Scripture and Tradition




        The Bible and Tradition in Roman Catholicism


                                      Dr. Sinclair Ferguson


[This article is from chapter 6 of Sola Scriptura! The Protestant

Position on the Bible is Copy Righted 1995 by Soli Deo Gloria

Publications. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States.

Used by permission of author]


The year 1996 marks the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary

of the death of Martin Luther, whose famous Ninety-Five Theses

sparked off a religious fire in Europe which the Roman Catholic

Church was unable to extinguish. The theological conflict which

ensued has often been characterized as focusing on the so-called

four- fold "alones" of the Reformation: sola gratia, solo Christo,

sola fide, sola Scriptura -- salvation is by grace alone, in Christ

alone, by faith alone, and all that is necessary for salvation is

taught in Scripture alone. Each of these principles, and certainly

all four together, served as a canon by which the teaching of the

Roman Catholic Church was assessed and found to be wanting.


In these great slogans the nouns -- grace, Christ, faith, Scripture

-- were and are of great importance. But in each case the

qualifying sola (alone) was in some ways even more significant.

For Rome had always taught that salvation was by grace through

faith in Christ, and had always held that the Bible was the Word of

God -- but never alone. To speak of sola Scriptura has almost

always been viewed in Rome as a prescription for spiritual

anarchy in which everyone would create for himself the message

of the Bible. The only safeguard against this was the living

tradition of the Church viewed as a further channel of the divine



The printing press (and therefore widespread access to the Bible)

is a Renaissance phenomenon, and literacy levels were low in the

Middle Ages. But this alone does not account for the Reformation

horror stories about the large-scale ignorance of the Bible among

both priest and people. Nevertheless it would be uncharitable to

extrapolate from those dark days to the present day as though no

counter-reformations had taken place in the interim. And it would

reveal considerable ignorance on the part of Protestants if they

did not recognize that in the past century a widespread interest in

the Bible has developed within the Roman Catholic Church.


Can it be, then, that we now face a new situation in Roman

Catholicism? For the first time since the Reformation "common"

Bibles are being published. Moreover, not only within the World

Council of Churches (largely dominated by liberal theology), but

also within evangelicalism substantial rapprochement has been

viewed as possible in our own time. So it is timely to ask: Has

something unprecedented happened within Roman Catholicism's

interpretation of the Bible so that the old differences can, at last,

be laid to rest?


During the past century and a quarter -- from the First Vatican

Council (1870) to the publication of the Pontifical Biblical

Commission's important work The Interpretation of the Bible in

the Church (1993) -- the Roman Magisterium has published a

series of significant statements on the nature, interpretation and

role of the Bible in the Church. These began in the nineteenth

century in the widespread crisis for faith created by the effect of

Enlightenment thought and thereafter by the onslaught of

scientific humanism which found its impetus in the evolutionism of

the late nineteenth century. Pronouncements have continued to

appear up to the present day, when the Vatican has sought to wed

together contemporary historical-critical methods of biblical

interpretation with the ancient dogmas of the Church. Each of

these statements is of interest on its own account; together they

mark a development which has been significant for the work of

large numbers of Roman Catholic biblical scholars.


The story of this development is not well known among

Protestants. Indeed probably most Roman Catholics are relatively

unfamiliar with it. It is worth narrating, at least in broad outline.


Developments in Rome In 1893 Pope Leo XIII issued the

Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus. It was the first wide

ranging attempt of the Roman Church to deal specifically with the

impact of the critical methodologies which had come to

characterize theological scholarship in the latter part of the

nineteenth century. In them the Bible was treated as an ancient

Near Eastern text and assessed from the standpoint of critical

historical investigation and linguistic and religious development.

In sophisticated theological terms, Scripture's "humanity" was

explored (and, in fact, its divinity was increasingly ignored and



Against this background, in which the idea of human evolution

played a major role, Providentissimus Deus insisted on a

long-standing principle of Christian orthodoxy: If God is Author of

both Nature and Scripture, these two "books" of divine revelation

must be in harmony with each other. The encyclical emphasized

that there could therefore be no ultimate conflict between the

Bible and either the natural sciences or historical investigation. It

urged both theologians and scientists to respect the limits of their

own spheres. In addition, biblical exegetes who employed the

fruits of secular scientific and historical studies were counseled to

remember the importance of the analogia fidei (analogy of faith):

the Scriptures should always be interpreted in keeping with the

apostolic rule of faith to which the church subscribed. The last

word on what the Bible taught lay with the Roman Magisterium.


Providentissimus Deus was thus characterized by a conservative

(some would have said "reactionary") character, expressed

particularly in its negative criticisms of the way in which

historical-critical principles were being used. The underlying

anxiety of the entire encyclical was that the results of this critical

movement would prove to be injurious to the faith of which the

Church was called to be the guardian, not the destroyer.


