In recent times Jehovah Witnesses have been standing outside the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, the main street of Dublin, Ireland, holding aloft copies of a book entitled, What does the Bible Really Say? On a number of occasions I have stopped to engage in conversation with them, beginning the conversation a little bit facetiously with the question, “Well, tell me, what does the Bible really say?”
Jehovah Witnesses are just one of a vast array of groups and individuals who claim to possess the sole true interpretation of Scripture – and yet most of these interpretations differ from each other to varying degrees. As the highly esteemed historian, Brad S. Gregory, writes, the assertion that Scripture alone is a self-sufficient basis for Christian faith and life has produced “an open-ended welter of competing and incompatible interpretations of Luther’s “one certain rule”” (The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society).
The fruit of this kind of interpretation, uncoupled from Tradition and the Church’s authority, has today gone beyond the confines of Scripture to embrace any aspect of life and meaning you wish to think of. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was at pains to highlight the dangers of this development, famously referring to “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Today’s Gospel reading presents us with one of the passages that that undergirds the claims of the Catholic Church concerning the papacy: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” Jesus’s words are a response to Peter’s answer to His question, “who do you say I am?” Peter answers that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, an answer that no merely human powers of intelligence could have afforded him. Peter’s insight is inspired by the Father in heaven. It is knowledge that is possible through faith alone.
Further on Our Lord proclaims to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” When viewed in the light of this conferral of authority, the manner in which the canon of Scripture was established should cause us all to stop and to reflect.
In brief, the work that culminated in the collection of writings that we now accept as the New Testament began in the second century and was only concluded in the fourth or fifth century. It was the work of tradition in its sacramental form, that is to say, of apostolic succession. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once wrote, “Scripture became Scripture through the tradition” (Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today). The preeminent authority in this process was the Roman see.
Without tradition in the sacramental form of apostolic succession there could have been no New Testament so that, as Benedict asserts, “we are caught in a contradiction when we affirm the one while wanting to deny the other.”
It ought to be a cause of profound gratitude on our part that the Lord in his mercy has granted us the authority of Peter and his successors, along with that of his brothers in the episcopate, the successors of the apostles, in this way protecting us from the vast array of erroneous truth claims concerning faith and morals that constantly assail us from all sides.
Gospel Reflection for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A (Matthew 16:13-20)