If there’s one major stereotype about the Catholic laity that just won’t go away, it’s that Catholics don’t know the Bible. So often we hear from many non-Catholic Christians that Catholics are ignorant of Scripture. Sadly, there is some truth to that. Of course there are many Catholics who know their Bible well, and quote Sacred Scripture with ease. Not to mention that if you read any papal or magisterial document dating back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and prior to it, you’ll see that such documents are soaked in Catholic Scripture. But for the average Catholic in the West, our familiarity with Scripture is less than perfect.
Given this, it’s no surprise, then, that many Catholics are stumped when challenged on a particular Catholic dogma. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters have the same trouble. We are asked “where do you find that in the Bible?” If we’re being honest with ourselves, our response is often a blank stare, a shrug of the shoulders and we then silently endure a tongue thrashing by a non-Catholic Christian (or even non-Christian) who appears to know Scripture much better than we do.
But there’s the rub. They often have an incorrect understanding of Scripture. However, we don’t know how to respond, so we let their criticisms go unchecked. Sacred Scripture itself says:
“There are some things in [Paul’s Letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).
Hold to the Traditions
So that we may have a response to those who are ill-informed on a particular selection of Scripture or tenet of the Catholic Church, let’s take a look at where we can find some of the most commonly challenged beliefs in the Bible.
Now while it’s important that we be intimately familiar with Scripture as it is God’s Word, we must also realize that the Catholic Church rests on what is called the “three legged stool” of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Church. If you take one or two of those legs away, the entire stool topples over. One can’t balance solely on one leg and then not expect to topple over. That why it’s important to note the non-Catholic Christian doctrine of “sola Scriptura”, or “Bible alone” theology is patently un-Christian, not to mention unbiblical!
In this article, we will present many Bible passages that will show how scriptural the various doctrines of the Catholic Church are. But we also include some selections from the Sacred Tradition of the Church, as found in the writings of the Church Fathers. It is necessary that we do this because if we only quote Scripture, then we are just as guilty as our Protestant brethren in “balancing” on one wobbly leg of a stool. We need to be grounded in all three “legs”. As Catholic Christians, we do not, and must not, accept the premise that Scripture is the sole rule of faith. If we do not include references to the Sacred Tradition, and the magisterial authority of Christ’s Church, when speaking about why we believe what we believe, we’re playing the same game that non-Catholics are. We reject the premise that the Bible alone contains the fullness of Revelation. As our first “proof text” will show, we must confidently state that we are to:
“hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Indeed, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, there are “two distinct modes of transmission” regarding Divine Revelation.
“It is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (Dei Verbum 9).
That being said, here are a few of the most commonly challenged Catholic beliefs that can be defended using Scripture.
1.) Regenerative Baptism
Since entry into the Christian life starts with baptism, it makes the most sense to start here. Unfortunately, more than a few Christians see baptism as little more than a mere “ordinance” instead of the sacrament that it truly is, making baptism something we do for God, instead of something God does for us through his grace. Through baptism, we become adopted sons and daughters of God the Father. Many “non-denominational” Christians claim that one is saved by proclaiming something like the “Sinner’s Prayer”. However, this prayer is not found in the Bible, nor is the idea that something similar to it is what will save a person. What is found in the Bible are the words that Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and many other Christians use during baptism:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
But does baptism save us? Do we become reborn through baptism? Again, Scripture is clear. Our Lord Jesus also says:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).
Sacred Scripture is even more explicit when St. Peter compares the saving waters of baptism to how Noah and those on the ark were also saved through water:
“Baptism, which corresponds to this [the episode with Noah’s ark], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
One can’t get much clearer than St. Peter’s words when describing the regenerative and salvific nature of baptism. But other selections from Scripture which point to regenerative baptism can be found in the following passages: Ezekiel 36:25-27, Acts 2:37-38, Acts 22:16, Galatians 3:27, Romans 6:4, and Titus 3:5.
In addition, in the year 203, Tertullian noted the following in his treatise on baptism: “[T]he prescript is laid down that without baptism, salvation is attainable by none, chiefly on the ground of that declaration of the Lord, who says, ‘Unless one be born of water, he has not life’…”
2.) Saved by Grace Alone, Through Our Faith and Good Works
Most non-Catholic Christians, ranging from Lutherans to Evangelicals, assert that one is saved by “faith alone”. Like sola Scriptura, the doctrine of sola fide, is a false one and is also unbiblical. First off, Catholics are often accused of believing that they are saved by their good works. That couldn’t be any further from the truth. To see what Catholics really believe in this respect, go no further than the Council of Trent, which says:
“[N]one of those things which precede justification – whether faith or works – merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle [Paul] says, grace is no more grace…
If anyone says, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema” (Session VI: Chapter VIII; Canon I).
