Monday, February 15, 2010

Spanning the Protestant / Catholic Divide - Part II - Why do Protestants Read the Bible so Much?

So last night I blogged about Why Catholics Don't Know the Bible. So today it's time to approach the Bible study question from the Catholic Perspective.

Okay, these are my observations and they don't apply universally, and I mean to make them in charity. Please feel free to offer corrections and clarifications. I recognize that a couple of points are going to be controversial for many Protestants because it's how I view the Protestant world as an outsider who approaches Christianity from a very different perspective.

Answer Part A
Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura - Only Scripture or Scripture First.  The main idea being that in either case Scripture is the highest authority. The one thing we Catholics can be certain that all Protestant Churches agree on is that there is no greater authority than scripture. The authority of Pastors, Elders, Bishops, Steering Committees, the Pope and even ecumenical councils is subsidiary to scripture.

So right there you have the BIGGEST reason Protestants spend so much time reading scripture! What ever the question of Christian doctrine or practice, the answer in the Protestant world MUST be justified in scripture first and foremost! So every discussion or question starts with looking in the Bible (it doesn't seem to matter if the participants already know the answer). Concordances and commentaries are close at hand to identify chapter and verse and provide insight. Then once they have a collection of scripture passages they may consult other sources - usually their favorite theologian or favorite trendy pastor or perhaps their denomination's 'confession.'

Being the outside observer, what I see is that the result they gets is more dependent on the method of interpreting scripture that they have learned from their pastor or picked when they picked out this church and their choice of theologians to consult than what the scripture actually says - and that's leaving aside whether the question was prejudged in the first place.

Comparison / Contrast  We Catholics acknowledge the authority of scripture, but believe that the authority of scripture actually derives from the authority of the Catholic Church. The magisterium is the authoritative keeper of the 'deposit of faith' which includes both scripture and tradition. We get into speculation if we try to get too much deeper into it. Yes, scripture and tradition can't be contradictory and the Church does not have the authority to contradict either scripture or tradition. But scripture and it's interpretation, and tradition are all dependent on the Authority of the Church. They really can't be separated. Some ecumenical minded theologians have described the Catholic model as also being prima scriptura. The huge difference is that we believe the college of Bishops in cooperation with the Pope teach infallibly in matters of Faith and morals. Authority, tradition and scripture must harmonize, but in the Catholic model authority is required and present!

The result of that is that when we Catholics have a question about the Faith we very seldom start with only scripture, and for expediency we often skip actually looking up the scripture in the Bible. 2000 years of history, teaching and tradition go before us. We'd be spinning our wheels unnecessarily if we didn't consult other sources - the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Encyclicals, the Doctors of the Church might all consulted along with scripture. These sources will cite and quote the most relevant scripture passages. It's going above and beyond to actually dig up a concordance (which most Catholics have never used) and try to re-examine the whole Bible.

My personal observation and opinion From a Catholic perspective, I don't see any fundamental difference between 'scripture first' and 'only scripture' as I observe various Protestants using them. The scripture only groups - Baptists, Evangelicals, non-denominational Bible churches - place scripture as an authority above any traditional interpretation, scholarly approach or any authority. The scripture first groups use models where scripture is one part of authority along with tradition and reason - This is described as the 'Anglican Three Legged Stool', or the 'Methodists quadrilateral'(scripture, tradition, reason, experience). The idea seems to be that they are of comparable weight and value except that nothing can contradict scripture. However, if the interpretation of scripture changes and someone decides as a result that scripture contradicts what has been passed down by tradition, tradition loses. So the overall result is the same to me - what ever interpretation of scripture I can manage to justify (politically to my followers) is superior to any traditional Christian doctrine no matter how central, ancient or strongly proclaimed.

So extreme Fundamentalists who take a very strict literal interpretation of scripture and end up denying the sacramental nature of Baptism and preach a 'once saved always saved' Gospel are actually very similar to liberal Episcopalians lesbian priestesses who claim that Christianity is compatible with both Islam and a homosexual lifestyle because they both reject 2000 years of constant Christian tradition on the authority of scripture as they interpret it.

Answer Part B
Culture Speaking in broad generalities and some speculation: Protestants more often than Catholics grow up in a home where the Bible is read often and conspicuously. Where a really devout Catholic family might pray the rosary as a family, a devout Protestant Family would be more likely to read the Bible as a family. For devotional time a Catholic parent might read the Bible on occasion, but would be most likely to use a Missal and follow the Lectionary or the Liturgy of the Hours or might read books by or about the Saints. A Protestant parent is much more likely to make the Bible a mainstay and constant element of their daily prayer time.

