I got a great question recently:
I am a non-Catholic Christian trying to better understand Catholicism, and I wanted to see if you can help me with a question. On the Catholic view, how is the Bible different from church teaching? I’m wondering, if they are both infallible, why is church teaching not continually added to the Bible?
By now the Bible would need to be multiple volumes, but it would be the up to date record of special revelation from God. One answer may be that the canonical books are the “Word of God in the words of men” (as Vatican II says) and church teaching is not the Word of God. I wonder why church teaching would not be the Word of God though.
From reading Lee Mcdonald’s The Biblical Canon, it seems to be an uncontested fact that the early church did not limit inspiration to the canonical Scriptures. On document referred to the Council of Ephesus’s “God-breathed” decision. Another distinction might be “written vs. oral.” But I don’t find this helpful because all of church tradition is written.
I’m starting to think that the canon of Scripture is like the canon of western literature or philosophy. They are a group of books that are special and revered for perhaps various reasons (including maybe having unique divine influence). So I’m willing to allow for varying degrees of inspiration, but I don’t know if Catholic teaching allows for it.
Thanks for messaging me about this!
First, I would recommend reading Dei Verbum, the Church’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html
That document will help you to understand how the Church understands Scripture and Tradition.
The sacred Scriptures are part of the deposit of faith, public revelation, which ended with the death of the last Apostle. Nothing can be added to public revelation. But the Church can and does clarify and deepen in understanding of that deposit, which is what Church teachings do.
The Scriptures were inspired by God. Men wrote what God wanted to be written. This is different from infallibility, which is a negative protection, a protection against teaching error. Imagine a pope–and this happened–who was expected by all accounts to formally teach heresy as truth, say Arianism or Monophysitism. Yet he didn’t. The Holy Spirit stopped him. He was protected against teaching error, and that is a good thing, but he didn’t necessarily then expound upon the truth of the Church’s teachings as perhaps God wanted him to. Maybe he just remained silent. So infallibility is a much more limited charism than the acts of inspiration that God did through the human writers of the books of the Bible.
Another clarification: not all of Church Tradition is written. In fact we can clarify that Tradition has a written form (the Scriptures) and an unwritten form (confusingly also called Tradition). Unwritten Tradition is a river within the Church originating from Christ its source and vivified by the Holy Spirit. It is safe-guarded and transmitted by the bishops in union with the pope, who are successors of the Apostles, and experienced in the liturgy, sacraments, and worship of the people.
The Catholic Church doesn’t see varying degrees of inspiration. God inspired the human authors to write his God-breathed word. Then He has guided His Church into all truth, protecting her from error as she has clarified and deepened the understanding of the deposit of faith.
Hope that helps! God bless,