Fifty years later the face of Europe had changed dramatically.

The Great War had been fought from 1914 -- 18; the Second

World War of 1939 -- 45 was in full course. The misplaced and

anthropocentric optimism of nineteenth-century liberal theology

had collapsed, shattered before the enormity of human need; the

notion that humanity was evolving from a lower to a higher moral

condition had been dealt an embarrassing blow. The "gospel" of

the universal Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man

stood exposed in all of its inherent poverty. There arose a new

sense of need for some powerful word from God. In Protestantism

the "theology of crisis" emerged and what came to be known as

the "Biblical Theology" movement was stirring into life.


Significant developments had also taken place within the world of

Roman Catholic biblical scholarship. The Pontifical Biblical

Commission was created by Leo XIII in 1902. In the wake of

Providentissimus Deus, its earliest responses (responsa) to

questions of biblical interpretation were characterized by negative

reaction to higher criticism. But in due season (it was completely

reorganized in 1971 following the Second Vatican Council) it would

prove to be a spearhead of the new way of reading the Bible.


In 1943, Pius XII issued his Encyclical Letter Divino Afflante

Spiritu. It was promulgated when the Second World War was in

full flood, but not until the turn of the decade did its full impact

begin to be felt. Now a more positive note was struck. For one

thing, Roman Catholic biblical scholars were largely set free from

the burden which the Church had carried for centuries: the use of

the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible). It had been

regarded as the authoritative text for ecclesiastical use since the

time of the Council of Trent (even now it was still declared to be

"free from all error in matters of faith and morals").


In a manner reminiscent of the humanists of the Renaissance,

with the motto ad fonies ("back to the original sources"), Roman

Catholic scholars now enjoyed a new freedom and fresh impetus

to gain and employ expertise in the biblical languages to enable a

true understanding of the text of Scripture. A new value was

recognized in the use of such tools as textual, literary and form

criticism. The importance of history, ethnology, archaeology "and

other sciences" was affirmed. The "true meaning," indeed the

so-called "literal sense" of Scripture was to be sought as well as

the "spiritual significance." Precritical ways of reading the Bible

were widely (but not entirely) replaced by the new approach. Now

a clear distinction was made between the "meaning" of the

original text and the contemporary application ("significance") of

it. Principles of interpretation which had long been familiar to

Protestants were now increasingly recognized as essential to

proper biblical exegesis. The historical-critical method had come

to stay.


All this was encouraged (it could scarcely have been prevented,

but the genius of Rome, unlike Wittenberg and Geneva, has

always been its ability to hold opposite tendencies together). The

underlying principle was that the Scriptures cannot be charged

with error. Supposed errors in Scripture, it was held, could be

resolved by a right reading of the text. Any tensions between

Scripture and "reality" could always be resolved in favor of

biblical integrity. Harmonization was an essential key to reading

the Bible as a modern Catholic.


Times change, and we change with them. The second half of the

twentieth century has seen continued movement in Roman

Catholic biblical scholarship. This has not been without

ecclesiastical bloodletting (at one point professors at the Biblical

Institute were banned from teaching!). But the overall result has

been that some of the most erudite biblical studies published

during this period carry the imprimatur and nihil obstat which

identify them as the work of Roman Catholic scholars which has

been declared "free of doctrinal or moral error."


The most recent succinct expression of this development can be

seen in the Pontifical Biblical Commission's statement on biblical

interpretation, published in 1993. Here the fruits of critical

scholarship set within the context of the Church's tradition are

warmly welcomed. Indeed, strikingly -- in view of the importance

of the principle of harmonization at all costs which marked earlier

Roman Catholic pronouncements -- it is now of a Protestant-style

fundamentalist approach to Scripture that the Church seems to

have become most critical, and perhaps most fearful.


But why should this development since 1870 be of interest to

Protestant Christians? For a reason which lies on the surface of

much of the very best Catholic biblical scholarship. There is a

clear recognition in Roman Catholic biblical scholarship that there

is a gulf -- or at least a distance -- between what the text of Sacred

Scripture states and the teaching of the Sacred Tradition of the

Church. There is also recognition that the words of Jesus

recorded in John 16:12 -- 15, often taken as a specific promise

guaranteeing the truth and infallibility of Sacred Tradition, do not

refer to such Tradition at all.(1) By necessity, therefore, some

Roman Catholic interpreters of Scripture have found it necessary

to develop a novel view of the relationship between Scripture and

Tradition in order to hold them Together: Tradition adds to

Scripture, but Scripture is "open" to Tradition.


