Imagine that there are two or three Christians having a discussion (or an argument) about doctrine (not hard to imagine). How can they settle the dispute? Someone will likely suggest that they open a Bible to see what it says. The problem with that idea is that the Bible will not “say” anything. The Bible will sit there quietly on the table waiting for someone to read it and interpret it. Once it has been read and interpreted, some person (or persons) will do the “saying.” Hence, opening the Bible will usually result in multiple, competing interpretations about what the Bible supposedly “says.” Opening the Bible does not work well in resolving disputes or creating unity among Christians.
The fact is, all of us Christians base our doctrines and beliefs on what some other person or people say that the Bible “says.” There are many voices to choose from, such as the Pope, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Stanley, Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, Thomas Merton, Beth Moore, Joel Osteen, (insert your favorite preacher here), or even our own, personal opinions. There are over 30,000 Christian denominations whose differences are supposedly based on what the Bible “says.”
Consider what happened when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus got a bunch of different answers. “Some say, Elijah, some say John the Baptist or one of the prophets,” etc. When Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” it was Peter that spoke up and said, “You are the Christ.” Jesus told Peter he was not only correct, but he was blessed because his answer was given to him by God, not by some person. This was validation of the special anointing Peter had from God, not just some lucky guess on Peter’s part.
It is amazing that, in the midst of many voices and opinions, God decides what the answer is and appoints the person to say the correct thing. God did not stop there with Peter. In Peter’s anointing, Jesus established a unique office with authority. When Peter died, the office was filled by another. That’s who the Pope is. Peter was the first Pope. The other apostles also had special authority given to them. Their successors are the Bishops. The Pope is simply the head Bishop. These men not only have the God-given authority to interpret the Bible, they also had the authority to say which books belonged in the Bible when it was assembled.
But why do Christians even need such an authority? Why can’t we just open up a Bible to see what it says? Because the Bible doesn’t “say” anything. To quote G.K. Chesterton, “You can’t place the Bible on a witness stand.” It sits there quietly on the shelf, waiting to be read and interpreted. For example, is water baptism necessary for salvation? Is the Lord’s Supper really Christ’s body and blood, or is it just a symbol? The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, so, is God really a Trinity? Nowhere is it written in the Bible to, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and you will be saved.” Who came up with that phrase? Is that really how to be saved? These are all interpretations told to us by various people. But which of those people are occupying authoritative offices established by Jesus?
Of course, you and I can and should read the Bible. Christians are supposed to read and study the Bible. We just have to remember that both right and wrong conclusions can be drawn from it. Even Peter wrote that there are things that are hard to understand. We need the correct standard to apply things to. That’s why we need the authoritative Pope and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Jesus formed it that way. Humans can’t re-form the authority that Jesus formed. That’s called fashioning God into our own image. It’s backwards. Despite good intentions to correct some abuses, the Protestant Reformation fractured and fragmented the Church rather than “re-forming” the Church.
The Bible is the Living Word of God, but it does not stand alone as a sole authority. It co-exists with the life and authority of the Church. The two cannot be compartmentalized and distanced from each other. As Christians, we are not really going by what the Bible alone “says.” We are either going by what the authority Jesus established says, or by what someone else says (even if that someone is ourselves). In other words, every Christian either has a pope, or has become their own pope. Yet, like it or not, there’s only one Pope that occupies the Chair of Peter and has his authority from Christ. He and the other Bishops in union with him have much to say about what is written in the Bible. Are we listening with humility?