Tradition, the Unwritten Word of God by Fr. Joseph Faa di Bruno

Besides the written Word of God, Catholics believe also in the unwritten Word, called in Holy Scripture The Word of God spoken (Acts i v. 31). The Word of Faith preached (Romans x. 8). The Gospel heard and preached (Colossians i. 23). The Word of God received, heard, believed (1 Thessalonians ii. 13). The Word of Christ heard (Romans x. 17). Whenever in the New Testament the Word of God revealed by Christ or through His apostles is spoken of before it was committed to writing, it always refers to the unwritten Word of God.

Even after the Word of God was in part committed to writing, some passages evidently refer to the Word of God unwritten; as for instance, where St. Peter says: “But the word of the Lord endureth forever, and this is the word which hath been preached unto you.” (1 Ep. i. 25.) Therefore, whenever the Word of God, without any qualification, is mentioned in Holy Scripture, it should not be taken as referring exclusively to the written Word, for it generally refers both to the written and unwritten Word of God. By Tradition we do not mean a mere report, a hearsay, wanting sufficient evidence to deserve belief; or a local tradition started by men, and therefore merely human, as were those traditions of the Pharisees condemned by our Lord; but we mean a Tradition first coming from God, continually taught, recorded, and in all desirable ways kept alive by a body of trustworthy men successively chosen in a divine or divinely appointed manner, well instructed, and who are as a body protected by God from teaching what is wrong or handing down unfaithfully to others the doctrine committed to them.

St. Paul gives us an idea of how this Tradition should be handed down when he says: “For I Delivered unto you first of all, which I also RECEIVED.” (1 Corinth, xv. 3.) And again, when writing to Timothy, he says: “The things which thou hast HEARD of me by many witnesses the same commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to TEACH others also.” (2 Timothy ii. 2.) Holy Scripture and the Tradition just described are Both The Word Of God: the first written out by persons inspired by God; the other, taught by His own divine lips, or inspired by the Holy Spirit in the mind of one man or body of men, to be continually handed down successively under His divine protection to their legitimate successors; neither therefore of these Divine Words can be rejected without the guilt of unbelief.

St. Ephrem says: “Be firmly persuaded of this, not as an opinion, but as a truth, that whatsoever has been transmitted, whether in writing only or by word of mouth, is directed to this end, that we may have life, and may have it more abundantly.” (Vol. iii., Serm. lix.) St. Basil says: “Of the dogmas and teachings preserved in the Church, we have some from the doctrine committed to writing, and some we have received transmitted to us in a secret manner from the Traditions of the Apostles; both these have the same force in forming sound doctrine, and no one who has the least experience of ecclesiastical laws will gainsay either of these. For should we attempt to reject, as not having great authority, those customs that are unwritten, we should be betrayed into injuring the gospel even in primary matters, or rather in circumscribing the gospel to a mere man.” (Vol. iii., De Spiritu Sanct. cxxvii.) This divine Tradition is not liable to failure either from human fraud or infirmity, because it has the security of divine guardianship, that is to say, because those whose office it is to keep alive this Tradition, are divinely protected from teaching what is false. This appears from that passage of Isaias, which even Protestants admit refers to the Church, and in which God says: “This is My covenant with them: My Spirit that is in thee, and My words that I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, from henceforth and forever.” (lix. 21.) This appears also from those passages of St. John where it is recorded that Christ said: “And I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Paraclete (or Comforter), that He may abide with you forever, the Spirit of Truth . . . But when He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will teach you all truth.” (xiv. 16, 17 and xvi. 13.)

Hence St. Irenasus says: “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace; and the Spirit of Truth.” (Against Heresies, vol. iii., c. xxiv.)

The necessity of believing the unwritten living Word of God appears also from the fact that the fundamental virtue of faith, without which no adult is a Christian, is an assent to the Word of God preached by men sent by Him, and charged to preach the truths revealed to them by Him who is infinite knowledge and truth, and who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

Hence St. Paul says: “Faith cometh by hearing” (Romans x. 17), and therefore BY the Word of God PREACHED by the Apostles, or by their legitimate successors to the persons who Hear and Believe it. Hence the same Apostle also says: “And how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach unless they be sent?” (Romans x. 14, 15.) And to be sent by legitimate, divinely established authority is to be sent by God. (See Acts xiii. 4.)

