500 Years After the Reformation, a Reflection on the Bible and Tradition

“Your Word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.” (Psalm 119)

(photo: Photo by James Chan, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, will mark 500 years since Martin Luther set off what has since become known as the Protestant Reformation. This date features justifiably mixed feelings for Christians around the globe. Luther, who was initially a priest and professor of theology at the then-new University of Wittenberg, probably did not foresee what the ultimate scope of his eventual break with the Catholic Church would entail, featuring a rupture with consequences easily more sizable in scale than the July 16, 1054, East-West Schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. For instance, the later initiatives of John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli far outpaced those of their predecessor.

Fortunately, following centuries of dire discord that even included rampant bloodshed, there have been various indications of unity, especially since the 20th century. These include such resources as the Vatican II document Unitatis Redintegratio: Decree on Ecumenism (1964), the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (1999), the Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (2015), and the Joint Declaration of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill (2016). Neither the Catholic Church nor Protestant denominations are collectively faultless when it comes to setbacks that have occurred within their respective histories. Yet, we continue to arrive at a steadily more accurate understanding of what following the Gospel comprises, and how we must look at what we have in common – underscoring the presence of the benefit of the doubt in the process – prior to investigating our acknowledged differences.

Of course, there are numerous categories of disagreement that remain, and some proverbial “lines in the sand” that are in effect, but those should not impede goodwill and the prospect of substantive dialogue.

One of these areas is the Bible and Sacred Tradition. Regarding the Catholic Church’s embrace of the two, together deemed the “Deposit of Faith,” how are the two related? For those unfamiliar with the Deposit of Faith, you may want to take a moment to read paragraph 84 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, particularly in consideration of its allusion to Acts 2:42 and the subsequent paragraph 85, which deals with the Magisterium’s role in light of the Deposit of Faith. Ultimately, the Catholic Church holds that there is a complementary nature between the Bible, which we hold to be the divinely inspired Word of God, and its interpretation, which has been safeguarded by apostolic succession for nearly two millennia.

An understanding of the Catholic Church’s contributions to the inclusion and organization of the ultimately 73 Books of the Bible is essential. Figures such as Saint Athanasius (circa 296-373) and Saint Jerome (circa 347-420) made incalculable efforts to bring us the Word of God. This is not to mention the Sacrament- and Tradition-imbued scopes of Saint Peter (the first pope) and Saint Paul (the “apostle to the Gentiles”). Even during the decades following Peter and Paul’s martyrdoms in Rome in the mid-60s, Saint Ignatius of Antioch (circa 35-108) – the first figure to use the term “Catholic”  to describe the Church and the term “Eucharist” to describe the consecration of Christ’s Body and Blood – was instrumental in solidifying these already foundational beliefs via his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans.

At the same time, there is no room for any semblance of superciliousness on the part of the Catholic Church – by that, I mean that Catholics must recall that all Christians can gain a deep and abiding proximity to Jesus Christ through knowing, familiarizing themselves with, and internalizing the Word of God. Although the Catholic Church holds that the Magisterium has the authority and capacity to definitively delineate the significance of scriptural passages (taking into account the senses of scripture), popes of the modern era have greatly encouraged the laity to read and know the Word of God, e.g., in papal documents such as Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus: On the Study of Holy Scripture (1893) and Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu: On Promoting Biblical Studies (1943 [commemorating 50 years since Providentissimus Deus]).

All Christians – Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants – can look to the Word of God as a source of strength, unity, and goodwill, as we draw together in our associative journeys as disciples of Christ. Five hundred years ago, even one hundred years ago, opportunities for dialogue between different Christian groups, ruminating upon the Word of God, would have been insurmountably unfathomable. Yet, the 21st century has featured many opportunities for reconciliation, as we have seen in the joint documents that I referenced earlier. In the next two reflections, we will see how the papacy and Mary’s role are scriptural in their scope. For the time being, let us recall the Lord’s words as they relate to looking to the Word of God for right living and journeying simultaneously toward unity as brethren in the Lord: “Your Word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).