This was a document I prepared for my baffled family & friends when I became Catholic. It's quite long, as it expounds on a lot of different Bible passages (taken from my Thompson Chain Reference NIV Bible). Enjoy.
Catholic or Protestant? Which is the most correct way to go? Which one is closer to, or even absolutely, truth? Upon initial examination, it would seem as though the differences are myriad. Mary, the Saints, Purgatory, the list goes on. Yet every difference between the Catholics and the Protestants can be narrowed down to one, on which all others hinge.
That one is what Martin Luther termed Sola Scriptura or the concept of Scripture as the highest authority in a Christian's life. This was my mindset. After all, man can fail - he is a sinful creature. Therefore, we must rely on something not as fallible as humanity. By stating this, one is compelled to ask if such a conclusion is Biblical. The Scriptures themselves were written by men, albeit by the Spirit's inspiration. The question is thus posed, can that same Spirit work today as It did two thousand years ago? Why would the Spirit's teaching stop with the canonization of the New Testament Scriptures?
Of course, this must be verified Scripturally, since as a Protestant, that was my supreme authority. II Tim. 3:16, our favorite verse in support of S.S., states that Scripture is useful, or profitable, depending on the translation. Neither term indicates exclusivity. We, as Protestants, take this to mean that when we know the Bible, we can get everything that we need for our lives, because it is the Inspired Word of God. But what if two individuals disagree on an issue?
I will never forget an experiment that our Biblical Interpretation professor at Bible college conducted. As a class we were trying to convey to her how individuals can be led by the Spirit to discover the Truth of Scripture. So, on a whim, she gave each of us an assignment - go home and get right with God. Repent of all sin, and accept His forgiveness. Then pray for the Spirit to guide us into all Truth, as per Jesus' promise. Once we had completed these steps, we were to study a passage of Scripture (I believe it was a Psalm), with no insights from commentaries or other people. The next class, we gathered together and compared what had been revealed in that time of study. There were close to twenty of us there, and there were three or four different trains of thought that emerged from the reference.
So does the plurality of the interpretations render them void? By no means. What was beautifully demonstrated here was personal Bible study and application. That the Spirit leads us when we partake of the Bible, it cannot be denied. However, one has to remember the purpose of offices of authority in the Church. We are called as Christians to submit to those in authority over us. Paul tells us this time and time again, pertaining to worldly rulers, family authority, and church leadership. I'm not suggesting that only the leaders can be spoken to by God, but look at the history of the Bible: Moses as the leader was the one that God communed with. The same is seen with Joseph, King David, the prophets, and the list goes on throughout the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, the Apostles had a special authority over the early church. The Great Commission was given directly to them, and not to every Christian as the Evangelical tradition would have (which doesn't negate the individual's call to evangelize - the rest of Scripture clearly maintains this). My point is, God uses the authorities of the Church to speak to us today just like He has throughout times past.
Why? Because people are at different levels of discipleship in their personal walks, and we would have countless direct contradictions if doctrine was based on every individual's different perspective. Wait a minute - isn't that what there is among Protestants? One only needs to mention the word "tongues" to begin a raging debate about what is right or wrong. The same with baptism, communion, the list goes on. A person could argue that Catholics have equal diversity, and to an extent this is true. Every movement has its liberals, its middle-of-the-roaders, and its conservatives. But Catholic teaching, approved by its top earthly authority, the Pope, is uniform. If a priest in Portugal doesn't agree with something in the Catechism, he is viewed by the Catholic Church as wrong. Whereas if a Free Methodist minister and a Baptist minister disagree on a doctrinal issue, who is in error? Whose interpretation of a certain passage is right, and how can we know?
Scripture is great for personal devotions, we all agree. I will never lose my love of Bible study and application. But what does II Tim. 3:16 say? Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Why? So that every man of God can be thoroughly equipped for every good work. How can something that is useful equip thoroughly? Catholics will be the first to admit that this verse advocates Scripture as necessary. But if it is merely (I mean no offense to the written Word) useful, what else is required?
In Deuteronomy 4:2 Moses says, "Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you." Context? He is addressing the people of Israel just after God has let him see the Promised Land. Three points stick out.
1) Moses, a man, is saying it. He is anointed by God to say it, but he is still a man.
2) In light of the post-Moses prophets and the New Testament, what he commanded has been "added" to. We would be remiss to renounce David, Isaiah, Luke, etc. as disobeying God here and thus in sin. What they wrote lined up with, and in some cases fulfilled, what Moses wrote, and by obeying these "additions," we are still obeying the timeless commands of the Lord.
