For Roman Catholicism, Holy Scripture is a primary source of revelation. As Trent puts it, saving truth and moral teaching “are contained in written books.” These are the books of the Old and New Testament, which are venerated, “since one God is the author of both.” A highly respected and authoritative Scripture is thus the basis of Christian preaching and teaching.

How important and authoritative this source is may be seen even more fully from the declarations of the Vatican Council of 1870 and subsequent statements. Thus the books of the Old and New Testaments must be “accepted as sacred and canonical in their entirety, with all their parts.” “They contain revelation without error.” “They were written as a result of the prompting of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author, and as such they were entrusted to the Church.” Anathema is pronounced on all who deny that they were divinely inspired (Vatican Council I).

In answer to modern critical and theological developments, Roman Catholicism has maintained this high view of Scripture. While there may have been errors in copying, it is wrong “either to limit inspiration to certain parts … or to concede that the divine author has erred.” It is also impossible to restrict inspiration “to matters of faith and morals” (Providentissimus Deus, 1893). Nor are the historical passages to be construed in terms of relative rather than absolute truth. Even if fallible men were used as instruments, “God stimulated and moved them to write and so assisted them in their writing that they properly understood and willed to write faithfully and express suitably with infallible truthfulness all that he ordered.” The divine writings are thus “free from all error” (Spiritus Paraclitus, 1920).

In respect of the positive statements of Roman Catholicism concerning Holy Scripture, classical orthodoxy can have no quarrel. Here is a sure foundation of theological and evangelistic truth. Here is a source from which sound preaching and teaching may draw for the evangelizing of sinners and the edifying of saints. If Roman Catholicism were to stop at this point, or to relate all else strictly to this foundation, a giant step would be taken towards the ecumenical healing of the Church.

Unfortunately, however, Roman Catholicism does not stop at these basic statements. It proceeds to a series of minor and major additional statements which involve at least the serious possibility of modification or restriction of the primary thesis. It is true that today there are powerful forces in the Roman Catholic world which are seeking in some degree to prevent such modification or restriction. It is also true, however, that the qualifying statements naturally tend in this direction.

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First, the definition of the canon of Scripture is expanded to include the apocryphal books of the Old Testament. Although the Jews saw a distinction between the canonical and the apocryphal books, and although Jerome himself was aware of this distinction, the Council of Trent goes its own way, anathematizing “anyone who does not accept these books as sacred and canonical in their entirety, with all their parts”; and this decision is endorsed by the Vatican Council of 1870. At many points this enlargement of the canon makes little difference. But from the standpoint of the sources of revelation it has three serious implications. First, these sources are widened in principle. Again, a decision of the Church imposes this extension on the Christian world. And finally, there are practical effects at a few significant points, for example, in respect of the support of prayers for the dead from the apocryphal books.

Secondly, the Latin translation usually known as the Vulgate is exalted to a position of virtual parity with the Greek and Hebrew originals. The Tridentine statement is not absolute in this respect, but it is far-reaching. “The ancient Vulgate … should be considered the authentic edition in public readings, disputations, preaching, and explanations; and no one should presume or dare to reject it under any pretext whatever.” This position has been defended as recently as 1943 in the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. This encyclical admits that the Vulgate’s authenticity is “juridical” rather than “critical.” It allows consultation of the originals, and even vernacular translations from them. But it insists that the Vulgate is “free from all error in matters of faith and morals,” and that “it can be safely quoted without the least fear of erring.” The admission that the Vulgate’s authority is in some sense relative rather than absolute lessens the dangers inherent in the Tridentine decision. Nevertheless, the elevation of a particular translation even to this eminence carries with it a serious qualification of Holy Scripture as the pure source of revelation. For the possibility arises that matters of faith or morals may be grounded merely upon the Vulgate without any possibility of its correction by the original Greek and Hebrew. For practical purposes many translations, the King James for example, are often used in this way. But it is rather another matter to give to the practical use codified definition as a principle.

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Thirdly, and rather more seriously, the Roman Catholic world adds to its acceptance of Scripture not merely certain qualifications in respect of Scripture, but also the endorsement of a second source of revelation, namely, unwritten tradition. Saving truth and moral teaching are also contained, says Trent, “in the unwritten traditions that the apostles received from Christ himself, or that were handed on … from the apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” The council “accepts and venerates traditions” “with the same sense of devotion and reverence” as it does the written Scriptures. Thus a second source of revelation is set alongside the Old and New Testaments.

