Is the Catholic Church Biblical?

Many Christians today question whether the Catholic Church is actually Biblical. Such a question is highly paradoxical for the simple historical reason that the entire New Testament originated from within that very same church. Note that St. Paul wrote his early epistles well before all four gospel accounts were even composed. This means that when Paul refers to the authority of Scripture (as in Romans 15:4), he can only be referring to the Old Testament canon known as the Septuagint ─ not the Bible we know today, because the New Testament part of the Bible did not yet exist.

This fact raises an interesting point. During his entire life on earth, Jesus Christ never wrote a single line of Scripture. He certainly could have done so but he chose not to. Instead what he left us was an oral tradition in custody of the Church which he founded. It was the leaders of this same Church who would eventually compose the New Testament, and centuries later decide which of the countless texts then circulating among various Christian communities were divinely inspired ─ and which were not. This final canon of 27 books plus the Hebrew Scriptures containing 45 books were confirmed by Church authorities at the end of the fourth century, some 300 years after the death of the last apostle, John. This means that the authority of the Bible rests upon the authority of that apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ who commissioned it to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19)

At least from the time of St. Irenaeus in the second century that same Church was called “Catholic” (meaning universal). It is the very same Church which gave us the Bible as we know it today. So was that initial authority conferred by Christ on his Church somehow lost or transferred along the way to another Christian body? Who, in other words, has the divine authority to interpret the Bible today? Lastly, are the traditions and practices of the Catholic Church Biblical or “mere human traditions?”

Two principles necessarily apply when studying the Christian Bible. First, a proper interpretation of the Bible is essential to fully understanding it. Second, the Old Testament prefigures and is fully revealed in the New Testament which neither contradicts nor repudiates the Old Testament but fulfills it in every respect. (see Mt 5:17-18) The first principle raises the obvious question, who then can be trusted to interpret the Scriptures accurately and according to the mind of God, its true author? Even the devil quotes the Scriptures for his own ends, after all. (see Mt 4:5-6, Lk 4:4) And any false or erroneous interpretations can lead thousands or millions of souls astray.

Consider Mormonism’s teaching that there are three separate heavens, the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial. This particularly fantastic doctrine stems from an erroneous reading of St. Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. (see 1 Cor 15:40-41, 2 Cor 12:2) Paul writes that he was “caught up to the third heaven,” using the language of ancient Jewish cosmology. In that cosmology the first and second heavens represent the sky and firmament replete with sun, moon, and stars all overlain by a region of waters above which supplied rain. The third heaven, God’s dwelling, sat high above these and was entirely distinct from either. The two lower “heavens” were physical spaces not spiritual habitats. Paul’s “third heaven” is therefore a spiritual abode.

Such faulty interpretations raise the important question of where true spiritual authority resides: in the Church, in her ministers, or in the Bible alone (sola scriptura). Actually it resides in all three, but not all to the same degree. For if authority resides in the Bible alone, who then is empowered to interpret what the Bible says with its many cryptic passages and archaic language. If, as many today presume, the Church itself fell into general apostasy somewhere between the 4th and 16th centuries, upon whom did her original teaching authority devolve? Could it have been those so-called reformers who themselves disagreed over key doctrines? Which group retained the entire Biblical “deposit of truth?” Was it the Calvinists or Lutherans; Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy; Baptists, Pentecostals, or Scientologists? Why, in fact, should any trained minister be apportioned more gospel authority than some pious farmer reading his Bible on the front porch and making of it whatever he can figure out?

The Bible is not an easy text to decipher as any scripture scholar will attest. Like our Constitution it requires interpretation. Foreseeing such difficulties, Christ founded not just any church but an authoritative, hierarchal Church built upon apostolic foundations. (see Mt 10:1-4, Mk 3:14-19, Lk 6:13-16) He entrusted to these men and their designated successors exclusive authority to proclaim the gospel, which itself began as an oral, not a written, gospel. (see Mt 16:18, 18:17-20,28, Mk 16:15, Jn 20:21-23, 1Tim 3:1-5, Titus 1:7-11) The Church then rightly holds the highest authority in interpreting and teaching the Bible, which in turn supports the Church as its written co-authority. The individual minister’s authority is valid only insofar as it is subject to those other two authorities, the Church and Holy Scripture respectively. (see 1Pt 1:20-21)

