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Scripture vs Theology: A False Divide


Saint Jerome famously said, “Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Equally memorable to me was the retort of a friend—a priest of high academic credentials—when I mentioned the tendency among Catholic biblical scholars to dismiss as “proof-texting” the use of Scripture in support of doctrine. I told him of the seminary instructor who said that “only a fundamentalist would use the Bible as a source of apologetics.” My friend replied, “Well, then, what the hell good is it?”

Let me be clear: neither of us advocates proof-texting, by which is meant forcing a text to support a position regardless of what the sacred author intended to say. The Bible must be understood in its historical context. Unfortunately, not a few Bible scholars (Catholics included) tend to regard dogmatic theology as a distorting overlay that has to be stripped away if we want to get at what the sacred text really means. So, in asking (tongue-in-cheek) what good is the Bible, my friend was signaling annoyance at a one-sided approach to the science of the historical-critical method that divorces theology from Scripture.

“All Scripture,” says the Apostle, “is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Amen, so long as the Bible isn’t pitted against the Church’s living Tradition of believing, celebrating, and teaching “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), for the Bible itself is a fruit of that Tradition. Saint Irenæus of Lyons articulated this insight in stating that, even had the Apostles not left us Scripture, the apostolic Tradition would have sufficed for our instruction and salvation. Then we have Saint Augustine’s admission, “I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.”

While the Bible is the Church’s book, we should be careful against making facile connections between the Bible and the Church’s doctrines. Discerning the intentions of the human authors and their historical circumstances is not a bad thing, provided that the genius of Scripture is upheld, which is precisely the revelation of a God who acts in history. My friend’s seemingly flippant riposte is an invitation to ponder why that revelation was committed to written form to begin with.

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