So long as there are nations to be taught, the command of Christ to His apostles to teach “all nations,” indeed, “every creature” will never cease to be in force; and divinely authorized teaching will never cease to be the Word of God. Whether this Word is preached without being committed to inspired writing, as was the case during the twelve years which elapsed between the Ascension of our Lord and the writing of the first Gospel, the Gospel of St. Matthew,–whether preached by the apostles and their successors during the progressive formation of the New Testament up to the year of our Lord 99, when the Gospel of St. John, the last inspired book of the New Testament, was written,–whether preached after the death of St. John (101), that is, in the second, third, and fourth centuries, when only very few possessed all the books of the Old and New Testament, and the inspiration of some of them was uncertain (for the Canon or authorized list of the inspired books of the Old and the New Testament was only finally settled in the Council of Carthage in the year 397),–whether preached after the fourth century for the space of a thousand years, during which time no printed Bible existed, but only Bibles written by hand, which consequently were very voluminous, costly, and rare,–or whether preached after the year 1450, when the art of printing began to come into use, and printed Bibles could be obtained; that Word of Christ, I say, entrusted by Him with His own divine lips, or by inspiration to the apostles, and by the apostles transmitted in a divinely appointed manner to the whole chain of their legitimate successors, IS ALWAYS The Word of God, firmly to be believed by every Christian.

Hence St. Paul, in his second epistle to the Thessalonians (ii. 14), could say: “Brethren, Stand Fast And Hold The TRADITIONS (that is to say, the entrusted Word of God), which you have learnt, whether by word (that is, by my preaching) or by our epistle” (that is, by my inspired writings).

When Jesus Christ said to the apostles: “He that heareth you, heareth Me” (Luke x. 16), He did not limit this duty of hearing the apostles even as Himself to the time when the inspired writings of the New Testament did not exist, but extended it to all times; and the duty of preaching applies not only to the twelve apostles, but also to their legitimate successors, for through their successors alone were the apostles to teach all nations, and their apostolic office was to last until the end of the world. This we see from the following words of Christ to the apostles: “Go ye into The Whole World and preach the Gospel to EVERY Creature.” (Mark xvi. 15.) “Going therefore teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold, I AM WITH YOU ALL DAYS, EVEN TO THE CONSUMMATION OF THE WORLD.” (Matt. xxviii. 19-20.) And NO ONE is exempted from the duty of believing their teaching, for Christ subjoined: “He that believeth not, shall be condemned.” (Mark xvi. 16.)

Hence any legitimate Bishop upholding the Tradition of the Church could say what St. John the Evangelist said in his old age, when nearly all the books of the New Testament were written: “We are of God. He that knoweth God, HEARETH US. He that is not of God, HEARETH us NOT. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.” (1 John iv. 6.)

And St. Irenaeus could say, concerning the heretics of his time: “We challenge them to that Tradition which is from the apostles, which is preserved in the churches through the succession of the Presbyters.” (Against Heresies, book iii. chap. ii.) And Origen said: “We are not . . . to believe otherwise than as the churches of God have by succession transmitted to us.” (Book iii. Commentary on St. Matthew.)

St. Chrysostom gave out as an axiom: “It is a tradition [of the Church]; seek nothing further.” (Commentary on the passage 1I Thessalonians ii. 14; book xi., Homily 4.)

To suppose that Tradition has lost its authority from having been (in part) committed to writing, would be as unreasonable as to say that the natural law was made void from the moment that the Ten Commandments were laid down in writing on Mount Sinai. Some may ask: Which of these two DIVINE Words is the more useful to us?

This question may be considered as answered by the Fathers already quoted. I will, therefore, make only one more citation. The holy Bishop of Hierapolis (Papias), the disciple of St. John and friend of St. Polycarp, referring to Tradition, says: “If any one came to me who had accompanied the elders, I questioned him concerning their words, what Andrew and Peter said; for I did not think that what is in the books would aid me as much as what comes from the living and abiding voice.” (Eusebius, b. III., p. 39.)

