authority of any ecclesial (church) body or hierarchy to interpret Scripture and they reject any other source for Revealed Truth, and instead claim that the Bible Alone, in the hands of each individual Christian, is the means by which God preserves His Word. They say that the Spirit guides each individual to discover the Truth of Scripture, and that Scripture’s meaning is plain and literal in every word of every page, so that anyone can grasp its meaning.
And so the next question inevitably follows: Why is it that no two “Bible Only” churches agree on doctrine? How can it be that the Spirit has guided all of these individuals down separate paths to different Truths? Is there not ONE Truth? Why does the Bible Alone yield a plethora of churches with competing doctrines? As these “Bible churches” quarrel and disintegrate into break-away factions that spawn new churches every year, one might wonder what the Holy Spirit was thinking in leading so many astray. Is this really the way Christ established His Church?
Is this what Christ prayed for when He said: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one…” (John 17:20-22)
Jesus prayed for the unity of all believers, a unity that mirrors His own union with the Father – “so that they may be one, as we are one.” It is clear that the “Bible Alone” does not provide that kind of unity for the Church. Would the Father and the Son disagree on doctrine; would They quarrel, and then decide to go Their separate ways, and form Their own churches? Because that is what “Scripture Alone” has given us. Scripture Alone has given Christianity a shattered and broken Body. This cannot be what Christ intended. If Jesus prayed for unity (and who doubts that the Father would grant the prayer of His Son for His Church?), then Jesus’ prayer would surely be answered more effectively than the Bible Alone doctrine has done throughout history.
The Catholic Church counters the weakness of the “Bible Only” doctrine in two ways:
1) The Word of God is found not in Scripture Alone, but rather Scripture AND Tradition.
It must be emphasized that the Catholic Church’s position has always been that the Bible contains the Word of God. It is the sacred written record of God’s revelation to mankind. The Catholic Church shares this opinion with other Christian denominations. Make no mistake, Catholics love and respect the Bible.
However, the Catholic Church also recognizes that the Bible makes no claim for itself to be the ONLY source of God’s Word. If we are to accept the “Bible Alone” to be a sound doctrine to guide Christians, then the “Bible Alone” doctrine too must be found in Scripture. But it is not. Bible-Only Christians claim that all authentic Christian doctrine should come from the pages of Scripture. But if this is true then we must reject the Bible Alone doctrine since it disproves itself.
Nowhere does Scripture say that the Bible is the ONLY source of God’s Word. To the contrary, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states: “In keeping with the Lord's command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways: - orally 'by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received - whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit'; - in writing 'by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing'." (CCC 76)
And this teaching agrees with Scripture: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
So we see that the Word of God can be passed on orally as well as in the written form: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (Acts 4:31)
Paul tells us that his spoken words are truly the Word of God: “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” (1Thessalonians 2:13)
So the Church teaches rightly that God’s Word comes to us in two forms: oral and written. Obviously the written form is called the Bible (as we have already established); and to this, other Christians agree. The oral form is referred to simply as Tradition. This is not to be confused with customs and practices adopted by the Church down through the ages. These are not equal to God’s Word, but are merely expressions of faith as the gospel has been lived out from generation to generation. As the Catechism puts it: “Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned…”CCC 83)
Thus a clear distinction ought to be maintained between Tradition (with a capital “T”) and traditions (lower case “t”) so that customs and practices common among Catholics are not to be confused with the Word of God. Much misunderstanding among non-Catholics stems from this unfortunate mistake in terminology. Sacred Tradition would include such things as the papacy (but not specific ceremonies surrounding the pope), the Mass (but not the precise arrangemnt of words or gestures used at the Mass); Tradition is unchanging (although our understanding of it may grow) – whereas customs and traditions can be altered.
With that in mind, the Catholic Church maintains that Scripture and Tradition are derived from the same source: "'Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.' Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own 'always, to the close of the age'." (CCC 80)
In fact, Scripture is itself nothing more than a written form of Tradition that grew out of the early Church: “The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.” (CCC 83)
Scripture and Tradition are thus inextricably linked. They grew out of the same source – the preaching and example given by the Apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The two must be viewed and interpreted together to achieve sound doctrine and to appreciate the whole Word of God.
"As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, 'does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.'" (CCC 82)
2) The Church’s Magisterium authoritatively interprets that Word of God as found in Scripture and Tradition.
We know that "Scripture Alone" does not work. It brings us only division and a broken church. Tradition, as a collection of passed on wisdom may shed light on Scripture and clear up shades of meaning, but still, if it were left up to each individual to sort out doctrine on his own, we would be left with the same confusion that the Bible Alone doctrine has yielded. It cannot be that God has given us His Word in Scripture and Tradition, but then left us in the same mess from which Bible-Only churches suffer with individual interpretation and competing doctrines.
Christ did not leave his Church to such confusion and lack of guidance. He first called the Twelve Apostles to a role of leadership in His new Church and gave them an authority that is recognized both in Heaven and on Earth: "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 18:18)
He promised this authority to the Twelve, but He spoke similar words to Peter (using the singular word for “you”) and also bestowed on him the "keys" to symbolize Peter’s unique position of authority: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19)
Obviously the Apostles received a special authority as a group, and individually for Peter. This teaching authority was passed on to selected men who would continue as bishops of the Church, as the Catechism tells us: "'In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.' Indeed, 'the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.'" (CCC 77)
The early Christians (from the first few centuries A.D. bear witness to this line of succession:
"Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this a novelty, for bishops and deacons had been written about a long time earlier. . . . Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry" (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 42:4–5, 44:1–3 [A.D. 80]).
"It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:1 [A.D. 189]).
"Far be it from me to speak adversely of any of these clergy who, in succession from the apostles, confect by their sacred word the Body of Christ and through whose efforts also it is that we are Christians" (Jerome, Letters 14:8 [A.D. 396]).
This teaching office that has been passed down from the Apostles is called the “Magisterium.” Rather than drawing our certainty about God’s Word from our own individual interpretation, we can instead turn to the Magisterium of the Church, the teaching office established by Christ and maintained down through the generations. This is not to say that the Magesterium has power over God’s Word, but rather the Magisterium is in the service of God’s Word and is bound by it… "[T]his Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith." (CCC86)
So the division and in-fighting that is so often found among the “Bible Only” churches is soundly answered within the Catholic Church, where there can be surety of doctrine and unity of belief just as Jesus prayed for his followers. Interpretation is not left up to each Christian, but rather, the Holy Spirit works through the teaching office of the Church as the Apostles appointed bishops for that very task. The “Bible Only” doctrine is a rebellion against God’s plan of unity within His Church. Holy Scripture must not be isolated from the Tradition from which it came. Nor should God’s Word be misused by those to whom no authority has been given to interpret authoritatively.
Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium work together to bring us the Truth of Revelation: "'The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.' This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome." (CCC 85)
"It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls." (CCC 95)
By this we can be certain that Christ’s promise is fulfilled: “…when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth.” (John 16:13)