The following article by Father Joshua Neu of the Diocese of Tyler appeared in the September-October edition of the Catholic East Texas magazine.
Catholics in the Bible Belt often feel as if somehow the Bible belongs to non-Catholic Christians. Although we read the scriptures at Mass, everyone else seems to be more comfortable with the Bible than Catholics. In reality, the Bible is a very Catholic book. It comes from within the Church, was discovered and protected by the Catholic Church, and every Christian today who proclaims that it is the Word of God affirms this teaching of the Catholic Church.
The Bible comes from the Catholic Church.
Ask any East Texan if they own a Bible, and the overwhelming majority will answer “yes.” Ask them if the Bible is true, and again nearly every single one will say “yes.” Ask them who authored it, and almost every man, woman, and child will say “God.” We can see that in all things Biblical our neighbors have a great faith. Now ask, “How was this book assembled, and by what process did it come to be in your hands?” You won’t get many answers at all.
Living in the “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” Catholics often have a vague feeling of inferiority about the Bible. Perhaps it seems like a non-Catholic book, quoted so frequently and so extensively by non-Catholics in our part of the world that it can seem like “their” book, not “our” book.
The Bible is, in fact, a very, very Catholic thing. It was written within the Catholic Church, and its assembly was entrusted to the Church. Every time a Christian person, anywhere, uses the Bible and testifies that it is in fact the word of God, they are placing their faith in Catholicism, whether they realize it or not.
Not a Book, A Library
The Bible is not really a book, but a library. Usually it is bound together in one volume so you can keep it with you and use it often-Catholics should do this-but in fact it is more of a library, a compilation of 73 separate books. Composed over the course of a thousand years or more, these books come in several types: narrative history, poetry, prophecy, and even letters from one person to another. The library is of course divided into the Old and New Testaments, the Old being the holy books received from Judaism and the New being the holy books specific to Christianity.
As Christians, we believe these books to be inspired by God. “Inspiration” comes from the same root as “respiration” and concerning Scripture means “God-breathed.” When we state that a book of the Bible is inspired, we mean that God is ultimately the author. A human person held the pen and used his own language and style of writing to compose the book, but he wrote what God intended him to write without error. This is the claim Catholics make about the Bible, and why we hold the books of the Bible in such high regard – they are, in fact, the written Word of God.
When a Christian, therefore, calls the Bible “the Word of God,” that person is effectively saying “This library I am holding contains inspired books and only inspired books, and I am certain of it.” The list of books that make up the Bible is called the canon of Scripture. “Canon” is a term from Greek meaning a “measuring stick,” and it is applied to the Bible since the canonical list of books precisely “measures out” exactly the inspired books and only the inspired books.
So how does a Christian know that the Bible contains inspired books and only inspired books? Who says so?
Before the New Testament
Most Catholics have noticed a difference between themselves and non-Catholics: Catholics tend to depend on the Church for answers; non-Catholics tend to depend only on the Bible. This was actually one of the founding principles of the first Protestant groups, 500 years ago – Sola Scriptura, which means “The Bible Alone.” Instead, a quick look at history tells the real story.
The Church was born on Pentecost, around the year 33 A.D. The first book of the New Testament (most likely St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians) wasn’t written until 50 A.D. or so. The apostles and their scribes wrote the remainder of the New Testament during the rest of the first century. The Gospel of John was one of the last books, written in 90-100 A.D. This is a period of 60 or 70 years during which the Church was growing, evangelizing, and answering important, difficult questions before the books which would become the New Testament all existed. The Church operated properly because the apostles and their successors, the first bishops, governed her. Obviously, the Church was not operating by the Bible alone during the era of the apostles, because the books which would eventually be collected into the New Testament were still being written, and the Bible, as a result, did not exist.
The Time of Writing
During this time the apostles and their scribes wrote the inspired books that would eventually form the New Testament. Besides the four gospels, Acts, and Revelation, the rest of the New Testament is actually the apostles’ mail. When, for instance, St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, he sent one copy of the letter to them. That’s how all of the books that eventually became the New Testament started, as a single letter sent to one recipient (like those to Timothy and Titus) or to a single church (like Philippians or Colossians), or, alternatively, a testimony sent to a few specific churches (like the Gospel of John).
As the Church spread throughout the world, into Asia and Europe and Africa, each of these inspired books initially existed in only one or a few places. St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, advises them to trade copies of his letters with other churches, and this is exactly what happened. Over the next century or so, the various churches in different towns and cities would copy and trade the books written by the apostles and their scribes. Slowly the books of the New Testament started making their way around the Church.
Excluding False Books
While the apostles and their scribes penned the inspired books of the New Testament and established the Church, false teachers promoting heretical ideas were pulling some people away from the Church. Many of the letters that would be included in the New Testament were written to warn people about false teachings. These false teachers and their students had books, too, creating a new problem the Church had deal with. Often, to give false books the appearance of authority, their authors would sign them with the name of an apostle. Because of this, as the books of the New Testament were discovered and shared among the different dioceses of the ancient world, judgments had to be made about their authenticity, determining whether the book was written by a true teacher, such as an apostle or his scribe, or by someone else.