As Catholics, we believe that we are saved through grace alone. We no longer work through the system of law, as the Old Covenant did, but through the system of grace. Under the New Covenant, effected through God’s grace, we respond to that grace of God, and cooperate with those graces he sends us, both by our faith and by our works. So as one reads through the canons of the Council of Trent, we see that this teaching is rooted concretely in Scripture. The most obvious starting point is James 2:24-26:
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
Again, Scripture is very clear here on the necessity of works in the Christian life. St. Paul is also explicit in his letter to Philippians regarding works:
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Indeed, as Origen observes in his Commentaries on the Gospel of John in the year 226:
“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the epistle bearing the name of James.”
3.) The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
While all Christians accept the fact that Jesus was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, many non-Catholic Christians do not believe that Mary remained a virgin for her entire life. This typically stems from a misunderstanding of how the word “brother” is translated, in regards to the “brothers” of the Lord. For two thorough rebuttals of that specific charge, see these essays by apologist Joe Heschmeyer. Another misunderstanding leading to a rejection of the doctrine proclaiming the Blessed Mother’s perpetual virginity stems from a misreading of Matthew 1:25, which says that St. Joseph “knew her not until she bore her first-born”. For a rebuttal of the specific charge that this denies Mary’s perpetual virginity, and what “until” actually means, see this essay by Tim Staples.
But for an easy defense of this doctrine from Scripture itself, simply read the episode of Jesus’ finding in the temple in Luke 2:41-51, which shows that Jesus is the only son of Mary. Also, refer to Matthew 27:56 to see that Mary, the wife of Clopas, is the mother of James and Joseph, the so-called “brothers of the Lord” from Matthew 13:55-56. Further evidence from Scripture regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity can be found in the following passages: Ezekiel 44:2 (a prophecy of her perpetual virginity), Luke 1:34, Mark 6:3, and John 19:26.
In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (page 46 of the linked book), St. Hilary of Poitiers observes that:
“If they [the brethren of the Lord] had been Mary’s sons and not those taken from Joseph’s former marriage, she would never have been given over in the moment of the crucifixion to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Behold your mother’, as he bequeathed filial love to a disciple as a consolation to the one desolate.”
4.) The Real Presence of the Eucharist
Catholic and Orthodox Christians have always held that the Eucharist is not just a symbol, but is truly the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. If anyone ever has a problem with this central doctrine of the Christian faith, the best place to be directed to is John 6, where our Lord gives the “Bread of Life Discourse”. Below is a selection from that chapter:
“The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:52-58).
This is not the language of metaphor. The word that Jesus uses here for “eat” is the Greek “trogon” which more accurately is translated as “gnaw” or “chew”. If you want to see Jesus talking symbolically about food, check out Matthew 16:5-12 and John 4:31-34, and then compare it to John 6.
Furthermore, if we take Jesus’ words symbolically in John 6, then we find ourselves in a strange quandary. In Jesus’ time and culture, drinking another man’s blood was an expression that meant said man should be assaulted and persecuted. Was Jesus asking his disciples to assault him? Of course not, but if he were speaking metaphorically, then this is what he would be saying.
For evidence of the symbolic meaning already attributed to the eating and drinking of someone’s flesh and blood in Jesus’ Jewish culture, see the following passages in the Old Testament: Psalm 14:4, Isaiah 9:18-20, Micah 3:3, and 2 Samuel 23:15-17. Also, refer to 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 to see how one could receive the Eucharist unworthily. If the Eucharist is only a symbol, how could one be “guilty of the body and blood” of the Lord?
As St. Justin Martyr detailed in his First Apology:
“For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these [Eucharistic species]; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
All of this, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. Much more could be said on each of these four topics. And there are many other Catholic beliefs, such as Petrine primacy, the Assumption of Mary, and purgatory, which can all be defended by referring to Sacred Scripture. Nothing that the Catholic Church holds to be true can be contradicted by Scripture. Remember, it was the Catholic Church that compiled the Bible! But hopefully the next time you are asked to give a defense for the faith that you hold dear, you’ll now be a bit better equipped to refer back to Scripture in a confident manner.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a twenty-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, Christ Is Our Hope.
This article was updated on July 2, 2019.