“Cathedral of St. Paul Birmingham Nov 2011.” Taken by Chris Pruitt. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.
Johnny: “So to which denomination do you belong?”
Susie: “Denominations aren’t important. I love Jesus and that’s all that matters”
This once was my rallying cry as a young Southern Baptist boy trying to break the shackles of denominationalism. I can remember being so fed up with the “small mindedness” behind clinging to a particular denomination, or the claim that there was a particular group who had the fullness of the truth. Now, as a Catholic, my thoughts on this have shifted somewhat.
I once thought that believing in a few essential elements like the trinity was enough to solidify one’s position as a faithful Christian. Indeed, this is an essential, but was this all that Jesus had in mind for his body the church? In college I came face to face with many different ideas about what it meant to be authentically Christian. From Baptist, Methodist, and Charismatic to Anglican, “Christian”, and non denominational. All of us asserted the trinity, but there were still so many things we all disagreed on. Why? Weren’t we all reading the same Bible?
The problem is rooted in the idea of private interpretation. All of us understand the Bible, and consequently what it means to be a Christian, through the lens of our respective traditions. So, who has the right interpretation? I found the answer to this question via the answer to another: Who is responsible for assembling the Bible together? The answer to both of these questions is the Catholic Church.
Here’s an analogy that might help. Imagine that you wrote a book and were at a Barnes and Noble for the book signing. Sally walks up with your book in her hand and a puzzled look on her face. “So, the ending confused me, what happened to Mr. Gardner?” Before you can get a word in edge wise, another person in line says “He retired and moved to Florida with Betsy Ann.” “No”, you reply, “Mr. Gardner stayed in Greensboro with his wife Sue Allen.” Who should get the final say on this matter? The author, of course! The same principle applies to Biblical interpretation. The Catholic Church’s authors penned the words and her bishops finalized the canon. They infallibly decided what books got in and what books were left out.
Does this mean that all other Christians can’t understand the Bible? Absolutely not! Does it mean that all of scripture is cryptic and indecipherable without the Catholic Church? No! What it does mean is that there is one church with the authority to settle those areas of disagreement: Can I lose my salvation? How are my sins forgiven? Should I pray for dead loved ones? What is authentic worship? Does baptism save or is it a symbol only?
Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus would leave us an authoritative interpreter of scripture instead of leaving us to our own devices? I have found great comfort and solace in this reality and I invite you to investigate the Catholic Church’s claim to authority.
Peace be with you!