Q. You have mentioned frequently in your question-and-answer column that some Catholic (and other Christian) beliefs are not explicitly in the Bible. Why did St. Paul commend the people because they "examined the Scriptures daily" to see what things were to be believed (Acts 17:11) if God does not want his people to use the Scriptures as their yardstick? Doesn’t believing the Bible is God’s word imply we should believe what it says? (Missouri)
A. You pick a good metaphor in calling Scripture our yardstick of belief. The word of God in the Bible is the measure of all we believe as Catholics. That does not mean, however, that every belief will be found in the Bible.
As I’ve discussed before, all Christians, not only Catholics, rely on something outside the Bible to establish certain basic truths of faith. For example, any document can claim it is the word of God, as the Bible surely does (for example, 2 Timothy 3:16). That it is, in fact, the word of God, however, must be authenticated from somewhere outside that book.
For most Christians, that validation comes, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, from the spiritual insights of the Christian communities which produced the New Testament in the first place.
For Catholics, the Bible is a controlling presence in our reception and understanding of God’s revelation, what God wished to teach us for our salvation. This is what we intend when we speak of the Scriptures being normative for Christian belief.
In a somewhat shorthand way, it means that no authentic Christian doctrine can contradict the Bible, which is not the same, of course, as claiming that every Christian belief must be found in the Bible.
If the Scriptures are as we believe them to be, God’s message transmitted to us in human language under the Spirit’s guidance, then those Scriptures must be true. Properly understood, there can be no contradiction between Scripture and any authentic teaching of the church.
Three criteria are generally examined to guarantee a correct interpretation of Scripture. First, the interpretation must reflect the unity and content of the entire Bible. Second, it must be in harmony with the living tradition of the whole church. And third, the explanation must respect what is called the "analogy of faith," the coherence and harmony which properly exist between the different articles of faith.
If one Christian teaching is found to contradict another teaching, at least one of them must be wrong.
This is something to remember when anyone objects to a Catholic belief with the charge, "Where do you find that in the Bible?"
If the doctrine does not contradict what is in the Bible, and if it generally fulfills the above criteria — in other terms, if it is coherent with other truths of faith, consistent with the living traditions of Christianity and does not conflict with the content and unity of the Scriptures — then a particular teaching may be accepted without violating the normative role sacred Scripture plays in the Christian religion.
Such is the role of the Bible as a "yardstick" of Catholic faith.
A fuller explanation of the place of the Bible in the church may be found in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council and in the article on Scripture in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
A longtime columnist with Catholic News Service, Father Dietzen died March 27, 2011.