Like two sacred rivers flowing from paradise, the Bible and divine Tradition contain the Word of God, the precious gems of revealed truth. Though these two divine streams are in themselves, on account of their divine origin, of equal sacredness, and are both full of revealed truths, still, of the two, Tradition is to us more clear and safe.

1st, Because Tradition can testify in its own behalf through the many authorized witnesses who carry this Tradition in themselves, whilst Holy Scripture can not make good its authority without referring to Tradition to testify to its inspiration and preservation. 2dly, Because a word may have two or more meanings, and an expression may be true in one of these meanings and not in the others. Again, as an expression may be true, if taken figuratively, and not true if taken literally–true if applied to some particular person, and not true if applied to all–true if taken in its plain sense, and not true if taken in a strained or fanciful sense–true if taken in a sense that does not exclude other things, and not true if taken in an exclusive sense–true if taken to act through the medium of other things, and not true if taken to act without a medium–true if taken to mean a counsel, and not true if taken as a precept–true if taken permissively, and not true if regarded as the active cause of a thing; the Bible, which is a mere letter needing an interpreter, can not by itself set the mistaken interpreter right.

But Tradition, being a Living Word, because carried in the mind and on the lips of divinely appointed living teachers, can say with regard to each of its own expressions, and also as to the expressions in Holy Writ itself, in what sense exactly those expressions are true, and in what sense they are not true, and if wrongly interpreted by any one, Tradition can set that one right, and explain the true meaning; and all this it can do with an authority which, by a privilege granted by Christ, is infallible and, owing to the unfailing, promised assistance of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church, is divine.

The Ark of old, when in the hands of the sacerdotal and Levitical order, and carried or preserved by them in the midst of the chosen people of God, was a source of blessings. But when carried off to another nation, and kept in the hands of unauthorized or self-authorized persons, it was to them a cause of affliction, (1 Kings vi.)

So likewise the Holy Scripture, when separated from Tradition, which is its support and lawful expounder, and thrown into the hands of unauthorized interpreters, instead of being a source of blessing, becomes a cause of endless contention and division, an occasion of doubt, fanaticism, and ceaseless wrangling, as sad experience proves.

Tradition, without Holy Scripture, Old or New, sufficed for many years, and could still suffice. But Holy Scripture has never sufficed by itself; it always stood in need of divine Tradition; for it is only by this divine Tradition that we learn that the Holy Scripture is an inspired book. It is only Tradition that can give with authority and certainty the right meaning of the Scriptures. Without Tradition the Holy Scriptures may be made to speak in many discordant ways, thus destroying their authority altogether. To use an illustration: A court composed of an uninterrupted succession of judges might, by the help of a living, well-known and well-established Tradition of orally enacted laws, suffice for the guidance and welfare of a people; but no code of written laws could suffice without a court to testify to the genuine meaning of it, to its being still in vigor, and to give with authority the right interpretation of it in all cases of dispute.

St. Irenaeus testifies that in his time many nations had salvation written in their own hearts without paper and ink, and were diligently guarding the ancient Tradition. (Book iii., chap. iv.)

After Tradition had been in full and successful operation for many years, God added the written Word, but it was not for the purpose of superseding Tradition, a thing which neither our Lord nor His apostles ever said; but it was rather to strengthen Tradition itself; for in this very written Word He left recorded repeatedly and forcibly, as we have already seen, that Tradition or the successive oral teaching of the body of teachers instituted and empowered by Himself for that purpose, which was to have its full authority and vigor whilst there existed a nation, or even one creature to be taught the Gospel; that is, until the end of the world.

Hence the ancient and successive Fathers of the Church always recognized the necessity of appealing to Tradition, The Unwritten Word of God, in order to confute heresies, to settle controversies about religion, and to establish with authority and certainty what, according to the Revelation of God, we ought to believe and do in order to be saved.

The Fathers of the Church plainly expressed their belief that the Written Word of God by itself, without the help of Tradition, would always leave disputes unsettled, points of belief and morals undetermined, and true religion a problem unsolved.

