Dear Father, When I talk with my Protestant friends about matters of faith, they won’t accept any belief unless they can find it in the Bible. Some of these beliefs, like Purgatory, are not so clear in the Bible. How do I answer them?
Your friends, like most Protestants, subscribe to the belief that the source of all religious truth is the Bible, and that if something is not in the Bible, it is simply not true and not to be believed.
They believe that God left in the Bible all he wanted us to believe. This is known as the principle of sola Scriptura, scripture alone, as the source of religious truth. Protestants believe we do not need the Tradition of the Church, or the teaching authority of the Church, to know what is true.
How do we answer them? There are many ways to show that the principle is simply not defensible, although as always we must discuss these matters politely, calmly and with reason, not emotionally. After all, our Protestant friends are good people and they are as convinced of what they have learned as we are.
Starting from the Bible itself, which Protestants do accept, we can point to two passages which undermine the principle of Scripture alone. The first is at the end of the Gospel of St John, where we read:
“But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25; cf. Jn 20:30). It is clear from this passage that Jesus said and did many other things besides those recorded in the New Testament. Not everything he taught is in the Bible.
For example, the teaching on Purgatory, as you say, is not so clear in the Bible, although numerous passages allude to it. Nonetheless, it is probable that Jesus spoke with the apostles about the importance of praying and offering the Mass for the souls of the faithful departed, since this was a custom that the Jews of the time were living (cf. 2 Mac 12:42-45).
So ancient and widespread was the custom of praying for the faithful departed that St Isidore of Seville, who died in 636 could say: “To offer the sacrifice [of the Mass] for the repose of the faithful departed is a custom observed all over the world. For this reason we believe that it is a custom taught by the very apostles” (On ecclesiastical offices, 1). If the apostles taught it, they learned it from Christ.
The second passage, from St Paul, also undermines the sola Scriptura principle. In it St Paul says that the foundation of truth is the Church, not Scripture: “I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:14-15).
In any case, if Protestants want to maintain that the Bible alone is the source of all truth, they should be able to point to a text of the Bible that says that, and of course there is none.
It is important to remember too that it was the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, that decided which of the many writings circulating in the first century were to be considered as the inspired word of God and to be included in the canon of Sacred Scripture. This process took several centuries. Without the Church we would not even have the Bible.
What is more, it has always been the Church, basing itself on the writings of the great Fathers such as St Augustine, St Jerome, St John Chrysostom, etc., that has given us the authentic interpretation of the Scriptures.
The Scriptures can only be safely understood and interpreted within the living Tradition of the Church. For example, this living Tradition has always understood Jesus’ words about anyone putting away his wife and marrying another as prohibiting divorce and remarriage.
Most Protestant denominations allow divorce and remarriage. Who is right on this matter – a Church founded by Jesus Christ which has followed this teaching for two thousand years, or a series of communities founded in the sixteenth century which teach the contrary?
One could say the same about belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, so clearly stated by Jesus in the synagogue of Capernaum and repeated by St Paul (cf. Jn 6: 51-58; 1 Cor 11:27-29).
Clearly, Scripture alone is not sufficient. We need the living Tradition of the Church to give us the books of the Bible and to safeguard and interpret them according to the mind of Christ.