Yes, I am back for another installment in this tale. If you have missed any of the earlier parts of this story, they can be found Here (Part 1), Here (Part 2) and Here (Part 3). We can all wait while you catch up, so just let us know when you are ready.
To become a Catholic, at least over the last forty years or so, a person must usually attend a series of classes which are part of a thing called RCIA. Well, it is actually called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, but the acronym is all you will ever hear if the topic ever comes up in conversation. One of the classes covered a topic which was key to me: Scripture and Tradition.
As a Lutheran boy, the bedrock of Protestantism was Sola Scriptura – the idea that Scripture Alone was the sole source of authority in Christian worship, theology and life. Hadn’t those awful corrupt Catholics covered the Bible with all of their silly rules and made a corruption out of simple Christianity? Sola Scriptura had been Martin Luther’s answer – a back-to-the-Bible movement that served as a cleansing wash get the faith back to its basics.
In RCIA, I got the Catholic response. Scripture, I was told (both old and new testaments) is held to be the inerrant Word of God, but not the entirety of it. The person teaching on the subject explained how early Christianity in those mostly pre-literate times was a society that passed down much knowledge from generation to generation by word of mouth. Scripture, we were taught, did not contain the totality of God’s revelation to us. Instead, there was something called Sacred or Apostolic Tradition, which encompassed the oral teaching by which God’s Word had been passed down from Christ to the original Apostles to those who came after them. Some of it was eventually written down in the new testament, but some of it was simply absorbed, understood and passed on. These two complimentary sources are what, to a Catholic, make up the entirety of the faith.
Tradition could never be something that contradicted written scripture, but was instead something that either clarified something implied or was complementary to the written Word. Tradition (with a Big T, as it has sometimes been described) was not a mere habit or custom, such as how we might celebrate a family birthday or holiday. That would be a Little t kind of tradition. Capital T Tradition was a parallel path by which God’s Word came down to those of us in the trenches of life.
As an attorney, this made a certain sense to me. Our legal system derives from that of England, which was based on Common Law. A common law legal system was quite different from the code-based systems of many other societies. A legal code would be a writing down in advance of all of the rules that must be followed. This is what Congress or a State Legislature does, and it has been a common legal system throughout the world.
Common law is much less common. It is a system by which judges apply doctrines formulated in earlier cases to later cases. In our system, these two sources coexist: negligence is a common law concept, while driving while intoxicated is typically from a code. To a common law lawyer, the idea that judge-made case law could exist in parallel with codes and statutes passed by legislative bodies as part of the same jurisdiction’s law was logical. The written opinion of an appellate judge will commonly fill in gaps in a statute or clarify those parts that appear to be ambiguous, but the two sources of authority cannot conflict without one being invalidated. The analogy is not perfect, of course, but I could see how some bits of Catholic doctrine were not necessarily spelled out chapter and verse from Scripture, particularly when parts were not written until decades after the fact.
But even though this rudimentary understanding of the coexistence and interplay of Scripture and Tradition made sense, the Sola Scriptura foundation of my Lutheran youth had been quite firmly attached to some place way down deep within me. I therefore remained uncomfortable with those parts of the Catholic faith which were not explicitly found “within the four corners” (as we lawyers are fond of saying) of Scripture.
A number of years later, I was discussing Catholicism with one of the office secretaries. She was much better educated about her faith than (sadly) was normal, and when I told her that I preferred to at least informally follow a Sola Scriptura rule in my Catholicism, she gave me a verbal smackdown with the heft of a cast iron skillet. “Sola Scriptura isn’t in the Bible, you know.”
Well no, I didn’t know that. I had never actually, you know, looked into it. But didn’t it have to be there? After all, there was that whole Reformation Thing, and generations of non-Catholic theology that seemed to base the existence of entire Protestant denominations upon it. I didn’t know where it was, but I knew that it just had to be there.
The next day, she brought me a book called Rome Sweet Home. It was written by Scott and Kimberly Hahn back in the ’80s (which was not ancient history when I was having the conversation) and took us through their conversion from a Presbyterian seminarian and his wife to a couple of the most knowledgeable and committed Catholics I had yet come across. Sola Scriptura was a big obstacle in their journey too, and Scott (in particular) was crestfallen when he learned that the doctrine was not explicitly scriptural.
