Comparative Theology

Roman Catholicism and Interpreting the Bible

"Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so." Acts 17:11

What the Roman Catholic Church believes about Interpreting the Bible

Note: Many (but not all) of the following statements link to the Vatican website that reflects what the Roman Catholic Church believes about "The Transmission of Divine Revelation." Other statements, for example, are linked to the Catholic Encyclopedia.This is done so that the reader can document for himself what the Church believes in context.

Apostolic Tradition: The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) holds that there is an unbroken succession of authority and truth that originated with the first apostles and continues to this day in the persons of the successor to Peter (i.e., the Pope) and the Bishops in communion with him. The RCC calls this stream of truth "The Apostolic Tradition."

Begun with apostolic preaching: This apostolic tradition was originally conveyed, according to the RCC, through the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ, but was passed on to subsequent generations in the preaching of the original apostles. This apostolic tradition the RCC terms "the Gospel," which the RCC states is "the source of all saving truth and moral discipline."

But, according to the RCC, the preaching of the original apostles, i.e., the Gospel, was itself divided into two strands. There was an oral strand and there was a written strand. The oral strand refers to that which the apostles preached, the examples they lived out, the institutions they established, what they received from Christ or what they learned by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. In the view of RC, the oral strand is an ongoing, never-ending source of truth. It began with Christ and the Apostles, but it continued on with the so-called "Apostolic Fathers" (First and Second Century), and continued on with the so-called "Fathers of the Church" (Third through Sixth Centuries). 

The written strand: The other strand, the written strand, is the New Testament,  which the apostles and those associated with them, committed to writing "under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit."

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike agree upon the authority and signficance of the written strand of apostolic teaching and authority -- i.e. the New Testament. The authority and significance of the documents written down by the apostles and their associates as found in the New Testament canon of Scripture is documentable.
The New Testament contains the Scriptures authorized by Jesus through His apostles. He had predicted that the Holy Spirit (the One the Father would send in His name) would teach them all things, and that He would remind them of everything Jesus had said (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit of truth would testify to them about Jesus (John 15:26). The apostles would testify also because they had been with Him "from the beginning" (John 15:27, emphasis mine). The Holy Spirit would guide these apostles into "all truth" (John 16:13). He would even reveal to them events that were to take place in the future (John 16:13).

The oral strand: The difficulty with the view held by the RCC is that the oral tradition is ill-defined, amorphous, and ultimately unknowable. Who can know exactly what the oral tradition of the original Twelve Apostles was? And how do we know what is valid except that which has been committed to writing in the Scripture of the New Testament? For example, there is evidence in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians that he had written a "severe letter" to them, now lost, before he wrote his second letter (see 2 Cor.2:3-4; 7:8-12; 12:18). But that "severe letter" never made it into the canon of New Testament Scripture. Why not? Because evidently the Holy Spirit did not inspire it. It lacked the credibility and accuracy needed to be classified as Scripture. Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea (Col. 4:16). That letter never made it into the canon of Scripture. Why not? Evidently because it was not inspired by the Holy Spirit and thus did not enter the canon of Scripture.

In the RCC definition of oral apostolic preaching, the apostles handed down the Gospel orally, "by the example they gave" and "by the institutions they established." One of the events that covers is Peter's engineering of the selection of Matthias as the apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1:15-26). Peter and the other apostles presumed it was the will of Christ that they should do so, but the evidence from Scripture would indicate otherwise. Matthias' name was never mentioned again. Furthermore, it seems clear from the rest of Scripture that Paul, not Matthias, was Jesus' choice as His twelfth apostle.

Furthermore, the belief of the RCC in the primacy of Peter does not hold up well under the scrutiny of Scripture. Though Jesus certainly emphasized Peter's importance (Matt. 16:15-20), that did not mean Peter was beyond censure (Gal. 2:11-14). In addition, though Peter certainly had a central role in the history of the early church as recorded in Acts 1:1 - 12:19, thereafter he makes only one cameo appearance (Acts 15:6-11). From Acts 13:1 - 28:31, it is Paul, not Peter, who is the central figure of the early church.

