A fundamental difference between Catholics and Protestants arises from the way they understand God to reveal Himself: how God speaks to us, and guides us. What authority can we turn to when confronted with difficult questions?
When confronted with one of those big questions about life and existence, the Protestant might ask ‘What does the Bible say?’ But the Catholic asks, ‘What does the Church teach?’ This is a very different approach.
Protestant views are various, but have a common kernel. They ask ‘what does the Bible say?’ Typically they believe that Scripure, the Bible, is the only infallible guide to God’s laws, plans and intentions for us: the only source of divine revelation. This view is called Sola Scriptura – literally, ‘only scripture’ – an idea that was introduced by the Protestant thinkers of the 16th century, who argued that the Bible alone is the authority for life and faith as a Christian. Protestantism is, if you like, a ‘religion of the book’, and the book is the Bible.
Catholicism, however, is not a ‘religion of the book’, but a religion of the ‘Word of God’; and the Word of God, as St Bernard wrote, is not ‘a written and silent word, but Incarnate and living.’ What is this ‘Word of God’, which is the foundation of our faith? Well, firstly it is Jesus Christ Himself. Jesus is the Word of God: He is the living word (‘the word was made flesh, and lived among us’); and He is the eternal word (‘in the beginning was the word…’). Catholics believe that this living and eternal word speaks to us through two principal means, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
To understand this it is helpful to think about the living word Himself, Jesus Christ. At the end of his incarnate ministry, just before He ascended into Heaven, Jesus gave his disciples a ‘great commission’. He said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matt 28:19-20). He was commanding his disciples to proclaim the Gospel – literally the ‘good news’. He was commanding them to spread the Good News, to all nations. How was this to be done? Well, not by the written word. Although the Good News had come, the written Gospels did not yet exist. Jesus at His Ascension did not leave behind Him a book: He left behind Him a community – an ekklesia – what we today call the Church. So the apostles preached the Gospel orally, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:
the Gospel was handed on… 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”
Only later did the apostles and their followers commit the Good News to writing. The Catechism again:
the Gospel was handed on… 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”.
The phrase repeated by the Catechism, when speaking of the apostles’ preaching, is ‘handed on’. The Latin word for ‘hand on’ is tradere, and this is the origin of our word ‘tradition’. The apostles handed on what they had received from the Lord. As the Church grew and expanded, the apostles appointed episkopoi – bishops – in other towns and cities to teach and guide the Church there, and they in turn handed on what they had learned. St Paul for example, speaking to his congregation in Corinth tells them of his teaching, ‘For I received from the Lord what I also delivered [or handed on] to you’. The Catechism summarises this process of handing on as follows:
Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” (CCC 78)
Roughly 30 years or so after the crucifixion of Jesus, the apostles and others associated with them, inspired by the Holy Spirit, began to set down the Gospel in writing. But it was many years, indeed centuries, before Christians could be sure which were the most reliable and authoritive written accounts of the Gospel. In fact it was finally the Pope himself, Pope Damasus I, who in the year 382 gave the first canon of scripture including the books familiar to us today. So the Church founded by Christ at last gave birth to the Bible.
Catholics then believe that Tradition, the continuation of the apostles’ preaching, the handing on of all that Church believes and is, all that she has received from Jesus, includes Scripture. Scripture is part of that great Tradition:
“Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, [flow] out from the same divine well-spring… and move towards the same goal” (CCC 80)
But it was the Church itself, led and taught by its bishops and the Pope, who guaranteed the truth of the Gospel, including that of the written Scriptures. The Church was, is, and remains the teaching authority – not the written word. And that is why, when it comes to difficult questions in life today, the Catholic will ask, ‘what does the Church teach?’