The double-edged sword of Scripture
By Alan Fimister | 1 November 2023
A nasty trick to play on Protestants is to ask them to tell you where the Bible teaches us that no doctrine may be maintained that is not expressly taught therein. It is a nasty trick because nowhere does the Bible say this and thus the claim is self-refuting. In fact, Scripture says the precise opposite: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.” (2 Thes 2:14) The unfortunate Protestant will nevertheless, more often than not, scramble around to find something to approximate or resemble the doctrine of sola scriptura and so, putting up some sort of fight, avoid immediate capitulation. The dimmer sort will go for something like Deuteronomy 12:32 or Revelation 22:18, which forbid the addition of extra commandments or prophecies to the books in question. Obviously the “book” they are referring to in each case is Deuteronomy or Revelation, not “the Bible” (a collection of seventy-three books). If they were referring to the Bible, then we would have to adopt the canon of the Sadducees (only the Pentateuch) or at least drop St John’s Gospel, which was almost certainly written after Revelation. More often though, the beleaguered Protestant will appeal to 2 Timothy 3:16–17: “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” Three words in this passage make a more plausible case for some sort of sufficiency for scripture: “perfect” (ἄρτιος), “furnished” (ἐξηρτισμένος) and “every” (πᾶν). These are sometimes translated as “complete”, “thoroughly equipped” and “all”, seemingly making the claim of sufficiency more sustainable. Might there be some basis here for sola scriptura?
Well, if there were, what would we do with passages like 2 Thessalonians 2:14, or John 21:25, or 2 Peter 3:16, which precisely deny this sort of sufficiency? One might claim that the unwritten traditions mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:14 had all been committed to writing by the time that St Paul wrote 2 Timothy 3:16–17, but this is hard to square with John 21:25, which is chronologically almost the last verse of Scripture, and 2 Peter 3:16, which is earlier but still later than 2 Timothy.
In fact, one need only look at the two preceding verses, 2 Timothy 3:14–15 to see that St Paul is in no sense teaching sola scriptura:
“But continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And because from thy infancy thou hast known the holy scriptures, which can instruct thee to salvation, by the faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
The Scriptures complete the initial reception of the Gospel which Timothy received by word of mouth from the authentic preacher. Here Paul reflects his doctrine in Romans 10:14–15 that we cannot call upon the Lord in the obedience of faith without an authoritative preacher:
“How then shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they be sent [ἀποσταλῶσιν].”
This is also reflected in Paul’s doctrine in Ephesians 6, where the Scriptures are what completes the equipment of the Christian not in the sense that they are enough on their own but in the sense that they are the last item added to those things he needs for the spiritual warfare to which he is called:
“Finally, brethren, be strengthened in the Lord and in the might of his power. Put you on the armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places. Therefore, take unto you the armour of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day and to stand in all things perfect. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth and having on the breastplate of justice: And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. In all things taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one. And take unto you the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God).” (Ephesians 6:10–17)
It is interesting that the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, is the only offensive item mentioned. All the other pieces of kit for the Christian are defensive in one way or another. In the Letter to the Hebrews, St Paul tells us more about this weapon:
“For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)
The sufficiency of scripture then refers not to the establishment of the faith but its perfection and the perfection of the believer in trials which stand between him and perfection.
When Our Lord manifests Himself to the world and is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tested by the Evil One, it is with the words of Scripture that He rebukes him. In the nine days between the Ascension and Pentecost the apostles retreat to the upper room, the place where Eucharist was instituted, and it is only when the Spirit descends upon them that they are able to go out and proclaim the Gospel. In Acts 8:17 and 19:6, when the Apostles confer upon the faithful the sacrament of confirmation, it is because they have received the word of God and are to be sent out to prophesy.
Famously, in the Roman Rite, the Bishop strikes the candidate on the cheek after bestowing this sacrament upon him, in order to remind him that he is now an adult in the faith; no longer a child who “differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all”. He has been manumitted — “sent by the hand”. This is originally the same gesture as the dubbing with the sword by which a Christian is admitted to the order of knighthood.
The Scriptures are a double-edged sword because they convict both the speaker and the hearer. One of the blows for which the adult in the faith must prepare himself is the knowledge of his own weakness.
As Savonarola observed:
“[T]he teaching of the Holy Scripture has more efficacy than has any other doctrine, in enlightening and consoling men, and in inclining them to live virtuously. For the preachers who discourse only on philosophical subjects, and pay great attention to oratorical effect, produce scarcely any fruit among their Christian hearers. Whereas our forefathers, who in past times confined themselves to the simple preaching of the Holy Scriptures, were able to fill their hearers with Divine love, enabling them to rejoice in affliction and even in martyrdom. I speak also from personal experience. For, when at one time (in order to demonstrate the profundity of Holy Scripture to sciolists, proud of their intelligence) I was wont to discourse on subtle points of philosophy, I found that the people who heard me were inattentive. But as soon as I devoted myself to the exposition of the Bible, I beheld all eyes riveted upon me, and my audience so intent upon my words, that they might have been carved out of stone. I found, likewise, that when I set aside theological questions, and confined myself to explaining Holy Scripture, my hearers received much more light, and my preaching bore more fruit, in the conversion of men to Christ and to a perfect life. For Holy Scripture contains that marvellous doctrine, which, more surely than a two-edged sword, pierces men’s hearts with love, which has adorned the world with virtue, and has overthrown idolatry, superstition, and numberless errors. This proves that it can proceed from none but God. The more completely the human intellect is purified, the more capable it becomes of apprehending the truth.”
One still occasionally meets Catholics who take a perverse pride in ignorance of the Bible, as if this was one in the eye for the Protestants. This is even more ridiculous than that other confused reaction to the “Reformation” — treating ultramontanism as a substitute for orthodoxy. Savonarola is fine example of the inadequacy of both these attitudes.
St Benedict, great among the teachers of those who would “do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King”, hardly leaves his monks a spare moment when they are not either reciting or meditating upon the word of God. For, by passing on this bright and piercing blade and wielding it for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, we enact Tradition itself, the handing over of the word of God in time as He is handed over in eternity, the path that leads inevitably to martyrdom for “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12) but also to “the book of life of the Lamb, which was slain from the beginning of the world.” (Rev 13:8)