So Protestant kids are just plain much more likely to grow up having the Bible read to them, seeing Mom and Dad reading the Bible, having discussions centered on the Bible. And when they go to Sunday school the education program is likely tied very very closely to the Bible and involves actually reading actual Bibles especially for older children. While Catholic Religious Education is more likely to involved crappy workbooks that might have some Bible readings or short quotations. Typically, at least until recently, you'd very rarely find Catholic students reading from actual Bibles in Religious Education.

I've also observed that Protestant (esp. evangelical) programs for kids often have very very effective educational approaches to teaching scripture. Effective use of Songs and visual aides using all learning modalities and using a very effective (if dentally hazardous) system of positive reinforcement.

For many of the non-liturgical varieties of Protestantism the Sunday service consists largely of a very good, probably lengthy and hopefully well prepared and researched sermon. Many in the congregation are likely to be following along in their own Bibles. It is common for these sermons to jump between several books and the OT and NT, and at least some of the time involve reading longer passages as opposed to 'proof texting.'

Answer Part C
Framework This is really a derivation of both Part A and Part B. Protestants whether formally or informally are much more likely to have acquired a 'framework' or hermeneutic (or a set of hermeneutics) for approaching scripture. Those Bible discussions they've listened in on, or participated in and sermon series "preaching through Ezekiel" have transmitted more than facts - they have transmitted a 'tradition' of how to analyze and interpret scripture! Sunday school has provided anchor points and familiarity navigating the Bible and the different types of books. You will seldom find the poster of a bookshelf showing all the books of the bible arranged and color coded for Pentateuch, History, Poetry, Wisdom, Major Prophets, Minor Prophets.. in a Catholic RE classroom.

As a result most protestants that grew up attending church have 'sea legs' when it comes to reading the Bible. They may not have "all the answers" but they rightly feel like they know the terrain.

My guess is that most Catholics can easily feel overwhelmed by reading certain parts of the Bible - particularly Leviticus, Numbers, the Prophets - especially Danial and Amos, the Pauline epistles, and Revelation. I think generally Catholics do Okay with most of the Psalms, Genesis, and the Gospels. Although some of the parables can seem confusing. I think Catholics get easily frustrated with it. Partly because we don't have a plan for understanding it. Where I think it is more typical that Protestants do have a plan and some tools.


  1. Very well written! Just sharing some reflections... I would echo your comments with my opinion that most protestants read the bible as part of their quest to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ (and the Father & Holy Spirit) a la John 15. Group bible study is also a key part of connecting and building church community via small groups. And there is a whole industry of various "study bibles" that feature devotional or interpretive "notes or footnotes" alongside scripture. There is also a whole "translation" industry offering different versions of scripture all claiming to be most faithful approach to understand the greek/hebrew (literal vs dynamic equivalent) etc.

    There is one group of bible texts known to Catholics that would likely be completely unfamiliar to most protestants, and that is the books in the "Apocrypha": 1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Esther 10:4-16:24, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch/Jeremy, Song of the Three Children, Story of Susanna, The Idol Bel and the Dragon, Prayer of Manasses, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees

  2. Paul,
    I am enjoying this series tremendously. Speaking to Protestants or even non- believers often finds me tongue tied. Your posts may come in handy in the future.
    Upon my return to the Church, I began to read Scripture more often. Now seven years later as a daily communicant and subscriber to Magnificat, Scripture is part of my daily prayer. It has enriched my faith and relationship with Christ more than I can say.
    I also agree with you that Catholics and Protestants know the Bible differently.
    For Catholics looking to learn more about reading the Bible, Fr Corapi's series Word of God is an excellent resource.
    I look forward to future posts in this series.
    God Bless!

  3. As one who has read and taught the bible on both sides of the Tiber I'd say you are pretty much spot on.

    P.S. (see today's post for an anecdote in kind)

  4. You're much more thoughtful than I am right now. My short answer would be "because that's all they have".

  5. Interesting observations and insightful. Ultimately, I would say the reason for all of this is because of what Stacey said: "because that's all they have." To clarify, it's not that Catholics and Orthodox have other things in addition to Scripture; rather Scripture saturates all that we have and is intimately bonded in an inseparable way.