Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical
A provocative question on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. And an appropriate one given lingering divisions between Protestants and Catholics in orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
It’s a question Catholic professor Matthew Levering asks in his new book, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Spoiler alert: He doesn’t think it was.
He is “deeply grateful” for the Reformers’ emphasis on a number of doctrinal positions and believes “they were right in seeking reform” (31). Yet he does insist they “made some doctrinal mistakes” (15), which he addresses in his book:
I focus on nine issues raised by Luther at the outset of the Reformation that continue to divide Catholics and Protestants. These nine issues are the following: Scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, the existence of seven sacraments, monasticism, justification and merit, purgatory, the saints, and the papacy. (16)
Levering doesn’t claim they are the only ones that divide, but they are significant ones. So he surveys these topics by examining the position of Martin Luther, then makes a case for why the Catholic position is biblically defensible.
Before addressing these nine theologically significant issues, he establishes a sturdy foundation by first addressing the underlying ecumenical issue behind the division.
The Underlying Ecumenical Issue of Biblical Doctrine
Throughout his book, Levering offers contemporary reflection on Scripture to outline the biblical grounds for why Catholics hold certain doctrinal positions. But in offering such biblical grounding, “[it] should not be conceived in a manner that would exclude, even theoretically, the need for the church’s voice” (17). Here he quotes Pope Ratzinger: “Scripture is Scripture only when it lives within the living subject that is the Church.”
Levering insists that such grounding should “not be restricted to biblical proof texts” (17), although he believes such texts are important. Instead, “proper biblical grounding is inseparable from the church’s doctrinal reflections on the realities presented in the relevant biblical texts since Christ speaks to us through Scripture both as individuals and as his body the church.” (118).
Some may raise an eyebrow at such a suggestion, which brings up what Levering believes to be the underlying ecumenical issue of biblical doctrine and division:
what counts as biblical evidence for a doctrinal judgment of truth. (20)
What this means for Protestant-Catholic dialogue, not to mention determining whether Catholic doctrine is “biblical”, is understanding how a particular Catholic doctrine arises from Scripture on the basis of what Levering calls “biblically warranted modes of biblical reasoning” (20).
He contends that in order for a Catholic—or really any—doctrinal position to be deemed unbiblical, “one must have in view a set of modes of biblical reasoning warranted by Scripture, since it is by means of biblical reasoning that one deems a position ‘biblical’” (21).
Meaning: before decrying one’s doctrinal position, you need to know how one got there biblically.
Biblically Warranted Modes of Biblical Reasoning
Levering argues a number of Catholic doctrines are not unbiblical because a variety of biblically warranted modes of biblical reasoning are valid. This is where the “how” comes in:
Catholic doctrine arises from Scripture, but it does so through a liturgically inflected and communal process of ‘thinking with’ Scripture in ways that cannot be reduced to an appeal to biblical texts for irrefutable evidence of the particular reality expressed by the doctrinal judgment. (20)
The variety of valid biblically warranted modes of biblical reasoning he has in mind are communally and liturgically rooted—which Levering maintains is in accordance with Jesus’ own posture. “Rather than presenting his twelve disciples with a list of doctrinal truths, the Lord Jesus made clear that his disciples would need to learn the truth about him in a communal and liturgical way…” (21).
Levering offers a few examples of such modes. First, the liturgical teaching ministry of Ezra is exemplary of liturgical modes of biblical reasoning. “The reading and interpreting of the Word of God…[in Nehemiah 8:7–8] takes place within the context of the Feast of Booths, in which the people liturgically reenact the exodus experience” (24). Thus, “liturgy and accurately hearing and interpreting God’s Word are inseparable” (24–25).
The interpretive teaching ministry of Paul is an example of another mode of biblical reasoning: communal discernment. Levering maintains that a modern historical-critical approach to Exodus 17 and Numbers 20 wouldn’t have resulted in Paul’s interpretation in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4. He suggests this illustrates a Spirit-guided mode of biblical reasoning, which arises from more than a plain sense of the text. Thus, “the doctrinal developments of earlier centuries cannot be judged on the basis of whether they follow the path of clear biblical proof,” although they “must employ biblically warranted modes of biblical reasoning” (27).
Levering desires “to return to Scripture and seek to work toward an increasingly shared biblical framework for the nine issues that Luther identified as problematic and that continue today to divide Catholics and Protestants” (34).
We will highlight one of these issues in a few weeks. Until then, engage his book to explore why they are not unbiblical.
Professors, this book is a clear, irenic discussion between a Catholic and a Protestant (Kevin J. Vanhoozer) and might be the right book for your class. Find out if it is by requesting an exam copy.