Frequently, Evangelicals will talk about the need to join a Church that’s based on the Bible. There are even helpful quizzes for making sure that you’re going to a “Biblically based” Church. The Catholic Church can do one better: in a very real way, the Bible is based upon the Catholic Church. After I pointed this out on Facebook, a Protestant reader questioned this claim, and asked what Catholics believed the message of salvation is. And so today, I offer two posts rolled into one: (1) is the Catholic Church the origin of the Bible? and (2) What’s the Gospel message of salvation, according to the Catholic Church?
I. Did the Catholic Church Give Us the Bible?
There are four major reasons for affirming that the Catholic Church gave us the Bible:
1. The New Testament was written by the Church. The Books of the New Testament were written by Apostles and other leading clergymen within the Church. Recall 1 Corinthians 12:28, “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.”
2. The New Testament was written to the Church. Just as the Old Testament was written to Israel, the New Testament is written to the Church. We see this most clearly in the Epistles, which tend to be addressed either to a particular church leader (Philemon 1:1, etc.), or a local church (1 Corinthians 1:2, etc.) or a particular group of Christians (1 Peter 1-2, etc.) or the entire Church (Jude 1:1).
3. Both the Old and New Testament were compiled by the Church. Without the Church, you don’t have a clear way of knowing which Books belong in the Bible and which don’t. As a matter of history, the Catholic Church gave us the Bible. As a matter of logic, there’s not a clear alternative, since there’s not an inspired Table of Contents handed down. As a matter of theology, there’s not a clear alternative, because there is no other infallible authority capable of setting this with any degree of certainty.
4. The establishment of the Church is mentioned in Scripture. Matthew 16:17-19 is the most obvious place. Jesus set up a Church, and entrusted that Church with the authority to speak in His name and to witness His Gospel to the ends of the earth. One of the ways that the Church fulfilled this commission was by creating the Bible, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
It’s become popular to speak of the Bible as a “love letter” from God. And that’s a good way of looking at it: a compilation of a series of love letters written by God to His People. That’s true of both the Old and New Testament, but with the New Testament, we can say something even more profound: that these are love letters written to His Bride (Ephesians 5:25-27):
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
So we don’t need to try to invent a new Church, a new Bride for Christ, based upon our reading of His love letters to her. We can just be joined to the Bride that He already has, the one to whom those letters were written in the first place.
II. How Are We Saved?
Having covered where the Bible came from, let’s look next at what it has to say about how we’re saved. While this wasn’t the original cause of the Reformation it quickly became one of the hottest-button issues, and it remains an area of contention.
Classically, the Protestant answer is rooted in particular Pauline texts about the importance of faith for salvation. That’s wonderful, but there are problems with how these texts are handled. Because Paul talks about the importance of faith, and because (given his audience and the context) that’s his almost-singular focus, there developed the idea that faith ALONE was what was needed for justification and salvation. Luther went so far as to “correct” Romans 3:28 from saying that we’re saved by faith to saying that we are saved by faith ALONE. In the uncorrupted text, the phrase “faith alone” appears exactly once in all of Scripture: James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” So justification by faith is a good answer to your question. Justification by faith alone isn’t.
I would suggest that if you want a full answer, look at two things: (1) all of the times in Scripture that people ask how we’re saved; and (2) all of the times that the Final Judgment or salvation/damnation are mentioned.
What you’ll find is a picture much different than simple sola fide: Jesus’ description of the Final Judgment in Matthew 24 doesn’t even mention faith. He looks only at works. Don’t get me wrong: Jesus is not saying that we are saved by works without faith, any more than Paul is saying that we are saved by faith without works — what differs is only their emphasis, given their respective contexts. In Mark 16:16, He gives two criteria for salvation: faith and baptism.
Finally, I’d like to offer two “summaries” of salvation:
A. The New Testament witness is that Jesus is offered to us as our Lord and Savior, but we can’t take Him as our Savior while rejecting Him as our Lord. And it’s not enough to simply call Him Lord. We have to actually live that reality. “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
B. The entire message of salvation can also be summarized by saying that we are saved by love. We see this most clearly in the writings of St. John, and particularly the answers that he gives to these three questions:
1) Can you go to Heaven without loving God and our neighbor?
2) Can you love God without keeping His commandments?
3) Can you keep God’s commandments without doing good works?
If you want to know more about this, I wrote a post from back in February that takes a closer look at how St. John answers those questions.