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Why Do Some Doctrines Seem to Lack Biblical Support?

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Oct 20, 2011)
I am delighted to be back in action after a year's hiatus from this column. And no sooner did we make the decision to restart this Q&A series than we received a wheelbarrow full of new and excellent questions from readers of thedivinemercy.org and marian.org.

The first question comes from a man named Ron, who asked me about the seemingly slender amount of support in the New Testament for the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory:

I do pray for souls I believe probably are in a place or spiritual state we refer to as Purgatory ... [I read about] many accounts of after-death experiences the saints reported they had with souls still in Purgatory. But why does the New Testament have so few (if any) clear teachings on Purgatory? The Protestants say we are making all this up.

Great question Ron, and I am afraid that at first glance the problem goes well beyond just the doctrine of Purgatory. There are a number of other doctrines that the Church teaches that seem to lack clear or explicit support in the Bible. For example, what passages in the Holy Scriptures prove beyond any reasonable doubt the Catholic doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and the completely sinless life of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or what about the notion that Christians on earth can invoke the saints in heaven to pray for us?
In fact, the Protestants have no reason to gloat here, for there are other doctrines they accept that are very hard, if not impossible, to prove on the basis of Scripture alone. For example, where is the clear teaching in the New Testament that Sunday should replace Saturday as the day of worship and rest for all (Saturday is the day referred to in the 10 Commandments). There are hints of this change in the New Testament, but there are certainly no clear or explicit statements. Again, where does the New Testament clearly say that slavery is inherently wrong? It may be implicit in some things that St. Paul wrote, but there is no sign that either he or anyone else drew out those implications in the early Church.

The first Christian writer to condemn slavery root-and-branch was probably St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. Slavery was slowly trimmed down to size, and gradually disappeared in Christian lands in the Middle Ages, but then it returned with a vengeance in the European colonies in the 16th century, and it finally received official condemnation by Rome in the papal bull of Pope Paul III, Sublimis Deus in 1537. In short, it took a long time for the Church to clearly discern all the implications of the New Testament on this important matter of social doctrine — and on all the other doctrines just mentioned as well.

Please do not misunderstand me: I believe there is sufficient scriptural support for all of the doctrines I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Indeed, I have made the scriptural case for Purgatory and for the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary in previous instalments of this Q & A web column. [View all previous Q&A columns.] All I am saying is that support for some Catholic doctrines (and even for some we share with our Protestant friends) is not always crystal clear or explicit.

As Catholics, of course, we do not believe that all of the truth revealed by Christ to the Apostles can be proven from Scripture alone. In fact, one of the doctrines you definitely cannot prove from Scripture alone is the doctrine that everything that God has revealed to us through Christ can be proven solely from the Bible. (I challenge anyone to try). Thus, in discussions with our Protestant brothers and sisters, we must not "sell the pass," so to speak, and accept their view that the only valid reference point for what God has revealed to us is the text of the Bible. For our Lord has also given to us the Sacred Tradition of the Church, the tradition of the saints and the fathers, the ecumenical councils and papal decrees. It is the Sacred Tradition that discerned which books should be included in the Christian Bible in the first place, and it is the Sacred Tradition that is our best guide in the Holy Spirit for unfolding the meaning of the Scriptures down through the ages.

In other words, as the Church lives and grows from century to century, saints and fathers, councils and popes ponder all that Jesus Christ revealed to His apostles, drawing out its implications — sometimes implications hardly seen before. They do their best to penetrate the mysteries of the faith more deeply, articulate them more clearly, and unfold their implications more completely for every generation. That is what is called the process of "The Development of Doctrine," and I am very fond of it, because it is part of what keeps theologians like me employed!

But seriously folks, this was spelled out for us at the Second Vatican Council in the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," section 8:

[The doctrinal tradition], which comes from the apostles, develops in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words that have been handed down. This happens through contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19, 51), through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfilment in her.

What the Vatican Council meant, of course, was that doctrine properly develops in the Church by drawing out truths that were contained in the apostolic faith from the beginning. A legitimate doctrinal development, therefore, cannot be an utterly novel addition to the apostolic faith (like the Book of Mormon supposedly revealed by an angel to Joseph Smith), nor can it contradict anything in the original apostolic faith (like ideas being bandied about in academic theology now, such as that there was no real Adam and Eve, or that everyone will be saved in the end). Those would be corruptions of the faith, not authentic doctrinal developments. One of the jobs of the Church's teaching authority (the magisterium) is to guard the Church from such distortions, discerning true developments from false ones. What Jesus gave to the apostolic Church was the truth "once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). The essence or substance of that apostolic faith, therefore, must not be changed. It is only the conscious, subjective grasp of the mysteries of the faith that legitimately can grow and develop over time. In short, there is an increase in understanding and a more complete articulation of the apostolic faith, down through the centuries, as the Holy Spirit guides the prayers, meditations, and cumulative reflections of the whole Body of Christ, and especially of the saints and the magisterium.