Can this contention be readily illustrated from Roman Catholic

biblical scholarship?


In critical discussion it is always a great temptation to treat the

most extreme examples of the opposition's viewpoint as though

they were representative. That is an unworthy tactic and often

merely hardens prejudices on both sides. In this context, however,

the point can readily be illustrated not from the worst historical

examples of Roman Catholic biblical interpretation, but -- albeit

from a necessarily limited sample -- by what is widely regarded as

its best.


It would be hard to find a better illustration of the new approach to

the Bible in Roman Catholicism than the recent widely acclaimed

commentary on Romans by Joseph A. Fitzmyer. Professor

Fitzmyer is a leading Roman Catholic scholar whose outstanding

academic gifts pervade his almost 800-page commentary. While it

is often true in the matter of commentaries that "one man's meat

is another man's poison," it is impossible to imagine any student

of Scripture failing to find considerable profit from the erudition

and stimulus of Fitzmyer's work. Raymond E. Brown, the

outstanding American Catholic Johannine scholar, describes

Fitzmyer as "the most learned N[ew] T[estament] scholar on the

American Catholic scene."(2) Elsewhere he says of his work on

Romans that "It can lay fair claim to being the best commentary

on Romans in English."(3) Even those who might award the palm

to someone other than Fitzmyer recognize the value of the



But it is precisely because of the quality of this commentary that

its contents are so significant. A desire for careful exegesis

coupled with faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church leads

Fitzmyer (a Jesuit) to state, albeit with appropriate sensitivity and

discretion, that the teaching of the Scriptures cannot simpliciter be

identified with the teachings of the Sacred Tradition. The following

selection of illustrations will underline this.


A Roman Catholic on Romans In an extensive introductory

chapter on Pauline theology, Fitzmyer includes an essay on faith.

In the developed theology of the medieval period, theologians had

spoken and written much of fides caritate formata, justifying faith

which was "faith formed by love." This, not "faith alone,"

justifies. This view was confirmed at the Council of Trent.


Many of the Tridentine statements reveal misunderstandings of

the teaching of Luther and the other Reformers; nevertheless, its

teaching in this connection is clearly intended as a rejection of the

principles the Reformers regarded as central to the gospel.

Trent's Decree on Justification reads as follows:


If anyone says that people are justified either by the sole

imputation of the righteousness (justitia) of Christ or by the sole

remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and charity which

is poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit and inheres in

them; or even that the grace by which we are justified is only the

favour of God, let him be anathema.(4)


Rome's great fear has always been that sola fide would breed

antinomianism and moral license. Christians, it was held, were

preserved from this by the fact that justification takes place

through faith which is formed by love; i.e., justification involves

personal transformation. But, comments Fitzmyer, Paul's notion of

faith which "blossoms" in love is to be distinguished from this

fides caritate formata:


     That is a philosophical transposition of the Pauline

     teaching -- acceptable or not depending on whether

     one agrees with the philosophy involved -- but the

     genuine Pauline idea of "faith working itself out

     through love" is implicit in Romans... he does not

     equate faith with love; nor does he ascribe to love

     what he does to faith (viz., justification, salvation),

     even though he recognizes the necessity of the two

     working in tandem. (5)


Here is an important recognition of the fact that we must

distinguish between what the Tradition has said and what the

Scriptures actually affirm. The idea of faith and love being

instrumental in justification cannot be read out of the text as such.

It is no part of the exegesis of Paul's words.


Note however that Fitzmyer is careful to suggest only that there is

distance between what is affirmed by Paul and what is stated in

the Tradition. He does not affirm that there is any necessary

contradiction between Scripture and Tradition.


More is to follow. Commenting on the central passage, Romans

3:21 -- 26, Fitzmyer states that Paul here formulates "three, or

possibly four, effects of the Christ-event [i.e., the work of

Christ]...: justification, redemption, expiation, and possibly

pardon" and adds, "It is important to recognize that such effects

of the Christ-event are appropriated through faith in Christ Jesus,

and only through faith. It is the means whereby human beings

experience what Christ has done."(6) Here again the Pauline text

is to be read on its own terms without recourse to post-Pauline

developments in the Church. Fitzmyer knows that within the

Church there have always been those who have read Paul's words

as implying the principle of sola fide. It would be quite wrong,

however (indeed naive), to read this distancing of the Church's

pronouncements from the statements of the biblical text as a

capitulation to the Protestant exposition. For Fitzmyer is no less

careful to point out the difference between the text and the way in

which it has been interpreted within the Protestant churches.