The Interpretation and the Reading
of the Holy Scriptures

The Holy Scriptures are the Word of God. This I will assume as admitted by Protestants generally. But it is clear that if the Scriptures are wrongly interpreted, they become the word of man. For, as the Protestant Bishop Walton says: “The Word of God does not consist in mere letters, whether written or printed, but in the true sense of it (Prolegomena or Preface of his Polyglot, chap. v.).” This is what St. Jerome had said ages before: “Let us be persuaded that the Gospel consists not in the words, but in the sense. A wrong explanation turns the Word of God into the word of man, and, what is worse, into the word of the devil; for the devil himself could quote the text of Scripture (In his comments on the Epistle to the Galatians, speaking against the Luciferians); ” and he did so when he tempted our Lord in the desert, (Matt. iv. 6.)

Protestants should consider well this point, especially those who so confidently and plausibly boast that they stand by the Bible alone, and imagine that to stand by the Bible alone means that they rely not upon human authority, but upon the Word of God. Certainly nothing can be better than to stand by the Word of God, but whether what they call standing by the Bible alone be to stand by the Word of God, we shall see.

Let us observe, 1st, that the Bible, though divinely inspired, is but a written document, and a written document often so obscure, that St. Augustine, though so great a scholar, and a Doctor of the Church, confessed that there were more things in the Bible he did not understand than things he did understand.

Let us consider, 2dlly, that the Bible, because a written document, remains always silent unless interpreted, that is, unless some meaning is affixed to the words, by some one. It is clear that the Bible can not speak and interpret itself,–you must take the book in your hand, open it, read it, compare passages, and attach a certain meaning to those words which fall under your eyes.

Therefore, when a Protestant says, “I stand by the Bible alone,” he does not mean that he stands by the Bible uninterpreted, for in such case the Bible is mute. He does not mean that he stands by the Bible as interpreted by the Church, for that would not be the Protestant, but the Catholic principle. Nor does he mean that he stands by the Bible as interpreted by somebody else; as that would be, according to his notion, to give up his right of private interpretation. But he means that he stands by the Bible alone as interpreted by himself, and that the sense in which he himself understands it is the Word of God.

And therefore a person who is guided by this principle says in effect : “The Bible, interpreted by the Fathers, may or may not be the Word of God; the Bible interpreted by the Church may or may not be the Word of God; the Bible interpreted by any one besides myself may or may not be the Word of God; but the Bible interpreted by me, that is indeed the Word of God, my only teacher, my guide, my infallible authority.”

To a Catholic who rejoins: “What, my friend, if you were to understand some passage of Scripture in a wrong sense?” the person who still sticks to this principle would have to reply: “That would be a great pity, but still, not acknowledging any other authority than my own private judgment, I have a right to look upon that interpretation of mine as the Word of God.”

And if a Catholic were to add: “Is it not reasonable to suppose that the interpretation of the Bible by the whole body of Bishops of the Catholic Church, though disagreeing with your private interpretation, should be the right one, and therefore more likely the Word of God? the Protestant would be forced to reply: “I do not agree, because that interpretation would not be mine.”

“If you argue so,” the Catholic might justly reply, “I must say that with you, my friend, the me and the mine stand for all argument.” He who has eyes may see what spirit is at the root of this boasted saying, and how shallow is the principle of standing by the Bible alone.

The Bible in the original language, or when truthfully translated, is indeed in itself the Word of God, and infallible; but the Bible is not the Word of God, nor infallible, with regard to us, unless rightly interpreted, that is, interpreted with authority, certainty, and infallibility. For if the interpretation be wrong, the Bible ceases to be, with regard to the reader, the Word of God; and if the interpretation be unauthorized, doubtful, fallible, the Bible becomes, with regard to the reader, unbinding, doubtful, fallible.

In the Gospel, however, we are commanded, under pain of condemnation, to believe; that is, to hold without a doubt as true what is taught as divinely revealed, therefore there must be somewhere a rightful interpreter, and a right interpretation.

Again, the Gospels and the Epistles contain severe censures on the sin of schism and heresy. Is is clear that all schism and all heresy must be essentially in opposition to truth; it is therefore necessary to know with certainty what is true, before we can know what is opposed to the truth; but by private interpretation an undoubted belief or infallible knowledge of revealed truth is impossible. Therefore no schism or heresy could be condemned which is contrary to Holy Scripture and antiquity.

