Whenever there is a debate between Christians today about some theological point, one question is sure to be fired off: “Where in the Bible is that?” Whether the topic is infant baptism, purgatory, justification by faith alone or the assumption of Mary, Scriptural support is demanded for one’s views. And for good reason; after all, the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and therefore, if a belief is found in the Bible, then surely it is true.
However, there is a false presupposition lurking behind this question, one that is commonly held by Christians today. It is the presupposition that the Bible is the source of Christian doctrine, that the Bible contains all the teachings of the Christian Faith and its purpose is to be a catechism of sorts for our teachings and beliefs. Although many Catholics have this presupposition, it is foundational to Protestantism. If you read just about any book from your local Family Bookstore (a chain of Protestant Christian bookstores), the language used in them is soaked with this presupposition: “The Bible teaches…”, “The Bible says…”, “we see from the Bible that…”.
However, this presupposition is not only false, it is illogical and contrary to history. Let us look at Salvation History for a minute and see how our Faith was passed on to us:
- After the Fall, God raised up a nation (Israel) to be His people. He sent them prophets, kings and priests to teach them about the ways of God.
- At the fullness of time, God sent His Son. This Son – Jesus Christ – preached, did mighty works, and suffered, died and rose again for our salvation.
- The followers of Christ, especially the apostles, went around preaching the Gospel – which consisted of the teachings, works and passion of Christ – to the known world.
- Some of these followers wrote down this Gospel in letters, histories and “gospels.”
- The successors to the apostles – the bishops – continued to preach the Gospel handed on to them, guarding and protecting it from error.
We can see from this short recounting that the content of our Faith – the “Gospel” – was passed on to future generations by two methods: (oral) preaching (a.k.a. Tradition) and writings (a.k.a. Scripture). Then the college of bishops – the “Magisterium”, or teaching office of the Church – continued to preach that Gospel through time, making sure that it was not deformed or altered. But it is important to know the order of priority: the Gospel is the content of the Faith, and oral preaching and writings are the methods in which they are passed on.
(An aside: an objection might be raised that the way we know about Salvation History is through the Bible, so the Bible is “before” the Gospel. However, at this point, we are looking at the Bible as strictly a history book, not an inspired text. One would not think that a book about Socrates is the source of his life and teachings; instead, it simply recounts what we know about him.)
So if we want to know the source of the content of our Faith, we must look to the Gospel, which includes the life of ancient Israel and is fulfilled completely in the person of Jesus Christ and his life, teachings, works and passion.
This idea that there is one pre-existing Gospel and then two methods in which we receive that Gospel has been the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church since its earliest days. In the second century, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Gaul, wrote Against Heresies, which defended the Catholic Faith against the various false teachings of his day. It is a somewhat difficult work, but if you have a moment, take some time to read Book III from the Preface through Chapter 3. In that famous section, Irenaeus lays out his defense of how he knows the heretics are wrong and he is right. His logic is as follows:
- The Gospel was given to the Church through the apostles (Preface-Chapter 1).
- The Gospel was passed on to us through Scripture and Tradition, and the heretics contradict both of these pillars (Chapter 2).
- The Gospel, passed on to us through Scripture and Tradition, is defended and protected by the successors to the apostles, the bishops (Chapter 3).
- Therefore, if we follow the bishops, especially the bishop of Rome, then we can be assured that we are orthodox (Chapter 3).
And the Church today follows this same divine logic. In Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Church beautifully and clearly articulates the relationship between the Gospel (also called “Revelation”), Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. Sections 1-6 discuss Revelation being given from God, and then section 7-9 note the two ways in which that Revelation is handed on to us, and finally section 10 notes the role of the Magisterium in guarding and teaching that deposit of faith.
None of this means, of course, that any part of the Gospel will contradict Scripture, Tradition or the teaching of the Magisterium. The “glue,” so to speak, which holds all these parts together in one unified whole is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the originator of the content of the Gospel, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the guide of Tradition, and the protector from error of the Magisterium. Man would not be able to keep a consistent teaching for even a few decades under his own power, but with the Holy Spirit involved, the Church is able to pass on the authentic and saving Gospel to all generations.
So when someone asks, “where in the Bible does it say…”, you can know that if the Catholic Church teaches it, it is part of the saving Gospel, which precedes the Bible and is the source of its content.