Within a page of the previous citation we find Professor Fitzmyer

rejecting the interpretation of a Protestant scholar on the grounds

that "that reading would introduce an Anselmian distinction into

the Pauline text, which does not warrant it."(7) But even here the

concern is to allow Paul to speak for himself in distinction from

reading him through the eyes of the construction of a postbiblical

tradition (in this case one which also appealed to Protestantism).

Whether or not Fitzmyer's critique is accurate, what is at first

sight remarkable is the way in which his recognition of Paul's

emphasis on the unique role of faith might easily be mistaken for

the comment of a Protestant exegete.


There are other noteworthy illustrations of an exegesis which

self-consciously seeks to let the Scriptures speak for themselves

apart from the. dominance of theological tradition. In this sense

the Roman Catholic scholar is approaching the text in a manner

similar to the Protestant.


Commenting on the words "justified freely by his grace" in

Romans 3:24, Fitzmyer notes:


     It should be superfluous to stress... that in using

     dorean and te autou chariti, Paul is not referring to

     the efficient cause of justification by the former and

     the formal cause by the latter (as if chris were

     "sanctifying grace"). That is anachronistic exegesis,

     a distinction born of later medieval and Tridentine



Here again, without rejecting Tridentine teaching as such, a

distinction is made between what the text itself states and the

theology which has developed within the Catholic tradition.


The comments which may strike the Protestant mind as most

unexpected are to be found in Professor Fitzmyer's exposition of

Romans 3:27 -- 31. It was in his translation of Romans 3:28 in

1522 that Luther's appeal to sola fide emerged as seminal for the

Reformation understanding of the gospel. Fitzmyer recognizes

that in fact this language long predates Luther and can be found

already in the writings of the early Fathers. He frankly states that

"in this context" Paul means "by faith alone" although he

contends that in the Lutheran sense its use is an extension of what

Paul says. This inevitably prompts questions as to what the nature

of this "extension" is, and whether there is any Roman Catholic

"sense" in which justification is genuinely "by faith alone." But

the admission in and of itself is significant.


The same distance between Scripture and Tradition is further

indicated when Fitzmyer turns to the exposition of Romans 5:12.

The traditional Roman Catholic view of this text is to see here a

reference to "original" sin. This was made explicit by the Council

of Trent, which not only set its imprimatur to this exegesis of

Paul's words, but also forbade any other understanding of his

statement. Fitzmyer comments:


     This tradition found its formal conciliar expression in

     the Tridentine Decretum de peccato originali, Sess.

     V, 2 -- 4... This decree gave a definitive interpretation

     to the Pauline text in the sense that his words teach a

     form of the dogma of Original Sin, a rare text that

     enjoys such an interpretation.


     Care must be taken, however, to understand what

     Paul is saying and not to transform his mode of

     expression too facilely into the precision of later

     dogmatic development... Paul's teaching is regarded

     as seminal and open to later dogmatic development,

     but it does not say all that the Tridentine decree says.



Again we can hardly avoid noting the caution which emerges with

respect to reading Church Tradition back into Scripture. The

dogma as such is not rejected; what is made clear is that it is not

to be identified simpliciter with the teaching contained in the New



Next, in commenting on Romans 6:12, Fitzmyer alludes to the

teaching of the Council of Trent that what Paul sometimes calls

"sin" (as, for example, in Romans 6: 12) is not described as such

by the Roman Catholic Church, but rather is understood as the

fomes peccati. The allusion here is to one of the most astonishing

(and surely embarrassing) statements in the documents of Trent,

in the Decree Concerning Original Sin:


     This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls

     sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church

     has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly

     and properly sin in those born again, but because it is

     of sin, and inclines to sin. And if anyone is of a

     contrary sentiment, let him be anathema.(10)


Again we must not make the mistake of thinking that Fitzmyer has

ceased to be a faithful son of the Church. For this, he notes (in

agreement with the earlier biblical scholar M-J. Lagrange),

"might be an exact theological transposition," but it is a precision

not yet found in the Pauline text.


Our concern here is not to discuss the precision of the theology

involved in this statement, but once more to underline the gap --

although for Fitzmyer manifestly not an unbridgeable historical

gulf -- which is fixed between the revelation as it comes to us in

Scripture and what the Church has received as its authoritative



No doubt this whole approach strikes anxiety in the hearts of

Roman Catholics who are conservative and traditionalist (there

are "fundamentalists" in both Roman Catholicism and

Protestantism). They may find some relief in the way Professor

Fitzmyer's concurrence with the Roman Tradition is given notable

expression in his handling of Paul's teaching on justification.

Professor Fitzmyer nuances the meaning of dikaioo in the

direction of "being made upright." Here, at perhaps the most

critical point, his exegesis harmonizes with the Vulgate's

translation of the New Testament's dikaioo by justum facere.