The words of Christ to the Pharisees: “Search the Scriptures, for you think in them to have life everlasting; and the same are they that give testimony of Me” (John v. 39), can not be taken as the sole means of salvation recommended, much less recommended to all, as to those who can not read, or who can not possess a Bible ; much less still can it be taken as a necessary means of salvation. Nor can it be taken as though Christ thereby recommended private in disregard of authoritative interpretation of Scripture; 1st, Because that is not stated or implied in the passage; 2dly, Because He Himself, in this very place, interprets authoritatively the Scriptures, by saying: “They testify of Me; ” 3dly, Because in fact the Pharisees showed that their private interpretation wrongly led them to look upon Christ as a breaker of the Sabbath (John v. 18), and consequently to reject Him as the Saviour ; 4thly, because, from what our Saviour then said, it can not be inferred that the Pharisees thought that life was to be had from the Scriptures privately interpreted, to the exclusion of authoritative interpretation; thus a person may piously read and interpret Scripture privately for his own information and edification, and yet respect, accept, and prefer authoritative interpretation to his own, at least in those cases in which it can be had.

Thus Catholics think to have life in the Holy Scriptures, and do not thereby exclude authoritative interpretation, but rather take it for their guide.

But let us, for argument’s sake, suppose that the Pharisees followed private interpretation of Scripture. Even on this supposition it would not follow that Jesus Christ, by that saying, meant to approve their conduct; for Catholics also often say to Protestants who go by private interpretation: “Search the Scriptures, for you will find that they bear testimony to the divinity of Jesus, to the institution of the seven Sacraments, to the unfailing authority of the Catholic Church;” and no one ever dreamt of affirming that by so saying Catholics mean to approve the Protestant principle of private interpretation.

Again, if that passage and the other in praise of the Bereans (Acts xvii. 11) were to be taken in the Protestant sense to establish the principle of private interpretation, two consequences, quite inadmissible, would follow, namely–1st, That if the Pharisees or the Bereans had found by their private interpretation that the Old Testament (which was the only part of the written Word they could then have) did not bear testimony to Christ, or that it bore testimony against Him, as many did imagine, they would have been justified in disbelieving Jesus Christ; 2dly, That to not believe in Christ until moved by private interpretation of Scripture, was better than simply believing in Christ on the word of Christ, or of His Church, without consulting the Scriptures, as the apostles and thousands of Jewish and pagan converts did.

To avoid these two inadmissible consequences, it remains that the above cited and similar passages must be understood in the Catholic sense just mentioned.

To the apostles our Lord gave the charge to “teach all nations,” and the faithful were commanded to hear and believe them. (Mark xvi. 16.) This commission was accompanied by a promise that He would be with them in this office of teaching to the end of time. (Matt. xxviii. 19, 20.) From these expressions it is clear that their lawful successors were also included in the commission and promise given to the apostles. It follows, then, that the authoritative interpretation of Scripture made by the lawful successors of the apostles is the true one, and truly the Word of God; a contradictory interpretation must therefore of necessity be false, and is not the Word of God; because a thing under the same aspect cannot be true and untrue at the same time, for truth in all things is one, and the contradiction of it is error.

Hence, St. Peter condemns private interpretation of Scripture, saying: “No prophecy (or explanation) of Scripture is made by private interpretation,” (2 Peter i. 20.)–See footnote on this passage in Catholic (Douay) Bible. Those who refuse to hear and to follow the legitimate interpretation, and the faith of the Church, instead of the Word of God, that is, what God really meant in Holy Scripture, have often only their own inventions and errors, and these they mistake for the Word of God.

These persons consequently fall into a maze of perplexities and often change their interpretation. They are, as St. Paul expresses it, “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” (Ephesians iv. 14.) St. Peter warns us of this danger when, referring especially to St. Paul’s Epistles, he says: “In which are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter iii. 16.)

