Protestant apologists will often pose this question to Catholics: If your Church is really infallible, why does it not just interpret every last verse of Scripture for us? It has had two thousand years to do so. If it cannot do so, what good is infallibility to me?
Most often they will raise this question in the context of a discussion of authority. The Catholic will say, “Without the infallible Magisterium as a guide, all you have is your private interpretation of Scripture. That is why there are so many countless denominations out there.”
The Protestant will counter, “Unless your Church will interpret every verse of Scripture for you, you have no more than your private interpretation, either.”
It seems to be an impasse. How does one work through it?
Begging the Question
The first thing to note is that the question only makes sense if you assume sola scriptura as your starting point. For a Protestant, the Bible alone is the sole infallible rule of faith; unless the Bible says it, I need not believe it. It is a self-contradictory doctrine, of course; the Bible nowhere teaches sola scriptura, so a Protestant has only his tradition by which to defend it. But that does not need to delay us for our purpose here.
The real point, in this context, is this: If, for a Protestant, the Bible is the only rule of faith and practice, then the only possible reason to have an infallible Magisterium is to give him the definitive interpretation of the whole Bible. Once it has done that, it can step aside and leave him with his Bible alone. (And possibly a tree.)
In other words, you can only ask the question if you assume that sola scriptura is true. You beg the question. And in doing that, you mistake what the real purpose of the Magisterium is.
Why Have a Magisterium?
But we can find the answer to the question in a few related verses of Scripture. The first is John 16:13. In that verse, Christ is speaking to his disciples after the Resurrection.
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
The second is in 1 Corinthians 1:10.
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
Finally, the third is 1 Timothy 3:15.
If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.
There is nothing in these passages, or anywhere else in the Bible, about the Holy Spirit guiding the apostles into the right interpretation of a particular set of texts. Instead, St. Paul identifies the Church—not the Bible but the Church—as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” And the purpose of the Church is to
- maintain the unity of the faith (1 Cor. 1:10)
- maintain the full deposit of revealed truth (John 16:13)
I will add a third, and that is to address new moral questions that could not have been anticipated by the writers of the Bible. One obvious example is embryonic stem cell research.
It is for these reasons—to identify what is true and what is false and so maintain the unity of Christians—that God gave us the Magisterium. It was not to provide an infallible interpretation of every verse of Scripture, or answer every question that could possibly be raised.
How Catholics Read the Bible
So where does the Bible fit in? Are Catholics simply left to their own wits, no different than Protestants?
In fact, not at all. It is not a choice between total anarchy of interpretation and rigid conformity to a single infallible hermeneutic. The Church allows Catholic readers of Scripture latitude and freedom to meet the text with their own intelligence and inquiry, while setting limits to avoid anarchy. We are not, in fact, left to our own private interpretation. Though he set us in a large room, God also “set bars and doors” (Job 38:10).
The “bars and doors” are found in the deposit of faith. These limits are found in what the Church teaches us to have been revealed by God. A Catholic may not read any verse of Scripture in such a way as to contradict either the teaching of the Church or some other verse of Scripture. I must read Scripture in the light of Church teaching, not in opposition to it.
The Catholic approach is thus freedom, with limits. In fact, it is in Protestantism where there is anarchy. There, I may interpret any verse any way I like and still be a good Protestant. If I run afoul of my denomination, I can join or start another. Nothing stops me. But the alternative to anarchy is not despotism.
In a few cases the Church does give us an authoritative interpretation of a verse of Scripture. Matthew 16:18 tells us that Christ chose St. Peter as the first pope—the rock upon which he would build the Church. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 tells us that those in a state of unrepentant mortal sin are not to receive the Holy Eucharist. Mark 10:6 tells us that marriage is between one man and one woman. No Catholic may dissent from these interpretations.
But the number of verses about which that may be said are few, and the reason is that it is not the purpose of the Magisterium to put us in chains. It is, rather, the purpose of the Magisterium to keep us within boundaries so that we do not wander off and get lost or hurt. God did not mean to bind our freedom, or our intellect, only to ensure that they do not turn vagabond.
That is why he gave us a Magisterium, but not one that tells us every last thing and detail.