Despite the presence of Lutheran sympathizers at Trent, the

Council committed the Church irrevocably to a transformationist

doctrine of justification:


     Justification... is not the removal of our sins alone, but

     also the sanctification and renovation of the inner man

     through the willing reception of the grace and the

     other gifts by which a man from being unjust (ex

     injusto) becomes just, and from being an enemy

     becomes a friend so that he may be an heir according

     to the hope of eternal life.(11)


Even Fitzmyer's further qualification -- he notes that this

justification takes place "gratuitously through God's powerful

declaration of acquittal" -- does not eliminate a distinctively

Tridentine exegesis, as he makes clear:


     The sinful human being is not only "declared

     upright," but is "made upright" (as in 5:19), for the

     sinner's condition has changed. (12)


Much is at stake here. In many areas where Sacred Tradition is

not already present and perspicuous in Sacred Scripture, Fitzmyer

and other Roman Catholic scholars reduce the gap between what

is taught in the biblical text and the dogma of Sacred Tradition by

an appeal to the "open" character of biblical teaching. In this way

they minimize the force of the Reformation criticism that Tradition

contradicts Scripture.


Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet and His exhortation to them

to imitate Him John 13:1 -- 15) give an example of this "open"

character of Scripture. Foot washing might well have developed

into a Sacrament, in a manner parallel to the development which

took place in another "open" passage, James 5:14. Here, "under

the Spirit-guided development of Tradition" the text became the

basis for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.(13)


No appeal to the theory of Scripture's "open" character can be of

service, however, in relationship to the doctrine of justification. It

would simply not be possible for Fitzmyer at this juncture to agree

with the Reformation exegesis of justification as declaratory,

imputed righteousness yet appeal to the "open" character of

Paul's teaching and to the Spirit's continuing work in the Church

as bringing out the fullness of meaning in justification as including

infused righteousness. For these two things stand in contradiction.


Fitzmyer's interpretation is, nevertheless, based on an exegetical

appeal -- to his own exegesis of Romans 5:19: "Just as through

the disobedience of one man many were made sinners, so through

the obedience of one many will be made upright."(14) He takes

Paul's verb kathistanai ("made") in the sense of subjective

condition, i.e., in a transformationist sense.


Two things should be said here. First, we believe Fitzmyer's

interpretation of Romans 5:19 can be demonstrated to be

mistaken.(15) But second, his logic is wrong. Even were

kathistanai understood in a subjective-transformationist sense, it

does not necessarily follow that Paul's use of dikaioo is

transformationist rather than forensic and declaratory.

Consistently to interpret "justify" in the light of this assumption is

an exegetical procedure without justification!


But even here there is a formal recognition of the principle:

Sacred Scripture must be distinguished from Sacred Tradition; we

should not assume that the latter is an exegesis of the former.


Naturally Protestants view this distinction through Protestantized

spectacles. Anyone convinced of the sole authority and sufficiency

of Scripture is bound to ask how it is possible for a scholar of

integrity to recognize this gap and yet to remain a faithful Roman



It is too simple a construction, however, to conclude that there is

manifest duplicity here. Rather, the general consistency and

clarity with which Fitzmyer's exegesis illustrates the gap between

Scripture and Tradition highlights why it is that the Protestant

appeal to Scripture alone to refute Roman Catholic dogma seems

to cut little ice: For Rome, neither Scripture nor Tradition can

stand on its own. The rationale for this should now be clear: In the

Roman Catholic Church, Sacred Tradition stands beside Sacred

Scripture as a valid and authoritative source of divine revelation.

In fact both emerge within one and the same context: the Catholic



Understanding this principle helps us to see the mindset of the

Roman Catholic Church's approach to interpreting the Bible at

this juncture.


Scripture and Tradition For Rome, the Bible itself emerges from

within the Church. The Church exists prior to the Bible; the Bible

is itself an expression of the living voice of the Church -- in its own

way it is Tradition. In the words of the recent Catechism of the

Catholic Church, "the New Testament itself demonstrates the

process of living Tradition."(16) The New Testament is Tradition

-- the earliest tradition inscripturated in distinction from the living

Tradition which arises within the ongoing life of the Church in the

context of apostolic succession.


This perspective is well attested in the succession of Rome's

authoritative doctrinal statements.