A fatal misunderstanding: To me, the RCC is operating under a terribly flawed presumption. It presumes that the oral tradition of the Church carries just as much weight as the written texts (i.e, the Bible itself). But nowhere do you find that presumption supported by Scripture. In fact, there is an exclusive claim to authority in the New Testament. The unrelenting claim of the Bible is that the text of Scripture is inspired 2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21. There is no similar claim about the interpretation of Scripture. Scripture is infallible. An individual human's interpretation of Scripture is never said to be infallible. Nor is a group of humans' interpretation said to be infallible.

Apostolic Succession: According to the Roman Catholic Church, the Apostolic Tradition that was begun in the apostolic preaching was continued in apostolic succession

77 "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority." Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time."

78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes." "The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer."

Roman Catholicism, of course, is not the only church tradition that claims apostolic succession. So, for example, does the Lutheran Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church, the Episcopal Church, and the Moravian Church. But what is the point in claiming apostolic succession if the Roman Catholic Church maintains as orthodoxy doctrines that the apostles never heard of?

Refuting Apostolic Succession: I believe it is not difficult to refute the whole notion of Apostolic Succession. In the first place, the Twelve Apostles were one of a kind. They were hand-picked personally by Jesus. They had unique spiritual gifts of healing, miracle-working and exorcism given them by Christ and the Holy Spirit. These corroborating miracles were "the signs of an apostle" (2 Cor. 12:12). Jesus Christ gave those original apostles a unique and exclusive assignment. That was to pass on truth to other believers. But we only know about what they taught through the Scriptures.

Jesus made good on His promise. The Holy Spirit did come. And He did reveal truth to those first apostles. He did reveal the future to them. When John the Apostle completed his writing of the book of Revelation in about A.D. 96, that was the last book to be written. Fittingly, it was the capstone of revelation about future events. For 1900 years now, no Scripture has been added to the New Testament canon of Scripture. The official addition of the Deuterocanonical books was a very late 16th century reaction against the reformers. The New Testament Scriptures are the only way the early Apostles could accurately pass on their teaching to the Church for all time.
My point is this. The original apostles could pass their teaching on to their followers through the Scriptures they wrote. But they could not pass on their authority. If Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church retain the same authority of the Apostles, why do they not write Scripture? And if the Pope has Apostolic authority, why does he not write Scripture?

The Roman Catholic Catechism repeatedly cites as authorities ancients such as Irenaeus, Augustine, Origen, Ambrose, and Cyril of Jerusalem, along with more recent theologians such as Thomas Aquinas. But none of these men have apostolic authority. While their views are worth considering and evaluating, they are merely the opinions of men. Their opinions do not carry the same weight as Scripture. The Apostles passed on their teaching in the Scriptures that we have, but it was impossible for them to pass on their apostolic authority.

The whole idea of Apostolic Succession is an illegitimate invention by Christians who wish to retain control and power over other Christians.  The Apostles passed on their authoritative Scripture to us, but they could not possibly transmit the authority of their office to anyone else. They were one of a kind. Apostolic Succession is a fabrication to justify whatever the RCC seeks to teach.

The Relationship between Tradition and Scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church uses Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Succession to justify and legitimize its Church Tradition. To the RCC Church Tradition is equal to Scripture:

One common source . . .  80 "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal."

By this we can see that the RCC merges Church Tradition and Scripture itself into one single entity. Thus, the opinions of mere men are merged with Scripture so that the people being taught cannot distinguish one from the other. Men's opinions are equally as valid as the Bible, and the Church merges its opinions and the Bible into one entity and calls the whole thing Truth.

. . . two distinct modes of transmission:

81 "Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit." "And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

So the RCC takes the position that the Bible is the "speech of God" (which is true). Unfortunately, the Church also takes the position that "Holy Tradition" is necessary to communicate the "Word of God" in its entirety. Thus, the Church mandates that Scripture by itself is incomplete, and therefore an inferior communication of truth. If one really wants to know the whole truth in its entirety, he is obliged to agree with and submit to the opinions of mere men authorized by the RCC. They will give him the Real Version of Truth. The Bible alone is not enough.

Lest the reader object and accuse me of making this up, permit me to quote from the next paragraph:

82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."

To me that is a devastating view to hold. It is clear to me that the Roman Catholic Church believes it has the right to stand in judgment on the Scripture, and the Scripture does not have the right to stand in judgment on the views of the Church. Truth becomes whatever the Catholic Church determines it is. What a staggering view, and what an opportunity to misrepresent and alter the truth!

