I was minding my own business sitting quietly in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport catching up on emails. Then there was that sudden sense that someone was beside me, staring down. I looked up to find a nice, young, affable gentleman. He introduced himself as a minister at the local .com Bible Church. I knew the one, a warehouse designed with the usual, functional “pill box,” non-transcendent, type of architecture.
The personable clergyman commented, “I noticed from your clerical attire that you’re probably a Catholic priest.” He continued, “I didn’t quite understand the purple shirt though so I thought I’d ask.” I explained that I was a bishop on the Anglican side of Catholicism. He didn’t really see the difference of course, but it wasn’t long before we were in a friendly but somewhat polemical discussion from the outset. He challenged and I answered.
He was taken aback when I mentioned, “I used to go to independent Bible churches as a college student.” I went on to explain that my family had been introduced to the Episcopal Church at St. Michael’s and All Angels in Dallas, Texas, when I was very young. Through the ministry of an organization named Young Life I had been taken to Bible churches. I went to them for a while, enjoying the warm Christian fellowship and the study of the Scriptures.
With a curious look on his face he responded, “What happened?” He elaborated, “You catholic types believe the stuff that church tradition made up instead of relying on the Bible.” He was given great pause when I responded “Actually it was my study of the Bible that led me back to the Church Fathers, the ancient Church and her traditions.” I added, “I kept reading in the Book of Acts that the first Christians took the Eucharist every chance they could, even daily and at least weekly.”
I went on to explain, “I just couldn’t get a straight answer from my pastors as to why people so committed to the Bible hardly ever took the Eucharist. And when they did have communion it was rather hastily and crudely tacked onto the end of a service with crumbly crackers and grape juice, hardly appropriate since Jesus Christ turned water into wine.” At that he had to admit I was correct.
I can’t say that I totally convinced my young friend. Hopefully I was able to plant some seed that the Holy Spirit will use at some point in his life. The script of his journey’s story is not over. Perhaps we’ll see him some day at God’s altar receiving the Blessed Sacrament according to the Scriptures.
Nevertheless, this conversation and others like it have provoked me to produce a series of articles that I’m entitling, The Biblical Catholic. The first one is on, The Bible and the Catholic Faith.
It is no doubt true that there is a common misunderstanding on the Protestant side of the Lord’s Kingdom that Catholics follow tradition and not the Bible. I’m sorry to admit that even on the catholic side many of our brothers and sisters ironically, sometimes advocate the same, a kind of tradition absent Scripture notion. The fact is to the contrary, it’s just not accurate to speak of the Holy Tradition of the Church as though it was made up apart from the source of the Holy Scriptures. The Word of God Written is the basis of the Catholic Faith.
St. Paul provides the perfect metaphor of this organic cohesion when he describes the Church as, “the pillar of Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). In one sense according to this metaphor, community comes before the Canon of Scripture. That is, the people of God exist before Scripture is given. At the same time God provides His special revelation of the Scripture to lighten the path on which the People of God are to walk. Both Scripture and the Church have an organic relationship to each other. Neither was intended to exist apart from the other. The Church is the pillar upholding and therefore at the same time under the Truth. As such the Great Tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church looks to the Holy Scriptures for guidance in faith and life.
The immediate generation after the Apostles, what we call the Church Fathers, speak of everything they believe and do as informed by the Holy Scriptures. St. Irenaeus is but one example of countless many. He lived in the second century. Growing up in Smyrna, he listened to the preaching of Polycarp, who was discipled by St. John. Bishop of ancient Lugdunum in Gaul, today Lyon, France, he encountered the heretical teachings of a nefarious movement called Gnosticism. Significantly, the Gnostics believed among many erroneous teachings that they received, exclusive secretive revelation known only to them. Against such false teaching Irenaeus wrote:
“Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him (Against Heresies, II.30.6)…
“Moreover, they [Gnostics] possess no proof of their system, which has but recently been invented by them…Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures (II:28.8; I.8.1)”
Thus Irenaeus concludes:
“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (III.1.1).
Irenaeus’ reference to the “ground and pillar of our faith” is directly from St. Paul’s magnificent metaphor. Importantly, the verb “come down,” or “handed down,” is the same word for tradition. Tradition was the means for receiving the Holy Scriptures. In the Great Tradition, St. Irenaeus accordingly taught that doctrine was not created by the Church. Rather, her doctrine, especially the Gospel, originate in Scripture.
The practice of looking to the Holy Scriptures as the, not a, source of doctrine in the ancient Church continued through all of the early conflicts. A primary case in point is the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325. Bishops from around the world gathered for what is called the First Ecumenical Council. They came to refute the false teaching of Arius, who had taught that Jesus Christ is not Eternal God but a creation of the Father.
When the bishops gathered they graphically portrayed their commitment to the Holy Scriptures. They sat in a circle around the Emperor’s throne. Except, the Emperor was not on the throne. A copy of Holy Scriptures was placed on his empty seat, depicting that the successors to the Apostles had come to determine what the Holy Scriptures said regarding Arius’ teachings. Their conclusion based on the Word of God Written was that he was in grievous error. The result was the production of the greatest creed in the history of Christendom, the Nicene Creed.
The articulation and codification of this Faith Once Delivered into Holy Tradition became known as the regula or rule of faith. Indeed, Holy Tradition was perceived as so wrapped in the Holy Scriptures that to speak of one was to refer to the other. In the words of R.P.C. Hanson, “Certainly, there is evidence in abundance that the very fathers of the second and third centuries who wrote most frequently of the rule of faith as interpreting Scripture regarded the content of the Scriptures as materially identical with the content of the rule of faith, or professed to draw all their doctrine from Scripture” (R.P.C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (Westminster: Philadelphia, 1962), pp. 100, 110, 112).
Thus, The Catholic Faith is deeply grounded in the Holy Scriptures; the former is not apart from the latter.
The Most Rev’d Ray Sutton is the Presiding Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church and Ordinary of the Diocese of Mid America.