Appeal in this context is made to the Profession of Faith

composed in connection with the Second Council of

Constantinople (553), to the Council of Lateran (649) and to the

Second Council of Nicea (787). It was, however, in the context of

the Counter-Reformation that the Church's position was set in

concrete by the Council of Trent:


     The holy ecumenical and general Council of Trent...

     clearly perceives that this truth and rule are contained

     in the written books and unwritten traditions which

     have come down to us.... Following, then, the example

     of the orthodox Fathers, it receives and venerates

     with the same sense of loyalty and reverence all the

     books of the Old and New Testaments -- for God

     alone is the author of both -- together with all the

     traditions concerning faith and morals, as coming from

     the mouth of Christ or being inspired by the Holy

     Spirit and preserved in continuous succession in the

     Catholic Church.(17)


The implication of this, specifically drawn out by the Council itself,

was that no one should dare to interpret the Scripture in a way

contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers, even though

such interpretations are not intended for publication.


Leaving to one side the doubtful concept of "the unanimous

consent of the Fathers," it is clear here why the Tradition

becomes the master element in the Scripture-Tradition liaison.

Historically it has always been the case that a "living" (in the

sense of contemporaneous) word of revelation will become the

rule for Christians de facto (whatever may be claimed to the

contrary). That is virtually a psychological inevitability. In the

case of Rome, what may have begun as a limiting concept (the

regulum fidei) developed into the master concept.


This position, with appeal to these very citations, was later

confirmed by the Church at the First Vatican Council in the

Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius (1870). A quarter of a century

later, Providentissimus Deus (1893) appealed to the principle of

the analogy of faith understood as the consensus fidelium as an

essential principle for Catholic exposition. Roman Catholic

exegetes were summoned to use critical skills with the specific

agenda of confirming the received interpretation.


All this was stated within the context of Leo XIII's affirmation of

the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Such was the continuing

impact of modernism, however, that within two decades the Decree

Lamentabili (1907) was issued to stem the tide of theological

corruption. It repudiated and condemned the view that "The

Church's teaching office cannot, even by dogmatic definition,

determine the genuine meaning of Sacred Scripture."(18) As

recently as the International Theological Commission's brief but

seminal work The Interpretation of Theological Truths (1988)

Rome has continued to affirm that any conflict between exegesis

and dogma is provoked by unfaithful exegesis. Genuinely Catholic

exegesis will, by definition, always seek and find the appropriate

harmony between biblical text and ecclesiastical dogma. In this

light, the Pontifical Biblical Commission comments:


     False paths [i.e., in exegesis] will be avoided if

     actualization of the biblical message begins with a

     correct interpretation of the text and continues within

     the stream of the living Tradition, under the guidance

     of the Church's Magisterium.(19)


The circle of reasoning here appears to be " Vicious."


In the nineteenth century the Magisterium rightly recognised that

the rise of Higher Criticism and of theological Modernism would

endanger the faith of Catholics (as it had already done among

Protestants). But Rome faced an additional problem. The view

that Sacred Tradition is also Revelation implies that the Tradition

possesses the attributes of Revelation, including infallibility and

inerrancy. Consequently the Tradition had to be regarded as

infallible. The inevitable correlate of this emerged in Vatican I's

Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus in which papal infallibility

was promulgated as a "divinely revealed dogma". The Pope's ex

cathedra definitions of faith were stated to be "irreformable of

themselves and not from the consent of the Church" ("I myself

am the Tradition," commented Pius IX). The anathema sit was

pronounced on any who might "contradict this our definition."


The later pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council

continued basically to affirm what was historically regarded as the

Tridentine view of the relationship between Scripture and

Tradition reaffirmed in Vatican I's Dogmatic Constitution on the

Catholic Faith, Dei Filius. Tradition, declared Vatican II,


     ...derived from the apostles, develops in the Church

     with the help of the Holy Spirit... The words of the

     holy fathers witness to the presence of this living

     tradition... Through the same tradition the Church's

     full canon of the sacred books is known.... (20)


Especially significant is the statement made on the relationship

between Tradition and Scripture. It employed the phraseology of

Trent, apparently on papal insistence (presumably in view of the

need to hold together the traditionalist and the progressive wings

of the Church):


     Hence there exists a close connection and

     communication between Sacred Tradition and Sacred

     Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same

     divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into unity

     and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is

     the Word of God, while Sacred Tradition takes the

     Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the

     Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their

     successors in its full purity. Consequently it is not

     from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws

     her certainty about everything which has been

     revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred

     Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the

     same sense of loyalty and reverence. Sacred

     Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred

     deposit of the Word of God, committed to the



     It is clear, therefore, that Sacred Tradition, Sacred

     Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in

     accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and

     joined together that one cannot stand without the

     others, and that all together and each in its own way,

     under the action of the one Holy Spirit, contribute

     effectively to the salvation of men.(21)


We ought not to make the mistake of assuming that the Roman

Catholic Church is thoroughly monolithic. As we have noted, it too

has a conservative and liberal wing. Problems and disagreements

arise in tracing and exegeting the Tradition as much as in

exegeting the Scriptures! Thus, for example, it has become

characteristic of many Roman Catholic scholars to reread the

Tradition in as ecumenical a fashion as possible.


