The Bible and Ecclesial Unity

Jan 24th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Is the Bible a source of unity between Catholics and Reformed Christians? As I shall explain, the answer is ‘yes and no.’

The Bible is a source of unity, albeit an imperfect source of unity, if by ‘unity’ we mean ‘of one mind.’ To those of us who have spent time staring across the divide between the Reformed faith and Catholicism, it can seem that the magnitude of the differences in our beliefs cannot be overstated. Catholics have statues in their homes and kiss crosses. They pray to Saints, believing that the Saints can intercede on their behalf. They even pick favorite saints and venerate dead body parts. They have celibate Deacons, Priests, Bishops, Monseigneurs, Cardinals, Popes, Nuns, and Monks. They have 73 books in their Bible, and seven sacraments. Reformed Christians have the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster and Belgic Confessions, and the Canons of Dort. They believe in double predestination. They have very different kinds of Deacons, and have Ruling Elders, and married Teaching Elders or Pastors. They have Presbyteries or Classes, and General Assemblies or Synods. They have 66 books in their Bible, and two sacraments.

However, if we could step back a little from our internecine disagreements, we could see the unity of belief that does exist between us as Catholics and Reformed Christians. Unlike the Atheist, we believe in God. Unlike the Agnostic, we believe we know God. Unlike the Muslim or the Jew, we believe that Christ is the Son of God, having come to redeem mankind. Unlike the Mormon, we believe that Christ is one person of the Trinity, of the same essence as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. We believe that God made all that is, that the Holy Spirit is working in the present age, and that the dead will rise again for a final judgment. We believe that the Bible is Divinely inspired, and free from error in all its parts.

I believe that we Christians have unity of mind on all of these points primarily because of the Bible. True, we often apply different hermeneutical methodologies to the Bible, and we also bring very differently shaded glasses. But these influences and even biases do not deprive the Bible completely of its objective instructive value, and certainly cannot refute the work of the Holy Spirit where He wills to work through our reading of Sacred Scripture. The more we draw to the Bible, the more we will remain steadfast in the great truths that Christians have been able to continue to share in spite of the divide of the Protestant Reformation.

But the Bible is not a source of ‘unity,’ if by unity we mean ‘of one essence.’ First, as my recent article, The Canon Question, discusses, we do not even have the same Bible. The Catholic Bible has seven extra books, as well as additions to other books. Many printings of Protestant Bibles, through the use of segregating lines and critical footnotes, call into serious question several pericopae within accepted New Testament books. Because of the Protestant belief that the Bible is our sole infallible teaching authority, Reformed Christians see the Catholic use of additional texts as an inclusion of fallible texts within what is supposedly infallible. Thus, the Bible is a cause of division between us right from the point of attempting to define the Bible’s scope.

Second, the Bible is not a source of essential unity between us because, as the Reformed faith rests on the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Bible remains on the fulcrum of the Protestant-Catholic division. The brokenness between Catholics and Reformed Christians is most visible in our not being in communion with each other. This act represents a deeper break of unity, our brokenness over the meaning and reality of the communion sacrifice, as well as our brokenness over the sacramental realities, and over the meaning of the ordained offices that confect them. Private interpretation of the Bible resulting from the doctrine of sola scriptura led to these and our other many points of fracture.  For this reason, I believe that the Bible is not a source of essential Christian unity.

I believe there is a way ahead for us–a way by which we can all see Sacred Scripture as the source of unity that it should be. Reformed Christians need to reflect upon the criterion they accept and allow to define their Biblical canon for them, and upon whom is the proper interpreter of Scripture. Catholics, on the other hand, need to improve their overall Biblical fluency, and their understanding of its authority relationship with the Church. Conversations between Catholics and Reformed Christians where all parties are well versed in Scripture can yield great fruit in both mutual understanding and Biblical understanding.

On this Seventh Day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, let us reflect on God’s promise to perfect his Bride the Church. May we be vessels of this process, and harbingers of Christian peace. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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