The Interpretation of the Heritage of Faith

The Magisterium of the Church. In Roman Catholicism (RC), the term "Magisterium" refers to the "teaching authority" of the Church.

That teaching authority, according to RC, began with Christ and was transmitted to the Apostles. Once again, according to RC, that authority did not end with the original Apostles. The Church believes it was passed on to bishops and remains alive today in the bishops of the RCC. Here is what Pope Leo XIII stated in 1896:

...It was consequently provided by God that the Magisterium instituted by Jesus Christ should not end with the life of the Apostles, but that it should be perpetuated. We see it in truth propagated, and, as it were, delivered from hand to hand. For the Apostles consecrated bishops, and each one appointed those who were to succeed them immediately "in the ministry of the word."... [1]

According to the Catechism, 85

"The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ." This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

Again, according to Pope Leo XIII, everything the Magisterium of the Church teaches is binding truth, and the faithful have no option but to believe:

 "All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written or unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, either by a solemn definition or in the exercise of its ordinary and universal Magisterium" (Conc. Vat., Sess. iii., cap. 3)" [2]

Roman Catholicism claims that the Magisterium of the Church, that is, the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, are the sole authentic interpreters of Scripture [85, 100]. But that claim is based not upon Scripture, but rather upon a flawed interpretation of Scripture. This, I believe, is the most grave error of the Roman Catholic Church. The RCC has elevated its interpretations of Scripture to the same level of authority as Scripture itself. And worse than that, the Church's flawed interpretations of Scripture actually trump Scripture.

The Church, of course, denies that Roman Catholic tradition trumps Scripture [86]. Pope John Paul VI stated that the Church's Magisterium, which he calls "the living teaching office of the Church," is subservient to Scripture:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. [3]

But what the Church claims, and what the Church does, sadly, are sometimes two different things. For example:

How can the Church claim that Mary was without original sin [4] when that claim cannot be substantiated anywhere in Scripture? In fact, we are told the opposite: "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).

How can the Church infallibly claim as recently as 1950 that the "virginal body" of Mary was assumed into heaven after her death before it could be corrupted in the grave, and that "she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body" [Munificentissimus Deus, see esp. paragraphs 3-6, 12], when that assertion about her cannot be supported anywhere in Scripture? In fact, we are told something quite different. We are told that the resurrection of dead believers in the Church era awaits the return of Christ for His Church (1 Thess. 4:13-18). And so we can state with certainty that Mary's body has been lying corrupted in the grave for nearly 2,000 years now.

How can the Church claim the perptual virginity of Mary [5] when the Scriptures clearly teach us that Jesus had sisters and brothers (Matt. 12:46-47; 13:55; Mark 3:31-32; 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10)?

I fear, that if Jesus were here today, he would say to the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church  just as he said to the elders of Israel, quoting from Isaiah 29:13, as recorded in Matthew 15:7-9,


And to be candid, I fear that He might utter the same indictment against a great many Protestant churches. My greatest fear is that He would indict me personally. That is why I make every effort to align my interpretations of Scripture with other Scripture, rather than with the biased interpretations of flawed humans. I don't mean that I consider myself a law unto myself. I frequently check what I believe to be true with other commentators whose standards and consistency I can trust. But in the final analysis, Church Dogma does not stand in judgment upon Scripture. Scripture stands in judgment upon Church Dogma.

Let us examine what Scripture itself says. The  Apostle Paul took the Good News about Jesus to the Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica, and then to the one in Berea (Acts 17:1; 10). Paul was not treated well in Thessalonica. Initially, "some" of the Jewish people believed Paul's claim that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah. A large number of Gentile proselytes to Judaism joined Paul and Silas, along with "a number of the leading women" (Acts 17:1-4). But the Jewish leaders grew jealous of Paul as a rabbi. They evidently hired some thugs to capture Paul and Silas (Acts 17:5-6). Who knows what would have happened had they been successful? With the whole city in an uproar, and false charges being hurled about (Acts 17:6-9), Paul and Silas were forced to flee to Berea by night (Acts 17:10).

As Luke contrasted the two missions, he stated explicitly that the people of the Jewish synagogue in Berea were more noble than the people of the Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica (Acts 17:11). Why? It was not because no trouble ensued in Berea. Indeed, Paul once again had to flee for his life -- this time to Athens (Acts 17:12-15). So why were the Berean Jews more noble than the Thessalonican Jews? It was because "they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11, emphasis mine).