Early bishops made judgments about the authenticity of texts. One story is very instructive. At the end of the second century, St. Serapion, the Bishop of Antioch in Syria, had to intervene in a local church in the town of Rhossus. The church there was reading a “Gospel of Peter” during their Sunday worship. St. Serapion was at first intrigued to know about this new unknown gospel, knowing that not all Christians had copies of all the inspired books yet. Upon examining this “Gospel of Peter,” however, he determined that it taught un-Christian ideas. He wrote a letter to the church at Rhossus condemning this false gospel and forbidding its proclamation during the liturgy. This is just one example of a process that happened many times in the early Church.
Just as a bishop today acts as the head teacher of a diocese, the bishops of the second century acted as the principal teachers by determining which books were permitted to be used for the readings in the liturgy. There was still no organized Christian Bible, and the canon of the New Testament was incomplete in most regions. The Church, however, was growing, evangelizing, and doing the work of Christ, operating under the authority of the bishops in union with the bishop of Rome.
Protecting the Scriptures
Whereas in the 100s A.D., the bishops excluded false books to protect the people of God from false teachings, in the next century Christians had to protect the books of Scripture during persecution. In various times and places in the Roman Empire, it was illegal to be Christian. Of course, Christians would not participate in rituals of pagan worship that were accepted and required parts of Roman life, and this caused non-Christians to becomes suspicious of them. They were considered disloyal, and the Roman authorities often arrested and tortured Christians.
When Christians were being persecuted, Roman authorities often demanded that they hand over any copies of sacred Scripture they possessed. Copies of books in the ancient world were made by hand, and were very valuable. Destroying the copy of the Scriptures belonging to a local parish was a devastating blow to worship. It was considered a grave sin to hand over copies of holy Scriptures to the Romans, and wily priests, bishops, and lectors sometimes substituted non-scriptural books, hoping the Romans wouldn’t know the difference, in an effort to preserve copies of inspired writings.
This meant it was important to know exactly which books could and could not be handed over. The bishops of the Church separated the inspired books from merely “good” books which had long been used in the Church. One example is the Letter of St. Clement to the Corinthians, which can be thought of as the first Papal encyclical. It had long been used and read in the Church, but it is not the work of an apostle or a scribe working for one. It was not included by the Church in the canon of Scripture. Losing such a letter during the persecution would have been considered tragic, but such a loss would not be as destructive to a church as the loss of the Biblical letters of St. John, for example.
These persecutions lasted until 311 A.D., reaching a terrible peak under the Emperor Diocletian. He called for a universal burning of Christian Scriptures in 303 A.D., and thousands of Christians died, many while protecting books of Scripture.
Into the Open
In the early 300s, Constantine became the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire, and everything changed. Christianity became legal, and the Church came out into the open. For the first time, the bishops could meet in open council and do the business of the Church. A few books of the New Testament remained under discussion among the bishops.
A festal letter, written by St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, listed all 27 books of the New Testament in 367 A.D. This is the oldest complete canon of the New Testament which we know of. Then, in 382 A.D., Pope Damasus I promulgated the list of New Testament books and commissioned the great translator St. Jerome to produce the Vulgate, a new, complete translation of the Bible in the Latin language, for the Church. In 393 and 397 A.D., bishops met in regional councils and listed the same canon of Scripture. At that point, the Church had essentially settled disputes concerning the contents of the Bible. Over 1,000 years later, Martin Luther challenged these decisions, and the Catholic Church reaffirmed the same canon at the Council of Trent.
First, Second, Third
This quick trip through the history of the canon of the New Testament shows us a few things. First, we can see that there is no principle of Sola Scriptura in the early Church. The Church lived and worked, grew and flourished for centuries before a collected Bible existed. She was led by the apostles, and then by the bishops they ordained to succeed them. The individual churches in the ancient world used the scriptures they each had while each worked to obtain a complete collection of the Scriptures, but there was never any sense that the Church was unable to function properly without the Bible.
Second, we can understand why it was natural and inevitable that the process of collecting the books of the New Testament would take a long time and require a lot of discussion. Many of the books were sent as letters to one specific person or place, and in the early Church, learning about the existence of these books, copying them, and distributing them across the entire ancient world was a painstakingly slow process. Add the complications and dangers caused by Roman persecution, and it is easy to see why the assembly of the canon was not complete until centuries after the books were written.
Third, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was entrusted by God with the job of rightly choosing the correct books. As the story of St. Serapion shows us, it was possible for individual people and parishes to be mistaken. Just like today, people can be led astray by something false, and the shepherds of the Church must lead the sheep back. The bishops first had to exclude false books, which taught heresies, and then differentiate between the divinely inspired books of Scripture and merely useful texts.
Now we know what we mean when we say, “The Bible is the inspired word of God.” We mean that we have confidence that the Bible contains the right books, only the inspired books, because the Catholic Church collected them. Catholic bishops judged their contents to be correct and inspired, using the theology they learned from the apostles and the Tradition of the Church, dividing the inspired from the rest. The canon is officially and finally what it is, because the Catholic Church says so.
This ought to give any Catholic confidence. We live in a place where nearly every single person has great faith in the Holy Bible, for which we are thankful. Catholics, however, uniquely understand what this faith rests on. It rests on the authority of the Church.