Does such a hierarchal, apostolic Church still exist? Christ founded a visible Church upon the foundation of the apostles and which he promised to be “with you always, unto the end of the ages. (Mt 28:20) His words seem to rule out any universal apostasy giving way to some new “invisible” Church known only to its members and the Holy Spirit. He clearly meant this Church to be One, and not 40,000 different bodies. (see Jn 17:20-22) But if that first divinely instituted predecessor in fact became corrupted and failed some centuries ago, how can these humanly founded institutions hope to fare any better? But in truth the “mother Church” is not a ruin, as so many religious pessimists imagine, but a living, breathing organism still vital and active under the perpetual guidance of the Holy Spirit. And there is ample Biblical justification for holding this view. Let us now touch upon just four key areas where that one apostolic Church, still called “Catholic” as Irenaeus knew it, can claim full Biblical authority to support it.

Christian Unity: Nothing has discredited Christianity in the eyes of a secular world more than the current scandalous disunity of Christians. Unity can only come from the recognition of some higher authority able to bind together the various factions and movements into which people invariably divide. And authority necessitates some kind of hierarchy without which there will never be unity, because everyone will naturally want to be his own chief. Today’s Christians, while not always in direct communion, need to be supportive of and display fraternal charity toward those fellow Christians with whom disagreements may still exist. We are currently facing a far more dangerous enemy in a hostile secular culture which despises our common Christianity altogether. Too many Christians still want to grind old axes rather than look for the good among their separated brethren, for Christ himself said, “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold.” (Jn 10:16)

Our true mission is to witness the gospel to an unbelieving world, not to snipe at one another and thus bear a false witness. Until we begin to work together to rebuild a truly Christian culture on the ruins of the old one the enemy will continue to “sift us like wheat.” But Catholics and Protestants alike can gain a newfound respect for one another by standing together in critical areas such as defending religion, marriage, family, and human life against this highly toxic and corrosive culture which is hostile to all these things.   (see also Mk 9:38, Lk 9:49-50, Jn 17:1, 18:21, Eph 4:1-3)

Works: St. James asserts that faith without works is meaningless. (Jas 2:14-18) Christ himself explicitly states that we will be judged on our works, not on faith alone. (Mt 7:21-23) His vivid description of the Final Judgment especially affirms the importance of works. (Mt 25:34-40) He echoes that beautiful passage from Isaiah, “Is not this the fast I have desired? Releasing those bound unjustly, undoing the heavy burden, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; giving bread to the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” (Is 58:6-7) Are not all those things considered works?

Good works are actually a free cooperation with God’s will, not something apart from it. Those works St. Paul refers to in his letter to the Romans are the prescriptive works of the Mosaic law which, by themselves, cannot save. Granted that our initial justification is a total gift from God which we cannot merit, that gift nonetheless demands some positive response on our part. (see Jn 15:16-17) That fuller response is manifested in our good works, especially the requirement to “love one another because love is of God.” (1 Jn 4:7) The old law was one of obligation, and obligatory works are not freely done. The new law is one of freedom and love so its works become free acts of love, a seismic difference. “Now if you invoke as Father him who judges impartially according to each one’s works, conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourn.” (1 Pt 1:17) Such works are not a substitute for faith but rather they manifest it more perfectly.   (see also  Is 58:10, Mt 6:3-4, Jn 13:14-15, 13:34, 15:12-14, Heb 10:24)

Sacrifice: At the heart of the Old Covenant was sacrifice. Furthermore, Christ explicitly says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. (Mt 5:17) This means that the offering of sacrifice is as relevant today as it was in the time of Moses, although in a different, more perfect form. Sacrifice, in fact, is made a precondition for discipleship. “If anyone wishes to come after me he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Lk 9:23) The sacrifice of Our Lord on the cross did not end the ancient tradition of sacrifice but rather perfected and renewed it so that, like the Israelites of old, we too might offer fitting worship and praise to God through acts of sacrifice.