In my legal practice, I have many times had to closely read the language of a contract or a statute or of some binding case law. The easy cases are where the language that supports my client is right there in black and white, with very little need to argue beyond the printed word. The harder cases are where I have to represent the other guy – the one whose case depends on taking those printed words and trying to explain how they support my case even though they don’t appear to say so. This second kind of situation seemed to me to be how the early Reformers got to Sola Scriptura.
I don’t intend to get into a detailed and scholarly critique of Sola Scriptura here or to start an argument on who has the better side of the divide, but I do feel the need to cite an example. The one that seems most often cited is found in 2nd Timothy, chapter 3, verses 16-17, where is states that “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
It is, of course, good for a person to be “complete” and “equipped for every good work”. But does this passage actually say that Scripture is the only way to get us there? Especially when the previous verse refers to the sacred writings that Timothy’s audience had been acquainted with from childhood, which would seem to exclude most of the New Testament (little of which had been written during the childhood of anyone living when Timothy made this pronouncement).
I know that there are rebuttals to my reading of this passage (and others). However, the ones I have read are complex weavings of multiple verses and logical conclusions therefrom, much like the way in which I have to argue a case where some controlling language seems to be stacked against me.
The Reformers needed to argue that there was a way to be an authentic Christian but to do so outside of the Church that had been understood for over a millennium to have the exclusive franchise. I now saw the Reformers’ argument as one that was not explicitly from the clear text, but one fashioned out of ambiguities in the text.
I will acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with a nuanced reading of things that cannot be captured in a clever sound bite. We Catholics have been making many of these kinds of arguments about all kinds of things for centuries. But when the issue is a doctrine that says “Everything about authentic Christianity has to be in the Bible”, shouldn’t that doctrine be, you know, in the Bible? And I don’t mean in a way that it will take a good lawyer or theologian five single-spaced pages to explain, but in more of the way that “love your neighbor” is in the Bible. Especially when considering a doctrine that didn’t pick up significant acceptance for over a thousand years after the whole Christianity thing got rolling.
That Sola Scriptura was not explicitly in Scripture suddenly explained quite a lot to me. It explained how so many people of good faith and goodwill could take the same book but come to wildly differing conclusions about what should or should not be a part of authentic Christian doctrine. It also explained how there could be a Christian faith in the thirty or so years before the books of the New Testament were even written, or during the following three centuries (give or take) when there was disagreement over which books were or were not to be included in it. This was when the simple revelation hit me: Christ did not spend his three years of ministry holed up writing a manual, which he certainly had every right to do. Instead, He spent that time teaching and forming those who would, in turn, teach and form succeeding generations.
There are many parts of my life where changes in my thinking came slowly and gradually. This, however, was not one of those places. Instead, this was a real “Eureka!” – the point I can look back upon and say “That right there was when JPC became a genuine, full-on Catholic.” I am not tremendously proud of the extended length of time that this whole process took. But sometimes the lessons we learn most slowly become those things the we understand the most fully.
My journey would continue as I began to investigate one uniquely Catholic doctrine or belief after another, reading whatever I could get my hands on that would faithfully explain the Catholic position. This time, however, I went about my reading with a new mindset. One after another, things that I had seen as silly or unfounded or outright harmful were finally met with a moment of quiet, where I thought “gee, when you put it like that, it makes sense.” It is an interesting experience when you reach a point where the burden of proof shifts. Where before, I had assumed that the Catholic point was one that could be tolerated so long as it did not interfere with my existing beliefs, I suddenly found myself in a place where the Catholic argument would be considered presumptively valid until it could be disproved. This was no small thing.
I may or may not have more on this topic, but this brings me to at least one point of conclusion in a long story that continues to unfold, and in a way that became so much longer than I intended at the outset. So, will there be parts 5 and beyond? When I decide, you will be the first to know. But until then, you know have an idea of where I am and how I got here. It takes little to see where a man is standing. But how he arrived and his experiences on the way, that is where we will find stories worth telling.