Hence it appears how rash and dangerous is the principle of private interpretation, which emboldens every individual to prefer his own private view of any passage of Scripture to the solemn interpretation and decision of the whole body of Catholic Bishops of past and present time united to the See of Peter. Persons actuated by such pride can not expect to be led by God unto truth. Objectors say that to submit to the teaching of the Church is to give up our reason. But if it could not be called a surrender of reason for the early Christians to submit to the teaching of the apostles, because it was a submission to the messengers of Christ, to the witnesses and authorized expounders of Revelation as long as the apostles lived, surely it can not be considered a surrender of reason, but a high exercise of reason and a most reasonable act, for other Christians to conform themselves to the teaching of the Catholic Church, that is, to the body of the Catholic Bishops, with the Roman Pontiff at their head, who are the lawful messengers of God, the legitimate successors of the apostles, the witnesses and authorized expounders of Revelation; for they, in an uninterrupted succession, keep up that apostolic office, which, according to Christ’s declaration, and through the promised special assistance of the Holy Spirit, was to last to the end of time.

Not a few Protestants think themselves authorized by these words of St. Paul to follow their private interpretation of Scripture: “Prove all things,” which occur in the first epistle to the Thessalonians, chap. v. 21. 1st. It is hard to have to include in the words “all things” the Holy Scriptures, as there is no allusion to them in that chapter; and, if admitted, it would prove too much: namely, not only the sense of a certain text, but whether that text “prove all things” is itself to be admitted or not. 2dly. It would be absurd to suppose that that direction authorized each Thessalonian in particular to follow his own private interpretation of Scripture; for, in that case, the dissensions, instead of decreasing, would have been increased, and the whole congregation turned into a little Babel. It is plain that the direction was given to the whole congregation as a body, with their pastors, to whom in that very letter, the lay people were recommended to pay deference (verse 12). Surely, if the whole congregation of a town agree with their legitimate pastors about admitting or not admitting a certain doctrine, and they both follow the tradition, that is, the doctrine of the apostles kept alive among them, as recommended by St. Paul himself (2 Thess. ii. 15), they would be sure to be right; that, however, would not be by the Protestant, but by the Catholic system of interpretation.

Objectors say also that every one has the assistance of the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible rightly. But if this were so, people would agree and would not contradict each other in their interpretation of Scripture; for no passage of the inspired Word of God, in its right meaning, can really contradict other passages in matters of faith, of morals, or of fact.

But numerous Protestant denominations often differ one from another, and often contradict each other in vital points, and each assumes to prove its particular doctrine from Holy Scripture. I say vital, for, on account of these very points, they have thought themselves in duty bound to separate from some other community. This plainly shows that they are not inspired by the Holy Spirit, who, being the Spirit of unity and truth, can not create discord, can not teach error, can not suggest a false meaning, and can not contradict Himself.

This principle of private interpretation of Holy Scripture, during the three centuries since Luther’s time, has given rise to hundreds of sects among Protestants, and this in spite of the efforts of several of the civil Governments to prevent such subdivisions. Had this principle been adopted in the beginning of Christianity, and gone on working throughout the Christian world for eighteen centuries, unrestrained by the civil power, the sects would probably by this time have enormously increased. According to a return of the English Registrar-General on the ist of October, 1882, the number of Protestant sects having places registered for the performance of religious worship in England and Wales exceeds 180, and in Ireland, where Protestants, as compared with Catholics, are few, there are nearly 150. In the United States the Protestant denominations are 52 in number. Cardinal Hosius enumerated 270 different sects of Protestants in the sixteenth century as then existing.

The Bible, without an authorized, divinely appointed interpreter, could not condemn any heresy, nor could any of the Christian sects adjudge any individual or any other sect as guilty of heresy, without abdicating its own principal of private interpretation for all. Even Tertullian, a Father of the second century, could say: “Wherefore the Scriptures can not be the test (speaking of controversy), nor can they decide the conflict; since, with regard to them, the victory must remain in suspense.” (Tertul. Book on Prescription, chapter 19.) In all centuries those persons who maintained and taught their own private interpretation in opposition to that of the Church, have been regarded by all the Fathers, Saints, and Doctors of the Church as heretics, and were condemned as such by the Church. “They who solicitously seek for truth, ready to own their error as soon as the truth is discovered, are by no means to be numbered among heretics.” says St. Augustine (Epistle 43 to Donat.) This is also the opinion of all Catholic theologians. Such persons are material, not formal, heretics.

Catholics do well to read and study the Holy Scriptures for their greater instruction and edification, but always in a spirit of submission to the Catholic Church, so as never to prefer their own private view to the known interpretation and teaching of “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (I Timothy iii. 15.)