That is why St. Paul, with no hint of effrontery, can say, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the Church.” (Col 1:24) Christ, in other words, made room for his followers to participate in his own wondrous work of redemption, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom 12:1) Not that there is any insufficiency in Christ’s perfect redemptive sacrifice but that he invites us to become as “other Christs” for the sake of our fellow travelers in the world. This idea makes many Christians uncomfortable, but it is a constant theme that Our Lord expounds in the gospels. The ancient rite of sacrifice did not end on the cross but in fact was renewed by the cross which made it efficacious in a way that the old Jewish sacrifices could never be. Through baptism Christ confers a kind of priesthood on each one of his faithful, and a priest is one who offers sacrifice. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his friends,” (Jn 15:13) becomes a direct Biblical invitation to participate in the sacrifice of Christ himself.   (see also Mt 10:38, 16:24, 20:23, 24:9, Mk 8:34-35, 13:9,13, Lk 9:23, 15:26-27, Jn 12:24-26)

Eucharist: The Church is the New Israel and therefore her liturgy reflects and fulfills the worship of God as prescribed in the Bible, not only by prayers and incantations but by a living sacrificial liturgy. The culmination of Hebrew sacrifice was the mandatory eating of the victim’s flesh. (see Ex 12:8-9) Furthermore Israel was commanded to observe this sacred Passover “as a perpetual ordinance to you and your descendants forever.” (Ex 12:24) Recall the second principle that the Old Testament is fulfilled in every respect by the New Testament. Christ is the new Paschal lamb. He was even born in a stable and laid in a manger (Lk 2:12) And what is a manger for but to feed livestock, in this case sheep. We are the sheep whom Christ, the Good Shepherd, feeds with his own flesh! The old order of sacrifice has come full circle, but it requires that we feed on the victim’s flesh. If we do not eat we cannot complete the act of sacrifice. This profound fact introduces us to the mystery of the Eucharist ─ the Church’s central act of worship. “Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:24)

Certain 16th century reformers, though not all, took exception to the Eucharistic mystery and declared it to be a “symbol” but not the real, physical presence of Christ’s body and blood. Others disconnected it from any notion of sacrifice, reframing the altar merely as the “table” of the Lord’s Supper despite the Church’s unbroken belief, going back 1,500 years to the apostles themselves, in a true Eucharistic sacrifice. Reference to this timeless liturgy is found in the last Old Testament prophet, Malachi, who prophesies about the gentile nations bringing sacrifices to the Lord, “a pure offering,” after he has rejected the Jewish temple sacrifices. (Mal 1:10-11) But it is Christ himself, in John’s gospel, who clearly states his meaning regarding the Eucharist with no ambiguity. “Amen, amen, I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (Jn 6:53-55)

Here it would appear that the Catholic Church’s Eucharistic doctrine is firmly supported by the Bible. In light of this fact it is perplexing that many Protestant Bible commentaries still insist that Christ was using metaphorical language in this passage from St. John. They point out that he also compares himself to a vine and a sheep-gate in the same gospel. What they fail to realize is that Christ in this particular passage is not simply making a comparison or drawing an analogy. He is giving a direct command, and one does not use metaphors when giving important and clear cut instructions. He intended to be taken literally because there is no other way to parse his unequivocal order to “do this…” Nor did Jesus say, “Wait guys, I was just speaking figuratively,” when most of his followers deserted him with the complaint, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60)

That is why the Catholic Church’s literal interpretation of this pivotal Biblical passage cannot be logically disputed without disputing Christ himself. It is a definitive command from Jesus Christ which every Christian must either accept or reject on its face. And yet it is this very passage which is at the root of Christianity’s division. The Eucharist defines and sustains Catholic Christianity even as it keeps many other Christians at bay. Today it has again become the “sign of contradiction,” of which Simeon prophesied. (Lk 2:34) At first a stumbling block for the Jews, the Eucharist later became a stumbling block for a large segment of Christianity, yet it is undoubtedly Biblical, prefigured in the Old Testament; manifested and affirmed in the New Testament.   (see also Mt 26:28, Mk 14:22-25, Lk 22:19-20, Jn 6:48-581 Cor 11:23-26)

One thing remains clear, however. There is no rational substantive basis for any claim that the Catholic Church does not have a Biblical foundation. In reality it is the most Biblical of any Christian body for it was the Catholic Church which first produced and later defined every New Testament scripture. For centuries She has defended and preserved the Bible intact through terrible persecutions, dark ages, wars, and heresies. She has championed the Word of God for 2,000 years, both in season and out of season, and continues to do so to this very day. If that doesn’t qualify the Catholic Church as Biblical then no such animal exists – anywhere.

Francis J. Pierson   + a.m.d.g.

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