3) Some church historians tell us that after the formation of the New Testament Scriptures, Inspiration (note the upper case "I") ceased. How did they arrive at that conclusion? By putting out a piece of blessed litmus paper that had a lesser colour change after the Scriptures were decided? Correct me if I'm wrong, but Moses here seems to believe that further refinement of his commands is not necessary. Upon continuing Inspiration, however, later writers enhance God's commands. My question is, why does it have to stop at a certain point in time? I don't mean the canonization of new scriptures, but Roman Catholics believe that whatever the Pope declares as Ex Cathedra is just as inspired as the Bible. Is the cessation of Inspiration a Biblical concept? We are promised by Jesus that His followers would do greater things than Him, and again told that the Spirit would be poured out in greater measure in the last days. This seems to indicate an increasing and not decreasing availability for Inspiration.
At this point, a definition of "the Word of God" is in order. John 1:1 indicates that the Word is God, and with God. That's Jesus! So where do we jump to the conclusion that Scripture (one of the many things the Word created) is the entirety of the Word? Perhaps I'm jumping too far with this thought, but that almost rings like the principle in Romans 1:25; in short, the worship of created things rather than the Creator.
Now consider this: I Thess. 2:13 says that the church in that city accepted Paul's words as the Word of God. II Thess. 2:15 records Paul's exhortation to that same church to stand firm and hold to the teachings that were passed on, "by word of mouth or by letter." The same idea is echoed again in 3:6 and 3:14. Peter refers to Paul's writings as Scripture (II Pet. 3:15-16), true, but what about the stuff that Paul taught that he didn't write down? Was it Inspired as well? And was it lost forever? Paul commanded the Thessalonians to hold to that which he wrote and that which he spoke. Obviously they held to what he wrote, or else we would not have it today. Did they disobey him and do away with what he spoke? The same idea is seen at the very end of John's Gospel (21:24-25). "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down.... If every one of [the things Jesus did] were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written." John testified and he wrote, just as Paul did. Their readers held to it, and passed it down, just as the ancient Israelites passed down the Law until it became written. Only instead of Jewish scribes passing it down, it was the Church. (Obviously, at the onset, it was not named the Roman Catholic Church. Jesus' commission to Peter [on this rock I will build My church....] is what aligns the Church Jesus was speaking about with the Catholic Church today, which traces its papal lineage back to Peter.) Eventually, somebody deemed it wise to write down the oral Traditions and hold to them just as much as the Old and New Testament Scriptures.
Time passes. Martin Luther looks at the Bible, then looks at the Church, and sees stuff that wasn't written in the Bible being practiced in the Church. This was the beginning of Sola Scriptura. A good fifteen hundred years after Christ ascended. Did the Church before Martin Luther's time miss out on the Truth? Did fifteen centuries give a better perspective for Luther? Or did the Church, which had held fast to the teachings of Paul and John and Peter, etc. throughout the ages (and thus to the teachings of Jesus) continue to hold a doctrinally correct definition of the Word of God?
As I stated before, once Scripture is seen as one of two contributors to doctrine, the other being the Traditions God has Inspired in the Church (not to be confused with the traditions of men in Matthew 15:9), not every doctrine needs to be based in Scripture. To be sure, it must not contradict, but it need not be rooted there.
It cannot be denied that the Roman Catholic Church has had its share of blunders. This is understandable. Throughout history, certain individuals have assumed varying positions of power and not been spiritually up to the task, to say the least. Corruption has set in to an alarming degree. It appears that the Catholics are under an immense spiritual attack, moreso than the Protestants or Orthodox. Someone once asked me, "Why would Satan attack a dying dog?" Perhaps because it's the biggest dog - which, when healthy, can do him the most harm. It is unfortunate, nay, an ecclesiastical tragedy, that the Catholic Church has been susceptible to these attacks, and has so many lax members who carry false ideas of the Way.
I have heard it said that the Catholic Church is very close to being labeled a cult by Protestants. But when one looks at the cults back in the days of the early church, that accusation makes very little sense. A cult was defined as a deviance from the approved beliefs that used unInspired documents as its basis, which thus required an undermining of the authority of the Church. How did the Church fight the cults? By declaring certain Scriptures to be inspired by God, and thus declaring others not to be. The Church (as the foundation and pillar of the truth - see I Tim. 3:15) eliminated those "scriptures," such as the Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostic works, by canonizing what it still holds to. It took several centuries before individuals started to look at the Scriptures that were canonized and using them as their sole authority. It was the beginning of cults, all over again, with one major difference - these "cults" were using the approved Scriptures. Nevertheless, the Word the Lutherans, and others to follow, were to use as their authority, was Inspired, and thus useful. But never intended to be used without correct interpretation from the authorities in the Church. So instead of being wrong, the Protestants are merely incomplete.
This is what I believe, and what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. Papal Infallibility, the Sacraments, and everything else hinges on this one important topic that even Luther recognized as pivotal. With the Church to interpret the sacred Scriptures and continue to give us access to God's Word through Tradition, I firmly believe and know that I am proceeding deeper into my relationship with Christ. Every night before devotions, I pray for the Spirit to lead me into all truth, and having been shown the above as truth, I can do no less than obey it. To ignore it would be sin, and my conscience could not show its face before God in sin. To quote Martin Luther at his trial for heresy against the Catholic Church, "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."