I conclude then, that the people of any church, whether it is Roman Catholic or Protestant, have the right and the responsibility to examine the teaching they are given and to evaluate whether or not it conforms with Scripture. If the teaching they are being given does not conform with Scripture, that teaching should be rejected as not having Biblical authority. Unfortunately, both traditions contain elements unsupported by Scripture.

Historian Luke recorded, in Acts 20:17-38, Paul's conference with the elders of the church at Ephesus. Paul urged the elders to be on guard for themselves as well as for the rest of the flock of Ephesus (Acts 20:28). In blunt, graphic terms, Paul warned, "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30). Paul continued, ""Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears" (Acts 20:31).

Paul has urged the Ephesian elders to "be on guard," to "be on the alert." What tools does Paul cite that will aid these elders in standing guard over the flock at Ephesus? What is the best possible way they can defend the church from the inevitable savage wolves and "disciple-draggers?" He offered them only two tools in this life-and-death struggle. What were they? Did he include church tradition? Did he give them the pope and the bishops in communion with him as being the sole interpreters of Scripture [85, 100]? No he didn't. He gave them God Himself, and he gave them "the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32).

We are on safe ground if we limit ourselves to God Himself  and the Word of God. Jesus authorized His disciples to write the New Testament. We know the New Testament is authoritative. But how can we know He authorized the presumed oral tradition of the Apostles when we have evidence that not all of it was authoritative? And how can we even know what it was or is? In my view, the strand of oral tradition assigned by the RCC to be an authoritative voice is a loophole big enough to permit a freight train to drive through. Ultimately, that oral tradition can become anything man says it can become. And, in fact, the oral tradition argument actually, down through the centuries, has been allowed to trump the written tradition.

An analogy: The best analogy I can give is in our own country: the Constitution of the United States versus the accrued legal decisions of case law that have emerged over the decades of our existence. There are institutions and practices and laws in our country that have been declared to be constitutional by virtue of case law and the opinions of nine unelected justices of the Supreme Court. Yet too frequently, these practices and decisions bear no resemblance whatever to the Constitution. How can you justify a Federal Reserve Bank from the Constitution? How can you find, in the Constitution, the inalienable right of women to kill their own babies? How can you find, in the Constitution, justification for an Environmental Protection Agency, made up of unelected bureaucrats, that makes laws that infringe upon the rights of US citizens and add billions of dollars to the cost of doing business? Where do you find a US Department of Education in the Constitution? And on what Constitutional basis does the US Supreme Court possess authority to legislate that all states must define the lust of two men for each other or the lust of two women for each other as marriage?

My point is that, over a period of many years, many accretions have attached themselves to the document of the Constitution of the United States that are totally unwarranted. And so, in actual fact, the decisions of courts, and the unchallenged practices of the executive and legislative branches, actually trump the Constitution. The end result is that the Constitution becomes a malleable platform in the hands of self-serving, agenda-driven bureaucrats, politicians, and oily-voiced lawyers. By their case law and their decisions, government elitists can make the Constitution to say anything that they want it to say.

So also, in Christianity, we are given the document of Scripture, the Old Testament and the New. The New Testament, in particular, is the document from which we derive many of our beliefs and practices. But if tradition is allowed to be as definitive as Scripture is, tradition winds up trumping Scripture. Over the centuries the RCC has, in dozens of ways, allowed Church Tradition to define the meaning of Scripture. And so the interpretation of Scripture, the ongoing tradition of the Church, ends up trumping Scripture.

Where, for example, do you find in Scripture that Mary is "Queen over all things", the Mediatrix of the Church, the "Mother" of the Church, and the rightful recipient of prayers? You don't.