One of the most interesting developments within this context has

been the emergence of a school of thought especially stimulated

by the work of the Tubingen theologian J. R. Geiselmann. This

school argues that the view that Scripture and Tradition are twin

sources of revelation, complementing one another, is a misreading

of the teaching of the Council of Trent. Geiselmann appealed to

what he held to be the significant change introduced into the final

text of the decree through the influence of Bishop Pietro Bertano

of Fano and Angelo Bonucci, the General of the Servites. The

draft for the Decree on Scripture and Tradition had stated that

revealed truth was to be found partly in the books of Scripture,

partly in the Traditions ("partim in libris... partim in...

traditionibus"). But the final document spoke of this truth being

in the scriptural books and in the unwritten traditions ("in libris

scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus"). Geiselmann argued from

this change that Trent did not deny that all saving truth is

contained in the Scriptures. The truth of divine revelation is found

not partly in Scripture while the remainder is found in the

traditions (the draft formulation); it is all in Scripture. It is also all

to be found in the tradition. It could be argued therefore that the

sola Scriptura principle, properly understood, is consistent with



In response to Geiselmann's position, however, Cardinal

Ratzinger (now Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the

Doctrine of the Faith) has argued that


as a Catholic theologian, [Geiselmann] has to hold fast to Catholic

dogmas as such, but none of them is to be had sola scriptura,

neither the great dogmas of Christian antiquity, of what was once

the consensus quinquesaecularis, nor, even less, the new ones of

1854 and 1950. In that case, however, what sense is there in

talking about the sufficiency of scripture?(23)


In a word, the deposit of the faith (depositum fideli) is contained in

both Scripture and Tradition, and the task of interpreting it is

"entrusted to bishops in communion with the successor of Peter,

the Bishop of Rome."(24)


The recent document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The

Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, continues to affirm this

position, if in a less polemical and dogmatic manner and in an

ecumenically conscious fashion: "What characterizes Catholic

exegesis is that it deliberately places itself within the living

tradition of the Church."(25) In this context, however, the

Commission is careful to add:


     All pre-understanding, however, brings dangers with

     it. As regards Catholic exegesis, the risk is that of

     attributing to biblical texts a meaning which they do

     not contain but which is the product of a later

     development within the tradition. The exegete must

     beware of such a danger.(26)


No hint of criticism is made of the fact that Sacred Tradition

requires belief in dogma which is not contained in Sacred

Scripture. But there is present here a hint that exegetes in the

past (and still today) may read the New Testament as though it

had been written in the light of the Tradition, and thus distort the

teaching of Sacred Scripture (and by implication perhaps also the

function of the Tradition). Implicit in this is the recognition of the

substance-gap between Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.


The historic Protestant view is that this gap becomes a chasm at

certain strategic points. There is an unbearable discrepancy, not

merely a healthy tension, between Sacred Scripture and Sacred

Tradition in many areas.


In the earlier Roman Catholic handling of Scripture, any gap

between the exegesis of Scripture and the content of the Tradition

was minimized. The faithful Catholic exegete should not even in

private exegete Scripture in a manner contrary to the Tradition:


     Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, it

     [the Council] decrees, that no one, relying on his own

     skill, shall -- in matters of faith, and of morals,

     pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine --

     wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses,

     presume to interpret the said Scripture contrary to

     that sense which holy mother Church -- whose it is to

     judge the true sense and interpretation of the holy

     Scriptures -- hath held and doth hold; or even contrary

     to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though

     such interpretations were never [intended] to be at

     any time published. Contraveners shall be made

     known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the

     penalties by law established.(27)


A wide variety of factors contributed to the Reformation of the

sixteenth century. Among the chief was the discovery, fueled by

the Renaissance spirit of ad fontes, that the gap between the clear

teaching of Scripture and the teaching of the Tradition was at

points so great as to involve not merely development but



Roman Catholic scholars such as Professor Fitzmyer have been

given the freedom to explore what Scripture teaches. They

discover themselves looking over their shoulders at the Roman

Catholic traditionalists who do not hide their anxiety that such

open distancing between Scripture and Tradition will be the

downfall of the Church. Consequently their characteristic refrain

is that the difference between the content of Scripture and the

content of the Tradition does not involve contradiction but only

development. What becomes clearer than ever, however, is that

the pririciple of sola Scriptura remains a watershed. As Cardinal

Ratzinger as much as admitted in his reaction to Geiselmann,

there are major Roman doctrines which are simply not found in

the Scriptures. In this sense Scripture alone cannot be regarded

as sufficient for the life of the Church.