Before Luther’s innovations the Catholic Church did not forbid the Scriptures in the vulgar tongue to the laity, except in France in the 12th and 13th centuries. It was the unheard-of system of private interpretation, brought in by the Reformers in disparagement of that of the Church, that caused her to put in general some restrictions to private reading.

The approved Catholic version of the Holy Scriptures, in English or any other tongue, with notes, although not indiscriminately circulated, is not withheld from the faithful, and the reverent reading of it is encouraged by the Church. It is well known that new and cheap editions of Holy Scripture are frequently issued, both in the United States and abroad, by Catholic booksellers with the approval of the Bishops. To most editions is prefixed a letter of Pope Pius VI. in the year 1778, to the Most Rev. Antony Martini, of Turin, Archbishop of Florence, in which His Holiness praises him for opportunely “publishing the Sacred Writings in the language of his country, suitable to every one’s capacity,” and encourages the pious reading and studying of Holy Scripture by the faithful.

The pious reading of Holy Scripture will not induce Catholics to become Protestants, but rather lead sincere, dispassionate Protestants to become Catholics, as has been often the case. Listen to what a distinguished convert says of himself on this subject:

“The first remote cause of my conversion I have always considered to be the delight which I have taken from my youth up in the study of Holy Scripture.

“As a boy at school I read and re-read it, and learned much by heart; and as a clergyman of the Church of England, I read aloud in church, for five years and more, four chapters nearly every day. And as I read, I became more and more convinced that the doctrines of the Catholic Church were also the doctrines of Scripture.

“This will surprise many, and many will not believe me; for the lesson which every Protestant English child learns about Catholics is that they dread the Scriptures because their religion is unscriptural.

“Never was lesson more false. I can not find language strong enough in which to declare my conviction that the Catholic Church alone honors and loves the Scriptures with real honor and love; and that the faith of the Catholic Church, and that alone, agrees in a wondrous harmony with every syllable of the Word of God.”–St. Andrew’s Magazine (Bamet), April, 1879, page 65. By the Rev. Fr. George Bampfield, B. A., Oxon.

Difficulties of Private Interpretation
by Father G. Bampfleld, B. A., Oxon, 1879

I was a young man when my enquiry into truth began. I wished to save my soul–to know the truth and do the right; I asked myself and others how I was to find the truth ; the answer was ever the same: “Search the Scriptures.”

But here came a difficulty.

I knew that the Scriptures were the Word of God–but I knew also that God’s writings are then only of use to us when we know what God meant by that which He wrote. God’s Word, if we put to it the devil’s meaning, or man’s meaning, is not God’s Word at all. “The letter killeth”; it is “the spirit” which “quickeneth (II. Cor. iii. 6).” What we need is God’s meaning of God’s Word. The same Holy Ghost who wrote the Scriptures, He only can interpret them.

Was it possible for me to miss this meaning? I read in the Gospels that the Scriptures could be so misused. The devil tempted our Lord with Scripture texts, using God’s Word with the devil’s meaning (Matt. ch. iv.); the Pharisee rejected our Lord by Scripture; “Search the Scriptures, and see that out of Galilee a prophet riseth not” (John vii. 52), using God’s Word, indeed, but perverted by man’s sin: of the Sadducees our Lord said that though they read the Scriptures, they knew them not (Mark xii. 24), and the apostles were “foolish and slow of heart to believe all the things which the Prophets have spoken.” (Luke xxiv. 25.) It was not the multitude who “knew not the law” who condemned our dearest Lord, but the Pharisee, the scribe, and the lawyer, whose whole study was in the Sacred Writ.

Nay, the Scriptures themselves told me plainly “that no prophecy of the Scripture is made by private interpretation.” (2 Peter i. 20.) And, again, that in St. Paul’s Epistles, at least, there “are certain things hard to be understood, which the unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, to their destruction.” (2 Peter iii. 16.) The Scriptures, then, can be used to our destruction, and who was I that I should think myself learned or stable?” Thinkest thou,” said Philip to Queen Candace’s chamberlain, “that thou understandest what thou readest?” who said: “How can I, unless some one show me?” (Acts viii. 30, 31.)