Doctrinal understanding properly can be said to "develop" in the Church in two main ways: by clarification of expression, and by elaboration of content.

Simple clarification of expression happened, for example, when the early Church fashioned the distinction between "person" and "nature," so that she could articulate more clearly the doctrines of the Incarnation (that Jesus is One Divine Person in two natures, fully human and fully divine), and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (that God is Three Persons in one infinite and eternal divine nature). Notice that the words "incarnation," "trinity," "person" and "nature" never occur in the Bible, but the ideas are there, and the Church chose words to express those ideas, to clarify the Gospel message against misunderstanding, and to defend the faith from distortion.

By elaboration of content we mean that the Church often draws out the implications of what was substantially taught in the Church from the beginning. Such elaboration can take place in at least two ways. First, logically: that is, when the Church draws out the logical implications of apostolic teaching. For example, the doctrine of original sin may be said to be logically implicit in the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, and in St. Paul's reflections on the Fall in Romans 5. Another example, the Catholic teaching that under certain circumstances, there can be a just recourse to arms may be said to be logically implicit in Christ's attitude to soldiers he met in Galilee, in St. Paul's teaching on the right to the use of the "sword" by rulers — and on the social implications of the doctrine of original sin (thus, some logical implications depend upon the drawing out of others first!). The moral evil of slavery and the truth of the doctrine of Purgatory fall into this category, too, it seems to me. Purgatory is logically implicit in II Maccabees 12: 39-45 (if we should pray for the faithful departed that they may be "loosed from their sins," as this scripture says, then logically some of the faithful departed cannot be yet either in heaven or in hell, but in some place of purification where our prayers can assist them). Of course, most Protestants do not have that book in their Bibles, so it will be a "hard sell" to make this particular scriptural argument convincing to them!

Second, doctrine can be elaborated in the Church "spiritually" (for lack of a better phrase). This happens when the saints and the magisterium perceive, by a kind of spiritual insight, a deep connection between aspects of Scripture and Tradition that was not fully appreciated before, and as a result a doctrine unfolds that was previously wrapped up, so to speak, in the apostolic faith, like a Christmas gift that had not been opened yet by the Church. In this category we could list such doctrines as the changing of the Sabbath day to Sunday, and the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary. Besides finding at least hints or indications of such doctrines in Scripture and Sacred Tradition, there is also an important place for the witness of the People of God as a whole here. As St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, the People of God, baptized and abiding in the Holy Spirit, have a special inclination or affectio fidei, that is, a taste or inclination for the things of God, and for what fits with the pattern of the apostolic faith as a whole, and a strong aversion for what doesn't. We will take a closer look at an important instance of this next week (for I received another good question from someone asking for scriptural proof for another important Catholic doctrine).

Until then, Ron, suffice it to say that Purgatory is an authentic development of doctrine, from seeds found in Scripture (especially II Maccabees 12:39-45; Mt 5:25-26 and 12:32; I Cor 3: 10-15; Heb 12:14; and Rev 21:27) to the fullness of Catholic doctrine about this mystery (See Susan Tassone's excellent little book on this subject, Praying with the Saints for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, which you can order from the online gift shop on this website).

Allow me to close with one last example of an authentic development of doctrine (in this case, what we might call a "spiritual" development). Where does the Bible ever explicitly say that mercy is the greatest of God's attributes? The Bible speaks often of God's holiness, His righteousness, His power, wisdom, mercy and love. But how do we know that mercy tops the list? There are indications of a special emphasis on this attribute of God on Mt. Sinai (Ex 4:4-9) and in the Psalms (89:1; 103:8; 145:9) and in the Gospels (Lk 1:78-79, 6:36, 15:20). It was also the considered teaching of St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Thomas Aquinas, although their teachings on this matter were often ignored. Our Lord himself told St. Faustina: "Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of my hands are crowned with mercy" (Diary, 300). Finally, it was Blessed Pope John Paul II who pulled all these threads together in the first papal encyclical devoted exclusively to this theme, when he wrote in Dives in Misericordia (see section 13): "The Bible, Tradition, and the whole faith life of the People of God provide unique proof ... that mercy is the greatest attribute of God." In other words, here was a doctrine gift-wrapped for us in Scripture, unfolded in the reflections of many saints, and finally capped off by an endorsement from the papal magisterium itself. That is precisely how it should be with a true development of doctrine!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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Brian - Oct 20, 2011

Fantastic Robert. Thank you, and great to have your column again!