But we must go further. There are important teachings in the

Tradition which are not only additional to, but different from and

contradictory to, the teaching of Sacred Scripture. These include

the very doctrines which were the centerpiece of the Reformation

struggle: the nature of justification; the importance of the

principle of sola fide; the number of the sacraments; the

sufficiency of the work of Christ, the effect of baptism, the

presence of Christ at the Supper, the priesthood of all believers,

the celibacy of the priesthood, the character and role of Mary,

and much else. The more that Scripture is exegeted on its own

terms the more it will become clear that in these areas Sacred

Tradition does not merely add to Sacred Scripture, it contradicts

it. And if it does, can it any longer be "sacred"?


A major development has taken place, then, in Roman Catholic

interpretation of Scripture. For this we may be grateful. We

should not grudgingly minimize the rediscovery of the Bible.

Indeed it might help us greatly if we recalled more often than we

do that responsibility for the confusion in Rome's understanding

of justification rests partly on the shoulders of the great Augustine

himself whom we often claim with Calvin as "wholly ours." Having

said this, however, it is now clearer than ever (pace Geiselmann)

that the Roman Catholic Church cannot and will not subscribe to

sola Scriptura. It must deny the sole sufficiency of the Bible. And,

as the Reformers recognized, so long as Rome appeals to two

sources, or even tributaries, of revelation, the contents of

Scripture and the substance of its own Tradition, it is inevitable

that it will also withstand the message of Scripture and of the

Reformation: sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide.




1 See, for example, Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to

John, Vol. 2 (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1966) pp. 714-717.


2 Raymond E. Brown, Biblical Exegesis and Church Doctrine

(New York: Paulist Press, 1985) p.9.


3 Cited on the dustjacket of Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Romans (New

York, 1994).


4 Council of Trent's Decree on Justification, Canon XI.. See Rev.

H. J. Schroeder, O. P. Canons and Decrees of the Council of

Trent (Rockford, Ill.: Tan, 1978).


5 Fitzmyer, Romans, p. 138.


6 Ibid., p. 342.


7 Ibid., p. 343.


8 Ibid., p. 348.


9 Ibid., p. 348.


10 Council of Trent's Decree Concerning Original Sin, Session V

in Schroeder.


11 Council of Trent's Decree on Justification, Session VII in



12 Fitzmyer, Romans, p. 347


13 J.A. Fitzmyer, Scripture, The Soul of Theology, p. 78


14 The translation is Fitzmyer's.


15 See, e.g. Douglas Moo, Romans, Vol. 1 (Chicago.: Moody,

1991) pp. 358-9; J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 1

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959) pp. 205 -- 6, 336 -- 362.


16 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liquori, Mo.: Liquori, 1994)

p. 26, #83.


17 Decrees on Sacred Books and on Traditions to be Received,



18 J. Neuner and J. Dupois, eds., The Christian Faith in the

Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, rev. ed. (Staten

Island,: Alba, 1982) p. 79.


19 The interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston, 1993) p.

121. 20 Dogmatic Consitution on Divine Revelation, II:8. (For an

English translation of the pronouncements of Vatican II, see

Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of Vatican lI, New York:

Crossroad, 1966).


21 Ibid., II. [10].


22 The view Geiselmann rejects has been the view of the major

Roman apologists since Trent. For a brief account see J. R.

Geiselmann, "Scripture, Tradition, and the Church: An

Ecumenical Problem" in D. J. Callahan, H. A. Obermann, and D.

J. O'Hanlon, eds., Christianity Divided (London, 1962) pp. 39 --



23 J. Ratzinger in K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, Revelation and

Tradition, translated from the German, Offenbarung und

Uberlieferung, by W. J. O'Hara (New York, 1966) p. 33. The

references to 1854 and 1950 are to the Bull lneffabilis Deus

promulgating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (i.e., the

perpetual sinlessness of the virgin Mary) and to the Apostolic

Constitution Munificentissimus Deus which promulgated the

Bodily Assumption into heaven of the virgin Mary.


24 Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 27, #85.


25 The interpretation of the Bible in the Church, p. 89.


26 Ibid.


27 "Decree Concerning the Edition, and the Use, of the Sacred

Books," in Phillip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol.2

(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966) p. 83.




This article is from Chapter 6 of Sola Scriptura! The Protestant

Position on the Bible, an excellent book defending the doctrine of

Sola Scriptura! and is highly recommended by this site. Contact

Soli Deo Gloria Publications to order this book.




Special thanks to Dr. Sinclair Ferguson for permmission to use

this article, and to Cindy Matthews for her help in making this

article available. Soli Deo Gloria!