How Relate Scripture And Tradition?

Now it is true that no precise definition has been given either of unwritten tradition or of its relation to Scripture. This was an unfulfilled task of the Vatican Council of 1870, and it is one of the most important and contentious issues of the Second Vatican Council. There are those who would bring spoken tradition and written Scripture into the closest possible relation, as though the one were merely the oral form of the other. In this case, no possibility of qualification by addition arises, for Scripture remains a constant check upon living proclamation. The evangelical emphasis on the importance of preaching might well be fitted into some such understanding.

The more traditional view, however, is rather different, and far more dangerous. On this interpretation unwritten traditions are apostolic truths and precepts which were never committed to writing, but which are equally authoritative with what is written. Thus the Church might teach and practice many things which cannot be substantiated from Scripture. If challenged, as at the Reformation, it counters the argument from Scripture by an appeal to unwritten tradition. “Biblical” and “apostolic” are not necessarily coterminous. Thus the Bible loses its unique position as the one absolute authority and criterion in the Church. Tradition is not merely another aspect of the one source of revelation. It is a second source in the stricter sense. Or rather, the apostolic preaching is the one source. And this has come down to us in the complementary forms of Scripture on the one side and tradition on the other. Hence many things may be defended as authentically apostolic even though there is no sanction for them in Scripture. On this reading, the control of Holy Scripture is very largely undermined.

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Finally, Holy Scripture is subjected to the authoritative interpretation of the Church itself. It is the office of holy Mother Church “to judge about the true sense and interpretation of Sacred Scripture” (Trent). “In matters of faith and morals, that sense … is to be considered as true which holy Mother Church has held, and now holds.” “No one is allowed to interpret Sacred Scripture contrary to this sense nor contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers” (Vatican Council I). In other words, the infallible Scripture is accompanied by an infallible interpretation, which is vested in the Church in its teaching office.

In the modern period this appeal to the authority of the Church has tended to become more important for Roman Catholics than the sixteenth-century appeal to tradition. It is expressed in the teaching of Newman that the Church progressively brings out what is implicit in Scripture, so that the relation of modern dogma to Scripture is that of the grown tree to the seed. It finds even more important statement in the work of theologians like Scheeben, which identifies the Church with living tradition, and which leads to the express definition of the Church’s infallibility in 1870, namely, that “the [Church’s] prerogative of infallibility … embraces … everything that, although not in itself revealed, is necessary for safeguarding the revealed word, for certainly and definitively proposing and explaining it for belief, or for legitimately asserting and defending it against the errors of men.” It reaches its logical climax in the argument that, by virtue of its primacy, the Holy See enjoys supreme power of teaching, and that the Son of God has thus deigned to join the prerogative of infallibility to the highest pastoral office (Vatican Council I).

At every level this exaltation of the teaching office represents a serious invasion of the true source of revelation. While the absolute authority of Scripture is still maintained, it is also shackled. True Scripture is identical with Roman Catholic interpretation, or with the implications which Roman Catholicism finds in Scripture. No appeal is possible to Scripture itself in relation to the pronouncements of the teaching office. The infallible Church becomes in truth the mistress of infallible Scripture. Apostolic truth is scriptural, but that is scriptural which the teaching office rightly or wrongly declares to be so. There is no possibility of openness to the Word of God. There is no possibility of the Word of God exercising its free sovereignty.

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Yet Roman Catholicism still pursues the study of Holy Scripture. In spite of every shackle, the Bible maintains its independent entity. The theoretical impossibility of its lordship can still be refuted by the practical demonstration. Indeed, the truly significant fact in the modern Roman Catholic world is that biblical study has begun to pose afresh both questions and possibilities that seemed to have been closed forever at the Council of Trent. Perhaps the ultimately decisive issue at the Second Vatican Council is whether Holy Scripture will emerge again as the one authentic and apostolic source of revelation in spite of the qualifications of the past. If it does not, there can be no question of real rapprochement with Roman Catholicism. If it does—and we hope and pray that it may—then the outlook is bright for a true and powerful moving of the Word and Spirit over a far wider front in our generation.

Geoffrey W. Bromiley is professor of church history and historical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. He holds the M.A. from Cambridge University, the Ph.D. and D.Litt. from the University of Edinburgh. Formerly vice-principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, he is the translator of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

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