It was then, I concluded, possible for me to miss the true meaning of God’s word; and if I missed it, I missed it to my “own destruction.” The fault lay not in the Scriptures, which are holy, but in my wretchedness, who misinterpreted. When I stated this difficulty to others, I received always the same answer, “Pray to God the Holy Ghost, and He will guide you.” But here arose two or three difficulties.

1. I knew that without God’s help no man can understand the Scriptures; but I knew also, that God’s help is given more or less in proportion to the fervency of prayer and the righteousness of him who prays. It is the “continual prayer of a just man;” or, as the Protestant translation renders it, “the effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man” (James v. 16), not the lukewarm prayer of the unrighteous that “availeth much.” Dared I “trust in myself that I was righteous?” (Luke xviii. 9)–my prayer “fervent and effectual?” If conscience did not compel, humility would exhort me to think otherwise; and, if so, how could I tell that the true meaning of Scripture was given me in answer to such worthless prayers as mine? The fault lay not in God, who is ever ready to give to them that ask, but in the poverty of the asking and the asker.

2. But I found that on this view not only must I trust in myself that I was righteous, but also despise others. (Luke xviii. 9.) For I found that others did the very same thing which I did–namely, pray to the Holy Ghost, and yet explained Scripture in a sense wholly opposite to mine. If I learned from the Scripture that Baptism was necessary to salvation, another from the very same Scripture would teach that Baptism was not necessary to salvation, and that my doctrine was soul-destroying and hateful to God. If I prayed to the Holy Spirit, so did he; if I was fully convinced, so was he; if to my spirit I hoped that “the Holy Spirit gave testimony that I was a child of God” (Rom. viii. 16), the same claim also did he make. How could I tell that he was wrong and I right? My prayers answered and his not? Was I holier than he? I dared not think so. Of one thing I was certain, that the Holy Ghost could not teach to me that a doctrine was true, and to him that the same doctrine was not true. One of us was wrong, and teaching, what God hates, a lie; but by what sure sign could I say who was wrong? Sometimes I was told that these differences were not essential points; but I could not understand this. Men certainly differ, for example, on the question whether Baptism is necessary to salvation or not. Surely a debate about a necessity is an essential point. In no worldly business, I am certain, in no question about the life of our bodies should we say, “Such a thing may be necessary, but it is not essential for us to know whether it is necessary or not.”

Moreover, who would dare to tell us which part of our Lord’s teaching was essential and which not? “Such a truth will save us, but such another truth He need not have brought from heaven.” This I knew: that not one jot or one tittle of His words shall pass away (Matt. v. 18; Matt. xxiv. 35), and that to His words we dare not add nor take from them (Rev. xxii, 18, 19), but I knew not who was to be the judge of our Lord’s teaching, and tell us which part we must believe and which we might reject. It is a marvel to me how men can believe that Christ, who is Love, has so left Christianity in the world, that nearly nineteen centuries have passed away, and men are still in doubt about the very necessities of salvation. In the Catholic Church alone is no doubt.

3. The third difficulty which came to me, when I was told to pray to the Holy Ghost and He would guide me, was this: “But then,” was my reply, “if I can be mistaken when I interpret Scripture, how am I to tell when I am mistaken, and when not?” To this question I have to this day been unable to obtain an answer, except in the Catholic Church. I propose it once more for solution. The answer which I made to myself was that if our interpretations of Scripture are little more than guesses in which we might be mistaken, we could never tell if we were right or not; and that, as a result, the possession of truth was to us impossible: if we once admit doubt we cease to know it as a truth. Most of all should this be the case with religious truth: if heaven is not a certainty it were hard to struggle for it; if it be doubtful that there are three persons in God, who could worship them? What martyr would bleed for an opinion which was possibly false?

Our interpretations are fallible opinions, and opinions, however probable, are not certain truth. It seemed to me, then, that we had the choice of two evils, either to hold that each individual interpreter of Scripture is infallible, or to acknowledge that all interpretations of Scripture are fallible, and therefore all religious doctrines uncertain. I need not show the absurdity of the first alternative; for the upholders of private judgment are the very men who deny infallibility. I fear, then, we must accept the second, and own that there is no certain religious truth on earth, unless, indeed, the Catholic Church be right, and God has provided, in His mercy, a guide whom He has made infallible.

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