The Roman Catholic Church speaks of a time of "Final Purification, or Purgatory." The Catechism [1031] states, "The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire." [Footnote 607 cites 1 Cor. 3:15; 1 Pet. 1:7.] I agree that 1 Cor. 3:11-15 speaks of a fiery purification of the works of believers, but I disagree that 1 Pet. 1:7 has anything to do with this same trial. I also believe "Purgatory" is a poor choice of words. Let us call it that which the NT calls it -- "The Judgment Seat of God" (Rom. 14:10-12) or "The Judgment Seat of Christ" (2 Cor. 5:10). But what I most strenuously object to is the Catholic history of polluting the Judgment Seat of Christ with such practices as prayer on behalf of the dead [1032], the Eucharist on behalf of the dead
[1032], almsgiving on behalf of the dead [1032], indulgences on behalf of the dead [1032], and works of penance on behalf of the dead [1032]. Where do you find these practices in Scripture? The answer is, "You don't." [Catholics cite the precedent of Judas Maccabeus, "Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin" (2 Macc. 12:46) in order to justify praying for the dead, but by the Church's own admission, this second century B.C. Deuterocanonical book was written in Greek and never included in the Hebrew canon of Scripture. This book was not included in Jesus' canon of Scripture. Why should it be included in ours?]

Where in Scripture does one find a class of elite believers called canonized saints? Nowhwere. On the contrary, all believers in Jesus Christ are called "saints" (see for example, Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2; Philemon 1:5; Heb. 6:10; 13:24; Jude 1:3).

Where in Scripture do we find the elite office of Pope, one who, in effect, has dictatorial status over the entire Church? The answer? We don't. We certainly find it in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, but we do not find it in Scripture. Whatever authority Christ gave to Peter (Matt. 16:13-19), there is no inkling whatever that He passed that authority on to any presumed successor to Peter.

Where in Scripture do we find that the Church of Rome is the most important Church and that all Christians everywhere are to submit to it? Nowhere.

Where do you find anywhere in the Bible that the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the "Big Bang"? [See "Human Persons Created in the Image of God", hereafter, HPCIG, 63, 67.] You don't. Where do you find in the Bible that microscopic life somehow appeared on our planet 3.5-4 billion years ago, and that this life was the ancestor of a humanoid population that emerged in Africa 150,000 years ago, eventually culminating in homo sapiens (HPCIG, 63)? Answer? You don't. Instead you find that God miraculously created, in the space of six days, an entire universe and our own earth and all the species that appear on it including man himself (Gen. 1:1-2:3; Ex. 20:11). And in six days you had a fully functioning universe and a fully functioning biosphere on earth that looked much older than it really is. That is because you can't have creation at all without there being a discrepancy between actual age and apparent age. And yet, if I am forced to follow the teaching of the RCC, I am not allowed to believe in a six-day creation. I am forced to believe in some form of evolution because the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church trumps Scripture.


My point is that a great deal of what passes for truth and authority in the Roman Catholic Church is simply an accretion of man-made Church Tradition over the centuries. The Pope and the bishops in communion with him can invent binding truth that cannot be supported from Scripture. In effect, they can interpret Scripture in such a way that their Church Tradition actually trumps Scripture. This they have done over the centuries,
and none of the faithful is permitted to challenge their authority. 

But in the real world, the world of the Bible, Scripture trumps man-made tradition. "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so." Acts 17:11.


[1] Pope Leo XIII. SATIS COGNITUM, ENCYCLICAL OF POPE LEO XIII ON THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH, Section 8, The Magisterium (or Teaching Authority) of the Church to be Perpetual, excerpted from paragraph 4.

Pope Leo XIII. SATIS COGNITUM, Section 9, Every Revealed Truth, without Exception, Must be Accepted, excerpted from paragraph 6.

[3] Pope Paul VI. DEI VERBUM, DOGMATIC CONSTITUTION ON DIVINE REVELATION, Nov. 18, 1965, Section 10, paragraph 2.

[4] In fact, the Catechism (490, 491, 492493) claims that Mary was not only free from original sin, but that she never committed any personal sins. This, despite the fact that Scripture asserts, "If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us" (1 John 1:10).

[5] According to the Catechism (499) Mary is "ever-virgin." The Catechism (500) acknowledges the objection of Jesus' other brothers and sisters, but, without any solid evidence, the Catechism states, "The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary." The Catechism further identifies "James" and "Joseph" (Matt. 13:55) as sons of "another Mary" (Matt. 28:1; 27:56). The Catechism concludes that those who are called the "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus were close relatives, but not blood brothers and sisters. This is classic dogmatic eisegesis - reading something into the text of Scripture in order to support one's prior beliefs. The assertions of the Church are not supported by an objective reading of the text.

What Roman Catholicism Believes

(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB.)

Originally published August 27, 2014

Updated October 15, 2015

Background and Button Image Credit

Search here.